To summit Yosemite’s El Capitan, one of the proudest and most well-known rock faces in the world is a dream for many climbers. Every year, for a lucky handful, this becomes a reality and with the correct training, logistics and a serious amount of hard work an aid ascent of El Cap is within reach for many climbers. The idea of free climbing the face however is an entirely different and far more daunting prospect.
The practical difficulties of living and climbing on such a huge face are combined with the immense physical challenge posed by the technical rock climbing found on every single one of El Cap’s free routes. Such is the level of challenge that despite El Cap first being free climbed over 30 years ago, any free ascent today is still guaranteed to make headlines.
Most parties take several days to complete a single route and when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first ascent of The Dawn Wall in January 2015, the pair took over two weeks. What then, would it take, to free climb a route on El Cap in less than 24 hours? To find out, we caught up with Rab athlete Jacob Cook who capped off an incredibly busy 2016 with a sub-24 hour ascent of the El Cap route ‘Freerider’ (5.12d).
This wasn’t an achievement that came easily to Jacob. He had climbed the route over several days back in 2015, but even familiarity with the route didn’t allow him to succeed on his first attempt to climb it in a day.
“On my first attempt I got to the second enduro corner, 6 pitches below the top. That day I was leading every pitch with my girlfriend Bron jugging behind me. My arms just went into total meltdown! I got cramp in both biceps unclipping my daisy from the belay to start climbing, it was then that I realised leading the E6 laybacking pitch above was probably not going to happen! We bailed through the night and got down after 2am.”
Having intended to walk off the top after a successful ascent and having done everything to minimise the gear necessary for their attempt, Jacob and Bron were left to abseil practically the entire of El Cap on a single 70 metre rope.
Even that “quite interesting” experience as Jacob described it wasn’t enough to deter him from a second attempt and, teaming up with fellow Brit Pete Whittaker, Jacob returned to Freerider for another round.
“Pete and I met a year ago in Yosemite, but this was our first time climbing together. The obvious benefit of climbing with Pete is that he is just phenomenally good! We simul-climbed the first 17 pitches and I never once felt nervous about having Pete climbing below me. On top of that I think Pete and I have a similar attitude to climbing, we like to keep things fun and light-hearted at the same time as trying our absolute hardest.”
The pair set off shortly before dawn, making incredibly fast progress through the first portion of the route, but this efficient climbing was very nearly their undoing.
“We’d planned to arrive at the 7c+ crux pitch (pitch 24) in the cooler evening temps, but we were too fast and got there in the hottest part of the afternoon… We were both feeling pretty sun-baked and not in the best state for the razor crimps and smears of the “Huber Boulder”. Luckily we both managed that pitch first try, despite the conditions.”[caption id="attachment_27869" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Pete at the 7c+ crux pitch 24.[/caption]
With what they expected to be the hardest climbing of the day completed, Pete and Jacob set off for the summit, confident of completing the route in good time. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his biggest challenge was still to come!
“The hardest part of the day for me was the Scotty Burke off-width. I was too tired to even call out and both my arms were cramping! I silently wrestled with the beast and inched my way upwards for the best part of an hour before making it to the belay. I think the only reason I didn’t fall was extreme stubbornness to be honest.”
The team topped out at just past 11pm, 16 hours and 45 minutes after setting off. For Jacob, this marked a new high point in his climbing career, but he assures us that he’s not done yet and, as 2016 draws to a close, he’s already turning his eye to some of the world’s more remote big wall climbs. We can’t wait to see what the next year has in store for him![caption id="attachment_27871" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Summit success after 16 hours and 45 minutes of climbing.[/caption]