Robbie Phillips has just returned from Yosemite, where he made a rare free ascent of the Pre Muir Wall. British climbers were out in The Valley in force this Autumn and Robbie has sent in a round-up of some impressive British achievements...
The word “Mecca” is used to describe a meeting place, a gathering of people who meet for a single purpose. To call Yosemite a Mecca for climbing would be the only fitting way to describe it.
The recent documentary Valley Uprising from Sender Films did an outstanding job in highlighting the international significance and cultural importance that Yosemite holds in the climbing world. Climbers pilgrimage to this hallowed land to make their mark on the granite Big Walls, and on the boulders that litter the valley floor. They climb here not only because of the quality that Yosemite offers but also the history embedded in every climb.
I’ve been so lucky to travel the world with climbing and experience different climbing cultures. What’s interesting about Yosemite is that the climbers here have retained a strong attachment to history, to ethics and to community. I’d compare this feeling to that which I get from British climbing culture. As British climbers we harbour a deep connection with our crags, the climbs and equally the unique characters that live and breathe the sport; those who through each generation establish new levels and ethics and take our sport and our lifestyle into an ever-adapting future whilst maintaining an uncompromising connection with the past.
The Yosemite live-in scene is made up largely of a climber population, and of that population I wouldn’t dare attempt to guess the distribution according to country of origin. Yosemite is in international waters, climbers will make their mark here and it really doesn’t matter which country you’re from, just so long as you're here and you’re psyched!
I came to Yosemite for the first time this Spring and like so many before, had my imagination excited about what possibilities lay before me. It was a hard exercise in patience and re-learning the movement of climbing, as 10 years of dedication to a style that doesn’t suit Yosemite granite is a hard thing to break out of.
But the history of Brits in Yosemite goes back as far as the first colonists. Indeed the first “climber” in Yosemite was John Muir, world-renowned naturalist and lover of the outdoors. He may have been the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last – British climbers have been pulling hard here for decades and have seated themselves firmly in Yosemite climbing history. Climbing household names such as Andy Kirkpatrick, Leo Houlding, Patrick “Patch” Hammond, Jerry Moffat, Hazel Findlay and Johnny Dawes are amongst a small elite group who have done some incredible stuff here. But the Brits continue to push boundaries and do great things in the valley, which I have been witnessing, first-hand during my time here.
This Autumn (or “Fall” as I’ve become accustomed to saying) I saw quite a number of Brits here for “Free-climbing” goals on El Capitan, an unprecedented number in the history of Yosemite. El Capitan is slowly relinquishing more free routes, but none of them are by any means an easy day out. The easiest of the El Cap Free Big Walls is the Freerider which goes at a hefty 5.13a or 7c+. But the difficulty is not understood by the grading, for most of the climbing in the upper end of the grade scale is of a face-style which suits us Brits. The real challenge is the cracks, offwidths, slick corners and chimneys; most of which are given a depressingly low grade. But Yosemite isn’t the place to think about numbers; simply being here and climbing these walls should be satisfaction enough.
It was awesome to see two Irish friends, Paul Swails and John McCune, crush Freerider early on in my trip. They had an excellent time out here where the main focus was free climbing El Cap, and they achieved that in great style!
Also on the Freerider was the strong Sheffield team, Ryan Pasquill and Maddie Cope, who both freed the route with only two falls each. Maddie lead the Monster, the notoriously hard 5.11 offwidth that stops many of the strongest climbers in their tracks to freeing this epic climb. It was really cool hearing the tale of their ascent, Maddie who has climbed 8b and Ryan 9a; their experience sounded remarkably similar proving once again that Yosemite has a way of levelling all playing fields.
From the South West, Tom Newberry and Calum Coldwell-Storry on a longer trip also climbed the Freerider as well as other great Yosemite classics including the John Bachar test-piece, Bachar-Yerian 5.12, famous for its wild run-outs with a habit for breaking ribs! Wolfgang Güllich broke his on an early onsight attempt; and British ex-pat Alan Carne followed suit in 2009 after a nasty fall just shy of the second bolt of the second pitch. Alan returned to Yosemite this year and put to bed this old nemesis by climbing the “Bachar Yerian” in its entirety. It’s quite common to abseil after the third pitch – it’s hard enough to here – but Alan kept climbing for the final 5.10 pitch, which, in his own words, he described as “undoubtedly the crux of the entire route!” What it lacks in physicality it makes up for in mental toughness, that final pitch Alan described as one of the boldest climbing experiences of his entire life!
Jacob Cook was out on his second trip this year with the totally outrageous goal of climbing Freerider in a day. He had one attempt early on in the trip with his girlfriend Bron (who also narrowly missed out on a free ascent by one move!), failing just shy of the top. In his own words “the red mist descended and I just didn’t have anything left to give”. Jacob wasn’t content with that single effort and teamed up with the younger, fatter half of the “Wide-Boyz”, Mr Pete Whittaker. Not shy of an offwidth that lad; I knew they’d make a solid team. And in fine style the two of them set off and dispatched Freerider in a day. Talking to Pete the next day it didn’t seem like he was that phased by it and I knew there was more to his Yosemite trip than this…indeed it was only a warm-up for something much, much bigger! Pete followed on this success with the first ever “Free Roped-Solo of El Cap in a day” (That’s a hell of a mouthful!) by rope soloing Freerider! We met up afterwards for burritos and I was glad to see Pete looked pretty worn out...the lad is human!
I’d like to say that my trip was also a successful one. I climbed my second and third free route on El Cap this year as well as climbing numerous hard single and multi pitch routes throughout Yosemite such as the Ron Kauk classic Peace 5.13d and the rarely repeated Book of Hate 5.13d.
I went for an onsight attempt of the 37-pitch monster Goldengate 5.13b and fell only twice, onsighting all the 5.13 pitches and falling on a 5.11 and 5.12 pitch.
My main goal of the trip, however, was to free the incredible Pre Muir with its sustained climbing in the 5.12 to 5.13 range and with its classic 5.13d crux corner pitch. This pitch alone is probably the best climbing I’ve done on granite and one of the best pieces of climbing I’ve done in my life. For me this wasn’t the crux; I actually found the 5.13a pitch afterwards much harder, but that’s typical of Yosemite. I freed the Pre Muir in a 3-day push to make that my 3rd and hardest free climb on El Capitan.
Free climbing seems to becoming more and more popular on the big walls, but I’m not going to forget the Aid climbers. Sean Warren was on top form, climbing “Native Son” A4+, “Shortest Straw” A4 and “Lunar Eclipse” A4 in a single season as well as a 13 hour car to car solo of “Leaning Tower West Face Route” A2. For those unaware of Aid grades, A4 is bloody terrifying and it only goes up to A5!
I also bumped into Andy Kirkpatrick who was soloing El Cap whilst being filmed by Jen Randall for “Psycho Vertical” the movie - really looking forward to seeing that.
The thing I love about Big Walling is that failing never really feels like it does at a single pitch crag. You get to climb so much rock that the actual success factor becomes more of a secondary element to the experience. So on that note, amongst the successful Aid and Free climbing parties, there were also some solid almost successes by Brits. I met up with Londoner Ed Bulman who was attempting “Freerider” and will hopefully be back next year to finish the job. And from back home in Scotland, Douglas Russell, Adam Russell and Irishman Ry McHenry had a great trip up the Salathé, only bailing due to huge falls and exploding cams…that’s fair enough lads! Also as I was hanging about El Cap I bumped into Si Moore (Irishman living in San Francisco) who was on his way up Freerider – I didn’t catch whether he was successful or not, but this was yet one more example of a Brit who was daring to dream big!
Yosemite is not an easy place to climb in. It might be the most accessible big wall destination in the world, but that by no means makes it an easy “climbing holiday” – this aint Kalymnos folks! I’m finding more inspiration from witnessing the climbers that might normally call themselves “Sport Climbers” or “Boulderers” taking a leap of faith and going to Yosemite. When you come here, you may not necessarily leave with lots of ticks, but you certainly will leave with some unforgettable memories.
And that pretty much summarises some exceptional climbing in Yosemite by the British climbing contingent this season. I will have no doubt missed some names and ascents, so I apologise if that’s the case. For any of you reading who for a moment have wondered about making a trip to Yosemite, I implore you to not hesitate a second longer.
The Valley is calling…
Kendal Mountain Festival 2016
Robbie is going to be at Kendal talking about his recent exploits in the Petzl Rock Session! GET YOUR TICKETS HERE
Kendal Mountain Festival is by far the largest and most varied event of its type in the world - it is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK.
'Kendal' is one of the leading festivals of its kind in the world. It is an internationally-known event, attracting film premieres from around the globe. Film makers, TV producers, adventurers, climbers and world-class lecturers gather to take part in four packed days of the very best films, speakers, books and exhibitions covering all aspects of mountain and adventure sports culture. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK and 2016 will be our 17th straight year.