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Words By
Bronwyn Hodgins

On November 8th 2018, I stood on the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite, California, after free climbing the route Freerider over 5 days. With Jacob supporting me, I led the crux pitches and weighted the rope only three times over the 3000ft of climbing, lowering down and sending each pitch after. It almost felt easy! But really it wasn’t easy. It was a battle, a 4-year epic battle…

Rated 13a/7c+ and nearly 1000m (32 pitches), most parties attempt Freerider big wall style over multiple days. The challenge is to climb each pitch “free,” that is without falling or using aid. If you fall, you lower down to the start of that pitch, pull your rope and try again. I first attempted the route in June 2015 with Jacob Cook, Chris Bevins and Sheriff the inflatable shark (film here). In November 2016 I tried again, teaming up with Alix Morris for an all female attempt. Alix and I battled our way to the summit after seven days on the wall, Alix scraping by with an impressive free ascent and myself managing all but one pitch:

The Huber Boulder.

With Chris and Jacob I had simply pulled past the Huber Boulder, I’d never be able to climb that grade! With Alix I spent two days throwing myself at that pitch until my fingertips were bleeding. I managed to work out the moves and link them together into a possible sequence, but I just could not do the ‘Ninja Kick’ at the end, I didn’t even feel close. I gave up and tried the Teflon Corner, the alternate crux pitch that Alix was trying. Impossible. And now my palms were raw too. The evening of day 5, Alix sent the Teflon Corner! That night after Alix went to bed, I put on a self-belay and threw myself at the Ninja Kick again and again. Swing. Kick. Miss. Fall. Repeat. It just wasn’t going to happen. I ascended the rope back up to our camp, defeated but ready to support Alix to the top.

Now this year I was back in The Valley and ready for a final re-match!

Jacob and I stood in El Cap Meadow, packing supplies. We packed food and water for a full week – allotting three days in the middle for me to spend trying the Huber Boulder. With temperatures still sweltering on the south-facing cliff, we set off at a ripe 5pm on November 4th 2018. We climbed the first 12 pitches in cooler conditions by headlamp, dancing our way up the delicate slabs. What had before felt desperate and insecure, went easily in the cool crisp night air. We arrived at our bivy around 10pm and quietly made dinner, while trying not to wake the European couple that lay sleeping beside us.

The next day was hot! We began climbing and hauling up the splitter cracks and chimneys, but by early afternoon it was just way too hot! We pulled out our fly to use as a sun shelter and cowered under it. That evening I led the infamous ‘Monster Offwidth’ by headlamp. Lying in my sleeping bag in the Alcove that night, feeling tired but not too tired, I reflected back two years…

***

Alix and I arrive at the base of the MONSTER OFFWIDTH in the early afternoon of day 2. Well, not quite… To reach the Monster you first have to climb this unprotected 11d traverse with the crux a final big throw to catch the edge of the Monster crack. I set off, a #4 and two #6’s dangling heavily off my harness. I traverse away from the anchor where Alix is belaying, getting more and more pumped, more and more runnout… There it is, I can almost reach it… Throw! I miss. AHHHHHHHHH Swiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. I’m hanging 20ft below Alix. I jumar up the rope. Alix’s turn. Go go go throw swiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnng. Darn. I’m up. Again and again we throw ourselves at that bit of rock, desperately trying to reach the Monster. But at the same time terrified of reaching this Monster because whoever reaches it first has to lead it – a striking 60m-long 6.7inch-wide splitter. To protect it you slide a #6, some people slide two of them together. The #6 is tipped out for much of the pitch and in three spots the crack briefly becomes too wide to fit it at all… 

Traverse. Throw. Swing. Traverse. Throw. Swing. The sun beats down on us. Our hands are sweaty. Traverse. Throw. Swing. Our energy is waning. Traverse. Throw. Swing. This must be about my 8th try.

“Maybe we should call it for now and try again in a few hours when it’s cooler and we’ve had some rest?” – Alix. “I’ll give it one more go” – me. “You said that last time.” I take a #6 off my harness. “It’s weighing me down.” I set off. Go go go throw… grab. I freeze. I’m holding the edge – the Monster’s edge. No time to think, with a final effort I stick my left leg into the opening and then pull my body around to join my leg. Breathe. Yes! I did it! Sh*t. I have to lead 60m of tipped out #6 offwidth with one cam. Breathe. A long hour of squirming and suffering later, I clip the anchor at the the top of the Monster. Every muscle in my body is exhausted and I am yet unaware of the raw bleeding skin that covers my entire left shoulder blade. The sun is setting. “Off belay, Alix!” I shout. “Wooooooooo yeah Bronwyn Almighty!” Cheers Alix. This becomes Alix’s nickname for me for the rest of the wall. Thanks Alix. The stoke is high and Alix manages to send the pitch right after. We haul our bags and collapse at our plush bivy ledge, The Alcove.

OK back to now. Back to 2018. Day 3 had a relaxed start. Jacob and I slept in and then hung out under our shade shelter. The Huber Boulder bakes in the sun from about 9:30am till sunset. You really want to climb it in either late evening or early morning conditions. I read my notes. Yes, I had nearly a full written page describing my sequence move by move, which I had saved for two years and brought back with me. The last words were: ‘Then swing, kick, and fall off.’ That’s how it had been last time… At around 4pm, we started up the few easy pitches to The Boulder. I brushed the holds, ticked a few spots with chalk, lowered down and pulled the rope. Headlamp on, I set off crimping and smearing my way up the first sequence to an OK stance. I didn’t wait long.

Left hand on the sidepull… left foot on the smear… bounce right foot onto the black spot… right hand to the really bad crimp… rotate left foot to bring heel against obvious scoop… suck in against heel and stand up dynamically to snatch the mini gaston with left hand… Intense focus. All other thoughts disappear. All that exists is my body and the sequence it must perform. A precise, memorized dance routine. The 2000ft of space below me becomes irrelevant, I live in the bubble of my headlamp.

A few more moves and suddenly I’m at The Kick. Hands on the sloper, the sugar loaf, I move my right foot up to a higher dime-sized edge and drop my heel to weight it. I look to the left wall – no, I glare at the left wall – focusing all my gaze on a slight dimple ticked with chalk. My foot has to land precisely there. In one powerful motion, I lurch my body leftward and swing my left leg out to catch my fall. Whap. My left foot sticks against the left wall. WTCHA! Ninja Kick. Focus. Shaking, I pinch the bottom of the loaf hard with my right hand, tense my shoulders and reach out with my left, reaching for the jug… reaching… Got it! 

I climbed the easy ground up to the chains in a daze. I clipped the chains. I was shocked. Silence for a moment, then “taaaaake!” A huge smile spread across my face. I couldn’t believe it. I let out a big WHOOOOP into the darkness, a shout up to the moon and the stars beyond!

I couldn’t stop smiling. This is going to happen. I can do this. I am going to do this. We rapped down to our bivy and ate a can of vine leaves in celebration. The next morning we took a few gallons of water out of our bag and left them on the ledge – a gift for a future climber. We were ahead of schedule. We jugged our lines and continued climbing and hauling our bags skywards to arrive at the next bivy, The Block, in the early afternoon. Two years ago, Alix and I had spent four nights here, lowering down to try the crux pitch again and again. For Jacob and I it was Siesta Time! We cowered under our shade shelter eating lunch wraps and chocolate. Again my mind drifted back to 2016…

***

Alix and I sit on The Block. “I think we can do this,” I say. “I think one of us and maybe even both of us have a chance at sending the crux.” Alix looks skeptical. At that point, both Alix and I had only been climbing for about 4 years. Almost all of her climbing had been in Yosemite and her movement on granite was impressive. But I had climbed more sport pitches than Alix and I was more familiar with the redpointing process. I knew that a pitch can go from impossible to possible if you put the time into it, by figuring out a move-by-move sequence and rehearsing it until you could do it in your sleep. I had seen Jacob do this many times. “I think we should try” I say. The problem was we only had a day’s worth of food and water left. We pull Alix’s phone from the bag. The battery reads 1%. We quickly text Jacob and Alix’s good friend Niels Tietze with a plea for help. The phone dies. “It definitely sent?” “Yep.” “At least one of them will come right?” “Hope so.” We rap down to try the crux again that evening. We were committed.

The next afternoon we hear a shout from above. We look up to see Niels dangling above us as he raps down the Salathe Headwall. We watch him tie a small bag onto the end of his rope – a very long rope – and lower it down past four pitches until it hangs within our arms’ reach. We take the bag, shout some thanks and watch as man and rope disappear above us. El Cap air drop service? Inside we find a bunch of bars, a half eaten sandwich, and a few bottles of gatorade. We later learn that Neils had been on an El Cap mission himself when he got the text. Upon gaining the summit, he had lowered to us his remaining food and water before heading down the trail and back to The Valley floor. Sadly, Niels passed away in a climbing accident a year later in November 2017. I didn’t know him well, but we shared a few conversations, a few meals, and a few laughs together. One of our early meetings, I remember he drove an hour out of his way to tow my van out of a ditch. We shared a meal that evening, his stories were captivating. He was perma-psyched and always grinning. That’s what I remember the most – a big smile. I know the climbing community mourns you, Niels. Thank-you for your kindness.

A few hours later we hear another shout. Jacob! Jacob raps down the headwall and continues down to join us at the bivy. He has a huge pack. “Mind if I join you for the evening, ladies?” And then “anyone fancy a pineapple?” Our supplies are sufficiently stocked to say the least.

***

Snap to now. A breeze picked up and we climbed another pitch to Sous-le-Toit ledge, directly below the Enduro Corners. Again I grabbed my headlamp. The first Enduro was a bit of a fight but I clipped the chains and belayed Jacob up after me. The second Enduro is a little harder and a little scarier. I looked up and shuddered. The fixed piece, the wire that had been there for at least 4 years, and probably a lot longer, had snapped. I pulled on and started to climb, passing the broken wire… Ahhh too scary! I down-climbed to the belay. I can’t do it! I’m a wimp!I wanted to cry. I was putting so much pressure on myself. “You’re not a wimp,” Jacob comforted. “Maybe you can stick something in behind that wire head?” I grabbed some small nuts, the nut tool and our thinnest sling and set off again, determined to find a way to protect this section of the pitch. I poked and prodded and eventually managed to thread the sling and tie it off. A wave of relief. I lowered down, ate a bar, and set off laybacking into the night. I fixed the rope to the chains and we rapped down to our camp at Sous-le-Toit. Only one 5.12 pitch and five pitches total between us and the El Cap summit. We will leave a few more gallons of water behind in the morning

I slept deeply, until the sun woke us around 8:30. We ate, packed up, and jugged and hauled to our high point. The 12a Traverse is short and punchy. I traversed left from the belay, grabbing sidepulls and gastons, setting myself up for a big throw. I fell. Rats. I pulled back up on the rope and worked out a few moves before swinging back to the belay and pulling the rope. OK here we go. I traversed away from Jacob and on around the arrete and out of sight. Yay! We climbed the amazing 5.11 steep cracks that followed and at last I was wedging my body into the final offwidth. We hauled our bags over the lip at sunset of day 5 – a beautiful pink sunset. We cooked up a final feast (curry-in-a-bag) and then slipped into our sleeping bags. High above, shooting stars darted across the Milky Way as we drifted into the sweet land of dreams.

It all came together so smoothly this time. Yet the story is still a tale of battle – a tale of struggles and defeat; of triumphs and victory. Thanks to everyone who spent time up there with me: Chris, Sam, Alix, Neils, Nic and especially Jacob!

But the tale’s not over, it’s only just beginning. ‘Till next time, El Cap Almighty.