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Heart Route Goes Free
Posted on: June 19, 2015
On June 17 at 4:00 p.m., after four seasons of work followed by a six-day push on the wall, Mason Earle completed the first free ascent of El Cap's Heart Route. On this final, successful push, he was partnered with Brad Gobright, who freed all but ten feet. The line climbs new terrain in order to bypass several hundred feet of grass-choked cracks. Using a combination of the Verm bouldering scale and YDS (Yosemite Decimal System), Earle rates the route V10 5.13b. The men had left bivy equipment stashed high on the route, obviating the need to haul each pitch as they climbed, leaving them to do a few multi-hundred-foot hauls at a time to advance their camp.
Chuck Kroger and Scott Davis made the first ascent of the 3,000-foot Heart Route in April 1970. The climb starts on the right side of the Slack, via Sacherer Cracker, the well-traveled hand-crack-to-offwidth 400 feet right of the Dihedral Wall. It then climbs the middle of the obvious, roof-capped heart feature on El Cap's southwest face.
"The real meat of the climbing is the five pitches starting with the roof at the heart," Earle says. "You have three 5.13 pitches back-to-back, totally steep; unbelievable climbing."
The free Heart shares some terrain with Bermuda Dunes before cutting right to reach Heart Ledges. "We climbed on Heart Route, then Bermuda Dunes' 5.11 chimney. [Here] you have to do this chimney-down-climb escape move," Earle said over the phone while driving home from the Valley to Salt Lake City.
In 2001, Alex Huber and Max Reichel started on the Salathe Wall and connected to the Heart Route at pitch 22; they then freed the top of the Heart Route, calling their variation Golden Gate, rated 5.13b. Earle's climb joined Golden Gate two pitches above where Huber and Reichel had cut over.
Earle calls the seven-pitch free version of the Heart Route to Heart Ledges "Heart Blast," to go with the Free Blast and Muir Blast theme of nearby sections of parallel long, hard free routes.
Technically, the crux of the free Heart Route is on Pitch 6, where Earle threw himself across a long stretch of blank rock, completing the V10 "gnarly sideways dyno." It is a move he called "turbo fuck: if you're not six-feet tall with a big reach, you can't reach the holds." Gobright was unable to complete this one ten-foot section, but other than that the climbers swung leads.
The last 5.13 pitch above the heart feature climbs an overhanging arete for a few bolt-protected moves, and then traverses past a coffee-table-sized guillotine flake. "We don't know how it hangs there," says Earle. "It's like all the angels in heaven are holding it in place. You can't touch it." One more pitch of 5.11 brought the team to Golden Gate, with fourteen pitches remaining to the top.
Exhausted by their efforts getting up and through the heart, Earle and Gobright were relieved to see chalk on the grips of Golden Gate—left by Emily Harrington, who'd freed the climb earlier in the season. Earl knew the route having climbed it free in spring 2009. They climbed the final pitches in a day and a half, completing the 5.13 pitches within a few attempts. On their last day on the wall, they left their camp and dashed for the summit. "I was so frickin stressed," Earle said. He was counting down the remaining days until a flight out of the country. Tired and sore, he seriously doubted if he had the reserves to finish without resorting to hanging or pulling on gear. "Either we would get shut down on the exit pitches or we would send," he says.
Once at the top, the climbers took a few moments to relax and let the achievement settle in. Minutes later, they clipped into their ropes and began rappelling, retrieving their stashed camp along the way.
This is Earle's second new Yosemite free route. In 2013 he freed a six-pitch crack-and-face project on Schultz's Ridge below El Cap, calling it Psycho Bitch, 5.13b.
Sources: Ben Ditto, Mason Earle, Yosemite BigWalls The Complete Guide
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