I am just back from Yosemite. I can't believe 3 years passed since the last time I was in Yosemite valley. It's funny how every time it's the same feeling: It's even more beautiful than what I had remembered. Even after having climbed in so many places all over the world, Yosemite remains this unbypassable mecca for big wall climbing and I will always come back to it. This last fall I spent 1month and half in the valley which still felt way too short. El cap was the main target. I had a very fun trip so here is the news;)
Partnered with Sean Villanueva and Sean Leary, our first mission was to join and film belgian realty TV star Tom Waes on his first big all ascent with the Nose. It's part of a TV program where Tom test himself to the limit with extremely difficult challenges and very limited amount of training for it. Tom is in his forties and had never climbed before beside 7 days of training on short limestone sport cliffs in Belgium. No one believed he could do it… But he did and even more he led about 10 pitches including the great roof and the king swing!
After that, it was time to get into the real business. My girlfriend Argyro who had never come to Yosemite joined and I decided to do her big wall baptize on the Salathe wall which is mega classic and I had never tried to free. It must have been the hardest big wall when it was first freed. Now it is for sure still a benchmark for hard big wall free climbing. It's almost the same route as freerider except for 4 difficult pitches way up high on the route. being up there brought back to me some really fun memories from 7 years ago when Freerider was my first ever big wall and my third ever trad route. I remember having so much fun with Sean as well as many scary/intense moments. The nice thing was, this time the climbing felt easier and way more under control than 7 years ago. I guess after 7 years, experience is kicking in;) It was nice to get to lead every pitch but on the other hand that meant I had to haul every pitch too in a boiling hot sun! That was by far the most difficult part of the ascent. Even with drinking a gallon of water per day I could never get rid of my thirst and strangely I was only peeing once a day! Of course we didn't go up with empty hands. We had my mandolin, Argyro's melodica which basically is a piano which you can blow in and all the tools not to be lacking of any comfort. Even though it was so hard and more about the hauling than the actual climbing I really enjoyed being up there with these fun toys and having this opportunity to do it all adding this extra challenge. Argyro did also a amazing job at handling the exposure and seconding every pitch without the use of jumars considering she has so little experience. She had basically never crack climbed before and was able to pull all the move on the headwall free but one! After three long and strenuous days we finally made it to the base of the Salathe headwall, a mega slightly overhanging flaring crack with exceptional exposure. We set the ledge right at the edge of big roofs at the base of the headwall and started with one well needed day of jam/rest just enjoying this amazing location. It was funny because there we ended up meeting with Sean and Mayan who had started the climb the same day as us but with a very different style and strategy having preplaced stashes of food and gear along the route. Mayan had been looking for the right partner to give a good shot at it and finally recruited Sean for it.
It was so fun to be all there super psyched to be trying the headwall and to be just cragging up there straight out of the portaledge. One of the main challenge was the sun that would come in around 10 am only and making the crack much less welcoming. So we had only about 4 hours/day to share between the three of us. On the first day I ended up trying it a couple times in the sun and made a really close try. It wasn't ideal but the time was running and I had to learn the moves. Mayan had come very close to send it a couple of times but the right moment hadn't come yet and Sean was just following Mayan focusing mainly on Mayan's success. It was funny because while being up there no climber were climbing up on the route but five climbers came down for working on some pitches and stashing gear. That felt pretty strange to suddenly have ropes dropping down and climber rappelling with big haul bag from the top. It seems like it's a new trend in Yosemite. It's kind of a shame I find. Just reducing the adventure of big wall climbing to its minimum by top roping every pitch before going ground up but whatever as long as people respect each other and the place climber can do whatever they want i guess. Argyro too had here her little project trying to red point the 12a super exposed roofs below the headwall so we were all trying hard.
The second day on the headwall was the day. As usual we were woken up by Mayan and Sean who were really good at getting up on time for the first light as opposed to us not having alarm o'clocks and slow morning people. So that fitted kind of perfectly. After a brief warm up Mayan made the show by sending the headwall first try while we were watching from laying down in my warm sleeping bag. That was great and very inspiring. I was quite a bit more anxious because I knew I could do it too but also easily slip off the crack at so many places. My energy was dropping. It was my sixth day on the wall. The pressure of a red point like this is so much bigger than if it was just dragging on the ground. I had spent so much energy just to get up there and when you know it's one of your last chance to succeed the pressure is on big time! I knew I could do it but that wasn't the point… I wanted now! After a brief warm up it was my turn. Since the headwall is so long there was no way or me to remember every move of the crack. Mainly I had to stay focus on dominating the crack all the way. On my previous attempt I decide to fight trough one move and then couldn't get back to a comfortable position so I just pumped out and the headwall spitted me out. So I stayed focus on staying in control. It was prefect and beautiful. Just the climbing, the flow, the exposure. Probably the best crack I have ever climbed. I was so psyched when I got to the first anchor!!! And then I just decided to keep going trying to make it portaledge to ledge making a mega 60m pitch. I had only tried the following 13b pitch once briefly but I had nothing to lose so I went for it. Thankfully Sean was just next to me helping me out with his beta and a couple grunt later giving it all I was at the ledge. I had the salathe wall! We stayed an extra day with Sean while Mayan exited the route allowing Sean to have a bit more food and water. The next day Sean took his turn and kept the sending train going with a beautiful fight and we all topped out going straight to the "all you ca eat" buffet at curry village to add the cherry on top of the cake;)
El cap exploration
After a few days of rest cragging down low in the valley floor, Sean and I put our force together for an attempt to explore the potential of a new free line on the right side of El cap. That was our main target for this season. As usual we preferred not to inspect too much with Binocular as we prefer to stay away from too much assumptions. The line seemed obvious from the meadow, it's a huge traversing feature that goes crosses a pretty big part of that side(it crosses about 15 different routes!). The only way to know anything was to go for it and get a close look. So that's what we did! We packed up for 7 days and tried to free ground up as high as we could. The first day it rained all day but the features are so overhanging that we were dry and the condition for climbing where actually better than when the sun is out. We started on the free version of Zodiac and at the black Tower (pitch 5) we cut out left trying to get an obvious left leaning ramp system. In order to free climb we had to do a down climb which was pretty funky on thin granite plates which turned out to be an A4 R of an already established aid line.Yakes! Once we got to the ramp, the next challenge was to reach "the golden finger of faith" which is a huge left leaning golden flake feature in a finger shape. We were pleased to discover many face holds making a couple of really cool pitches of 5-12 face climbing which allowed us to reach the "Golden finger" It was followed by a beautiful endure corner which turned out to be much more challenging than expected and we spent each 4 tries in order to sent it on lead. Sean had a memorable fall with a cam popping in his face while trying to do it by night. His face came out pretty bloody but he was so psyched with prospect of getting a picture to update his Facebook profile picture. The next pitch was one of the coolest when we found out we could squeeze our way to the other side of the golden finger making a sweet and extraordinary way around a very difficult section. We finally reached the top of "the golden finger of faith" which is probably 2/3 of the way to the top of Elcap with all the pitches below us redpointed. During the day the heat of the sun was so intense, we were forced to wait, eat and play music in our portaledge with the fly used for making shade. Unfortunately right after the golden finger of faith, our hopes to free everything dropped with five meter section of rock totally blank. We looked for variations but no obvious solution was possible to find. So We just kept going and forget about the idea of freeing it all. The next part we followed the route Iron Awk all the way to the top. As we went we just focused on looking at other possibilities. Nothing clear appeared but we saw many options. I still feel that something is up there maybe even two different lines so we are psyched to come back for further exploration. Just being up cragging on el captain is amazing.
I had once more a super fun trip to Yosemite with plenty of super good climbs but also great Camp 4 parties and meeting climbers from all over the world. Yosemite is the Mecca!