We recently reported that Hazel Findlay had ticked Ron Kauk's Magic Line 5.14c (8c+) at Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park, placing all gear on lead. This is the first 8c+ lead by a British woman (after Emma Twyford skipped to 9a), whether on bolts or gear, and is one of the hardest trad leads by a woman globally, on a par with Beth Rodden's Meltdown 5.14c in difficulty.
After one month of sessions working the line, Hazel ticked her project on her last day before leaving the Valley. Hazel's ascent is only the second redpoint ascent after Ron's son Lonnie Kauk made the first ascent placing gear on lead in November 2018. Ron's 1996 ascent was made using pre-placed gear, also known as a pinkpoint ascent. Originally graded 5.14b, Lonnie upgraded the line to 5.14c last year, which translates to 8c+ sport climbing on gear, or around E10 in British trad grading.
Magic Line is Hazel's hardest route to date, adding to her list of two E9s (Once Upon a Time in the South West and Chicama) and two 8cs (Fish Eye and Mind Control), alongside four free ascents of El Capitan (the Pre-Muir Wall, Golden Gate, Freerider and the Salathé Wall).
We sent Hazel some questions to find out more about her time on the route and its history.
What first inspired you to try the line? Did Lonnie Kauk's ascent last year play a big role in your decision to try it?
I'd heard Magic Line being talked about in the Valley and I'd seen the wild photo of Ron on it. It had a strong reputation, despite the fact that single pitch routes often get forgotten about in Yosemite. Lonnie's send put it back on the radar for lots of people and it was talked about a lot because it's such a cool story with his dad having done the first ascent. So I knew about it as being a beautiful route with a big reputation but I didn't really have it in mind to try. I first tried it because my friend Carlo was going up last year before a storm came in and I thought 'why not join him and see what it's like'.
When you first tried Magic Line last year, how did you rate your chances of doing it?
Well it was hard to tell because I was only on it for about 15 minutes. I couldn't do the crux but I felt like maybe I could do it. Mostly I just thought it was really cool.
You wrote that it's not really the finger crack that it appears to be - can you describe the climbing?
The crack is too small to get fingers in for most of it and you certainly can't jam it but it's offset which means you can crimp the offset. So really it's a crimp layback. Imagine a tenuous gritstone arête but instead of it being rounded it's a crimp for 40 metres and the biggest footholds are like 1mm. There is one part of the crux where the crack is big enough for us to gaston the other side of the crack, but mostly you crimp the offset side.
How specific to this route was your training programme? How does training for a crack/layback feature differ to training for more conventional crimps-and-slopers routes?
Well because it's crimpy and bouldery the training was fairly conventional. Finger boarding, power endurance, core etc. Dave Mason coached me and gave me a training program. I had to recover from an A2 pulley tear at the start of the year so it was nice to have someone who knew what they were doing tell me what to do!
Describe the working process. How long did it take for you and Maddy to progress to lead attempts? Was it a daunting line to work?
It's mostly vertical or steeper so the falls are really clean. But the crux moves are too hard to stop and place gear so below the crux you reach as high as you can to place two ball-nuts/sliders and then you run it out as far as you can without decking and then right when you're the most run-out you'd want to be, you place a cam blindly in the crack. So that part was scary although probably safe and I took a few practice falls to test it out and feel more confident. The start is a bit scary too because you're off the ground and it's so easy to slip. So it was a little daunting to lead, I was pretty nervous tying in on the sharp end for the first time and the first few burns went laughably badly. We spent about 2 weeks top roping before we led it and as soon as we tried to lead it we were like 'Oh shit, this is going to be tough'. Even though we'd worked out how to place the gear in the same way we worked out the moves, it just took so much more energy.
You have written about Lonnie's familial ties to Yosemite Valley. Did you come to appreciate his affinity for the route, with his father Ron Kauk having made the first pinkpoint ascent? It's a striking line, but for Lonnie it must carry even greater significance.
Yes Lonnie loves this route, he's done it 4 times now. It means a lot more to him than just another route. Not only is there the family history but he also has a spiritual connection to the place - specifically the spot where Magic Line is. It's right next to Vernal Falls which are super beautiful. He was up there a bunch whilst we were working it and gave us a lot of advice and support. I think he appreciated that although we don't share his spiritualism or native connection to the land, we certainly really appreciated and respected the place and brought good vibes with us to the crag always. I think this is the best way to show respect: to show gratitude to be there and be humble amongst the scale and beauty of the land.
Has spending time with Lonnie caused you to think about your own relationship with the Valley? How do you feel about visiting and climbing in a place where the Ahwahneechee natives were evicted and poorly treated? Should climbers and other tourists be more mindful of the history of where they climb, in your opinion?
I have thought about this quite a bit and I learnt a lot from Lonnie in a UKC interview I did with him in 2012 and there is his Alpinist article that is really worth a read. The history is so sad and sometimes I feel a bit guilty about visiting Yosemite and I think climbers should have more of a positive impact on the dynamic, but I'm not sure what that would look like especially if you're coming from a foreign country. Lonnie suggested that I ask for the tribe's permission to climb the route, which I did via Facebook and they granted permission. I'm not sure of the details of whether they would appreciate more of that from climbers or not, but if they do appreciate it I hope that in the future there is a method to connect climbers and the native locals. I think the National Park is in the process of giving them back some land right now and rebuilding a village there and they are pretty busy negotiating that (see article). I hope it goes well for them.
How did you handle having fallen near the top on your next-to-last attempt, with just one day left? What were you thinking during the four attempts you had on the successful day? It seems to happen a lot that climbers do their projects at the crucial moment. Is this a case of pressure being useful, or perhaps pressure dissipating as chances appear to lessen?
Yes last day pressure, it's an interesting one. I definitely didn't feel the pressure lessen because I knew I could do it; I'd been close twice before and I knew I just needed to get through the lower crux and then keep my head together for the top. However, throughout the whole process I was working on my mind and mindset so although the pressure was on I had the resources I needed to deal with it. I kept coming back to a few concepts: one was that it was all good learning and that I was here for the learning and the experience and not the end. The 'end' would come whenever I was good enough to do the route and although I didn't know when that would be I reminded myself that it was exciting not knowing. I also reminded myself that I had signed up for a difficult challenge and therefore it would be stupid to resist the fact that it was hard. I really had to keep my head together at the rest below the final hard boulder. I did this by trying to stay present and I told myself that I just needed to be 'in' each move as in, just focus on the here and now and not let my mind jump forward to 'will I, won't I' thinking that has people off the top of a lot of routes. I was proud of myself for my mindset throughout the process especially because on the other project I did this year (Concepcion near Moab), I really failed to have a good mindset for a lot of it.
You focused all of your time on Magic Line this autumn. Do you have other big wall goals in mind for the future in Yosemite?
I was thinking that I'd need 2 years to do Magic Line so I'm psyched that next time I'm in the Valley I get to climb on something else. I'm not sure what yet but probably something on El Cap.