by Mark Hudon
(originally appeared in Mountain #79, May/June 1981; scan courtesy of Greg Opland)
By the mid-1970's the big walls of Yosemite had lost all of their mysterious aura. Parties lined up for the classics as well as the new desperates, spurred on by detailed topos and fixed anchors can. But this complete knowledge of the walls also spurred a new kind of development: more climbers were headed up on the walls to free climb. New advances in equipment and climbing techniques are making the walls a free climbers paradise. Experience gained on the short desperates and the longer classics gives climbers confidence in their ability to embark on the walls and leave their aid slings at home.
The Nose was probably the first big wall to be attempted in this way. On its first ascent the Nose was 95% aid climbing, now that much of the route goes free. The Stove Legs were first free climbed by Jim Bridwell in 1968, Boot Flake was freed by Jim Donini, Pancake Flake fell to a John Bachar, Ron Kauk and Dale Bard team who eventually freed all but 400 feet of the route. Ray Jardine has been making serious inroads on that last 400 feet. By inobvious variations and difficult climbing he has free climbed all the way to the Great Roof. Jim Ericson made a few attempts on Half Dome's North West Face before Bachar, Kauk and John Long free climbed the East Face of Washington Column. Far ahead of its time, Astroman, as the free route was later named, involves five 5.11 and four 5.10 pitches. More than twice as many hard pitches than any other route at that time.
Half Dome was finally free climbed in 1977 by Ericson and Art Higbee after many attempts and by circuitous variations. The best free climbing produced by far was the Zig-Zags, three pitches of high quality 5.11 and 5.11+ laybacks and jam cracks. In the spring of 1979 Ray Jardine and Bill Price climbed the West Face of El Cap all free. Remarkably the route went at only 5.11+. As far as quality goes, this route could well be regarded as one of the best routes in the country. The route involves four 5.11 pitches, much 5.10 and more 5.8 and 5.9 funky face climbing.
The big wall free climbing revolution was by no means limited to Yosemite. In Colorado, The Diamond on Longs Peak has been free climbed by a number of routes, D1 and D7 being the most notable two and D7 being the best route by far. Its sustained 5.10 and crux 5.11+ pitches provide an interesting experience at 13,000 plus feet! The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has some very committing big wall free climbing. A handful of climbers have developed a bold style of attacking these walls. Stories of climbers descending into the Canyon with one rope, minimal rack, no food and very little water with the intent of free climbing a major aid wall abound. The stories of them spending the night on the cliff or crawling back out of the Canyon are rare, testimony that the Black Canyon climbers are playing a very fine game - and winning!
Even in New Hampshire the big walls are being free climbed. On Cannon Cliff in Franconia Notch, the old aid classics VMC Direct and Direct Direct (V, 5,11 and IV, 5.10+ respectively) are now frequently free climbed. But when anyone talks of big walls I think of Yosemite and it is here, the land of the best big walls with the best weather conditions, that much remains to be done. Now that the two most feared walls in the country, Half Dome and El Capitan, have been free climbed the path is open for variations on that theme.
To find a free grade V or VI is to find a very rare jewel indeed. Some climbing on walls may never go free. The Great Roof on the Nose, the bolt ladder on Mt Watkins; on others, the free variation is worse than the aid it avoids, e.g. The fifth pitch of the regular route on Half Dome versus its free variation, The Higbee Hedral. To me climbing a steep bolt ladder on a clean wall is more classic than climbing a dirty, crumbling offwidth just because it's free. Accordingly, Max Jones and I developed the idea of the "as free as can be" ascent. We decided we could not deny ourselves of some very good free climbing because of a little aid. We started by trying to free climb The Crucifix on Higher Cathedral Rock - formerly with one hundred feet of aid. We succeeded in free climbing all but four moves, producing two 5.11+ pitches along the way and totally changing the character of the route. Since the two hard pitches are at the top of the climb, the bottom pitches must be climbed with new caution to save strength and daylight. The Rostrum was next on our list We had freed the horrific last pitch (5.12) and all the route up to the last pitch (V 5.11+) at different times but our desire to free the whole thing remained obsessive. The spring of '79 saw us climb to the headwall in four hours and then flounder worse and worse on every try till we could barely aid to the top. I vowed never to return, to let some future hot-shot free the whole thing, to let it rest, at least until next spring. Later that year Max and I made the long hike to Quarter Domes intent on free climbing the Regular Route. We were amazed to find 5.7, A1 pitches going free at 5.7 and even more amazed to find perfect A1 cracks barely going free at 5.12. Eventually the route produced two 5.12 pitches, two 5.11 pitches and a death defying 5.10 mantle thirty feet out from protection. The free route, Pegasus, should be high on any zealot's list.
A few days later we made the not quite so long hike to Mount Watkins and spent a day and a half free climbing the South Face Route. Only seven aid moves remain on this climb. Two on the last pitch and five on the bolt ladder. The crux is a variation to the A3 pitch off Sheraton-Watkins, moves right off a bolt are hard (5.12) and the runout is long before they get easier almost at the belay. Higher one finds finger tip 5.11+ liebacks and beautiful 5.10+ hand cracks. This route rivals The West Face in quality.
But the big project on our minds that spring was the Salathe Wall. Both Max and I had climbed it before and had commented on its free potential. All winter we scrutinized every slide and photograph of the route we could find. We convinced ourselves it would go with only 90 feet of aid! We devised a method to haul the bags and belay the second at the same time since we wanted to treat the route as a free climb right from the start. "Friends" seemed to be invented to help us protect the Headwall while free climbing; and to insure our comfort at night we planned to take our "portaledges" an instant home any-where on vertical rock!
We spent a casual day climbing to Mammoth Ledges, hauling only the ropes we needed to fix down from Heart Ledge. Two days later we returned hauling the most enormous bag I've ever seen, let alone (barely) hauled. That day we climbed to Lung Ledge, left the bag there, grabbed a rack and went climbing up to The Ear. El Cap has always been my favorite cliff and free climbing my favorite activity, To be free climbing high up on El Cap, working out new problems, climbing new free pitches, was almost Nirvana. After a comfortable night on "porta-ledges," we moved up to our first question pitch of the route, the Double Crack above The Ear. It was Max's lead so I settled back to enjoy a quiet morning and watch a good struggle. And good struggle it was, Max worked slowly up the pitch falling often and lowering to a rest after every try. Finally after working on the pitch for hours he yelled that the pitch would not go and then aided the last four moves. While waiting to follow I thought I might be able to free it all on a top rope, but when I got there I realized I would just barely be able to follow the free section, Fierce finger tip laybacks on vertical rock were followed by more of the same. I thankfully grabbed the aid pins and pulled myself up to the anchor. 5.12 had come to El Cap.
Sitting on El Cap Spire that flat topped island in the sky, is always an enjoyable experience, we lounged around for awhile and then went off free climbing. The pitch off The Spire proved to be excellent 1 1/4 inch crack climbing and the next pitch, a beautiful sustained layback. We were not even worried about the 23rd pitch, two overhung and tight corners, we knew it wouldn't go. The next day after climbing the double corners we discovered the next two pitches, normally moderate free climbing, were soaking wet and slimy. Max stripped down to his shorts and proceeded upwards sometimes climbing free, sometimes aid but mostly swimming breast stroke if I recall correctly. Block Ledge was to be home for the night so again we went off free climbing.
The pitch to Sous la Toit turned out to be quite hard, a finger tip layback to some rounded holds and then a traverse left. The one above the ledge was not much easier, a flared crack, made for "Friends" that had to be jammed and then laybacked. All that was left to be free climbed was the crux aid pitch up to the roof, the roof and the three pitches of the Headwall. Only five pitches, but five pitches of what might turn out to be the most sustained section of rock ever climbed. That night while laying in my cot I started to get scared about what I was going to try to free climb the next day. All of the next five pitches made the hardest climbs of my life look like baby routes. It was ridiculous, that was a fifteen foot roof with only three hundred feet of overhanging rock above it and it was only twenty-five hundred feet off the ground, nothing to be scared about! It was ridiculous!
After a late morning jumar Max tightened his boots and took off on the A3 pitch up to the roof. Protection was better than expected, fixed bashies, rurps, and beaten nuts would at least "slow me down" according to Max. Max found a rest, and further up, the crux, a difficult sequence type layback. After many tries and much gardening he finally got the crux and climbed to the belay. Amazingly I followed the pitch on my first try but not with much enthusiasm, The roof was heavy on my mind, fifteen feet out and twenty five hundred feet down. Today I would have to learn to fly. Tightening E.B.'s that were already too tight, adding another block to my chalk bag that was already full, I thought of Tom Frost, he on his first ascent and me on mine. Frost wondering if the cracks would connect and me if the holds were big enough.
On my first visit to Yosemite I was obsessed with climbing the Salathe and as I later became convinced it would go free, I became obsessed with it again. I heard myself tell Max that I was climbing and suddenly the rock did not exist a few inches below my feet, a few feet above my hands, every hold stood out in great detail, its angle and slope noted, foot placed just right, slip into a pin or nut. I was a climbing machine lost on El Cap nothing mattered - I was where I wanted to be and going where no one had been before. Half-way out, the pitch was already hard 5.11, but then the machine blew a fuse after a few dynamic moves up to a sloping ledge I found the only way up was a foot dangling hand traverse fifteen feet right. Suddenly the twenty five hundred feet to the ground was real. I called for courage but none came. I tried the moves anyway but fell and called for the aid slings. "Free as can be you know, no need to get crazy about it," I said to Max.
He followed the pitch free a little further but then grabbed slings up to the belay. Then he was in machine mode. No pitch exists that is more "out there." The first moves are hard and get harder, the rock overhangs and is then more overhung. Max climbed smoothly, placing "Friends", chalking up and trying to rest. Twenty feet from the belay he failed. I followed five more feet free and then aided the pitch up to Thank God Ledge and our last bivy on the wall. The next day was an anticlimax. We knew what would and wouldn't go. By the time we reached the top we had free climbed all but 300 feet of the route, 100 feet of that only because it was wet. As we packed the bag for its quick trip down, I wonder if we'd done anything at all, had we broken some mental barriers about free climbing on walls? I know that some of the pitches we free climbed and attempted to free are the most radical climbing ever done on a wall but for some reason I was depressed, bummed out.
Later, back in the Valley looking at the Headwall through binoculars I noticed the sparrows flying around, darting in and out of the crack. Had we taken the first step towards a new phase of rock climbing - it didn't bother me any more because I remembered that I was once up there flying with those sparrows.