Almost Free on the Salathe Wall in 1979
Both Max and I had already done the route individually, so we looked back at our slides and tried to think of all the parts we might free-climb and where we might be shut down. Simply given that it had no real bolt ladders meant it might go all free. The first real problem, we figured, would be the Double Cracks, above the Ear. There were bits and pieces of aid below that, but they didn’t seem like they would be too bad and in fact turned out not to be. We each climbed with sewn 4″-wide waistband with 1″ leg loops as harnesses. We bought two sets of Friends each (a full set was a #1, a #2 and a #3). We had one hammer and two aid slings. To jug fixed ropes, we used a couple of two-foot slings clipped together.
My only regret is that we didn’t do it at the end of 79. After the Salathé, we did the second free ascent of the West Face of El Cap; Astroman; free-climbed all but seven aid moves on the South Face of Mount Watkins; free-climbed Quarter Domes (Pegasus); did the NW face of Half Dome — strict free-climbing ethics, both climbers climbing the whole route, with aid only on the bolt ladders and pendulum — in 5.5 hours; free-climbed the Chouinard-Herbert; free-climbed all but four aid moves on the Crucifix; second ascent of Mother Earth; tried to free-climb all of the Rostrum; third ascent of D7 on the Diamond; third ascent of the Cruise in the Black Canyon. We had a shitload more experience in the fall than we did in the spring.
I think if we had done it in the fall, after all those other routes, we would have worked it more. We had portaledges and our plan was to hang out and work pitches, but for some reason we just kept moving up. It was a mindset thing. The traditional thing was to keep moving up, not to camp — i.e., on the Spire and rap back down to the Double Cracks — to work on it (let alone work it on a toprope!).
We had done the Salathé up to Mammoth twice before, so we didn’t care too much about doing it again. We blasted up there, having a good time, jumping for bolts, simul-climbing easy pitches and generally f—king around. We were dragging a bag with ropes in it to fix down from Heart Ledges. I remember I was batmanning the pitch up to the traverse, fourth or fifth pitch. Yup, batmanning the rope, no belay, holding on with one hand to clean any gear Max had placed. We were just f—king around. The bag got stuck, and Max yelled down that it was stuck. I reached over to a trail line and gave it a jerk. He had had the rope just in his hand, and when I jerked it, he dropped it. The bag with the ropes in it was falling — no big deal, it was only stuffed with ropes — but I leaned over and caught it in my arms! All the while with no belay, just hanging onto the rope in Batman position! Max, freaked out: “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” he said, and hauled it up off my arms pretty quick. I didn’t even blink an eye, just kept going.
Ah, such is the wonder of youth, eh?
I remember now that my camera was also in the pack — maybe that’s why I wanted to catch it.
Now, you must mention this: in my humble opinion, Max was the best climber in the world that day. He went up on that pitch, maybe lowered off once, but went back up, falling now and then but coming down to a no-hands rest. Eventually, he did it all but for four aid moves in a row toward the end. I followed it, was amazed at how hard it was, and probably did all the moves Max did but certainly not as continuously. We called it mid-5.12. It was easily the hardest free climbing ever done on El Cap at that time and very close to the hardest climbing ever done in the Valley.
We free-climbed up to El Cap Spire, left the bag, and went free climbing. We freed two or three pitches again right up to the bottom of the Double Corner pitch, a pitch we “knew” wouldn’t go free. As we were doing it, we looked at a variation that looked like it would need some gardening but would go at about 5.9. Why we didn’t stop and clean it and climb it, I’ll never know.
Next day, wake up, jug lines and go free-climbing again.
At this point, Max and I had been climbing with each other almost four years. Never in that time did I see Max get sewing-machine leg or take an overly long time on a pitch, or back off or freak out in any shape, form, or manner. I’m sure Max would say the same about me. We were the perfect team. We never had tangled ropes, we never had an epic, or a clusterf—k. The bag never got stuck, no one ever dropped any important gear — we always finished our leads; we never left any gear fixed. It was all smooth and flowing. We were both totally devoted and totally in with the program.
I forget when it was, but after a while we simply stopped yelling climbing commands. You’d be belaying, you’d see that you were near the end of the rope, all of a sudden a lot of rope would go out and then stop. Then the haul line would start moving and the bag would start bouncing. We’d lower it out, and a few minutes later the climbing rope would get a few jerks and you’d start climbing. Both of us figured, ‘What the f—k else could be happening?’ The leader had arrived at the anchor, pulled up rope to build the anchor, hauled the bag and then put you on belay. Simple as that. We used to laugh at the guys who would be out in the dark yelling, “Is the BLUE rope tied off? Can I jumar? Are you off belay!?!?!?”
All in all, we figured we had used aid on only 300 feet of the route. We had led and followed every pitch but never traded working on a pitch. We never did any variations or placed any bolts. From Heart, we were on the route four and a half days, spending nights on Lung, the Spire, Block, and Long Ledge.
As far as a sufferfest — well, it wasn’t. We had beer, and we were out there free climbing and having a great time.
All in all, we knew we had taken a step and we expected others to take further steps and that eventually it would go free. We figured 90 feet of it might never go.
When I saw [Paul Piana’s] article in Climbing years later, I cried.
That’s pretty much it.