Since the Autumn of 2014, Jacob Cook has been taking the twice yearly pilgrimage to the Yosemite Valley for the Spring and Autumn seasons. Over his past 4 trips he’s been on a learning curve to master the techniques and logistics required to climb the famous big walls.
When I first arrived in “The Valley” in spring 2014, I was blown away by the scale of the place. El Capitan and the surrounding cliffs loomed over a vertical kilometre above me, impossibly tall. I had climbed some UK trad test pieces and believed myself a reasonable climber, but I was quickly humbled by the unforgiving style of Yosemite’s cliffs. To climb well there requires an incredibly large and diverse set of skills, and I simply wasn’t up to the task. Despite feeling like a total beginner again I had caught the bug. I decided to focus my life around climbing there, skipping other commitments and trips to be back for the magical spring and “fall” seasons. Over the past two years I’ve made four return trips, each time I am challenged to become a better, bolder and tougher climber.
Spring 2014: My girlfriend Bronwyn Hodgins and I climbed the world’s most famous big wall route over 4 days. On The Nose we learned how to aid climb, big wall climb and crack climb, it was a steep route and an even steeper learning curve!
Spring 2015: Bronwyn Hodgins, Chris Bevins and I free climbed El Capitan via the route Freerider. We spent 6 days living on the wall, hauling our food, water, portaledges and inflatable shark behind us. Halfway up in The Monster Offwidth I was totally exhausted, lacking the skills to climb it efficiently, I could feel myself starting to slide back down the smooth sides of the 50m crack. I think the only thing that kept me on was pure stubbornness. I learned what it meant to try my absolute hardest and really give everything I had.
Fall 2015: I once read a Tommy Caldwell quote that it took him 4 years to learn how to use his feet properly on the slick Yosemite granite. With this in mind I decided to try and teach myself something about what footholds it is possible to stand on. Peace 5.13d/8b is a Yosemite classic and the thinnest wall climb of my life. It hurt the tips of my fingers and toes so much that I could only have one attempt every two days. After five days of effort I clung on to the tiny “chickenheads” for the full 60m pitch. It’s still the closest I have ever come to climbing a blank wall!
Spring 2016: Robbie Phillips and I decided to attempt El Niño, a bold free line on the right side of El Cap. Where Freerider has splitter cracks this route has runouts and blankness. Half way up I set off under The Black Roof, feeling very intimidated. Ten meters of horizontal roof lay above, with runout French 8a climbing and around 500m of empty air beneath. Swinging about in the roof I gained confidence that whatever my surroundings and despite the exposure I could focus entirely on the next move. Somehow Robbie and I kept our spirits up despite dropping the tea bags on day 3 and found ourselves on the summit after six days having free climbed every pitch.
Each trip I have completely surprised myself, pulling climbs out of the bag when they seemed all but impossible. The most important thing I have learned is not to set mental boundaries for myself, I don’t know what I am capable of but I know that the only way to find out is by trying.
This October I’m back in Yosemite and I want to put all the skills I’ve learned to the test on the “Ultramarathon of Climbing”: Free climbing El Capitan in a day. I’ll be ditching the haul bags and portaledge and going fast and light, hoping to free climb all 31 pitches of Freerider within 24 hours. In a way it seems like both the final exam and the entrance exam, in order to succeed I will need to have truly mastered climbing efficiently on Yosemite granite, if I do succeed it will open to doors to other challenges I had previously considered impossible. Bring it on!
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