El Niño Freed by Jacopo Larcher and Barbara Zangerl

© François Lebeau

Jacopo Larcher of Italy and Barbara Zangerl of Austria recently made a free ascent of El Nio 5.13c/8a+/A0 on El Capitan. Barbara has sent a written account of their time on the wall to UKC along with some photos.

Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher  © Jacopo Larcher
Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher
© Jacopo Larcher

My first trip to Yosemite took place in 2010 together with Hansjörg Auer. It was my first real crack climbing experience and everything felt so hard that I could barely move. The big cracks were the worst (and of course they still are)....

The process of learning something new raised my motivation for this style of climbing and eventually I started to dream about  freeclimbing a route on El Cap. It seems just like yesterday, when I think of our attempt on „Secret passage“ on the right hand side of El Capitan.

The Middle Cathedral in Yosemite  © François Lebeau
The Middle Cathedral in Yosemite
© François Lebeau

For me this adventure was way too big and too hard, having to trust all the weird gear like copperheads and rivets, as even trusting a cam was sometimes hard for me then.

We had to turn around after Hansjörg fell onto the haulbag rope when a quickdraw unclipped while hauling. Luckily his back up „quickdraw“ saved him from a ground fall.  For me that was a shock and I realized that the step from sport climbing into bigwall climbing would not be as easy as I had thought.

We returned back to the ground and I was quite happy to close this chapter. Our trip ended with Hansjörg's 20m fall on „Quantum Mechanics“, on the last hard pitch near the top of Washington Column. He broke his wrist and we flew back home. We had some really good days and enjoyed the time there, climbing on all the incredible walls that the Valley had to offer. But somehow at the same time I really had had enough of Yosemite and I just wanted to get back to safe multipitch sport climbing.

This time, when I arrived back in Yosemite together with Jacopo, the plan for our first days in the Valley was to start on some smaller rocks around El Cap. It was Jacopo‘s first time there and he was super psyched to climb the „Rostrum“ and all the other smaller classics. This time I felt much better and safer on the climbs - a result of more experience and some crack climbing practise in Indian Creek.

Delicate movements on El Niño...  © François Lebeau
Delicate movements on El Niño...
© François Lebeau

On the first morning we got up really early and jetlagged to be the first on the famous „Rostrum“. But despite our early start at 5am we ended up being party number 6 out of 10 on this 8 pitch classic. More parties than pitches- welcome to Yosemite! At 3pm, after having climbed three pitches, we took the first exit to get away from this „climbing rushhour.“  We came back a few days later to finish this beautiful route.

After a few real classic single pitches like „Separate Reality“, „Crimson Cringe“ or „Fish Crack“, we got ready to get on El Cap. Our initial idea was to try Muir Wall. But while we were sitting in the meadows watching all the climbers on the left side of the Nose we decided it would be more fun to skip Muir Wall and to go for another route. El Nino was the new goal recommended by some friends and we were sure that it was worth the change of plan. So we packed up all the heavy stuff you need for an adventure like this and carried all the things up to the base of the route.

After a heavy two day storm we got on to El Nino for the first time. The first pitches immediately reminded me of my previous experience on El Cap, the only difference being crazy runouts on bolts instead of bad gear. The Climbing starts out on slabby terrain where a fall sometimes could end very painfully or even worse. Jacopo led the first hard (3rd) pitch and he was surprised that the bolts were always in really bad positions and very hard to clip. After some work on this 13b pitch we both found some good but different solutions to get over the crux passages.

I started on the fourth pitch and got scared about the 10m runout from the first to the second bolt. I struggled with the first clip and I was quite afraid to experience the same at the second bolt where I really didn’t want to fall because of a badly placed bolt.

….I downclimbed...:-)  Suddenly it seemed hard to believe, that a ground-up try in the next days freeclimbing all 30 pitches as a team with swinging leads would make sense.

Jacopo on his first major bigwall: El Niño  © François Lebeau
Jacopo on his first major bigwall: El Niño
© François Lebeau

We climbed up again to the fifth pitch on the next day and it felt way better than the day before. The fifth pitch went really well for Jacopo and he was ready for the adventure.

I had more trouble on this one to find a solution for one very big move. I was close to giving up. But finally I figured it out and the second part of the pitch went smooth and was more rewarding and not really scary anymore.

We now had a good idea of what was waiting for us and how hard it would be if the following 5.13 pitches kept offering the same style of insecure balancy climbing. Luckily it turned out to be different.

After a few rest days my motivation was back, the day for our attempt fixed and everything ready to haul. We started really early to get the good conditions on the first crimpy pitches. Everything went smooth and both of us climbed without a fall.

The goal for the first day was to reach the „Big Sure Ledge“. But as we started to haul our bags we realised that this would be the real challenge. We both had some experience in climbing on bigger walls, but not as big as this one and we never had to haul such heavy bags filled with all we needed for the five planned days on the wall.

So the climbing went well, but the hauling didn‘t. Sometimes it took us more than two hours to haul one of the few traverse pitches. On our second day we reached the „Big Sur Ledge,“ slept there and both of us led the next 5.13a the day after. This made more sense because the pitch starts with some metres up to a bolt and then, after quite a long downclimb, traverses to the left on a very fragile flake with a hard reachy move to the final jug.

Barbara trying hard on El Niño
© François Lebeau

The „Man Powered Rappel“ came after, followed by the „Royal Arch 5.13c“. This one was tricky and really cool to climb. I figured out the beta and was able to send it on my second go while Jacopo’s flash followed. On this day we didn’t gain a lot of elevation. The day after one of the best pitches was waiting for us. After an easier pitch the „Endurance Corner“ followed and that was fun to climb. It was the first pitch that was not bouldery and I got pumped. Jacopo led the next quite wet „Black Dihedral“ and found it „super beautiful“ while I was wondering whether I would find a hold that was not covered in bird shit.

Next was the 5.12c traverse. The rock quality there was not as good as on the lower pitches but not bad to climb either. We set up our next bivy directly below the „Black Roof“ just in time before the next storm came in and forced us to take a rest day. That was not such a bad thing after all,  but on rest days it is hard to stint on food. We knew that we wouldn’t reach the top within 5 days so we had to ration the food and we couldn’t eat as much as we wanted to for the last two days. We got up quite early in the morning knowing that we would hang out the whole day in or portaledge with nothing to do but sleeping, relaxing and - of course -  the highlight of the day: „eating“. (For lunch we had brie cheese with hummus...a strange combination but it was delicious).

I wondered, if Jacopo will ever have a real rest day without moving. In the morning he asked: „When was the last rest day when we didn’t get off the couch all day?...(The truth is, that never happened in his whole life!) I was sure he would end up in the roof at midday in the biggest thunderstorm and that was exactly what happened ! He was happy…figuring out the beta of the following „Black Cave“ pitch and it was fun to watch him climb.

In the portaledge...  © François Lebeau
In the portaledge...
© François Lebeau

The day after it was my turn and I wanted to give this pitch a flash try. It was a fight, feet first through the roof, climbing up and back across the last metres on the roof-lip and a near failure on the last hard move. But finally I happily reached the belay without a fall. Jacopo led this pitch just after me. We climbed through the next two pitches. The „Slalom“ pitch, where it was no surprise that our haulbag got stuck for another uncountable time and finally we got to the most comfortable ledge on the East Face. There we put up our portaledge during the night and in the morning we poured away some water to make our heavy bags a bit lighter. That was exactly the moment when we thought that the whole thing was in the bag, that success wasn‘t far off anymore.

The couple relaxing high on El niño  © François Lebeau
The couple relaxing high on El niño
© François Lebeau

We had a few more easier pitches to climb. The„Dolphin“ pitch with its awesome and completely different climbing style on a dihedral roof was one of the best. One more pitch after the „Dolphin“ and we reached what I now call „Lucy’s Pitbull“ (Labrador).

When I clipped the first bolt on „Lucys Labrador“ I was thinking it couldn’t be too bad. It seemed to be dry. But when I climbed around this little corner, the small overhanging corner with only three hard metres to climb, it was soaking wet. I couldn’t believe it. I tried everything to get the holds dry but the water started flowing down again just a few seconds after I dried up the holds. I always had two goes in a row...and slipped off again and again. The problem was, that I had to wipe my hands on my pants and chalk up after every single move - otherwise I slipped off immediately and I couldn’t even hold onto the big sloper in the crux.

Jacopo and Barbara on the ledge after the first pitch of El Niño  © François Lebeau
Jacopo and Barbara on the ledge after the first pitch of El Niño
© François Lebeau

Jacopo had more luck and more power to get over this passage and I was super happy for him! But now, at the end, I was getting really close to failure. We didn’t have enough food to stay longer and I also didn’t want to. I also knew, that the pitch would be even wetter the next morning . It was hard for me to stay calm. I had never had a similar situation in climbing before. I decided to give it just one more try after a longer rest while Jacopo supported me by trying to get the holds dry. I got ready to start again and finally - I was never happier to get over any single passage than this one!

The day after we ate our last bar and we reached the top around 2pm. It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had and I was the happiest person on earth to share all this with Jacopo.....

Jacopo is sponsored by: Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Sterling Rope and The North Face

Barbara is sponsored by: Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Sterling Rope

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19 Nov, 2015
I never realised how much El Cap looks like Middle Cathedral......
19 Nov, 2015
Really inspring climbers the pair of them. It's been said before but worth saying again that Leo Houldng and Patch Hammonds onsight attempt of El Niño in 1998 still stands as one of UK climbing's high points. The article itself could do with an edit to clear up some of the English spelling and structure to make it a more flowing read.
19 Nov, 2015
I was about to say the very same thing. Good effort on the route, sloppy effort on the editing.
20 Nov, 2015
Amazing climbing, far out of the reach of most. great report too, captures the excitement. I couldn't write this in German and I guess most of the earlier respondents couldn't either. If I'm wrong, let's hear your other language. Great effort you two, and thanks for sharing!! Tom
20 Nov, 2015
Hi Tom, I think you've misunderstood my post, the article itself can be edited before posting by a member of the UKC staff, this is standard practice and in no way diminishes Barbara's excellent grasp of written English.
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