Fear is a funny thing. In its essence it’s a biological response designed to keep you alive, but in the modern age of recreational risk, it can really be a pain in the ass. Take right now for instance; my fear is making a precarious situation perilous. It’s wringing sweat from my hands when I most need my grip. I try to breathe the terror away, but my heart is pounding relentlessly, and it’s getting hard to make smart decisions. “How’s it look up there?” Lucho’s voice filters up into my tunnel-vision terror bubble. He’s out of view under a roof, belaying me, and wondering why the hell I haven’t moved for five minutes.
Lucho can’t see that I’m trapped in a tenuous stance, too run out to continue on, but with no pro in sight. Maybe I’m just being a chicken shit. But I don’t think so. I think this situation is legitimately screwed up. I place a very small piece of protection and give it a tug. It rips out. If I whip now I’m whipping huge, and it’s going to be painful. I have to get my fear in check in a hurry and figure something out.
The route up Liberty Cap. Photo: Cedar Wright
Lucho Rivera and I have put up over a dozen big first ascents together, and this isn’t the first, or second, or even third time we’ve gotten ourselves in a pickle. It’s par for the course, really. We’re about 600 feet up the huge southwest face of Liberty Cap in Yosemite Valley, on a recon mission, trying to find a path to the summit that will go free. Why? I guess that’s the age-old question. To quote Lady Gaga, “We were born this way.”
The last time we were up here, Lucho broke his collarbone and told me he’d never come up here again. That’s how much fun it was! But Lucho is a great adventure climber, so he quickly forgot how heinous the last adventure was. Our extremely bad memories have faded enough to let us repeat the whole sketchy process.
Earlier that day we approached via the Mist Trail, so named because it takes you so close to Vernal Falls that it’s like walking through a rain storm. The falls pour over a massive cliff out of who’s face there are hewn hundreds of stone steps. With our packs full of cams, pitons, ropes, jumars, etc, it’s a poor man’s stair-stepper. And who needs pull-ups when you can grapple with a vertical face instead?
Between labored breaths, I threw down the gauntlet. “Can you think of another major wall in Yosemite that hasn’t gone free yet?” I asked as we surmounted Vernal Falls and stared up Liberty Cap in all of its genuine glory. From this perspective it looks like a massive, freestanding tower, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Patagonia or Pakistan. “Umm…nope,” said Lucho, “This is probably one of the last ones.”
Liberty Cap is perhaps one of the most major formations of Yosemite, yet it’s relatively unknown, probably because it’s hidden from view until you make your way up the John Muir Trail. But to those in the know, including many Yosemite pioneers, it’s an obvious and inspiring objective. The original southwest face route was established by a true Yosemite legend, none other than the red-wine fueled, mad first-ascent genius that was Warren Harding. Since then, many people tried to free the southwest face, but were stopped by a blank bolt ladder that linked cracks high on the route. Our previous ill-fated foray up the wall had tackled a lesser face because we’d pretty much written off the southwest face as an impossible dream.
Sometimes, though, the difference between impossible and possible is just a paradigm shift away. Lucho and I were following the tip of some aid climbers who had the year before established an aid climb just to the right of the Harding route, a climb they declared would almost certainly go free. Perhaps we just needed to look at Liberty in a different light.
Cedar on Pitch 3. Photo: Gabe Mange
Back to my current predicament: run out on my stance, with no protection. “Send up the hammer and the pins,” I shout down to Lucho. He clips them on, and, unable to let go with both my hands, I tow them up by pulling up the tag line and biting it, then repeating. I slot a knife blade into a thin seam and then pound at it. Ping, ping, ping—with each thwack of the hammer the noise gets higher in pitch, which usually means the piton is bomber. With my forearms flamed, I slump onto the piton … and it holds. “It looks like it goes free, and it looks amazing,” I yell down to Lucho.
Photo: Cedar Wright
The next month is a blur. We fix lines, and each day head up the stair-stepper that is the Vernal Falls Trail. We work moves, clean cracks, and establish variations to the original aid line. After a month of work, we realize the dream, establishing what I consider to be the best first ascent of my life. The quality of the climbing puts it among the best free routes in Yosemite Valley, which is really saying something. Yosemite is mecca for climbers the way the North Shore is for surfers. People travel from around the globe to test themselves on the world-class monolithic granite.
With our arms aching and sore and our hands bloody and beaten, we couldn’t be much happier. Standing on the summit of Liberty Cap feels like a blessed moment. By the skin of our teeth, we have freed one of the last major walls in Yosemite Valley. We’ve added to the history of one of the world’s most historic climbing areas. I give Lucho a hug, and as we walk down we talk about other remaining great first ascents that Yosemite might have to offer.
We named the 1200ft route “Matah,” which was the original name the natives gave to the wall.
Ten reasons Cedar considers this the best first ascent of his life:
1. There are 600 feet of finger crack in a corner. Finger crack is considered by many climbers to be one of the most fun and challenging sizes.
Photo: Gabe Mange
2. Every single pitch is of exceptional quality. Even on El Cap’s famous routes, there’s usually at least one junky pitch you have to deal with. This route is like polished diamond in its exceptional clarity (but less likely to impress your fiancée).
3. High on the route, there’s a 180ft horizontal finger crack called “The Crack of God.” It’s highly unusual and special to find a horizontal crack this thin and running this long.
4. The Crack of God has to be one of the best names for a pitch…ever. Bring lots of thin cams or you might actually meet god up there.
Cedar on the Crack of God. Photo: Gabe Mange
5. You have amazing views of Nevada Falls the entire time you’re climbing the route. The constant sound and view of water does make you want to pee a lot, though.
Cedar on Last Crux. Photo: Gabe Mange
6. The only chimney on the route isn’t difficult and is actually quite fun. Most routes in Yosemite have at least one wide pitch, which is considered by many visiting climbers to be the most difficult and uncomfortable type of crack climbing. Those visiting climbers are just doing it wrong … but anyway …
7. There’s a gymnastic roof high on the route. Every classic big-wall route needs a roof!
8. The climbing is sustained. Pretty much every pitch is at least 5.11, and there’s a whole lot of continuous 5.12. Part of the challenge of the route isn’t in the difficulty of any one pitch but in having the stamina to do them all in a row. Be careful. Your forearms might explode.
9. The route isn’t dangerous. You can go up there and try the route without breaking your legs… unless you really screw something up…OK, maybe you could break your legs.
10. The route climbs through the center of the proudest, steepest part of the wall.
11. The route is so good that this top-ten list goes to eleven.