Article: Salathe 1988 - The Free Salathe


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Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 7, 2008 - 02:35pm PT
At Tarbuster's request, here's the article on Skinner and Piana's groundbreaking free ascent of the Salathe Wall.

Climbing Magazine #110 – October 1988
Salathé Wall 1988
Story by Paul Piana
Photos by Bill Hatcher

After more than 30 days and nights on the Salathé Wall, we were able to read the shadows and tell the hour of the day to the minute. It was 8:45pm and across the valley the Cathedral group had lost its cap of alpenglow. Only an ambient glimmer lit our little world on the wall.

Pitch #32 (5.13b)

To the casual observer, we might have been the average team aiding toward the security of a bivy on Long Ledge. But as Todd neared the belay his movements became less fluid, his confident swimming motions from jam to jam turning stiff and choppy. In the growing darkness, I thought I could see his forearms glowing. Arms pumped to the point of fusion provided enough light to see, but Todd couldn't crank the last few moves, or even swear during the inevitable thirty-foot plummet. Dejected, he slumped at the end of the rope, then swung back in to the rock. We hung on the belay anchors, sapped. The ground was some 3000 feet of giddy drop away, and here we were, perched in the middle of an overhanging sweep of granite. We pulled the rope and slid down into a darkness as black as our fatigue and as deep as the herculean task we had begun. Our porta-ledge camp under the Great Roof was a secure hang, but tonight it was not a home. The Salathé's headwall remained, taunting and smug in its glorious position.

Todd Skinner (L) and Paul Piana (R)

People had been climbing big walls in Yosemite for several years, but the first ascent of the Salathé Wall in 1961 was a real breakthrough. The year before, Joe Fitschen, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Royal Robbins had made the second ascent of the Nose in six days without the use of fixed ropes; it was the first time a major El Capitan route had been done in a single continuous push, but this adventurous climb was just a precursor of what was to come.

Frost, Pratt, and Robbins had an even more ambitious plan: their proposed Salathé Wall would link a series of cracks with far fewer bolts than the 125 that the Nose had required. After fixing the first third of the route, the trio dropped their ropes and pushed on to the upper 2000 feet of vertical to overhanging wall. At the end of the sixth day, they topped out, having used just 13 bolts for the entire route.

At that time, the Salathé Wall was the state of the art in technical difficulty. This supremely talented and bold team created pitches, both free and aid, that were as difficult as anything that had been done previously. If they blew it, they would have had to rely on themselves alone for a rescue. And in 1961, being 2000 feet up on a Yosemite wall was a lot farther off the deck than it is today!

In many ways it is logical to use aid on a big wall. The prospect of falls, or of trying to keep it together on a very thin crux way off the ground, seem too frightening to consider. But for Todd Skinner and me, free climbing high up on a big wall was the stuff dreams are made of. For us, this dream was brought to life by an article in Mountain 79. In "Long, Hard, And Free," Mark Hudon and Max Jones described their free climbing efforts on the big walls of Yosemite. We marveled at their audacity and boldness, and began to think that it was possible for us to climb long, hard, and free as well. Soon, the Salathé Wall, the "greatest rock climb in the world," was lodged in our minds.

Todd spent spring 1985 in Yosemite, and this was the practical beginning of our quest. While Todd was working on free climbing The Stigma, John Sherman mentioned that if that would go, then maybe the Salathé would go as well. After completing The Stigma Todd phoned, but I was unconvinced and remained in Laramie. Not yet dismayed, he packed five days food, gathered a team, and assumed the Salathé was his.

According to Todd, they were lucky to aid the route, much less free climb it, but what he saw inspired another look. A year later his second attempt encountered a similar fate, and was stopped again by the pendulum to Hollow Flake. They didn't take the time to search for an alternative, but free climbed the pitches that went easily and quickly, aiding those that would be cruxes.

El Cap Spire - Pitch #22 (5.11c)

Curiously enough, on both attempts, the teams were so inexperienced at aid climbing and so terribly slow that they often encountered the pitches they most wanted to case well after dark! So, after a total of about ten days on the route, Todd was only a little more convinced of the feasibility of freeing the Salathé. Even though there were sections of the climb that he hadn't looked at with an eye toward free climbing, the vibes felt right. Todd was confident that a free line could be found somewhere on the face.

Within a few days of this last reconnaissance, Todd and I were scheming in Boulder, frantically drawing topos, examining photos of the wall, and looking for free climbing options on adjacent routes. Fearful of rival teams, we allowed no one to sit in on these planning sessions - even girlfriends. The knowledge was committed to memory and the topos we drew were shredded and burned. The ashes were mailed to parts of the world where English isn't spoken. To the outside world, we hoped it would appear that the Salathé was not free climbable.

Since neither of us owned watches, we synchronized our calendars. A pact was made: we would be in the Valley May 1st, and we would gamble our health, our esteem in the eyes of our families, and what little wealth we could command to arrive on time at the gate of dreams. The ensuing months were spent in the gym, utilizing a secret training system devised from all we could learn from the French and Soviet climbers. Endless mornings on the boulders fed our desires. As our strength increased, so did our phone bills. But the long-distance psyche sessions from Hueco to Boulder made possible many more lat pulls and forced one more lap on the bouldering circuit. "The Winter is long - yet the robin has a song to sing," says the proverb. While we weren't too concerned about singing on key, we wanted to be able to
sing loud.

We learned from the grapevine that Stefan Glowacz had joined a little-known fraternity of Europeans, including Heinz Mariacher and Manolo, that had tried to free the Salathé. After ten days of effort, he had come away with the prediction that it would not go. Several pitches could not be bypassed and according to Stefan, the pitch above the Great Roof, if it could be done at all, would resist attempts for at least ten years!

While at the competitions in Europe in 1987, Todd tried to get as much beta out of Stefan as possible without giving away our plans. What we learned was disheartening, and we suspected that he too was "playing the game." But we were happy to discover that he had found a way to bypass the pendulum to Hollow Flake, via a 5.12b traverse 60 feet lower.

Our arrival in Yosemite was almost not to be. Racing north from Hueco Tanks, Todd blew an engine in Raton, New Mexico. He broke the news to me in a midnight call. We were hosed - my bus hadn't run in five months. With help from his brother Orion, Todd arrived in Boulder. Miraculously, my bus started and we traded a dead horse for a dying one and rode north into Wyoming.

The spring blizzards waited until our ailing bus tottered across the howling, windswept eternity of 1-80. The geriatric VW could manage 40mph downhill and got eight miles to the gallon. At every gas stop, and there were many, the starter refused to work, so it was underneath with a screwdriver to short the connection. As if deep slush, mud, and cold weren't enough, ten minutes were spent at each stop chipping away the massive accumulations of ice in order to reach the starter.

We arrived in Pinedale, Todd's hometown, at 5am in a second-gear headwind and slept furtively, dreaming that the bus would never start again. In the morning, after a quick overhaul, we had a vehicle that raced along at 50mph and got a stunning 12 miles to the gallon.

We knew that we wouldn't be able to just walk up and climb the route free. It would involve an unheard-of amount of continuously difficult climbing, and from Todd's recon efforts and those of others it was obvious that the Salathé couldn't be touched without a lot of preparation. We decided that a series of "camping trips" would allow us to gain the necessary knowledge and to become accustomed to life far off the ground. Our strategy was to spend six or seven days at a time working on different sections of the wall. These trips were also used to cache water and the occasional can of beans at critical sites. During this stage we often camped in the Alcove, the large and comfortable ledge at the base of El Cap Spire. We preferred its sheltered nature to the more famous and aesthetic bivouac on El Cap Spire. This also allowed other parties the unique experience of sleeping on top of the spire.

After our work low on the route - that is, up to pitch 24 - it became difficult to haul enough water and food to points higher on the wall. Our tactics changed and we drove towards Tamarack Flat Campground. The entrance was locked at the highway, so we began our hike to the top of El Capitan from there, enduring huge loads of food, ropes, and gear over almost 12 miles of very hilly trail. Near the summit, we located a nice spot for our recon camp and began the outrageous rappels off the rim. I couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculous nature of rappelling down El Capitan. What had seemed like hideous exposure on pitch 24 suddenly seemed no worse than the void experienced on short free climbs. We went as far as Sous Le Toit ledge, leaving fixed ropes that were ultimately anchored to a big block just over the rim. We then climbed back out to a stance just at the lip of the Great Roof and began work on the crack in the headwall.

Several days were spent on these headwall pitches as we toproped or led them, or sussed out the protection, and just got used to being in such an exposed place. We were continually impressed by the boldness of Frost, Pratt, and Robbins who had dared to risk it all and were there first in 1961. We also marveled that at each impasse there was a sequence that worked, even if just barely. But we were appalled by the inhuman amount of difficult climbing that faced us. We were haunted by the specter of injury. Damage to a critical joint or tendon would finish our bid. A turn in the weather could be equally demoralizing. Occasionally the mental strain of so many difficult sequences and unrelenting crux pitches became a burden that threatened to crush our dream. Every working day on the Headwall ended in a multi-pitch jug to the rim and a joyous campfire at our summit camp. One of the most enjoyable nights was spent with a group of Kiwis who had topped out late in the day and had brought along a celebratory bag of marshmallows! Toasting marshmallows on the summit of El Capitan with good friends is a night I'll long remember.

We were chased off the summit twice - once by snow and once when we ran out of food. The latter posed a serious problem as we were also out of money. I had survived the past two weeks on 47 cents and Todd was the rich man of the team with 12 bucks still in his pocket. We really needed to perfect the pitch that exits the Headwall onto Long Ledge. During our recons, this area had been a bottleneck as we sat on Long Ledge waiting for parties to aid past. We desperately needed another camping trip to figure out this pitch, but hadn't the greenbacks to spend even another day on the wall. However, we knew we would stay no matter how hungry we became, and often commented on how trusting the deer were in Yosemite.

Pitch #24 (5.12d)

To fund our Salathé quest we had a yard sale in the Camp IV parking lot. We auctioned everything we thought we could live without: a brand new pair of rock shoes, slippers, Friends, a Simulator, virtually everything except our souls. Each sale saw our feed bag swelling not just with beans and tortillas, but with treats that would keep our morale high. Pop Tarts were morning essentials, and Snickers and raisins were great for lunch. Eventually we had enough cash to fund either another recon or a final push, but not both. We chose the latter, as there was little else we could sell. We knew we had a good chance of pulling it off if we could stay together physically and if the weather stayed cool and dry.

We bought four extra cans of tuna in case we had to spend four extra days on the wall. Photographer Bill Hatcher and our "Wall Master" Scotsman John Christie would climb just ahead of us. The plan was for John to lead, allowing Bill to lower back down to take photos of Todd and me. From the Block, John and Bill would punch it to the top. Then Bill would fix ropes back down for photos, while John would go down the East Ledges, thus sparing precious rations. The route had been steadily whittling away at our fingers, so we agreed that we wouldn't follow the crux pitches free and would jug them instead. We knew this might make the difference between success and failure. We also felt that we'd need a rest day up high, but were concerned that the weather might not allow one. We were very fortunate to find that "Mad Dog" Bob Boehringer, a veteran of Todd's 1985 recon, was in the Valley. We recruited Bob, this time as Radio Free Salathé, and every evening at 9:30 we would receive a current weather report.

Armed with a month of recons, food and water, radio support, and a super photo team, our final push was ready to get off the ground and onto the Big Stone. We had done our homework, but the magnitude of the final fight was still a heavy burden. Yet without the burden there would be no appeal. We looked upward and vowed to take no prisoners!

The Salathé begins with ten pitches known as the Free Blast. The first three are wonderful, but the fourth and fifth are so trashed out that we were ashamed they were in America. The wall is pasted with huge, useless, saucer-sized blobs of aluminum that have been beaten into old bolt holes. Faded and tattered runners hang from everything, and the belays are of the same poor quality. The Free Blast could be repaired and become the quality climb it once was, but until that happens it remains an embarrassment to the hypocritical ethic that we care about preserving the rock, the experience, and our image.

After the Free Blast and a 5.10a downclimb to Heart Ledge, we were happy to climb Stefan's traverse to Hollow Flake. After this desperate pitch the infamous Hollow Flake must be dealt with, and I was horrified to learn that a 50-meter rope isn't long enough to enable the leader to reach the top of the flake. Todd struggled higher and higher on this completely unprotected pitch as I quickly untied the belay and simul-climbed with him. I figured that only one of us needed to be freaked out, so I neglected to mention this to Todd until I had reached the top of the flake.

Our original plan called for avoiding the aid pitch above The Ear by climbing an offwidth just to the left. Steve Schneider had run these 5.10d pitches out during the first ascent of Bermuda Dunes, but we both doubted our offwidth skills and wanted nothing to do with such a loathsome technique. Since we were aesthetically repulsed by this vile crevice, we decided we would have our way with the original aid pitch or else abandon the climb. This 5.13b pitched turned out to be a beauty. Were it on the ground, this tight dihedral would be a much-tried classic, but the 1700-foot approach will deter many. This was the first crux and it required a wide variety of crack techniques. We found power flares, 5.12+ dynos from them into pin scars and back out again, thuggish laybacking - and then we found the crux. Searing, fingertip pin scars, laser-precise edging, and post-doctoral skills in body English were the ingredients of the last 20 feet of this pitch.

Two rope lengths above El Cap Spire we reached an impasse at an A1 pitch. Several days had been spent here on our recons trying to find something that worked. While the first half went relatively easily at 5.12a, the second half resisted everything we threw at it. We had spent days trying to toprope three possible variations to the right. Faces that looked as though we would have them at a glance slapped us around like dumb blondes. We would try one and get slapped. We would try another and get slapped. We were tired of being slapped.

We left the pretty faces for a glassy open book to the left. It looked impossibly smooth so we put the moves on the arete in between. Todd soon found it was smoother than our moves. I lowered down and tried all my best lines. The smoothest refusal we had ever received met me in that corner, and I was overjoyed that on the final push, Todd won the 5.12d pitch with powerful stemming, several more-than-playful slaps, and no falls. And then it was on to the Block, a perfectly situated but hideously sloping balcony from which we could lounge in relative comfort and gaze at the sweeping perfection of the Headwall. The rope length below the Block was the bad neighborhood of the Salathé, a slummy pitch hung with moss tendrils and streaming with water. It is as ugly as the Headwall is beautiful - as if someone had diverted a sewer through the Louvre. Climbing it was not a pretty sight and invective flowed as freely as the mud in the jams.

Camp below the Great Roof

Once on the Block things got better. The rock above was dry and clean. The bivy on this sloped perch was the last grand floor to walk around upon; we could drop gear and get it back. Here we spread out the picnic and glopped stolen Degnan's condiments on bean-smeared "Manna from Hell," the petrified, jerky-like tortillas that Todd learned to make from an ancient Mexican woman. We ate until we were full, or until our jaws cramped from chewing. We paced in little circles. We dropped things just to see them stop falling. We slept. The morning saw us moving toward the Great Roof. The pitches were increasingly difficult - a portent of ropelengths to come. The pitch below the Great Roof was especially memorable. Powerful, open-handed laybacking and technically desperate stemming was protected by horribly frayed bashies and an unwillingness to fall. Our aching backs called this flaring dihedral 5.12b. The pitch ended at a dangling stance below the amazing Great Roof. This bold feature stair-steps over and out for 20 feet and with the walls of the corner below, cocooned us from the wind. We hauled our bags and set up our porta-ledge camp.

The first night of several was spent here, lives and gear tangled across the hanging corner like some giant cobweb. Our little world was quite secure but we could never truly relax. The position was too spectacular. Dropped gear fell a long, long way before we lost sight of it. We had to be careful to keep everything tied in and only failed this test once. Todd and I had taken as many Louis L'Amour novels as we could scrounge. We had finished the batch and had poured through the Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Stories as well. Todd was well into Thuvia, Maid of Mars but I was left with a romance novel that Bill Hatcher had fought through, complaining with every page. It accidentally slipped from my ledge and became the fastest read of the climb. I started re-reading Hondo.

The next morning I awakened slowly - I must have been dreaming of Mars. As the sky brightened, I thought I heard the faintest clash of sword on sword. I peeked cautiously over the edge of the suspended cot and glimpsed Todd, still asleep, scything and parrying with some dream-induced, green-skinned Martian warrior. On his face was a confident fighting smile.

The next pitch was a stiff cup of coffee. From the top floor of our camp, the route moved out right with lots of cool morning beneath our heels, an easy but spectacular traverse leading to an attention-getting series of deadpoint surges to sloping buckets. From here it is possible to brachiate wildly to the right, feet swinging, and then to throw your leg up over a huge horizontal spike in the same way a L'Amour hero would mount a galloping horse.

What a place! Halfway out a huge roof, a hundred miles off the deck, is this amazing saddle-like peninsula so flat and comfortable that we could have served coffee on it - not that it was still required. From the saddle, it's all rounded buckets to the lip and a terrifying heel-toe above the head and crank to a shoulder scum, but if I fall I'm going to scream. All the while my heart was slugging away, doing Mike Tyson imitations while I made the tenuous step up onto a hands-down rest. We decided to throw in a belay here since we had the stance. Stefan Glowacz had told Todd that he didn't think the pitch above the Great Roof would ever go, but fortunately, years of climbing Vedauwoo's flares served us well. From the belay it looked pretty grim. Scarred by pitons and scabbed over with useless lumps of ruined bashies and one sad fixed piton, this short pitch was one to be feared. The first 5.12+ flare moves were harder than any I had ever experienced and were unprotected as well. How the jams felt meant nothing - they were so bad that Todd had to visually monitor his hand throughout each move. With his Megas 15 unprotected feet above the belay he had to pull up slack to clip a tied-off peg. So flaring were the jams that it was impossible to downclimb and the slightest error, even a change in the blood pressure in his hand, would see the Salathé flick him off and send him screaming far below the roof, until the force of the fall crashed onto my belay anchors with Todd wild-eyed and spinning thousands of feet off the ground.

We were both glad that he didn't fall. The flares ended with a thankfully short but tremendously difficult face sequence. Power, grace, tremendous skill, and the essence of boldness were some of the practices Todd pulled from our cheat's repertoire. Even a bitter has-been would have cheered the brilliance of Todd's lead. We were ecstatic that the second 5.13 pitch was done, but sobered because two more were
just above. The Headwall must be the grandest climb in the universe, a beautiful and inspiring crack system splitting the 100-degree sweep of the golden wall at the top of El Capitan. The essence of the Salathé is distilled in this one incredible fissure. To be here, whether free climbing or aiding, is one of the most overwhelmingly good experiences a rock climber can have. It is indeed a beauty, one that cannot be wooed with mere technique, but a prize to be fought for. Todd and I feared the unrelenting pump of this pitch. The Headwall Crack became the object of Todd's desire. He wanted to free "the most beautiful crack I've ever seen," in the most impressive position either of us could imagine.

This day it was not to be. Todd gave it his best, failing twice just a move away from the anchor. In the last of the day's light, I thought he had it when his left foot rocketed off the wall as a little flake snapped. He fell 30 feet, too flamed to even curse. He hung a few moments, toes brushing the wall, then I belayed him to his highest piece so that he could unclip and downjump far enough to be lowered to the belay. Against all hope, Todd went up again, but even ten feet off the belay, it was obvious that he was too tired to succeed. Still he gave more than his best. Violent karate chop jamming, frantic foot changes, and missed clips, then at 90 feet out, a dejected murmur in the gloom – I was yanked upward and into the wall as Todd hit the end of the rope.

Rappelling over the roof in the darkness was scary. We would get to the bottom of the fixed loop and yard ourselves into the hanging camp. The valley was dark, the highway a thin stream of yellow light as cars flowed into Yosemite. Dinner was a quiet affair. At that moment we felt like we were too far off the ground, the gloom altogether too black. The night was long.

The half light of dawn was the same monochrome gray as the ceiling above and I might have been staring at it for hours when Todd's voice announced that he was still really beat and needed a rest day. By this time, we both could have used a rest week. Neither of us could close our hands and our critical forefingers had been brutally bludgeoned by the many cruel pin-scars. Our knuckles were swollen to a shocking size. We were concerned that we would tear ourselves apart before we could finish, but that wasn't the game we could afford to play.

By this time. Bill and John had topped out, and Bill had fixed lines back down to take photos. Rather than waste a day resting, we decided that we would jumar their ropes to the pitch that exited onto Long Ledge. I had been having better success on it than Todd, so we figured that I should work it some more and then Todd could still have the Headwall Crack. We spent a frustrating day on this exit crack. I could almost do it, but would fail a few feet short every time. I must have fallen a nautical mile that day, but we gained valuable knowledge about subtle foot placements, and Todd did get a little rest. Even so, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do it at all. After hours of failure, my severely gobied fingers would ooze quickly through super glue and tape, so we retreated to our hanging camp and worked at repairing my fingers. It was my night to be depressed. I tried to relax and sleep but couldn't. I climbed that pitch a thousand times in my mind. Todd slept deeply, dreaming once more of defending the honor of the most beautiful Martian woman, swords glinting in the sun.

Pitch #31 - The Headwall (5.13a)

Morning brought apprehension and a slow, stalling breakfast. Having put it off long enough, we started up the fixed lines to do battle with the Headwall. Todd clipped his ascenders onto the thin, red arc that swooped out and disappeared over the lip. From his spectacular dangle he looked back just as I was "buried at sea." This was the term we used to describe the frightening and amusing fall one took when unbalancing a portaledge. I had weighted the ledge a little too close to one end and dramatically slid off and fell to the end of my tether. Todd's laughter faded over the lip and after calming down I joined him at the start of his pitch.

Todd felt a bit hesitant so early in the morning and needed to clear his mind. He climbed 15 and then 20 feet above the piece he hung from and dramatically hurled himself into the void. He repeated this six or seven times, until it became fun and the reluctance to go for it was completely gone. Back at the belay we looked down at the still-dark valley floor. The sun hadn't hit the face and the winds of the Headwall were still. Todd flowed through the stillness and all the difficulties, slowing at the last few moves, taking care to make no mistakes. And then all the fears we had for this pitch were laughter as he clipped the belay and I started up to join him.

I was happy that the beauty had been won but afraid of what was just above. Todd and I spent at least an hour cleaning my hands with alcohol, super gluing the rents in my fingers, and then carefully applying a wrap of tape over the glue. Before starting, I torqued my fingers in the crack to numb the pain. The morning's lethargy became adrenalin as the thin jams were suddenly below and I found myself wedged into a pod-like slot. Exiting the slot seemed particularly rude to my tattered hands, its flared jams as painful as backhanding a wire brush. After clipping the highest piece, I lost my nerve and decided to downclimb into the pod to rest. I was afraid to fall again. This wasn't the usual fear of falling - the gear was good and we had lived so long up here that the drop was not the rope-clenching horror it had been more than 30 days before. My phobia was failure. I couldn't bear the agony of another day without succeeding on this pitch. I fell while downclimbing.

The next try was as solid as could be. The pitch seemed to flow together until I found myself staring at the dyno target. Todd was screaming "Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!" Long seconds passed while I pondered failure, either from missing the dyno or from a lack of trying. A deliberate lunge and I pinched the knob so hard that Arnold Schwartzenegger would have been proud. I cranked to the belay, laughing and waving my arms like a lunatic. We had it in the bag now.

We spent the rest of the day rapping back down to the camp under the Great Roof and packing our gear. We slowly hauled it up to Long Ledge and enjoyed walking back and forth. It was late, but we yearned for the prize, so leaving the haul bags, we climbed for the top. The next pitch is one of the gems of the climb. From the extreme left end of Long Ledge an overhanging, knobby wall rolls and bulges upward. Todd reveled in the delicate foot changes, long reaches between knobs, and deadpoints to crisp side pulls. After he had danced up this 5.12a Hueco-esque wonder, I enjoyed a superb 5.10 thin hand crack which put us only one pitch from the top. Todd made light work of the last bit of 5.11 and the Free Salathé was done.

Our long, hard work had nearly ended and we were indescribably happy as we raced the sunset back down to Long Ledge to radio John Christie and our other friends in the meadow that the Salathé was ours! We spent the most satisfying bivy of our lives eating extra Pop Tarts, drinking lots of water, singing funny songs about John Long, and discussing the finer quotes from Louis L'Amour. Tomorrow would be a grand celebration!

The next morning was perfect. We breakfasted and started hauling freight to the rim. We joked about being extra careful, as most fatal auto accidents occur within two miles of home. I was first over the rim and selected the best anchor I could find. We had already used this huge block, as had years of Salathé climbers. Off to one side were a couple of fixed pins that I anchored Todd's line to. I plugged in a #1 Friend to make sure. While Todd jugged the pitch I used the block as a hauling anchor and as my tie-in as well. When the bags reached the lip, I was unable to pull them over myself and waited for Todd to arrive. While waiting, I decided that I might as well be embarrassingly paranoid and clip the fixed pins as well. Todd reached the rim and I made him pose for pictures like Layton Kor at the top of the Salathé. Since he was on top and pulling up an extra rope, I began taking out the anchor. I removed the Friend, then turned and started lifting the haul bags. We heard a horrible grating noise and, turning back, were horrified to see that somehow the block had come loose!

I'm not clear about exactly what happened next. Todd remembers me putting my hands out at the block and yelling "No!" I do remember the two of us being battered together, and the horror of seeing my best friend knocked wildly off the edge, and then a tremendous weight on my left leg as I was squeegied off the rim. I recall a loud crack like a rifle shot, and then more pummeling, and suddenly everything stopped spinning and I could just peek back up over the edge. Everything was in tatters, ropes pinched off and fused - it appeared that they had all been cut. I was afraid to touch anything, and sick with the knowledge that Todd had probably just hit the talus. Suddenly, a startling bass squeak sounded below me, followed by a desperate "Grab the rope!" I hauled myself over the top and soon a bloody hand on a crushed ascender slid over the rim. I helped Todd up and we laid there for a long time. We were terrified because Todd was having trouble breathing and his pelvic area hurt very badly. My leg was in a really weird position and reaching a crescendo of pain. I don't know how long we were there, afraid to move for fear of fainting and unraveling the braid of cut ropes that held us. When we did get up we discovered that Todd's line appeared to be okay. He had been held by one of his CMI ascenders.

Apparently, the rock had scraped over the ascender and miraculously that small, gouged, and bent piece of metal had kept Todd's rope from being cut. I had been held by the loop I'd clipped to the fixed pin. The 11 mm rope I had tied into the block with had been cut as easily as a cotton shoe lace. Two other 9mm ropes were in eight or nine pieces and the haul bags were talus food. We coiled the remaining rope and slowly started down the East Ledges. A descent that usually took us just under two hours required almost seven, and we arrived at the base of Manure Pile Buttress looking much worse than the average wall climber who staggers down that trail.

We had dreamed, we had trained, and we had struggled. Even though the climb ended with a bit of a nightmare, we had triumphed. I'm sure that the ecstasy we feel now will live inside us forever. Sometimes at night, as I'm drifting off to sleep, I suddenly hear that big block move and I see Todd tumble off the rim. I think about how difficult it would have been for our families if we had been killed. I shudder at the remembrance of being dragged off the summit of El Capitan and knowing that we really were going to die. For me, the definition of "horror" is now an emotion.

Now that several months have passed, and Todd and I have almost healed, I'm even more pleased with our climb. We worked harder than anyone else was willing to work, harder than we thought we could. We were willing to risk seeing our most shining goal become a tormenting failure. Yet we were prepared to fail and fail and fail until we finally could succeed. Todd and I are still awed at the difficulty of the Free Salathé. The climbing is unrelenting in its severity and the logistics are staggering. We are confident that unless a team is willing to put in a comparable amount of work, the Salath_ will not be climbed again as a free route. In fact, we suspect that the Free Salath_ will not be repeated for many years. We are very happy, very proud, and when we're no longer sore, you will see us back on the crags. But I keep wondering, what is The Shield like?

Big Wall climber
Seattle, WA
Sep 7, 2008 - 03:07pm PT
Fekking awesome! I'm sure your heart soared as your soul took flight.
Karl Baba

Trad climber
Yosemite, Ca
Sep 7, 2008 - 04:21pm PT
Thanks for posting that. Too bad the follow up story about how, when they hit the valley floor, the rangers confiscated their gear for "dropping" the haul bag and they had to jump through a bunch of crazy hoops.

Todd was the one who, despite many before him who tried, really brought freeing big walls into "fashion."


amy skinner

Social climber
lander, wyoming
Sep 9, 2008 - 12:51pm PT
A romantic life, for sure, and one of integrity and hard work. They went for it on the "dropped bag" coverup as the last poster suggested. Broken leg, ribs, etc were suffered just so they wouldn't have to carry those heavy haul bags! And all the searchers on the ground looking for bodies were pleased, I'm sure, when Todd and Paul showed up on the valley floor the next morning only needing medical attention. I've always been thankful to the SAR for their work and care on both incidences of Todd's accidents in Yosemite. I had left the valley the morning they left to free the wall and have always been thankful that it was before cell phones were in general use. I missed those 12 hours or so that everyone searching thought both T&P had fallen.

Thanks to you that have personal experience with Todd and Paul and know their true characters!
Cheers from Wyoming-
Amy Skinner

Trad climber
Sep 9, 2008 - 01:09pm PT
jh only ever posts to slander dead guys.
amy skinner

Social climber
lander, wyoming
Sep 9, 2008 - 01:27pm PT
Thanks for that. Sounds like a charming guy. . .

Trad climber
Albuq, NM
Sep 9, 2008 - 05:47pm PT
Wow, not often am I embarrASSed to be a climber,
but right now, reading hedgehog's reply,
I sure am.

This was a great post Greg !
Too bad the "trash Todd crowd" had to once again crawl out from under some outhouse somewhere.

Big Wall climber
Seattle, WA
Sep 9, 2008 - 06:29pm PT
No sh#t, Why do feel it necessary to belittle such an awesome endeavor?

Trad climber
San Francisco, Ca
Sep 9, 2008 - 06:48pm PT
I had been climbing a year or two when this article came out- it was totally inspiring to me.

I saw Paul Piana do a slide show about their climb at about the same time the article came out and got even more fired up about climbing, especially how he and Skinner made it their lifestyle.

Trad climber
San Diego
Sep 9, 2008 - 07:26pm PT
Thanks for posting, that was a great read. I need to learn how to write TRs like that. It was engaging throughout!
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Sep 9, 2008 - 07:33pm PT
I always got a laugh out of the tent on top of El Cap Spire. If you have ever been to that bivi, you will understand why the tent is so contrived. I like their dirt-bagging lifestyle, and how they had to scrape together all their [non]resources to make it to the Valley.

At least he didn't add as many bolts to Salathe as he did to Dihedral. {sigh}
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Sep 9, 2008 - 07:33pm PT
Todd and Paul were ahead of their time, like Max and Mark before them. In the 20 years since, the Salathe' Wall still has had only 10 free repeats, and only one of those climbed the 5.13 pitch above the Ear. Freerider is darn popular, though, at a "mere" 12c, it's within the grasp of many top climbers now.

I saw Todd and Paul's slideshow in Berkeley at the time - it was great fun! "Carrot, then rock! Carrot, then rock!!"
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Sep 9, 2008 - 07:58pm PT

As I understand it, Todd and Paul did some long overdue rebolting of the Free Blast, i.e. replacing old belay bolts with new big ones. They placed belay bolts on the headwall. They did not add the bolt at the former aid crux, where you have the blind crack switch from the right to the left. That bolt appeared later, around the time of the Hubers.

Which bolts in particular on the Salathe' are you referring to?

Big Wall climber
Fresno, CA
Sep 9, 2008 - 08:28pm PT
I think Pete is really just talking about the aggressive bolting of Diheral Wall. Many bolts a couple of feet from a perfectly ood crack, etc.

Sep 12, 2008 - 04:47pm PT

Trad climber
Sep 15, 2008 - 02:41pm PT
Damn what a sweet post. Todd Skinner was a visionary to just decide to go for it on El Cap like that for the first time. When I was up there I couldn't help but think- he and Royal Robbins are my climbing heroes for being so open and bold in their thinking. Super rad. They both were doing things no one else would even have considered at the time.

Yeah Yuji is a pimp and there are stronger climbers now, but that doesn't impress me half as much. These were the first american guys, going for it on the cheap, and really pushing it with training for climbing, camping out on El Cap. Visionary actions.

Thanks for linking it. One of those classic articles everyone should read I wasn't around to. This, huber's article, and yuji's write up in Alpinist are some of the sweetest stuff out there, required reading!

Thanks for linking!

-Oh and Jhedge STFU right now.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
Hood River, OR
Sep 18, 2008 - 12:08pm PT
If I had known about it at the time I would have funded the whole endeavor!
handsome B

Gym climber
Sep 18, 2008 - 01:19pm PT
The vision is truly the headline on this one.


'Pass the Pitons' Pete and jgHedge, you guys are a joke

Sep 19, 2008 - 09:14pm PT
I'm not really a climber anymore (never really was, actually), and I almost never come to this site. Just happened to open this one up...

Occasionally someone comes along and ushers in a complete leap in standards in the utmost of style, but that is rarely the case in climbing. (Henry Barber comes to mind, but not many others...) I knew Todd well, and he was never one to wait around and let others see if something could be done. He spent his life seeing possibilities and trying his damnedest (sp?) to make them happen. Not only that, but he was just a hell of a lot of fun to hang around with!

Trad climber
Portland, OR
Sep 19, 2008 - 10:00pm PT
Was a great summer. I bought the Simulator at the "Camp IV Yard Sale" for $40. Todd was completely down to earth, and spent probably half an hour talking about training techniques with me. (A total gumby by comparison.)

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