BMC ambassador Hazel has just become the second Brit to free climb (i.e. trad climb - using no aid techniques) the classic route, Salathé Wall, which takes the most natural line up El Cap in Yosemite.
She and her partner Jonny Baker worked the route from above for four days before going for it in an eight day push, during which they climbed the infamous Monster crack in sweaty heat and then sat out a snowstorm. Sarah Stirling reports.
Hazel and Jonny have just finished a month-long trip to Yosemite Valley, during which they lived in a van that they converted to a camper in under three days (check it out below), thanks to Jonny's ninja building skills with some pallets, and thrift-store treasure finds for décor.
Hazel's rough plan for this Valley season was to climb the classic route Freerider in a day. This popular variant of Salathé Wall avoids the two 5.13 pitchs [roughly E7 in British grades] with some 5.12 climbing.
However, Hazel, who is typically led by serendipity rather than goals, commented on Instagram that she was "unfit from a finger injury, lacking motivation" and feeling "aimless. The valley felt too big for me." So how did she end up freeing the harder Salathé Wall over a sustained week of climbing instead?
After warming up on The Voyager, which Hazel describes as "The best and most friendly 5.11 [roughly E3] in the valley", she found herself tempted by the Phoenix 5.13, and, clearly gaining psyche, commented: "It's the classic hard single pitch of the valley, some say the first 5.13 in the valley. Climbing legends Beth Rodden and Moffat onsighted it at the peak of their careers. I lost my onsight when I belayed Caff on it a few years ago. But I was still keen for the flash."
Hazel, who is very interested in the mental side of climbing, and offers coaching in this aspect of the sport, noted: "I was psyched, not because it felt easy but because it felt hard. To get the most out of climbing it's important to find challenges that match your ability level. It's in those moments of being perfectly challenged that we find flow and pure focus. And those moments don't depend on success/sending, they are valuable without that."
Hazel climbing the Phoenix
What next? Their friends Dan McManus and Madeleine Cope decided to camp on top of El Cap and try the headwall of Salathé. With no other plan in place, Hazel and Jonny decided to join them and hang out.
Hazel knew the route: the first Brit to free climb Salathé Wall was BMC Ambassador James McHaffie, back in 2014. She had watched him climb it, and then interviewed him: BMC ambassador James McHaffie sends Salathé Wall free.
After working the route, Hazel and Jonny felt inspired to commit to Salathé from the ground up. After topping out, having successfully freed it (Jonny almost freed it, too), she commented: "In my life I've had only one climbing goal that I trained for and completed. The rest came to me."
SS: What keeps drawing you back to El Cap - what makes it such a special place? Are you interested in the history, for example, or is it just a very big rock with amazing climbing on it to you?
HF: It's mostly a very big rock with amazing climbing. It's also the most accessible big wall in the world, being a 15 minute walk from the road. I am interested in the history but it's not what brings me back. It's the feeling you get free climbing so high above the ground on such perfect rock.
SS: Salathé is dubbed 'El Cap's most natural line' - was this an appeal?
HF: Salathé is a natural line and the headwall is even more natural - the crack perfectly cuts through the most blank bit of rock, allowing free and aid protection. To free climb the top wall with only air beneath you is amazing.
Hazel working Salathé Wall
SS: You actually interviewed Caff after he freed this route a few years ago; did the beta egg you on or put you off?
HF: I took photos of him on the top wall so I knew what it was about and it was inspiring to watch him do it. I knew then that I'd end up doing it at some point.
SS: You said that Jonny almost successfully freed Salathé, too - did you lead it all, or swap leads?
HF: I lead all the hard pitches and then for the easier pitches Jonny and I swapped leads.
SS: Hardest bit? (physically or mentally or both!)
HF: For me the hardest part mentally is always getting off the ground knowing you have so far to go. You're constatly judging your performance and making assumptions about the higher pitches. There were some question marks for me on this route, but not as many as on the other lines I've done on El Cap because I did the other lines ground up, so had no knowledge of what was coming up.
Even so, we knew we had a storm coming and wondered whether we'd have enough food and water to wait out the storm and free the line. This is always a concern big walling: the enough food and water part. The hardest bit physically might have been the monster offwidth, or walking down in the snow with super heavy bags!
Ledge life. Photo: Jonny Baker
SS: Best bit?
HF: Was freeing the Crux pitch on the headwall. The moves are so fun. Also hanging out with my boyfriend on the ledge making tea and feeling like we were kings of El Cap because we were the only ones on the wall for a few days!
SS: How are you with massive wide cracks?
HF: Well, I had to do the infamous Monster crack again and it still felt hard. We timed it wrong with the sun so I felt very hot in there, but still, I keep waiting for that thing to get easier.
SS: How is the protection on this route?
HF: Aside from some of the easier wide pitches, which are more like solos, the protection is very good the whole way.
Good protection almost the whole way
SS: Have you come to any conclusions you'd share with us on the benefits of being aimless versus having goals?
HF: I'm very bad at setting goals. Even when I set them and train for them I tend to end up doing something different. I've always followed what pulls me and have been very bad at doing what I think I 'should' do. This make me very intrinsically motivated but it also means I don't get to experience what is learnt from long term goals. I think I will find one one day: watch this space.
SS: You've been the first British woman to climb an E9, you're one of a few British women who have redpointed 8c, and you were the first British woman to free El Cap. You're also into alpine climbing and bouldering. What's the secret - how come you're so versatile and excel at so many different genres?
HF: Well I don't excel in all those genres. I've never bouldered harder than V9. I probably could if I tried but I'd have to dedicate a lot to getting stronger if I wanted to boulder much harder. Anything using ice axes and crampons I'm also terrible at. Those two genres aside I guess I'm an all-round rock climber. I guess my secret is the answer to the previous question, I do what motivates me, so instead of sticking to one style I mix it up so I'm always psyched. I know that after this trip of big wall granite climbing I'll be psyched for limestone sport climbing.
SS: Best and worst things about living on a big wall with your boyfriend?
HF: Best thing is that you get to hang out on the wall with someone you love so you feel comfortable and supported the whole way. Worst thing is that you probably don't control your behaviour as well as you would with a friend so there is more swearing and shouting and acting like a baby, which is what the wall does to the best of us. But all things considered we did really well and barely argued.
Still smiling. Photo: Jonny Baker
SS: What is there to like about being on a big wall for several days at a time?
HF: Being on the wall for more than a day is a great experience. You really appreciate what it is exactly that you need to survive. No sip of water is wasted, no bite of food. You also become familiar with the ways of the wall. When the sun hits, what the birds are up to, how the moon lights up the rock, and all the time you are wondering how such a wall is even possible.
SS: Tell us about the weather on the route and the snowstorm - were you expecting it, what was it like in the portaledge and how long was it stormy?
HF: We knew the storm was coming, what we didn't expect was how hot it would be in the days leading up to the storm. The winter sun is still fierce and because of the tracking of the sun, the south-west face gets the sun from 8am, and with the short days it essentially means you're in the sun all day. It was much better after the storm when it cooled off. The storm was wild with gusts up to 45mph and snow. We really thought at times that our ledge would be ripped off the mountain.
Sitting out the snowstorm
SS: You suffered with a shoulder injury for seven years, and finally recovered earlier this year - are you fully healed now?
HF: Yes, I get no problems with my shoulder now.
SS: How did you celebrate after topping out?
HF: We went straight to the Mountain bar after the epic walk off in the snow and ordered tonnes of food. Then we went to Yosemite Bug, a spa and cafe just outside the valley. We soaked in hot tubs, sweated in a sauna, ate loads of food and chilled out.
SS: Do you ever get fed up of van life?
HF: Sometimes I crave a house and base, so now I live in an apartment in the summers in Chamonix. Four months seems like enough to recharge, but maybe I'll start to need more now I'm getting older.
Hazel and Jonny's van for their USA trip. They converted it in three days from reused pallets stolen from the back of Home Depot and thrift store treasures.
SS: What are your plans for the rest of your time in America?
HF: We've had some fun days sport climbing and bouldering in Red Rocks to rest up and now we're in Zion back at the cracks. We only have a week left and then we'll be in the UK munching mince pies.
SS: Any ideas what your next project will be?
HF: None! Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher made a super-inspiring send of Magic Mushroom [also on El Cap]. They have me thinking bigger for next Valley season...
In a tight spot? Annual BMC Alpine & Ski insurance is only £160*
This winter, we're giving everyone 15% off Annual European BMC Alpine & Ski travel insurance.
Don't forget, all BMC Travel Insurance comes with £10 million emergency medical cover
*Policy details: Offer valid for policies purchased until 1 March 2020. £160.70 for annual alpine multi-trip (45 day limit for each single trip) European insurance up to age 44, and £168.74 for ages 45 to 69.
Years of experience
We've been insuring adventurers like you for over 30 years. That's why all of our policies come with:
24-hour emergency assistance helpline
£10 million emergency medical cover
£100,000 search, rescue and recovery cover
£10,000 personal accident cover
£5,000 cancellation cover
£2,500 baggage cover
WATCH: BMC Insurance: built for the mountains