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This morning Yosemite National Park came out with a stunning announcement: a series of auto belays will be installed on El Capitan, allowing climbers to protect themselves while ascending the rock face simply via clipping in with a carabiner. The initial campaign is focusing on the 31-pitch classic The Nose (5.9 C2), which snakes 3,000 feet up El Cap’s majestic prow and is widely considered the most iconic rock climb in the world, but more projects are reportedly in the works.
“This is all part of a campaign to make climbing in our national parks safer and more accessible,” said a National Park Service spokesperson communicating with Climbing via cell phone. “El Cap and the Nose are hallmark routes in American climbing, so it makes the most sense to start our initiative here.”
The auto-belay mechanism in question features a unique “seesaw” spindle, designed specifically to bring the accessibility of auto-belay climbing to multi-pitch routes. As the climber ascends a given pitch, with the auto-belay device above taking up any slack as they climb, a second strand is simultaneously unspooled along a wire fixed line, lowering to the anchor at the belay station below so that the next climbers will be able to clip in and climb. It remains to be seen exactly how the auto belay system will allow climbers to navigate some of the route’s trickier sections, such as the King Swing, but the NPS noted that they have taken this into account.
Given that the Nose is typically an aid route, the auto belay system will be installed in tandem with a permanent aid ladder, “building off the rich European heritage of via ferrata,” said the NPS. This artificial formation will allow climbers of all skill and strength to ascend the Nose’s pitches without any knowledge of aid climbing.
The NPS reported that the handles and holds of this eco-friendly via ferrata will be constructed entirely from organic, sustainably-sourced “rock synthetic,” so as to avoid visually marring the surface of the rock face and to give climbers an experience similar to grabbing real rock holds. Small information plaques will also be placed at intervals throughout the climb, providing climbers with various tidbits of park history and other knowledge about the flora, fauna, and natural features of Yosemite Valley.
In addition, a “self-ascending” feature is also in the works, where climbers can opt to skip various pitches and have the auto belay haul them up automatically.
“As more and more individuals venture out to our nation’s crags, it’s growing harder and harder to ensure that everyone stays safe,” the NPS spokesperson said. “Obviously climbing El Cap in the traditional manner is great, but not everyone has the knowledge to embark on an endeavor like that, and many folks who think they do end up getting in over their heads. We want to make it accessible for everyone to climb El Cap, regardless of fitness level, skill, or experience.”
“The idea here is that if you can climb a tall ladder, soon you’ll be able to participate in the grand adventure of ascending El Cap!”
This news comes one year to the day after the famous monolith became a popular spot to embrace the joys of social distancing during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.