Bad styling on Yosemite’s El Capitan is the norm
“Traxion on! I yelled at Amity. It was 4 a.m., with a quiet, sweaty stillness as dusk approached. I had just completed a 115 foot field, but I still had a double rack and 10 pulls on my harness. I continued to climb, now using the Micro Traxion between Amity and me as a line belayer. We were over a third of the way up El Cap in three pitches.
In addition to our triple rack and 14 pulls, we were weighed down by two liters of water on each of our harnesses, plus a backpack containing approach shoes and large cams. We were trying to climb freerider as a low-impact partnership climb with no supplies stored along the way, or after calling back for rehearsal.
freerider was dubbed the “astroman of the new millennium,” but many would-be climbers automatically begin by abseiling crucial heights, and they pre-hide heavy gear along the way. This is especially true for one-day free ascents, where elaborate preparation techniques have evolved. The problem is that the techniques don’t care much about other climbers on the same route. As we the wider climbing population move into an era of frequent free ascents by competent climbers, it’s time to update our style terminology to help break that cycle.
Amity and I had our first moments of doubt when we scaled the grueling Monster Offwidth at 1,500 feet. I started nervously, knowing that any slip-up might force me to remount it. We both knew that overall we had to intuitively ride and send on the fly. Any throw requiring repeated attempts would add both time and mileage to the day, compounding the difficulty of hard throws later on. I reached the belay panting, as did Amity, who said, “Wow, that took maximum effort not to slip. It’s hard to imagine throwing a V7 block” – the crucial 20 pitch difficulties -” in a few hundred feet. The extra weight on our harnesses was definitely burning extra energy.
During our planning phase, most of our peers had asked why we would even bother with a method that makes it harder to send. Over the past few months, I had been thinking more and more about my personal theory of climbing style, while wondering if I could even do what I believed in. I had never tested my ideal against the harsh realities of a 3,000 foot cliff.
An obvious problem in our The current big wall free climbing ‘point system’ is that it applies a black and white ‘send’ or ‘no send’ to an individual’s stepping redpoint – ignoring style choices subjective along the way and almost pretending to be if the climber was heroically alone throughout. Tactics such as fixed lines left in place, pre-hidden gear, backing the juggler (a bridging partner to belay) and abseiling repetition against the flow of traffic often go unrecognized in social posts and reports.
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As of 2022, 5.13 is pedestrian, and we have too many climbers for these individualistic methods to affect others. freerider (30 pitches, 5.13a) during peak season began to look like the summit ridge of Everest, with a continuous line of climbers clad in shiny nylon. Big wall climbs are a limited resource, and almost all in the valley see traffic these days. (Magic Mushroom, Dihedral Wall, The Prophetand The Dawn Wall are the few exceptions – most others regularly see free attempts or help climbs.) To solve the growing problem, I propose an LNT (Leave No Trace) type philosophy, which we can call AMP (Affect Minimal Parties ), for and report on the big-wall style.
AMP: affect minimum parties
The general intention of this potential system is to consider and ideally reduce the number of parties you overlap with or affect experience. A ground climb without hiding can be almost imperceptible to others on the road, all traveling in the same direction.
I believe the FKT (Fastest Known Time) trail running system provides a good model for discussing methods of ascent in an AMP setting. FKTs are often categorized in news stories as fully supported, standalone, and unsupported. They are considered very different challenges even though they are completed on the same course.
Applying these names to large free climbing walls, I propose these definitions. All styles of support are valid, although they deserve separate words to convey the difference in challenge.
- Fully supported A climb focused on the success of an individual, where anything goes, as long as the leader is doing the free climbing. In this category you have endless possibilities to reduce the overall ascent effort by abseiling, planting, pointing to the head, leaving fixed lines in place or having dedicated carriers, dedicated jugglers, Honnold simulating behind you, etc. An athletic test, but high-impact tactics can become abstract from standard climbers’ experience.
- Self-sufficient An equal contribution partnership ascent (or a solo ascent), where pre-storage can be used. All the work for the ascent is done by the climbers themselves, but the effort may be spread over a period of time before the ascent.
- Non supported An equal contribution partnership climb (or solo climb) with all supplies carried along the way by the climbers. No pre-storage or spillage equipment. This has always been the standard mode of multi-pitch climbing.
I find unsupported climbs particularly interesting as they test the holistic skills of a multi-pitch climber including: planning, commitment, system management, team dynamics and speed of execution. They are also true to the AMP principle of an autonomous climb moving in the direction of traffic.
One-day free climbs are a particularly good place to apply the AMP philosophy, as many of these headline-grabbing climbs affect a wide range of climbers. Without the expectation of clarification of behind-the-scenes antics, more and more elaborate tactics naturally emerged to help ensure success. For example, fixed lines left in place to repeat the Salathe Headwall intentionally or unintentionally becomes lifelines for other parties approaching the summit on multi-day wall climbs. Climbers can get exhausted and near their limits, and the presence of dangling ropes that could be judged changes the sense of engagement on the final push into what might be the wildest position in North American climbing.
I have long thought that one day, the free ascent of El Cap without hiding and in partnership – two partners walking to the wall with a rope, cams, food and water, then free climbing to the top in a single push – for to be the gold standard. In my initial research, I was discouraged to find only a few elite successful partnerships: Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold; a few other Valley regulars, like Niels Tietze and Mayan Smith-Gobat; and a Belgian duo named Sébastien Berthe and Siebe Vanhee. I shared my aspiration for an ascent of this style in a blog post, but had no real leads on a partner for this unpopular method.
Luckily my friend Amity Warme read this message. I knew she was one of the new cohort of climbers who had the strength and technical skills to pull off a free, unassisted ascent of El Cap. We exchanged enthusiastic texts in the middle of winter and penciled in a month of April freerider attempt on our calendars. We both sent the freerider on multi-day ascents on the ground over the past few years. Amity and I dithered a bit on the exact plan, as it would certainly be more difficult than taking turns supporting each other on separate climbs, but overcoming difficulties is what makes climbing interesting.
At midnight on April 10, we started freerider. Using a large rack and modern simultaneous climbing tactics with in-line Micro Traxions, we simulated a total of 22 of the 30 locations. We transported key locations where weight or volume mattered. For boulder problem crux 20 and pitches 23-27, from Enduro Corner to the Scotty Burk Offwidth, we reverted to regular multi-pitch climbing swapping leads and hauling our supplies down the line. label or the tail of the leader line.
We followed a detailed plan with minimal hiccups. There were a few falls along the way: we both fell on the bouldering terrain and Amity slipped on the move from Heart Ledges and the odd alcove roof on the last real terrain, but we repeated and reclaimed these lands. We had to dig deep and go through intense fatigue. Through the last stiff steps, my forearms let 12 seconds pass in any given position before locking solidly with cramps. We executed under pressure and reached the top after completing the course together in 18 hours and 16 minutes. Sitting in a daze on the top, I could only think, What a surreal day.
freerider is the easiest route on the wall, and was of course free soloed by Alex Honnold. Still, there are still not many examples of unsupported one-day free ascents (even Honnold’s solo was, ironically, very supported). With the growing popularity of El Cap free climbing, I think it’s important to share and designate minimal trace climbs.
Our ascent was a logistical puzzle that required modern multipitch techniques and many hours of planning to solve. We used a combination of Simultaneous Climbing with Traxion Line Belays, Pull Cord Resupplies, Repair and Track, FiFi Release Carry, Lead Line Carry, Tether Line Carry, and more to move fast enough and handle the weight. I strive to solve obstacles with systems rather than apply additional risks – these relatively new techniques change the amount of material needed to ration, allowing simultaneous movements without the previous “no falls allowed” mindset “. In hopes of promoting future ascents from unsupported partners, I’ve shared all of the methods we’ve used to achieve this on my personal blog, www.brentbarghahn.com.
As an engineer who previously designed climbing gear at a major outdoor company, Brent Barghahn brings a technical perspective to all of his climbs..