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El Capitan: An Extreme Objective for the World’s Best Climbers

Last updated January 24, 2022| Inspiration

If you’ve been looking for your next climbing challenge, look no further than El Capitan. The 3,000-foot vertical monolith in Yosemite National Park is the most sought-after rock climb in the world. The sheer number of routes available makes this an objective that will keep any climber coming back for more.

In order to achieve this goal, climbers must train extensively and be mentally prepared for an extremely challenging climb that can take up to two weeks

In this article, we will discover some of the things that make ‘El Cap’ so unique, and why climbers from all around the world come to California to (try) conquer it.

El Capitan: An Extreme Objective for the World's Best Climbers

El Capitan

Located in Yosemite National Park in California, El Capitan is one of the most famous and recognizable rock formations on Earth. As with the many other rock formations in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan was formed by glaciers about a million years ago.

Between the Southwest and Southeast faces of El Capitan is a prow. There are many established routes on both faces of El Cap. The Nose, which follows this prow, has become the most popular and historical route today.

When it was first conquered, El Capitan held only one route up its sheer face – The Nose. But today there are more than 100 different routes to choose from and many challenges still waiting to be overcome.

Many of El Capitan’s climbing routes have also been named, including Iron Hawk and Sea of Dreams.

We’ll discuss these routes and more about climbing El Capitan later on in this article.

Between 1905 and 2018, over thirty fatalities have been recorded while climbing El Capitan. Many of those were seasoned climbers. Critics blame these fatalities on a recent increase in timed ascents, social media fame and climbers competing for deals with sponsors.

El Capitan: An Extreme Objective for the World's Best Climbers

© Corey Rich/Red Bull Content Pool

The First Ascent of El Capitan

El Capitan was first conquered by Warren Harding in 1958. Together with two other climbers, he needed 47 full days to reach the top using fixed ropes along the route (“siege” tactics). The next ascent happened in 1960 by a team of climbers who performed the first continuous climb of El Capitan in 7 days, without siege tactics.

It wasn’t until 1975 that climbers were able to climb The Nose in one day.

Since then, El Cap has seen more than 10,000 ascents, many of which were solo climbs.

How to Climb El Capitan

El Capitan is an extremely challenging climb and should not be attempted without proper training and preparation. Ascending the monolith is a technical climb, and as such it requires climbers to have knowledge of knots, anchor building skills, rope systems usage, hanging tents – in addition to other climbing fundamentals.

There are two main ways up El Cap: the Freeblast route (considered moderately difficult) or the Nose vernacular routes (considered expert-level).

The Most Famous Climbs on El Capitan

In 2017, just a month after two world-renowned climbers set their own speed record of being the fastest on The Nose route on El Capitan, they were beaten by American climbers Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds. In October, this duo completed this 3,000 ft climb in an astonishing 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Below is a mesmerizing time-lapse of their ascent, consolidating their climb in a 7-minute video.

Beverly Johnson and Sibylle Hechtel were the first team of female climbers to conquer El Capitan in September 1973.

The first persons to free climb El Capitan were Ray Jardine and Bill Price, who ascended via the West Face route in 1979. Only 14 years later, a team of climbers was able to free climb The Nose for the very first time.

Alex Honnold completed the first free solo climb of El Cap on June 3, 2017. He ascended the Freerider line in 3 hours and 56 minutes. The entire free climb was filmed as part of the Free Solo documentary in 2018.

El Cap is the most impressive wall on Earth,” Honnold says. “I’ve thought about climbing [free soloing] El Cap each year since 2009. I think, ‘This is the year,’ and then each year I think, ‘This actually isn’t the year. This is fucked.’ Maybe it’s not for me, it’s for future generations, or just someone who has nothing to live for.

We didn’t know anything about free soloing El Cap,” says “Free Solo” director Jimmy Chin. “El Cap almost ended the project because we didn’t want to be a part of it in case something went wrong. The rule was that no one was ever allowed to ask Alex when he was going to do it.

Climbing El Capitan / Alex Honnold

© Free Solo Movie. Nat Geo.

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Additional resources

If you’re looking for some additional resources for climbers interested in conquering this rock face, below are some helpful links about climbing El Capitan:

There were also some excellent books written about ascending El Capitan:

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The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life (Paperback)

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The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path (Paperback)

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