On Friday the 13th of May, 2016, CMK sponsored climber Jacob Cook and Robbie Phillips topped out on El Niño, 5.13c having free climbed the entire route. After fixing the first three pitches they spent a total of six days on the wall. We emailed Jacob over a few questions to get some of his thoughts on this awesome achievement.
Notoriously runout and difficult, El Niño was first climbed by the legendary Huber brothers in 1998 and since then has only seen around 10 ascents, the second of which was made by Leo Holding and Patch Hammond only a month after the Huber’s.
How long have you been looking at climbing el Niño?
I still have the 1998 “On The Edge” magazine reporting on Leo Houlding and Patch Hammonds second ascent of the route, but I was 10 years old and never imagined I’d climb it one day!
On my first trip to Yosemite in Spring 2014 we hung out a lot with James McHaffie and Dan McManus who sent the climb that season. I looked at the topo and was blown away by the sustained nature of the climbing, there’s probably 20 pitches of E5 or harder. A totally unattainable level for me at the time. Over my last few trips I don’t think I’ve actually got a lot stronger, but I’ve learned to climb efficiently on the Yosemite granite and began to think El Niño might be possible for me.
It’s quite notorious for it’s run outs and bad bolt positions. What do you think?
There is a lot of runout climbing and you definitely have to comfortable doing hard moves a long way above your last runner. That said I didn’t think any of the really hard climbing was particularly dangerous, you’d go for a long ride but you wouldn’t hit anything on the way down. There was only one or two of the easier pitches that had really serious sections where you definitely wouldn’t want to fall.
Yeah, for some reason the Hubers seem to have placed almost every bolt just out of reach from a good clipping stance, so you have to commit to the next hard section before clipping, this makes some bits kind of dangerous. Luckily most of the bolts have long slings permanently on them which are within reach, but we never knew how old they were or what condition they were in, this made things that little bit more spicy!
Were you confident you’d get up it throughout the ascent?
I think we were always fairly confident we’d get to the top but the free ascent looked extremely unlikely for most of the climb, especially for me. Robbie is a lot stronger than I am (he has redpointed f8c+ vs my f8b, which is a big difference!), so I think he found the hardest moves a bit more casual. For me there were multiple pitches that were right at my physical limit. Especially the crux pitch ‘The Royal Arch” 5.13c/8a+ was looking extremely unlikely. After two goes I still hadn’t even managed to get to the top, let along redpoint the pitch! Robbie sent it and it was getting dark, I had one more attempt and didn’t even have a sequence on the crux. I had basically contented myself with freeing as much of the route as I could and supporting Robbie, but decided to give 100% on one last go. Somehow with Robbie screaming encouragement at me I managed to wonder-fluke the crux, crimping so hard in the process that I gave myself blood-blisters on every finger-tip of my left hand! I definitely learned a lot about my perceived limits on this pitch and it will give me more confidence in similar situations in the future.
What has most prepared you to climb a route of this seriousness?
I think that my background of climbing trad in the UK definitely prepared me well for the serious nature of the route. It’s a style of climbing that doesn’t actually exist much in the USA, where routes tend to follow more continuous crack systems. It was clear from the start that whilst Robbie was a lot stronger, he had a lot less experience of big wall techniques, Yosemite granite climbing and trad climbing in general. I think he was a lot more scared than I was. This meant I was able to take the lead on some of the more fiddly and runout 5.12 pitches. Basically I don’t think either of us could have succeeded without the other, and we both brought completely different essential skills to the table, which is really cool!
Sending this route must have given you some serious confidence, so what’s next?
I’ve really caught the Yosemite bug, so much so that I’ve made 4 trips here in the past 2 years! Every trip I’ve surprised myself by managing to climb something of a completely new level that I’d previously thought was impossible for me. From climbing “The Nose” in 4 days with my girlfriend on my first trip, free climbing El Capitan via Freerider (5.13a) on my second, sending Peace (5.13d) on my third and now El Niño. It’s difficult for me to sum up exactly what’s so great about Yosemite. The climbing requires a huge number of different skills, it’s not enough to just be strong, skilled, bold or tough you have to have some of everything. But it’s more than just that, the climbing community out there is really special. Everyone is hyper-enthusiastic, to the point where at first I wondered if they were joking, but it’s really nice to be around. It certainly allows me to push myself much more than I might otherwise.
I’m planning on coming back to Yosemite this fall and I’d really like to have a go at free climbing El Cap in a day, via either Freerider or Golden Gate. Climbing “wall-style” with a haul-bag and portaledge is really fun, but sometimes it feels like you’re moving at a snails pace. It will be great to ditch the stuff and be able to race over the granite! But who knows, it might be way too hard of a goal and I’ll have to do something else…
What was the most challenging aspect of this route?
Dropping our tea bags on day three.
We had to resort to melting caffeinated gummy “shot blocks” into hot water, it was kind of like really gross hot Ribena, but it did get you going in the morning!
About the Author
Alex Palmer is the co-owner and founder of Cold Mountain Kit and started climbing back in 1989. He's climbed extensively throughout the UK, French Alps and has been as far afield as Yosemite, Northern Patagonia and South Africa. A total trad climbing snob.