Savage Arena: Soloing in Yosemite

Yosemite has a long history of free soloing – take a glimpse back to the early days

By Chris Van Leuven

The late Dean Potter soloing Separate Reality (5.12a), Yosemite (Dean Fidelman).

To every visitor heading into Yosemite Valley along Southside Drive, the sight of El Capitan is an unforgettable experience. Just looking at the gigantic, towering wall is enough to induce butterflies. When I saw it for the first time, I knew I had to climb it.

Many experienced climbers can’t make it more than a few feet off the ground on El Cap, which makes Alex Honnold’s incredible free-solo ascent of the formation in June that much more impressive. His ascent may be the greatest athletic feat ever, and not just by a climber, but by anyone.

Honnold’s climb represents the pinnacle of free soloing in Yosemite. However soloing, by the likes of the late Dan Osman, the late Dean Potter, the late John Bachar, Steph Davis and Peter Croft, has been documented in films since I started climbing in the ‘90s.

For example, in Eric Perlman’s Masters of Stone series, Croft solos the 700-foot Rostrum via the 5.11c North Face route. Back then his ascent was mind blowing, almost as much as Honnold’s recent accomplishment. “Every climber steps into the ring with two opponents,” the narrator says in the first Masters of Stone film, “gravity and his own limitations.”

The game Croft was playing wasn’t new, he was just doing it harder and with more regularity than many before him. Sentinel Rock, Middle Cathedral and the Yosemite Falls Wall were all onsight free soloed in the ‘70s and early ‘80s – that is, no rehearsal, no choreographed moves, as Honnold and Potter did in modern climbing vids. (Not to say Potter and Honnold didn’t onsight free solo, they most certainly did, just not in videos).

Again, it’s important to understand the distinctions and nuances involved in soloing styles and traditions in Yosemite and elsewhere. The true onsight free solo is an act of samurai level commitment. With no ropes and no practice on the route itself, the onsight free soloist is testing his or her ability to problem solve and be physically creative for a sustained period of time in the face of ultimate consequences. At this level, Yosemite becomes a truly savage arena.

The below ascents can be viewed as a final exam, where misreading a sequence, slipping or breaking a hold means certain death. Adding to the challenge, the climbing shoes of years ago weren’t the precise machines of today, instead they were boxy, often ill-fitting and soled with rubber that was about as sticky as a tractor tire.

Steck-Salathé, Sentinel Rock, “Hot” Henry Barber (1973)

Climbing well over 300 days a year during the early ‘70s was standard for Henry Barber, which created a deep intimacy and familiarity with the rock. During that time “he was perhaps the world’s best free climber, period,” Mark Synnott wrote of him in Climbing Magazine.

To prepare for his 1973 free solo of the Steck-Salathé route on 1,600-foot Sentinel Rock, a physical 5.9 (now 5.10b) with pitch after pitch of offwidth and chimney, he onsight-soloed the glacier-polished offwidth Ahab (5.10b, 155’) at the base of El Cap, and the tips-to-chimney route Midterm (5.10b, 135’) at Arch Rock. His main area of concern was an eight to twelve foot face climbing section. His solution? Just figure it out on the fly. He climbed without a rope (nor a sling, as some reports have stated), in an ascent that took 2.5 hours.

Portrait of “Hot” Henry Barber (Chris Van Leuven).

Lost Arrow Chimney, Upper Yosemite Falls Wall, Greg Cameron (1978)

Inspired by Barber’s ropeless ascent of the Steck-Salathé, offwidth aficionado Greg Cameron repeated the feat in 1977 (though he carried a sling to protect himself for the face moves). Barber’s climb “just captured my imagination,” Cameron told Adventure Sports Journal.

“The thing about wide cracks is, you get so many points of contact on the rock [making it secure] that you’d have to have a heart attack or something [to fall]. When face climbing it’s easy to slip.”

Applying his deep familiarity and confidence with climbing wide cracks, Cameron hiked up the base of the Upper Yosemite Falls Wall – this was during autumn when the falls were all but dried up, so he wouldn’t get sprayed with water – and began climbing the Lost Arrow Chimney (5.10a, 1,100’) alone.

“The part that was ugly in a way is that it doesn’t end up on top of the wall. I would need someone’s help to get off,” he says. The route terminates some 200 feet down from the rim, in the Lost Arrow Spire notch. To get out he would need someone to hang a rope for him to prusik out on. Since he didn’t want to burden his friends with sacrificing an afternoon by fixing a line for him, he asked them to come up in the evening. However, he started his ascent in the morning, in a climb that ended up taking him 3 hours.

To pass the time, Cameron stashed Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus in his cotton sweatpants down around the ankle where the elastic in the cuffs would keep the book from falling out. He climbed the whole route like that, stopping at ledges and reading a few chapters along the way. When he reached the notch and the end of the free climbing, to his surprise, there was already a line in place set there by another team that was there to do a Tyrolean Traverse off the tip of the spire. “The guy I met up with, I think it was his first day out, and he didn’t seem to know much,” Cameron says of the baffled team he encountered. They chatted for a few and the other team allowed Cameron passage on their ropes.

The following year, in 1979, Cameron onsight soloed the first free ascent of the offwidth Pipeline (5.10+, 5 pitches) in Squamish, British Columbia. “This particular ascent had an effect on Croft and a lot of Squamish climbers,” he says. “They love me in Canada.”

Direct North Buttress (DNB), Middle Cathedral Rock, Charlie Fowler (1977)

Fowler, like Barber, was a voracious climber. Climbing 365 days a year wasn’t a goal, it was a lifestyle. Fowler excelled in all the disciples: rock, ice, alpine, big mountains. His Yosemite ropeless ascent of the 17-pitch Direct North Buttress (5.10b, 1700 feet) on Middle Cathedral Rock in 1977, was a “pretty wild” performance that “set the tone for the rest of his climbing career,” Mark Kroese wrote in Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List.

Unlike the long cracks on the Steck-Salathé and Lost Arrow Chimney, the DNB isn’t a jam-up. Route finding is challenging and the line contains thin face climbing and loose holds. When freed in 1965 it was considered one of the most difficult routes in the world. Even today many teams open bivy on it because they’re too slow to complete it in a day. Climb!: The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado calls Fowler’s ascent “the most audacious free solo yet done in Yosemite.”

Fowler thoroughly prepared for his boldest climbs and the DNB was no different. He gathered as much info as he could, and when he felt ready, quested his way up the route. And his solo wasn’t a one-off – he also soloed 1,500-foot routes in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In Eldorado Canyon State Park, he soloed Perilous Journey (5.11b), “Boulder’s most famous mind control classic,” according to guidebook author Richard Rossiter. And he was the second American to solo the 1,800-meter North Face of the Eiger (in the late ‘80s).

Fowler died in 2006, likely from an avalanche, while attempting a major first ascent in the Sichuan Province of China.

John Bachar, The Moratorium, Shultz’s Ridge (1980)

It may not be on El Cap but it sure is close. The 350-foot Moratorium route on Shultz’s Ridge, tucked under El Cap’s East Face route, is a dead-vertical golden face climbed via thin laybacking, jamming, and delicate stemming.

Most of the routes John Bachar was soloing in the late ‘70s were climbs he had done before. But he wanted to push it a bit, climb into the unknown yet still within his comfort zone. He picked the Moratorium because it was (only) rated 5.10d (though now it’s rated 5.11b). To prepare, he asked around to see what the cruxes were like and was advised to take note of a laybacking problem. But no one told him where it was on the route. He overcame the first crux at 100 feet and cruised on. One hundred feet higher came another hard section, and again he passed it without incident. Nearing the top of the route, some 50 feet from the summit, he encountered the final and most difficult section, which paused him out. “I stood there for about 10 minutes on this tiny flake thing. I kept trying this layback move five or six times,” he told ClimbTalk Radio in 2009.

“I didn’t think I was gonna fall but I didn’t feel solid either. This was a move that wasn’t secure but I had to do it.” The sequence required switching thin cracks via laybacking. Exiting the crux meant committing to a pimple-sized foothold and standing up. It was at this section that he switched from vertical dancing to pulling really, really hard. Moments later he was past the crux, relieved to have made it. “At the top I felt like a hollow shell, like I got away with something I shouldn’t have. Not like I conquered the mountain, but it let me get away with something.”

The late John Bachar soloing Up 40 (5.11b), Joshua Tree National Park (Dean Fidelman).

Bachar soloing Butterballs (5.11c) in Yosemite (Mark Chapman).

These are just a handful of the most impressive onsight free solos that laid the foundation for Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent of El Capitan in June. There are others worth mentioning but that would require a much longer article or even a book. Honnold may have practiced the moves before his big test, but the sheer difficulty of his ascent – at 5.12+ he was dealing with ridiculously insecure sequences thousands of feet off the ground – puts him in a league of his own. Still, he was standing on the shoulders of giants: the bold soloists Henry Barber, Greg Cameron, Charlie Fowler, John Bachar and others who dared to risk it all on the great walls of Yosemite.

Steph Davis soloing Outer Limits (5.10c),Yosemite (Dean Fidelman).

The late John “Yabo” Yabloski soloing Spider Line (5.11d), Joshua Tree National Park (Dean Fidelman).

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