The Princess Cruise - Kate Rutherford and Madaleine Sorkin Free El Cap's Freerider
I have approximately 30 bruises, I tried to count them but some blend together, and five gobbles (cuts or abrasions from the rock): one on the ankle, one on each shoulder, a small one on my hand, and a tiny one on my wrist. I feel like I fared pretty well on that huge physical endeavor called Free Rider.
Editor's note: Patagonia ambassador Kate Rutherford and Madaleine Sorkin recently spent five days climbing The Freerider (VI 5.12+), a 3,000ft. route on the Southwest face of El Capitan. Kate shares her take on the climb here with photographs by haul bag maestro, Mikey Schaefer.
Five years ago, I thought freeing El Cap was an impossible goal. The huge scale, logistics, and physicality of freeing a big wall seemed beyond me. Over the years climbing started feeling easier, I spent more time on big routes, and Madaleine and I built up our endurance together on long routes like Moonlight and the Northwest Face of Half Dome. Alpine climbing in Patagonia helped me understand huge objectives, and I learned to break down my intimidation by just focusing on one pitch at a time, just doing the task at hand.
We started up the Free Blast early on a Monday morning, planning to spend the five-day work week on the Captain. That's a long time, but even though we had rapped in from the top to figure out the harder pitches we knew we would need time to rest our bodies and use the shady parts of the day. The first day's Free Blast went pretty smooth, the slabs a bit slow, but soon we were down-climbing and then it was up the Hollow Flake and home for the night on Hollow Flake ledge.
Waking up on day 2 we were stiff already. We crawled into the Monster Crack, successfully wiggling our bodies up the seven-inch fissure (take two #6's for this one). Photographer Mikey Schaefer met us at the Alcove and helped haul our bags to El Cap Spire for a beautiful bivi.
Day three was exciting, I fell off the boulder problem twice before a last minute change in my sequence to send it the third try in the hot sun. Madaleine followed and then I struggled my way up the muddy jungle of the sewer. All my clothes were wet and I shivered belaying Mad up the sloppy chimney.
We set up camp on the Block and planned to stay two nights, this sloping bivi for two turned out deluxe since Nick and Cody had left a double portaledge stashed for their send of the Salathé. Mikey broke out the whiskey and told us we had to finish the bottle. A few sips put us straight to sleep.
Morning came with high clouds, and the day was perfectly cool for the three 5.12 pitches on the agenda. I had a minor meltdown when I thought my fore arms were going to explode on the first corner. I fell off. I was furious, my arms hurt so bad by day three. I pulled the rope, and was fine the next go. Turns out it helps to warm up a bit.
Pitch 28 was wet . . . it is a distinct crux of the route, the last pitch under the roof of the Salathé head wall. Madaleine tagged up my cotton shirt (the only one I had on) and shoved it in the key finger locks, eventually soaking up all the water. Now that my shirt was wet, and the holds were dry, she cruised up the knee baring, lay backing enduro corner. Thrilled, I followed.
The Free Rider route then traverses left on wild pinches. One of the most exposed and beautiful pitches, number 29, has no feet and huge hand holds. Unfortunately, Madaleine broke a crimp all the way at the end, fell, and had to back-aid to come back to the anchor. I was freezing (wet cotton shirt) and so warmed back up by traversing out left, sending one of my nemesis pitches. I sat in the golden evening sun, as Madaleine followed (perhaps more scary than the lead) -- we were sending!
In order to lighten our load and haul less, we decided to spend two nights on the Block. We fixed our lines back to our bivi, drank a touch more whiskey, smiled a lot, and watched the clouds light up pink. The next morning is where I got most of my bruises. The 31st pitch (of 35) is rated 10d, but it is wide and steep. I think I tried harder on that pitch than any other -- it was a 5.12 effort for sure. I walked my #6 for half an hour, and when I finally got to a hand jam I felt like we were done.
Some of the things I learned on what we are calling the 'Princess Cruise' up Free Rider are worth sharing:
#1 have your friends leave all the food and water at the first bivi (So sorry they got snowed off, but thanks Katie, Hayden and Ben)
#2 leave your unfinished whiskey as rent payment to your portaledge friends
#3 only bring a photographer who is willing to help you haul. Thanks Mikey
#4 even the world's most popular climbs can be empty: make way for the Princesses!
#5 don't get intimidated. there is a lot of climbing up there, take it one pitch at a time, or looking up will make you want to puke
#6 try really hard………. duh
#7 have fun
For more posts from Kate, plus links to her artwork and beautiful suspended stone jewelry, visit KateRutherford.com. Mikey has more photos from the climb at Mikey Schaefer Photography and you can read Madaleine's side of the story over at her blog Mad's Adventures. Cheers to Kate and Madaleine for a great climb.