Interview: Whittaker and McManus make second ascent of Yosemite's Secret Passage

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 16/11/2015
Pete, Dan and waterfall spray. Photo: Dan McManus
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This epic 15-pitch, 5.13c (8a+) route, which graces the front cover of the Supertopo Big Walls guide, has lain unrepeated since Nico Favresse and Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll made the first ascent seven years ago. Impressively, Pete Whittaker and Dan McManus have both just freed every pitch while claiming the second ascent. Pete talks battling a snowstorm, waterfalls, the wet crux hold, surviving 'Guillotine Flake' and offers top tips on how to survive a week on a big wall.

Why The Secret Passage?

I climbed three routes on El Capitan last year, and was ready to try a more challenging route. The Secret Passage was on the front of the Supertopo big wall guide and, so far, incredibly, it was unrepeated...

What was the highlight of the route?

The whole route had lots of ups and downs, but a great moment was when we both topped out on the last 5.13 pitch. Even though there was still a waterfall to battle with, it was great to know we'd both done all the hard climbing. 

Another high point was waking up to find Horsetail Falls raging next to us, about 15m away, and we hadn't even put the fly down on the portaledge. We knew we'd picked a good, sheltered bivvy!

The worst?

Finding out that the crux hold was wet. It was the only one on the pitch that was wet!

Another low point was realising we couldn't top out on day eight, due to the waterfall covering the remaining two pitches, and coming to the conclusion we were going to have to wait it out into day nine. We'd brought supplies for seven days on the route.

The hardest bit?

Probably the logistics of the route, which follows a mix of two aid lines (Eagles Way for the lower half, Bad To The Bones for the top half, and some new terrain mixed in). Some pitches are really difficult to work, as the free climbing is off to the side of the aid line, so you end up putting in dodgy directionals to keep your rope in line. At one point Dan had redirected the top-rope with three sky hooks, hmm!

Tell us about the waterfall and the snow storm!

Having battled out an exposed electric storm on Mid Cathedral earlier in our trip to the US, we felt quite relaxed about the snow storm that hit us on The Secret Passage, and also knew we would be more sheltered in our chosen storm bivvy spot. This time we were ready for the storm, last time we weren't!

The waterfalls were an issue, as they kept running for a lot longer then we thought they would, as run-off was slow due to the cold. We didn't realise The Devil's Brow would have a lot of run-off, too, so we actually found ourselves trapped between two waterfalls with our way of retreat in one and our way of exit up the wall in another!

Where's your Wideboyz other half, Tom Randall, are you two on a break?

Tom's in Sheffield and fancied a break from big walls after our last trip. I heard he's a boulderer now and has completed his long term project, The Sheep, at Burbage South ... that's big! I decided to team up with Dan because Caff [James McHaffie] suggested he would be a good partner. He's been to Yosemite a lot and climbed a lot on El Cap.

Nine days on a route ... you guys must have got close. What are the worst bits about sharing so much close wall time with someone?

To be honest there weren't any bad bits. You go up there knowing what to deal with from the other person, so not showering for nine days, sleeping cramped on a portaledge and shitting in plastic bags is just what you expect! If you can't deal with those things from your partner, there's no point in going!

What was in your bag - what do you need (apart from climbing gear) for a week on a big wall?

  • Sleeping equipment (including portaledge): there are no natural ledges on the route to stand on, let alone sleep on.
  • Warm clothes: temperatures got down to -17 at the top of El Cap when we were on the wall.
  • Three litres of water a day each (we guessed we'd be out for seven days).
  • Seven days worth of food (one day consists of: three dried porridge sachets, two bagels, a bag of treats, two cereal bars, a packet of smash and half a packet of tuna).

Did you take any luxury items?

A speaker was great for psyche-up tunes, plus a solar charger. Also a pack of cards for playing Shithead and Nomination Whist and a couple of books.

Can you describe the route's infamous 'Guillotine Biscuit Flake' and tell us - how was it?

A flake about 1m in height, 3m in length and 10cm in depth with a razor sharp edge. It's got a big crack on its upper edge and feels partially detached. The climber has to put their full weight on it and undercut it to climb past it. The belayer has to sit directly beneath hoping the climber doesn't pull it off. You also can't place gear in this section so it feels run-out as well as scary. Nico made a comment to Canadian Will Stanhope (who asked about the route), "if this flake breaks, for you, it will be the end..."

What are your next plans / projects?

Definitely rest when I get home, train and work over the winter. Hopefully I'll go to America again next spring...

READ: Dan's blog here and Pete's blog.

WATCH Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker in No Sleep Till Bakewell, climbing all Brown and Whillans routes on Peak gritstone in a single day on BMC TV:


 

WATCH Pete Whittaker on Headless Horseman Arête: History in the Making on BMC TV:


WATCH El Cap Exposure - BMC ambassador James McHaffie takes a fall from the Headwall Pitch of Salathé Wall, Yosemite on BMC TV:


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