Brits James McHaffie and Dan McManus recently returned to the horizontal after spending seven days free climbing the Salathé Wall on El Capitan, Yosemite. Hazel Findlay finds out more.
The Salathé Wall was first climbed by Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt in 1961. It was the first main El Capitan route to go free, climbed by Todd Skinner and Paul Piana over nine days in 1988, after 30 days of working the route. The crux pitch is called the Headwall and is one of the most ‘king lines’ you’ll ever see. Imagine a 60-meter splitter crack in the most exposed position on El Cap, 800m off the deck.
James and Dan climbed the route ground-up: once they left the ground they stayed on the wall until they topped out. James – a BMC ambassador – managed a full free ascent, flashing everything apart from the Headwall pitches, which he redpointed over two days. Dan managed to flash most of the route, but didn’t manage to free the main crack of the Headwall.
In Yosemite myself, mostly drinking beer in the Meadow due to an injured shoulder, I decided to find out more about their ascent.
Why Salathé Wall? I heard you had plans to do something else first?
James: We did want to do something else first, but that proved to be an impossibility. I’d eyed up a picture of the West side of El Cap, and thought that Never Never Land might make a good free climb. We heard that the first slab pitches would be tricky, and tricky they were indeed.
James: The first pitch would have been about F7c+ to free, but the second pitch would have been much harder than that.
James: Very hard
Dan: Very close to impossible I think.
James: It might go if you added more bolts, but Dan and myself weren’t into that, we’re on holiday, so the Salathé seemed like the next best option.
How did the ascent go? Did you start off on the right foot?
Dan: We wanted to get the haulbags as high as we could, to minimise hauling whilst on the route. However whilst getting them up to hollow flake we were hit by a hailstorm. I’ve just returned from Thailand and this was a pretty unwelcome change in temperature. Caff, meanwhile, was halfway up the Hollow Flake (a squeeze chimney/offwidth too wide to protect with gear) and was in a far worse situation. But even though hail was building up on his rock shoes, he managed to skilfully slide back down to safety.
Apart from the Headwall, the other hard pitches are The Boulder Problem pitch and the Enduro Corner pitches. You both managed to flash the boulder problem with valley local James Lucas giving you beta. How were those pitches?
Dan: We both liked the Boulder Problem it’s got funky climbing. We didn’t find it that difficult. I think it suited us due to its British style: short, crimpy and technical. The Endurance corner was a bit trickier and required more granite-specific skill.
Most people who have freed the Salathé have worked the Headwall pitch from above. How much did it mean to you guys to go ground up? Was that the only way you conceived of doing it?
Dan: It’s more adventurous to go ground up but also it makes more sense to me. It’s a real hassle to walk to the top of El Cap and drop in.
James: The adventure is important. It’s also a matter of time; we are only here for a month and we’re into hanging out on the wall and having fun not walking to the top of El Cap.
What’s the Headwall like?
Dan: It’s pretty huge pitch, a full 60 metres from the ledges above a 12a roof pitch (where the route leaves Freerider) to Long Ledge, which is where we made our camp. Some people have done it one long pitch (ledge-to-ledge), but most people break it up, which is what we did. We climbed the main crack section in a oner, which is given 13a. The second pitch is shorter and harder at 13b. The second boulder pitch suited us and we didn’t have a problem, the crack, however, was the real test.
James: The 50 metre pitch would definitely get 8a at least in the UK.
What were the highlights?
Dan: Finishing the Monster was a natural highlight. Getting to Long Ledge was also a massive relief.
James: Catching the jug on the top of the Headwall pitch. Hanging out on Long Ledge. Setting off from Long Ledge on the 12a Knob Pitch, knowing I’d freed the Headwall.
Was the notorious Monster offwidth easier second time round?
Dan: No it felt harder the second time! The first time if felt about E5 and the second time E6.
And any lowpoints?
Dan: The moment I realised I couldn’t do the Headwall was a low moment. I gave it my best shot on second, pulled on the first hard move, split my tip so dropped off and an RP hit me in the face and cut my nose. I felt like the pitch had just punched me in the face!
Another lowlight for me was that some locals had fixed ropes from the ground to heart ledges so that they could mini traction the whole route. Needless to say, these ropes were an eyesore, detracted from the experience of adventure of everyone on the route and generally resulted in frequent clusterf*cks when ropes or haul bags got caught up in them.
Is it true that you had a blonde-haired girl abseil in with Merlot and cupcakes?
James: Yeah, that happens all the time!
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Watch BMC ambassador James McHaffie taking a fall from the Headwall Pitch of Salathé Wall on BMC TV: