My First Free Climb On El Cap | Nina Caprez

Words and photos by Nina Caprez

Hanging out with me can be really tough, especially when I want to go big.

This season I hadn’t had the chance to express myself fully. I injured my ankle after which, weather and timing kept me to climbing maybe well, but nothing remarkable.

To fix that, I came to Yosemite Valley on Oct. 11 for a second time. Compared to my visit in the Spring, the walls were all dry, which got my head spinning in excitement.

My boyfriend Benoit and I had no real plans. The only thing he wanted to climb was the Nose and so we did. It was our first big wall together and you can imagine how much we sucked … the climbing went really well as I lead and free climbed a big part of the route, but the hauling and putting up the portaledge cost us quite some energy, both physical and mental.

After three days of effort we reached the top, but somehow the feeling we had after being on the same route as perhaps hundreds other parties per year wasn’t as fulfilling as we were expecting.

The upshot was that I was really surprised by my good climbing shape. Unfortunately, that also makes me even more difficult to get along with, as it brings back that really selfish climber who only thinks of hard climbing and performance. Suffice to say that Benoit had a hard time being around me!

I teamed up for some days with climbing machine Barbara Zangers and we gave some shots at a few hard single pitches. I also climbed the ultra classic multipitch route « rostrum » with my local buddy Ryan.

That somehow calmed my nerves and allowed me to realize what I really wanted: to perform on El Cap, together with the person I love. Bigwall climbing with one’s partner is a real challenge because it is hard work and it brings so many intense emotions.

I wanted it badly and Benoit agreed to be on my side. I chose the route El Niño mainly to, avoid the crowds in ‘Freerider/Salathé’. These two routes, with a common start and the Nose, look like two highways from the ground.

El Niño is on the West side of El Cap and it is not an aid route, so there are only (strong) freeclimbers on it. The route starts straight with two 13.a’s and a 13.b, followed by lots of 12s and sprinkled with 5 other 13s . It’s not the typical crack route, but rather more crimp and technical climbing, overhangs and overall loooong run outs.

I got really scared when I worked on the first hard pitches. The bolts were placed on weird spots and far away from each other in some hard traverses. I was really lucky because two strong climbers from Sweden were working on the route as well. There was chalk on the holds and some quickdraws in those dangerous spots.

That day I tried twice the three hard pitches, but was far from sending.

10 days later, after tackling the question of how egoistical I could get away with being, we packed our haulbags with food and water for 8 days on the wall. At night, we went bivouacking at the bottom of the route where we surprised team Sweden, ready for a push. It so happened that we all wanted to try the route on the same day and more or less around the same time (6am) to climb those first hard pitches in the cool morning cool. It was end of October, but the heat was unbelievable!

Stefan and Alexey climbed before me and they sent and so I did, Benoit belaying and jumaring behind. We were all on a big high, but quickly calmed down when it was time to haul our heavy bags. Benoit and I had to repack ours, because we realized that it would never ever takes us 8 days to climb those 28 pitches.

But still, the bags were so heavy and that first day we almost cried because everything went wrong during the hauling! The bags got stuck everywhere, we had to cut some rope at some bolts, and in general we had such bad luck that we agreed that the Karma wasn’t with us. We put up our portaledge at belay 7 for the night and I was ready to give up and go down next day.

I felt very bad because it was way too “freestyle” for my taste. I also felt bad because I took Benoit with me in this difficult wall, realizing that he wouldn’t be able to climb much. I became somehow … realistic and it seemed to big for us.

Spending a night on a portaledge on El Cap has somehow its own magic. I had a very deep and good sleep and when we woke up next day the world seemed to be changed. We were looking under and above us and this deep sensation of feeling lucky overcame us.

We both were joyful, we laughed a lot and it seemed logical that our way was up and not down.

Because of the tricky hauling, we suffered once more up to pitch 10, the sure ledges,. We arrived there around 2pm, the sun was burning hot and the next climbs to do were 13.a and 13.c.

Team Sweden had sent those pitches early in the morning, in the shade and cooler temps. They only had to haul and to move on. We chilled all four of us on that ledge, trying to make some shade with sleeping pads.

And then my psyche came back and I was ready to climb hard again. So we did. Both of the pitches were really bouldery and after a long effort to work them out I sent both of them on my second go, the last one into the night with a headlamp. Benoit was so stoked and we put up our camp in the middle of the wall, no ledge, just 3 bolts, a portaledge, two big haul bags, a poop tube and our little persons up there.

Day 3 was the biggest and most exhausting to me. I climbed 7 pitches onsight that day, including the very hard Endurance Corner and the 13.a roof called Black Cave. I have no idea how that worked out, I guess I was in a high. After the first hauling that day, our bags felt a little lighter so to be more efficient I climbed, fixed the rope and while Benoit was jumaring, I was hauling. So when he would arrive,I had already set up everything, and was ready to climb the next pitch.

The same day I climbed some crazy chimneys and cool pitches like the Slalom. They were all in the 12th grade and once more I was very happy to follow the chalk traces of force Sweden, always two pitches ahead.

That third night, we slept all four of us on a huge ledge right under the second roof called the Cyclops Eye.

Benoit and I are not really experienced in big wall and we were quite convinced that we sucked at it, however, watching team Sweden, we realized that we actually were doing quite all right. I guess that the hauling is hard work no matter the experience you bring with you.


So to ease our ascent, we went a bit lighter on ropes, but still holding on to what seemed necessary for our well being : a stove, good LYO food, some desserts, and creams to repair our shattered hands at the end of each day. Some things we had on the Nose we left on the ground like extra clothes and our thermarest mattresses.

Oktober is also a really good season to climb El Cap in my opinion. For one, temps are cooler (or supposed to) and the amount of daylight is perfect. We climbed more or less from 8am to 6pm and it was enough to maintain sufficient power over multiple days.

On our fourth day I climbed again all the pitches onsight, including the really cool ‘Dolphin’ pitch which goes straight through the second big roof. Then we all struggled on the very last pitch called ‘Lucy is a Labrador ‘, the last 13.a of the wall, 5 pitches under the top.


That one is often wet from what I heard and so it was this time. Alexy, Stefan and I had to give several goes to pass the boulder problem with totally wet hands. But we all did it, because of the team spirit, the loud cheering and the personal obligation to give it all so close to the top!

It was such an enjoyable moment and instead of climbing in the dark to the top of El Cap, Benoit and I we spent one more night in the wall at one of the radest places on the wall, the Igloo, an enormous bloc high up there.

That night was ours, the shared suffering was over and the joy overcame us. I felt so grateful to have freeclimbed my fist route on El Cap with my partner. I know that one day, I will be telling the story to my kids!

Back in the Meadows, after climbing the last 3 easy pitches and walking down from El Cap, I asked Benoit if it had actually been fun for him. A cold beer in hand, he answered: “You know Nina, everyone is looking for a different satisfaction in life. Me, I’m not looking for a performance or for the athletic aspect in what we did. Being up on such a big wall during 4 days with you was fun. Really.”