El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California.Photo by Luke Laeser
Leo Houlding narrowly missed becoming the first person to lead every pitch of an El Cap free route onsight, taking just one fall on Free Rider.
Early on the morning of September 15, Houlding began the first pitches of Free Rider (5.12d, 34 pitches). Less than a week earlier, he had onsighted the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (5.12, 24 pitches) in a little over five hours, with Dean Potter belaying. On El Cap, Houlding and his belayer, Chris Van Leuven, reached Heart Ledges at the end of the Free Blast at 10 a.m. (Since Houlding had previously climbed the Free Blast, the 11-pitch, relatively low-angle start to the Free Rider and Salathé routes, he could not have done a pure onsight of Free Rider, but all of the 5.12 climbing on the route lies above this, and Houlding had not climbed either Free Rider or the Salathé before.) At 4:20 p.m., the team reached El Cap Spire. Houlding had led 21 pitches onsight, including the dreaded Monster Offwidth (5.10d).
After a frigid bivi with minimal gear, Houlding began leading again at 8 a.m., placing an average of five pieces in 70-meter pitches. “Bollocks!” he screamed, just after the rope snapped tight in his belayer’s hands. He had fallen at the crux 5.12d Huber Variation on the 24th pitch. After some moments to regain his psyche, he quickly re-led the pitch, making easy work of the crux. The climbers continued onward, Houlding practically running up the pitches. He continued the same feverish pace through the 5.12 dihedral pitches (pitches 28-29), just below the Salathé Roof, and again on the 5.12c traverse of pitch 30. The team reached the top at 5:30 p.m. with no other falls.