Even as they made incremental progress each day, it seemed to Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl that her and Jacopo Larcher’s plan
to free El Capitan’s Zodiac (VI 5.13d) was potentially too tall of an order. Only a week before their final redpoint attempt, Zangerl wrote
on Instagram, “Everything feels still really really hard — hard to imagine [doing it] all in a single push.”
But this past week, Zangerl, an Austrian, and Larcher, an Italian, dug deep and pulled it off. Over the course of five days, the duo made what is likely
the third free-ascent of the route. Zangerl reported on Instagram, “Both of us freed every single pitch and we both led all of the 5.12+ [to] 5.13d
[rated] pitches. Sooooo stoked!!!!”
A photo posted by Barbara Zangerl (@barbarazangerl) on
Though shorter compared to its siblings on the main prow of El Capitan, Yosemite’s Zodiac packs some of the hardest free climbing in the
Valley into just 16 pitches. First freed by the Huber brothers in 2003, the route ascends roughly 1,800 feet on the right side of the granite monolith.
Prior to their free ascent, the two climbers worked the route intensively on several trial runs up the wall, dialing in the crux pitches including the
“Nipple” pitch (5.13d), the “Open Book” pitch (5.13c), the “El Portal” pitch (5.13b) and the “Devil’s Brow” pitch (5.13a). Larcher wrote on Instagram
that the Devil’s Brow pitch “was definitely one of my favorites. After an easy start, my beta for the crux involved some funky toe-hooks and campus
moves. It might be something normal on the boulders, but I had never done something similar with so much air underneath my feet.”
Zodiac was originally established as an aid line in 1972 by Charlie Porter on a solo mission. On Supertopo.com, Porter is quoted as saying “This was at the time of the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer in San Francisco. I would
go up on the wall, come down, and ﬁnd that he had killed again. His killings seemed to be timed with when I was on the climb,” thus explaining the
origin of the route’s name.
In 2003, Thomas and Alexander Huber attempted a free ascent. They made progress in the spring, but ran out of time to complete the project. (However, they
did set a new speed record on the climb of 2 hours, 31 minutes and 20 seconds.) The brothers returned in October 2003, and finished the job in a redpoint
push of three days. Of the free variation they pioneered, Alexander Huber wrote in the 2004 American Alpine Journal, “Typical of El Cap routes, several sections of the original
aid line did not go free. Our free variation begins 60 [meters] right of Zodiac [and] meet[s] Zodiac after four pitches. Another variation avoids the
long bolt ladder on Zodiac’s fifth pitch.”
Less than two months later, over Thanksgiving 2003, consummate big-wall free climber Tommy Caldwell strung together the second free ascent of the line
over six days. In the intervening years, from 2003 to Zangerl and Larcher’s ascent, there have been no reports of any other free ascents of Zodiac.
Larcher and Zangerl are both accomplished climbers across a variety of disciplines. Larcher has climbed up to 5.14d sport, WI 6+ ice and V13/14 boulders.
Zangerl has climbed up to 5.14c sport and V13 boulders, and is perhaps best known as the first woman to complete the “Alpine Trilogy,” a trio of routes
consisting of Kaisers neue Kleider (8b+/5.14a), Silbergeier (8b+/5.4a) and Berchtesgaden (8b/+ 5.13d/14a).
Zodiac was the second free route on El Cap for both climbers. In 2015, they freed El Niño (VI 5.13c A0) together. Zengerl’s was the first
female ascent of the route.