Free Climbing The Freerider, 512d 31 pitches El Captitan
Lani on the final real pitch before topping out The Captain!
Okay here we go, the story of how two 5.9+ climbers freed the Freerider. (Not really but 12b was the hardest grade I had ever climbed beforehand and let’s be real 5.9+ intimidates us all). We spent 9 days on the wall, even though we had planned for 7. Between a heavy rain storm, waiting for good conditions, and projecting a few pitches, it was a pretty slow ascent. It was important to us to go ground up, with no “rapitaning,” meaning we didn’t rappel in to dial in the pitches beforehand. We had been on the route once before, last spring supporting our friend Kevin on his send and checking out the climbing. On one hand we were surprised by how doable a lot of the pitches felt, on the other hand a few felt nearly impossible, mainly the Monster, Boulder Problem and Scotty Burk. Red pointing 5.12 2000ft off the ground also sounded pretty insane. Since the Freerider had been the climbing goal for me since learning what El Cap was, we started scheming about training for the Fall.
Beta: Hopefully this post can also serve as some beta for future parties. Many pitches on the Freerider have tons of beta, but a few key ones don't. Please feel free to reach out to me for more detailed beta! I've marked heavy beta spots with "Beta" so that if you are just here for the story you can skip over them.
Things went pretty well up to the Alcove with one day on the freeblast, one day of packing and hauling and one day getting to the Alcove. We elected to aid up the last pitch to the Alcove and try the Monster (the notorious 5.11a Offwidth) fresh the next morning. There was a light unforecasted rain early the next morning, and we ended up needing to wait a bit longer than expected before climbing. The Monster was one of those pitches I thought was impossible last spring. I remember being able to make upward progress for about 5 feet at a time, and then being so exhausted that I had to hang. We hadn’t really climbed any OW since then, so I was dreading it. I’m not sure whether it was resting overnight, rather than trying at the end of the day or I miraculously just got better, either way it felt surprisingly easy this time. You pretty much do the same move over and over. Once you get it down, you’re set! I found I could actually rest on my heel toe cams this time too. We then continued on to the base of the Boulder/ Teflon that afternoon.
Beta: We did the 5.11d downclimb into the monster, which I actually didn't find to be too bad, but I like downclimbing. It is definitely harder than the downclimb to the hollwo flake. Since this pitch often shuts people down I figured I'd mention the alternative which we took with Kevin, and Alex Honnold used while free soloing. Traverse over to burmuda dunes from below the ear (link from the 5.10 pitch before the ear). There are a few cool 5.10 moves in the traverse and it ends with a 5.10 #1 crack. This drops you off at the actual start to the monster. It starts as hands the gradually widens to #7. There is a lip you you have to pull in the OW which is the crux, still at 5.11d but it's short and more secure. As soon as you pull the lip, you're at where the downclimb comes into the monster.
More Beta: There is an alternate 5.11a pitch to the sandbagged 5.11c pitch off El Cap spire. Intead of going to the top of El Cap Spire via the chimney, start climbing the crack on the face, it in mostly straight forward crack climbing and stemming, but the crux is a weird OW bit (way easier than the monster). It meets back up with the 5.11c pitch just before the 5.9 chimney part. I have thin hands so I probably would have chosen the 11c had it been my lead, but it was Sam's and he elected for the 5.11a way.
Bivy at the alcove
The next day we touched the Boulder Problem, despite months of training, we still couldn’t do a bunch of the movers. We figured we might as well give the Teflon a go. To me the Teflon also felt impossible. I could make upward progress but the idea of somehow not falling off in the 15ft of fantastically insecure stemming seemed laughable. Luckily Sam had some belief. We started throwing ourselves at it until our shoulders and legs were tired. The beta on the Teflon relies so much on body dimensions that we couldn’t really trade beta. Honestly I think I did something slightly different on each attempt anyways. I found myself having to go more off of feeling each individual move and adjusting, rather than rehearsing a series of moves. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever projected. It suited us both well since we tend to favor technique over strength. Slowly I just got used to the way I had to balance on my feet, how to trust standing up on them. How to use 3 limbs to stay in balance while inching 1 up at a time. It was still extremely physical and my shoulders were worked by the end. After a few close lead attempts in the dark, it was starting to snow. It was time to return to camp at the block and hunker down for the storm.
Beta: I always wondered why there was no beta or information on the Teflon Corner. Now I know, it would be impossible to give anyone beta. Just give it a try, you'll figure it out for yourself.
The splitter hand crack finish to the sewer
When we went to bed, the storm was only supposed to last through the night and the next day would bring clear skies to dry us out. At some point in the middle of the night I woke up with my back soaking wet. Between a few holes that had appeared in the fly and the zipper opening itself up a bit, the bottom of the port-a-legde had become soaked and we didn’t have sleeping pads, meaning we were quickly soaked as well. I reminded myself that we just had to stick it out until dawn. I tried to just ignore the wetness and the sound of a waterfall hitting our fly.
When dawn finally came, it was still pouring and by that point our sleeping bag was soaked as well. We checked the forecast again. Now it was supposed to rain until late afternoon and remain cloudy and freeze overnight. There would be no chance to dry out and the idea of spending another night a soaking wet sleeping bag and ledge sounded dire. We contemplated bailing, maybe in the brief window of dryness before dark. We might have to rappel a bit in the rain, it would be miserable, but at least it would be over. We called Kevin for rappel beta. He talked some sense into us, rappelling 2000ft in the rain would possibly be more dangerous than waiting out the night. We’d better start boiling water and using hot water bottles to get things as dry as possible.
What was supposed to be a much needed chill day with some time to work the Teflon in the evening turned into a very damp and uncomfortable day of being trapped in the ledge with a mission to boil water as many times as possible. We eventually got our sleeping bag dry but the ledge and anything that touched it (our butts) remained wet. At some point it stopped raining for an hour or two. Thinking it was over we got a bunch of stuff we had been trying to keep dry out of the ledge in order to free up space for us to exist. As luck would have it, it started raining again and rained well into the night, soaking the things (read climbing shoes) we had been trying to keep dry.
Somewhere mid day we just started laughing at the absurdity of our situation. We were able to keep the good spirits, totally unsure of what the next day would bring. I really didn’t know whether we would go up or down, but I was sure as hell happy to have Sam as a partner just then. I though we were the only ones dumb enought to be on El Cap during that storm, but turns out Brett and Elliot were on El Corazon, with a similarly leaky fly.
Attempting to keep the finally dry sleeping bag from touching anything wet. Also crazy clouds!
We awoke to clear skies and waited as the sun creeped agonizingly slowly towards us. Eventually the rock began to dry, and we were able to creep out of the port-a-ledge and hang our world out for the sun to work it’s magic. It’s amazing how El Cap reflects the sun, the rock and us were quickly dry. We basked in the hot afternoon sun. Dry and content, we figured we might as well try the Teflon again. Sam rappelled down to it first and called up “Fuck! The Teflon is wet!” It turns out the pitch called the “Sewer” feeds the Teflon. Well, we're up here, we might as well play around on the Boulder and get some of the moves dialed for a future ascent. We were bailing.
As we sat there contemplating our options Sam had an idea, the Teflon was only wet for an 18in wide section in the middle. Maybe we could still stem around it through the crux. The topout was still going to be soaking wet and although easier climbing, would make for a scary lead. We decided we might as well try top roping it. On Sam’s first go the rope was somehow stuck and despite me thinking I had Sam tight he toprope whipped and grabbed one of the cables on the perma draws on his way down. Many swear words followed and when he arrived at the belay his pinky was a bloody mess. The perma draw had taken a chunk out of the tip. “That thing needs attention, it’s going to get infected up here!” I protested. Stubbornly Sam refused saying he was a pro at wound care. From some of his stories about sewing himself back together, I believed him.
A few more tries each and we had both top roped the Teflon clean. The wetness made a few foot holds unusable though the crux and added 5 more feet of 5.12 stemming after the last perma, as well as the topout being soaked. Top roping was maybe not the epitome of style, but given the conditions and everything we had been through, I was proud of us for even still being up there.
Kevin on the second enduro courner from when he sent in June 2021
This meant we were continuing upwards, now we had the Enduro Corners and Round Table to look forward to. Turns out the sun being lower in the sky, means they went into the sun earlier than in June. Despite having great temps pre-storm, it was now blazing hot and we quickly realized we’d have to spend the day waiting at sous le toit, a ledge just big enough for a few butts. The sun pretty quickly saps all of your energy. Coincidentally some fellow Washingtonians rappelled in on us, so we spent the afternoon shooting the shit with them. We knew waiting out the heat would likely push our topout another day back. Had you told me how many days we’d be up there and what we’d have to endure I never would have left the ground. We had made it this far though. We were committed to giving it everything.
Beta: Climb the really unique pinscared parts of the enduros straight in, until you get to the fixed nuts of the second enduro. We tried laybacking, it's much harder.
I was starting to feel like a little bean on a long journey. Sam and I kept smiling though, hugging each other and reminding each other “we’re doing it.” The thing we’ve been talking about for so long. Sam led the first enduro whipping many times out of the same lock, probably because the rock was still warm. I’m not sure how he did so many back to back burns and still sent. I followed on toprope. I then did a top rope lap on the second enduro to dial it in before leading. It was late and I couldn’t see the feet very well by headlamp. I would have to eat the second enduro for breakfast.
The next morning we were up early, and by the time I clipped the chains, the sun line was a foot away. I cried at the anchors, I had sent 5.12 2,500 feet off the grounds 7 days in. For the first time I finally believed we might actually pull this off. I’ve sought out opportunities to practice laybacking specifically for the second enduro corner for 4 years now. I barely even knew anything about it other than that it involved laybacking. I think that probably came from a photo of Alex Honnold. Everytime I’d climb a layback pitch, I’d think about what it would be like to be up on the enduro corners. Now that I was there at the top, it was funny to think back on.
The first part of the Round Table Traverse was now in the sun and miserable. Luckily once we pulled around the corner we were back in the shade for a bit. The Round Table is actually scarier to follow than lead.
Beta: The Round Table isn't often talked about despite being one of the cruxes and a traverse which makes it really hard to project. I figure I'll atempt to give some beta. We set up a tram line using the haul line between the two ancors so that if one of us fell we could tram back in to get back to the start( theaded through the first anchor so that it was retrievable). It's next to impossible to hear your partner around the corner, so pre-communitcation is key. Sam ended up utilizing the tram line and it worked great! There are a few hard reachy moves at the beginning of the traverse (not well as protected for the follower). The crux comes near the end of the traverse, just before a piton in a small roof. You start on some of the most unique holds I've ever used. Kevin did the crux differently, I think utilizing some of his reach to get to a shitty finger jam. I was able to lieback off some hidden pinscars behind the corner which allowed me to get my feet high on a pretty large hold that's off to the side, short person beta.
After those two 5.12 pitches, I was worked. My body was telling me it had enough, I was shivering and nauseous. All I wanted was rest but knew I had to lead the next 5.11d pitch before the sun reached it. I forced down some food, hugged Sam, and reminded myself that “we’re doing it.” I casted off on the hardest pitch I’ve ever led.
Me questing up on the hardest pitch of here life. This pitch was only rated 5.11d, but at that point I was pretty freaking tired.
Sam somehow made it up the Scotty Burk with me feeling like I was going to pass out while belaying. I managed to wake back up inside the offwidth and was again surprised that something that had felt impossible before, wasn’t so bad. By the time I reached the ledge I was chipper, but beat. We elected to watch a beautiful sunset. Then climb the last 2 sandbagged 5.10d pitches the next day in the hopes that a night's rest might restore us. The next day I felt even creakier than the day before and we were slow but moving.
The best sunset of my life
Beta: The Scotty Burk, not a lot of people talk about this 5.10d OW. Although less sustained than the monster, the crux is probably slightly harder (flared #6, not shown). It quickly tapers down to 5s and 4s with jams in the way back. The rope really gets in your way while leading and tethering into your piece as you bump it might make your life and the pitch way easier. It has certainly foiled a few send attempts on the Freerider. Some people apparently also try to lieback the crux, that sounds waaaaaay harder than climbing it like an OW. Also the start of the pitch is a beautiful overhanging 5.11d finger crack.
We celebrated with hoots and hollers on the summit. Just like it always does, the pain of the last 9 days washed away. I was so emotionally overwhelmed all I could do was smile. Processing the ascent and competition of a dream was for later. I’ve never been able to see past freeing the Freerider. In my mind freeing El Cap would be the epitome of my climbing.
I’m really proud that we went ground up. Being very experienced bigwallers definitely helped us exist on the wall longer than a normal party would. We’re just a couple of 5.9+ crack climbers anyways.
They say there are a hundred reasons to bail on a bigwall, and we definitely had them. I know our willingness to roll with the changing conditions, laugh and encourage each other onwards kept us going. We toproped the crux and therefore didn’t do it in the most perfect style. But after everything that went wrong, and going ground up, I am still proud of what we accomplished, and that’s all that really matters. Also we had a lot of damn fun.
Smiles nearing the top.