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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Caldwell on Burke

In light of Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden's free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan, there's been lots of internet chatter about whether this is the second, third, fourth, fifth, or whatever free ascent of the route. Here's the history:

1993: Lynn Hill. First free ascent, four days, traded leads but led the hardest pitches.
1994: Lynn Hill. Free ascent in 23 hours, leading every pitch, 3 falls on Changing Corners pitch.
1998: Scott Burke. Led every pitch free over 12 days except for the Great Roof, which he toproped free as storms threatened to end the climb.
2005: Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden. Each climber led or followed every pitch free over four days.
2005: Tommy Caldwell. Free ascent in 12 hours, leading every pitch, 1 fall on Changing Corners pitch.

So, did Scott Burke free the Nose? Did Beth Rodden? Neither led every pitch free, which is the "Euro standard" popularized in Yosemite by the Huber brothers. By that standard, Lynn's FFA shouldn't count nor should Tommy's climb with Beth, because they didn't lead every pitch. And don't count Skinner and Piana's free ascent of the Salathe, the 1988 climb that opened the door to modern El Cap free climbing. In fact, don't count the Hubers' early El Cap free climbs—they swung leads on El NiƱo, for example. By this standard, only Lynn and Tommy's one-day ascents of the Nose really count. Come on! When it comes to big-wall free climbing, you have to respect the great tradition and technique of swinging leads, which has been used for generations to pioneer big free climbs. And if you accept this standard, then what's the difference between Burke following the Great Roof on toprope and Caldwell following Beth's lead of the Great Roof? Essentially none.

Not convinced? Here's what Caldwell had to say about Scott Burke's climb a couple of weeks before he and Beth climbed the Nose: "I give him credit. I feel people should be able to do what they want up there, as long as they report honestly, which he did.... There’s so many variations of what people count as a free ascent, in terms of stance to stance or ledge to ledge or in a push or one person or two—there’s a bazillion different variations. There’s no way you can police that and say what’s legitimate, I don’t think."

Tommy and Beth are headed back up on the Nose next week for a photo session with Corey Rich. I'm looking forward to seeing those shots in Climbing #245.


Anonymous said...

I say this:

Either Burke, Hill, Caldwell, and Rodden ALL free-climbed the Nose... - or none of them did.

None of them, you ask?

Well, this is according to a strict, simple reasoning: to truly "free-climb" a piece of rock, you must climb from the bottom to top without falling, using rope and gear only for protection.

All of the Nose's free ascentionists did every move free, but none of them could handle the cumulative difficulty of climbing each pitch consecutively, without falling.

Skinner's ascent of The Salathe was visionary, but it also utilized a hanging-belay that made the climb possible (for them). This isn't *really a free ascent.

Just like hang-dogging a sport climb. You might be able to do all the moves individually, but if you cannot link them without falling... no free ascent.

It's unrealistic to think that cutting edge big walls will be done without a fall - too many pitches, too much time - but that doesn't mean that, aesthetically, there isn't room for improvement after Caldwell's 13hr, one-fall ascent.

(Disregarding the obvious - and futuristic - style improvement that an onsight would be)

That being said... hats off to Tommy and Beth.

Anonymous said...

1) Burk is spelled with no "e".

2) No fall is called redpoint, not free ascent. Free ascent allows for falls, does not allow for ascending gear.

3) The Piana-Skinner FFA of Salathe is contested because the second ascended with Jumars. Had the second climbed, there would be no contestation. Piana & Skinner (RIP)free climbed parts of Salathe. A. Huber free climbed it first.