Mission Muir Wall
Mission Muir Wall
In spring this year I travelled to Yosemite Valley, California, with two friends from Innsbruck, Much Mayr and Ben Lepesant. Our aim was to free-climb the 1000-metre El Capitan via a difficult route. For Much, who had already managed to free-climb the major El Cap routes, such as “El Nino”, “Golden Gate”, “Freerider”, and the “Salathe Wall”, the “Muir Wall”, or “The Shaft”, was a logical goal. Ben, who also has a considerable amount of difficult, technical big wall climbs under his belt, planned to support us in our mission as best he could, as well as take a few pictures. Free-climbing El Cap had been a major goal for me for a long time. In October 2015 I very narrowly missed successfully completing Golden Gate with my buddy Simon Berger. But this didn’t cause me to write off my dream of one day tackling the golden-yellow monolith. Quite the opposite. I was all the more motivated to get back to the valley of valleys as soon as possible.
We’re back. After the usual shopping madness and standing in line outside the ranger’s kiosk at Camp 4, we attempted to shake off our jet lag as quickly as possible on the surrounding climbing walls. It wasn’t long until we were in the “Muir Blast”, the first 12 pitches of the Muir Wall. The finest El Cap crack and dihedral climbing was the perfect introduction to what would await us on the wall over the coming days. We managed the 5.13b (8a) pitch on our second attempt, both lead climbing. This is exactly the way that we wanted to approach the route: the 5.13 sections with both lead climbing, the rest using the traditional leapfrog-style method.
At “Heart Ledges” we came across Ben, who had already hauled 30 litres of water up the wall using the established fixed ropes, while also managing to get some great shots of us. We rappelled down and spent the next three rainy days eating sushi, watching DVDs and enjoying the hot tub at a motel in Oakhurst.
The next fair weather day we were met with the smooth sections up to “Gray Ledges”, which we managed in one go. We set up our portaledges. Above us towered the giant, mirror-smooth dihedral “Silverfish Corner” (5.13b), which is one of the biggest hurdles on the route. This section cost us the entire day. Much climbed confidently to a few metres from the safety of the belay on the second attempt, but his foot slipped from one of the smooth treads, and the attempt was aborted. I wasn’t feeling very encouraged, and after two attempts we decided to take an extended break right into the evening, given the heat. I then tried my luck again. I battled my way from lock to lock, and my Skwamas managed to hold on the tiny treads. It was a real fight, and I was overjoyed when I reached the belay. The section was behind me. All that was missing now was Much. At this point I really wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with him: it was starting to get dark, and we all knew that this would be the last attempt of the day. Tension and the knowledge that his feet could slip with every metre did not make good companions, but once again Much proved his amazing nerve and gave it 110%. It was a real nail-biting time, and when he reached the belay we felt as though a great weight had been lifted off our shoulders. Because we didn’t have enough provisions for the next four days on the wall, we had to rappel down with the headlamps. Two days later we were back, with enough water and food for our final push. The day began with the 5.13a traverse, which I completed on my second attempt and Much managed in no time. This was followed by challenging crack pitches of all sizes, after which we reached the infamous “Death Block” pitch – a 5.12a ordeal with a four-metre-long wobbly flake 600 metres above the entry to “The Nose”, which is in use at all times of the day and night. So you don’t really want to imagine the damage that the flake could do if it flew out of the wall. Much volunteered to be the lead climber for this pitch early on, which was fine by me. Unfazed, he scrambled, heaved, scraped, swivelled and squeezed his way up. I followed up with the headlamp, relieved that I hadn’t drawn the short straw. We set up the portaledges in the dark and spent the night suspended in mid-air. The next morning, a 5.12d sustained stemming pitch awaited me as my breakfast. It actually felt the other way around, as if I was breakfast to the glass-smooth chimney dihedral. I fought my way upward, centimetre by centimetre, and soon it became clear that it was now or never. Under no circumstances did I want to climb this section a second time. Despite the kneepads, my knees were battered to such an extent that I started to think that there was no way this could be good for me. Three metres from the belay I slipped out of the corner, completely exhausted. It was exasperating. Will it all end here? At this hellish chimney dihedral? Much was experiencing the same thing. He worked the last few metres thoroughly again, and advised me to do the same. I climbed back up on the Jumars to save resources (skin, energy, motivation), and found a method that worked for me. Then Much managed to put the monster behind him. My green colouring had returned to normal after the long break, and I was able to climb the crazy section, which, if you know what you’re doing, is actually really cool to climb. The next pitches provided some recovery. Holds and treads, how nice normal climbing can be! We set up our camp high up on the Muir Wall, treated ourselves to a big dinner of tuna burritos, cheese and mashed potato, and knew that the hardest nut to crack was still waiting for us, two pitches below the exit.
The next day we climbed up to the last 5.13c dihedral, worked it quickly, and were shaken from side to side in the portaledges by the strong wind throughout the night and morning. We knew that the section would once again take everything we had. But that’s the way it is: on El Cap, nothing is handed to you on a plate. If you want to free-climb like this, you have to be able to handle every challenge that you come across. When it was my turn, I actually managed to find a perfect sequence really quickly. The biggest problem was remembering the complex movements and step sequences. Much also managed to find a suitable sequence of frictional steps to work his way up the dihedral of thin finger-sized cracks. I then made an initial, somewhat half-hearted attempt, and failed narrowly. The micronut on the crux had wedged and held. Much also failed by a narrow margin. We knew we could manage the section; our energy and the skin on our fingers were the limiting factors. We had enough water for two more days at a push, but the weather report was forecasting bad weather for the next few days. It’s a strange feeling when you have nearly 1,000 metres of open air beneath you, poised in a glass-like, smooth corner where you can slip with every move, and have to simply believe that you’re going to manage it, right there and then. But that’s exactly what I did. I set off without pressure, without expectation, and without fear of failing, and I managed to tackle this final hurdle unbridled. Reaching the belay, I could hardly believe it. My first El Cap free climb. Crazy!!! Back on the belay, Much hugged me. He was delighted for me. We had only won half the battle, as now Much had to show his nerve – but that is exactly his strength. He readied himself after a long break, and soon completed the attempt, reaching the belay. We rejoiced like children, then climbed the easy exit sections in the drizzle. For me, a long-standing dream had become reality – all with the help of Much and Ben as the perfect partners. If I had to describe the entire thing in one word, I would say: GRATITUDE!!!
A big thanks also goes to my sponsors and partners for their generous support in realising my climbing dreams. Thank you!!! adidas Outdoor, Terrex, adidas Sportseyewear, Petzl, Lasportiva, Rock´n Roll Mountainstore, Headstart, Pieps. Much: La Sportiva, Skylotec.
Following the initial ascent by Tommy Caldwell and Justen Sjong (US), Tobias Wolf and Thomas Hering (D) achieved the first repeat, Alex Honnold (US) managed the second repeat, and Much Mayr and Guido Unterwurzacher completed what is believed to be the third repeat.
Photos: Ben Lepesant