Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
This article was originally published in Climbing No. 372 under the title “Passage to Freedom.”
From October 28 through 31, 2019, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell freed a new 27-pitch route on the southeast face of El Capitan. With 10 pitches of 5.13/13+, Passage to Freedom features hard slab climbing, 5.13+ seams and corners, and a 5.13c finger crack on pitch 23 of such high quality that the climbers named the ropelength As Good as It Gets (see photo above). The route connects the original Passage to Freedom—a line climbed by Leo Houlding in 1999 at 5.13d A0, and that ended at El Cap Tower, 11 pitches up—with the Nose (FA: Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore; 1958) and then New Dawn (Charlie Porter; 1972).
Kevin Jorgeson helped Caldwell and Honnold prepare the route, with the team equipping and working the line over two seasons. However, Jorgeson was unable to join the redpoint push due to severe fires raging across California—he stayed home with his family in Santa Rosa to make sure they were safe. Despite all the fire and smoke, the climbers hit a cool stream with highs in the low 60s, a solid 10 degrees colder than the weeks before and after.
The new Passage to Freedom, as Caldwell and Honnold (re)christened the line, comprises the integral ascent of Houlding’s original vision to the top of the wall. Houlding’s route has an interesting history. On the blank fourth pitch, the Alfa Slab, Houlding bolted on a four-inch-diameter Alfa Romeo hood ornament/badge as a handhold (see below). However, as he wrote in the 2000 American Alpine Journal, “Having never placed a bolt before, I didn’t do a very good job”—and the hold, held in place by a quarter-inch bolt, was a spinner. Nonetheless, he completed the pitch in free-aid style, making a “spectacular double dyno” off the bolted-on badge that let him link ledge systems. Though his efforts ended atop El Cap Tower, Houlding, “in this failure … learned more about myself, people, and climbing than in any success,” he wrote. (Houlding returned in 2000 for an attempt at the terrain above El Cap Tower, again ground-up, but was thwarted.)
Caldwell and Honnold, employing the more modern approach of rapping in, pre-inspecting, and rehearsing pitches on fixed ropes using Mini Traxions, climbed 10 meters up past the badge along a 5.13d seam and from there onward to El Cap Tower. Above, the route became circuitous, in the new-school vein. From the tower, they downclimbed to the Jardine Traverse on the Nose and continued along the Nose for three pitches, to where Honnold led a bold 70-meter rightward traverse (The Tommy Traverse; since broken into two pitches) into the Dawn Wall. The pair continued through 5.13d terrain on the Dawn Wall before venturing left into New Dawn. The upper pitches, which Caldwell had scoped and then daydreamed about during his time on the Dawn Wall, featured a 5.13 left-trending traverse, an endless tips and fingers crack in a corner—the As Good as It Gets pitch—the steep Harding Roof pitch (5.13c), the crux 5.13d slab of pitch 25, and then the spectacular Tokyo 2020 exit (5.12).
The pair topped out on Halloween, and Caldwell ran down to Yosemite Village, showered, and then dressed like Obi Wan Kenobi to join Princess Leia (his wife, Becca), Kylo Ren (his son, Fitz), and Rey (his daughter, Ingrid) for trick-or-treating in Yosemite Village. “I had to take, like, a month off climbing [after] trying to keep up with him this season,” says Caldwell of Honnold. “He’s just such a hard driver. It was really fun to be that productive, but I was also totally thrashed.” Meanwhile, Honnold, a reluctant celebrity, especially since the success of the film Free Solo, showered in the Village and hid in his van.
The pair returned a few days later to strip their lines and add a few bolts. Because the route followed many large, naturally protectable features, the pair only had to drill approximately 25 total bolts, replacing about 10 anchor bolts and placing 15 bolts on new terrain. The ascent marked Caldwell’s seventh first free ascent on El Capitan and Honnold’s first.
“What we did was really just a completion of [Leo Houlding’s] original vision,” Caldwell says—which is why they decided to keep the original name.
Pitch 23: Tommy Caldwell on As Good as It Gets (5.13c).
(Photo at top of page)
While climbing the Dawn Wall, Caldwell stared up at New Dawn, wondering about the possibilities. “I don’t know why we didn’t go that way on the Dawn Wall,” Caldwell says. “I didn’t know if it was possible, and I knew climbing out on Mescalito would be relatively easy.” The striking upper corners of New Dawn were the original allure for Caldwell to complete Passage to Freedom. This 65-meter ropelength contends with the Salathé Headwall as one of the world’s best pitches. While working it, Caldwell turned to the photographer Austin Siadak and said, “Man, this is as good as climbing gets”—hence the name.
Old Pitch 4: The Alfa Slab
“We were just trying to find a way up the biggest, steepest, blankest section of El Cap,” Leo Houlding recalls of his 1999 and 2000 attempts to free climb the Dawn Wall sector of El Cap with Jason Pickles, Jose Pereyra, and Ammon McNeely.
Starting from the ground, Houlding climbed a pitch of 5.12b, a pitch of 5.10+, and a rope-stretcher 5.12+ that ended at a no-hands stance. However, above, the seam on the original aid line—later freed at 5.13d by Caldwell and Honnold—proved too difficult ground-up. There was a ledge system out right, but a 10-foot blank span barred access. Houlding considered drilling a bolt ladder across it but then he looked at his helmet. A few years before, Houlding’s fellow UK climbers Neil Gresham and Tim Emmet had driven around an Alfa Romeo as a DMM rep car, taking it on climbing trips with Houlding. Later, when the car had to be returned to the leasing company, Houlding removed the hood ornament and fixed it to his helmet.
“Well, if I took this badge off and put it there, it’d be one bolt instead of three and it’d be a lot more fun,” Houlding recalls. So he drilled a quarter-inch hole in the badge, bolted it to the wall, jumped sideways to the badge, matched it, then jumped sideways again to the ledge system. “You kind of had to turn the badge as well,” Houlding recalls. It was “hard aid.” On the back of the badge, Houlding carved the motto of the day: “Music, friendship, good times, hard climbs.”
Houlding continued up the wall, stopping eight pitches up at Lay Lady Ledge where he, Pereyra, Pickles, Kevin Thaw, and other Stone Monkeys had a massive barbeque, plus cocktails made with ice hauled up in a cooler. “We had, like, a rave up there,” Houlding says. “Maybe that’s why we didn’t manage to free it?” Houlding continued onward, free climbing 5.13 terrain to El Cap Tower before his efforts ended.
Houlding returned the following season with Pereyra, Pickles, and McNeely, again in a ground-up, all-free effort. “Having cut our teeth on the Big Numbers of North Wales and the Grit, we were keen to apply the strict onsight ethic we often adopted on British crags to a new free route on the most influential face in world climbing,” Houlding wrote in “Long Climb to Freedom” (Climb Magazine, 2011). Often on El Cap free ascents, difficult pitches were first aided and then later rehearsed on toprope prior to the lead—which, wrote Houlding, “shares more in common with top-down tactics than a true ground-up onsight.” Houlding later applied his rigorous ethic on what would become The Prophet (VI 5.14a) on El Capitan’s southeast face, an endeavor that gave him double sprained ankles, fractured his partner’s pelvis, and involved some deep soul searching before he finally decided to approach the route top-down.
However, in 2000, Houlding sought a ground-up free passage from El Cap Tower to the upper corners of New Dawn or the visibly easier exit on Mescalito. “It is a pain in the fucking ass,” Houlding says of swinging around hunting for matchstick crimps or a Braille trail of micro-knobs or anything that would allow free passage. He didn’t consider downclimbing into the Nose, then climbing back up and traversing. Modern tactics like downclimbing, long traverses, and rappelling in on 100-meter lines, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the wall, weren’t in the El Cap toolkit 20 years ago. Though Houlding never realized his goal of establishing a new El Cap free route with “no aid, no drill, no port-a-ledge and no fixed rope,” as he wrote in Climb, “The point was to try; fully embracing the concept that climbing is not principally about getting to the top.”
Tommy Caldwell Hand-Drilling
“We did a lot of stewardship replacement,” Honnold says of updating old quarter-inchers on New Dawn. “Once you’re up there with a drill kit, you may as well do it right.” Caldwell had rapped the wall once in fall 2018 and then again in fall 2019. He, Honnold, Jorgeson, and the photographer Austin Siadak then spent three-plus weeks working the line in autumn 2019, finding the line, bolting, and working the pitches.
The team would often stop to hand-drill one or two bolts as they commuted on their lines. The majority of their bolting work went into the 70-meter The Tommy Traverse on pitch 16. They also added three bolts to the 5.13d crux slab on pitch 25. In this photo, Caldwell is replacing an anchor bolt at the base of the final pitch. The route required little cleaning, just pulling a bit of grass out of the corners and removing two large flakes, including one at this stance. Caldwell rapped in alone, pried the block off, stuffed it into a haulbag, and jumared out with the 100-pound rock. As Honnold says, “It’s why Tommy is the manliest man in all of climbing.”
New Pitch 4: Alex Honnold Clinging to the 5.13d Offset
“I ticked this little, tiny ripple out on the face and called it an ‘aspirational crimp,’” says Honnold of the hold that let the climbers unlock this improbable 100-foot pitch, which moves up a slabby 5.13d offset before traversing right on 5.12 terrain. Clawing up the offset seemed impossible to Honnold until Caldwell, with his years of hunting for micro-holds on the Dawn Wall, assured Honnold it would go. “I found it very eye-opening to see how well versed and how good they are at climbing rocks,” says Siadak of watching the Yosemite granite masters. “Their constant belief and optimism that they could figure out these seemingly blank sections was inspiring.” Both Honnold and Caldwell used the “aspirational crimp,” biting their fingers into the ripple and using the balance hold to sneak through the crux.
Pitch 16: Honnold Leads The Tommy Traverse into the Dawn Wall
“I ripped off a jug and caught myself,” Honnold says of sending the 70-meter traverse (since broken into two 30-meter pitches) from the Nose into the Dawn Wall. “We kind of botched the bolting,” Caldwell adds. “We didn’t put a bolt where we should have, so [Alex] was breaking holds 50 feet runout.” During the initial, exploratory phases, Honnold had been tasked with bolting and sorting out the traverse. He swung around the wall, gripped, his rope anchored high above. Using weird directionals in funny flakes, occasional bolts on existing aid routes, and then climbing backwards and hanging from hooks, he drilled a few bolts along the most promising free line. “It was the hardest I’ve ever seen Alex try on something,” Siadak says of witnessing Honnold’s first-try, all-free lead of the virgin pitch. “I thought for sure I was gonna get a spectacular photo of him pitching!”
“We didn’t really work the route very much ahead of time,” says Caldwell. This led to the pair finding a number of “sleeper” cruxes, including this pitch. “It was way more traumatizing than either of us were anticipating,” he adds.
After finishing the route, the team returned to add a couple of bolts to the pitch plus a belay halfway across so subsequent ascentionists wouldn’t have to deal with so much rope drag—or trauma. “Now it’s more of a normal 5.11 pitch into the 5.13 pitch,” Honnold says of the second traverse pitch, which now sports a belay. “We don’t want to kill anybody,” adds Caldwell.
Pins, Peckers, and Drills—Oh, My!
“I had a bunch because I thought we would maybe use them. They were really useful on the Dawn Wall,” Caldwell says of the Pecker Pitons and other small pins shown here. Siadak took this photo in autumn 2019 on the summit while the team geared up to rap in and scope. As they explored, they left the pins as directionals to help them swing around. They also used a few Peckers to replace existing ones on the thin 5.13d corner pitch to Wino Tower. However, on the send, the team had little pre-placed gear, drilling only 15 new lead bolts and otherwise placing their own protection.
Caldwell Wheeling and Dealing on the Summit
“It’s fun because we’re both doing environmental stuff,” says Caldwell, who works with a number of political groups to effect policy changes on the land-use and environmental fronts, while Honnold works with his Honnold Foundation to make solar energy more accessible worldwide. Here, Caldwell, phone held in place by his headlamp strap, goes over meeting minutes with the Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA), discussing how to fund the Yosemite Facelift, set up the new climbing museum in Mariposa, and facilitate the YCA climbing display at the visitor center. On the second night on the wall during the redpoint push, Caldwell bolted out of his sleeping bag. He’d forgotten to write an op-ed for The Denver Post about a trip he’d taken to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He tapped away furiously at 11 p.m. after sending a mega 5.13c pitch. Work never ends for Caldwell.
Pitch 19: Sleeping at Wino Tower
“We would joke that he was clocking in for the night shift,” Honnold says of Caldwell’s penchant for climbing in the dark. “The sun would go down, and he would be good to go. I would be cold at night, and I found it kind of scary.”
Siadak shot this photo at dawn on the team’s last day on the wall. The previous night, Caldwell had led the As Good as It Gets pitch, and then the team rapped back down to Wino Tower to sleep. “That’s my time,” Caldwell says of the lightless hours. Lower on the route, he climbed the 5.13d crux to Wino Tower at night as well, while Honnold waited and climbed it in the morning sun. “I’m a Colorado boy,” Caldwell says of loving the cold, miserable conditions, while Honnold, a native Californian, preferred the sunshine.
Pitch 26: Caldwell on the Final 5.13d Crux
“It’s hideous. It has these horrible, horrible sharpest crimpers in the world,” Caldwell says of this ropelength’s slabby V9/10 crux, which ended up being the solution of choice over a prospective double dyno that neither he nor Honnold bothered to try. “When Kevin looked at [the double dyno], he was, like, ‘This is totally the way to go,’” says Caldwell. But Caldwell and Honnold, not being as fluent at dynoing, decided to look elsewhere.
“Day 4 on the wall trying to layback 13d, you’re, like, ‘Oh, man,’” says Honnold of this monster 150-foot pitch, with its layback and slab cruxes separated by a no-hands stance. Both climbers, after failing to send the integral pitch, instead redpointed it from the no-hands rest on up. “We had to get down so he (Tommy) could hang out with his kids,” says Honnold. “It’s all sort of, like, ‘Got to get it done.’”
Passage to Freedom (VI 5.13d; FA: Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Kevin Jorgeson; October 2019)
With seven pitches of 5.12/12+ and ten pitches of 5.13/13+, Passage to Freedom is stacked with difficulty. It starts on Leo Houlding’s original line (minus a different fourth pitch) to El Cap Tower, eleven pitches up, before moving onto the Nose and New Dawn to finish via what Caldwell has called some of the most spectacular terrain on El Capitan—perfect rock, exposed rope-stretcher corners, and improbable roof climbing.
Pitch 27: Caldwell Leading the Tokyo 2020 Exit
“It’s just so crazy to be topping out El Cap with a mandatory foot-first heel hook,” Honnold says of the wild last pitch, with its hyper-exposed position and parkour-like moves. “It’s total new-school, gym-volume climbing where you invert.”
Pitch 27: Honnold Cops an Exposed Bat-Hang
As if Honnolding—standing on a ledge facing out—wasn’t scary enough, now there’s Double-Toe-Hook Bat-Hang Honnolding. “You get a heel-toe hook from [the feature] anyway, and if you’re dangling from it, it’s just, ‘Could I go no-hands?’” Honnold says. “It’s the more extreme version of Honnolding.”
Summit of El Capitan
“We went up there pretty unprepared,” says Honnold, who suspected the team had a 50-50 chance of sending. He hadn’t redpointed any pitches, and question marks remained: Would the route even go? With limited time to try, they left the ground anyway. “It reminded me of the first couple of times I climbed El Cap because even just making it to the top would be such an incredible experience,” says Honnold. The team spent just a few minutes on the summit before running down so Caldwell could meet his family for Halloween trick-or-treating.