Jacopo Larcher and Barbara Zangerl made a rare free ascent of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a, 2,900′) on El Capitan, topping out on December 10 after an 11-day push from the ground. With nine pitches of 5.12, nine pitches of 5.13 and two pitches of 5.14a, and much of the difficulty concentrated on the top half of the route, Magic Mushroom is considered one of the harder free lines on El Cap.
Tommy Caldwell and Justin Sjong first freed the route in May 2008, and a month later, on his second attempt, Caldwell freed the entire route in less than 24 hours. No free ascents have been recorded since. Hugh Burton and Steve Sutton completed the first ascent of the aid line in 1972 at 5.10 A4 (the modern aid rating is 5.7 A3). The free version utilizes a few variations, most notably where it links into Jolly Roger (5.11 A5) on the headwall while the original aid line of Magic Mushroom pendulums to the right.
“We had to do a lot of cleaning (especially on the lower part), as most of the cracks were full of dirt; it took us a lot of time,” Larcher said in an email.
The pair started by climbing the route ground-up and aided sections before rehearsing moves on toprope.
“On most of the upper pitches, the gear isn’t great,” Larcher said. “We had to place some beaks on some pitches, where it wasn’t possible to place other mobile gear.”
In total, Larcher and Zangerl spent over a month working the route, including two five-day stints and an eight-day stretch on the wall before their final ground-up free ascent that began November 30. On their final push, each of them led all the pitches harder than 5.12+ and they swung leads on the easier sections.
This is their third free route on El Cap. Last year they made a rare free ascent of Zodiac (VI 5.13d, 1,700′), and before that they climbed El Nino (VI 5.13c A0, ca. 2,900′) in 2015.
Larcher described the challenges in an email:
Magic Mushroom felt way harder than the other routes we’d climbed on El Cap! It has a lot of hard pitches, most of which are beautiful (but weird) corners: it offers a very specific and unique type of climbing. At the beginning we looked at all those corners and had no idea how to climb them; we spent a lot of time figuring out beta. You have to be very creative with your body to climb some pitches. For me the hardest pitch was the 18th: a very weird 13c flared corner–I had a very hard time with that one! The scariest was probably a short 13c protected just with bad copperheads; I was surprised that they held a fall when I broke off a hold. The hardest pitch for Babsi was the last 14a (Pitch 26); she struggled on the last moves before the anchor. For her the scariest pitch was the second last; it’s a sandbagged 11b with long runouts. She was tired and it’s hard to find the holds.
Larcher said the lack of information and the few free ascents attracted them to the line.
“The plan B was to try the Nose, but it was very busy in November,” he said.
That might have had to do with the unseasonably warm weather.
“We were super lucky!” Larcher said. “We had just a few days of bad weather during our stay in the Valley. During the push it rained/snowed just a couple of hours. Generally it was very warm (weird for this period), so we climbed a lot at night or early in the morning.”
The Nose: A speed record, an accident and a free ascent
On October 21, Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds set a new speed record on the Nose (VI 5.8 C2, 2,900′), blasting the route in 2 hours, 19 minutes, 44 seconds–4 minutes and 2 seconds faster than the record of 2:23:46 set by Alex Honnold and Hans Florine in 2012.
Gobright is known for his bold free solos, which have included regular laps up the Rostrum (5.11c, 800′) in Yosemite and the Naked Edge (5.11b, 460′) in Eldorado Springs, Colorado. Reynolds is a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue and has also been known to free solo long 5.11 routes.
Gobright told Climbing Magazine that the speed ascent “was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.”
On October 11, Quinn Brett slipped and fell 100 feet onto a ledge during a speed record attempt on the Nose with Josie McKee. Brett was airlifted with spinal cord injuries and is currently adapting to a new lifestyle in her home state of Colorado. (Updates on her progress can be found here.)
On November 15, Keita Kurakami finished a bid to redpoint all the individual pitches of the Nose (5.14a, 2,900′) after a campaign that began last season. This year he returned and redpointed all the pitches over seven days–completing the hardest climbing with a shredded left pinky finger–but they were climbed out of sequence: he used fixed ropes to bypass some easier terrain to Sickle Ledge that he’d climbed previously, and later he jumared a fixed rope to El Cap’s summit to rest and then rappelled back down to redpoint the Changing Corners pitch. His accomplishment was initially hailed as the fifth or sixth* free ascent of the route after Lynn Hill, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden and Jorg Verhoeven, but Kurakami later asked for his name to be taken off the official record because he did not redpoint the pitches in consecutive order from the ground, as previous ascents had been done. (*A 1998 ascent by Scott Burke has been debated as to where it fits into the record books because he toproped the Great Roof pitch as a storm threatened to end the climb.)
“I will come back again to climb it in better style,” Kurakami said. “I’ve been told my ascent can be accepted as a free ascent, but even so, if I myself have doubts about [its validity], I can’t accept it. Being honest with myself is the most important thing for me.”