words by SAM NIGHTINGALE
photo GARRRETH BIRD
‘Are we on?’ I extended a chalky hand towards Richard ‘Squeeks’ Halsey expectantly as we stood on the boulder mats of CityROCK gym. After a characteristic pause of careful consideration, he shook my hand. My excitement was tempered by Squeeks’ recognition of the potential size of the undertaking. Little did either of us know this would be the start an 18-month journey involving several weeks spent on a wall strung up with hundreds of metres of fixed line. This would be a project that would lead to two new routes with a kilometre of climbing over 33 pitches and would take us both to our limits of endurance.
Climbers are inspired by different things within the sport. Some project hard sport routes, some boulder. But for me, it was always long multi-pitch routes, particularly big walls that take multiple days to ascend. As a teenager growing up in England, I was given a glossy photo book on the world’s greatest climbs. Most of these were classic mountaineering routes involving gnarly adventurers with pics reflecting 50-mile stares peering out from behind icicle-laden eyebrows. But the photo I was drawn to was of Dean Potter, bare to the waist in the Californian sunshine, halfway up The Nose of El Capitan. He was on the famous Boot Flake pitch, reaching up for a hand jam, one foot cammed into the crack, the other braced out onto the smooth granite wall. The idea of free climbing at that level, halfway up a huge cliff, with 500 metres of rock in every direction, just seemed like the coolest thing imaginable. It is no exaggeration to say that this picture changed the course of my life. As soon as I finished university, I headed to Yosemite with a plan to climb El Capitan. I was woefully underprepared, having never climbed above 20 (6b) before and only having done a handful of multi-pitch routes. At Camp 4 I found an amazingly supportive community of international climbers. We had varying degrees of skill and experience but were united by an enthusiasm to climb The Big Stone. Six weeks later, after a lot of trial and error, I found myself standing at the top of El Cap having climbed The Nose in four days, exhausted and exhilarated with the growing feeling that I had discovered something special.
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