After packing the last pieces of equipment, we drove from Bend, Oregon to Yosemite Valley to attempt the first free ascent of El Capitan’s North American wall. I was excited to finally get a chance to try free climbing a route on the overhanging East side of El Cap with my partners Pietro Dal Pra and Conrad Anker. A brilliant climber and mountain guide from Italy, Pietro would be our secret weapon for run out and loose rock. Learning to climb in the Dolomites was perfect preparation for climbing on the black diorite rock we would encounter on the steepest sections of the climb. Conrad, a big wall veteran, was familiar with our proposed line. He and I had tried to free climb the original aid route the season before but we were stopped by a blank section of rock. After doing the first ascent of another aid route to the right called the Continental Drift, he discovered what looked like a free variation that would eventually link up with the NA wall.
The three of us packed a load of heavy gear and water to the base of the wall, only to discover that our proposed route had been completely drenched by a virtual waterfall. This was the year of El Niño and the Valley had already been hit by several storms. Despite the fact that we wouldn’t be able to try free climbing the route on this trip, we started up the climb anyway. After climbing only a quarter of the way up the first pitch, we were soaked and discouraged so we retreated to the valley to regroup. We decided to climb a few classic Yosemite free climbs such as; Astroman, the Rostrum, and Higher Cathedral Spire.
Ironically, though we came to free climb a big wall, the most satisfying ascent of our trip took place on a 25-foot high boulder. Having climbed in the valley for over two decades, I spent plenty of time bouldering around Camp 4, but I had never done the most classic test piece called Midnight Lightning. Ron Kauk ad John Bachar worked as a team to try solving this boulder problem. Ron was the first person to do the original problem, but apparently a key hold broke off, making it even more difficult. John Bachar was the first person to do it in its current state. Because of its location, history, aesthetic appeal and difficulty, Midnight Lightning has become the most famous boulder problems in the world.
When I first saw this boulder problem, I didn’t think I would ever be able to climb it since it seemed desperately hard just getting off the ground! In fact, I never seriously tried it until 1995, nearly 20 years later when passing through Yosemite for a brief visit. On my first few attempts it became clear that in order to get my fingers behind the key lightning bolt shaped hold, I would have to jump up, out and over to catch this hold in the middle of an overhanging bulge. With limited time and strength, I quickly renounced my effort due to my apparent lack of power. By the time I had returned to the Valley a few years later in 1998, I was stronger, lighter and motivated to give it a serious try. After numerous attempts, I finally caught the lightening bolt hold with my elbow bent in just the right position, at exactly the right time with respect to my body position in space.
Later that year the Huber brothers came to Yosemite and did the first (mostly) free ascent of our proposed line and called it El Niño. If it weren’t for this storm that was considered a “natural disaster,” I may never have had the opportunity to do Midnight Lightening. Timing is everything.