On October 12, Vanessa François climbed over the rim on to the top of El Capitan, perhaps the world's most famous big wall, having climbed Zodiac with her friends Liv Sansoz, Marion Poitevin and Fabien Dugit.
What makes Vanessa's ascent remarkable is that not only did she manage it whilst Yosemite national park was closed, but Vanessa lost the use of her legs in a climbing accident three years ago. Vanessa had to do 4000 pull-ups to climb this iconic wall of granite.
"My name is Vanessa François. I left Belgium ten years ago to Chamonix to live my passion of mountaineering. Since then, I’ve been browsing the Mont Blanc massif.
I realised the 1st female ascent of the route Manitua in the famous north face of the Grandes Jorasses. As well as many others wild and committed routes. Attracted by distant lands, I took part to several himalayen expeditions. Through alpinism, I found a way to express myself, a state of mind, to learn about trusting each other in a land of beauty. This alchemy help me to surpass myself.
I was about to be ready to become a High Mountain Guide when a huge snow block hit my back. Since then, I’m paraplegic. It quickly became obvious that my passion for the mountain was still the same. My dreams, my desires for elevation are still there and I’m not the kind who dream his life..."
Vanessa's ascent is remarkable, and follows on from an ascent of Zodiac made by paraplegic climber Karen Darke and her partner and well known big wall climber Andy Kirkpatrick back in 2007. In fact Andy gave advice to Vanessa's team for their ascent this year.
Liv Sansoz told UKC:
"Vanessa has been training for a year at the local ENSA wall in Chamonix. The goal was both to train her arms physically and also different to train with the systems used on the wall. Andy Kirkpatrick sent Vanessa the system used by Karen, and Petzl helped us to improve upon that system. The team also went twice to the Verdon Gorge for some multi pitch routes and one night on the portaledge."
The route Zodiac is graded A2+ and the team led the pitches with Vanessa following on her specialised jumar set-up. When jumaring with a normal set-up the legs do most of the work, and it is still very physical. With Vanessa's system she essentially has to do pull-ups all the way up El Capitan. During the climb the hardest thing for the team was to get Vanesssa on to the portaledge at every belay (she had to rest on the portaledge after each pitch), whereas the hardest part for Vanessa came when there was some slabby sections (not easy to jumar without your legs) or if she had to turn the lip of a small roof.
But getting Vanessa down from the summit was the crux of the operation in some ways. This is where Karen Darke unfortunately broke her leg during their 2007 ascent.
Liv Sansoz explained how they did it this year, and it came down to brute force:
"The team consisted of Vanessa, plus two women (Marion and I) and one guy (Fabien). We had to climb and carry lots of gear and carry Vanessa so we were not sure how we would manage. Finally Marion, Fabien and a French Mountain Guide called Julien carried Vanessa to the base of El Cap. To get down, we met our friends Victor Estrangin and Nico Potard on the summit who helped with carrying gear, and we were lucky to find Niels, a very solid climber who carried Vanessa almost all the way down. For those who don't not know, the descent of El Cap is not an easy flat path. You have to rappel down, you have some steep slabs and some down climbing. Not easy with someone on your back!"
When the team of climbers first landed in the USA after a year of preparation, they thought that their dreams were over, as the government closed the national parks (see UKC News), however after a short wait they seized an opportunity.
Liv told us:
"The shutdown meant that nobody was allowed to stop in the park for photos or recreation. But the entrance remained open since the Tioga Pass needed to be accessible. For three days we got dropped off in the park in the morning and picked up again in the evening. This allowed us to stash some gear and fix several pitches on the route. Then we just had to get a final lift in on the day we carried up Vanessa. We never hid ourselves even though we heard that some climbers got fined for being in the park. The worst case scenario would have been that a ranger would have asked us to get down from the wall and given us a fine but we had the feeling the rangers were not too concerned with the few climbers still climbing."
It was an emotional experience for all of the team and a huge acheivement for Vanessa.
"I just want to add that nothing was easy. We had strong thermals that tangled our ropes very badly, we had one day of rain but we were protected by the steepness, we had super heavy bags. But our project worked due to perfect team work, an awesome spirit between the 4 of us and a really strong will and a big heart ;) We weren't the same when we reached the top of El Capitan than when we left the base 5 days earlier!"
You can see Vanessa in action training for the climb in this video:
The team would like to thank: Chamonix, EDF, FFME, Heliopic, Julbo, Kortel Design, Millet, MurMur Paris, Petzl, Polartec, Rotary St Julien, Tom en tête and Yogi Tea for the support for this expedition.