Touchstone employee James Lucas recently free climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan in a day. The Touchstone Blog reports on his ascent.
At 6:10pm on May 6, James Lucas dry-heaved into some bushes on the top of El Capitan. He had just finished climbing his first route on the iconic monolith, and he had done it in one marathon push of 14 hours and 55 minutes. When he finished retching, he checked off the Number One goal on his mental tick list: free climb Freerider (VI 5.13a) in less than 24 hours. So from a certain perspective, it only took one day of work. But that would mean overlooking four years spent learning this route. And you’d also have to ignore the six years that he was stockpiling big wall experience. In other words, one singular objective had been driving his climbing focus for a decade, and now it was over with in less than 15 hours.
When James first came to Yosemite in 2001, he arrived on a bus that trundled along the Valley floor. He brought one bag of clothing and a duffel filled with webbing. At the time, his goal was to top rope El Cap. “When the bus passed The Rostrum, I wondered if I had enough webbing. When I saw Middle Cathedral, I knew I’d need to buy more… When I looked over at El Capitan, I realized that I’d need a job to buy all the webbing I’d need. I started cleaning rooms at the Lodge two days later.”
Thus, James Lucas, The Last Dirtbag, was born.
Over the next fourteen years, James spent six months of each year in Yosemite. He first arrived at the goal to free climb Freerider in a day in 2004. By then, he’d figured out that having a few thousand feet of webbing was never going to help him climb El Cap. He focused on expanding his trad, big wall, and free climbing skills. James knew Lynn Hill had free climbed El Cap in a day and wanted to emulate her style. “Besides,” he admits, “I’m pretty into sleeping in my own bed… and I hate pooping on the wall.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that he decided to rappel the route and take a closer look, working the pitches one by one. The Boulder Problem, one of the Freerider’s cruxes, perches two-thirds of the way up the route. It’s a particularly powerful sequence of moves after 2,000 feet of climbing and gave James no end of trouble. He had never freed the pitch, even after spending approximately fifty days on the route over four years. Throughout that time, he tried to send Freerider on four separate occasions. Each time, the Boulder Problem shut him down.
On May 6, he started climbing at 3:15am with his belayer, Austin Siadak. He had worked the crux pitch the week before, dropping down onto El Cap and rehearsing the moves. As the hours and pitches ticked by, he eventually found himself staring down the Boulder Problem. Again. But this time, fourteen years after rolling into the Valley on a bus, he climbed the pitch clean for the first time. Not only that, but he executed with ease. He was, in a word, ecstatic.
With that crux done, he just needed to keep it together on the remaining ten pitches. He fell on two different occasions further up, but sent both pitches on the next go. Shortly after 6pm, James topped out Freerider, completing his quest to free climb El Cap in a day (plus a decade).
While Freerider is the easiest route up El Cap at 5.13a, he admits that it was harder than he thought it would be. Had he known how much of a lifestyle commitment it would need, he isn’t certain he would have done it. What kept him going back year after year? Simple: “I had a goal and thought I should stick with it.”
So now what? While the conditions seem ripe for an existential crisis, James is riding his wave of success. Three days after climbing El Cap, he sent the Berkeley classic Nat’s Traverse (V8) at Mortar Rock. He’d worked the boulder problem for four years and knew enough to jump on a send train when one came his way. This year, he’d like to send 5.13c and Steelfingers (V8) in Tuolumne. Long range plans include climbing 5.14 and bouldering V10. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying sleeping in again and baking pies.
Any sage advice for someone aspiring to free climb El Cap in a day? “If you don’t have talent, you’ve got to have tenacity. Just keep trying – you can do it!”