The Canadian climber Emilie Pellerin joined the small group of elite women to climb 5.14 trad on August 6 when she sent La Zébrée (5.14a) in Val-David, Quebec. She is also the first Canadian woman to climb the grade on gear.
Pellerin first walked under La Zébrée 13 years ago. Although she dreamed of attempting the climb, she didn’t think one day she would actually send it.
“Ever since I started climbing, I dreamed that one day I’d be good enough to get up there and challenge this route. It’s the hardest trad climb in the area, and one of the most impressive features in the whole world,” Pellerin told Rock and Ice.
La Zébrée is a left-leaning white- and black-streaked finger crack with two roof sections. Francois Roy was close to freeing the route in the early 1990s, but couldn’t clear the second roof. He rated it 5.13d A0. It was first freed by Jeff Beaulieu, who “pink pointed” it on pre-placed gear. Canadian climber Jean-Pierre Ouellet got the first redpoint with the first piece pre-placed, and Sylvain Masse freed La Zébrée placing all gear on lead (including the first piece) in 2006. Julien Bourassa Moreau, Pellerin’s boyfriend, redpointed the route earlier this summer. Pellerin’s was the fourth redpoint of the route and the fifth overall free ascent.
The crack is notorious for being wet and seeping long after the last rain.
“We tried to understand the patterns,” wrote Pellerin in an email to Rock and Ice. “At first we thought it was all about the rain, then had an hypothesis about humidity in the air, but eventually we figured that the best way to predict how wet the route would be was the dew point (under 8 Celsius= good).”
In 2016, Pellerin jumped on the climb and noted that she could do the moves without much difficulty. But, skin too damaged from jamming in the cracks, she took a week off. By the time she was ready for another go the route was wet again. In 2017 she gave it another two tries, then did not return until this year after coronavirus stay-at-home orders were loosened.
Although some jams are trickier and pumpier when the crack is wet, the cruxes are not particularly moisture dependent, Pellerin said. Before trying it this year, she aided up with towels and rags for the critical sections.
“One time you’ll get up the route, try to put rags in it, towels, sponges, shove them with a nut tool in the crack,” she said. “It’s like double the job. Every time you go up there you get your sponges up first, put some rags to help the water drip away from the route. Then you come down cleaning your gear which is almost just like back aiding the route.”
Pellerin spent five days on the route this year with about three tries a day before sending. On day one, she wrote down the specific sequences and the gear she needed. Before each new attempt she would read what her notes said and mentally rehearse the beta. Even when she wasn’t climbing, she was visualizing the moves.
On her fourth day she almost sent it even though it was wet and really hot out. Having fallen from one attempt, she began climbing from that location with her feet about a meter and a half from the ground—and got the rest clean.
“I was kinda mad at myself for not trying it from the bottom. And then I left the next day to Squamish for a month. I had that route in mind the whole time,” Pellerin said.
In Squamish, Pellerin feared that she would remain a meter and a half from sending, that La Zébrée would become another “almost-but-not-quite” route. Between attending the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides guide-training course to dislocating her shoulder, Pellerin had a total of three days climbing that month but lots of time to visualize the route.
When she returned, she sent on her first go although conditions were less than optimal.
“It was more wet than I’ve ever seen it, the route turned into a muddy waterfall… Usually you’d be swiping off water, not mud. We laughed saying that today was not the one… and yet [it was],” Pellerin said.
Pellerin is the ninth woman worldwide to send 5.14 on gear. She joins Barbara Zangerl, Heather Weidner, Nadine Wallner, Beth Rodden, Lynn Hill, Maddy Cope, Molly Mitchell, and Hazel Findlay. She has flashed and onsighted hundreds of 5.13s around the world. She was the first Quebecois woman to climb 5.14a at Verdon Gorge, France. In fall 2019 she sent Air China, a 5.13+ R traditional pitch in Liming, China.