Find out what it takes to become the first person to make an all-free (i.e. not using aid techniques) rope solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite in a day. Pete Whittaker tells us how he did it, despite only just learning the necessary techniques, and Andy Kirkpatrick explains why it's so amazing.
Pete climbed the 37 pitches of 1,000m granite line Freerider, the classic 5.12d route, in 20 hours 6 minutes. He started at 3:02pm last Wednesday and finished at 11:08am the following day.
"I think the problem with what Pete's done is there are only a few hundred people in the world who get what he did," Andy Kirkpatrick
Rope soloing involves leading a pitch, then rappelling it, jumarring back up again, and then hauling your bag up. Essentially, a 1,000m route like this requires 3,000m of movement.
"This system is both slow and labour-intensive," wrote Andy Kirkpatrick in Psychovertical, a book based around his own 12-day solo aid-climb of the Reticent Wall on El Cap. "In climbing there is perhaps no bigger test of skill. With no partner to fall back on, or to swap leads, there is also no bigger reward than standing on top of a mighty wall knowing every inch has been climbed alone. This was what I wanted. I wanted it all."
Reticent Wall is considered one of El Cap's hardest aid climbs. Only two previous rope solo ascents of free routes on El Capitan (i.e. routes that have previously been climbed without aid techniques) have ever been made. Both were on Freerider, 'El Cap's easiest free-route' – by Canadian Stéphane Perron (over seven days in 2007), and Dutch climber Jorg Verhoeven (over four days in 2013).
WATCH: Pete on the first ascent of Headless Horseman Arête on BMC TV
2007 – the first ever all-free solo of El Cap
A college physics teacher on sabbatical at the time of his ascent, Perron was accustomed to soloing, as he lived in a small place where there weren't many climbers. On his year off, he'd met the same problem as he was travelling alone. He told Climbing magazine: "I refined my system to be able to climb the hardest I can even if I’m solo.”
2013 – a new high
In 2013, Yosemite, along with all the US National Parks, was suddenly shut down for 16 days due to government disagreements over federal spending. Most climbers headed off to Bishop and elsewhere, but a few leapt on the wall, as they knew they couldn't be forced to get off again. Finding himself psyched but without climbing partners, Jorg decided to make a free solo of Freerider, even though he didn't really have the right kit.
"I kind of knew it was a bad idea when I started," he told Planet Mountain. "At times I was forced to make intermediate belays, often because the ropes got stuck. It was all very nerve-wracking and sometimes rather frustrating, but as things evolved I began to laugh away my troubles and tried to see the funny side of things.
"What idiot would do something like this? And how psyched does one have to be to start an adventure like this one?"
2016 – Enter Pete Whittaker
"I think the problem with what Pete's done is there are only a few hundred people in the world who get what he did," Andy Kirkpatrick told me this morning.
"It's like doing four Iron Men in a day. Few people have soloed El Cap in a day pulling on gear; even less have free climbed El Cap in a single day. To solo it, leading and rapping and cleaning every pitch, and free climbing, is just amazing. It shows that Pete's one of the best climbers in the world at the moment in terms of skill, fitness and technique (as well as guts!)"
Pete is no stranger to Freerider: when he climbed the route in 2014, it was the first ever one-push flash of a free-route on El Cap.
However, Pete has only recently taught himself the techniques required to rope solo a route like this. After practicing the skills in the Peak on single-pitch routes, and figuring out in his head how to use them for multi-pitching, Pete headed out to Squamish, where he made some very impressively fast solos. Then, feeling confident, he packed his bags for Yosemite.
Interview – Pete Whittaker tells all
El Cap had never been freed, in a day, solo, so I wanted to try to be the first. Probably because I’m a really competitive person!
‘Rope soloing’ is essentially climbing routes, but by yourself. This means you have to do everything that you would usually do when climbing with a partner, but also do everything that your partner would usually do for you: belaying, rope management, cleaning pitches and seconding. ‘All free’, means using no aid.
I didn’t understand how to do rope soloing at all at the start of the year, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly when I read up on it. I think that years of Gri-Gri-ing routes on the grit helped, as I was used to hanging on in reasonably stressful positions to try and take in or give slack on the device.
In general, I'm probably OK at visualising how things should work before they actually happen: i.e. a specific move on rock or the best way to dismantle a tree (tree work is my other job).
The first time I used the rope soloing system I decided to try an unrepeated E8… I’d already tried the route on top-rope and just got mega keen when this new device came through the post. The timing of the device arriving and working the route just seemed to combine and I ended up going for it. I had a crap system though, and the rope drag through the device got really bad. I also forgot which ropes I was clipping where. Anyway, I figured it out in the end and was OK! After this experience I went and practiced on some HVS’s instead!
I read Andy Kirkpatrick’s book ‘Me Myself and I’ about four times, which is an excellent technique book on rope soloing. It's inspiring how much Andy knows on the subject, he’s got loads of knowledge and its cool that he shared it. That book helped me massively.
I used normal rope soloing systems, using a Silent Partner as my solo device. I took loads of Andy’s ideas and mixed them with my own so everything was relevant to the challenge I was doing.
I went to Yosemite by myself, but had friends to meet up with and climb with. I only did my rope soloing in the last week and a half. I also climbed together with Sean Warren on an aid route and Jacob Cook on Freerider.
The main difference when you don't have a partner is: the workload is doubled and there is no-one to gain motivation from when it gets hard. While climbing, I was mainly just concentrating on the climbing, moving efficiently and making sure I was clipped in. With rope soloing you are constantly attaching, unattaching and reattaching yourself to the rope and anchors. When you’re doing this so much, it can be easy to make a mistake, so it's important to make sure you’re clipped in before leaning back!
A climb I did in Squamish had a harder pitch on it than anything I would do in Yosemite, which gave me confidence I could lead hard pitches rope solo. However, I did do the hard climbing at the start of that day and the easy climbing at the end – the opposite to the challenge in Yosemite. I did take note of this and realised Yosemite would be a harder challenge overall. Squamish was just a learning trip and it definitely helped.
Because you are trying to move efficiently and not make mistakes when rope soloing, as it costs you time and energy, it can be really frustrating when something goes wrong. It can be easy to get angry with yourself or the situation when this happens. It's really important not to get angry as this is when you end up rushing to try and fix the problem! When you rush, it starts to become dangerous. I usually just swear at the problem for about 15 seconds, get over it, then sort it out.
A low point was when I’d just topped out on the Monster Offwidth. For some reason it felt annoyingly hard. I felt tired when I’d done that pitch and I was only half way up El Cap, and not even half way in terms of difficulties.
A high was when I’d completed The Boulder Problem pitch, a few pitches higher. I’d lead, cleaned and jumared the pitch in about 20 minutes, and that was technically the hardest pitch of the route.
I didn’t have any epics on the route – I had a few moments where I was like, “Oh b*ll*cks!”, then I just got on with it!
What's next for me? Resting.
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