Scottish climber Robbie Phillips has made a rare free ascent of El Cap’s 30-pitch Pre-Muir (5.13d) in Yosemite. The route, which took him and climbing partner Ryan Richardson three days to ascend, is Phillips’ third El Cap free climb of the year.
“It was the main goal of my trip and I feel totally wrecked now,” Phillips tells Rock and Ice via video chat from the Valley. “I’ve been in the
Valley for weeks and it all just caught up to me.”
Earlier this season, Phillips and Logan Barber bagged a free ascent of Golden Gate (5.13b)
on El Cap over seven days. Phillips managed to onsight all but two of the route’s 37 pitches, including the notorious “Monster” offwidth. (Read a detailed account of their ascent on Logan Barber’s blog .)
Golden Gate was Phillip’s second El Cap free ascent, following El Niño (5.13c A0) with Jacob Cook this spring.
After Golden Gate, Barber left the Valley and Phillips took a break from big walls to explore some of the area’s classic single-pitch climbs,
such as Ron Kauk’s famous Tuolumne Meadows testpiece, Peace (5.13c/d), and Randy Leavitt’s stemming-horror, Book of Hate (5.13d).
Phillips climbed Book of Hate, multiple times, to practice for Pre-Muir’s 5.13d stemming-corner crux pitch.
Pre-Muir was first freed in 2007 by Justen Sjong and Rob Miller. The route—a variation of Yvon Chouinard and TM Herbert’s Muir Wall (A2
5.9)—covers pitches of Muir Wall, The Shaft, The Shield, and new 5.13 terrain. British climbers Hazel Findlay, James McHaffie
and Neil Dyer made the coveted second ascent in 2012, and their effort inspired Phillips to give it a go.
“We went after it classic big wall style and planned on being on the wall for six or seven days,” Phillips says, referring to his first attempt with Alan
Carne. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. Carne, exhausted from weeks of Valley climbing, decided to go down.
Phillips stayed on the wall and joined an aid-climbing party attempting Muir Wall, but that too, ended. Only a few pitches higher, they got hit
by a “mental thunderstorm” and had to bail, Phillips says. But all was not lost. Phillips befriended one of the team members, Ryan Richardson, who
offered to support Phillips on his second attempt.
Take two—Phillips and Richardson decided to go fast and light. No portaledge, no haul bags. Just the bare
minimum, only what they could carry in climbing packs. They started climbing after dark on November 3, when it was colder, and continued climbing until
3 a.m. “We just planned on getting to the [natural] ledges,” Phillips says. After a short night, the team climbed all the next day until dark in “pretty
bad conditions for El Cap,” Phillips says. “The conditions were really strange. It was cooler at night, but so hot in the day, and when it cooled again,
it caused condensation to form on the rock, which made it slippery,” he explains. “The best time to climb was from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., after the rock
had cooled but the condensation had dried.”
Nonetheless, they were making good progress. Phillips climbed almost every pitch on his first attempt or onsight, including the 5.13d stemming-corner crux
pitch, in the dark. But on their third day, they were down to a few bites of Clif Bar, a few Shot Bloks, and a “really glassy 13c corner” halted their
“When I tried it, I fell a few times and was getting frustrated,” Phillips says. “I came back down and tried to sleep on a slopey ledge, but couldn’t really
sleep, and waited until the last hour of light to try again. And I smashed the pitch. Then we topped out in the dark.
“I would encourage people to go and do it. It’s the best climbing I’ve done in Yosemite, for sure. And the corner pitch is the best pitch on granite that
I’ve ever done.”
Phillips says he loves Yosemite, but after a few weeks of hard climbing, he’s ready to go home to Edinburgh. He’ll spend the winter looking for new bigwall
routes in Chochamo Valley, Chile, and will return to Yosemite next fall.
“It’s easy to get sucked into doing established routes,” he says, “but I would like to establish new routes on El Cap. I think they exist, they definitely
do. These lines are out there.”
Yosemite Valley is full of action. In the last two weeks, Katharina Saurwin freed Final Frontier (5.13b) on the FiFi Buttress, Jorg Verhoeven made the second-known free ascent of Dihedral Wall (5.14), Pete Whittaker completed a rope-solo free ascent of Freerider (5.12+), Jacopo Larcher and Babsi Zangerl are working Zodiak (5.13+), and Adam Ondra is on his final push of the Dawn Wall. Stay tuned for more news reports and coverage.