On November 12-16, Austrians Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher made the third free ascent of Zodiac (VI 5.13d) of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Brothers Alexander and Thomas Huber first free climbed the route in 2003, and Tommy Caldwell made the second free ascent shortly after. Since then, quite a few talented climbers have tried freeing the route without success.
“We just wanted to do another free climb on El Cap,” said Zangerl, who climbed El Nino (VI 5.13c A0) on El Cap with Larcher in November 2015. “We knew that it is always really crowded at this time of the year in Yosemite, [so] we just decided to try Zodiac. Of course we knew that many climbers have already tried this one. It was just an amazing route with great-looking pitches [that] we wanted to try without any expectations.”
Zangerl said it was important for them to try the route ground up.
“Even when we used fixed ropes, we didn’t want to abseil down to check out the hard pitches first,” she said. “That made it…a bit more adventurous. And the other ethic [that] was important for us [was] that both of us lead all the hard pitches from 12+ up to 13d. And the others we did swinging leads, both free.”
One of the challenges free climbers have to deal with on Zodiac is funky protection and/or finding stances to place gear while free climbing.
“About the protection,” Zangerl said, “it depends on the aid climbers–if they have left something or if the route got cleaned before. So you can find the route with a lot of protection in it or the opposite–nearly clean…. On some pitches, especially on the crux pitches, the cracks are almost closed so you can’t place [removable] gear. We mostly just used the fixed gear what wasn’t always really good. For example, on the ‘Open Book’ pitch (5.13c), we used the fixed copperheads. For the ‘Nipple’ (5.13d) and the ‘Flying Buttress’ (5.13a), we added a few beaks where it was not possible to place [removable] gear.”
“On many pitches (especially the harder) it’s almost impossible to place gear, as the cracks are to thin for cams/nuts,” Larcher said. “Sometimes the route is full of fixed gear (left by the aid climbers), but sometimes it’s completely clean. That makes the free climbing harder and trickier, as most of the time you’ve to aid climb the pitches before…and I don’t really like that. Besides that, the route is so nice to climb! All the pitches are beautiful, and the quality of the rock is perfect.”
The pair started sussing the route in late October, going ground up. Zangerl ran into problems on the second pitch (5.13a).
“It’s really slabby there and I couldn’t do a really long move,” she said. “So it took me about three hours to find another solution for that sequence and we climbed up just to the fifth pitch on the first day, and fixed a static line up to this point. [We] abseiled down, slept at Camp 4 and went back the day after to climb from there to the ‘White Circle,’ where the serious business started. All of the really hard pitches are at this White Circle, in the middle of the wall.”
They had “two sessions” on the wall working the crux pitches: three days on the wall, then a rest day, then five days on; followed by another rest day and three more days of trying.
“We checked out all the pitches up to the last 5.13c before we started a ground up push,” Zangerl said. “We did only early morning sessions or night sessions. During the day it was quite crowded with aid climbers and just too hot for us to work on the hard pitches. One month later on November 16, we reached the top freeing all the single pitches.”
“I knew that the [free] route had seen just two ascents before ours, but I didn’t expect it to be so hard,” said Larcher, who had never climbed El Cap until he did El Nino last year. “Maybe the grades on the topo are not so hard compared to other climbs on El Cap, but most of the pitches felt really hard to me. The climbing is really weird and low percentage on many of the hard pitches, which makes everything harder. It took us a long time to figure out the moves and to link the sequences on some pitches. I don’t have a lot of experience on El Cap, but it felt way harder than El Nino, even if the grades on the topo are similar.”
“The pitches on the white circle are really hard and complex,” Zangerl said. “So the Open Book and the Nipple [Pitches 11 and 12] were the hardest two pitches on Zodiac. For us it was really hard to find solutions for [them]. It was hard to remember the movements and the footholds, because you nearly don’t find any real footholds. So it took us a while to figure that out…. At the beginning it just felt impossible. So in our opinion these two pitches are really tough for the grades compared to many of the other multipitch or single-pitch climbs we did before. And…after the White Circle it is not really over. The ‘Mark of Zorro’ pitch after was also harder than expected. Alex Honnold told us that he broke one hold on this pitch that made the pitch more like a 5.13b than 5.12d [its original grade]. So it turned out to be a quite hard boulder problem in the middle of this pitch. It was hard for me to imagine doing everything in one push–about seven pitches 5.13a to 5.13d.”
Zangerl said El Cap free climbing entails a lot of slippery rock.
“This makes it hard and different, and sometimes you just need a bit of luck, or a lot of body tension/pressure to stay on the wall and [not] slip off,” she said. “This was especially my experience on Zodiac. Sometimes you can’t do the moves just with using pure power–it is more about body movement.”
Zangerl and Larcher, who is originally from South Tyrol, Italy, have enjoyed many big climbs together. They are both 5.14 sport climbers and high-end boulderers, a background that helps on the headier routes. In 2013, Zangerl became the first woman to send the “Alpine Trilogy”–three long, technically difficult routes (located in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, respectively) that are bolted but notorious for big fall potential and considered mental testpieces: Des Kaisers Neue Kleider (8b+/5.14a), Silbergeier (8b+/5.14a) and End of Silence (8b/+, or 5.13d/14a). Larcher has climbed 9a (5.14d) sport climbs and 8c (5.14b) trad routes. One of his proudest achievements is an ascent of Rhapsody (E11 7a), a rarely repeated Scottish testpiece.
“[Jacopo] is the best partner I can imagine,” Zangerl said. “For me, it is really important to trust the person I climb with and to be on the same personal level–to have a lot of fun and a great time on the wall. Especially with Jacopo it is the best that we have the same passion for climbing, we are living the same climbing lifestyle and sharing all this great time together, trying projects together or just going for an easy climb somewhere. Sharing this moments with your love–it couldn’t be better. But of course we also need time to climb with others and go on our own trips.”
“The most important thing on the big climbs (and in life) is to have a good partner,” Larcher said. “We know each other perfectly and both of us trust the other blindly. We both share the same vision and values in climbing, so we rarely have to discuss the style of our ascents. It’s important for us to work as a team and to share the adventures together, but at the same time to also both climb the routes we try. It’s really important for us, and it’s even more important to try to do it in a good style. We both believe that it’s important to both lead all the hard or tricky pitches, so we never try to use the skills of one of us to just call it a ‘team ascent.’ We are not trying to use the other to send a route, or to make it easier, but we are just enjoying the process of doing it together. At the end of the day, it’s so much cooler to share all those moments with your partner (in life).”
This story has been updated for accuracy.–Ed.