Hazel Findlay Frees El Capitan - Full Storyby Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Oct/2011
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Last week Hazel Findlay further cemented her place at the forefront of British climbing by freeing Golden Gate on Yosemite's El Capitan as her first ever big wall route. The twenty-two year old loosely Bristol-based climber has followed up on her ground-breaking E9 ascent from earlier in the year (UKC News) by swinging leads on the 38 pitch big wall and climbing every pitch free (some on lead, some on second).
Hazel was partnered with Austrian climber Hansjorg Auer, who, amongst many impressive climbing feats, rocked the climbing world with his solo ascent of the Fish route on the south face of the Marmolada in the Italian Dolomites.
Free ascents of El Capitan are not everyday occurrences for British climbers, and Golden Gate isn't the easiest free route on this iconic wall. Most parties opt for the Freerider as thier first (and often only) free climb on El Cap, but although the pitch grades are lower than on a route like Golden Gate, the fearsome offwidths found on that route are often considered extremely tough for the grade.
However Golden Gate is no push-over either, and is reportedly very reachy, the Yosemite blank granite sometimes being totally devoid of any intermediate features for alternative sequences. And Hazel isn't the tallest climber out there.
Hazel's ascent is the first free ascent of El Cap by a British woman, the first female free ascent of Golden Gate and is basically, a damn good effort.
Golden Gate was originally climbed by the German duo Alex and Tomas Huber back in 2000 and graded 5.13b (F8a) and climbed in 41 pitches. It is now apparently considered 5.13a (F7c+) and is generally climbed in 38 pitches.
Hazel did struggle with a blank section on Golden Gate, which she blogged about at length:
"I looked up at the next hold and knew that the distance between them was longer than my body length. ...I played on the move for a while, trying all sorts of different things. Jumping didn't work because the hold was side pull. I tried holding all the other features in the rock, willing myself to be able to hold them, but couldn't.
My brain strained trying to think of how I could do it... there must be a way. After trying everything I could think of, I knew that the closest I had got was on my first attempt; the crazy cross over...
The next day I woke up, really nervous. I knew I could do it, but I felt tired and achey and my back was stiff from trying the move yesterday. I got to the bottom of the pitch and just before I set off, I heard a succession of congratulatory cheering from around the corner to the left; clearly some people were dispatching the crux pitch of free rider (which turned out to be some of our friends). After 4 cheers, I thought, come on Hazel, they are sending, now you have to too.
I felt really shaky on the start with no warm up. I also felt the momentousness of the pitch. I realised that if I didn't get it this morning, with only a certain amount of food and water, we would be forced to move on, leaving a free ascent impossible. I pulled into the move, crossed over and started the tenuous hopping of my right foot up the smears in to a position that would enable me to match. Trying my best to trust my right foot, I came in to the match and reached across. I was into the pocket!
With a few more hard, pumpy moves to go I prayed that I could compose myself enough to do them. With Hans, Luca, Nastia and the French team cheering from above I reached the finishing jugs, really relieved."
Jack: What made you try Golden Gate specifically?
Hazel: I had seen pictures of beautiful orange rock, lovely golden crimps and pockets. I was also just looking for a free route on El Cap that wasn't crazy hard. And everyone does Freerider, so I thought it would be nice to do something different.
Jack: What grade is it? How does it break down?
Hazel: It has three pitches of 513a which is 7c+ french. The downclimb is rated 5.12c but it feels a lot harder than those pitches, probably because it is a technical granite slab downclimb. And if you can't offwidth, like me and Hans, then the monster crack pitch feels like 8a. Also the 4 moves I did on the Move pitch felt a lot harder than the moves I've done on the hardest sport routes I've done (which aren't really that hard, but still..)
Jack: Have any other women done it?
Hazel: No. The only other woman I know to have tried it is Martina Cufar. I heard she flashed the A5 traverse but she didn't do the down-climb or the move, but I'm not sure whether she tried to work them out, or was just going quickly. The move pitch needs to be worked out if you're short.
Jack: Is it the hardest thing you've done?
Hazel: I think it probably is, all things considered.
Jack: Any more El Cap walls in your sights?
Hazel: Yeah, there are loads of things I want to try, obviously it's quite a nice wall for climbing on. Doing the Nose would be cool, mainly because of the history, but the changing corner pitch looks really hard. I'm not sure I'll try another wall this trip, it kind of takes a lot of energy, but I'll be back next year.
Jack: What are your thoughts on the 'One person does all the leading' style extolled by the Hubers?
Hazel: I guess it's cool if you want something to be entirely your own achievement. But for me, climbing has always been about other people as well, about working in a team. The fact is that, unless you are free or aid soloing, you have to work as a team anyway, so why not share the experience and share the free climbing. Also, a lot of the pitches on granite are safe and not very bold, so it doesn't really make much difference to the difficulty if you are leading or seconding. On the Golden Gate, the crux pitches are mostly either bolted. downclimbs or traverses, so in those cases it really didn't make a difference. And we both lead the Golden Desert pitch, which is more trad style.
Jack: Any other news coming out of the Valley?
Hazel: Kiwi climber Mayan Gobat-Smith has been tearing up the valley [more on her later - Ed]. Belgian duo Sean and Nico went on a ground-up, free climbing exploratory mission, which is pretty proud even though they failed to free everything. The other Brits out here (James McHaffie and Adam Hocking) have had a bit of bad luck, with falling cams and rocks but have been slowly ticking away at the hard single pitch classics. Caff got Phoenix and Cosmic Debris second try. Also Caff and myself did this really cool perfect open book corner called Book of Hate the other day. It was really fun to do that with him and Sean.
Jack: Anything else you want to add?
Hazel: Just thanks to Hans for going up there with me.
Jack: Thanks Hazel and well done on El Cap and Book of Hate.