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A free ascent of El Capitan used to be a rare beast. Though that’s beginning to change—with parties freeing El Cap routes almost every week during peak season—unsupported, ground-up, one-day free ascents remain few and far between.
The idea that a party can walk up to the Big Stone without any stashed gear, rehearsal, or support, and free 3,000 feet of vertical granite in a single day sits at the far reaches of one’s imagination. And that’s not just because of the high level of skill and fitness required to send a 32-pitch 5.13a. It’s also because of the sheer amount of planning and logistics required to make it all happen.
But Brent Barghahn and Amity Warme did just that on April 10, completing El Cap’s Freerider (VI 5.13a; 3,000 feet) in 18 hours and 16 minutes, completely unsupported. The pair started up the route at midnight, simuled 24 of the 32 total pitches, and collectively fell only a handful of times, with Barghahn falling just once on the notorious Boulder Problem. In the process, Warme also became the fifth woman to free El Cap in a day.
But as Warme approached the wall at midnight to tie in, she wasn’t sure she could make it happen. “I was very confident in Brent’s ability to do it, but I wasn’t confident in my ability,” she told Climbing. “My main goal was not to mess something up so bad that we had to bail.”
It’s easy to understand her concern. Although she had freed the route before, and regularly climbs 5.13, they were going for a completely unsupported attempt, with no stashed gear, food, or water, all in a single day. They planned to haul or climb with all of their provisions during the 18-hour effort.
It’s worth explaining the terms “self-supported” and “unsupported” here, because definitions can vary slightly depending on the climber. Barghahn takes a stab at clarifying his personal views on his blog. The difference between a self-supported and unsupported ascent, in his words, is that in the former, “all the labor for the ascent is done by the climbers themselves, but the effort may have been spread across a period of time before the ascent itself.” In the latter, “all supplies for the ascent are carried on route by the climbers themselves. No prestashing or dumping of gear.” This difference may seem slight from the comfort of your office chair or couch, but consider the reality of free climbing 14 pitches with a #6 cam in tow before it’s actually useful (on the Monster Offwidth). Or cramping up on 5.12 because you’ve run out of water—leaving the ground with any more than two liters each would have added serious weight to their rack.
They also aimed to tackle Freerider ground-up, so neither had rapped in to practice any of the pitches in advance. Warme hadn’t been on Freerider since her first time freeing it, ground-up and in big-wall style, in the spring of 2021. Barghahn hadn’t stepped on the wall since November of 2021 when he made an initial FRIAD attempt.
Successful ascents in this style are often done with a smaller margin for error—corners are cut and safety takes a back seat. But for Warme and Barghahn, safety was of paramount concern. They resolved to streamline their climbing systems without subjecting themselves to massive runouts, swinging falls, or unprotected simul-climbing.
The duo spent many hours planning their attempt, which Barghahn referred to on his blog as a “logistical puzzle.” They employed several new-age wall-climbing tactics, including pull-cord resupplies, fix and following, FiFi release hauling, and lead-line and tag-line hauling, to pull it all off quickly but safely.
“It was all really smooth,” Warme said. “That was a key part of this, that it didn’t feel risky at all. Instead of taking more risk to make it faster, [Barghahn] spent the time to think through how to make it safe.” Though the duo simuled difficulties up to 5.11+, they had a Micro Traxion between them at all times, so that if the follower fell, they wouldn’t pull the leader off the wall.
“We chose clever systems over added risk for our entire ascent,” wrote Barghahn.
Many climbers might free an El Cap route (like Warme did last spring) and then move on to other goals. Not her. “[It was] Brent’s stoke [that] made me psyched for it,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was eager about going up Freerider again in particular, but I really like a challenge and the space to push myself as hard as I can, physically and mentally, and this was an opportunity to do that.”
The duo experienced no show-stopping moments on the route, aside from one fall each on the Boulder Problem, and two falls elsewhere for Warme, though both “were fighting pretty hard on the Enduro Corners,” said Warme. “We were both maxed by that point, but we both still sent first go… digging very, very deep to make it happen.”
Though Warme is now one of only a few women to free El Cap in a day, the second to do it unsupported team-style (after Mayan Smith-Gobat in 2011), and likely the first to do so without rapping in to rehearse the moves, neither she nor Barghahn were particularly concerned with firsts. “It’s meaningful, but it’s not that important to me,” Warme said. “The most notable thing about our ascent is the style…. That’s the important part.”
According to Warme, it was Barghahn’s meticulous planning, above all else, that made the mission possible. “Brent spent hours poring over the topo, puzzling out how to make it safe for us to simul-climb,” she said. “I can’t emphasize enough the amount of effort he put in to make sure this was a safe endeavor for both of us. And the effort he put not just into empowering us to be able to do this safely, but empowering other people to be able to do it, as well.”
Barghahn’s blog details the team’s packlist, from gear down to food and water, as well as their pitch-by-pitch logistical plan and an annotated topo. Barghahn noted that he made this information public not to prove how the team made the ascent happen, but “in hopes of promoting other unsupported ascents.”
“All the asterisks and angles get a bit goofy,” Barghahn told Climbing, “but I think the unsupported ascent is noteworthy both in how it tests technical systems in addition to athleticism, and it also sets an example that rappelling in and clogging up the trade routes with stashes is not a mandatory step.”
Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.