Brad Gobright and Alex Honnold are both best known for their cutting-edge free solos and speed ascents of the Nose, so when they team up with a cord between them, you know big things are in the works. Last night the pair roped up together to make the second completely free ascent of El Niño (VI 5.13c) via the three-pitch Pineapple Express variation established by Honnold and Sonnie Trotter in 2018.
The Huber Brothers established El Niño in 1998 at VI 5.13c A0. The route is a free climb that covers ground on the El Cap lines Continental Drift (VI 5.9 A4), New Jersey Turnpike (VI 5.10 A4), and the North America Wall (VI 5.8 A2). The A0 section is comprised of what became know as the “Man-Powered Rappel”—a 25-foot blank section that the Huber’s couldn’t climb their way through, and so instead rappelled off one another (to keep the climb as “pure” as possible).
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In 2017, Trotter and Honnold found a three-pitch variation above pitch 10 of El Niño that they freed at 5.13b. Honnold couldn’t make it to the Valley to join Trotter for a full free ascent of the wall with the new variation in 2018, but told Trotter to go for it. Trotter, supported by none other than Tommy Caldwell, freed El Niño via the Pineapple Express variation in November 2018 in a 13-hour push.
Gobright and Honnold started up at 4:00 p.m., yesterday, June 10, to try to nab the second free ascent. Fourteen-and-a-half hours later they topped out, mission accomplished.
“It was a brutal climb, but I think the nighttime strategy was the beta,” Gobright told Rock and Ice this afternoon.
Gobright continued, “El Niño doesn’t have the glorious never-ending splitter style of climbing that El Cap is known for but the climbing is interesting and a little scary at times. Most of the hard pitches involve technical face climbing.”
In all they climbed six 5.13 pitches, five 5.12 pitches, and “plenty of 5.10 and 5.11,” as Gobright wrote on Instagram. “Alex has done almost no outside climbing this year but still crushed it with only a few falls on the soaking wet 13a pitch at the very top,” he wrote. “I had a bit more trouble but still managed to send the route. Alex ended up leading most of the hardest pitches but I’m still really psyched how things turned out. I was almost certain I’d have to save this route for the colder drier conditions of next fall.”
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Despite the incessant rain that has plagued the Valley this climbing season, relegating most climbers to smaller projects or other destinations entirely, Gobright has made the most of the short weather windows. On May 8, Gobright made a free ascent of the Muir Wall (VI 5.13c) via The Shaft in 17.5 hours. He noted afterward on Instagram, “I’ve never fought so hard for anything in my life and I can say it’s maybe my proudest send yet. I ended up doing the final 13c pitch on trop rope. By that point the headlamps and come out and I was drained to deal with the fear of whipping on small RPs.”