This story has been updated to include photos and new information.–Ed.
While Adam Ondra was making a free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d), other big climbs have been happening on Yosemite’s “Big Stone” the past few weeks. Jorg Verhoeven achieved the second free ascent of The Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a), and Barbara Zangerl and Jacapo Larcher made the third free ascent of The Zodiac (VI 5.13d). Perhaps the even more unusual news, though, is Pete Whittaker becoming the first person to rope solo–all free–El Capitan’s Freerider (VI 5.12d or 5.13a) in a day.
Whittaker was credited as the first person to flash the route in a single push over three days in 2014. On that ascent, he attempted the “Boulder Problem” pitch, which is rated 5.13a, but he did not send on his first try. He redpointed the Boulder Problem, then managed to send the “The Teflon Corner” variation (5.12d) first try, thereby earning the overall flash of the route. On his rope-solo ascent, Whittaker did it the slightly harder way by climbing the Boulder Problem.
He left the ground at 3:02 p.m. November 11 and finished at 11:08 a.m. November 12, for an elapsed time of 20 hours, 6 minutes, on the thirty-seven-pitch route (Freerider is reported as having anywhere from thirty-two to thirty-seven pitches, depending on the number of alternate belays that are used).
In reality, those “thirty-seven” pitches were more like seventy-four, because with rope soloing a climber essentially climbs every pitch twice out of technical necessity, to lead and then clean each pitch. A rope-soloist will lead with a self-belay, paying out slack as they lead. When they reach the end of a pitch, they fix the rope, rappel to the previous belay, and then clean the pitch, usually ascending the fixed rope with ascenders. There are a variety of devices and methods for rope soloing. Whittaker said he used a Silent Partner and a Wild Country Ropeman as a “rope grab” to help manage the spare rope below him.
Of his afternoon departure, he said, “I started at this time to avoid the hottest part of the day. By starting at 3 p.m. I was hoping to miss that window…where it is still scorching on the wall. When you’re working hard, the heat can affect you massively and drain your energy. The conditions of the rock were also slightly better through the night, obviously…. The hardest challenges were just keeping going when you’re tired. It’s easy to give in when you’re by yourself. I just focused on one pitch at a time, and before you know it, you’re closer than you think. I had a low point at the top of The Monster Offwidth [a notorious rope length of 5.11 offwidth/squeeze chimney] in The Alcove [at the base of El Cap Spire about halfway up the wall]. I think it was a mixture of not climbing it that well, along with the fact that my body wanted to be sleeping at that point. I had to fight on the Endurance Corner [a 5.12 dihedral high on the route below the Salathe headwall]…. I just pulled myself a massive loop of slack and gunned it for the jug. It would have been a good fall, if I’d come off there.”
Whittaker only recently learned how to rope solo.
“I think my first rope-solo climb was in March this year,” he said. “It was a single-pitch route on the gritstone [in the UK]. My first multipitch climb was in the summer in Squamish and my first big wall was Freerider on El Cap.” Gripped Magazine reported that in August he climbed three Squamish routes in an 18-hour push.
With all that behind him he’s now heading back home to Sheffield, England.
“I’ll definitely rest a bit, let the body recover,” he said. “Then I’ll probably boulder over the winter, to try and build a base.”
Two days after Freerider, Whittaker onsighted the Yosemite roof-crack testpiece Separate Reality (5.11d) as a rope solo.
Brothers Alexander and Thomas Huber first climbed Freerider in 1998. Steph Davis achieved the first female free ascent in 2004.
Stephane Perron was the first to free Freerider as a rope soloist over seven days in 2007, onsighting most of the pitches on the upper half of the route. Jorg Verhoeven did it next in 2013. He finished the route in four days while the U.S. National Parks were closed for sixteen days as a result of government gridlock over the national budget. Verhoeven later wrote in a blog that he “didn’t do it in the best style” because he toproped one pitch and pinkpointed other sections. Verhoeven also freed The Nose (VI 5.14a) of El Cap in 2014 (first freed by Lynn Hill in 1993; she became the first to free it in a day in 1994).
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Verhoeven’s recent ascent of The Dihedral Wall is the first time anyone has managed to free it since Tommy Caldwell did it in 2004. It is considered one of the hardest free routes on El Cap because of the sustained difficulty.
The free Zodiac is another seldom-done testpiece on the Big Stone. The route may not be as tall as many other routes on the formation (about 1,800′) but its sixteen pitches beeline through some of the steepest rock El Cap has to offer. Zangerl and Larcher’s ascent might only be the third time it’s been done free since the Huber brothers established the free version in 2003, followed by Caldwell soon after.
“This was one of these days I never will forget!!” Zangerl posted on Instagram last week. “Zodiac free…we invested nearly all the time we had here in Yosemite and finally all the hard work paid off. Both of us freed every single pitch and we both led all of the 5.12+ … to 5.13d pitches. Sooooo stoked!!!!”
Ondra’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on November 21 happened less than two years after Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed it in the winter of 2015. The pair worked out the intricacies of the route over multiple seasons and redpointed the thirty-two-pitches over a nineteen-day push from the ground. Their ascent was given international acclaim as the hardest big wall free climb on Earth, tackling the tallest, blankest aspect of El Capitan.