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The following feature was originally published in the August/September 2019 issue of our print edition. To read more great stories like this and receive other benefits, join our new Summit Membership program.
On Halloween Day 1964, four of the world’s best climbers— Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard—stood atop El Capitan’s North America Wall. The quartet had just spent 10 days on the cliff, sleeping in homemade hammocks and enduring the wet cold of a High Sierra snowstorm. The monolith’s third route demonstrated a level of commitment and style never before seen on the Big Stone. Climbing the dark, crackless, overhanging, and often loose diorite of the southeast face, the men forged up the continent-shaped formation, forgoing fixed ropes, placing minimal bolts, and sporting swami belts and leather boots. The climbers may as well have been on the moon as they navigated looming, ominous features like the Black Dihedral, Black Roof, and the Cyclops Eye—in 1964, there was zero chance of a rescue.
Fast-forward 55 years, and we now have lightweight cams, lightweight draws, sticky rubber, neon helmets, boutique chalk, nine-millimeter ropes, harnesses with leg loops (imagine that), and specially engineered toothbrushes. From the Valley floor with a high-definition camera, you can zoom in and pick out the bolts on El Cap, or use a smartphone to give status updates at hanging belays. There is little mystery left. But still, a few burning questions remain, and the only way to answer them is to go up there and take a good look around.
In September 1998, the German brothers Alex and Thomas Huber did precisely that. They combined new slab terrain on the lower southeast face with the upper roofs and corners of the NA Wall to create El Niño. At 5.13c AO, it was almost a free climb—the only “aid” comes on pitch 13, with the “Man-Powered Rappel,” used to bypass eight meters of blank granite left of Big Sur Ledge. Here, Alex rappelled off his brother’s harness while Thomas, backed up by bolts, heroically held onto a massive jug. However, Thomas eventually succumbed to the anchor himself in order to join Alex below.
Rock climbing is whatever you want it to be—for me, it’s about freedom. Freedom to move, to explore, to imagine, to create. While El Niño’s lone point of aid is not the same as, say, a bolt ladder, it still requires weighting your equipment. In other words, if you wanted to free solo the wall, you couldn’t—it’s a physical impossibility. As there existed no true free climb between the Dawn Wall and the Zodiac, the challenge on the North America Wall was to make the impossible possible.
In October 2011, I had my first taste of El Cap free climbing when Will Stanhope and I attempted Leo Houlding’s masterpiece The Prophet (VI 5.13d). After a month-long visit that fall, I made the route’s second ascent, while Will made the fourth ascent a year later. It was an addictive experience. On rest days, we would sit in El Cap Meadow downing Tecates with the afternoon sun on our backs, daydreaming of new free lines. The complex and alluring NA Wall appealed to Will. One day in the spring of 2013, we aided up the original line. The first four pitches looked stout, with V12 bouldering, mediocre gear, and imposing runouts. In the fall, I returned with Sean Villanueva and then Jorg Verhoeven to take another look, but pitch six—with its two bodylengths of featureless slab—shut us down.
Climbing the first part of El Niño was suddenly the only obvious way up off the ground. Studying high-resolution images, I envisioned three different possibilities around the Hubers’ point of aid. Two involved traversing very low and connecting into Pacific Ocean Wall via the Continental Shelf. But these ideas were far-fetched. The most logical option would be to go up and over the Man-Powered Rappel on steeper terrain. I’d never tried El Niño, but it had a reputation for well-spaced bolts and insecure climbing, especially on the lower 5.13 slabs.
* * *
Six years after my first El Cap free climb, I was still curious. In April 2017, I convinced Alex Honnold to come have a look. On my first day on rock for the year, I tried to lead El Niño ground-up—in direct morning sun. Dangling from the third bolt of the first 5.13 pitch (pitch three) hung a 20-foot-long, bleached-white, tattered sling, which apparently “used” to be clipped to the second bolt. Somehow it had come loose, and the new beta was to climb up with a micro stick-clip (like a selfie stick with a clamp on the end) to tag the now out-of-reach bolt. Unfortunately, I did not——and likely never will—own such a contraption.
I lowered back to the belay amidst friendly heckling from Alex.
“Light duty,” he said with a chuckle. Having climbed the route years earlier, he seemed surprised by my apparent lack of gusto. Maybe it was the long Canmore winter or the birth of my wife, Lydia’s, and my first child—our son, Tate—that had left me weak in the knees, but this pitch wasn’t worth shattering my pelvis over. A fall there would likely have dropped me 50 feet onto the Footstool, a pillar at the base of the wall.
We traded rope ends, and then Alex climbed up past my high point, hand-foot matching across the extrusion of the Black Dike. He paused 15 feet below the third bolt, switching feet on the thin, slippery rail, his chest and hands pressed against the slab. Alex tried to calm his nerves and continue, but the potential fall was too much even for the world’s boldest climber, and he reluctantly downclimbed. (Alex returned that summer, moving the bolt and fixing the selfie-stick-clipping death march.) As we rapped, we agreed to re-evaluate our tactics.
The biggest crux still awaited above: the Man-Powered Rappel. So how best to get there, and how to get around it? After our experience on the slabs, we opted to rappel in. But as the upper pitches pass over two jagged roofs and traverse hundreds of feet across treacherous stone, this too would prove difficult. A few days later, we hiked up 400 meters of static line and dropped in.
I still have bad dreams about that day, watching the first 100 meters of cord falling into space, tail whipping around in the wind, and then lowering over sharp edges. We descended, traversed, and descended again. Alex made adventurous pendulums while I oriented the rope over my feet to protect the sheath—we joked that it was 5.11 R/X rappelling.
Seventeen pitches up, we reverse-aided the Black Roof with a full-power updraft smashing into us. I visualized Chuck Pratt hanging in his aiders, leading the harrowing pitch on hand-forged pins and aluminum bongs over 1,600 feet of air. I pictured him squinting, peeking his head out from the darkness below, laying eyes on the left-leaning dike that would take their team to the summit. Royal Robbins reluctantly seconded and complimented Pratt on his success, calling the position “fierce with exposure.” I knew then what Royal was talking about as I watched Alex slide down to “The Rotten Island,” a small, dirty belay stance surrounded by dark-hued choss, named by the Hubers in 1998 during their free bid on new terrain. Here, the exposure and commitment are palpable: Above is the looming ceiling of the Black Roof, and below is the Black Dihedral—“The ugliest thing I have ever contemplated climbing,” Tom Frost once said. The mediocre stone here sits in the shade for most of the day amidst the echoing sounds of dripping water, soaring birds, chirping bats, and whirling wind.
Below this, we dropped our last stretch of static rope. Alex and I rapped into the unknown, our cord pressed over sheets of detached diorite as large and thin as
dining-room tables. The deep, hollow sound coming from behind them as we tiptoed past made my heart pound. The thought of being crushed or having our ropes cut precipitated moments of temporary paralysis; I’d simply hang there, not wanting to continue until enough oxygen entered my brain to resume logical thinking. We moved cautiously, occasionally repositioning our lines, to avoid these hanging time bombs.
In the end our efforts panned out, revealing approximately 350 feet of new terrain that connected Big Sur to the Black Dihedral, moving right to left across the wall. Alex and I have decades of combined new-routing experience, so we went to work visualizing our line—first connecting the large features like long cracks and flakes, and then ferreting out the smaller, harder-to-see edges and corners that link them together. While we didn’t do any free climbing that day, we felt optimistic.
The next day, we began cleaning and placing bolts. Being a traverse, this variation took more work than most; I could only drill one bolt at a time before having to jug back up the rope, reposition the anchor, and then lower down to add another. While I worked on a belay station linking pitches one and two of this new terrain, Alex, a good 100-plus feet to my left, removed a haulbag’s worth of crumbling granite daggers from a hidden corner. At one point, he could no longer jug with the weight. So he mail-slotted the rocks into a small cave inside the Black Dihedral—I could hear the clunking as each block found its new resting place within the monolith. We both laughed. That recon trip was short but mandatory. After a few days, I was ready to see my family, and Alex was ready to free solo Freerider (VI 5.13a), which he would do less than a month later.
In autumn 2017, Alex and I returned with our good friend, the talented photographer Austin Siadak. Although we hadn’t yet finished bolting our variation, I was restless to climb and suggested we give it a go ground-up. On my second day in the Valley that November, the three of us reached Big Sur, having climbed everything on El Niño free to that point.
From Big Sur, the Man-Powered Rappel veers left, but we went straight up into our new variation, following a solid, well-defined arch into delicate stone. Armed with tiny cams and wires, Alex cast off onsight, switching between aid and free; eventually, he left the security of his steps and gunned for a ledge two bodylengths above his last questionable piece (the one below had already fallen out). Austin shot photos as Alex pawed the ledge. However, the footholds had disappeared, and Alex had to drag himself sideways along the sunbaked granite, campusing across greasy slopers then pressing out a desperate mantel. It was the scariest belay of my life, and Alex, physically and mentally exhausted by his effort, lowered off. I went up to take a look, but the climbing above looked even harder and more dangerous. We were beaten. It was clear we needed to return from the top.
* * *
On April 21, 2018, after six total forays onto the wall and having completed what we thought was all the bolting, Alex, Austin, and I marched to the top of El Capitan and glided down the wall. As predicted, our variation turned into three new pitches. Our goal was to free the new terrain and prepare for an FFA attempt. That day, we unlocked the first and second pitches, which went at 5.13 and 5.12, respectively. The first ropelength starts with a beautiful fingertip layback, then moves into a bouldery crux on small crimps that ends with a long, shallow corner and a balancey exit. The second new pitch climbs down and left, and includes a five-foot sideways dyno to a perfect muffin-top sloper. Above this, another golden layback corner leads to a slopey ramp for the belay. We’d hand-drilled 13 bolts to this point.
The third and final pitch gave us the most trouble—the same left-leaning corner Honnold had rid of its diorite daggers. Alex had guessed it would be a “mellow 5.11a,” but he’d never actually tried it. Thirty feet into the pitch with minimal protection, he placed a cam in a crumbling flare and yelled, “Take!” I reeled in the slack while he slowly sagged onto the piece.
“Austin, dude, get that rope ready, man—you’re going to have to save me,” Alex cried out to Siadak, up above at The Rotten Island. “Seriously, man, this shit is fucked up!”
As Alex hung there, looking at a 60-foot sideways fall, the cam lobes ground audibly against the coarse rock. Alex breathed heavily, a perplexed look on his face, then after a few tense, terrible moments both he and the cam settled down. Alex switched into aid mode and masterfully rescued us before Austin could throw down a rope, making it to the safety of a No. 1 Camalot 20 feet higher—and eventually the anchor. It was the second scariest belay of my life.
“I think it needs a bolt,” I said as I free-climbed up to Alex. “Maybe three.” We named the pitch the Self-Rescue Corner—5.12a.
We had now rejoined El Niño. Lydia and I had recently had our second child, a girl, Mesa. I was only getting a broken five or six hours of sleep a night, and I could feel it. I fell on the next, 5.12c pitch and again on the 5.13b Black Roof. I managed the following 5.11+ and led the next 5.12+, which heads into the safety of the Cyclops Eye, but that’s where we called it a day. I jumared to the top with heavy arms.
My mind was motivated, but my body was exhausted. Maybe it was the energy kids take, pushing 40, dehydration, or the compounding lack of sleep, but I wasn’t sure I had what it took to climb this rig with Alex, who in comparison was 32, without offspring—or much fear—and in the best shape of his life.
The next morning, Alex and Austin texted me: The park had just closed the North America Wall due to nesting falcons for the first time in 11 years. I could practically smell the burnt brake pads as our momentum screeched to a halt. The NA Wall would likely be closed for the remainder of the season—and maybe also in spring 2019. We all vowed to return in autumn 2018 and finish the climb. My family and I headed for Smith Rock the next day. I only had six short months to whip myself into proper shape.
* * *
I returned to the Valley in November with Lydia and the kids to find that Alex had been co-opted by the Hollywood whirlwind surrounding the Free Solo documentary. So I worked alone, rehearsing the lower pitches on someone’s fixed lines and rapping in for the fifth time to hand-drill the last few bolts on the Self-Rescue Corner. I didn’t have time to rehearse the climbing, but I studied it as I lowered, taking mental notes. At night, we four crowded into our 13-foot-long Scamp trailer. After putting the kids to sleep, I’d sneak outside and wash the dishes in cold water, then crash. On rest days, I changed diapers, made bottles, read children’s books, and played with the kids while Mama Bear went bouldering with the girls. There’s no free time with toddlers—none—and both parents need the occasional break. The kids and I roamed the Valley with Tommy Caldwell and his grommets. TC and his wife, Becca, also have two kids, Fitz (5) and Ingrid (2). We were a happy dirtbag clan with stains on our clothes, sap on our feet, and pine needles in our hair.
With less than a week left in our trip, the sunny forecast suddenly turned: A severe snowstorm would hit the Sierra Nevada on the evening of November 20. Tommy graciously offered up his final day in the Ditch to support me—he’s as kind and selfless as everyone already thinks he is. Honnold approved of us heading up without him.
On November 18, the night before the climb, and only three days past my thirty-ninth birthday, Tommy and I talked details. We decided to go for it in a day. Alex had always thought we could—the climb was 26 pitches total—and if I’m going to attempt a new free route, what better way is there? Win or lose. No bivy gear, no extra food or water, just climb as quickly as you can. When I told Tommy I was nervous, he said, “Good—you should be!”
I lay sleepless that night beside my four-year-old boy, tortured by racing thoughts: I haven’t prepared enough. There are still pitches I haven’t done—or maybe can’t do. I’m feeling run-down, maybe getting sick. On top of it, our daughter was teething, so had been fussy. In November, the nights are long and the days are short—approximately 10 useable hours of sunlight, nearly half of those being too hot or too cold for ideal free climbing. A continuous free ascent would take a miracle. I faded in and out of consciousness until my alarm went off at 3:45 a.m.
Austin and I met Tommy in El Cap Meadow where we sorted gear and sipped coffee. At the base of the wall, as I laced up my shoes beneath 2,700 feet of overhanging rock, Tommy gave me a few encouraging words. Knowing my affinity for single-pitch sport climbing, he said, “Just try to think of it like a great, big crag. You got this.”
The guidebook says 5.13b, 5.13a, and 5.13c for the cruxy slab pitches above the Footstool, but in all honesty, I think they’re all 5.13a. It’s the space between the bolts—25 feet in some places—that makes the climbing feel harder. I stepped off the ground with cold fingers, but suddenly felt at ease. Climbing by headlamp, I couldn’t see the ground nor how far I might fall. I repeatedly linked pitches, and by 9:30 a.m. we were standing on Big Sur, 11 guidebook pitches up. Now looming above were our three variation pitches: one 5.13b/c and two 5.12s. The 5.13b/c pitch would prove harder than the previous 5.13 slabs below as well as the two 5.13 cruxes on El Niño above. The first half of the NA Wall is mostly low angle, then—just as you begin to tire—the angle kicks out and you’re all on your arms. I had worried that the crux pitch would be too hot in the morning sun and would destroy my skin, but miraculously, just as the sun collided with the route, a thin cloud drifted into the Valley. Within seconds, the air cooled.
“Wow, it’s such a beautiful day,” Tommy said, flaking the rope and whistling contentedly. This moment of pause comforted me: Tommy may as well have been standing in his kitchen making a sandwich, not 1,200 feet off the ground. For me, knowing what Tommy has accomplished made me try harder—there was no time for whining or complaining. I wanted to send, sure, but maybe just as much, I didn’t want to let my friend down.
I foolishly wobbled off an easy move at the bottom on the crux pitch, then surprised myself by climbing it to the top on my second go, nailing both crimpy cruxes with their long, powerful, low-percentage moves. On the second new pitch, I stuck the muffin-top dyno, and then motored through the Self-Rescue Corner. I sent the Black Roof sometime around noon, on my first try; its bouldery exit between sloping fingerlocks felt surprisingly secure. Even as my arms cramped with fatigue, I howled with joy into the wind for having dispatched two of the three mid-5.13 cruxes. Higher, at the Cyclops Eye, a massive, surreal cave that looks as though it was smashed in by Thor’s hammer, I took off my shoes and lay prone, staring up at the ceiling where Royal, Tom, Chuck, and Yvon took refuge during the storm in ‘64. Large blocks hung from the roof looking like lion’s teeth. Though I only had seven pitches to go, two were 5.12 and one—Eismeer, pitch 24—was 5.13b. I had toiled with this cruxy pitch during our earlier investigative days, but had never found an easy way through. It’s basically a one-move wonder: You grab two barely tolerable crimps, stand on horrid footholds, then bound upward to a slanting, molded contour. It’s not complicated, just hard. Self-belaying the move and trying it in the sun, I had only stuck it maybe one time in twenty.
Hopefully for the last time, I climbed through slippery, loose blocks of diorite to exit the Cyclops Eye. Just below The Dolphin, pitch 23, the rock gets much better again. I imagined a valiant Yvon Chouinard navigating this terrain with his rudimentary equipment. It would have taken nerves of steel to pound pitons behind those hollow, floating rocks.
As I climbed, I never looked beyond the next anchor; instead, I locked into each pitch with focus and clarity until it was behind me. Then my mind would fade as Tommy jugged and cleaned. He offered snacks and water, and carried extra gear. His load wasn’t light, plus he was managing ropes while reverse-aiding caves and technical traverses in some of the most exposed positions on El Cap. Still, Tommy charged along, never complaining, always stoked, shouting jokes during the easy moves and words of encouragement during the hard ones.
The sun had now set, and the afternoon wind had calmed, yet the hardest move still lay ahead: Eismeer. For the first time, doubt crept into my mind: Would this one move derail the objective? Climbing by headlamp, I crawled my way up to the Eismeer boulder problem and yelled down to Tommy, “OK, watch me here”—and then promptly fell. Not even close.
With my tender skin, the crux holds felt like two freshly sharpened steak knives, and the shallow rail looked hundreds of miles away. I lowered to a no-hands rest and tried to recuperate by standing on my heels—the goal was to keep my toes fresh, while simultaneously waking up my fingers to pull hard again. Tommy sat in the dark, waiting. Much of the climbing between the cruxes on the wall is 5.11 and 5.12, and my fingers seemed to have gone into hibernation. If I couldn’t do this move before splitting my tips, the dream would be over. After a five-minute rest, I climbed up to the crux, dug as deep as I could … and fell again. Back down at my perch, I slumped my head against the wall, dangled my arms, and regrouped.
“C’mon, dude, you got this,” said Austin, who’d rappelled in to take photos and had been hustling ahead of us all day.
I studied the skin on my fingers, “OK, TC, one more try,” I said.
“Go get it, man,” he replied.
How do you teach someone to believe in themselves? This is a question I often ask myself now that I’m a father. Sometimes, when the pressure is on, I block out noise the best. Somehow, my head empties of all negative thought, and I will myself to believe, if only for a fraction of a second. Perhaps my father’s is the internal voice I hear when I can’t muster the desire alone. I can recall his enthusiasm one Saturday afternoon during a father-son game of tennis. He didn’t let me win that day—he never did—which kept me hungry. But he also eased off enough to compliment my backhand and let me build confidence. I hope to somehow instill a similar, encouraging voice in my own children.
This final attempt, recruiting every last muscle fiber, I lurched for the rail. And stuck it. My left fingers closed on the grip in a desperate vice. I pushed down with the fine muscles in my feet to match it, and then smeared my shoes up to the security of good holds. From here, the pitch becomes fun—a splitter finger crack, perfect chickenheads, and a massive runout to a cushy belay. Only 200 feet of (mostly) 5.10 slab lurked above, and I knew we’d be standing on the summit within the hour. Tommy cheered, and Austin called Alex to share the news.
“Fuck yeah!” (classic Honnold) Alex said over the speaker as Tommy arrived at the first comfortable stance since the Cyclops Eye. “Oh, man, I wish I was there with you guys.” Technology is a crazy thing: Austin, Tommy, and I were standing on a ledge high on El Cap in the dark while talking to Alex in a hotel room in New York City, swapping our usual “life with kids” jokes for his crazy stories of the Free Solo tour, and laughing about the absurdity of it all. We four had brought this climb to life, and it was great to hear Alex’s voice up there.*
We topped out El Capitan just 13 hours after leaving the ground. On the summit, a hint of breath escaped our lips as the air cooled on the quiet night. Twenty-four hours later, a blanket of snow would cover the Valley.
As we coiled our ropes, I held in my head a vivid image of the black-and-white summit photo of the 1964 first-ascent team. They stood side by side in the sun, a grin on their faces as though they’d just gotten away with something. I felt the same way. While some six-plus decades have passed since the Big Stone’s first ascent, it can still pose unanswered questions. And while our new route, Pineapple Express (VI 5.13b/c), is the latest addition to El Cap’s pantheon of modern free climbs, it was the exploration with friends that I’d enjoyed the most—the fact that we got up there and, like those who’d come before us, took a good look around.
Sonnie Trotter has been addicted to climbing and pioneering new routes for nearly 25 years. When he’s not on the road or traveling with his wife, Lydia, and two children, Tatum and Mesa, he lives in Canmore, Alberta.