Headless Children is a disturbing name for a route, and perhaps has something to do with why said route—which rises 260 meters in the Rätikon, Switzerland, and comes in at a bouldery 8b (5.13d)—has dwelled in relative obscurity since the first free ascent by Marc Amman in 2008. Famously tough and less grotesquely-named routes like Silbergeier (5.14a, 240 meters) and Die Unendliche Geschichte (8b+/5.14a, 420 meters) have become more sought after compared to Headless Children.
But Swiss climber Nina Caprez, who has done those other Beat Kammerlander classics, looked past the name. From afar, she was enamored by the beautiful rock and striking line of Headless Children. Earlier this month, Caprez made the third free ascent of the route, also becoming the first woman to free the climb. “It’s a pearl,” she told Rock and Ice.
Caprez first tried Headless Children last summer. It had been on her mind since she saw footage of Kilian Fischhuber—who made the second ascent in 2016—on the climb. Summer storms moved in and ended Caprez’s attempts on the climb in 2017, but she knew she’d return for unfinished business. This year she came back to blue skies.
“I spent three days working the route again,” Caprez said. “After I figured out the beta I was really excited to do it. I climbed all the opening pitches and then slowed down when a 7c+ [5.13a] pitch took me three tries. That’s always the hardest grade in the Rätikon, because the old guys didn’t want to put out hard grades.”
Next Caprez came to the main event: an 8b roof with a mantle right at the end. She thugged her way through the bouldery overhang only to have it start raining right as she reached the final mantle. She said, “Luckily I was able to finish. Right after I did the mantle it started to hail.”
She and her partner waited out the storm. They joked, “chatted about life and shit,” and munched on peanuts to pass the time at the belay. While bad weather had foiled her plans the prior summer, Caprez wasn’t about to let the heavens win out again when she’d already come so far and climbed the meat of the route. When the sun reemerged, she got back to work. “It was still pretty wet,” she said, “but I was able to send the final pitches. I climbed a 7b+ [5.12c] slab even though it was wet and somehow I stayed on!”
Headless Children is just one of a number of successes Caprez, now 31, has racked up on the big walls of Europe. In the Rätikon she also climbed Hannibals Alptraum (7c/5.12d, 300 meters), plus the aforementioned Silbergeier and Die Unendliche Geschichte. In 2014, Caprez redpointed all the pitches (but never recorded a continuous send, bottom to top, of all the pitches) of Orabayu, a 550-meter 8c (5.14b) in Picos de Europa, Spain.
Caprez has also redpointed hard routes, big and small, far beyond her home continent. On a road trip in 2017, she sent To Bolt Or Not To Be—the first 5.14a in the U.S.—at Smith Rock, Oregon, and freed El Niño (5.13c A0) on El Capitan in Yosemite. Last year in Yosemite she also climbed the Nose, and this fall she will return to begin work on freeing it. As she does battle with the Nose, Caprez will be supported by Lynn Hill to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first free ascent.