Q&A with Bronwyn Hodgins on her Free Ascent of Golden Gate Interview

© Nick Smith

Canadian Bronwyn Hodgins (27) recently became only the third woman to free Golden Gate 5.13a on El Capitan, climbing the 34 pitch route over eight days. Having only started climbing eight years ago while studying in Leeds as an exchange student, Bronwyn has soared through the grades in multiple disciplines of climbing, from hard single pitch sport to in-a-day free Big Wall ascents in Baffin, Yosemite and beyond.

Bronwyn topping out after her free ascent of Golden Gate.  © Nick Smith
Bronwyn topping out after her free ascent of Golden Gate.

Bronwyn's first Big Wall free climb came just two and a half years into her climbing career, when she freed Moonlight Buttress with her partner - and now husband - British climber Jacob Cook. The previous year, the pair had embarked as newbies on their first Big Wall together on The Nose, with Bronwyn leading around 25% of the pitches. A background in cross country running, skiing and whitewater canoeing throughout her childhood gave Bronwyn physical and mental attributes that seem to have transferred exceptionally well to climbing, alongside a sturdy work ethic and a desire to push personal limits. 

Writing in an Instagram story, Bronwyn said of her free ascent of Golden Gate: 'Still in shock that this went down!'

Jacob wrote a longer post on Instagram in the meantime, charting Bronwyn's progression:

'It's been unreal watching her progression from eight years ago, a timid 19-year-old Canadian exchange student learning to top rope - to today one of the best female big wall free climbers in the world. Golden Gate is 41 pitches and hard, really hard - I believe (?) Bronwyn is the third woman to send it after @hazel_findlay and @emilyaharrington.

'This didn't come easily. I know from the inside how hard Bronwyn has worked to get here. She has consistently pushed herself across many disciplines for years to arrive at a place where she had the strength, skills, knowledge and confidence to even consider this as a goal.'

Bronwyn had previously freed the classic Freerider 5.13a over five days in 2018, and made seven ascents of El Cap in total. 

When she's not pursuing personal goals, Bronwyn works as a rock and river guide in Squamish.

Bronwyn's abridged ticklist

  • Golden Gate 5.13a - free ascent over eight days
  • Dr Bronner's 2 in 1 (5.13 roof crack) First Ascent, Squamish, Canada in 2020
  • Sendero Luminosa (7c/12d, 15 pitches sport) in-a-day free, El Potrero Chico, Mexico in 2020
  • Freerider (7c+/13a, 32 pitch big wall) 5-day free ascent, El Capitan, Yosemite, USA in 2018
  • The Optimator (trad 7c+/E7) Indian Creek, USA in 2018
  • Mon Dieu (8a+/13c sport), Oliana, Spain in 2018
  • Lotus Flower Tower (E3/5.11, 19-pitches) over 2 days. Cirque of the Unclimbables, Canada in 2016
  • In-a-day link-up of Astroman and the Rostrum (21 pitches combined). Second female to achieve this with no falls, Yosemite
  • Moonlight Buttress (7c trad, 350m) 2-day big wall free ascent, Zion, USA in 2015
  • Multiple E6/5.12 trad onsights, including Slice and Dice in Indian Creek, Fish Crack in Yosemite and Big Daddy Overhang in Squamish

We sent Bronwyn a few questions about Golden Gate and her jam-packed climbing career so far...

Ed.: Since Bronwyn's ascent, US climber Amity Warme has made the fourth female free ascent of Golden Gate.

After freeing Freerider in 2018, did you have Golden Gate on your mind, or did the decision to try it come further down the line?

At the time, Freerider felt like a huge achievement. And Golden Gate is definitely a big step up from there. It wasn't something I was capable of right then, but I did actually rap into the upper cruxes on Golden Gate to try them that same season! So yes, the idea was there as a "someday project!" Though it didn't become a goal until around the end of summer 2020.

How did the pandemic impact your climbing/preparation? Tell us a bit about your training in Utah.

I feel very lucky to live in Squamish, as I was able to climb locally through much of the early pandemic. Once the rainy season hit in November, my friend Savannah Cummins suggested I join her down in St. George, Utah, where I stayed for five months. With Golden Gate on my mind, a winter of limestone sport climbing would be the perfect training. I knew I'd have to be at the top of my physical game to send the route's crux pitches. St George provided the ideal mental training too. Not only did I need to send those cruxes, I needed to send them fast and when it counted on the push! I practised quick redpointing, putting down hard routes in a few strategic and focused goes.

How much time did you put into working sections from above, and what were your initial thoughts about chances of success?

The 34-pitch route really boils down to four 5.13a (7c+) cruxes, three of which are in the top third! In the two weeks prior to my ascent, I hiked 300m of static rope to the El Cap summit (ouf!) so I could try the upper cruxes — shout out to Taylor Woodruff, Randy Ladowski and Alix Morris for joining me! I was most concerned about The Move (pitch 24), as it was said to be fiercely bouldery and harder if you're short. It took me three days of working The Move to figure it out. On the fourth day, I linked the boulder six times. It still felt desperate… Could I pull this off when it really mattered, at the top of the pitch and after 4-5 days on the wall? I gave myself a 50% chance.

What had you learned about big wall climbing throughout your six previous climbs on El Cap, and other expeditions to Baffin etc., that proved useful for this ascent?

This ascent was truly a culmination of all my skills. My wall systems felt slicker than ever before, and I was able to focus my thoughts and energy toward the harder climbing. This was essential, as the climbing itself was very close to my limit!

What were the most difficult/memorable pitches for you? Sounds like the downclimb was nasty?

The Downclimb (pitch 19) had the hardest individual move of the whole route for me — a bizarre and totally desperate down-mantel, with nothing but a microscopic, sharp crystal to press your right thumb and index finger into to help you lower. Located smack in the middle of the wall, I'd only briefly tried this pitch previously and definitely did not have a sequence. On the push from the ground, I camped here for two days. I've never tried so hard in my life on a single move, that's what it took to do it.

Bronwyn becoming only the third woman to free Golden Gate.  © Nick Smith
Bronwyn becoming only the third woman to free Golden Gate.

How were the Monster Offwidth and the A5 traverse? 

Two very intimidating pitches for sure! This was my fourth time leading the Monster (60m of 7'' crack) as the pitch is shared with Freerider. Although it's always exhausting, the offwidth feels easier each time. The A5 Traverse (pitch 29) is the last of the crux pitches on Golden Gate. As an endurance climber, I knew I could send the pumpy crimp traverse if it was a single pitch on the ground, but could I send it on day 7!? It was a hugely exciting moment when I clipped those chains!

You seemed to pace yourself well and prioritised recovery. What was your gameplan?

The challenge on Golden Gate is staying fresh enough to execute the four cruxes in the top half of the route! I was constantly making sure to eat and drink electrolyte water. In terms of pacing, my wall partner Danford Jooste and I would wake up at 5 a.m. and climb until noon. We'd then hide from the sun under a tarp until we could climb again in the evening. At each crux, I would have a few focused attempts with strategic rests between.

Were you surprised to tick it on your first ground-up attempt? How did it feel to top out?

Yes! I really didn't know if I could pull it off. So many things had to come together! I was completely overwhelmed topping out!

You've only been climbing for 8 years...what do you put your rapid progression down to? Has your background in watersports helped you to progress quickly, do you think?

I think my athletic background definitely helped. Before climbing, I was also pretty serious about running. But I think maybe the cross-over is more mental, as I've always had a habit of really pushing myself to see what I was capable of!

Has your early gritstone apprenticeship served you well on North American granite?

It's true! I learned to climb on the Grit! I started climbing in England a month before my 20th birthday. I was an exchange student and signed up for the Leeds University Union Mountaineering Club (LUUMC). My entry into climbing definitely got me hooked on trad and adventure climbing right off the bat!

What's next for you? (on El Cap, and in general!)

Now it's time to take a breather from big personal goals and focus on the rock guiding season in Squamish! Experiences like Golden Gate are incredibly empowering. I love guiding as I get the opportunity to bring people in and show them first-hand how to experience this for themselves. I'm really excited to offer a couple of Big Wall clinics this summer, among other programs. But some ideas for next big personal goals are already starting to form for sure!

Will you be taking Jacob up Golden Gate someday?

 I think the crimpy cruxes would really suit him! But we have unfinished business with El Corazon, the neighbouring 35-pitch 13b, which we scoped out ground up together back in 2017. This is definitely on the cards for a possible future objective!

Bronwyn is a professional rock climber and guide, based in Squamish, Canada. Originally from rural Ontario, Bronwyn grew up canoeing, hiking and skiing with her family. In just eight years, she has climbed 8a+ sport and...

Bronwyn's Athlete Page 9 posts

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7 Jun

That is SOME progression! Makes me feel like a sloth. Top effort.

9 Jun

Waddage! story and achievement!

11 Jun

Video here of Amity Warme's ascent,

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