I. Dehydrated, sunburned, and covered in choss
Sometimes the mountain is friendly, and then there are days like this. I’d like to teleport off this cliff. After grinding away for an entire day—big runouts, marginal gear, and an entire rope length of teetering Jenga blocks—we meet utterly blank rock. Not even a dime-sized edge to work a miracle from. With each crappy new pitch, our projected glory seems increasingly in doubt.
My longtime partner Lucho Rivera and I are 800 feet up a sheer, 1,200-foot face on this granite dome rising to 7,080 feet, above iconic Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park. It’s a blank canvas of hard climbing with—so far—only aid routes established. We’d hoped to be the first to free climb it. But Lucho shoots me a look that says, “Why the hell are we on this death mission?” And with that, we resign ourselves to bailing. One of the last walls in the Valley to go free will remain an unclaimed prize.
Five long rappels later, the ground is tantalizingly close, but we are still adrift on Liberty Cap’s massive face. Until you are on terra firma, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a thousand feet up a wall or a hundred feet up: You are still just stuck. Trying to speed up the process, I unclip from the anchor and, with great care, scramble down a sloping, leaf-covered ledge to a gnarled oak and begin making our next bail anchor. Twenty feet above me, Lucho gently tugs the rappel lines. The ropes kindly acquiesce and silently snake through the anchor above. There is a moment of tension as we wait for gravity to bring the ropes safely to us—but then the ropes come to a halt.
“Son of a bitch!” I shout. “Rock, paper, scissors for who has to go up there?”
“Oh, no, that’s all you,” says Lucho. “This was your shitty idea to begin with.” Then he gives the ropes a yank of frustration.
Keracckkk… chick... BOOM! Shrapnel explodes from the cliff.
“Holy...” I can’t even finish my expletives before a microwave-sized block pinballs down the ledge, tussling my hair as it streaks past. I feel the wind from it on my cheek. After years on search and rescue teams, I’ve seen what happens when a rock that big hits your head—it takes it clean off.
“Arrrggggh! Fuck!” shrieks Lucho as he drops to the ground as if he’s been shot. He writhes in pain and slides sideways down the sloping ledge. I snap into first-responder mode and race up the ledge to secure Lucho before he slips off to his death. Tears well up in Lucho’s eyes, and he screams as I set him upright.
His collarbone is almost certainly broken from the impact of one of the smaller rocks, and he’s bleeding, though not badly. I take a deep breath, knowing how much worse this could have been. I tear up my shirt to stop the bleeding and fashion a sling. For the next two rappels, I clip Lucho in and hold the rope from below so he doesn’t go careening out of control.
Lucho and I are unabashedly addicted to first ascent glory, but today it was a siren song. The Iron Age, the Golden Age—heck, even the Stonemasters and Stone Monkeys are bygone eras of Yosemite. With each new first ascent in this legendary valley, a limited resource becomes that much more precious, and in my mind the first free ascent of Liberty Cap, one of Yosemite’s last unfreed faces, is an obvious trophy. Not one worth dying for, though.
Our next two rappel anchors are quadruple-backed-up, and we leave several cams for added safety. Finally, we touch down with the relief an astronaut must feel re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
We stumble an hour back to the valley floor in quiet shock, as the crumbling series of events runs on repeat in my mind. Perhaps Liberty Cap just doesn’t go free. Lucho finally breaks the pensive silence. “Don’t ever ask me to go up on Liberty Cap again.”
“Fair enough,” I reply.
After what Lucho and I came to call “the Liberty Cap incident of 2007,” life took on a new pace for me. I had spent the previous six years climbing almost exclusively in Yosemite and had managed to pick up some sponsors that enabled me to take my love of first ascent climbing to more exotic locales. While Lucho worked here and there and spent the majority of his time in the Valley, I lived the enviable life of a jetset pro climber. Alaska, Pakistan, China, Patagonia, Europe, Baffin… the ticklist of first ascents and big adventure grew with each passing year, but somewhere along the way it started to feel empty. While I got back to Yosemite occasionally, I was no longer a regular, and then three years went by without me even setting foot there. I was a born-again believer who stopped going to church. Meanwhile, Lucho couldn’t help but be jealous of my lifestyle, and so when the chance presented itself, I took Lucho on a sponsored trip to Malaysia to climb the Dragon’s Horns. We established two spectacular routes and reconnected as friends (read the story at climbing.com/climber/rocktherapy). We talked a lot about Yosemite, where he had just established a new free route on Fifi Buttress. I was jealous of him, too. My fear of missing out on the next Yosemite adventure was acute. I wanted back in on the action; we needed to plan a Valley mission.
III. Full Circle
I loaded my van with the vigor of a desk jockey packing for vacation. I was finally setting aside some Yosemite time, complete with a plan for a spring first ascent with Lucho. I set the cruise control and raced away from Boulder, Colorado. Sixteen hours later, I drove through Wawona Tunnel and beheld El Cap and Half Dome with tears in my eyes. Low clouds and mist from recent rain crawled between the cliffs. In the last 10 years, I had climbed in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but nothing compared to this view.
Most people think Yosemite is climbed out, and they’re half-right. But it’s a very big valley, and for the well-informed there are still blank spots on the canvas to fill in. I was a bit shocked—and impressed—when I met up with Lucho, and he suggested we check out Liberty Cap.
“You want to break your other collarbone?” I joked.
“Not the route we tried back in the day,” he laughed, which gave me some genuine relief. “Check this out!” He pulled up the American Alpine Journal online and showed me an article by Josh Mucci.
In October 2012, Mucci had put up Bad Moon Rising (5.8 A2) on Liberty Cap with Steve Bosque and Ezra Allee. The report said: “A 5.12 climber would absolutely eat up the huge corner: 800 feet of 0.5” to 1” cracks, mostly clean on cams. Somebody needs to free this route; unfortunately, I am not that good. It’s all there, though, for the right suitor.” It was undeniably enticing: Could we be those suitors?
I had looked at Liberty’s southwest face from so many different angles, and it always seemed too steep and improbable. When I heard that the first route there, the Harding route, had a bolt ladder that would not go free, I wrote it off. That’s why Lucho and I had explored the east face where he broke his collarbone; it looked more likely for free climbing. But Mucci’s report gave us hope.
We attacked Liberty in earnest. It was early spring, and the route was a wet, seeping mess. Free climbing anything was next to impossible, but we figured by the time we had lines fixed it would be drier. Each day, we slogged the hour and a half up the gorgeous Mist Trail to Liberty Cap, slowly fixed lines, and cleaned up Mucci’s route. It was even more impressive than we expected: a steep corner and flake system with impeccably polished orange granite painted with wild gray and black streaks, right in the middle of the proudest part of the southwest face.
“Dude, if we can pull this off,” I said hanging in my aiders, “this is going to be one of the best free routes in the Valley!”
Soon, things began to dry, and we began to see if Mucci’s assertion was right. Our first day of toproping on what he called the Perigean Tide pitch was demoralizing. I fell my way up the initial steep stem and layback section, and then ripped my fingers to shreds trying to power through the crux: leaning fingertip-locks. I’d barely do a single move, and then fall. The pitch above went better, but the flake was so pumpy I was unsure how one would let go to place protection.
“I guess I could just punch it anchor to anchor with no pro,” I joked.
The Mist Trail became our daily commute, and each day our work was to unlock new beta on a different pitch. One day we avoided an impossible section on Bad Moon Rising by veering onto the Direct Southwest Face (5.10 A3+) and climbing a contorted, pumpy, and bizarre roof pitch, visible from 800 feet below. This brought us to a wild horizontal finger crack that went 165 feet dead left. Mucci had given this pitch one of the best names for a crack ever: Crack of God. It was, without question, one of the coolest, most unique pitches I’d ever climbed. This attempt demanded I perform at my best. I pictured a sustained battle. Would I free climb it in a day, or (more likely) would my forearms explode in total failure? My worst nightmare was not sending and leaving it behind for someone like Alex Honnold to finish.
After two weeks of working what seemed like countless 5.12 pitches into submission, my confidence hadn’t grown much. Any one of the 16 pitches would not be a problem, but all together it was daunting. Plus, summer was coming. We had one remaining cool day in the forecast before the Valley jumped into the high 90s for the foreseeable future.
“Hail Mary time!” I said to Lucho, with false bravado after looking at the forecast. “We’re going for it. Tomorrow!”
V. Now or Never
No sleep. I obsess over every inch of beta in my mind. Make sure you get your right hand in the tips-lock above the fixed pin; make sure that you run it out before the roof so you don’t get rope drag; make sure you get your right foot on the micro-nub out left before you press into the stem and the RP placement; make sure you save a purple junior for the end of the Crack of God.
In some strange way, I’d missed this ulcer-inducing emotion of desire colliding with doubt. But another part of me hates it and just wants to give up now and go chill in the meadow. It’s easier to avoid the unknown, but this is the essence of a rewarding climb—or any meaningful life experience for that matter: to positively confront the fear, the unknown, the lack of a guarantee, the gut-churning uncertainty, and the possibility of failure.
“Only through hard work and tenacity do great climbs happen; that’s why they feel so great. Only through hard work and tenacity do great climbs happen; that’s why they feel so great,” I try to convince myself in a repeated mantra, and somehow I believe it and drift off to sleep.
I awaken, nervous but hopeful. Lucho doesn’t fare as well and rises to nausea and diarrhea. I’m gripped that Lucho may bail, but with summer nipping at our heels he knows as well as I do that this may be our only chance to send. “Might as well try,” he moans. We espresso up, and then plod along the Mist Trail slowly and methodically, trying to save as much of our energy for the climb as possible.
At certain points in my climbing life, I have achieved an almost dream-like state of commitment to the task at hand. I call it the “F*ck It State;” where you chuck everything and fully engross yourself in the moment. I race up the initial 5.11 R pitch, barely placing gear, and link it into the 5.10 hands pitch without a thought.
This is where I belong: in this moment. Despite feeling shitty, Lucho cranks the first 5.12- thin-hands and layback pitch efficiently. I move methodically up the next 5.12- thuggery-to-stemming pitch, trying not to think about the Perigean Tide pitch above, which I had climbed clean on toprope only 50 percent of the time. Lucho’s stomach audibly churns, and he generously offers me the lead. I am in full F*ck It State.
The corner is pumpy, so my strategy is to run it out. I climb fast and far between pieces, and before I know it, I’m clipping the pin at the crux. I layback, shoulder-scum, and paste my feet for dear life. I’m either sending or taking one spectacular whipper. I watch in disbelief from outside my body as I clip the anchor. Lucho barely follows free, keeping our team-free ascent alive. For the next 10 pitches, it’s one close call after the next as I scream, tremble, and grunt my way up the endless wall. I nearly whip off the next 5.12+ flake, the 5.12 roof, and the 5.11d pitch on the Harding route; Lucho remarkably follows clean.
Late in the day, in a bit of a blur, I find myself back on the Harding route at the final 5.12 slab pitch. I tiptoe on marginal feet and try to remember my beta. I search for the crucial crimp but can’t find it, and then the unthinkable happens. A fall. I come down, and then—I fall again. My forearms are starting to cramp, and I probably only have one more try in me. With everything I have, I quiver, shake, and thrutch my way up the pitch, exiting the F*ck It State and entering the “I Might Be F*cked State.” All I have left is desire, and somehow I eke out the pitch screaming for every single move. A few remaining pitches of old-school 5.10 (that feels like 5.12 at this point) bring us to the summit with aching feet and hands.
I give Lucho a big hug. “This is one of the last major faces in Yosemite that hadn’t been freed,” I tell Lucho proudly.
“A dream come true,” Lucho replies. For a moment I feel like the young, wide-eyed dirtbag that had scrounged and groveled here so many years before. I watch Nevada Fall boom far below, and my thoughts turn to next year and how I might go even deeper into this childlike sense of wonder and endless possibility.
Frequent contributor Cedar Wright first graded his new route 5.9+, but now he’s pretty sure it’s a 5.12c.