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Shakedown on El Capitan

Many of my early climbing days were spent in Yosemite Valley, so climbing El Capitan has always been on the back of my mind. Earlier this year I was in Hueco Tanks, TX and overheard a friend talking about wanting to get on Freerider in the fall. I interjected and said, “I’ll climb Freerider with you!”

I hadn’t been climbing much through the winter, mostly skiing. So my main goal really was just to get myself back to having enough strength and fitness to get my ass and our haul bags up the wall. While of course it would have been nice to be fit enough to send the route, my main focus was just being able to climb on the thing and to learn about the process of big wall free climbing.

What did you do to physically and educationally prepare yourself for this trip?

Throughout the summer I focused heavily on cardio and endurance. I would trail run and scramble a few times a week in the Flatirons (Boulder, CO), as well as in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Once the alpine bouldering season came around, I began to add in hangboarding and bouldering in Chaos Canyon in RMNP. By early fall, I started adding in sport climbing and managed to work myself back to climbing 5.12 again (beginning of summer I was climbing mid 5.11 and bouldering V6. End of summer climbing 5.12 again and bouldering about V9.). The last week or so before heading to Yosemite Valley, I climbed on the granite in Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City, UT. That was a great spot to train at because the routes are similar in many ways to the lower pitches on Freerider.

I researched and studied the route as much as I could. Reading blog posts, watching videos, random tidbits on Instagram. Heading up onto the wall we had pitch by pitch beta, and even move for move, at times. Maybe not the best way to learn, but for us it was the only way we could wrap our heads around something this size.

Had you ever climbed something of this magnitude before? Where does your experience come from?

The biggest route I had climbed previous to El Capitan was maybe half the size, at best. I’ve climbed numerous routes that are over 1,000’ long, but the section of wall we were on was around 3,300’. Many of the previous long routes I’ve done have been in Yosemite and RMNP. But I’ve done a few big things in El Potrero Chico (Mexico), Zion National Park, and in the Tetons.

What were you nervous or excited about prior to the climb?

Just being on El Cap in general. Not knowing how I was going to handle thousands of feet of air below me and the feeling of being exposed and trapped at the same time. This was the first route that I had ever bivied on, so that was also super exciting. Basically everything on this climb was a first and every pitch had its own bit of excitement.

During the climb what was the biggest challenge you and your partner faced? What was the most discouraging obstacle along the way?

The biggest challenge we faced was the heat (temperatures on the wall ranged from mid to upper 80s). Aside from being 100% wall gumbies (literally learning to haul, set up a portaledge just days before we began), we cruxed hard with the heat and water. We ended up doing a ton of climbing throughout the middle of the night with headlamps and would spend the days hiding from the sun where we could.

I was never really discouraged personally, I knew that this was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done in my life going in, so I felt like I was kind of of ready for the let downs. But I definitely got super frustrated with my mental abilities while leading, especially harder pitches in the dark. But by the top of the wall I felt like I had broken through that a bit, like 30-something pitches later, standing on the summit, I for sure felt like a different and better climber.

What was the biggest victory you experienced prior to summiting? 

We had a ton of little victories along the way that all cumulatively added up to us summiting. I was supposed to have a static line shipped to the Valley, it never showed up. We ended up running into the guidebook author, Erik Sloan and he loaned us a rope that Adam Ondra had used on the Dawn Wall. Then after we bailed from mid way on our first major push, we realized that we needed a porta ledge for the upper pitches. We searched for two days and at 9pm the night before we were planning to hike to the top to rappel into our bags, my partner Ander ran into his friend Nico Favresse and he let us borrow his ledge, the Pirate Ledge! But then even that next morning, had we not been running late, we would have not run into this dude named Zack Fisher who told us the spring we were hoping to fill at was dry and gave us beta on another one. There was NO WAY we would have found that other spring on our own and we for sure would not have been able to get back on the wall. SO many little things like that that all just kinda worked out.

What was your first thought upon reaching the summit? 

My first real thought on the summit was, “SHIT! I ran the haul line wrong!” That last haul to the top was the hardest one of the entire route! But after that it was just complete overwhelming exhaustion and a sense of relief. Full emotional overload.

The idea behind the El Cap Shakedown trip was, essentially, to learn as much as possible about this climb by means of failure. Looking back on the trip, what are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from the Shakedown?

#1) We are all capable of much more than we think.

Every time I thought I had hit a wall, reached the end of what I was physically capable of, there was still more that had to be done and I was able to do it. Applying that mindset to everyday life has been a major takeaway.

#2) Utilize your resources.

The Colorado Front Range is the perfect training ground for mountain adventures of any kind. I utilized it for training for sure, but I also realized that for next time, I need to capitalize on the local areas even more.

#3) Dream BIG.

When a goal seems too lofty, too out of reach, too ambitious, then you’re on the right track. Dream big, but take small steps to get there. Focus on the things that you can do today, this moment. Not what is out of your control. This can apply to anything, whether it’s climbing El Cap or finally going for the big hike.

Words: Alton Richardson
Photos: Alton Richardson (@agrphoto)
Location: Yosemite National Park, CA