INTERVIEW: James McHaffie and Dan McManus on Salathe Wall

by Hazel Findlay and Jack Geldard - UKC May/2014
This news story has been read 10,551 times

Last week we reported that British climber James McHaffie made a ground-up free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan, USA, partnered by Dan McManus.

This is one of the world's most sought after big wall routes and is graded around 5.13b (8a). It is often considered the most natural line up the iconic El Cap, and features stunning hard free climbing, right at the very top of the wall. With hard sections at the top, many free climbers abseil in to the top pitches to work them before trying a full ascent. James and Dan set off from the ground, making for a more adventurous experience.

  • You can read a full write up from Dan McManus on his excellent blog.

In this short interview British climber Hazel Findlay (also currently in Yosemite) speaks to Dan and James about their ascent, and how it compares to some of the other hard routes they have done.

Dan Mcmanus and James McHaffie hanging out on Long Ledge on El Capitan, 95 kb
Dan Mcmanus and James McHaffie hanging out on Long Ledge on El Capitan
© Hazel Findlay

James McHaffie leading the stunning headwall crack of Salathe, Yosemite., 231 kb
James McHaffie leading the stunning headwall crack of Salathe, Yosemite.
© Hazel Findlay

INTERVIEW: Hazel Findlay speaks to James McHaffie and Dan McManus about The Salathé

Hazel: Why The Salathé? 

James: Well, we actually planned to do something else. I’d eyed up a picture of the West side of El Cap, and thought that Never Never land might make a good free climb. We heard that the first slab pitches would be tricky but one of the pitches would be close to impossible, so we decided the Salathé would be the next best option. 

Hazel: How did the ascent go? Did you start off on the right foot? 

Dan: We wanted to get the haulbags as high as we could, to minimise hauling whilst on the route. However whilst getting them up to hollow flake we were hit by a hailstorm. I have just returned from Thailand and this was an unwelcome change in temperature. Caff, meanwhile was halfway up the Hollow flake [a squeeze chimney/offwidth too wide to protect with gear] in a far worse situation. Even though hail was building up on his rock shoes Caff managed to skillfully slide back down to safety. 

Hazel: Why was it so important for you guys to go ground up? 

James: We didn’t really consider doing it any other way. The adventure in going ground up is important and it’s also a matter of time; we are only here for a month so we’d rather get stuck in to the climbing.  

Hazel: Apart from the headwall the other hard pitches are ‘The Boulder Problem’ pitch and the Enduro Corner pitches. You both managed to flash the boulder problem with valley local James Lucas giving you beta. How were those pitches?

Dan Mcmanus following the headwall crack pitch of Salathe, 232 kb
Dan Mcmanus following the headwall crack pitch of Salathe
© Hazel Findlay
Dan: Yeah, we both flashed the boulder problem, we didn’t think it was too hard, but quite fall-offable, so I was psyched to flash it. I thought the endurance corner was harder, you definitely need more granite-specific skills. Caff flashed it and I got it second try. 

Hazel: Most people who have freed the Salathé have worked the headwall pitch from above. How much did it mean to you guys to go ground up? Was that the only way you conceived of doing it?

Dan: It’s more adventurous to go ground up but also it makes more sense to me. It’s a real hassle to walk to the top of El Cap and drop in. 

Hazel: What’s the headwall like?

Dan: It’s pretty huge pitch, a full 60 metres from the ledges above a 12a roof pitch [where the route leaves Freerider] to Long Ledge, which is where we made our camp. Some people have done it in one long pitch (ledge-to-ledge), but most people break it up, which is what we did. We climbed the main crack section in a oner, which is given 13a. The second pitch is shorter and harder at 13b. The second boulder pitch suited us and we didn’t have too hard a time on it, the crack however, was the real test. 

James: The first 50 metre crack pitch would definitely get hard 8a+ at least in the UK. 

Hazel: How does the Salathé compare to the PreMuir Wall?

James: The Headwall is pretty similar in difficulty to any of the crux pitches of PreMuir wall but PreMuir is more sustained. 

Hazel: The Long Hope route is also a long hard crack pitch how does the Salathé compare to that? 

James: I think Salathe felt harder or a similar difficulty to the Long hope. The crux of the first long headwall pitch is right at the top, you could blow it loads of times. 

Hazel: What sort of skills do you need to climb the headwall?

Dan: I think you need a lot of granite skills to climb the headwall. It’s more about your skills than a strength or fitness thing. 

James: It mostly about standing on your feet and floating upwards. 

Dan: The moves weren’t obvious to me like face climbing is obvious.

James: I told you it was a filthy crack and you needed skinnier shoes for deeper penetration in the crack. 

Hazel: Maybe we’ll leave it there... (check out Dan's blog for his report on how hard the crack pitch is!)

Dan and James bedded down on the Alcove Bivvy on El Cap, 168 kb
Dan and James bedded down on the Alcove Bivvy on El Cap
© Hazel Findlay

You can watch a video of Mayan Smith-Gobat climbing the crux headwall pitch below:

James McHaffie is sponsored by: Boreal, DMMRab and Sterling Rope

Dan McManus is sponsored by: Scarpa

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