Guided Adventure in the Verdon Gorge

USA – El Cap. Yosemite

Posted on 2015-11-20 - filed under news

Sending the '8a Traverse' Muir Blast - El Cap

‘Muir Wall’ (The Shaft Variation) 5.13c (8a+)  34  pitches.


Making the 5th free ascent of this big wall was an unexpected journey and definitely the highlight of 2015. I had initially arrived in  the Valley with the ‘Free Rider’ (5.12d) variation to the Salathe as my objective but seeing how crowded that part of El Cap was; with at least 10 parties on the route in mid October, I began to have second thoughts.

My partners Marc Andre Leclerc, Brette Harrington and videographer/documenter Bradford McArthur were also unsure of jumping on this crowded part of the wall. Marc, the strongman in our team really wanted a challenge and was looking for a more adventurous objective. He suggested the Free Muir Wall via the Shaft variation. With 4 hard  5.13 pitches, 2 5.12d, and many 5.12s. I was privately hesitant and daunted by this much greater challenge, especially given our fledgling experience in the logistics specific to big wall free climbing. However the first 12 pitches up to Mammoth Terraces known as the ‘Muir Blast’ are an escapeable warm up entry test with some hard climbing including the first 5.13 pitch (the 8a traverse), our first of this grade on El Capitan and would provide a good approach to building our skills.

After more than 2 weeks on and off El Cap, working the pitches, hauling our gear to a high camp on the ‘Grey Ledges’ retreating to escape frequent periods of bad weather, jugging back up to redpoint pitches, and honing our skills as a team we knew a complete free ascent was feasible with a lot of work and a little luck. However, time was running short, the season was coming to an end and winter was closing in on the Valley. As we had a final clear weather window of 4 days to top out before we all had to leave Marc bravely suggested that we just go for the summit in a single push and with one portaledge to share between 3. The route was still wet from the previous 2 day storm and snowmelt was still pouring down from the summit over the Shield headwall.  However, it was our last chance to summit so we jugged up to our pitch 17 high point above the ‘Silverfish corner’(5.13b/c) through the rapidly re-freezing meltwater and endured a thoroughly wet and frozen first night squashed 3 on the portaledge. As temperatures dropped to -8°c we were very close to bailing at that point but after a long night and slow following morning gradually re-thawing and drying out as the sun warmed the granite we finally got moving forward again in the afternoon managing a few pitches before the sun set. We were now almost a full day behind schedule. Bradford had walked round to the top of El Cap and was going to rap in 4 pitches and meet us at Chickenhead ledge to film the upper crux, a desperate 5.13c dihedral. We really had to be efficient and try to onsight the following 9 pitches that included a 12d, 12c and several 5.12s in order to have enough time to work and send the 13c. Finally, at the last hour after waiting for some wet seeps to dry out Marc and Brette both managed magnificent redpoint ascents of that final pitch, a desperately glassy smooth layback on thin pin scars for the fingers. With time running out I was grateful to the El Cap Gods to manage a clean toprope ascent on my 2nd try.

Thanks to Marco’s energy and decisiveness we didn’t waste any time and managed to top out and get back down that same evening. It was only just in time. The following morning as we sorted our gear and prepared to head off in different directions, Marc to Squamish, Brette to holiday in Hawaii, Bradford to an assignment in Galapagos, and myself back to my Verdon home, the first full on winter storm hit the Valley and it snowed heavily over El Cap. That storm would have paralysed us up there so I was really happy and grateful to be down safely having only just been granted a free ascent on the most iconic granite big wall in the world. I’d like to say thank you for the adventure, the learning and to the people I climbed it with, it will live with me forever.

After a lifetime of adventure and road trips a new door has opened and I’m impatient for more.


Now on to 2016…


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