A Long Time Coming

Posted on: March 1, 2006

Tommy Caldwell freeing the Changing Corners pitch (5.14a, The Nose, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. [Photo] Corey Rich

My eyes jolted open: Chris McNamara had arrived at the belay. I couldn't believe I had fallen asleep hanging in my harness. The night was growing cold, goosebumps covered my skin and a slight chill shivered up my spine. Maybe my body was shutting down from overexertion.

I clicked my headlamp on high. Slipping my climbing shoes over my swollen, tender feet, I began stemming. The stars provided just enough light for me to see the base of El Cap, 2,500 shimmering feet below. I switched to a lieback and continued grunting up the steep, smooth corner. My arms quivered with pain and fatigue. My hand started to cramp. In desperation I switched back to stemming. My breathing quickened. Falling here would seriously affect my chances of success. My feet began to slide. I pulled harder, but my muscles gave out. I was off.

It had been a long day: I had been climbing for twenty-two hours and sixty pitches. "Whose idea was it to try and free climb two El Cap routes in a day?" I whimpered to Chris.

"Um... yours," he replied.

My entire life had been perfectly constructed to free climb El Cap. I spent many childhood summer days flying a kite in El Cap Meadow or playing in the waters of the Merced while my dad was off suffering on the walls. El Cap always seemed to tower above me. I could not understand its immensity: it was so overwhelmingly massive, it looked surreal. Its climbers seemed like superheroes. To climb something as vast as that, I thought, they had to be superior to the rest of us.

And the Nose, weaving its way 3,000 feet up the center of El Cap, was the greatest rock climb of them all. My dad was one of those mythical characters who had climbed it: in 1969 he made its nineteenth ascent. I remember him pointing out features from the Meadow—the Great Roof, the Boot Flake—and telling me about his adventures: how he had scrounged random pieces of angle iron and cheap pitons; how he and his teammates hauled their equipment in canvas duffels until holes in the bottom threatened to dump their gear to the trees below. They climbed with swamis and Goldline ropes, the cutting-edge gear of the day.

In 1993 I was fifteen and a full-on sport climber when Lynn Hill first freed the Nose. The ultimate had been achieved, I thought: the most famous rock climb in the world had now been freed. The style in which Lynn climbed it and the apparent ease of her success astounded me. I remember photos of her stemming above thousands of feet of air as she delicately worked her way up nearly invisible features. A video of her on the Changing Corners pitch made it look as though she were climbing a completely blank corner. Holding on with nothing but opposition, she contorted her body in bizarre ways that seemed to defy physics. I was fascinated, and rushed to the corner of my house to try to climb it, but only succeeded in leaving black scuff marks on the walls. It was obvious that Lynn was a different kind of human.

In the twelve years since Lynn's first free ascent, only Scott Burke had come close to repeating her accomplishment. As time went by, and the world's best climbers tried and failed to free the route, the Nose became even more legendary. Some of the strongest men to fail called Lynn a sandbagger, crediting her success to her small fingers and petite frame. But that wasn't true. Lynn was simply way ahead of her time. The climbing world was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of her success that it lost perspective completely.

To aid climbers and free climbers alike, the Nose is a treasure. Everything about it—from the first ascent to the first one-day ascent to the first free ascent—marks a milestone in climbing. My wife, Beth Rodden, and I felt the allure of the route as much as anyone. In the autumn of 2005 we traveled to Yosemite with the dream of repeating Lynn's historic free ascent in the best style we could manage. Although Beth had been battling a foot injury for the past two years, one that we feared might doom the whole project, we were determined to try to free the route together.

We had come to the Valley with the Nose in mind before, but its popularity meant there were almost always people on it. The crowds had discouraged us: we didn't want to take away from other climbers' experiences by staking claim to the route while we puzzled out its pitches—but we also knew that the climb wasn't going to get any less crowded. If we wanted to free it, we would have to find a way to work around the other parties.

We decided to climb the route first from bottom to top, making sure we could do all the moves. The hardest pitches—the Changing Corners and Great Roof—are both within nine pitches of the top. These we would rehearse by rapping in each day, working out the moves, then pulling our ropes as we went up to keep out of the way of other climbers.

The memory of Lynn's accomplishment accompanied us at each stage, a constant presence, both inspiring and intimidating. At the crux, the Changing Corners pitch, the walls on either side of the corner are so smooth we could barely see the holds. We spent hours trying to get our feet and hands to stick as Lynn's had. Progress was slow, if at all: we'd pull onto the rock and make a move only to have a foot or hand slip. A smack to the shin, elbow or forehead usually followed, leaving us bleeding and bruised. Sometimes I'd pop off, and if no other parties were there to see me, I'd curse and scream—and then just hang there, bewildered at what Lynn had done.

For me the pitch was difficult, but for Beth, who is five feet tall on a good day, it was even harder. She had to pull into the corner lower than where Lynn or I had, a position that added twenty feet to the crux in nearly holdless terrain. She had another factor to contend with as well: her injured foot. After each day, it became inflamed. We both tried to ignore her developing limp, but the possibility of failure haunted us.

We ended many days demoralized, our bodies battered. I'd massage Beth's foot and we'd slip into our sleeping bags with little conversation, not wanting to express our doubts. But now and then we'd solve a hard section for the first time. I began to figure out a sequence of distorted opposition, knee- and hip-scums, armbars and tenuous palming that had potential. The combination of delicate moves and gut-wrenching body tension was unlike anything I had climbed before.

Beth soon mastered her own method, scissoring her legs in opposite directions. It made for slow, strenuous progress that left her panting and wobbly legged, but her injured foot held up and her unorthodox technique seemed as though it might work. These were the moments that kept us going.

When we couldn't take the suffering any longer, we rapped to the Great Roof. The pitch was rumored to be nearly impossible for fat fingers, and mine are as fat as they come (plus, I'm missing one of them). As we sat at the belay, we were awed by the beauty of the pitch. A perfect crack curves out beneath the roof, with dizzying exposure below. We expected another monstrous struggle.

On my first burn, I entered the crux, shoving my fingers into the pin scars—and found that they slipped in farther than I had expected. I delicately placed my feet on holds that were ledges compared to ones on the Changing Corners pitch. To my surprise, by the end of the day, I had redpointed the Great Roof on toprope and Beth was not far behind. That evening we were no longer silent. Beth's foot seemed to hurt less, and our newfound confidence brimmed over in an outpouring of ecstatic words. The rumors had been a farce; all the macho men of the Valley had needed a reason Lynn had found success where they couldn't, so they had simply made one up.

We spent several weeks, the majority of them on the Changing Corners, working these two pitches. At times the struggle felt so painful we wondered if it were worth it. But then we would come across a party on their first big wall. Some had failed to make it to their planned bivy ledges and ended up sleeping in slings; others had run out of water. A few shook with fear; others whooped and hollered. All of them were suffering much more than we were, but few of them bailed.

At Camp 6 we encountered a Japanese team that had started up the Nose five days before their plane left for home. On Day 2 they had waited out a severe thunderstorm with only their rain jackets to protect them.

"How was the storm?" I asked them.

"Bad," one of them replied in a stern voice. "But if we do not send, we do not go home to Japan."

As they started up the Changing Corners, we noticed one of them was aiding in a blown-out pair of Sportiva Venoms. The other jumared in socks.

"I retreat far too quickly," Beth said.

Then there was the Spanish team. On one morning we woke them as they hung thirty feet below a comfortable site on Dolt Tower; on another, we found them sleeping sixty feet below the summit. During our third week of working the route, we slogged up the East Ledges to our usual bivy. All we wanted was a good night's sleep, but as we approached, we saw the trees rustle in the moonlight and we heard faint chatter.

"Man, someone's in our bivy site," Beth said.

Two heads poked up.

"Beth! Tommy! We are the Spanish!"

Our exhaustion faded in peals of welcome laughter. They were the last people we expected to see in such a cozy spot.

But our breakthrough finally came with an Australian party.

We had been sitting at Camp 6 when we heard the Australians call out, "Here Piggy, Piggy," to a haulbag made almost entirely out of duct tape. When it arrived at their belay, they patted it gently and said, "Good Piggy." We were temporarily crippled with laughter.

Once they'd passed, I weaved up the Changing Corners through a chandelier of ropes; I was still laughing so hard, I nearly fell off the holds. Before I knew it, I was through the crux. I couldn't believe that my laughter had distracted me from my pain and my doubts enough to let me succeed. The same magic worked for Beth. She climbed in a carefree way, better than ever.

By the time we got to the top that night, the Australians were gone, but we wished we could have thanked them, our unexpected deliverers.

We started our free push at midnight on October 11, four weeks after we arrived in Yosemite. We wanted most of the climb done before sunup. Ideally, one of us would lead and the other follow each pitch cleanly, alternating the difficult pitches so we'd each lead half the route. Beth had originally been timid about leading, but today she ran up the pitches. By daybreak we were on Dolt Tower, ten pitches up.

We reached the Great Roof by 2 p.m., then rapped back down to Camp 4 and spent the rest of the day napping in the sun. The next morning, we awoke before sunrise, packed our ledge and jumared back to the base of the Great Roof. Beth was quieter than usual. She quickly racked up and slipped on her climbing shoes. Her comp days began to show as she climbed: her movements became methodical and calculated, and she sprinted through the harder sections, resting where she could.

The Roof's final twenty feet present the hardest climbing. Most of it is fixed with rusty nuts; if you fall, you just hope not too many pop or break. Beth got to her last rest stance, chalked up, then aggressively launched into the crux. She floated the first few moves but soon started to grunt.

"Come on, Beth—you can do it," I offered.

Her feet started to slip. She screamed, quivering as she reached for the good hold at the end of the crux. As her fingertips touched it, her other hand pumped out. She fell.

For a silent moment she hung at the rope's end, 2,000 feet above the ground.

"Good effort," I shouted. "You'll get it next try."

No response. I expected her to burst into tears, but a few seconds later she popped her head up to look at me.

"Well, it was a good warm-up burn," she said.

I lowered her back down to the belay, and we pulled the rope. On her next try she climbed even more smoothly and efficiently than she had before, and I could tell right away she was going to do it. As she approached the end of the crux, she started breathing heavily again. She pulled in hard to the roof, got the good jam and heaved over to the anchor. She shouted with excitement. I gave a sigh of relief. A few minutes later she had me on belay.

I quivered up the pitch, managing, somehow, to hold on. The Great Roof had gone as smoothly as we could have imagined... but it was just getting us ready for what was to come.

At 2 p.m. we were at Camp 6, looking up at the Changing Corners pitch. By now, the urine-infested ledge had started to feel a bit like home. We set up camp and slept the remainder of the day. The next day we had planned to rest, but by morning I felt antsy and decided to climb.

My first try went badly: I fell on the first hard move. I tried it again and fell a second time. I couldn't seem to make my feet stick.

Beth sensed my frustration building. "Just calm down," she said in her usual caring way. "We have plenty of time."

On my next attempt I felt more focused. I placed my feet and hands with precision and applied just the right pressure to hold on. Halfway up, as I switched from scissoring to hip-scumming, I could feel my feet creeping off the holds. After another ten feet I switched back to scissoring. With calves and forearms burning, I tried to place a small nut, but my body tension started to give out. I threw the sling over my head, aggressively palmed the wall behind and smeared my foot high on a small edge. The bolt was ten feet below, around the corner; I tried not to think about the fall. With a high knee-scum, I palmed my hand hard and reached for a jug. My fingers latched it securely. I let out a yell.

The climb was all but over for me, but I hadn't considered the pressure my success would put on Beth. Now, if she couldn't do it, she would think she was holding me back. I didn't want to free this route unless she freed it with me. Either one of us could have done the route much more quickly with the other there purely as support, but we were resolved to do it as a team: a shared experience is so much richer than a solitary one.

I am always more impressed by team-free ascents than those in which one person leads the entire route and the other jumars. When the second jugs and carries the bag, the leader doesn't have to cope with energy-sapping hauling. He also doesn't have to wait for the other person to send. I've only managed to do a few of my free ascents on El Cap as a team, and it wasn't for lack of trying. It's hard to find someone dedicated enough to put in all the necessary work.

Beth spent the rest of the day chewing her fingernails.

At 4:30 the next morning a party from Montana graciously started the Changing Corners in order to be off it by sunup so Beth would have all the shady hours to try to do the pitch.

I figured that, like me, Beth would need at least one warm-up burn to get the feel of the climbing again. To my surprise she pulled directly into the corner on her first attempt and started inching her way up.

As she approached the end of the pitch, she started screaming. Legs quivering, she reached for a slightly better crimp in the crack. I could see her start to relax. Suddenly her foot slipped and her whole body tensed up again. She managed to pull it back together and continue to the anchor.

When she got there, I gave her a big hug. But she didn't seem excited at all. She looked a little worried.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I think that when my foot slipped, I might have weighted the rope a little."

"Are you sure? I didn't feel anything."

"I don't think I could feel right about the ascent with that in the back of my mind. I'm going to try it again."

I was shocked, confused, concerned and incredibly proud all at the same time: that she would reclimb the crux just to make sure she didn't weight the rope showed real character. I lowered her down and watched as she battled it out. This time she came up smiling.

"Wow! You're on fire!" I said.

She indeed appeared content. Just the day before I had been hang-dogging and whimpering on this same pitch—and I had done half as much hard climbing as she had. My wife does have a way of putting me in my place.

We sped up the next four pitches. Above lay the final one: a severely overhanging, winding pitch with one powerful move. The sun had come around the corner. The rock felt greasy. Our feet were swollen and our fingers sore, a true sign that El Cap was once again in charge; but I tried to quell any thoughts of uncertainty or fatigue.

On the first few moves I felt shockingly heavy. Four days on the wall were starting to catch up with me, and the lactic acid pooled in my arms. Focusing, I climbed carefully, and by the time I got to the last hard move, I had worked up so much resolution I was sure I wasn't going to fall. I made a long deadpoint to a two-finger crimper, wrapped my thumb around my fingers, threw my foot high and pulled as if it were the last move in the world. My body soared over the bulge, and my head was again above my toes.

I slowly climbed the remaining forty feet to the top, then put Beth on belay. I couldn't see her for the first half of the pitch, but she seemed to make steady progress. When I saw her hand appear over the bulge, I yelled, "Pull as hard as you can!"

And she did. She gritted her teeth, scrunched her face, pulled over the bulge and stood there, panting.

Once she started climbing again, she alternated between crying and growling. I knew she was in severe pain from her foot. When she reached the end, she passed me without pausing, limped to the summit tree and let out the loudest scream of all.

We were both on the verge of tears, Beth from pain and me because I was so proud of her. I hugged her, and then we both sat down and tried to comprehend what we had done.

Free climbing the Nose had been a lofty goal for each of us. Now, we had gotten to do it together, as husband and wife. At that moment, as long as Beth were with me, I could have died a happy man.

I fear the route is in danger of losing its mythic status. In the autumn of 2005, two Yosemite climbers bolted a short variation to the crux of the Changing Corners, altering the route's 5.14a crux to a short V8 boulder problem right off a new bolted belay. Although you can still climb the original pitch, the variation makes the climb more accessible. Some of what distinguished the Nose from other El Cap free climbs is gone, and this loss transforms it from a benchmark in big-wall free climbing to just another route.

I am saddened not that the rock provides a variation, but that someone took the liberty to add unnecessary bolts, thus changing the world's most iconic free climb, not to make it better but to make it easier. The act showed little respect for the people who came before or those who will come after. Perhaps the route will be restored at some point. But for us, our time on the Nose was still as perfect as I could have imagined.

We got down, the excitement started to settle, and Beth brought up a subject I'd been avoiding.

"So, when do you want to do the dual climb?"

A few years ago, after I free climbed the Salathe in a day, my friend Adam Stack asked if I thought it were possible to free climb two independent routes on El Cap in a day. At the time the idea seemed ridiculous, if compelling.

The ultimate one-day dual climb would be the Nose and the Salathe, but that will have to wait for someone much stronger. For me, the roughly sixty-five pitches of the Nose combined with Free Rider provided more than enough challenge.

Last year I trained with the dual climb in mind. To raise my pain tolerance and stamina, I did multiple daily workouts: two climbing sessions, weightlifting, a three-hour bike ride. Now, I was probably in the best shape of my life for El Cap routes. I already had one of the routes pretty wired. There would be no better time to try the linkup.

After a celebratory dinner at the Mountain Room and two days of rest, I got back to work. The first step was the Nose in a day—again something that Lynn had dispensed with more than a decade ago.

We started at midnight. With Beth jumaring, carrying all of the food, water and clothing, and with no haulbag, the climb went quickly, and by first light we were at the Great Roof. Knowing that on the dual climb this obstacle would be only the beginning, my perspective changed, and I climbed it with little difficulty.

We climbed the next four pitches in just over an hour. I felt warmed up, but I wasn't that tired. I pulled into the Changing Corners and began the contorted sequence with confidence. But when I switched to hip-scumming, my foot unexpectedly slipped.

My next try went smoothly, and I hurried to the top, finishing the climb in just over twelve hours. I couldn't believe it. I was well on my way to my ultimate goal.

Five days later we climbed Free Rider, a two-and-a-half pitch variation to the Salathe Wall. Compared to the Nose, it felt like an afterthought. Still, I knew I needed to relearn the pitches if I wanted to climb both routes in a day.

By the time I got to the top, I felt a little run down. We had endured seven weeks of Valley abuse; maybe I was taking this too fast? The end of October was fast approaching, though, and the weather could turn bad any day. I set the date for October 30. I would just have to be ready.

We started the Nose at 1 a.m., with Beth jumaring and belaying. By climbing a little faster than usual, we figured we could make it to the Great Roof by sunrise. As it turned out, we reached it an hour early and shivered while the sky brightened. When it got light enough, I shook my way across the pitch.

It was a perfect warm-up. Once again we raced to the Changing Corners. But as I pulled into the corner, I felt heavy and climbed only a few feet before I fell.

Maybe I had done too much this season. Maybe I hadn't rested enough. This should have felt easy: I still had forty pitches to go.

The next try I climbed a little higher but slipped again. I better not keep this up, I thought.

On my third go I managed to link the moves to the anchors. A couple hours later I stood on top.

It had been eleven hours since we started. I was on schedule. I quickly fixed Beth's rope, dropped the rack, drank some water, ate a sandwich and then sprinted down the East Ledges. Beth's dad picked me up forty-five minutes later in the parking lot.

Chris McNamara was waiting for me in the Meadow, with fresh energy, an expansive grin and about twenty other people who had gathered to see the show. I had never climbed with Chris before, but he was the perfect partner for the second route. Having climbed El Cap sixty-seven times, he knew the Big Stone by heart. Chris handed me a new rack and we set off.

I have always suspected I was allergic to the sun, and now my suspicions were confirmed. As the sun glared down, my swollen feet grew tender; smearing began to feel like walking on hot coals. I tried to stay relaxed, but the pain made climbing awkward. I had twenty-five pitches to go, and I was already tired.

On Pitch 15—a 150-foot offwidth dubbed the "Monster"—the sun started to go down and instantly I felt much better. As the pitches drew on, though, my forearms began to ache; movement became painful and awkward. My mouth grew parched, my stomach queasy. I started to slow down. Chris was still jumaring incredibly fast; by now, I had dubbed him "Rocket" McNamara. I secretly prayed he would decelerate so I could rest more at each belay.

When I reached Sous Le Toit Ledge at 8:30 p.m., I slumped onto it in a big panting heap. I was starting to get anxious. The next five pitches were all harder than what I had just climbed. All I wanted was to sleep for a few hours, but only three hours remained to the twenty-four hour mark.

I grunted my way up a 5.11 lieback corner, arms tingling and fingers cramped. I fixed the rope and closed my eyes. Chris woke me at the belay a few minutes later.

Like clockwork we reracked and I started up the next pitch. Knowing this was the last major hurdle, I summoned as much energy as I could. Five minutes of pure agony and a foot slip left me hanging on the end of the rope.

Chris lowered me, we pulled the rope, and I started up again. The new moon provided little help with finding footholds, and the still night seemed to mock me. Was I crazy to be trying this?

I climbed as deliberately as I could. Five feet higher, my fingers peeled open and I fell again.

I had started my day with Beth at 1 a.m. on the Nose; now it was 9:15 p.m., and I was exhausted. I knew that I only had four more pitches to go, but it seemed like miles.

The radio clipped to Chris's harness squawked to life.

"How are you doing down there, Tommy?" Beth said. My adrenaline surged at the sound of her voice. I tried to think of something to say that would allay her fears. "I'm coming for you, baby," I said with more energy than I had had in the past 200 feet.

Even though I had seen Beth less than twelve hours before, I missed her. We had begun this project together seven weeks earlier, and her energy had become the fuel for my effort.

I pulled the rope, tied back in and headed up the pitch again. My mind and body were starting to malfunction: I couldn't figure out which foot to move up. My arms began to shut down, and I felt as if I might puke. But I was so close to completing my goal. I closed my eyes, breathed deep, and willed my feet to stick.

As I reached my previous high point, determination took over. I carefully placed my hands and stemmed. With a nauseated stomach and swollen feet, I reached the anchor.

The next three pitches were offwidths. Luckily forearm endurance and a clear mind were not required; I just needed to suffer.

With one 5.6 pitch left, a smile replaced my grimace. I had reached my goal. Though it seemed like a week ago, I had started up the Nose with Beth twenty-three hours and fifteen minutes earlier. The hard work and dedication had paid off. I was ecstatic.

I groveled my way to the top. Beth was there with friends to greet me. The glow of halogen headlamps seemed surreal, and the crowd's boundless energy was contagious. But I was floored. I collapsed, and Beth fixed the rope for Chris. At 12:23 a.m., twenty-three hours and twenty-three minutes after starting, I was finally done.

Only now am I beginning to appreciate our season in Yosemite. The tips of my big toes remain numb, and my left elbow aches, but each time Beth and I walk the Meadow and look up at the Nose, memories float back to us, dreamlike, almost unreal.

The climbers on El Cap still seem superhuman to me. I cannot wait to fly a kite with our kids in the Meadow and tell them about this season in Yosemite and our time on the Nose, when Camalots and sticky rubber were cutting edge and we climbed the most famous route in the world. z

Summary of Statistics: The Free Nose (VI 5.14a, ca. 3,000'), second integral free ascent, October 11-15, 2005, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden; second one-day free ascent (twelve hours), October 18, Tommy Caldwell. The Free Nose (VI 5.14a, ca. 3,000') and Free Rider (VI 5.12d/13a, ca. 3,200'), first enchainment of two El Capitan free routes in a day (23:23), Tommy Caldwell, October 31, 2005.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.