Pete Whittaker and Dan McManus endured nine days on The Secret Passage (5.13c R VI) through sub-freezing temperatures, spitting waterfalls, and a snowstorm that confined them to their bivy for two days. Stricken of their seven-day rations, the Brits topped out El Cap during a three-hour weather window that dried the rock enough to send the final pitch.
Their ascent marks the first repeat of The Secret Passage, seven years after Belgian climbers Nico Favresse and Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll pioneered the route.
On his blog, Whittaker describes the route conditions once the snowstorm took hold of The Valley, causing water to cascade down El Cap: “We had realised there was a pattern with the waterfall runoff. Waterfall would run in the morning coolness. In the midday sun, it would recede and some rock would dry out. Waterfall would run in the evening coolness. Waterfall would freeze in the nighttime. Repeat.” The Brits had about three hours of relatively dry conditions each day to climb the remaining three pitches.
The Secret Passage combines two aid lines, Eagle’s Way and Bad to the Bones, for a total of 15 pitches: 5.10+ R, 5.11, 5.9, 5.10+, 5.12a R, 5.13c R, 5.13a, 5.12+, 5.12c, 5.13c, 5.12c R, 5.13a, 5.13a, 5.11 R and 5.10+, as reported by Favresse to ukclimbing.com.
Both Whittaker and McManus managed to redpoint every pitch—the first team to do so. Yet Whittaker states that Favresse and O’Driscoll climbed the route in better style: “Where they went from the ground, we checked out the top three hard pitches from abseil. Where they went incredibly bold on the lower crux pitch, we had the first piece pre-clipped.”
Despite any stylistic discrepancies, Whittaker and McManus redpointed the upper 5.13c crux, the “Guillotine Parano” pitch, which involved climbing along a razor flake “the consistency of a digestive biscuit,” Whittaker writes—while the pitch was wet. Beyond the flake, Whittaker found the pitch’s crux hold soaked and whipped off, ripping an old peg likely placed during an aid ascent.
“I belayed [Guillotine Parano] with my eyes closed,” McManus writes in his blog.
The title-track pitch, “The Secret Passage” (5.13a), traverses a thin seam over a granite slate devoid of any footholds. According to Favresse, the seam is “impossible to see unless you are level with it.”
After McManus and Whittaker freed “The Secret Passage” on their eighth day, only two pitches guarded the summit— 5.11 R and 5.10+. To their dismay, the Devil’s Brow runoff soaked the route, rendering it unclimbable. They spent the night on the wall, with nothing but a granola bar left for dinner.
“Our hope for the next day was that, like ‘The Secret Passage’ pitch, the upper pitches would dry enough during the middle of the next day for us the climb them. If not, then we’d already been in touch with James Lucas about a possible rescue,” McManus writes.
On the ninth day, the midday-sun caused the runoff to recede. Whittaker and McManus summited The Secret Passage in the early afternoon, setting a precedent for longest period either teammate has spent on a big wall: McManus writes, “Nine days on a route is also a new record for us both.”
Photos courtesy of Whittaker, McManus and Paolo Sartori.
[Correction: A previous version of this article stated the peg Whittaker ripped during a fall was placed by the first-ascent team. Whittaker believes the peg was likely placed during an aid ascent.]