El Niño. Zodiac. Magic Mushroom. And now the Pre-Muir. Hands down, Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl has one of the most impressive lists of free ascents on El Cap over the past few years—heck, of all time. Early this week she topped out the Big Stone after freeing every vertical inch of it for the fourth time, on this occasion via the Pre-Muir, a five-pitch 5.13d variation to The Shaft.
Rock and Ice caught up with Zangerl after she was back on level ground, and she had high praise for the route. “In my opinion it is one of the best climbs I have done on El Cap,” she said. “Only Magic Mushroom [VI 5.13d] was more fantastic. The corner pitch on Pre-Muir is the most beautiful single pitch I have climbed in the Valley.”
And to think it wasn’t even in her plans for this trip to the Valley—it was just a backup. Zangerl and her partner, Jacopo Larcher, arrived in Yosemite earlier this spring with their sights set on a freeing the Nose. But a historically rainy season foiled those plans. “The Great Roof was soaking wet and even mossy, so we had no chance to try that pitch in those conditions,” Zangerl said.
While they waited for the glacier-polished walls of Yosemite to dry out, they hopped over to Pine Creek Canyon, near Bishop, and switched to sport climbing mode. They both began trying Ethan Pringle’s Everything is Karate (5.14c/d), and—as they’ve made a habit of in recent years—sent one after the other, Larcher and then Zangerl.
Sport climbing and big walling require vastly different approaches and mindsets, and switching between the two was not as seamless as Zangerl’s redpoints suggest. “On Karate you can go and try whenever you want, well-rested and in good shape,” she said, “but on a big wall you have climb really tired sometimes. Mentally it takes way more energy. And it’s very exposed up there. Doing 34 pitches compared to one really hard single pitch that’s a different game and offers a big adventure.”
After their Pine Creek diversion, the Nose still seeping, Zangerl and Larcher turned their attention to the other side of Yosemite Valley, where they made an ascent of Father Time, a 20-pitch 5.13b established by Mikey Schaefer on Middle Cathedral.
But El Cap still beckoned, as always. Zangerl explained how she and Larcher decided to go for the Pre-Muir. “I knew stories from Hazel Findlay [who made the second free ascent of the route], and really wanted to try those outstanding pitches at the top. So we decided to give it a try for our last days in Yosemite.”
They started up the wall, employing team-free tactics popularized by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall—each climber leads all the hardest pitches, and follows the others (still free).
Zangerl said, “We went ground-up with all our stuff for seven days. I sent all the 5.13 pitches second go—Larcher flashed three of them on his burns!—and we onsighted or flashed all the easier pitches except for one 5.12b with a jump move.”
The hardest pitches on the Pre-Muir are the 5.13d stemming corner and a thin, endurance layback pitch—both near the top of the route. Zangerl managed to fight her way to the top of the featureless, slightly acute dihedral, but Larcher came up just short.
“He was so close!” Zangerl said. “He slipped a few times in the corner, and then he got so close, breaking a crispy foothold on the last hard sequence.” After that, Larcher ripped open a flapper on the heel of each hand—a tough break on a pumpy stemming corner requiring lots of counter pressure with the hands. At that point Larcher decided to support Zangerl to the top.
With her ascent of Pre-Muir, the number of difficult free routes for Zangerl—and Larcher—to siege on the Captain is dwindling fast. In December 2017, the couple completed the first repeat of free Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), considered to be the second hardest route on El Cap behind the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d). It contains an even dozen pitches that are either 5.13 or 5.14. The year before, 2016, they made the third free ascent of Zodiac (VI 5.13d). And the year before that, 2015, they climbed El Niño (VI 5.13c A0). Zangerl was the first woman to free all three of these routes.
Still, there are big prizes remaining for both of them. Zangerl and Larcher still have to polish off the Nose, and they still have yet to climb the Salathé. There are also unrepeated Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden routes—West Buttress and Lurking Fear, both VI 5.13c—that are surely on their radar. And, of course, there’s the Dawn Wall…
But Zangerl isn’t sure what they’ll try next visit. “It was always a dream of mine to do the Nose in a day. Maybe next year? I know Jacopo would also be psyched for the Dihedral Wall. We will see!”
Regardless of when they return to Yosemite and what they choose to climb on El Capitan when they do, that they will be back is a certainty. “It’s such a perfect wall,” Zangerl said. “I’ve never seen a more impressive piece of rock anywhere.”