Seeing Perfect Visionary

Fourteen years is a long time for a major free route in Yosemite to go unrepeated. On October 3, Tommy Caldwell made the second free ascent of the Dir...

By Rock and Ice | June 25th, 2010

Here, Tommy Caldwell, 29, links up the crux pitches three and four for a 150-foot 5.14a on the Direct Northwest Face.

Fourteen years is a long time for a major free route in Yosemite to go unrepeated. On October 3, Tommy Caldwell made the second free ascent of the Direct Northwest Face (VI 5.14a) of Half Dome, 14 years after Todd Skinner established the free version in 1993, and 20 days shy of the one-year anniversary of Skinner’s untimely death. The long lag between ascents, however, was not due to disinterest. 

“A lot of other people looked at it as a free route,” Caldwell said. “I know Rob Miller went up there once. And then Alex [Huber] went up there and I think Dean [Potter] spent some time on it, too.” 
According to Caldwell, the line is stout. “The route was pretty full on,” he said. “Old school Yosemite ratings, which means no gimmes. Most of the pitches felt just a bit harder than I was expecting until I joined the Regular route. I fell twice on the crux pitch, an incredibly sustained slab that was about 88 degrees for 150 feet. It took my full focus for almost an hour to send.”
Skinner originally broke this crux 5.13d section into two pitches, numbers three and four. Caldwell, however, linked it all in one and says it is 5.14a. 
Caldwell previously spent two days working the crux. Despite having never been above pitch four, he went for the complete ascent, leading every pitch and spending a full 24 hours on the route. His wife Beth Rodden jugged behind.
“There was one especially grassy part with bad gear,” says Caldwell. “I spent half an hour pulling grass out of the crack. Dirt went in my eyes, in my shoes and filled my chalk bag and all over Beth. I never found good holds or gear and had to eventually just sack up and run it out. We only brought one rope, so I felt pressure to make it out that day.”
Caldwell says he became interested in trying the Direct Northwest route as a tribute to Skinner.
“My experiences with Todd were always amazing. I think he often got a bad rap because he was a bit of a self-promoter. Around Yosemite that always leads to a lot of slander. I think some other top climbers of the day felt competitive and couldn’t see past that. As usual, Todd’s claim to have freed the Direct Northwest caused a storm of controversy. [One of Skinner’s partners] said Todd hung long slings from the anchor on the crux pitch, clipped it from a low stance and never free climbed the last few feet. I wanted to see for myself if it was truly a free climb and I couldn’t find a spot on the climb where [the alleged trick] would make any sense at all. 
“In fact, on all the cruxes, the last 20 feet were quite easy compared to the climbing lower down. I was constantly impressed with this climb. It’s barely there as a free climb and takes some super inobvious variations from the aid line. Most people even today would not have seen it as a free climb. I think Todd was a true free-climbing visionary, and he inspired me a lot.”
Spray from the Valley
Alex and Thomas Huber are officially the fastest climbers of the Nose, El Capitan. They broke the speed record twice, first climbing the great granite proboscis in 2 hours 48 minutes 35 seconds on October 4, then again, with a time of 2:45:45 on October 8. How long will the record stand, and more important, do records such as this really matter?
The Australian climber Lee Cossey gave an incredible six-day effort on the sustained, scary route El Nino (5.13c) on El Cap. Cossey onsighted or flashed nearly every one of the route’s 30 pitches. He fell once on three of seven 5.13 pitches, dispatching them second go.

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