Most climbers will have dreamed of climbing El Capitan, the world’s greatest crag, in California’s Yosemite Valley. Most will tackle the 3,000 feet of perfect granite on aid, bashing their way up it over many days. But then there are the elite few, like Hazel Findlay, climbers so good they can free climb El Cap's punishing routes with up to 30 long desperate pitches. We sent Niall Grimes to find out more.
This year Hazel went on to further show she is the queen of British trad climbing by free climbing El Cap for a staggering third time with an ascent of Freerider. This Huber brothers masterpiece is the easiest free climb on the main faces but don’t be fooled; this ride ain’t an easy ride.
The crux might be a 5.13 boulder problem low on the route but above this things get a lot harder with lots of hard steep crack pitches. Worst of all these is the Monster Offwidth, a full pitch of body offwithing that has reduced many hotshots to tears.
We caught up with Hazel, originally from Bristol but now a seasoned world traveller, to see how the route felt.
El Cap is still seen as the world’s ultimate crag. Do you feel this way or do you think Avon Gorge just about beats it? If it wasn't for the road they would probably tie as the world's best crag. Not sure why I leave Bristol really.
Who did you do Freerider with? Did you lead it all / swap leads / second? I climbed it with James Lucas. We swung leads for the most part, but I ended up leading the Monster because we fell getting in to it and then James led the Scotty Burk (the last offwidth) because I thought I'd throw up if I saw another wide crack.
Does climbing El Cap feel like a battle or fun day out? It's a battle and a fun day out. I think for people who haven't climbed in yosemite, they'll see some of the grades, convert them into e1 or whatever and think that freeing El Cap might be a doddle, but easy cracks (for me anyway) are still hard and tiring, and climbing 30 pitches of them rarely feels easy. But the rock on that side of El Cap is about the best you'll get, and every pitch would be a 5 star classic at any UK crag.
Did you make any silly blunders on the ascent? We forgot to bring enough batteries. But we have friends that saved us so it was ok.
What frame of mind are you in when you are halfway up a 40m pitch called Monster Offwidth? Sort of hating it and hoping that you can get up it so you never have to do it again. I asked James before we started up the Monster whether, given the chance he would wish away the Monster and not have it as a part of the route, and he said 'no of course not, it gives the route character'. After the Monster, when talking about whether he'd go back up there, he said 'I wish the Monster wasn't part of the route, if it wasn't I'd go back'. I'm sure if you wait a year, he'll revert to his previous opinion, because he'll have forgotten how much he hated it.
What muscle ached the most when you topped out? My triceps, from chicken winging and gastoning the lip of the monster.
Did you treat yourself after your ascent? How? Not really. All my friends went to Bishop to go bouldering and I'm too lazy to cook, so I had some yogurt and bran flakes and went to bed.
Any plans for harder things on El Cap? Always got ideas for harder routes on El Cap, but plans require partners and motivation and everything to come together, which may or may not happen.
You seem to have found a natural home among the US climbing scene. Does the scale and attitude of climbing there suit you? Climbers are climbers wherever you go. I travel so much now, that I've learnt to be a social chameleon, adapting myself to the people and place I'm in, but as long as you are around climbers, you'll always have something in common. I like going to the states because of the rock, but now i've made friends there, there is another reason to go back. America is also great because having a British accent over there means you can get away with almost anything.
You’re becoming a BMC Ambassador (watch this space for news on our Ambassadors scheme). From your experience of climbing worldwide what do you think the BMC should focus on for the benefit of British climbing? It would be nice if the BMC could get cheaper insurance for people who want to travel more than 30 days or whatever it is. I like the fact that the BMC (through the means of grants) helps climbers financially to go on big adventures and travel to places they might not have been able to fund themselves. I'm lucky enough to be a professional climber and get most of my travel paid for, but it's nice to think that non-professionals can still get help to do interesting things.
Do you prefer cats or dogs? I prefer nice cats to mean dogs and nice dogs to mean cats.
Keep up with the latest from Hazel on her blog. We couldn't keep up with her, we'll have to catch up with her another time about climbing the Nose.
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