Second Ascent of The Secret Passage for Whittaker and McManus

Pete Whittaker and Dan McManus have made the second ascent of The Secret Passage 5.13c on El Capitan in Yosemite, 7 years after Nicolas Favresse and Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll made the first ascent. The pair spent 9 days on the wall with just 7 days of supplies, endured a 2-day snow storm and topped out over a receding waterfall after battling a wet crux section! Making their achievement even more impressive is the fact that both climbers managed to free every pitch.

Getting sprayed by the waterfall, 168 kb
Getting sprayed by the waterfall
© Dan McManus

The route follows a mix of two previously established aid lines (Eagles Way for its first 10 pitches and Bad To The Bones for the 8 upper pitches of the climb) as well as some unique terrain. The route is extremely steep with very sustained climbing and a total of 15 pitches ( 5-10+ R, 5-11, 5-9, 5-10+, 5-12a r, 5-13c R, 5-13a, 5-12+, 5-12c, 5-13c, 5-12c R, 5-13a, 5-13a, 5-11R, 5-10+).

Dan explained the motivations for attempting the line in his blog:

"A photo of Nico pulling the crux moves of the route made it onto the cover of the big walls guide, but in nearly ten years the route hasn't been repeated and has received very little attention as far as we know. This being another free route on El Cap, so it's likely to have some spectacular climbing, the fact that it's unrepeated and that it isn't prohibitively difficult meant it was something both me and Pete were keen to try."

Commenting in a UKC News Report, Nico described the route in 2008 as follows:

"We added a bolt on an unprotectable face climb variation to the established aid line and placed a bolt next to a rivet to make an anchor safe. We were able to free climb the rest without adding any holes in the rock. The nature of the climb is quite run out and dangerous in places. One pitch is protected with hooks and fixed copperheads, a few others have hard cruxes way past the last piece of pro and there are a few scary sections with lose rock features that we couldn't avoid."

Scary jugging on The Secret Passage, 193 kb
Scary jugging on The Secret Passage
© Dan McManus

For Pete, the iconic guidebook cover photo of Nico on Secret Passage was the main source of inspiration:

"I had the Supertopo Big Walls guide and straight away there was Nico pulling the crux of the Secret Passage on the front cover. Although I did not get round to trying the route on my first visit, the image was always there in my mind. An unrepeated free route on El Cap, the cover shot, why had this not been repeated?"

Having bailed from the climb due to sweltering conditions in full sun in October, Dan and Pete then spent 2 and a half days stuck in a storm during a successful ascent of Father Time on Middle Cathedral Rock. Before launching another attempt of The Secret Passage, they had abseiled down to check out the top pitches, the second 5.13c in particular. The pair then finally set off for the successful ascent, with more storms due to pass through in three days' time. Dan commented:

"After our Middle Cathedral experience we felt more relaxed about sitting these out on the wall. Although we almost blew it when we realised halfway up the Zodiac Talus that we'd forgotten the playing cards! Pete lost rock paper scissor and hiked back down to retrieve them."

An attempt to dry the wet crux hold
© Dan McManus

Despite never having taken on a Big Wall together and having only climbed with each other a few times, Pete and Dan made for a particularly able Big Wall duo. Dan has climbed extensively in Yosemite, having climbed El Capitan 9 times - including a free ascent of El Niño 5.13c - and this was Pete's second trip to the Valley after a successful first visit in which he made a notable flash ascent of Freerider 5.12d. Pete commented in his blog:

"Although we kept cursing the Belgians for their bolt drill breaking and the lack of protection, their ascent back in 2008 was an inspirational achievement and although Dan and I both managed to free the whole route, our ascent doesn’t quite match up to Nico and Sean’s in terms of style:
- Where they went from the ground - we checked out the top 3 hard pitches from abseil
- Where they went incredibly bold on the lower crux pitch - we had the first piece pre-clipped
- Where they took flutes and mandolins - we took phones and sound systems, (we decided hauling up my musical instrument of choice, a piano, was a bit much)"

Waiting for the waterfall to recede...
© Dan McManus

However, the conditions in which Dan and Pete made their ascent were far from ideal, on a route with an already high level of loose, friable rock including Nico's famed 'Guillotine Biscuit' flake. On day 7 - after the storms had passed - the team were faced with a wet hold on the crux pitch and a wet Secret Passage pitch, with Dan topping out through the waterfall just in time before it would make the wall impossibly wet.

"With only an 11R and a 5.10 left we made a sprint for the top, but the next pitch was pouring with water, and we were dismayed when we realised we were going to have to spend another night on the wall. Water wasn't a problem because we could collect the runoff, but we only had a cereal bar for dinner."

A successful ascent was still not guaranteed if the top pitches remained wet. Fortunately conditions improved, allowing Dan and Pete to finish the climb:

"We went up again at about 10am on Saturday, day nine on the wall. We still thought the route might not happen for us, everything had gone against us it seemed, but for a few hours again during the day the rock was dry enough to climb and we made it out."

Leading past the 'Guillotine Biscuit' hold
© Dan McManus

Summing up the experience, Pete wrote in his blog:

"It turned out to be quite an adventure, and I’ve got to say thanks to Dan for putting in some fantastic, bold, hard leads and getting the rope up there on his pitches, staying relaxed and feeling at ease that we were trapped by two waterfalls. A privilege to spend the 9 days on the wall with him and also amazing (and against all weather odds) that we both got it free!"

Dan explained:

"I feel very lucky to have succeeded on this route. Nine days on a route is also a new record for us both. The climbing isn't very hard, but it's bold, loose, sometimes dirty, and logistically difficult to work some pitches, making it feel like a serious undertaking overall."

Dan and Pete after topping out on The Secret Passage, 210 kb
Dan and Pete after topping out on The Secret Passage
© Dan McManus

Regarding the severity of being caught up a big wall in a storm, Andy Kirkpatrick - a man who has plenty of El Cap experience, having spent 201 nights on Yosemite big wall climbs - told UKC:

"I think being stuck on a big wall in a storm is one of the more serious things that can happen to any climber. In a 'wall storm' you are totally trapped and dependent on what kit you have (chosen generally for warm dry California climbing). I've been caught on El Cap a few times and would say it was more dangerous than being caught on the Eiger or Fitzroy!"

Read Dan's blog here.

Read Pete's blog here.

Pete is sponsored by: Climb On, Five Ten, Patagonia, Sterling Rope and Wild Country

Dan is sponsored by: Scarpa

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