Freeing El Niño, Ground Up

A Partnered El Cap Free Ascent with Amity Warme

 In early November, Amity Warme and I freed El Niño via the Pineapple Express variation (5.13c, 25 pitches, 2500 feet) during an 8 and a half day ground-up push. We had an incredible time, sending most of the challenging pitches back-to-back, and both onsighting all of the engaging 5.12 terrain. We had to wait out a significant rainstorm and encountered delays higher up due to a wet final 5.13 section. However, we waited out a bit of extra drying time and pulled it off together. This marked my fourth successful El Cap free route (and my fifth free El Cap ascent, when including a Freerider repeat in-a-day).

El Niño proved to be an adventurous and demanding climb up the grand canvas of El Capitan, distinct from the flared cracks of the west face. Fortunately, Amity and I were both in a good headspace for the challenge. I couldn't have asked for a better experience! While a festival-length film documenting our full ascent is in the works, I wanted to share a day-by-day diary account of the journey for those who are interested.

Sending the Black Cave 5.13b pitch (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Prep Days:

El Niño starts with a set of demanding slab pitches. The initial five pitches are graded as 5.6, 5.9, followed by "The Black Dike" at 5.13a, "The Missing Link" at 5.13a, and "The Galapagos" at 5.13b. Climbers often spend several days practicing these accessible pitches before attempting the entire route. We spent about four days working on them. Amity faced additional challenges due to a recent kitchen accident injuring her finger (which she found out a month later to be a complete A2 pulley rupture - she climbed with this the entire ascent!).

These three pitches suited me well and came together swiftly. I onsighted "The Missing Link" on our first lead outing, tackled "The Black Dike" on a second attempt using a fixed line top rope, and did "The Galapagos" on my third attempt. These pitches involve difficult traverses with extensive run-outs, up to 30 feet in some parts, making even top rope ascents thrilling due to potential large pendulum falls. After four pr ep sessions, I had cleanly climbed each pitch multiple times and was ready to do them in the pressure of our push.

On a fifth preparatory day, we climbed pitches 6 to 10, all 5.11+ or lower, and pre-hauled 21 gallons of water to Big Sur Ledge about 1200’ up. Our ascent was documented by two videographers, Chris Alstrin and Nelson Klein - Chris camped with us on the wall for the entire climb. This meant expanding our seven-day supplies to accommodate three people. Our plan was to attempt the route ground-up, with some pre-practiced pitches. While we had previewed 10 of the 25 pitches, the route still held many unknowns, including three more 5.13 rated pitches higher up, which proved even more challenging than the lower slabs.

Route Topo courtesy of Tavish Hansen

Onsighting the Missing Link (photo by Nelson Klein)

Day 1 - The Slab Cruxes:

Our ground-up push started with a partial day, as we waited for the afternoon shade around 4pm to cool the lower 5.13- slabs. Shade is essential for seeing and effectively using the minuscule footholds, although the rock remained warm from the day's heat.

I led "The Black Dike" cleanly on my first try, despite the still-warm rock making my shoe rubber feel gooey. Under pressure, Amity followed smoothly. Usually I'd want to lead all the crux pitches on a big wall free ascent, but for these lower slabs, we chose a standard multi-pitch lead-follow strategy. With only 90 minutes of shade before nightfall, there was no time for a second lead and subsequent jug cleaning of the pitch. Following these pitches on top rope was equally thrilling anyways, particularly unclipping directional gear and facing big swings right at the toughest moves.

Both of us slipped once on "The Missing Link." However, since its challenge is mainly a V7 crimp boulder problem right off the belay, we repeated it quickly with minimal lost time. Amity led the Galapagos pitch, completing it as daylight faded. I followed in the dark, guided by my headlamp, feeling extra pressure. This pitch, with its runout and strenuous moves along a reachy dike rail and crimp cruxes, is exhilarating with many 15-30 foot runouts. I overgripped intensely on the final crimps to avoid falling and needing to repeat the lower part. Thankfully I finished the pitch without incident, and we rappelled to a bivy ledge atop the first pitch, where our camp gear was waiting.

The Black Dyke (photo by Nelson Klein)

Day 2 - Hauling Kit, plus a Crux Tease: 

Waking at dawn on the pedestal, we started the day with dehydrated breakfast and warm coffee. This was a labor-intensive day, but with less pressure. We climbed back up the ropes to top of the Galapagos pitch, reclimbing pitches 6 through 10. Despite hauling our water beforehand, our three-person camp kit was still heavy, loaded with two portaledges, food, warm clothes, other essentials, and plenty of comforts. We reached Big Sur by early afternoon. With rain forecasted for the evening, we quickly set up our portaledges and camp. Luckily, we still had some daylight left to explore the mid-5.13 Pineapple Express crux above the ledge.

Amity led, combining free climbing and stick clipping to get the rope up on this awkwardly bolted pitch, a common challenge in old aid routes that now go free. We heard from our friends Luke and Matt, who were climbing the route just in front of us, that the crux holds had crumbled further making the pitch a solid 5.13c.

By nightfall, it was my turn. Opting for a fixed-line top rope lap in the dark while Amity cooked, I had modest expectations. Climbing focused within my headlamp's bubble, I surprisingly onsighted the pitch, reaching the anchor without falling. Although it wouldn't count fully, as leading adds the stress of clipping bolts, I felt ready to lead it cleanly the next day. After memorizing the sequences, I descended, hoping our chalk marks would survive the impending rain.

A 5.10R corner, grabbing X'ed holds is mandatory (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Five haulbags heavy haul bags up at Big Sur

Day 3 - Crux Pitch in the Clouds:

Peering out from our portaledge this morning, we were engulfed in white, living amidst the clouds. Big Sur's rock ledge was drenched, and water was dripping down the wall around us. Initially, we considered a rest day, but we still geared up for climbing, hoping for a break in the weather.

By 10am, the clouds started to clear. The ledge remained damp, with 84% humidity on my keychain hygrometer, but the vertical rock was surprisingly dry. When my turn came, I opted to lead. Setting off in a thermal sweater, I left the cold belay and tackled the 5.13a layback start, feeling somewhat stiff. Reaching the midway rest, I was pumped but managed to warm up my fingers and toes, eyeing the V8 crimps above. The initial exertion made me overheat in my layers. Despite alternating hand-chalking, my fingers quickly dampened on the humid holds.

Engaging the thin crimps with determination, I momentarily faltered on the smallest hold. After adjusting my grip and weight, I barely caught the next crimp. Big wall climbing often involves adapting to less-than-ideal conditions and time constraints, and this crux embodied all of that. I pushed through to the anchor, glad to conserve energy for the upcoming 5.13s and 5.12s.

Later, Amity climbed in drier, sunnier conditions, refining her sequences further despite losing skin to the warm rock. Her evening practice was similar, ending with doubts over dinner. Although I had completed the pitch, I was anxious for our team's success. I was determined to redpoint the route together, even if it meant waiting another day or two.

All white everything!

Lowering down the Pinneapple Express 5.13c crux pitch (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Day 4 - Amity Pulls it off Under Pressure, Like Always: 

This day would be my first true rest day on El Cap. I did no climbing, ascending ropes, or hauling. We woke to more wet and cloudy conditions, not dismal enough to call off all efforts for the day, but too damp for climbing right away, leaving Amity in anxious limbo.

Typical of El Cap's extreme environment, the clouds cleared only to leave us immediately scorched by the low and perpendicular Autumnal sunlight. I spent the time reading and sunbathing shirtless, in short shorts. Amity, aiming for optimal conditions for her few lead attempts before her skin wore too thin for the small holds, waited patiently.

At 3:30pm, right as the shade set in, a sudden snow flurry caught us off guard, snowing while the low sun still cooked us from the side! The tension for Amity kept building while we waited further.

Fortunately, the flurry ceased 45 minutes later. Amity took the lead, performing solidly until a minor slip in foot pressure caused her to fall. Frustrated, she restarted from the crux and completed the pitch to the anchor, a morale boost, though time was tight for another attempt.

Following a brief rest, Amity embarked on another try just before dark. Though I might have a slight edge in strength, Amity's stamina and tenacity balance our climbing partnership. True to form, under immense pressure, she climbed brilliantly and successfully freed the pitch.

Life on Big Sur (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Amity on the tiny crux crimps (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Day 5 - Onsight Adventures:

Our daily rhythm on this big wall free climb oscillated between tension and relief. Waking to sunshine, we were excited for a day of enjoyable onsight climbing. The upcoming 5.12 sections promised challenge, but more in terms of possibly requiring extra attempts, rather than hindering the entire ascent.

Leaving our camp in place, we ascended the fixed rope in the morning sun to the top of the 13c pitch. Climbing in a multi-pitch style from here, we alternated leads and hauled a small day bag up three adventurous 12b and 12c pitches. These featured crumbly rock, sketchy cams, and long runouts between sparse bolts. We both onsighted these pitches, though they demanded serious effort.

With ample daylight remaining, we took turns working on the 5.13b Black Cave pitch above. This daunting section involved crumbly, run-out face climbing off the belay, transitioning into a strenuous jug crawl across a 20-foot overhang (including an inverted offwidth rest), and concluding with an arm-taxing pin scar traverse on an overhanging shield. The final traverse would be a straightforward boulder problem on the ground, but its difficulty was amplified by the preceding endurance section and cumulative fatigue from days of climbing.

After several attempts, we understood the movements but were running low on power. Opting for a strategic approach, we decided to fix our ropes back to our camp and try again after a night's rest. We arrived back to camp to find that our friends Hazel and Angus had caught up. We made extra room on the ledge and enjoyed a bit of outside company. 

Questing into the unknown (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Day 6 - Black Cave and a lot of jugging:

Our strategy for the day involved additional effort in fixed-rope commuting to increase our chances on the Black Cave. Keeping our camp in place, we ascended our 400’ of fixed ropes to try the 13b pitch first - planning to later rappel all the way back down to camp, pack our gear, ascend the lines a second time, and then climb on to the next camp ledge. This meant more fixed rope ascending, but crucially, it would be after the physically demanding roof pitch.

Amity's first attempt on the roof showed signs of fatigue, as she weighted the rope a few times. After her attempt, I took my lead. I felt tired right from the start and was concerned at the midway rest. I felt a ticking clock with each bicep lockoff. Knowing I had to be quick through the last sequence, I moved with extra speed. Perhaps a bit too fast as I unexpectedly cut both feet right in the middle of the traverse. In a flash of focus, I managed to kick a left toe back on with precision and fought to the anchor, exerting every bit of my strength.

With time ticking and our energy waning, it was Amity's turn again, and the pressure was palpable. Remarkably, she led the pitch cleanly, moving gracefully despite yet another high-pressure situation.

Feeling significant relief, we faced the strenuous task of descending down the fixed lines to our camp, hauling everything back up, and then onsighting two more challenging pitches into the dark to reach the next comfortable ledge system.

The ominous Black Cave pitch from below (photo by Chris Alstrin)

Day 7 - A Wet Road Block:

Starting the day with another sunny morning, we left camp to tackle a 5.11, two 5.12s, and the final 5.13- pitch. We decided to keep our camp in the same spot for that night, partly due to having a third person with us and the need for ample natural ledge space for two portaledges.

Our onsight streak continued as we alternated leads, culminating in the last 5.12 – an exhilarating, overhanging bombay chimney hanging over 2000 feet of open air. I took the first look at the "Lucy" pitch, a short 13a compression sequence right off the belay. Known for being perennially wet, we anticipated seepage, especially after recent rains.

I hand traversed 20 feet along a big flake and clipped the first bolt. I then descended a few moves, and pulled further left into a hanging dihedral, grabbing a drenched jug. The sequence here involved laybacking pinscars up the dihedral while squeezing a knob on the arete. High feet from this position led to a dynamic throw for a dry left-hand sloper, swinging into a sideways kneebar, and then easier wet laybacking to a dry rest stance.

The sequence was clear, but my soaked left hand struggled to grip the dry sloper for setting the kneebar. Disappointed, I returned to the belay. This pitch would be inconsequential if dry, but now became a significant last obstacle.

Amity faced similar difficulties, managing the sequence but when drying her hand between each move. It felt somewhat anticlimactic, with easier terrain leading to the summit just above, yet we were thwarted by this wet boulder problem.

We persisted into the afternoon but eventually rappelled down as the shade and cold set in, feeling deflated. During dinner, we brainstormed tactics for drying the holds – considering paper towels, socks, and even tin foil, a method Amity had heard of for climbing past wet holds. 

Day 8 - Still Wet: 

On what was meant to be our summit day, we set out early, once more leaving camp for a later retrieval, aiming to tackle the last crux with our freshest energy. However, the holds (hands and now feet) were even wetter than before, apparently due to peak seepage in the morning that would somewhat dry out under the sun as the day progressed.

Faced with this setback, we weighed our options: either wait for hours at the less-than-ideal belay spot, hoping for the holds to dry, or opt for a rest day and try again with renewed strength the next morning. The challenge was that we were running out of food for an extended stay.

Ultimately, we chose to try again in the morning and made the tough decision to call Amity's husband, Connor, for a supply drop. The video team's summit lines were down to our level, making it feasible. While this was a slight deviation from our ground-up approach, considering the extensive supplies for three people we had been hauling while free climbing, it felt justifiable – akin to replacing rations used by the camera team.

We spent the remainder of the day in a state of waiting, filling the time with reading and anticipation.

The wet dihedral on the final 5.13 pitch (photo by Nelson Klein)

Day 9 - Tactics and Top Outs:

We repeated our previous day's strategy, ascending the fixed lines to the last 5.13- pitch but waiting for the sun to dry the holds. Connor's care package brought tin foil and a kneebar pad. We would throw everything at this wall and see what stuck! 

Amity aided over to assess the pitch, using paper towels to absorb drips above the pinscars and tin foil to create a moisture barrier in the key pocket, allowing for grip without direct contact with wetness. Despite these efforts, the starting jug remained soaked, and she couldn't link the entire sequence.

My turn involved similar preparation, but I added a thick wool sock, previously a subject of light-hearted ridicule from Amity. This sleeping sock, a comfort item for the wall, proved crucial, acting as a sponge up inside the wet jug.

I then executed the sequence smoothly, benefiting from each tactical improvement, including the kneebar pad for a brief skin-drying moment. I reached a no-hands seat on the ledge above, treating it as a "virtual belay" to end my pitch.

Amity, under clear pressure to complete our "Partnered Free" ascent, brilliantly succeeded in her next attempt. We both had freed the last hard pitch! She led further on easier terrain to the end of our 70m, and I followed, first jugging to clean our array of absorption devices, then climbing free from the no-hands seat to join her. We advanced one more pitch, then rappelled, broke camp, and hauled back up—a lengthy but now pressure-free process.

The final stretch included runout 5.9 pitches with challenging hauling, leading to a low-glory summit in the dark. Now a four-person team with both videographers, we packed the massive pile of gear and descended via the East Ledges. In a final act of support, Connor greeted us with hot pizza at their van, a happy fitting end to another rigorous free ascent of El Cap.

Summit success!