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On November 22, Italy’s Jacopo Larcher made the third ascent of Meltdown (5.14c) in Yosemite. He toproped the route clean on his third day of effort this year and then, on his seventh day, sent placing all the gear on lead.
Established by Beth Rodden in 2008, Meltdown involves 60 feet of powerful laybacking and water-polished feet and is a contender for one of the hardest traditionally protected pitches in Yosemite—and the world. The route waited a full ten years before Carlo Traversi made the second ascent after multiple seasons of attempts. (He started trying it in 2013, made a clean toprope ascent in 2015, and did it on lead in 2018.) On Instagram he called Rodden’s 2008 ascent “one of the most impressive achievements I can think of in the last few decades.” (You can watch Traversi climb Meltdown here.)
Larcher is no stranger to hard trad. In 2019, he made the first ascent of Tribe, in Cadarese, Italy, which, though not formally graded, is rumored to be 5.14d. He has also climbed Dave MacLeod’s runout Scottish testpiece Rhapsody (E11 7a) and freed multiple Yosemite big walls with his partner, Babsi Zangerl, including Zodiac (VI 5.13d 16 pitches) and the second ascent of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a 31 pitches). This last summer, Zangerl and Larcher took their big wall talents to the 20,600 foot Nameless Tower, in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, where they made the third free ascent of Eternal Flame (5.13a 24 pitches) in a continuous, no-falls push.
In a press release (lightly edited for clarity), Larcher described his process on the climb—and expressed his intense respect for Rodden’s visionary first ascent:
There are many hard trad climbs around the world, but very few have become iconic. For me Meltdown was definitely one of those. I don’t know why, but it somehow had this mysterious aura. I remember watching the movie of Beth’s incredible first ascent [Dosage V], back in 2008; at the time I didn’t know much about trad climbing, and I couldn’t really understand the significance of the route and her achievement…. The route just looked so beautiful, yet completely desperate to me. Something unthinkable for me to consider climbing, at the time.
Some years later, when I started to get more and more into this aspect of climbing, I began to realize that her achievement was ahead of its time. Since the first ascent, not much about the route had been heard, which was not so common for a well-known climb situated just in the middle of Yosemite Valley.
There were rumors about some of the world’s best trad climbers having tried the route over the years, but no one found success. People even created the myth that the route had such thin jams that it was impossible for climbers with normal fingers. All that added some mystery to the route, until Carlo Traversi, in 2018, finally claimed the second ascent of Meltdown, confirming Beth’s incredible achievement and proving all the “excuses” were wrong.
I had my first taste of Meltdown in 2016, when Babsi [Zangerl] and I checked out the route for two days in between some ‘El Cap action.’ We were both surprised by the beauty of the line, as well as its difficulty. It definitely wasn’t about thin finger jams, but about some very powerful laybacking on extremely bad and glassy footholds. After those two days I was even more impressed by Beth’s ascent back in 2008!
We regularly visited Yosemite in the following years, but our focus had always been on the bigger walls, so we hadn’t gone back on Meltdown, even though the line has always been in the back of my mind.
As I’m currently working on a documentary about the different styles and ethics in trad climbing [The film, part of a North Face documentary series, is called How Hard is Hard? and is slated for release next year], this season I finally committed to go back to the Valley without my big wall gear, in order to climb some classic single pitches and to get on Meltdown again.
Luckily, this time I immediately had some more positive feelings working on it. The footholds were still terrible and the route hard, but I somehow felt like a more mature (trad) climber. I was very surprised yet motivated when I managed to toprope it clean on my 3rd day trying it this year. After that, I naively thought it would go fast on lead, but placing the gear adds some extra spice to it and it definitely makes the route significantly harder.
On my fourth day of lead tries I had to pull out a big (!) fight and dig deep in order to reach the anchor. The easier upper parts always felt good on toprope, but it definitely felt different when coming from the ground! Usually, while headpointing hard trad routes, the actual send go feels smooth, which is obviously a nice feeling… but on this one I had to fight very hard and was very close to falling in the upper part, which somehow made the experience even more unforgettable. It was definitely one of my favorite moments in climbing!
I would like to highlight once more what Beth did in 2008, which was way ahead of the times, both in women’s and men’s climbing history! I honestly believe the shorter you are, the harder this route gets… and yes: finger size doesn’t matter! Chapeau Beth, thanks for the inspiration.