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Another Yos Route Free for Caldwell


by Dougald MacDonald

December 17, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Tommy Caldwell has added the Zodiac to his tick list of El Cap free climbs. Caldwell completed the 5.13-plus version of the classic El Cap aid route in late November. Brothers Alex and Thomas Huber first free climbed the Zodiac in October, with six 5.13 pitches and several new variations to the aid line.

After working on the free climb earlier, Caldwell finished the route with Topher Donahue in a six-day effort. Donahue started up the wall just five days after surgery to remove his wisdom teeth. “I wouldn’t recommend the dental work-big wall combo,” Donahue said. “I definitely lost some weight and was getting wild head rushes on the hard pitches.”

“It was a lot of fun to be part of such an inspired ascent,” Donahue said of Caldwell’s Zodiac effort. “Tommy had to try the Nipple (the climb’s second 5.13d crux) something like 15 times and fully charge to pull off the rest.”

Though the identity of California's infamous Zodiac killer still presents an unsolved mystery, the eponymous route, a 20-pitch jaunt up the right side of El Capitan, has been successfully puzzled out as a free climb-first by the Huber brothers, Alex and Thomas, and now by Tommy Caldwell, 25, of Estes Park, Colorado.

Caldwell and partner Topher Donahue, of Allenspark, Colorado, topped out on Zodiac November 28 after a six-day push. Caldwell credits the Hubers for their vision and perseverance in figuring the line out. The Huber brothers completed their free version of the line October 16 after aborting their first attempt, earlier in the summer, due to oppressive heat.

"I like how steep the route is [it overhangs 200 feet in roughly 1800]--it's a great mixed bag." Caldwell feels that Zodiac is the second-hardest free route he's done on El Cap, behind his and wife Beth Rodden Caldwell's 5.13c Lurking Fear. Explaining the grade discrepancy, Caldwell said, "On Lurking Fear, I think we were completely sandbagging everything, in the spirit of Lynn [Hill] on the Nose. " Nonetheless, Caldwell felt that "The Nipple," the second 5.13+ crux, which he likened to "The Great Roof" on the Nose, was "pretty hard": "It's 25 feet of hard climbing up a perfectly curving crack-really thin underclinging, dinky pin scars and complete smears for your feet." The first 5.13+ crux comes just below "The Nipple" on the stemmy, demanding "Open Book," which Caldwell felt was much easier than "The Nipple" itself, though still rendered tricky by slippery urine stains.

Alex Huber calls the line, offering six pitches of 5.13 and six pitches of 5.12, an "amazing steep climb with a lot of technically demanding climbing," but adds that, protection-wise, it is not that hairy because of all the "fixed junk." Caldwell himself was a little more suspicious of the fixed pro. "On the first, 5.13b pitch above the Grey Circle you do the crux above a line of five or six fixed copperheads and a bird beak," he said. "You get a little tentative about falling."

Also noteworthy is the fact the ace tradster Donahue, Caldwell's partner on his free push (Caldwell had been on the route twice earlier, once with his father, Mike, and a second time with Adam Stack), had had his wisdom teeth pulled just two days before stepping onto the wall. Surviving initially on a diet of Slim-Fast and applesauce, Donahue actually grew strong over the course of the climb as he progressed to solid foods. "He managed to do all the moves," said Caldwell, "but under the circumstances, could not quite link all the pitches."

Caldwell dispatched each pitch in under an hour and a half, save "The Nipple." Using their portaledge, necessary for bivying on this very steep route, as basecamp, Caldwell and Donahue spent two days working the pitch. Their late-season ascent also meant that they had the route, and almost the entire Captain, to themselves. "It felt like cragging on El Cap. It was wild. It was like, 'This isn't so bad-I'm not suffering, I don't feel miserable, and there's no one climbing up behind me putting the pressure on.'"

Zodiac, first climbed at VI 5.11 A3 by Charlie Porter in 1972, was named after the infamous (and still at-large) Zodiac killer, with his bloody legacy of seven confirmed murders in San Francisco's Bay Area in the late 1960s. While the killer is best known for the bloodstains he left in his wake, it is perhaps for the 40-foot urine stains, visible from El Cap Meadow, that this big-wall trade route is best known.

"Most of the urine stains are old enough so that they are not smelly anymore," said Alex Huber. "But urine reacts with the granite and changes its surface: It becomes black and more and more polished." Complicating matters is the fact that the urine stains, deposited by 30-year's worth of climbers at a hanging belay, come mid-way up the "Open Book." "It was truly made more greasy and slippery by the stains," says Caldwell, who made sure to carefully wash his hands after sending the pitch.

Amazingly, the Zodiac is 25-year-old Caldwell’s fifth free route on El Capitan, and only the second on which he did not make the first free ascent. With various partners, Caldwell has freed Lurking Fear, the Muir Wall, and the West Buttress, and he has made a one-day free ascent of the Salathé Wall.

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