The Prophet: Leo Houlding’s Daring First Ascent on El Cap
In 2001, Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles made an audacious ground-up, no-drill, onsight attempt to free climb a new route on El Cap. Nine years later, The Prophet finally spoke.
In October 2001, I was 21 and indestructible. Jason Pickles and I were in the Valley to make a first free ascent on the great stone El Capitan. With the speed-climbing skills and general understanding of big walling we had gained over five seasons in the Valley, we were no longer awestruck by the scale and logistics of climbing on the Captain. The intimidating monolith had been transformed into a giant canvas where any dream could be sketched. Anything, it seemed, might go.
We were hungry to push the limits of style. Having cut our teeth in North Wales and on the grit, we were keen to apply the strict on-sight ethic we often adopted on British crags to a new free route on the most influential face in the climbing world. We spent many hazy days in the meadow below El Cap, intently studying the complex wall through a spotting scope. The range of light and shadow throughout the day revealed entire ledge systems, flying grooves and hanging corners, invisible just minutes before or after.
An ambitious-looking line enticed us on the far right side of the Southeast face. This side is a mere 1,500 feet, only half the height of the Nose. However, what that sector lacks in stature is made up by the loose nature and complex three-dimensional architecture of the wall.
This side is home to many of the hardest and most dangerous aid routes on El Cap (and the world) with ominous titles like Plastic Surgery Disaster, Surgeon General and Bad to the Bone. Tracking down the few climbers who knew these routes, we gleaned strategic information. We spent one unforgettable session with 12 cans of Old English, two packs of Camel no filters and the legendary Jim Birdwell. Known as a master aid climber, Jim has always been ahead of his time. He has an unrivaled eye for a line and had first-hand experience with our main concern, the Devil’s Brow, a 25-foot roof and hanging corner system two-thirds of the way up the wall. For a brief part of the day a shadow revealed an almost invisible ledge and a potential breach in the Devil’s defenses. Bridwell pointed out this subtle feature, adding, “You kids might be able to do something with that, but be careful up there, boys. It’s a fine line between badass and dumbass.”
Emboldened by this gift of knowledge from Yosemite’s Gandalf—and unperturbed by its implicit warning—we began the quest.
We wanted to free a new route on El Capitan, utilizing no aid, no drill, no portaledge and no fixed rope. To us it was—and remains—the ultimate challenge.
Our chosen line was built largely around the aid route Bad to the Bone, first climbed by Jay Smith and Lidija Painkiher in 1984. Their reputation for deadly, hard aid has led to the route being repeated only a handful of times. However, aid and free ratings share surprisingly little common ground. A0 often implies a bolt ladder and blank rock—impossible free climbing territory. Conversely, A5 can be loose rock where fine footwork, delicate balance and lengthy run outs reveal bold yet relatively mild free climbing.
The first pitch was more challenging than it appeared. Later we discovered that the seasonal yet mighty Horsetail Falls pounds this slab for half the year, polishing the immaculate granite to a marble finish. Some in-situ copperheads provided the only protection for a 5.12b slate-like rock-over crux.
On the next pitch, we found a gritstone-esque boulder problem protected by cams behind an expanding flake. After a long, wandering pitch of moderate climbing on surprisingly unprotected rock, we were into the realm of the big numbers.
I progressed up fragile, discontinuous cracks and grooves. After more than an hour, about 100 feet up the fourth pitch, I reached a poor stance. Having laced most of my rack into the dodgy placements, I wasn’t keen to continue up the blank wall and hollow overhangs above. With the confidence of youth, I built a woeful belay out of tied-off pitons and equalized RPs—and instructed Jason not to fall. He climbed without weighting the rope, arriving at my web wide-eyed.
Gear re-racked, highest points of the belay equalized, I climbed up and down the first 15 feet of what would later be the second half of the fourth pitch, re-climbing with more ease each time, until finally I had to make a move I would not be able to reverse. Absolutely committed, I stretched for the distant edge on tiptoes. To my horror it was not the positive matchbox edge I had expected, but was in fact too sloping to hold. My fingers slid from the edge. For a split second the unthinkable flashed though my mind—a factor-two fall onto a marginal belay, and two dead monkeys. Bridwell’s warning glinted menacingly. But with strength born of survival instinct and fortune of faith, my fingers found traction on a more positive edge hidden below my target hold. I stuck it, pulled a couple more hard moves and placed a tiny cam with huge relief. With the fear of imminent death greatly diminished, I followed more hollow flakes up steep rock to a belay.
Spurred by our success and a bomber belay, I continued over severely fractured ground, delicately tip-toeing up the bottomless diagonal groove. I rattled small cams into sandy cracks and behind exfoliating flakes until finally a Walnut 00 lodged in relatively sound rock. Creeping upward with patience and control, I reached a small roof and impassable terrain. I spent ages arranging sketchy protection in the crumbly crack and shaking fatigue out of my arms, but couldn’t see the way ahead.
Just before retreating, I noticed the distinctive scratches of aid climbers out to my left leading toward a hanging arête. I could not see around the corner but the rock quality improved in that direction. Arms well recovered, I smeared across the hanging slab, reaching a foothold and pinch on the arête that was good enough to allow me to recompose. Peering around the corner, I spotted a rusty bolt some 20 feet up and left.
I teetered around the shockingly exposed corner and committed to tiny crimps, and a sequence I knew I could not reverse. Pulling the hardest moves of the route so far, I reached far left to better holds leading to the bolt. But, over-extended, I began to barn door with no way of stopping the ensuing 50-footer. My faith in the “bomber” 00 wire was repaid: it held. With adrenalin surging, I lowered to the belay.
One of the ropes had been core shot on a sharp edge during the ride. We swapped ends and with Jas’s loyal encouragement I found myself once again committed to the crimps. This time I got my feet higher and stuck the better holds. On reaching the aged bolt I found my energy too low and my fear too high to continue.
I recognized the bolt from an infamous dodgy (recalled) batch used extensively during the mid-1980s ultra-hard aid boom. In a state of terror, I hung on the bolt and as the fear subsided I realized with gut-wrenching tension that there was more of the same to come.
I wished for the rock to be blank, impossible, to tempt me no further. Yet again, I unwillingly recomposed, and found the boldness (or stupidity) to run the gauntlet once more. Another sustained, appallingly thin sequence led to yet another sickening bolt at the limit of my reach, and 20 feet above the last. Another wrenching hang.
By now I was too high to lower off, and too scared to abseil, a Braille trail of holds leading to a distant belay overhead seemed the best option. I cranked an outrageous mantel, then set out on another terrifying runout, which led to the station. Just three questionable runners in almost a hundred feet of hard climbing—and in the most exposed position I’d ever experienced. The Screamer pitch had taken it out of me big time.
Looking up, I cringed at the discontinuous, bottomed-out fissures and barely protectable hard aid terrain above. It was time to go down. As we retreated, I checked and chalked the cruxes and best gear placements in preparation for the next assault.
I had been doing all the leading so far, so we decided next time Jason should lead the initial pitches. In the first light, he set off. Reaching the first crux, he committed to the high rock over and froze.
“Oh fuck, I can’t stand up. I’m off!” he yelled. Sliding down the slab, he didn’t stop, but accelerated. One by one the copperheads ripped, sending him bouncing down until the single remaining wire brought him to a halt. The rope stretched and he slammed into a big ledge. It was clear he was not OK. In hindsight we should have known the heads were bad, as they are in a waterfall for half of the year. With much assistance, Jason made it heroically down to the road.
A physio friend examined him and suspected a fractured pelvis. But Jason’s a tough lad, and in the absence of travel insurance we procured some strong painkillers and he embarked on a painful journey home to Manchester. I was angry with myself for not replacing the poor in-situ gear resulting in Jason’s accident, but was nevertheless now enthralled by the awaiting adventure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had difficulty persuading anybody else to join me on the line, now christened The Prophet (named after the epic CJ Bollen techno record, and the Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran’s classic work). Eventually I convinced the Yosemite denizen Cedar Wright to join me, on the condition we bring more aid gear (but no drill), and a fatter rope so he could jumar.
Fully rested, now intimate with the route and climbing at my best, I placed a decent peg where the fixed copperheads had been, and proceeded to climb quickly, efficiently and entirely free to our previous high point. The next section looked hard and hollow, with no decent gear. When Cedar joined me at the scabby bolt belay, we had plenty of daylight but he didn’t look happy. I asked him what he thought we should do.
“I think we should rap while we still can, and take you to the fucking lunatic asylum!”
I was unable and unwilling to talk him into continuing. We descended.
I was again stumped for a partner that fall of 2001, until Kevin Thaw showed up. Kevin—seasoned in hard British trad, and big walls across the world—was up for it, but convinced me to take a portaledge. I stubbornly resisted his advice to bring a drill.
We again arrived at the high point, the top of the fifth pitch, and used the ropes to lower and offset the belay, enabling me to use the bolts as the first runner.
I fought my way upward, awkwardly managing to place a knifeblade from a free position. Slightly higher, I clipped a tiny, in-situ copperhead and a RURP before reversing to the belay for a rest. From the security of the belay, I tested the gear. The head ripped immediately, though the RURP and knifeblade tentatively held. Satisfied with the gear, I committed to the hard moves above, on shifting holds, to reach easier ground.
Hammering in another peg, I continued with increasing difficulty up the steep groove. A long way above the gear, a short, overhanging step of crumbly rock blocked my path. I reversed, and finally resorted to all-out aid. I struggled with the A4+ placements, angrily using birdbeaks and skyhooks for the first time.
Already pushed so far, a little over halfway up the wall, I had reached my limit, but didn’t yet recognize it. Frustrated with the aid, I began free climbing an especially loose section. I started to get scared, then everything crumbled and I took a 30-footer onto the slab below, spraining both my ankles. Kevin and I retreated. Yet I was already planning the next offensive for the following spring with Jason.
That winter Kevin Thaw, the Scottish winter master Alan Mullin and I teamed up for an ambitious attempt on the infamous and terrifying Maestri/Egger line on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. To cut a very long story short, my purported indestructibility was belied in a big fall that crushed the talus bone in my right foot and almost took me out of the game forever. The ensuing epic changed my life in many ways. The painful recovery took a year and lots of physiotherapy before the bone healed and I returned to fitness. With time, I realized that I’d had an accident like that coming. I’m still thankful that it was my talus and not my neck that broke on Cerro Torre.
I returned to Yosemite several times over the next three years enjoying easier climbs and safer styles, but I continued to stare at the upper section of The Prophet during the hours of down time. Reluctantly, I admitted that I was too scared to drive so hard again. I had been gung ho and going well on those 2001 attempts—and still pushed way past my limit.
In the fall of 2004 Jas and I were both back in the Valley and on decent form. We hadn’t set out to try The Prophet, but when Ivo Ninov, master of aid and dynamo of psyche, was keen we decided to compromise the original dream and go with aid, drill and a port a ledge from the ground. In big wall terms this is of course “ground-up,” though with reference to free climbing the style is “headpoint.” The hard pitches are aided, toproped then freed. In reality this style has more in common with top-down tactics than a true ground-up, onsight.
Jason re-led the first pitch, now dubbed The Train Wreck with typical Mancunian [Manchester, England] black humor. This time, he slayed his demons easily with the help of the bomber peg.
Ghosts stalked me on the first of the hard pitches. Ivo offered to aid it, allowing me to refresh my memory on toprope. Hard aid is a slow process and Ivo tinkered upward at a snail’s pace. After four hours on lead, he reached the tied-off pegs I had placed in 2001. Horrified, he continued nailing up the detachable flakes above. With a scream he warned us as a flake the size of an ironing board began to peel off from the wall. It didn’t quite go, and Ivo nervously tried to tie it back onto the wall. Visibly shaken, he returned to the belay and we descended to the portaledge camp.
That night, the predicted bad weather grew into an epic winter storm. Our seemingly comfortable perch became a full-on waterfall. Our portaledge flooded, and rocks dislodged by the flow pelted down. In a lull the next day, we hastily retreated before an even more vicious front blew through in which a Japanese couple tragically perished high on the Nose. When it finally cleared, at least eight teams had to be rescued. The Yosemite season was over. The Prophet would have to wait, again, for another year.
Jason stopped making his annual Valley pilgrimage and I spent my time in Never-Never Land climbing with the local masters, and learning to fly with the Lost Boys while evading Ranger Hook. The Prophet lay dormant for five years. Not a single climber ventured up there. Over the last decade, many of the great aid lines have fallen free largely at the hands of the Huber brothers and Tommy Caldwell. Their remarkable successes have been achieved by employing red point tactics on a big-wall scale: rappelling to find the line, rehearsing the moves, chalking the holds, inspecting the gear and adding bolts where necessary.
To claim a true free ascent of El Cap you must make a continuous ascent, climbing all the pitches in sequence, without retreating to the ground or going to the top. Whether it takes a day or a week, it is valid so long as it is one ascent with either one person leading it all, or both climbers swapping leads and seconding everything clean. This has come to be the accepted style, particularly for first free ascents, as opposed to a collection of free pitches done over any period.
In May 2009 I found myself once again chilling in the sublime El Cap meadow. It was an unusually wet spring. I was recovering from knee surgery and was without a partner. Staring at the upper part of The Prophet for the thousandth hour, finally my desire to know what was up there overpowered my strict ethics. I walked to the top with a rack and a thousand feet of rope. With some regret, I laid to rest my ambitious dream of an onsight, ground-up ascent as I began a wild solo rappel.
Near the top I found a beautiful hairline crack, comparable in perfection and position to the awesome Salathé headwall splitter, but in contrast, it was so thin it looked impossible. Running diagonally for 35 meters, sides offset, it split the golden slab. From the rap line, to my surprise, with acute fingertip pain I was able to pull on even in the thinnest sections. The very first move looked desperate, as did the finish, with holds literally two matchsticks wide. Referencing the guidebook, I found out that this remarkable feature was the “A1 Beauty” pitch of the route Eagle’s Way.
Continuing down, I reached the Devil’s Brow. At last I was actually up close and personal with the feature I’d eyed for so long. Sure enough, the invisible ledge Bridwell had pointed out existed. An exposed hand traverse offered the only free line through a spectacularly steep and blank section.
Employing complex tension traverses, scary pendulums and directional runners behind dangerously loose flakes I made my way down totally virgin terrain in a state of perpetual fear. There were holds, but the hollow diorite was gently overhanging the whole way. Dinner plates detached with a stroke, flying like Frisbees and landing far away from the wall. Exhaustively investigating the possibilities, my terror changed to excitement as the moves went free.
Toward the bottom of the pitch my feet touched a flake the size of a garage door. Attached only along its upper edge, it resonated like a gong. Reluctantly it dawned on me that this guillotine had to be negotiated. I tried climbing it, keeping as much weight on my feet as possible. It flexed several inches, but somehow it held.
Several more Frisbee-flakes were pried from the face by cams that didn’t even hold body weight. Only one piece held a bounce test: bolts would be required.
Lower, a strange feeling of loss came over me as I tensioned around a corner and found myself at the ultimate high point I had reached in 2001, a little over halfway up the wall. The cams I had lowered off years earlier were still there. In exactly the same spot, I was in a completely different place. I’d become a spectator to the heroics of my youth.
My top-down adventure had put to death my onsight dream, but it gave birth to a new, more tangible goal. Except for a few short sections, I had done all of the moves on The Prophet. The game was on.
In June 2010, Jason and I were back to finish the job. In the absolute antithesis of the style in which we had begun the project back in 2001, we fixed the entire route from the top down.
A blank streak below the Devil’s Brow leading to the invisible ledge was our main concern. The pitch—a hundred-foot traverse around a big corner, guarded by giant ceilings in the airiest spot imaginable, was extremely complicated to work. It didn’t look possible, but with absolute commitment and a good deal of self belief, a massive, sideways two-hand dyno overcame the blank streak. The Devil’s Dyno provided the final piece of the jigsaw. We had found a totally free line up the Southeast face of El Cap.
Turning our attention to the Guillotine pitch, we placed bolt belays at its foot and end. After much debate we added five bolts in the solid rock between the hollow flakes and replaced two ancient rivets. With more bolts it would be a sport pitch; however we tried to maintain the serious character of the climb by leaving the easier sections severely run out.
I was in fighting form by now, and the A1 Beauty started to feel possible. I quickly did it in sections, but each individually felt close to my limit. It was going to be hard to link. We cleaned the ropes and made an attempt from the ground. In two days I led the whole route up to the A1 Beauty with no falls, with Jason following everything free except the Devil’s Dyno.
In the heat of late June, I fell time and time again from the desperate crack without reaching the final peg. After many tries, and with bleeding fingertips and bruised pride, I finally admitted defeat. Even so, the ever-dependable Pickles vowed to return with me in the cooler temps of autumn. It was time to finish the quest.
Back again in October 2010, I was starting to suffer from project fatigue. Never before had I invested so much in any single climb. Some 60 days, over five seasons, four partners, two injuries, and a fatal storm had passed on this nine-year odyssey. My fear of failure began to outweigh my fear of getting hurt.
The route is so serious we had to familiarize ourselves once again with all 13 pitches, but a heat wave hindered our efforts. The A1 Beauty crux catches the sun for all but the first hour of the day, requiring early starts.
Rising at 4 a.m., we rapped in and with no warm up, I set off. Placing all the gear on lead, I climbed past the potential 50-footers—working the rests, calming my breathing—to the final crux. I did the long stretch out left, and massive reach to a good finger lock. A crippling flash pump took hold on the usually simple undercut crack. This area is totally devoid of footholds, and without the power to place the final cam, I took a risk and pushed on with trembling legs and flaring elbows. A fall from here, way above the peg, with an inevitable swing into the corner, would not be pretty.
I’d done the crux pitch of The Prophet, but felt physically sick as I reached the belay. This was partly due to the massive physical effort, partly from fear, yet perhaps mostly because I knew I had to do it again.
We were ready for the continuous ascent, but a week of bad weather forced us to extend our trip.
“Do you want the bad news or the bad news?” Jas asked as he returned with the weather forecast. “The Park Service has issued a severe weather warning. A winter storm is coming. It’s going to be a big one.”
The trip was already extended to its maximum. We were down to three options—either accept defeat, and settle for having done every pitch; or we could wait for the storm to pass, then think like Tommy Caldwell and go for it in a day. In our current state of fitness—and given the extreme difficulties high on the route—success seemed unlikely with this strategy. Or tomorrow, insufficiently rested on the last day of fine weather, we could sail on straight into the heart of the storm, condemning ourselves to the tempest with no hope of rescue or retreat. We had no choice. Jason and I are neither cowards nor fools, yet once again we flirted with the line that Bridwell had warned me of all those years before.
As every other team on El Capitan either topped out or retreated, we began our ascent, setting off up the Train Wreck for the 10th time. Abandoning our shoes at the base, we carried a minute rack, climbing incredibly light save for the bottle of Southern Comfort to aid our inevitable confinement. We climbed with good pace and efficiency as big lead followed big lead. After nine stern pitches, we reached our stash at the top of the Guillotine having both climbed it all totally clean. Already four-fifths of the way up the wall, with daylight to spare we were tempted to continue. But with the two hardest pitches yet to come and our elbows cramped we set up the ledge.
We awoke in a cold kingdom of cloud. Magnificent, towering cumulonimbus morphed around us while an inversion obscured the valley floor. I stepped out of my sleeping bag digesting the Devil’s Dyno for breakfast. Traversing the Invisible Ledge, I felt like Jack up the beanstalk, my sense of wonder haunted by a latent menace in the sky. Despite the threat of imminent rain, I linked the next short pitch, a couple of hard moves and an easy ramp to arrive at the belay below the Beauty. I was feeling good, and the temperature was perfect. Just then, the first drops of rain started to fall, and the rock was drenched in minutes. Fixing the rope, I returned to the ledge, cleaning the Devil’s Brow on my way down.
What began as an eerie whisper soon turned into a maelstrom as a massive Pacific front slammed full-tilt into the Sierra Nevada. Off to our left, the face of the North America Wall was engulfed by a waterfall. The ensuing 48-hour tempest was the wettest anyone in Yosemite can remember. We were the only team on the wall. For the first 40 hours we rode the turbulent weather with the attitude of seasoned pirates in our four-by-six-foot canvas galleon.
“Argh! Is that all you’ve got!” I screamed at the more vicious gusts of wind.
But when the Southern Comfort ran out, the gusts reached hurricane force and our down sleeping bags were thoroughly soaked, it was no longer funny. Updrafts strong enough to lift the portaledge smashed us around like puppets as a torrent the strength of a fire hose doused us with a deafening roar. Had the fly—which lacked a pole—blown out, we would have been in serious trouble.
By the third morning we were getting cold. Yet as we contemplated the best way to surrender, the storm switched off. My beloved blue Yosemite skies returned. Our ledge was flooded, and our fingers and toes were utterly pruned—everything was completely soaked except my boots and chalk, which I had guarded fiercely.
Wringing out our sleeping bags, we began to dry out. Huge cascades of runoff bellowed all around us. As the great face flowed, we recounted the night’s horrors with the exhausted joy of survivors. By evening, we had succeeded in drying everything sufficiently to survive another cold night.
On day five, with far less water around, we moved the camp up to the A1 Beauty. A prominent wet streak ran down the last crux and all the chalk had been pressure-washed away. Patiently, we waited for the rock to dry.
Having endured the worst warm up imaginable, I set off to repeat the hardest pitch I’ve ever done. With no chalk ticks marking the holds it felt way harder. By now intimate with this beautiful shield of gold I made it to the peg and final crux. Proud of my performance I was way too pumped to stand a chance but tried anyway, thankfully defeated before the fall got dangerous. Working and chalking it on the way down I felt confident for the next round. Less violent clouds filled the valley creating a tremendously atmospheric sunset.
“Go, Leo!” rang out in chorus from friends in the meadow far below.
I set off for the last try of the day. Leaving the rest at half height, I felt good—perhaps too good. Placing my foot imprecisely, I was off, and devastated. Whatever happened, we had to top out the next day.
The next day, the weight of my over-ambition tore me apart. I hadn’t slept, I couldn’t eat and I vomited my morning coffee. Just the same, I enjoyed the best conditions I’d experienced so far, and arrived at the peg not destroyed. Yet with the final crux over, out of sight of Jas, I screamed as all power abandoned me. I dropped the trophy on the podium, just a few feet from the good holds. Back at the bottom, Jas consoled me with silence.
Physically and emotionally drained, I passed out on the portaledge, waking in the warmth of the midday sun. Having virtually accepted defeat—knowing we had given it our all—I ventured once more into the breach.
Fighting the poor conditions every step of the way, I once again made it to the peg. I worked the terrible rest for longer than on the other tries. This was it—last go, last day. Somehow I did it, making it to the belay with nothing in reserve. Relief outweighed the joy of success.
Freeing the A1/E9 Beauty had been an immense struggle, pushing me right to my limit. I can safely say we could never have succeeded in climbing The Prophet with no aid, no bolts, no portaledge and no fixed rope. Our 2001 attempts were an effort to push the limits of style of big wall free climbing. Getting as high as we did was a bold effort, but continuing in that style would have required us to cross Bridwell’s thin line. Our wildly ambitious original dream had evolved and was about to become a real route on the Great Stone.
But with the last hard boulder problem to go, it was not quite over. Right off the belay I made the very hard move off an awkward undercut accompanied by a snap and a sharp pain in my finger. Unable to move up, I crashed down onto Jas, nursing my first-ever tweaked tendon.
Unconcerned by the pain, with tape and a hit of adrenalin, I attacked The Prophet’s final defense. The very last move of the route was the dry-laid stone wall we had previously built to terrace our summit bivi—the magnificent “Falcon’s Nest.”
We collapsed into it—elated. The Prophet was finally free.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 192 (March 2011).
Leo Houlding is one of the foremost climbers in the world, with many significant ascents of dangerous traditionally protected routes. Best known in the U.S. for his exploits on Yosemite’s big walls, on his first trip to the Valley, he took one fall on the first pitch of El Nino (5.13c), then onsighted the route. He was 18 years old. Other notable routes include the second ascent of Southern Belle (5.12d X) on Half Dome, and the first free ascent of the Leaning Tower by The Westie Face (5.13b). He summitted Everest in 2007.
Jon Waterman, author of the classic In the Shadow of Denali: Life And Death On Alaska’s Mt. Mckinley, reflects on a life lived in and around snow, and the myriad ways it can both protect and threaten.read more