Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Freerider from Jacob Cook on Vimeo.

My ankle skidded down the coarse granite inside the crack, I could feel chunks of skin being sheared off like in a cheese-grater. All the muscles in my body were going into melt-down, I was exerting near-maximum effort just to stay in the same place. I gave one final huge push to go upwards and made a kind of pathetic power-whimper. It was hopeless, I slumped onto the rope. Looking down I could see my girlfriend Bron stood on the ground ten feet below me, this was my second try at Generator crack.

Generator crack in Yosemite is graded 5.10c (or 6a+), it's about 40 feet high and an offwidth. It took me 2 sessions to successfully tredpoint… Yes, that’s like redpoint only on a top rope. I would flail and scream for ten minutes before slumping onto the rope in exhaustion and despair. Bron wasn’t helping by repeatedly slithering up the thing like it was a tourist trail. Climbing with flawless technique, she would wedge her left foot deep inside the crack then shuffle upwards an inch at a time by heel-toeing her outside foot and making a motion “like pumping up an air bed” she said. I decided it was because I was too tall, next it was because I had weak ankles, skinny thighs, big feet… the excuses were plentiful.

Someone that isn't me on Generator Crack,
giving a perfect demonstration of a "chickenwing"...

When the successful tredpoint finally came I hadn’t done anything different except trying REALLY HARD, so hard in fact, that I discovered a new kind of power scream, which Bron kindly named my “dying hyena noise”.

It’s a popular climb and whilst I was working it there would regularly be a crowd at the base. People would look at me like I was mad when, after watching my atrocious performance, I would tell them I was hoping to try Freerider on El Capitan.

Freerider had been an obsession of mine for two years; it was the main goal for my three month USA trip. It’s the easiest of the free routes on El Cap, but with 5.13a (7c+) crimping and a lot of burly wide crack climbing, it’s no pushover. The names of the pitches had permeated my dreams: “the Huber pitch”, “the Enduro Corners”, “The Hollow Flake”. It was slipping away. The reason; pitch 19 “The Monster”.

“It’s an extremely intimidating pitch”

was my friend Dan Mcmanus’s helpful comment to me before I left. It really is! Almost 60m of continuous offwidth crack, with not a face hold or crimp in sight. It was inconceivable given my abysmal performance on Generator crack, a supposedly easy offwidth, that I would stand a chance on the Monster.

Climbing is what motivates my life, I generally consider myself a good climber and when I perform well I feel happy. For this reason I often end up equating my self-worth with my current performance. It’s a difficult trap to avoid. After repeatedly (and publicly) failing at Generator crack, I was extremely unhappy. I decided to give up on Freerider, why should I try something that I stood no chance of doing. I’d try another big wall free climb with less offwidths.

A few days of grumpiness later I had a realisation. Surely the main attraction with trying hard routes in the first place is because they are hard! If I failed on Freerider then so be it, I could always try again. I also realised that success wasn’t the point, regardless of whether I freed the whole thing I was virtually guaranteed to have a wild, memorable experience trying.

A month later I stood racking up at the bottom of El Cap with Bron and my friend Chris Bevins. I had no idea if I was good enough to climb the route, but that wasn’t important, I was excited to give it a go and especially excited to be trying it with two good friends. More importantly, Chris had offered to lead the Monster! For Chris, this was unfinished business after he’d free climbed all but about 100 feet two years before. Bron decided she’d have the most fun if she free climbed as much of the route as she could, but didn’t get too hung up about the whole thing. Our haulbags - packed for up to seven days on the wall, including two portalegdes and an inflatable shark – were already stashed ten pitches up at Heart Ledges. 

We climbed smoothly up the first 14 pitches. That night I slept soundly apart from fears that a resident mouse on our ledge would run across my face in the night. They live inside the cracks and somehow make their way to all the popular bivy ledges!

I woke up the next morning with butterflies, this was it, the day of the Monster. My body ached, I allowed some doubts to form in my mind, I felt like I needed a rest day already and all the crux pitches were still above us.

Chris leading the monster
Chris cruised the Monster, chatting casually to us as he shuffled the number 6 cam, one of three pieces of gear on the entire pitch. Bron absolutely hiked it too, they both made the “foot pump” technique look effortless. I felt frustration growing inside me, “how can it be so easy for these guys!?”. 

Bron in the Monster - "It's easy, just go like this..."
Something I’ve practiced over the years is shutting off any internal dialogue and just climbing. This is what I knew I had to do now. It wasn’t pretty. I started off finding the going hard and it got harder and harder. Multiple times both of my feet cut and my legs dangled, my body held in place by a measly chicken-wing. By the top I was a complete state, bellowing “dying hyena noises” across the valley and on the verge of tears from exhaustion. Chris was alternating between encouraging me and laughing hysterically at my efforts. I reached the belay, too exhausted to be happy, but that didn’t matter, I’d done it. 

In the Monster, before the savage burn kicked in.
That night we watched the sunset from our bivy in the Alcove. 20 pitches up El Capitan with two great friends and everything still to play for for the free ascent; I felt comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world. We brought the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and took turns reading a chapter aloud. I enjoyed doing the voice of Marvin, the depressed robot. 

The next day we opted to tactically rest in the shade of the Alcove for most of the day and go up and try the “Huber pitch” in the evening. Inspired by our friend Oli’s video we screamed “THE GREEEEEN DRAGON” at the tourist buses in the valley half a mile below. 

The Huber pitch is graded 5.13a or 7c+, a crazy dynamic boulder sequence, smack in the center of the 1000m face, amazing! A tiny, razor crimp and a rockover on a smear allow you to reach “the sugar-loaf”, a kind of scrittly sloper-sidepull. The problem is there aren’t any footholds in the right place to be comfortable on it. From here you have to make the “ninja-kick” move to a smear on the opposite wall of a dihedral. 

Photo by Jacob Bodkin
Sometimes on climbs that are right at my limit, I get this feeling that I’m watching myself climb from outside my body. What I love about big wall free-climbing is how good it is at inducing this state of focus. In the cool evening air my fingertips bit into the crimp, I could hear my fingernails scrape against the wall behind. The empty air beneath my feet faded into the background, I focused on my breathing and let my body climb, it knew how to do this. I came to from the trance to the sound of Bron and Chris whooping from the belay below me, I’d done it! Chris put in a sterling performance getting the pitch third go, his third ever 7c+, incredible.

We were well into the swing of things now, our team a well-oiled big wall machine. Over the next two days we forged on towards the top, tricky pitches like “The Sewer” and “The Enduro Corners” falling by the wayside. Since Chris lead the Monster it was nice to pull my weight with the leading on some of the harder pitches up high. Chris was getting tired though. On the evening of day four he had three unsuccessful goes at seconding pitch 27, a tricky 5.12b tips layback. The next morning I could tell he was nervous, his free ascent hung in the balance. I think it’s awesome watching someone try their absolute hardest on a climb, whether it’s a 6a or a 9a. Chris clearly gave it everything and when he got the pitch on his third try of the morning team psyche was at an all time high. For some reason there’s a tradition to make monkey noises whilst climbing El Cap, we beat our chests and howled gorilla noises from the hanging belay.

Our fifth night on the wall was spent at the Round Table. Both portaledges hanging out above the void, it was a spectacular bivy! We’d come around the corner now and could see the whole west side of El Cap. The more I look at the cliff the more intricate features appear, the colours on the wall to our left as the sun was setting were mesmerising. 

The final sting in the tail came the following morning in the form of the Scotty-Burke offwidth. It’s a flared offwidth in a corner with a kind of awkward bulge you have to get around. Chris, our designated offwidth ropegun, was having problems. He fell four times at the bulge, exhausted from 6 days on the wall and a lot of goes on some pitches below us. He slumped onto the rope after the fourth attempt looking utterly defeated. I couldn’t quite believe that our all-free ascent would fall at the final hurdle. I offered to have a go at leading it. I was able to layback around the section that Chris was having difficulty with. It felt totally wild to be laybacking the sloping side of the offwidth, my feet smeared on the glassy wall opposite, miles above my last runner and right at the top of El Cap. My arms were getting extremely tired though; this technique clearly wasn’t going to work for the whole pitch. I threw my left leg inside and turned my body into the crack. I was close to panicking as I fumbled to get the camalot 5 off my harness, preparing myself for the sickening feeling of sliding out. I slammed the cam deep into the back of the crack and tried to relax, this proved difficult. Somehow I fought my way to the top of the offwidth. Something clicked and I realised that the trick for me with offwidths is to just relax everything, apparently I don’t slide out.

We topped out at sunset on our sixth day, Chris and I having freed the whole thing. Less than a month before I had completely given up on my chances of climbing Freerider this trip. It reminded me that so much of success is down to mental attitude, I’m so happy I was able to turn mine around!

Video still - It looks like I was pretty happy when we topped out!
Bron in the Monster
The Alcove
Chris jugging our fixed lines to the Huber Pitch
Bivy at the Block
The 12a/b traverse
Bron and the bags in the spotlight. Photo: Tom Evans
"I'm pretty sure it goes that way..." photo: Tom Evans
Bron following a "5.7" chimney. Photo: Tom Evans