Friday, June 30, 2017

Reflections from Freerider

The sun traces the landscape in the fall, hanging low on the rim of Yosemite Valley, greeting the many south faces with warmth. Freerider on El Capitan is south-facing. Therefore, by 9:00 AM, the sun sears into one like a cattle-brand.  We packed for six days, intending to climb the 31 pitches of Freerider in five days with a day for leniency. The bags weighed more than Bronwyn and as much as I. Thankfully, we had stashed two bags on the wall to minimize the amount of hauling.
The bag was as big as her! Photo: Jacob Cook

“Bronwyn, it’s so $%#@ing hot right now. What do you want to do? … My vote is to move to the alcove and come back down in the evening.” I nudged a bit.

“We should just try it. The heat isn’t too bad. Besides, the breeze is helping.” She encouraged.

I had tried the Freerider in the spring. I knew that more time spent in heat meant more fatigue, less energy, and generally a harder time for the rest of the wall. But I didn’t want to control the situation, so we decided to give it a go.

Placing the yellow alien at the edge of the crack before the downclimb, I took a deep breath.

“Oh boy, it’s hot Bron! But I’ll try. I’m nervous!!!” I glanced up one last time.

And off I went, reverse laybacking, under-clinging, and smearing my feet to a small seam for a finger lock. Ping! Off, I went.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!” I screamed, swinging hard right through the air. Bronwyn shot a jumar down to me, and I jugged back up to the beginning of the pitch. Again, I tried - this time making the reach into the monster offwidth. Ping! Again, I was propelled back to the belay. I tried, and tried, each time with regression.

“Want me to try?” Bronwyn offered.  

“Sure, I’m tired. Need some rest.” I handed her the two sixes, a four, and a finger piece with some draws to protect the beast.

With ease, Bronwyn danced to the end of the traverse and came off. Instead of coming back to the belay, she rehearsed each section of the traverse as best as she could. On her next attempt, she latched the crack, but could not get in. She attempted the down climb a few more times, and then opted for a rest.

I went again, fighting and falling reaching to the crack. Our screams echoed in the Valley corridor. Bronwyn wanted one more attempt before continuing up to the alcove. She took a single six. And it worked. Her effort was heroic, inching and squirming up the 7 inch crack for nearly 200 ft.  


Our alarm went off at 5:00 AM. We rappelled down to the crux pitches on Freerider, the easiest free route up El Capitan. Bronwyn and I were newly acquainted climbing partners. Her patience and support were unrivaled. While I often doubted our efforts, Bron’s fighting spirit drove us up that wall. Like a musician picking apart a song, Bronwyn felt each hold on the Boulder Problem with great attention to detail and body positioning. A ripple in a small seam, when pulled down on, was useless, but pulling it sideways and pushing the rock away with your feet allowed for a passage to the flat edge up and right.

I went next, pushing and pulling, balancing on this foot, falling into that position. With rope tension, I figured out a likely sequence. By 9:00 AM, we were in the full, blazing sun. The rock was warm and greasy like a well-deserved burger, except we hadn’t earned that burger yet. I attempted the puzzling Teflon corner and strung it together with a few falls.

A glimmer of hope, I thought. We ascended up to our sloping ledge bivy, the Block, to hide from the big yellow dot in the sky. We moved slower than we anticipated having spent half a day fighting to get into the Monster Offwidth. It was our fourth day on the wall and every hard pitch had yet to be sent. We planned for five days, packed for six - maybe we would even consider a seventh.


Five days did turn into seven with the help of our friends. Ledge life and exposure became as comfortable as lounging in the El Cap Meadow. We found ourselves gazing at the buzz of the Valley floor, wondering who and what people stared at all day. With the sun as our compass, time was irrelevant. The time was now, surrendering to total presence. The moments between darkness and light were the windows of trying, a window so small, yet so remarkably beautiful. The light would bend, refract, and sweep up the wall as darkness gave way to light in the quiet times before the daily toil.
We chilled a lot on the Block Photo Credit: Jacob Cook

We were there, small and fragile, bruised and swollen, cracking the puzzle and focusing on the minutia. Push, keep pushing. Higher. Find the dimples. Hardly a hold to work with except for ripples in the rock. Body position, faith, tension. 

Try. Try again. Keep trying until the sun hit the rock. Retreat. Escape, siesta, and wait until the time of transition when the alpen glow illuminated the stone and the last rays of warmth faded into darkness. Into the darkness we climbed, again trying so hard our fingers may explode. 

“Yaaaaaaaaahooooo!” I screamed and screamed, adrenaline rushing and limbs shaking. Tears framed my smile creased face. By headlamp, I free climbed the Teflon Corner after dozens of attempts. I was so psyched! I didn't even care to finish the route, happy with my effort and determination on my hardest redpoint. I put my heart into that pitch, that route. That experience beamed with light.
PSYCHED! 30-40 attempts later, and a send! Photo Credit: Bronwyn Hodgins

Click. My headlamp turned on. Bronwyn handed over some draws, a #4, and a few small pieces. The slab below us extended beyond the roof above. This was the last technical pitch on Freerider. Calling it 10d is laughable, downplaying the difficulty this short, stout scar-ridden roof traverse. I stemmed my way past a small seam of pitons in a corner. Strenuously, I clipped the pitons in the horizontal roof and down-climbed back to the stance. My fingers searched for something to hold, small crimps an inch below the roof allowed me to reposition my feet, balancing over to the flat ledge at the end of the roof. Full extension, my arm caught the hold, but I fell.

My mind was consumed by fatigue. Every part of my body was reluctant to climb, to move upward. Yet we were so close. I lowered back to the awkward belay stance and pulled the rope. I tried, again. And again. And again.

“Bron, can I use your headlamp? Mine is dying.” I needed everything I could get. My hand latched the flat edge around the corner. My left leg extended to the same rail allowing myself to toe hook the corner next to my hand. Matching both hands, I moved the toe hook into a heel hook and mantled onto the ledge. It was far from graceful, but just barely worked. My body fell into the rhythm in the wide crack and I wiggled my way to the anchors of the last pitch on Freerider.
Epic adventure with Bronwyn Almighty, the darkest of horses! Photo Credit: Jacob Cook


We summited in the darkness on our seventh day of effort. Bronwyn got a near free ascent, coming short of one pitch. I managed to achieve my lifetime dream of a ground-up free ascent of Freerider. A few asterisks blemished my ascent to others, but it didn’t mean much to me. Two slab pitches were done from no-hands rests, and due to circumstances, neither Bronwyn nor I lead the second Enduro Corner. Such is life.

I could barely comprehend my own experience when we reached the summit. I was in disbelief. I felt empty. What I thought would be a many year project turned into a season of effort on my second free attempt.

Nothing had changed. I thought there would be a summit celebration. I thought my friends would be excited for me. I thought I would get to share this experience with those I held dearest to me. But I was wrong.

Instead, I felt lost, empty, directionless. Years of expectations and excitement about this ascent built its own fantasy - a fairy tale where witch turned into princess. Maybe I thought my life would change drastically and I would be a shiny, new Alix as an El Cap free climber. My life would be categorized as pre- and post- Freerider. I would have earned the respect of my elders, peers, and myself. I would have had an ‘AHA,’ this is it moment.

But that all differed from reality: I was an emotional whirlwind, destructive and depressed. My problems before the experience didn’t evaporate with the early season rain.

It was November 11, one day after Bron and I returned to the Valley floor. Teary-eyed, I frantically packed up my kitchen from the El Cap Meadow bear boxes. Back and forth, back and forth, I went. Chris, English/Canadian wall hero with an amazing ability to make people feel good, tried to lift my spirits.

“You should be happy right now Alix… You just free climbed that!” pointing up to El Capitan. “Soak it in, mate.” Even still, his truths didn’t strike a cord. I continued to tear apart my van, mirroring the raccoons pillaging Camp Four bear boxes. Tears turned into sobs and that dark cloud followed me out of the Valley.

During the previous week, we were fully immersed in the moment. It felt right to be up there. But a day later, I was shoveling my life into my van, heading somewhere foreign to earn a buck because I was in debt. 

It was the most anticlimactic experience I’ve ever had. 
A bit of a shit show all the time 
I was still a dirtbag scraping by -  stressing about relationships, where my next paycheck was coming from, and how I was going to fulfill my commitment to meeting Katie in Spain for five weeks. Nothing changed. My reality was starkly contrasted in two days. How could one go from feeling so alive and present to an utter meltdown in one day? 


It's been two and a half months since we packed up our haul bags and meandered back to the Valley floor. Bronwyn went home to Canada. I migrated north, east to Utah, back to Bishop, and out of Vegas to climb in El Chorro, Spain.

Katie and I were walking to the crag one day and I turned to her. 

“I should have been so happy after that experience, but I was a fucking wreck. I have put my entire life in question.” 

“Maybe it’s the gift of reflection you get from these achievements.”

She was wise. Maybe she was right. I had put everything into question. I signed up for online classes to start the process of nursing school/midwifery. I picked up a ukelele, read books on love and Buddhist philosophy. I started obsessing over the topo for the Salathe wall, hungry for more. I found closure in tumultuous relationships and ultimately, came again to the realization that I didn’t love myself and that was the root to all of my problems. 

So often, we throw ourselves into passions or distractions, narrowly skating around our reality because it’s messy. We just don't know what we want. Anxiety about the future and it's unknown and repeating patterns formed in our past plague our wakeful existence. I was hardly present last fall when I wasn’t on the wall. My thoughts drifted to people, decisions, consequences, “what ifs." I was in the thick of transition for a while. 

I lacked acceptance for “what is.” 

Wisdom takes years of trial and error, repeating the same mistakes until one day it all makes sense. I wish someone told me at a young age that happiness ebbs and flows, that our lives are complicated and messy, and that we’ll makes mistakes. And that all of it’s ok. All of it. 

Times of transition offer opportunities for reflection and growth. Climbing is not the only medium I have learned to deal with adversity, but it is the only practice I’ve engaged in that has confronted me with my insecurities, time and time again, also shown me that I carry great strength and focus - that I can love myself. 

My soul was up there on Freerider all year, hiding from the mess of my physical being. It's watchful eyes greeted me with compassion and moments of clarity on every lap I did. The irrational, fearful child inside of me could sometimes see through it all - the fragility of our environment, how tiny and irrelevant our issues were in the grand orchestra of human existence, and the beauty of the journey. 

Ultimately, it was the false expectations after Freerider that gave me the sobering view of my stressful life. I wanted someone to tell me I was awesome and worthy, to hold me close and let me know I was just doing fine. I wanted respect from our community. I wanted validation because I deemed myself unworthy of love, incapable of making decisions, and I had lost my own self-respect. I was seeking outside of me instead of within.

I gave Freerider a tall order. I asked the mountain to fix me, repair and consolidate my fragments, round out the edges, and sculpt me into that shiny Alix I envied, the one that didn't exist.

The anticlimactic ending to my dream, though hard to swallow, was the gift of reflection.

Freerider wasn’t life-changing. Climbing has never been the cure. It is the path we chose to walk for self-exploration and truth-seeking.

Climbing is the medium, the practice in which we chose to interact with the world. It's my form of introspection and these completed dreams are but a part of journey.


I lay quietly on my thermarest in a crumbling shack on a Spanish hillside. The floor was earthy, made of clay and fractured. Animal feces, dirt, and broken debris coated the floor. A bird flew by to its nest above me. I took a painkiller that evening because of an all-consuming toothache. It often knocks one out, but I couldn't sleep. I was up, fervently writing about my experience with Freerider.

My humble home in El Chorro

Why do I climb? Why do any of us climb? I wrote.

A physical pursuit. A social outing to complement a person’s busy life. For me, it began with pure joy and adventure. Simple. I love Freerider and the Salathe Wall - it's chimneys and offwidths, massive ledges, clean rock, movement, exposure. I am obsessed. But if it were all fun, it would lack substance. Climbing continues to evolve into a spiritual practice and Freerider served as a catalyst for deep reflection and refocus. Painful and dark as it was, I became hopeful and more kind to myself. It gave me tools to soften the turbulence of life, to come back to presence and ignite the connection between body, mind, and nature - the interconnectedness of life.
My home for a month! Love the Spanish countryside

Next to the shack is a wide, flat patch of burned grass, a clearing in the bushes and trees. Vultures swarmed overhead on the hunt for fresh meat. The birds sang their own song. Men and woman glided through the sky above. It was idyllic. Behind me were two limestone outcrops a pitch in height. I lay there naked, hands and feet rooted in the Earth, watching the bubbling life in front of me unfold. My heart sang with the birds. I was present.

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