Free Rider / by Mayan Smith-Gobat

The big stone has left its mark.... We were on the wall for a mere three days, and yet it feels as though a life time has passt. I feel as though it has changed me, I have grown and aged in those three days. This huge piece of stone has a presence that dominates me and has left its mark on my life.... I understand now why people return endlessly to the valley, and spend huge amounts of time living in the vertical world.  Partners in crime, Max and I under El Capitan. Photographer: Mark Watson

I decided not to even attempt Golden Gate because it was getting near the end of the season, storms were becoming more frequent and the weather windows shorter. Choosing rather to attempt Free Rider 5.12d (27) instead, which is a little shorter and not quite as hard, therefore hopefully achievable in three days... giving us one day to spare before the next storm hit.

Sorting gear in preparation for Free Rider. Photographer: Mark Watson

This plan did not leave us much time for error, and also allowed me very little time to work and red-point any pitches that I did not manage to do first shot, but I was more in favor of this, than not climbing El Capitan at all. So, we spent the next next day sorting our gear and then to lighten the load on Max and I, we hauled the bags up to heart ledges in the dark.

Gear... Em's Power Bars were a vital ingredient for our success. Photographer: Max Farr

The first day went really well, we were up by 4am, by midday we had blasted out the "Free Blast" (the first 11 pitches of the Salathe Wall), and arrived at the Mamoth terraces. The down-climb was interesting, but went smoothly, leaving us at the base of the Hollow flake; where unfortunately we were held up for about an hour by a slower team. This gave me a much welcomed rest, but unfortunately meant that I ran out of daylight before attempting the "Monster", a 50m off-width which takes a number 6 Camalot nearly all the way up. Even though the "Monster" is only graded 5.11b, most climbers find it one of the crux pitches, and most attempt this pitch with full-body armor. So, once again at that moment I was happy to have a good excuse not to have to climb it right then, but in retrospect this hugely reduced my chances of free climbing the route.

Me, near the end of our first day on Free Rider, just below the "Monster". Photographer: Mark Watson

The following morning I gathered my tiered body together and threw myself at the pitch repetitively, but the rock was slightly damp and already too warm for me to succeed in doing the powerful and friction dependent downwards traverse which leads into the "Monster". With precious time ticking and a storm brewing, I was forced to accept that this time I would not be able to achieve my goal of freeing climbing El Capitan. I was faced with a choice between pushing on for the summit in whatever style I could or  try to work out the crux pitches and then return to the ground. It was a very hard call to make, and in the end we fixed a few more pitches that day, but left the decision open. I desperately wanted the top, it is something I have dreamed of all my life, but I also wanted to achieve it in a particular style... My goal is free climbing, and I found it very difficult to accept that this time I might have to use some aid if I wanted to get to the top in the amount of time we had available.... The "storm of the  century" was brewing!

Finally we decided to charge for the top. That last day on the headwall of El Capitan was mind blowing. We were up 5am, jugging our fixed lines by 6am and climbing by 7am. I lead 14 pitches that day, free climbing (on-sight) the majority of the route, but resorting to pulling on gear through the crux sections to save time. At dusk we were in a crazily exposed position halfway up the headwall, hanging on a couple of fixed wires in a splitter hand crack, 800m above the valley floor with another five pitches to climb. My energy levels had crashed and I almost lost it when I rounded a corner to what I expected to be a ledge and was confronted with another epic off-width. With Max's undying support, I managed to pull my wasted body together, and succeeded to on-sight the last three pitches to the summit, including a 5.11a roof-crack! We reached the summit at midnight, after 18 hours of climbing, to a much welcomed greeting from our friends, Mark and Hanah, who had thankfully not given up on us.

Tiered, but happy... sorting gear at the top of El Capitan. Photographer: Mark Watson

The next morning we slowly made our way back down to the valley floor, and with the weather becoming more and more threatening we decided to bail with our friends that afternoon. The clouds were pouring into the valley as we drove out, and half an hour after we crossed Tioga Pass it was closed due to heavy snow fall... Perfect timing!

I did not achieve my goal of freeing El Capitan, but I did lead every pitch (other than the monster off-width). Even though my body still hurts with every movement and my hands are so swollen that I can barely type this update, three days later, I have a burning desire to return to the valley and complete my goal of freeing El Capitan. I have learned a huge amount during the three days on the wall, and feel much better equipped for my next attempt. This experience has given me confidence that I can complete this goal, and has fueled fire in my heart and my love for these huge vertical expanses.

Max and I at the summit, ready for the long desent back to the insanity of the valley floor. Photographer: Mark Watson