Climbing the Zodiac

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For many climbers, scaling the granite monolith of El Capitan is a bucket list experience. For an elite few, free climbing El Capitan is the ultimate experience. However, free climbing El Capitan takes a colossal amount of work. Recently, two California climbers went to examine a steep free route on the right side of El Cap.

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On Friday, November 29th, Touchstone athlete Ethan Pringle and South Bay climber Walker Emerson hiked the talus below the right side of El Capitan. The pair flaked their rope below the steep Zodiac route on the South-east face of the monolith. The climbers took a free climbing variation to the right of the aid start and reached the third pitch at dusk. Fixing their ropes, the pair spent the night on the Valley floor. The following morning, they woke at 3:30 am to begin a fifteen hour ascent of the route.

“Part of the reason we wanted to climb Zodiac was to investigate the possibility of working on freeing it,” said Pringle. “But after experiencing it close up, I don’t think I’m interested.” Pringle described the free climbing as “too hard”, “weird”, “unpleasant” and without any stances for nearly 300 feet.

The clean and exposed granite of the Zodiac follows a series of large features through overhanging rock. The relatively short length, the Zodiac is 1800 feet, and the great location make it a trade route for El Cap climbers looking to delve into harder aid. The Zodiac was first established as an aid climb in 1971 by Charlie Porter. In 2003, the Bavarian brothers, Alex and Thomas Huber made the first free ascent of the route. Tommy Caldwell repeated the route a few months later. In the decade that the route was last freed, a number of strong climbers have attempted the route but none have been successful including Alex Honnold, Rob Miller, and the Australians Lee Cossey and Lawrence Dermod.

After the first few wandering free climbing pitches, climbers reach the Grey Circle. “In the Circle, the terrain gets was steeper, the rock looses most (or all in some places) of it’s positive features and it’s pretty naturally slick rock. These are the crux pitches. We had decided not to bring a hammer, pitons, bashes, etc, We were banking on there being enough fixed gear on the route to not require the use of a hammer.” Pringle never nailed on the pitch and examined the wide corner climbing, which appeared difficult. “Tommy Caldwell said it wasn’t that bad for him but he’s a corner climbing sensei, but for everyone else, ’13d’ hold less wide corner climbing is gonna feel pretty damn hard.”

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The crux Nipple pitch, which Pringle aided using micro cams and fixed gear, would be a difficult lead. Sending the pitch would involve nearly impossible to place protection, zero foot holds and “underclinging two-finger pocket pin-scars for like 60 feet straight.” Emerson led the pitches above the Nipple to the summit. The pair topped out the wall at 10 pm.

Currently, Bay area transplant Joe Kinder and Salt Lake climber Nik Berry are attempting to free the Zodiac as well. Joe has little experience on El Cap, having only been to Yosemite once when he was an adolescent. “I bouldered around when my parents went on hikes and ran around Camp 4. I remember the rock being really slippery,” said Kinder. Berry has freed five different El Cap routes. They approached the wall with a top down mentality and established camp at the Grey Circle to work the difficult pitches. While they’ve managed to do all the moves on the Nipple pitch, Berry said it would be “hard to link.”

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Pringle also climbed the Nose with Emerson earlier this year. The pair did the route in thirteen hours 30 minutes with Pringle leading twenty pitches. “I think I’d consider trying to free the Nose before Zodiac. There’s a lot more fun and easier climbing on that route separated by short, really bouldery cruxes and I guess it feels a little more legitimate since you can pretty much climb from ledge to ledge. The thing that deters me the most from trying that is how polished the rock is on the Great Roof pitch. You can barely see any footholds at all! I can’t imagine feeling solid standing on them! But TC told me that he thought the Great Roof is a lot easier to free than the Nipple so maybe I’ll reconsider the Nose one day.”

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 Though the Pringle and Emerson were slightly deterred by projecting the wall as a free route, they accomplished their main goal. “I mostly just wanted to do a route on El Cap that neither of us had done before, a trade route, and climb El Cap!” said Pringle. “While the prospect of trying to free it wasn’t that appealing to us, we still had a huge blast climbing it and it was an experience neither of us will ever forget!”