Monday, October 31, 2005

Tommy Caldwell Free Climbs The Nose and Freerider-in-a-day

On October 30-31, Tommy Caldwell free climbed both The Nose and Freerider in a combined time of 23 hours and 23 minutes. It was an astonishing accomplishment. The only person other than Tommy ever to free climb The Nose in a day was Lynn Hill almost twelve years ago. Tommy “warmed up” for this event when he free climbed The Nose a few weeks ago with his wife Beth Rodden and then climbed the route a few days later in 12 hours. Needless to say, nobody had ever free climbed The Nose and free climbed another El Cap route in less than a day.

Tommy started October 30 at 1:03am and cruised up The Nose in 11 hours with his wife Beth Rodden, who belayed and jumared. "The weather was perfect" said Caldwell. "The temperatures were crisp and the wind was so calm your voice echoed off the rock." On the crux 5.14a Changing Corners pitch he took two short falls before sending the pitch on his third go. After a few minutes of food and rest on the summit, he ran down the East Ledges descent and was back in El Cap Meadow just before 1pm.

I was his belayer/jumarer for the second leg of the link-up. We started up the Freerider at 1:36pm in perfect fall weather with temps in the low 60's and a slight breeze. On the first pitch, and for the next 28 pitches, it was hard to tell that he had just climbed The Nose that morning. He showed little fatigue and it was impossible to tell when he was doing a hard move. Every move he made looked like 5.7. I felt like I was belaying him on The Nutcracker.

The first 10 pitches took two hours. We got to the Monster Offwidth (Pitch 19 just below El Cap Spire) just as the sun was setting. The wall was bright orange and as he left the belay he assured me that this pitch was actually going to be a little strenuous for him. I guess he was true to his word, because he made this 5.11 offwidth nightmare look like 5.9 (unlike the first 19 pitches that all looked like 5.7).

Below us, we watched Dean Potter speed up the route five pitches below us. He was going for a one-day free ascent of The Salathé Wall. Over on The Nose, Thomas Huber was making a multi-day free attempt with four support crew (Ivo, Ammon, and some buddies doing their first big wall). At that moment, there were four parties on El Cap, three of which were making free ascents. Seems that these days you are noteworthy if you are the ones NOT making a free ascent of El Cap!

On El Cap Spire, we put on the headlamps and started the night-climbing leg of the push in crisp 50 degree weather with no wind. Two pitches higher, for the first time on the climb, I saw Tommy really exert himself. It was the section where you have to do a V6/V7 boulder problem on holds that all seem to face the wrong direction. For a brief second he made the route really look like its 5.12c rating. A minute later he was at the belay and we were onto the next pitch. I guess even the best climbers can look a little tired on V7 after climbing 5000 feet.

So what’s the demeanor of one of the best free climbers in the world when he is pulling off one of the biggest free climbing achievements of his life? One might expect Zen-like concentration to pull through such a demanding day. Or maybe he would be shouting and screaming like you see a lot of top boulderers do to pull through V15 problems. Not Tommy. He just seemed like he was having a day out at the crags. There was no rushing of either the climbing or the belay changeovers. We even burned some time talking about home improvement. He felt the best way to organize a 1900 square foot house was with three bedrooms and a loft. I wondered if it was best just to convert the loft to a fourth bedroom.

Below The Sewer pitch he paused a minute to quiz me, “So Chris, why, after so many El Cap ascents, have you still not free climbed it?” Believe me Tommy, if I could make 5.12 look like 5.7, I would be free climbing everything right there with you.

On Pitch 28, Tommy took a fall. He had just started up the overhanging, flaring 5.12b crack when he took a short five-foot fall onto a fixed nut. I was shocked because up until that point it didn’t seem like he could fall even if he wanted to. Gravity just didn’t seem to work on him the same way it does with the rest of us. He pulled the rope, tied back in, and started up again. This time he laybacked the crack that he had previously tried to straight-in jam. He got about six feet higher than his first go and then fell again.

At this point, we both got a little nervous. Hanging from the rope, he said in a slightly frustrated tone, “This pitch was so easy the other day.” I reminded him that he had climbed over 5500 vertical feet of rock that day. It was okay to feel a little tired. But it turned out that it wasn’t so much that he was tired as it was the fact that he wasn't used to climbing this pitch in the dark. He realized that he always stemmed this pitch on micro edges and they were not as obvious at night. He ticked a few footholds with chalk, lowered back to the belay, and pulled the rope. I knew that if he sent this pitch, he had the route.

He sent the pitch and, sure enough, he continued cruising the route to the summit. We topped out at 12:26am, 10 hours and 50 minutes after starting. On the summit we were met with hugs, congratulations, and SoCo from great friends Beth Rodden, Kim Miller, Corey Rich, Josh Lowell, and Adam Stack. We joked that while Tommy did look tired, he didn't look nearly as worked as someone should after 6000 feet of hard free climbing.I said, "Tommy, there are still 37 minutes left in the day, want to try and free climb something else? I think we could find you a boulder problem up here. Or maybe some pull-ups? Push-ups?"

It was an amazing day. Not only did Tommy pull off something I don't think anyone else had considered possible, he did it with a level of calm and casualness I've only experienced on 4th class terrain. A few pitches below the top he told me, "This has been one of my biggest free climbing goals but i didnt think i could do it. I can't believe I am up here and it's happening." It was an astonishing comment considering he was making this link-up his first try. It reminded me of his comment some time ago that he thought the Free Dihedral Wall was going to take a few years to work. That climb is the most difficult El Cap free route and probably the hardest big wall free climb in the world. Tommy climbed it on his first attempt, after only months of working the route.

What will Tommy Caldwell do when he picks a big wall goal that really does take a few years and many attempts to accomplish?

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