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Inside Seb Berthe’s Transatlantic Sail to Try the Dawn Wall

A month at sea, with its requisite sickness and insomnia, didn’t stop Berthe from having an incredible Yosemite season. 

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The climbing world is full of “firsts.” First ascent, first free ascent, first American ascent, first boat-accessed ascent of the Dawn Wall. … The latter, for now, remains up for grabs, but over the last six months the Belgian climber Sébastien Berthe gave it a damn fine effort. 

Feeling the weight of a doomed planet’s climate on his conscience, and seeking a more eco-friendly way to try one of the world’s most famous rock climbs, Berthe departed Spain by way of a 51-foot sailboat last autumn and sailed across the Atlantic with a crew of seven. Traveling at an average speed of five miles per hour, they tacked from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe and finally Mexico, where they moored their boat and drove north to Yosemite after two-and-a-half months of turbulent travel, paperwork, and a bit of climbing. Berthe, psyched as ever, immediately began aiding and fixing ropes up the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) with Siebe Vanhee (who flew from Belgium) and they spent a month-and-a-half exploring the route, finding sequences, and training for a ground-up push.

As one can deduce from this article’s headline, Berthe did not send. He came close, falling off pitch 14’s (5.14d) final boulder problem on his two-week push, but ultimately bailed in order to a) not spend months of sailing on a single route and b) climb the other world-class walls in Yosemite. (Keep reading for our in-depth interview with Berthe about his process.) Just three days after coming off the Dawn Wall, Berthe returned to the Big Stone with his partner, Solene Kentzel, for a nine-day team-free ascent of Golden Gate (VI 5.13b). According to Berthe, Kentzel, 21, struggled to send 5.8 in the Valley at the start of their trip, making the incredible leap from trad 5.8 to 5.13 in just three months (though Kentzel, it should be noted, climbs 5.14 on bolts).

Two climbers sleep in a portaledge on El Capitan, Yosemite.
Sébastien Berthe and Soline Kentzel on top of Tower to the People during their nine-day ascent of Golden Gate. (Photo: Courtesy of Sébastien Berthe)

After Golden Gate, “I wanted to do as much climbing as I could in one day,” Berthe said. He went for an onsight-in-a-day attempt of El Niño (VI 5.13b/c), using Sonnie Trotter’s all-free Pineapple Express variation. Berthe flashed or onsighted the first 22 pitches, including five 5.13s, but was stymied by the soaking wet “Lucy is a Labrador” (5.13a) pitch. The alternative choice, “Eismeer” (5.13b/c), “is really bouldery and has gotten even harder because of a broken hold,” he said. Berthe chose the “Eismeer,” fought hard, but ultimately pumped out before finding his sequence. He rested a moment to figure out his beta, lowered, and redpointed the pitch. Berthe rappelled back to the anchor, briefly hoping to regain his onsight by climbing the wet “Lucy,” but he pulled the plug on that, too, after failing to traverse the slick pin scars. Berthe and Kentzel continued and freed the remaining pitches, topping out after 17 hours on the go.

Pineapple Express: Inside the First Ascent of an All-Free El Capitan 5.13

Finally, Berthe turned his attention to the last goal of his Yosemite season: free climbing two El Cap routes in a day. “I was inspired by Tommy’s ascents … [and] really curious if I could even get close to achieving something this big,” Berthe said. “In hindsight, I don’t think I was ready for this objective—Golden Gate felt really good, it was smooth and fast—but when I went for El Niño I quickly realized I had a lack of specific preparation: I should have run more and done more laps up El Cap.”

Even so, Berthe blazed up Golden Gate in just 11 hours, left all his gear on the summit with his partner Amity Warme, and raced down the East Ledges descent to meet Danford Jooste at the base of El Niño. “On my way down my whole body [begged] me not to go for the other one,” he later wrote. “My stomach hurt and didn’t want gels and bars anymore, my legs were cramping pretty badly, and my feet and fingers were in pain.” Though he scrapped his way up multiple 5.13s, nearly slipping out several times, Berthe was still sending when he reached the Pineapple Express crux pitch. The broken crux holds slowed but didn’t stump him, and he thought, for the first time on that route, that he might actually achieve this goal. Berthe arrived below pitch 17, the “Black Cave” (5.12+/13-), and lost all remaining energy. He slumped onto the rope. Berthe said he needed to go down to the anchor and rest for an hour, and so he did, or tried to, but after 10 minutes of shivering in the dark, he realized he “was more surviving than resting,” and decided to bail.

“We Chose Clever Systems Over Added Risk”: Freeing El Cap in a Rarely Done Style

*

I followed all of Berthe’s sends and near-sends on Instagram throughout last winter and spring, and when it seemed like he was wrapping up his Yosemite season I asked him for an interview. He called me from the shores of Yucatán, Mexico, on May 16, where he (and his six remaining crew mates) have been busy buying supplies for their return trip across the Atlantic. He gave me a virtual tour of their little boat, including the pop-up climbing wall on its deck and the training and traversing area in the galley below. He seemed unworried about the looming 30 days at sea, like someone who’d just spent the last several months chasing audacious climbing goals and felt deserving of a rest. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

The Interview

Climbing: Where did the idea of sailing to Yosemite come from?

Berthe: I made the decision to not take planes about one or two years ago. I wanted to have a more environmentally responsible way of climbing and living. But I definitely wanted to go back to Yosemite, and I’ve always been inspired by Nico Favresse and Sean Villanueva’s sailing and climbing stories. They really got me psyched. So we were six climbing friends but we didn’t have any sailing experience and we didn’t have a boat. We were pretty far from doing it. I texted one of my friends who is a sailor, asking for info and a boat, and I mentioned that if he wanted to join us it would be amazing. He called me a month later like, “Hey man, I found the boat and I want to cross the Atlantic with you guys.”

Climbing: What were the big cruxes of the trip?

Berthe: Everything was more difficult than expected. Starting from finding enough funding, to finding the boat, to making the boat ready…it hadn’t sailed for, like, 10 years before we got it. We tried so hard to get a visa, but never got it, so we got an ESTA; it’s not a visa, but it gave us permission to enter the country for three months, which was not as much as we wanted. The ESTA also didn’t allow us to sail to the US, so we sailed to Mexico and then drove from there. 

Another problem was, when I came up with this idea of sailing, I was like “Oh yeah, of course we’re going to train on the boat and be super fit when we get to the US.” And then you start to realize what sailing is about: the boat moves all the time, it’s hard to sleep, and it’s hard to build a proper training facility. Sometimes, for example, you think you’re getting comfortable with your seasickness and you think “tomorrow, I’m going to do this training session.” And then, the next day, the wind changes and the boat starts rocking the opposite way and you get seasick and you cannot train. You just stay in bed all day long. That was hard.

Climbing: When you arrived in Yosemite, did you feel fit? Or exhausted from the travel?

Berthe: I was tired but physically in good shape. Not so much technically because we didn’t really climb much on the boat. But we hangboarded a lot and used a lot of weights. And, actually, not training too much can be pretty beneficial for pure strength training, so I was actually in really good shape while hanging on the board. Still, arriving in Yosemite where the climbing is a lot on the feet, really technical, with not much upper body strength required…I got my ass kicked. [Laughs.]

Siebe Vanhee climbs on the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite.
Siebe Vanhee works pitch 14 of the Dawn Wall in prime winter conditions. (Photo: Courtesy of Sébastien Berthe)

Climbing: Did you go straight to the Dawn Wall?

Berthe: Yes, which was a mistake. I hadn’t placed much trad gear in the last year—I should have done a week on classic, easier routes. Just going to the anchors on some of the Dawn Wall’s pitches to fix the rope was pretty challenging. You have to do some aid, which I had never done before, and you have to run it out at times. I wish I had gone on El Cap for like three days and done El Corazon (VI 5.13), just to get used to the climbing, to the pro, and to the feet (which are especially tricky in Yosemite).

Climbing: Can you tell me about your progression on the Dawn Wall?

Berthe: Siebe Vanhee and I worked on the Dawn Wall for about one-and-a-half months. We needed about seven days of climbing, separated by rest days, to check out all of the pitches on the route. Then we began focussing on several specific pitches, mainly pitch 14. We were doing two days on, two days off; one day on, one day off; three days on, three days off.

 Before going for the push, we hadn’t tried to send any individual pitches. We were just trying to dial the moves as best as we could; climbing the crux sequences but not redpointing. And this was hard on us, mentally, because we didn’t know if we would be able to send any of the pitches. During these first few weeks on the route, we basically lost all confidence in our abilities to send individual pitches. At some point, I was like, “Can I still climb 5.13?” There was even a 5.12d I was falling on. So, yeah, before going for the push I was not in a good place mentally. And I think Siebe had trouble as well. 

The first day of the push was hard because of this, but then I started to send pitches and I entered a better mental space. And then I could witness how much I had improved on the route. For example, pitch seven and 10 (both 5.14) felt really hard for me initially, and when I sent them on the same day, they felt pretty easy. And the “Molar Traverse” (5.14b) was a big question mark to me, yet I sent it first go pretty easily. And I realized, “Oh, we actually did improve on this route a lot.” … And then we got to pitch 14.

Climbing: How many days did you try that pitch?

Berthe: I was there for 14 days. Seven days of climbing and seven days of resting because you can’t climb on that pitch every day. 

Climbing: What was going on in your head for those two weeks?

Berthe: I went crazy up there. I mean, I was patient, I knew my only chance for success was to rest and be fresh. I knew I could climb 5.14a a bit tired, even pitch 15 (also 5.14d) I could do with tape on my fingers. But for pitch 14 I needed to be perfect. I knew this resting tactic was the way, but it was still hard to be inactive for so long.

Climber ascends the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, Yosemite.
Berthe works the razor-blade crimps of pitch 14. (Photo: Courtesy of Sébastien Berthe)

Climbing: When did you realize it was time to bail?

Berthe: During the push, I was really close to sending the pitch during my first session. On my first try I fell on the very last boulder problem and I was sure that the pitch would go. In hindsight, we should have worked this pitch even more because the feet are so small and we kept slipping off there. It was mentally tough for me. I was doubting myself of course, but mostly my shoes, actually. I know it’s still an excuse, but at some point I was thinking “I don’t have any more good shoes for this pitch.” And if you doubt your shoes you can’t push on your feet like you need to. I tried other pairs, but none felt as good as my first pair which had worn out. 

Even when I decided to bail, I felt like I could have stayed up there for two more days to rest and try the pitch again. But at that point, I had finished all of my food and water that I had hauled before the push. Any of my friends would have happily brought more supplies up to me, but this tactic didn’t suit me—I didn’t want to send the Dawn Wall in two months.

Climbing: So the decision to bail was, in part, an ethical one? 

Berthe: Yeah. But, you know, for this climb I put a lot of my big-wall ethics aside. Normally I try not to pre-haul anything. I try not to fix ropes—I just go for it. But the Dawn Wall…it’s on another level. I would admire the climber who would go ground-up, hauling all his shit, and just going for it. We made a lot of choices that I think, normally, would be unethical for me.

Climbing: Like what?

Berthe: We did a lot of pre-hauling and fixing ropes up to our portaledge camp; we hung quickdraws on every piece of fixed gear (bolts and pins). On the first day of my push I sent up to pitch five, but instead of sleeping there I jugged up our ropes to sleep at our portaledge camp (which was completely set up). So it wasn’t like a typical multi-day route, where you climb, sleep, climb, sleep. We only ever slept in one camp. But I think this is the way of doing it, and it’s the way that Tommy, Kevin, and Adam did it. And even in this way, it’s a huge challenge. 

Climbing: Do you think you’ll come back to Yosemite? I imagine this type of sailing trip would be hard to motivate for every few years.

Berthe: I really want to come back. That’s for sure. At first, I thought this would be my last trip to Yosemite for quite some time. And now I’ve been away from Yosemite for just five days and I’m already thinking about going back.  I don’t want to take a plane right now, so I will go back with a bigger boat, maybe a ferry. It’s not that good for the environment but it’s still better than a plane—and it goes faster.

Berthe’s “pirates” saunter over behind him, six of them back lit by the sun and a brilliantly white beach. They wave and smile, having returned to the dock after a day of buying supplies for their trip. 

Berthe: I think it could be good to relax on the ground for a bit before taking to the sea tomorrow.

Climbing: Of course. Thanks so much for speaking with me.


Anthony Walsh is a digital editor at Climbing.