The plan was to drive to the Valley Thursday night, climb Friday through Sunday, and come down Monday. Casey and I had decided six months ago to attempt Freerider this year. We wrote up a training outline, picked some routes to do in preparation, and got down to work.
For a bit things went OK, we spent a lot of time getting mileage in on gym cracks and shorter routes in the valley, feeling the fitness build and, as Casey said, the granite-fu becoming stronger. But later, when we were supposed to start spending weekends up on el cap working out some of the harder pitches, it always seemed to be perfect weather Monday through Friday, and then rainy Saturday and Sunday. Out of the 10 or so weekends we were planning on doing some reconnaissance we only got up on the captain four of them. Of those, only two weekends were spent up on top working out the middle/top pitches where a majority of the hard climbing is, and because we got so tired while hiking up there, we didn’t get to spend a lot of time on any given pitch.
All in all, when we leave the ground for the push, there are two pitches that neither of us has sent, and 11 pitches that only one of us has done. Six of the pitches we have only tried once. But Casey is out of vacation days at work, the weather is only getting hotter, and we already stashed food and water in the alcove, so now it’s go time.
Things get pushed back by one day when Casey’s car is impounded for expired registration. He manages to get one more day off work.
On Friday evening I race through a swarm of mosquitos and sweat in the muggy evening heat as I jug to Heart ledges. I leave two Gatorade bottles of water and the number 6. Casey (in)conveniently forgot his approach shoes so I got to jug. Casey’s car trouble means that we lost the site we reserved. We drive through Upper Pines and ask strangers if we can sleep on the ground behind their car for a few hours.
4:00 AM alarm, 5:00AM start. We poop and put sunscreen on in the dark. It’s already warm. I’m 30 feet up the first pitch of freeblast and already the sweat is dripping from my nose and trickling down my neck. Despite the oppressive heat we swing leads and link pitches like clockwork. Per usual we both are close to falling on the short undercling traverse. Per usual we both almost blow it on the weird step-through-walk-across-then-fall move. Climbing the half dollar I somehow wind up with 50 pounds of rope drag and take longer than we’d like. Somehow we make it to our resupply on heart ledges in 4 hours and 30 minutes. We immediately drink most of the water.
Casey leads the hollow flake pushing a six the whole way. The hollow flake is probably the longest climbing pitch of the route, almost 280 feet, but after all that you end up 70 feet from your belayer. That’s because from the belay you downclimb 100 feet, then climb over 30 feet, and then climb back up about 140 feet of wide crack. And for the whole pitch, all you bring is a single number 6 Camalot. As the crack gradually widens, the six becomes more and more tipped out to the point where we’re actually worried about it simply falling down into the crack and disappearing. To prevent this, Casey simply clips the cam directly to himself with a short sling, so that if it does fall out, it won’t go far.
The sun finally hits us as I finish following the hollow flake. The water consumption ramps up and we end up waiting for two parties ahead of us to move off The Ear. Hiding in two square feet of shade we drink the last of our water and are still incredibly dehydrated. The only thing between us and our stashed water in the alcove is the Monster Offwidth, 200 feet of 6-inch, left side in offwidth. The thought of leading it in the sun with how thirsty I am is soul-crushing. We swallow our pride and yell up to the party above us to see if they happen to have any extra water to spare. Miraculously they do, and leave half a liter at the belay which revives us a bit.
The hardest part of the Monster is actually the 5.11d downclimb to get over the crack. We’d both managed it well enough on previous runs, but now I have to power my way through the underclings, head snapping back as I lurch between holds while smearing my feet on a blank wall. Once in the crack I settle in for some moderate but seemingly endless suffering. I do the following process about 300 times:
Shuffle the heel-toes, bump the arm-bar, chalk up the right hand, gaston the crack, push the six, breath, think about drinking water at the top.
Towards the top things get a little more interesting as the crack size starts undulating a bit. Since I only have the single number 6 that I’ve been pushing the whole way, taking it out, even for a split second to get it past a thin spot, is exhilarating to put it mildly.
Casey also cruxes through the downclimb, almost knocking his glasses off in the process, and does the entry moves into the wide bit with them hanging off one ear. Luckily, once inside the crack he can easily put them back on. When he finally reaches the belay his mouth is so dry he can’t even spit. Arriving at the alcove we meet Matt and Casey (now there are two Caseys!) who are also attempting Freerider. They’re the ones who gave us their water and we cannot thank them enough.
Although we’ve sent, Day 1 held the easiest climbing. Although we are psyched about our performance, neither of us expects to send the hard pitches coming up, but we still hold on to a small glimmer of hope in the back of our minds. The only time we even mention success is when one of us says “Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if we sent so that we never have to come back up here again?”
DAY TWO: The Boulder Problem
Day two is supposed to be our “rest” day. Even though it contains the hardest pitch of the route, we’re only climbing 6 pitches, so in theory it’s not so bad. Some easy climbing brings us to the boulder problem. In true not-hard-man style I semi-aid my way up the three bolt pitch (I know, it’s a pump-fest) to pre-hang the draws. The boulder problem is literally just that, about 12 moves of techy V7 climbing on a dead vertical wall with small crimps and what I consider to be pretty damn poor feet. While we’ve both done all the moves individually, neither of us has ever sent this pitch clean (I’ve never even one-fallen it before).
Casey ties in and leads it, falling on the last move, which for him is an all-points-off dyno to a flat edge that’s about an inch deep.
Now it’s my turn, I tie in and immediately fall on the first of the actually hard moves. I come back down to the no hands ledge a few feet from the anchor. I don’t really feel tired so I take a minute of rest and walk through the moves in my head before I try again.
Somehow I find myself one move away from finishing the boulder problem. It’s the most tenuous move. I paste my left foot on nothing, tip sideways, and lean as far as I can to my left, reaching for the crack with my left hand. I can feel my foot slowly slipping, and my body sagging outwards. In that split second I make the decision that, no matter what, I am going to do this move. My foot stays.
I look down at Casey as I belay him for his second and third attempts, trying not to think about me sending and him going home empty handed. He keeps saying he’s “scraping the bottom of the barrel”. After his third fall, he sits alone at the belay for 15 minutes, neither of us saying much, then tries one last time. This time, he sticks the last move with a scream so primal that at first, I thought he’d seriously hurt himself. We’re both in a bit of disbelief that we just sent the boulder problem.
The last two pitches of the day are physical, and Casey is so worked after the boulder problem that he stops at the first belay instead of linking the pitches like we’d planned. While climbing the pitch known as “The Sewer”, we get peed on by climbers above us (how appropriate).
We arrive at The Block to find that both Matt and Casey, as well as our good friend Alix Morris and her partner, Katie, are stuck behind the aforementioned urinating climbers. For the next 3 hours we all lounge in the shade of a jury-rigged ledge fly, swapping climbing stories and drinking coconut milk from a can. With the hardest pitch out of the way, the pressure to send is now looming over us, and the company is a welcome distraction.
Eventually, Casey and I fix our ropes and descend back to the alcove to spend our second night.
We awake on the third day and I actually feel relatively recovered. Casey feels pretty terrible. Anxious about our success up to that point, he barely slept. He says his left tricep feels torn and his right forearm is still sore from cramping the previous day. Since he forgot his approach shoes, he applies tape to the fronts of his climbing shoes to protect them from jugging. We jug up to our previous high point. Even at 5:30 AM it’s muggy out, and jugging 620 vertical feet makes me sweat through my shirt. I feel nauseous from the smell of last nights top ramen that is seeping out of my pores. The exposed face climbing to the base of the enduro corner is a rough, but necessary, warm-up.
While not graded as hard as the boulder problem, the enduro corner actually has us more worried, because we really don’t want to blow it now, on our last day. When linked, it’s a long, 12d corner that’s super fucking hard. However, people who are, as a wise man once said, “weaksauce” (which we definitely are) break it up into two pitches; 11d and 12b.
I’m a giant wimp, so Casey leads both corner pitches. He floats (read: sends with only moderate to large difficulty) the first one, spurred on by Alex’s cheering from above and my encouragement from below. I follow with much sweating and difficulty. The second corner is much harder, and neither of us have sent it before. We hang at the uncomfortable belay, neither talking much, simply conserving energy and waiting for Alex and Katie to finish the pitch above. I don’t really know what to say to Casey to encourage him besides “you got this man”. It doesn’t sound that helpful.
Eventually Casey is ready. He laybacks up the pumpy slopers, desperately leaning off of shallow knee bars to clip the fixed nuts that have been hammered into the pin scars. At the crux he crimps footchips on the face and definitely doesn’t use the beta that he had worked out the last time. He punches through some shallow locks with several yells and settles into the hand jam rest before the final section. It’s 5.10 laybacking on an okay sloper, which would normally be fine, except last weekend a foot slip in this section sent Casey flying. I can see his elbows flaring out and his whole body sagging with fatigue as he grunts his way up. He grabs the finish jug and lets out a victory scream. For a while he just sits there shaking, holding his head in his hands, overwhelmed by the improbability of the send. I sit there thinking “Shit, now I have to send too.”
I similarly forget my beta at the crux, and make something up to get to the key fingerlock. It’s wet, but at this point I don’t even care because after this pitch I know I can do all the moves on the rest of the route.
The only hard pitch left is the 12a traverse pitch, which I’ve only tried once and never sent. Since it goes sideways around a corner, it’s a giant pain in the ass to try more than once. We really don’t’ want to mess this one up. Climbing sideways is always scary; however, this pitch is one of the craziest, wildest and most exposed pitches, with some truly weird holds. I concentrate on the novelty of it to distract myself. Casey had followed this pitch easily before, but now fatigue has set in. He scrapes through the crux using some stuff-your-foot-in-a-hole-to-rest trickery and soon we are both at Round Table ledge.
The psyche of knowing that we’re going to send courses through me like caffeine. I race up the next pitch, feeling like a fucking hero as I slam hand jams one after another. Nothing can stop us now, and everything, even 11d, feels easy.
Of course, the feeling is fleeting. Casey links a section of steep 11d fingers into the Scotty B offwidth, realizing at the last minute that he’s racked his gear wrong for a left-side-in offwidth. He spends at least 20 minutes crammed in a shallow scoop at the base of the offwidth, blindly switching gear from one side of his harness to the other. The offwidth is slow-going, as is the thought-provoking double chimney above. The mega pitch takes forever, and I have plenty of time to worry myself sick about blowing the whole thing at the last minute. Finally I’m in the offwidth, and I know that I can make it, but only by groveling my way, inch by painful inch, for what seems like an eternity. Eventually we find ourselves three pitches from the top. The energy sap is apparent on the final pitches, but there is a certainty in our movements. Even the excruciating pain in our feet is overwhelmed by the psyche of having completed what was expected to be such a long-term goal.
We top out around 5:00PM alongside Alix and Katie, having sent all but one of the pitches first try. Unfortunately we don’t see Matt and Casey up top as well. They were a bit faster than us, so we don’t get congratulate them on sending in person.
PIZZA AND BEER
As if by magic, Katie produces a warm can of Guinness they’d found on the route and we all share a few sips before they head back to the valley floor and we stay up top.
The rest of the evening was spent in a small cave on top of El Cap in a state of joyful shock, recounting the route, eating sausage and cheese and listening to podcasts. The next day we rappel all of El Cap. Casey, not a huge fan of rappelling, offers to take the bags if I go first on every rap. Nineteen rappels and five hours later we arrive on the ground and treat ourselves to beer and pizza.
Over the course of three days, we both free climbed every pitch of Freerider. We’re going to stay close to the ground for a while now.