Words: Nina Caprez
Photos: Jon Glassberg
My body is sore. Everything hurts. I keep repositioning my feet, shoulders, hips and elbows in bed to get comfortable. Images of the last days are turning non-stop in my brain. But I feel excited and that nourishes those weird sensations coursing through my body – the result of pushing hard for the last three days…
Lynn Hill and I have spent a lot of time over the last 3 weeks in the Valley and on the Nose, working on the route for an eventual free send at the end of our 4-week trip. On October 30, we finally decided to give it a go.
We woke up at 5am, had a little food and some coffee and drove silently to the base of El Cap. We were quiet and focused, in spite of the film crew surrounding us. Bryan Liptzin, who had been following Lynn and I over the last few months to film a documentary, brought his family as well as cameraman, Jon Glassberg, to film our joint ascent.
We started climbing in the dark. I focused on the texture of the rock illuminated by the light of the headlamp. One movement after the next, while almost ignoring the 1000m wall looming above us. Climbing big walls has taught me to enjoy each small step towards the top. If your mind and body drift away from the present moment, the enormity of the thing can overwhelm you and lead to failure.
Lynn and I moved fast. The previous week we had a wonderful training run on the lower part of the route up to Camp 4, which is situated 600m above the ground. Climbing 17 pitches a day was very helpful for this ascent; we were fit, had become familiar with the granite and sorted out who would lead each pitch.
I love leading. I enjoy being on the sharp end and it was very important to me to lead all of the harder pitches. Lynn, on the other hand, hates falling and at the age of 57, doesn’t crave that exciting feeling anymore. As it turned out, Lynn took the biggest whipper of the entire ascent on pitch 4! Her foot slipped on a traverse and as the pieces were widely spaced, she cartwheeled across the face, ending up with a bloody knee and sprained finger in the process. From that moment on, it was obvious that it would be up to me to take most of the leads on this ascent.
We climbed all day, passing only one party at Sickle Ledge. It was tiring; those wide cracks are physical and the hauling is very draining. I was happy to send every single pitch and we managed to arrive at Camp 4 just before dark. We put up the portaledge in a short time, and become flooded with joy while cooking dinner on our fantastic perch.
Sitting on a portaledge half way up El Cap under a sky full of stars is by far one of the coolest things I have experienced. I feel like a princess in her tower, and know in these moments that this is what I live for. I felt lucky and a little sad at the same time. This was the last night we would spend together, just the two of us. The next day there would be the film crew with us rapping in from the top, and after the ascent Lynn wold have to head back home. It was the last time we spent alone; sharing stories about life, love and other dramas. Those stories you tell to your best friend when you’re in an outstanding place and you feel total confidence and togetherness.
Lynn was grateful that I asked her to climb the route together a couple of month ago. It took a lot for her to leave home and all of her responsibilities and to throw herself back into big wall climbing. But she surprised herself cutting loose and feeling free, and has lived this adventure fully.
The first thing I saw next morning when I opened my eyes was the Great Roof jutting out right above me. Such a gorgeous and difficult line; following a beautiful crack up to this gigantic roof. A week ago, I wasn’t able to send it, but I was close, and I knew that I could do it this time. During my time with Lynn it had been very important to me show her my absolute best, and I felt ready to send that iconic pitch.
We moved fast that morning and an hour later, I was ready to place gear for warming up. Jon filmed from the belay, and compared to the stressful experience I had filming the ascent in Orbayu, I felt very comfortable this time. My boyfriend, who is a guide in France, was assisting Jon and it was nice to have his calming presence nearby.
Spurred on by Lynn’s positive vibes, I climbed up the 30m to the roof, and relaxed a little before attacking the traverse. I climbed really well under the roof, but made an error while trying to clip my last piece at the end. I missed the clip twice and that cost me my send. The result: a big whipper, followed by some French expressions. The entire valley heard my screaming and people probably thought someone had just died on the wall.
Back down at the belay, I was totally calm again and Lynn reminded me that she did not clip one single piece during her send. Inspired to do the same, I tried again and climbed perfectly. When I’m in sending mode, I’m on fire and in my own little bubble. In those moments that’s the thing that counts to me and I’m 200% focused, only positive thoughts in my head.
A big scream again, but this time at the end of the roof and full of joy! Lynn had some tears in her eyes when I sent. Overall, she seemed very touched watching me climb; maybe it reminds her of her ascents or the way she did them.
That moment was by far one of the best to me and this high I felt was with me for the rest of the ascent. That day we climbed two more pitches to reach Camp 5, which is one of the best spots on El Cap. You can see the entire wall while leaning out of the portaledge, and on that particular evening we had one of the most beautiful sunsets one could imagine.
For breakfast Lynn and I both sent the Glowering Spot, a 12d, and an hour later we were at Camp 6 where the Changing Corners starts. I had stopped working on that 14a in our second week because it had simply been too hot out, so my focus had been on the Great Roof. I started to climb without any expectations while the sun started hitting the corners. I stuck the first hard move on the corner easily, and was feeling pretty good. I somehow surprised myself, and it all felt much easier than two weeks ago. I started to feel that with a big portion of magic, I could freeclimb the Nose today. But by my first attempt the burning sun had already heated up the corners and I felt regret that we had started too late. I failed, tried again, failed and then barely made my way up to the anchor. It was impossible to climb this pitch in the warm sun.
I had a moment of hesitation: would Lynn agree to spend one or two more days on the wall waiting for me to send? Was I really ready? And would it make sense for me to slow down our celebration of the 25thanniversary? I put myself in Lynn’s position and I knew that she would be open to changing her flight home.
Then I had to ask myself if I was ready to deal with that pressure of asking her for so much more on top of the huge support she had given me over the last month. I closed my eyes and felt what made the most sense to me: climbing to the top today and celebrating our beautiful ascent on the summit with our friends waiting up there.
By making that decision and not sending the Changing Corners, I had a real breakdown. The endless power and force I had been full of seemed to slip away. My muscles felt so tired and I was having a hard time climbing 5.11.
Lynn, on the other hand, was blowing it up the higher we got. She felt so comfortable on this route again, her route in some way, and she climbed weightless and totally free. At the belay of the upper headwall pitch, a 12c, I had to force myself to put it all together. Lynn was once more so positive and although I felt beaten, I wanted to give it my all one last time. Sending that pitch was so hard for me. But seeing Lynn climb it in such a fine style made me cry when she reached the belay.
It was truly amazing to see Lynn back in her element and doing what she loves most in life. She led the last bit up to the famous tree on the summit and I followed with the bags. The entire crew was there waiting as the sky turned a million shades of gold, orange and red in the evening light. Lynn took me in her arms and we both cried. Tears full of joy, coming out of our tired bodies.
I can’t remember the last time I cried, but it was stronger than me, this emotion of offering the most beautiful present to my friend Lynn for her 25thanniversary.
While writing this story, tears are running down my face…again! Those tears are real, connected to this beautiful human adventure we went through. And no matter how I continue this Nose thing (once my body feels ok again), I already feel like a winner.
At the bottom of my heart I feel honored for the month I spent with Lynn. It has been so incredible, and the climbing was pure fun and enjoyment. I felt great to be at Lynn’s side – she has this magic that makes her so special. I grew a lot and I think that I gave her a lot as well: my follies, my way of being positive and optimistic, my self-irony and my big drive to reach a goal.
Now she has returned to her life, kid and pets in Boulder, and I’m going to do my best to keep up that “Lynn” magic.
Follow Nina on Instagram.