Belgians Create Bold El Cap Free Route
Nicolas Favresse and Sean Villanueva have completed a new free route on the far right side of El Capitan. The Secret Passage (5.13c R, 15 pitches) combines two existing routes to the right of the popular Zodiac, plus some new ground; it generally follows the first 10 pitches of Eagle’s Way (5.8 A3) and the last few pitches of Bad to the Bone (5.9+ A4).
The free climb is both sustained and poorly protected, with nine 5.12 or 5.13 pitches in a row, including three with “R” ratings for danger. Remarkably, the duo added only one protection bolt, in order to climb a free variation to an aid pitch.
Below is Nico Favresse’s first-person account of the new route, with minor editing for grammar and clarity:
Sean Villanueva and I have just freed a new route on El Capitan! We just came down last Friday (October 10) after five days on the wall. It’s for sure one of my best climbing accomplishments and my strongest climbing experience. All my years of climbing experience seem to have blended together to brew this new major piece of climbing. The route tested my physical and mental abilities to their limit, with the challenge of many hard pitches to send each day on the wall, plus the fatigue of hauling.
In order to leave the aid routes their original way, we were pushed to climb sometimes on very poor gear and at other times spaced apart. But beside the physical and mental challenge, the experience of exploring the wall for a way to free felt to me the most powerful. So many sections looked at first impossible, but with optimism, faith, and creativity all of them gave away a solution with an amazing amount of holds, which if one of them did not exist the route wouldn’t go free. It felt like each solution was a sign of communication with the rock.
The idea of trying to free this line came up in December 2006 when I aid-climbed Zodiac. I just couldn’t keep my eyes from looking at the line to the right, as if I felt something instinctual. The line stayed in my mind, and this year when I arrived in Yosemite with Sean in mid-September it was something I really wanted to check out. With him, I knew we could try our best to climb it in a fun style: no fixing, no jugging, no rappelling, just finding the way up from the ground, and bringing the mandolin and flutes for some El Cap freestyle jamming.
On our first exploration up the line we went big-wall style, and the goal was just to see if it would go free. Although my instinct always felt strong about the line, my rational mind had a harder time with rumors of impossible blank sections, that part of the wall having been unsuccessfully checked for free climbing on rappel by other El Cap free climbers.
The first time up the line, we spent four days mostly following the aid route Eagle’s Way. When a section of the aid line would not be possible to free, we would look at every option of the free-climbing labyrinth, and that required sometimes doing long pendulums. Up to two pitches from the summit, everything seemed possible to free with a few very hard pitches. But there, so close to the summit, all the hopes of freeing the entire line dropped with four meters of blank rock. We topped out the wall, then moved our rope to the side to make sure we didn’t miss a free alternative. But no, the four meters of blank rock seemed to be the easiest way up the wall.
When we came down, at first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back on the line. Why expend all this effort for something that wouldn’t go entirely free? Then, after a day of rest, I woke up with a strong feeling of needing to go back on the line. I thought if I couldn’t free the whole line it could still be so fun to be up there, hanging out on El Cap, free-climbing pitches at my limits and playing our musical instruments.
Before setting off for another multiple-day push on the line, Sean and I decided to work on the lower hard cruxes of the route on two day trips. We never fixed any line. Then we went again last week with the potential to stay five days on the wall, so that it would give us enough of a margin to explore and try to redpoint the upper part of the wall. After five days on the route, we reached the four-meter blank section. Up to there, I had been able to redpoint every pitch of the climb, with many of them on the edge of my limits. As I got ready to aid the rivet ladder, I looked down and to the side and saw a tiny bit of dirt sticking out of the super-blank, polished granite. I lowered down and discovered a very thin, laser-cut seam, impossible to see unless you are level with it. I cleaned the moss and “the secret passage” appeared, making one of the raddest pitches of the climb. We called our new free route The Secret Passage after this unique pitch, which allowed the climb to go 100 percent free.
The route is extremely steep, and so the climb is very sustained, with a total of 15 pitches (5.10+ R, 5.11, 5.9, 5.10+, 5.12a R, 5.13c R, 5.13a, 5.12+, 5.12c, 5.13c, 5.12c R, 5.13a, 5.13a, 5.11 R, 5-10+). We added a bolt on an unprotectable face-climbing variation to the established aid line, and placed a bolt next to a rivet to make an anchor safe. We were able to free-climb the rest without adding any holes in the rock. The nature of the climb is quite run-out and dangerous at sections. One pitch protects with hooks and fixed copperheads; a few others have hard cruxes way past the last piece of pro; and there are a few scary sections with loose rock features we couldn’t avoid. (Editor’s note: Climbers on neighboring routes reported huge blocks being trundled during the free ascent.)
Sean and I started the route switching leads and following free. Then, as the climb got very sustained, Sean didn’t succeed in redpointing every pitch. I took over the lead for the pitches that he didn’t redpoint, and he continued to follow free.
Dates of Ascent: October 6-10, 2008
Sources: Nicolas Favresse, Supertopo.com
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