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Almost Free on the Salathe Wall in 1979

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Nine years before Skinner and Piana freed the Salathé Wall, two of the era’s top free climbers, Mark Hudon and Max Jones, put in a solid bid that freed all but 300 feet of the route. On P18 — the Double Cracks — freed at 5.13b by Skinner and fearsome enough to be mostly avoided to this day, Jones, lowering after each fall to a no-hands stance, linked all but the final four moves. Throughout, the second would follow each free-able pitch free, and the climbers added no new bolts or variations. Equally impressive, however, are the catching skills of Hudon, who batmanning (no belay, while “just f—king around”) the rope on P4 to clean, caught a haulbag full of ropes dropped by Jones; and higher, on P18, caught a nut and biner Jones accidentally bobbled from 50 feet above.Here are Mark Hudon’s memories of his and Jones’ 1979 ascent, shared via email. Max and I went up on the Salathé in the spring of 1979. We hatched the idea with Jimmy Dunn when we were visiting New Hampshire in fall of ‘78. He mentioned it, and we ended up talking about it quite a bit.

Both Max and I had already done the route individually, so we looked back at our slides and tried to think of all the parts we might free-climb and where we might be shut down. Simply given that it had no real bolt ladders meant it might go all free. The first real problem, we figured, would be the Double Cracks, above the Ear. There were bits and pieces of aid below that, but they didn’t seem like they would be too bad and in fact turned out not to be. We each climbed with sewn 4″-wide waistband with 1″ leg loops as harnesses. We bought two sets of Friends each (a full set was a #1, a #2 and a #3). We had one hammer and two aid slings. To jug fixed ropes, we used a couple of two-foot slings clipped together.

My only regret is that we didn’t do it at the end of 79. After the Salathé, we did the second free ascent of the West Face of El Cap; Astroman; free-climbed all but seven aid moves on the South Face of Mount Watkins; free-climbed Quarter Domes (Pegasus); did the NW face of Half Dome — strict free-climbing ethics, both climbers climbing the whole route, with aid only on the bolt ladders and pendulum — in 5.5 hours; free-climbed the Chouinard-Herbert; free-climbed all but four aid moves on the Crucifix; second ascent of Mother Earth; tried to free-climb all of the Rostrum; third ascent of D7 on the Diamond; third ascent of the Cruise in the Black Canyon. We had a shitload more experience in the fall than we did in the spring.

I think if we had done it in the fall, after all those other routes, we would have worked it more. We had portaledges and our plan was to hang out and work pitches, but for some reason we just kept moving up. It was a mindset thing. The traditional thing was to keep moving up, not to camp — i.e., on the Spire and rap back down to the Double Cracks — to work on it (let alone work it on a toprope!).

We had done the Salathé up to Mammoth twice before, so we didn’t care too much about doing it again. We blasted up there, having a good time, jumping for bolts, simul-climbing easy pitches and generally f—king around. We were dragging a bag with ropes in it to fix down from Heart Ledges. I remember I was batmanning the pitch up to the traverse, fourth or fifth pitch. Yup, batmanning the rope, no belay, holding on with one hand to clean any gear Max had placed. We were just f—king around. The bag got stuck, and Max yelled down that it was stuck. I reached over to a trail line and gave it a jerk. He had had the rope just in his hand, and when I jerked it, he dropped it. The bag with the ropes in it was falling — no big deal, it was only stuffed with ropes — but I leaned over and caught it in my arms! All the while with no belay, just hanging onto the rope in Batman position! Max, freaked out: “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” he said, and hauled it up off my arms pretty quick. I didn’t even blink an eye, just kept going.

Ah, such is the wonder of youth, eh?

I remember now that my camera was also in the pack — maybe that’s why I wanted to catch it.

I did another wondrous catch later on also. Max was up working the Double Cracks and dropped a nut and biner. I was standing on top of the Ear, saw the nut fall, and Max was easily 50 feet or more above me. I simply leaned out, stretched out an arm and caught it dead in my hand! It was a really stupid thing to do, actually. What if the biner had hit a bone in my hand and broken it?The luck and stupidity of youth again, eh?OK, so anyway, we get up to Mammoth and fix ropes down. The next day, we hike back up with the loads, including a whole pound of chalk, jugged the lines and hauled the bag. We free-climbed up to the pendulum, did the pendulum, never even thinking of free climbing it for some reason (probably the same reason we never thought of downclimbing the rappel off Mammoth) and got to Lung Ledge. We left the bag there, grabbed the rack and ropes, and free-climbed the three pitches from Lung to the bottom of the Ear. Next day, jugged and hauled the lines, I led the Ear, Max soloed it while I hauled and he got ready for the Double Cracks.

Now, you must mention this: in my humble opinion, Max was the best climber in the world that day. He went up on that pitch, maybe lowered off once, but went back up, falling now and then but coming down to a no-hands rest. Eventually, he did it all but for four aid moves in a row toward the end. I followed it, was amazed at how hard it was, and probably did all the moves Max did but certainly not as continuously. We called it mid-5.12. It was easily the hardest free climbing ever done on El Cap at that time and very close to the hardest climbing ever done in the Valley.

We free-climbed up to El Cap Spire, left the bag, and went free climbing. We freed two or three pitches again right up to the bottom of the Double Corner pitch, a pitch we “knew” wouldn’t go free. As we were doing it, we looked at a variation that looked like it would need some gardening but would go at about 5.9. Why we didn’t stop and clean it and climb it, I’ll never know.

Next day, wake up, jug lines and go free-climbing again.

At this point, Max and I had been climbing with each other almost four years. Never in that time did I see Max get sewing-machine leg or take an overly long time on a pitch, or back off or freak out in any shape, form, or manner. I’m sure Max would say the same about me. We were the perfect team. We never had tangled ropes, we never had an epic, or a clusterf—k. The bag never got stuck, no one ever dropped any important gear — we always finished our leads; we never left any gear fixed. It was all smooth and flowing. We were both totally devoted and totally in with the program.

I forget when it was, but after a while we simply stopped yelling climbing commands. You’d be belaying, you’d see that you were near the end of the rope, all of a sudden a lot of rope would go out and then stop. Then the haul line would start moving and the bag would start bouncing. We’d lower it out, and a few minutes later the climbing rope would get a few jerks and you’d start climbing. Both of us figured, ‘What the f—k else could be happening?’ The leader had arrived at the anchor, pulled up rope to build the anchor, hauled the bag and then put you on belay. Simple as that. We used to laugh at the guys who would be out in the dark yelling, “Is the BLUE rope tied off? Can I jumar? Are you off belay!?!?!?”

Anyway. The wet, slimy pitch went most free, and I free-climbed the pitch up to Block. Again, we left the bag and went free climbing. Max freed the pitch to Sous La Toit, and I freed the next one. We rapped back to the Block for the night. Some guys who had been following us came up to Block, and we told them that if they didn’t fix higher and pass us that night or next morning then they would be behind us for the foreseeable future…and we didn’t know how long that would be.So, we wake up on the Block, hang around a bit for those guys to get ahead of us, and then we jug our lines. When we get to the top of our lines, one pitch below the roof, the guy yells down that he didn’t think we would be able to free that pitch; we looked at each other and laughed. Again, Max Jones, best free climber in the world, goes to work on it, falls a bit, lowers to a no-hands stem rest and frees the pitch. I follow it on my first try. We rate it .12b. I rack up for the roof, free-climb out to where it takes off horizontally, make a few moves and call for the aid slings. I was sort of having an off biorhythm time of my life and was not too brave. Bummer for me. Max comes up, follows a few feet farther free, and then batmans the rope to the anchor. He racks up, takes off and easily frees to the first overlap on that first full headwall pitch. He goes up a bit, falls off, lowers off, rests and goes back up and frees to a little pedestal on the left — probably 20/25 feet below the anchor — and aids the rest. He hauls the bag, I’m sitting there in my butt bag waiting; the rope comes tight, and I go off. I think I fell once but didn’t go back down, and maybe free-climbed a couple moves farther than Max did.We didn’t think the beginning of the next pitch would go so we didn’t even try it, but I went free as soon as possible and free-climbed to Long Ledge. The next day, Max aided a bit above the ledge and free-climbed the rest of the pitch. I followed, free-climbed the next pitch; Max free climbed the last pitch and I followed it.

All in all, we figured we had used aid on only 300 feet of the route. We had led and followed every pitch but never traded working on a pitch. We never did any variations or placed any bolts. From Heart, we were on the route four and a half days, spending nights on Lung, the Spire, Block, and Long Ledge.

As far as a sufferfest — well, it wasn’t. We had beer, and we were out there free climbing and having a great time.

All in all, we knew we had taken a step and we expected others to take further steps and that eventually it would go free. We figured 90 feet of it might never go.

When I saw [Paul Piana’s] article in Climbing years later, I cried.

That’s pretty much it.

—Mark Hudon

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