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On the morning of June 11, 2019, Alex Honnold and Brad Gobright topped out the Pineapple Express variation of El Niño (VI 5.13c) for the second free ascent of the route. The climb, which generally follows the North America Wall on El Capitan, is 26 pitches, six of which are 5.13 and five of which are 5.12. First climbed by Sonnie Trotter in November 2018, Pineapple Express is currently the only free route between the Dawn Wall (5.14d) and Zodiac (5.13d).
The first ascent of the North America Wall took place in 1964, when Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard spent more than a week venturing into the vertical wilderness. Over twenty years later, in 1998, brothers Alex and Thomas Huber completed the first ascent of El Niño, adding some new terrain and almost completely freeing the route save for one pitch. In the middle of the wall, they found eight-meters of blank granite left of Big Sur Ledge that they were unable to climb. The Hubers named this section the “Man-Powered Rappel,” a 25-foot section of A0 which got its name from the fact that Alex rappelled off of Thomas’s harness, while Thomas held onto a jug (he was backed up by a bolt). Thomas still needed to rappel off the anchor.
The fact that El Niño was so close to being a free climb attracted Trotter, who began working on the climb in 2017 with Honnold. To get around the Man-Powered Rappel an alternative route had to be established, which added three new pitches of 5.13 climbing to Pineapple Express. In the fall of 2018, Trotter returned the Valley in the hope of getting the first ascent of his variation. While Honnold was Trotter’s original partner for the route, he was unavailable due to obligations related to the Free Solo film. He gave Trotter his blessing to continue without him. So, at the eleventh hour, with a snow storm moving into the area, Trotter headed up belayed by Tommy Caldwall. Thirteen hours later he had achieved his goal.
According to a lengthy Instagram post in which Gobright details their ascent, he and Honnold began climbing at 4 p.m., after the route had fallen into the shade for the day. They climbed through the night, where they found the rock to still be “pretty warm.” They also encountered sections of wet rock. Despite conditions that were not ideal, both men managed to send the route during a 14 hour push that put them on top in the early morning.
Gobright described the ascent as “Full of grunting, groaning, and the occasional scream… Alex ended up leading most of the hardest pitches but I’m still really psyched for how things turned out.” Trotter expressed excited about the send, commenting, “Way to crush it gents, what a fun rock climb.”
To read more about the first ascent of Pineapple Express check out the upcoming August/September issue of Climbing Magazine, which includes a feature by Sonnie Trotter.