The Nose on El Capitan according to Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher
Interview with Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher after their free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite.
As reported last week, Austria’s Barbara Zangerl and South Tyrol’s Jacopo Larcher have made a six-day free ascent of The Nose up El Capitan in Yosemite, USA. After a first attempt in 2018, this autumn both managed to lead all the hardest pitches and follow in the footsteps of Lynn Hill who, in 1993, was the first to free what is likely to be the most famous rock climb in the world. After El Niño in 2015, Zodiac in 2016, Magic Mushroom in 2017 and Pre-Muir wall in 2019, here’s how they did it.
Congratulations! We know it may sound silly but: why this route?
Barbara: The Nose is just such a historical climb. I remember when I first read Lynn Hill’s autobiography Climbing Free. I got so inspired about this magical line straight through the central section of El Capitan that I’ve always wanted to try it, at least once in my life!
Jacopo: "It goes, boys!" Remember it? Do I need to say anything more? And as Babsi said, The Nose is such a historical route, it’s a real milestone in the history of free climbing.
So why did you try it only now, after having climbed El Niño, Zodiac, Magic Mushroom and Pre-Muir?
Barbara: Actually we wanted to try it years ago, but it’s quite a complicated line to climb free. It’s possibly the most famous rock climb in the world, and consequently there are always a lot of other parties on the wall. I think about 600 people repeat The Nose each year, resorting to aid here and there. So in the past when we looked up El Cap, we always changed our plans and tried different, less popular routes.
Jacopo: Yes, we always wanted to climb it, but got discouraged by the traffic it normally gets. I remember one day we studied the line from the meadows and we counted 16 parties on the route. That’s crazy! For me one of the nicest aspects of climbing El Cap is being up there alone with Babsi, enjoying the simple life and the climbing on that amazing, huge expanse of rock; I didn’t want to wait in line or have to deal with too many other parties. I was worried this might ruin the whole experience. That’s probably why we kept postponing the project.
And why you arrived very late in the season
Barbara: precisely, to avoid the massive traffic on the wall. The only thing is that around mid-November you have to be pretty lucky with the weather. Last year we weren’t as lucky and after the first week we experienced a first huge storm with a lot of snow; the climbing season on El Cap was basically over before we even managed to give the route a real try. We returned this spring but the Great Roof remained wet. So we returned in autumn once again.
Jacopo: This season we certainly weren’t alone, but I have to say that it was a very positive experience; of course sometimes we had to wait in line, everyone does, but it was also really nice to get to know some many people on the wall, climbers we would not have met otherwise. You share a belay together and you start to chat about different aspects of life. Let’s say it was a more "social" experience than our other big walls :-)
Tell us about the style of ascent?
Barbara: We first started to try The Nose in autumn 2018. In the beginning we tried ground-up, but we were forced to wait for 4 hours on pitch 2. Not the best of starts! We made it to the Sickle Ledge and had to bivi there, which is incredible… up to this point you’ve only climbed a few pitches. So we were already a day behind schedule. We got to work the Great Roof a little and topped out the next day. We also tried to climb the Changing Corners, but this felt really hard as we laybacked the whole crux.
Jacopo: I'd always dreamt of trying it ground-up in a single push, but as soon as we got started we realised it would be too audacious. The weather window was too short, just four days, and the route simply too hard for us. So we decided to climb the route in 3 days, take a look at the harder pitches and get a feel for the more difficult sections. As Babsi mentioned, due to the traffic we needed a whole day to climb the first 5 pitches to the Sickle Ledge and, I have to admit, my first impression of the climb wasn’t the best. Luckily all the parties on the wall were super and, even if it took us one day longer than planned, we had a really good time on the route. We tried the Great Roof briefly but we didn't really have enough time to check out the Changing Corners so a week later, after the storm had passed, we decided to walk to the summit and rap in. In the beginning it felt super hard, if not impossible even. Since the crack was wet we just started to play around and try and layback the whole pitch… and in the end that’s actually the beta we used ;-) On our second day on managed to link the pitch on toprope, but it still felt super insecure and hard! It was obvious that we’d have to return the next season and try it again.
This autumn you Barbara ì arrived earlier than Jacopo and walked to the top of El Cap to abseil in on your own. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?
Barbara: Yeah, I was alone when I went up to the top of El Cap a few weeks ago, I thought I’d rap in to work the Changing Corners and climb back to the top rope-solo. I was a little worried about this solo mission, I didn’t want to use static ropes because I wasn’t sure how crowded it was going to be. It was early in the morning when I was ready to start and I noticed that there were already two static lines down to the corners. I wondered whose they might be, then I met Alex Eggermont, a Belgian photographer and climber who told me that Sébastien Berthe and Loic Debry were down there on their ground-up ascent to free The Nose. I therefore decided to wait at the top, I didn't want to get in their way. Totally jet-lagged I lay down in the sun almost all day long, then suddenly I got a message from Seb and Loic welcoming me down with them. I rapped in and hung out with them for two days…
During which you got to work the crux pitch
Barbara: Yes, I made a little progress, at first it felt like I never climbed that pitch before. Loic and Seb spent an extra day on the wall and slowly ran out of food. Seb was getting closer and closer to sending the CC pitch at every attempt, so he decided to stay another day. I had some extra food: one Drymeal between us and 4 bars, so I jumared back to the top to get the food. On the summit I ran into Hazel Findlay and chatted with her - she was up there taking photos of Dan McManus and Angus Kille who’d just topped out El Corazon - but as I was talking a bird opened my haulbag and stole my food bag with my last drymeal. I started to scream and run after the bird and imagined my last food flying away into the distance. Nobody would have believed me! Then Hazel started to run as well and the bird dropped the bag. There was still some food left! Dan and Angus offered some of their extra food, so I had a whole load of supplies for an extra day! Loic topped out on the fixed lines and I went back down to support Seb. I was glad to have belayed Seb on his last day on the wall, when he sent the Changing Corners, and we then climbed to the summit together. Alex was always around us capturing the action. At around 1 p.m. we reached the top and Seb completed his ground-up ascent of The Nose in 8 days. Very inspiring! That same day though I had to pick Jacopo up from the airport! I was such in a rush… I left everything on summit and raced down as fast as I could! Luckily I got there just in time!
How did the actual free ascent go?
Jacopo: We planned to get to the Great Roof on our second day. We didn’t want to get too tired on the first part and we knew that we would be slow because of the haulbags and the harder pitches we both wanted to lead. The first day was more exhausting that we expected though! It was very hot and the hauling was hard. It turned out to be a big day and were very tired indeed. Our second day was more chilled, but it was still tiring as we had to wait in the sun for some parties in front of us. We both didn’t feel very fresh when we got to the base of the Great Roof. Babsi was too excited to rest though and tried it early the following morning; even if she said she was tired, she made a really impressive send after just a couple of tries! I decided to rest until the evening, and I surprised myself doing it on my "warm up" try. I still don’t know how it happened! I definitely didn’t expected it!
Barbara: Everyone just talks about the two hard pitches on The Nose, but on the first part the wall isn’t easy at all, there are some pretty challenging traverses as well. And of course there’s the hauling! I really felt tired but at the same time I was so excited that I couldn’t rest. So on day 3 I warmed up around 4 a.m. It didn’t feel promising. My legs were shaky from all the hauling and I kept asking myself if what I was doing made sense. On my first try I slipped on the first crux, right at the beginning of the roof. And I ran out of power. I was sure I’d only have one more try before the sun hit the wall. Then I gave it one last go: it was real battle, I couldn’t even clip the fixed nut in the roof and so I tried to run it out and go for it. I almost fell on every single move but somehow I kept it together and surprised myself by reaching the chains. That was an epic moment for me! Jacopo rested during the day and in the late afternoon he got on this pitch as well. He sent it right away which was absolutely incredible to watch!
You then moved up to Camp 6, below the Changing Corners
Barbara: So on day 4 we climbed up to Camp 6. There are definitely some challenging pitches to get there, and both of us wanted to lead every pitch harder than 5.12.
Jacopo: When we reached the Camp we decided to take a rest day. Conditions were very good and it wasn’t an easy choice to just sit in the portaledge the whole day, but our bodies needed it and we still had 3-4 days of supplies. Day 6 was the big day; we woke up early and checked out the moves again. I didn’t feel that good on the pitch, which wasn’t great for my motivation. Babsi started with no expectations and she basically fell off the last move on her warm-up go, which was super inspiring to watch and very promising for her! I started my second go without any expectations as well and all of sudden felt way better than before. I somehow kept on climbing up and got to the upper, easier crack without falling. I was super happy!
Barbara: We wanted to climb the pitch directly from Camp 6 and not use the gear belay in the middle because it seemed to be more logical for us, but this definitely added some extra spice as after an easy but long layback up to clip the two bolts you have to down climb and then enter the crux corner. I gave it all I had on my first go of the day and fell right at last hard move. I’d got so close, but wasn’t sure if I’d get so far again. It had got really cold during the night, the temperatures had dropped by maybe 15 degrees, and after Jacopo sent the pitch my toes went completely numb on my second go. I even tried to take my shoes off at the no hands rest which was quite tricky, but that didn’t help at all… I slipped right after I got into the corner on my second attempt. So I lowered back to Camp 6, rested, and gave it another go. And this time I was lucky enough to get through the crux without falling. There was one more move after the crux to reach the final crack where I got nervous, but I managed not to fall. We were both so happy, we’d just sent the hardest pitch of The Nose...
You then reached the summit later that day
Barbara: just as it became stormy and cold. We were overjoyed to have finished such an incredible route.
Jacopo: The last pitches went smoothly, even it it was very cold and we couldn't feel our toes anymore. We topped out in a beautiful sunset, which was the perfect end for this incredible route. Ah no, wait… we sill had to carry all the haul-bags with the gear and remaining food back down into the valley. That was less fun! ;-)
How much food did you take?
Barbara: We took way too much food and water!
Jacopo: Enough supplies for 8 or 9 days on the wall. The weather window was fairly long and, as we knew it would be our last chance this season, we wanted to make sure we'd have enough time on the wall.
The Great Roof was the one that had proven impossible at the time, until Lynn Hill freed it. What makes this so particular?
Jacopo: First of all I don't know who came up with the idea that Lynn freed it just because of her small fingers?! It’s nonsense! The pitch is very long and the hard part is right at the end; the first section is fairly easy, but it still makes you tired enough to have less body tension for the crux section. The upper part is really technical; it involves a lot of smearing on bad footholds and it’s hard to keep the right tension after so much climbing. Once we figured out the beta, the hardest was definitely to trust those small smears and to get there with enough bpdy tension to execute the final moves.You also don’t want to fall off the end of the pitch and have to reclimb everything again; it’s challenging mentally
What about the Changing Corners?
Barbara: Just like Great Roof it’s a really long pitch and it’s tiring to keep the body tension throughout. We laybacked the whole hard sequence on the Changing Corners. I actually think it’s the hardest layback we ever did.
You topped out just before it started snowing… talk about perfect timing!
Barbara: This year we had so much luck! It was incredible. Such perfect timin indeed. But in some respects we earned it, we headed straight to the climb as soon as we entered the valley. We didn’t waste a single day!
You’ve done loads of other really tough multi-pitches in the past, some possibly much harder. So how important is this climb compared to previous ascents?
Barbara: As I said at the start, it's always been one of my big dreams to climb The Nose! It had been on my dream list basically ever since I started climbing!
Jacopo: It doesn’t matter how hard it is compared to others… every climber has his or her own list of dream routes. And for me The Nose has always been one of those :-)
Last question: now that you’ve climbed it, what can you say about Lynn Hill’s first free ascent in 1993? And her sub-24 hour ascent in 1994?
Barbara: Even today it’s something quite unbelievable, Lynn Hill is such an inspiration. If I watch videos of her climbing on the Nose, it looks so smooth and easy! But it isn’t! What she did back in the day was one of the biggest milestones in climbing, ever. Back then many climbers thought she’d done it simply because of her small fingers. But this isn’t true. She was just incredibly strong!
Jacopo: Her ascents were super impressive: she was way ahead at the time! A real legend and climbing genius. Full stop.
Link: FB Jacopo Larcher, jacopo-larcher.com, FB Barbara Zangerl, barbara-zangerl.at, La Sportiva, The North Face, Black Diamond, Vibram