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Mason Earle Breaks Down His First Free Ascent of El Cap’s Heart Route
Posted on July 10, 2015

Mason Earle and Brad Gobright add their names to the short list of climbers who have had the courage and vision to take on an El Capitan free-climbing first-ascent project. After months of work spread out over five years, the climbers finally stood on top of El Cap in Mid-June, after all the pitches were climbed clean.   During their six-day continuous ascent, temperatures in the valley soared, and the wet spring caused certain key pitches to pour with water.

A few weeks back, on June 17, Eddie Bauer climber Mason Earle completed the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Heart Route (V10 5.13b). The successful six-day big-wall climb was the result of five seasons of work and vision in a climbing partnership with Brad Gobright, who freed all but one move on the route. The scale of the accomplishment is massive, with a 27-pitch climb, including nine 5.13 pitches, twelve 5.11 pitches, and a crux horizontal dyno move on the sixth pitch that Earle rated at V10 or 5.13+. The route was first climbed in 1970 as one of the climbing mecca’s earliest big-wall routes, but it took forty-five years for a successful free ascent. Logistically, the team spent six days on the wall to complete the ascent, climbing during the day and bivying high on the wall at night. The climbing was complex but the gnarly crux was a sideways dyno, high above the deck, that Earle completed after seriously tweaking his shoulder on a previous try. We caught up with Earle after he landed in Chamonix, France, for his take on the exposed climbing, the Heart Route achievement, and making his second mark in the storied history of Yosemite climbing. —LYA Editor

Images by Ben Ditto

 Mason Earle jams his way out the Heart Roof, exiting the world of slabs below and entering the severely overhanging terrain that looms above.  Established in the 1970’s as an aid climb, the Heart Route now goes all Free! Mason Earle and Brad Gobright started piecing together the individual pitches to this new free climb five years ago and together with photographer team Ben Ditto and Cheyne Lempe committed to the wall for six days in early June to go for the send.

What first drew you to free climbing the Heart Route and when did you first visualize the project?

While climbing El Cap in 2009, I spotted a system of beautiful cracks and corners leading out of the left side of the massive heart-shaped recess in the middle of El Cap’s southwest face. The steep cracks I was looking at belonged to the Heart Route. In an off-the-radar ascent, done in impeccable style, Chuck Kroger and Scott Davis made the first ascent of this natural line in 1970. I think it was the 7th route up El Cap.

Describe the route and its significance in the history of Yosemite climbing.

The upper part of the Heart Route went free when Huber climbed “Golden Gate,” but everything below remained a forgotten aid climb. Exploring and establishing first ascents has always been the most intriguing part of climbing for me, so I started checking out the route as soon as I could. Having only two years of El Cap climbing under my belt at the time, it felt audacious to attempt a new free passage up a wall so central to climbing on Planet Earth. I figured that if I could visualize a free route through this steep face, then surely the Hubers or Tommy or Shipoopi had already investigated? I sometimes wonder if all the history and aura surrounding El Cap keep folks from looking at the wall with fresh eyes and exploring. In the fall of 2009, I enlisted the help of my good friend Brad Gobright, a strong climber who at the time was cleaning rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel. It wasn’t long before we were completely consumed by the project.

How many pitches was the climb, what was the most difficult pitch, and why was that the crux?

The route was 27 pitches in total, including five new 5.13b or harder pitches. Each of these pitches was heinous in its own way, although the hardest single moves were on the “Dub Step,” a difficult slab down climb to an outrageous sideways falling jump move.

What were the most mentally and physically challenging parts of the climb?

The biggest challenge during the final push was mostly mental for me. I had a cold the first couple days on the wall, and I also injured my shoulder about a week before we went on the wall, which ended up being excruciating. I was definitely in full battle mode up there. Brad, by contrast, was climbing the best I’ve ever seen him climb. We were all a little doubtful about whether or not I was going to be able to follow the final 5.13 arête!

The Heart Route route

Describe the difficulty of pitch 6 and the character of the climbing on the route.

The route, like any El Cap adventure, is a saga. The character of the climbing is varied. To start, there is techy low-angle climbing connecting the dots. Pitch 6 has the bonkers sideways dyno. The final pitch getting to Heart Ledge is a wicked blank slab that requires some true “dime edging.” The steepest climbing is in the middle of the wall, starting with the roof pitch. Above are three pitches of burly 5.13 and a 5.11R/X before the angle eases, and we join the Golden Gate pitches to the top.

During the six days on the wall, what was your biggest moment of doubt?

The first seven pitches of the free Heart Route, the “Heart Blast,” felt almost like a route in itself. With the Dub Step pitch, a long and tenuous traverse, and the slab getting to Heart Ledge, it was no joke. The majority of the free climbs on El Cap’s southwest face begin on the Free Blast, a 10 pitch 5.11. The Free Blast has become the go-to highway to access the different free climbing options overhead. We felt like there had to be a new, more direct way to access the Heart, and it became very important to us to find this passage. The biggest question marks on the route were on these pitches, and it was exhilarating to finally find the way.

What preparation and logistics were required for the climb?

We spent six days on the wall, with our camp set up right below the Heart Roof. With the intense heat and sun in the afternoon, this all-day-shade spot was a crucial location for our vertical base camp. On our summit day, we jugged several hundred feet to our high point, and then climbed the final eight pitches to the top.

Why was Brad such a good climbing partner for this mission?

He was fully dedicated to the project from day one, willing to put in the massive effort to make it all come together. I couldn’t have asked for a better dude to take on this project.

What were your thoughts or emotions when you completed the final pitch?

The final pitch of any El Cap route is a special thing. Totally exposed above the valley floor, worked to the core, slaying a dragon that has haunted me for five years: It’s a profound time and place.

How does it feel to have etched your name into such a storied climbing lineage in Yosemite?

It’s never been that important to etch my name into Yosemite climbing history. What makes me feel warm and fuzzy is to have created something—an exciting new path, an insanely exposed way to the top. Even if folks don’t ever climb it, well, it’ll be there.

 

Check out the technical Quantum T-Shirt Mason rocked on the Heart Route climb at eddiebauer.com.

Author: - Friday, July 10th, 2015
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