A 20-Hour Magic Mushroom Trip: Caldwell Raises The Bar (again) for El Capitan Free Climbing


20 hours and 2 minutes — that’s how long it took Tommy Caldwell to free-climb Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), a strong contender for the world’s hardest big wall, in a single push, leading every pitch. His ascent comes as a major milestone, given the difficulty of A) freeing a major El Cap route in a day, and B) the sustained nature of Magic Mushroom in particular, with nine pitches of 5.12 and a dozen pitches of 5.13 to 5.14- (the final 5.13+ pitch, the overhanging finger crack of the Seven Seas, comes just below the summit.) The bulk of the route’s upper portions involved flared, overhanging chimneys and strenuous cracks protected by thin gear. 

Starting June 7 around 5:30 p.m. and ending early afternoon the next day, Caldwell’s ascent marks a return to a route he and Justen Sjong freed, in May, after a month of rehearsal and preparation. This time around, Caldwell was accompanied by his wife, Beth Rodden, speed-jumaring behind him; the pair had strategic stashes of food and water on route, as well as a pre-hung portaledge so they could sleep before the dreaded chimney cruxes. 

In terms of the volume of hard climbing encountered, Caldwell’s 20:02 effort surpasses his all-free, sub-24-hour link of the Nose (VI 5.14a) and Free Rider (VI 5.12d) in 2005. (While the crux, Changing Corners pitch of the Nose has some of El Cap’s hardest sequences, there is only one other pitch of serious note, the 5.13c Great Roof.) “I was much more worked after the double day,” says Caldwell, “but overall there is way more hard climbing on Magic Mushroom.” 

Caldwell’s coup on Magic Mushroom becomes doubly impressive when you consider that only a week earlier Caldwell, again with Rodden, nearly completed the line in sub-24 hours (May 31-June 1). On this first attempt, Caldwell climbed till muscle failure, thrice falling high on the Seven Seas pitch before conceding defeat. (The pair topped out in 23:45, with Caldwell returning solo on May 4 to revisit key sections using fixed ropes and a Mini Traxion.) 

“The whole idea of doing something like this in a day seems arbitrary,” Caldwell says. “When you do these routes in five or six days, you climb them on a pitch-by-pitch basis.” However, he adds, the build-up to a one-day push makes the experience the most gratifying he’s found in climbing. Caldwell’s latest step in evolving El Cap free climbing comes 20 years after Paul Piana and the late Todd Skinner’s FFA of the Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b), the first all-free route on the main part of the Captain. 

Date of ascent: June 7-8, 2008;

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