Caldwell and Sjong free El Capitan's Magic Mushroom

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El Capitan at sunset, with the approximate free line of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.13d/14a; FFA: Tommy Caldwell, Justen Sjong, May 2008) drawn in red.…

This May, over the course of five days and in an uninterrupted push from the ground, Tommy Caldwell, 29, and Justen Sjong, 35, added a new first-free El Cap free feather to their already accomplished caps — Magic Mushroom (VI 5.13d/14a) — climbed from May 12 through 16. The pair swung leads from bottom to top on their 28-pitch free variant, making a team-free ascent of this subtle but direct line left of Muir Wall, with each pitch led free by one member of the party as well as seconded in the same fashion. (The one “asterisk,” as Sjong calls it, is the crux — pitch 20 — a possible 5.14a, which Caldwell led clean but Sjong was unable to follow the first time through. On the way down to recover stashed gear on May 17, Sjong successfully toproped the pitch’s top third from a rest stance; he had freed the bottom two-thirds during the ground-up push.)

Their new climb is a contender for El Cap’s hardest — perhaps not in terms of pure crux-move difficulty, but in its sustained nature. The free version of this 1972 Steve Sutton and Hugh Burton route (VI 5.7 A3) combines a dozen pitches of 5.13-to-5.14- climbing with nine pitches of 5.12; the final 5.13d lead, an overhanging fingercrack on the “Seven Cs” pitch (aka the “Seven Seas” pitch of Jolly Roger, renamed on the free version for the Black Diamond Equipment C3s protecting the crack), comes four ropelengths below the summit. Magic Mushroom marks Sjong’s fourth El Cap free wall and Caldwell’s twelfth, making the latter the most accomplished El Cap free climber in the world.

The climbers began early on May 12, climbing Moby Dick (5.10-) to four pitches of 5.12 in the Muir Wall corners. From here, they moved onto Magic Mushroom, banging through a 5.13b slab traverse, where both climbers fell before sending, en route to Grey Ledges, where they spent the night 13 pitches up. The next day, May 13, began a bit abruptly, with a bouldery 5.13b pitch (each climber completed it on his second attempt) shared with El Corazon leading into broken ground below the business: the upper chimneys, flares, and arching corners of Magic Mushroom, where the 5.13 and 5.13+ pitches stack up.

From pitch 18 to 27, only four (a 5.13a, a 5.12d, a 5.12a, and a 5.11+) clock in lower than solid 5.13, with most of the climbing featuring athletic chimneying, stemming, tips laybacking, kneebarring, and sustained, physical jamming with thin pro tucked into flaring corners. (The pair fixed some pins in the chimneys and added six new protection bolts — three each on free variants taken by pitches 6 and 27. Some of the upper pitches — from midway through P23 to near the summit — share ground with the aid testpiece Jolly Roger, a VI 5.10 A5 done in 1979 by Charles Cole and Steve Grossman.) The climbers completed the first of the hard chimney pitches May 13, with Caldwell leading a solid-5.13 flare that involved so much chimneying it had bruised Sjong’s backside earlier in the month, while the climbers worked the route. They spent their second night on the wall at a cached portaledge (with food, water, and sleeping bags) atop pitch 19.

Continuing on, on May 14, the climbers tackled three of the hardest pitches, with Sjong starting the day off by redpointing a 100-foot stretch of 5.13d on his fifth go. Caldwell led the P20 crux (5.14a) on his second go, and Sjong tried it three or four times before the climbers moved on, via a pitch of 5.13a, to their next portaledge bivy. Here, they took a rest day through the afternoon and all the following day. On May 16, with a friendly wind keeping temps cool, the climbers topped out at 2 p.m. one day ahead of schedule (pitch grades for that day: 5.12a, 5.13b, 5.12d, 5.11+, 5.13d, 5.13a, and two pitches of 5.6), spent an hour on the summit, then rapped down to retrieve gear and set Sjong up to retry the crux, the top third of which he freed the following day after one more wall bivy.

Magic Mushroom requires a lot of different skills at a high level,” said Sjong, citing the varied styles of free climbing found from toe to summit. “It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve done on El Cap, but also the most direct. It was a pleasure to be able to climb up and do less wandering around [than on other El Cap free routes].”

Sources: Tommy Caldwell, Justen Sjong, Yosemite Climbs (Meyers and Reid; 1987)

Date of Ascent: May 12 – 16, 2008

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