Many a climber has dreamt of venturing to Yosemite to climb one of the most famous big-wall routes in the world - ‘The Nose’ of El Capitan. However, few people manage to realise this dream. Even fewer decide to take on the climb as their first big-wall...
One couple who left the home comforts of UK trad and multipitch to tackle the route in May 2014 were 26 year-old Jacob Cook and 22 year-old Canadian Bronwyn Hodgins. Jacob and Bronwyn have since expanded their big walling CV, with ascents of classic routes such as Freerider - also in Yosemite - Space Shot and Moonlight Buttress in Zion. We got in touch with the Leeds-based pair to shed some light on their journey from big-wall newbies on The Nose to big-wall addicts...
Why ‘The Nose’? “I’ve had the names of some of the pitches imprinted in my head since I was a kid. Things like "The King Swing", "The Great Roof" and the "Changing Corners Pitch". I think it's something a lot of climbers aspire to,” Jacob explains. Indeed, the 2,900 ft granite prow saw its first free ascent in 1993 by Lynn Hill and remains a paradigm for those aspiring to transition towards big-wall climbing.
Despite Bronwyn having notched up barely 18 months of climbing experience at the time, she certainly didn’t shy away from the sharp end of the rope, as Jacob emphasises: “She didn't just follow either, I'd say she lead 25% of the pitches.”
The pair took a total of 4 days and 3 nights to complete the climb during their month-long trip to Yosemite in May last year. In preparation for ‘The Nose’, Jacob and Bronwyn climbed a variety of classic day routes such as the South face of Washington Column and Astroman – a 12 pitch E5/6 - to practice their technical hauling skills and to build up a repertoire of granite-style moves. What was the greatest challenge? Cracks, according to Jacob: “We just don't have splitter cracks like that in the UK! If there's a pitch that says "5.9 fist" on the topo, that basically means there will be 40 meters of fist crack with no variation in size and absolutely no face holds either side!”
In order to climb the route safely, Jacob taught himself hauling, jumaring and aid climbing techniques via the internet and had a brief practice session on crags local to Bronwyn’s Canadian home: “This involved getting in the haulbag and hauling each other up the cliff! We reasoned that the haul bag couldn't possibly weigh much more than one of us...”
Regarding the fitness aspect of their preparation, Jacob’s proficiency at sport and trad climbing set him up well for freeing pitches up to 5.11: “Often if I got to a tricky move I'd resort to a French free and just pull on a cam. My aim from the start was just to have a good time up there rather than get too worried about strict free climbing.” Likening the Pancake Flake pitch to Left Unconquerable at Stanage, only 2,000ft higher up, it would seem that the couple were unphased by the exposure and able to appreciate the quality of the climbing. As Jacob explains: “The ability to not panic above trad gear is crucial and climbing trad in the UK forces you to learn that skill pretty quickly!”
However, remarking on the “big wall faff” which ultimately slows down any climber on their first big wall route, Jacob ascertains that UK trad climbing experience does not guarantee you an easy time on ‘The Nose.’ Not satisfied with completing the route once, Jacob returned at the end of the trip to climb the route in a day – 16 hours in total – with a Tasmanian friend: “We would have been quicker except I fell off high on the route and smashed my foot. I thought I'd broken my heel, but we only had one 60m rope so we couldn't bail. We had no choice but to keep going.Then Darren got too exhausted so I ended up leading the last 4 pitches in one rock shoe and one approach shoe...a real adventure!”
“Just being a British trad climber is certainly not enough to make it up the Nose!”
In spite of this, Jacob maintains that his more relaxed approach to the ascent with Bronwyn was the most rewarding: “As the two experiences go I would definitely recommend doing it as a big wall and taking your time, it's so much more enjoyable that way!”
Fast forward to 2015 and Jacob and Bronwyn went back for more US big walls. First on the list were renowned classics Moonlight Buttress and Space Shot in Zion.
Describing Moonlight Buttress, Jacob told UKC:
"It's 11 pitches with a middle section of 6 5.12 pitches in a row (7a+-7c or E5 to E7). We abseiled in to stash the portaledge in the middle of the route and then climbed it over two days with a luxurious bivy in the middle. The route is a very different style to anything in the UK, the pitches higher up are so splitter they make London Wall look kind of chossy! We both free'd every pitch, which is an especially amazing achievement for Bron who's only been climbing two and a half years and did her first E1 last October...!"
Space Shot provided a different kind of challenge. Jacob once again freed the route. He told us:
"It goes at 5.13- or 7c+ and I onsighted all the pitches except one, including the 7c+ crux pitch. The pitch I fell off and had to redpoint was a sandy 5.12 flare higher on the route. The route was quite a different proposition to Moonlight, much less travelled, more sandy and more adventurous! Some of the pitches higher up had quite suspect small gear and the route was capped off by a font style 5.12-/7a+ sandy topout."
Afterwards, a return trip to Yosemite was on the cards. The pair climbed Freerider 5.13a as a three with Chris Bevins. There are two variations for the crux pitch, either "The Teflon Corner" 5.12d or the "Huber Pitch" 5.13a. The team opted for "5.13a crimping rather than 5.12d glassy bridging." Jacob told UKC:
"We ended up spending 6 days and 5 nights on the wall. Chris and I free climbed every pitch. Bron freed most of the route except for some of the difficult slabs low down and the V8 crimping on the crux "Huber pitch" (5.13a), this was still a phenomenal effort!"
The crux for Jacob by far was the Monster Offwidth (pitch 19). 60m of continuous offwidth crack with not a face hold or crimp in sight. Jacob commented:
"You just don't get to practice pitches like this if you learn to climb in the UK. To add insult to injury it gets a grade of 5.11a or 6b+, an almighty sandbag! One of the things that made doing the climb with Chris great was that we have very complimentary skill-sets. Higher up the route get's more physical and my sport climbing background payed off a bit. Chris, who found the Monster easy, really struggled with some of the pumpy laybacks up high. I actually don’t think either of us could have succeeded without the other, which is cool!"
We asked Jacob and Bronwyn some more general questions about their big-walling adventures over the last year.
"You have to be competent at friction slabs, v8 crimpy boulder problems, pumpy laybacks with thin gear, dynos, hard to read traverses, splitter cracks, offwidths, unprotected chimneys..."
The Nose was your first big wall route. What have you learnt in the past year? What tips and tricks made life easier for you?
After aid climbing the Nose last year, the main thing we had to improve on to have a go at free climbing Freerider was crack climbing. We spent a month in Indian Creek at the start of the trip to practice climbing splitters. It was a new experience, I'd finish climbing each day tired in muscles I didn't even know I had!
Chris has climbed El Cap 13 times now, so going with him was great for picking up all the tiny tricks and tips. He's also a rope access professional which probably helps!
We also bought a second hand portaledge.
If I had to give three tips for portaledge life they'd be:
0. It's going to be wobbly, just accept it!
1. Bring a small mesh bag, you can put everything you're going to need inside (toothbrush, book, headlamp, water, pee bottle...) and clip it to something, that way nothing vital will roll out.
2. Always try and set the ledge up somewhere where there's even a tiny natural ledge to stand on, hanging belays are no fun.
3. If you're sharing, make sure you shotgun the outside spot, whilst it feels more exposed, it's way more comfortable!
What makes climbing on El Cap so challenging?
I think what makes Freerider (or free climbing El Cap in general) hard is that it requires so many varied skills from so many diverse areas of climbing. You have to be competent at friction slabs, v8 crimpy boulder problems, pumpy laybacks with thin gear, dynos, hard to read traverses, splitter cracks, offwidths, unprotected chimneys etc. Not only this but you have to have your big wall skills dialled, you wont get very far if you completely beast yourself whilst hauling on the first day. The final tricky part I think is the fatigue. It’s much harder climbing at your limit after multiple days on a big wall!
Of all the big wall routes you've done, which was the most memorable?
That's a difficult question, they're all so good!
Climbing El Topo in the Verdon with Ian Cooper last year (blog post) was a totally wild, crazy adventure.
But Freerider was the longest, hardest and best route I've ever done. It felt like all the skills I've developed as a trad climber and big wall climber over the last few years were put to the test. The thing I'll remember most about it though is the human relationships, it's a special kind of friendship you get after spending a week on a big wall with someone.
Did you have any scary moments or nightmare situations?
On Hollow Flake ledge (Our first night on Freerider) I bivvied on the actual ledge so Bron and Chris could have a luxurious portaledge each. There was a mouse living on the ledge! I got a bit worried I'd feel him running across my face in the night...
On Space Shot in Zion I fell out of this sandy offwidth and my rope got totally core-shot. It got caught in a kind of thin crack with sharp sides. It all happened so fast that I didn't really have time to be scared. I just tied in before the sketchy section of rope and had another go.
"The thing I'll remember most about it though is the human relationships, it's a special kind of friendship you get after spending a week on a big wall with someone."
Bronwyn has made fantastic progress after climbing for such a short period of time - what's her secret?
Jacob: Bron's been doing amazingly well! Free climbing Moonlight Buttress after two and a half years is probably the fastest progression I've ever heard of. Also her performance on Freerider was epic, even though she didn't free the whole thing she freed both the Monster and the "Enduro Corners" (pitches 26 &27) which were the cruxes for me and Chris respectively.
She comes from a background of being a top middle distance runner so she's used to pushing herself really hard physically. Also I think there's something pretty crazy going on with her endurance, she just doesn't get pumped! One time she came down from a massively overhanging 7b+ in Spain and mentioned that she had this "weird tingling in her forearms" I was like "Yeah, that's called being pumped, I get that every time!"
Bronwyn: I’ve been climbing for less than three years, although during this time I've done a lot of climbing, especially outside. I've been on multiple trips with Jacob to Spain, France, Greece and most recently our three-month road-trip in the States! I did many other sports growing up with a pretty big focus on cross country running (which I quit a few months after discovering climbing!). I also still do a lot of white water canoeing in Ontario (where I am from).
I have actually always loved climbing things! Ask my parents, even my grandparents, and they all have hilarious stories of discovering me as a tiny kid up trees, clothing racks, flag poles, and bakery cabinets! Growing up in a flat bit of Canada, I actually didn't know that rock climbing existed until I moved to England for a study abroad year, that was three years ago now.
What's next and where?
I think both Bron and I have totally got the El Cap free climbing bug now! We're going back to the States in September and I'm really keen to have a go at another free route on there called Golden Gate.
Ultimately I'd like to take the skills I've acquired climbing in Yosemite to more remote big walls. Places like Baffin Island and the Karakorum!
Watch some cool videos of Jacob and Bronwyn's adventures below. Jacob is currently working on a video of Freerider.
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