The granite burned my forehead. I slumped my body further onto the wall, hoping it would support me. I cried. For the past two hours I seared my finger tips on the hot rock of the Boulder Problem, a twenty-foot section of unforgiving crimps that guarded my path to free climbing El Capitan’s Freerider. I’d spent 16 days over the past year toiling, working, and wanting to send the route. It was destroying me. I stared across Yosemite Valley at Middle Cathedral, El Capitan’s dark brother. How do people complete these enormous routes?
The Dark Brother
For over two years, Mikey Schaefer worked on his mega project. From the Boulder Problem I watched Mikey toil on the cold rock of Middle Cathedral, pushing a line through immaculate slabs and onto the steep headwall of the northwest face. On his fortieth day of climbing, after hand-drilling 113 bolts from marginal stances, after questing on the wall searching for a free passage, after doing the majority of this work alone, Mikey summited. This was the beginning. The route needed to go free.
On Tuesday, October 9th, Mikey packed water, food, and supplies for a five-day free effort up his route, Father Time. At five foot four inches tall and a solid traditional climber, Mikey Schaefer is the type of short man that people look up to. My stoic friend needed a belayer, someone to hold the rope and help keep the energy high as he fought up the wall. I volunteered to follow him.
Back in the valley and right back to the #megaproj on Middle Cathedral. Lots of work ahead but at least the views are good! Looking over at El Cap. Photo: Mikey Schaefer (@mikeylikesrocks)
Mikey takes off with the author on belay. Photo: Jeff Johnson
Photo: Jeff Johnson
Mikey stepped on one foot, shifted his hips and stood up. From early morning until twilight, he performed this maneuver. The golden rock yielded to free passage with a series of mantels, delicate footsteps, and far too many one legged squats.
“Who established this route?” Mikey yelled. Fifteen feet below the bivy ledge, he danced on a series of small holds. A year ago, when he first climbed the pitch, he’d told himself the climbing was easy. Now the protection was far away and his feet were tired from a thousand feet of climbing. It suddenly felt impossible, and scary.
“You got it!” I held the rope carefully.
Mikey scraped his way to camp, a long three-foot wide sloping ledge below the headwall. Out of the haul bag came a bag of Cabernet, a six-pack of beer, an iPod full of This American Life and lots of chocolate. Mikey would stay on the wall until he freed the entire route. He was dedicated.
Instead of being cramped on a double ledge with Mikey for the wall, I rappelled down a thousand feet of fixed lines to the ground. I spent the night in his Mercedes Sprinter consuming all the Cabernet, beer, and chocolate he’d left behind.
The Boulder Problem
The second morning started cold and windy. The pitches off the ledge went smoothly, though we were dressed for the rough weather. After a steep roof section, Mikey belayed me to the base of the desperate climbing. The first crux pitch involved a series of heinous pinches, wrinkles for feet and 30 feet of hard moves. “It’s the Mikey Schaefer Pitch,” I said at the belay. “It’s short and hard as f***.”
Mikey tried the boulder problem six times. He grabbed the holds and froze off them from the cold weather. Then he tried again. After hours of work, his skin and muscles failed. He returned to camp, overwhelmed and unsure if he could climb the route at all.
That night, a storm passed through Yosemite. For two days, Mikey festered inside of the portaledge. He pulled the rain fly down and pretended he was in a different world. He listened to This American Life. He drank Cabernet. He hunkered down, waiting out the storm and preparing himself for the upcoming difficulties. I went down to the ground. Mikey stayed alone on the wall.
I feel like I’m floating aimlessly in a sea of granite. Photo: Mikey Schaefer
Mikey and James, 1,500 feet up, staring down the first 5.13 crux. Photo: John Dickey
The Boulder Problem a.k.a. the Mikey Schafer Pitch. Photo: James Lucas (@james_lucas)
Mikey throws to a relatively large jug while working the moves on the Boulder Problem a.k.a. The Mikey Schaefer Pitch. Belayed by James Lucas. Photo: Jeff Johnson
Day 3, a rainy rest day, complete on the wall and day 54 total on the #megaproj. Ready to try the crux again tomorrow! Photo: Mikey Scheafer
He grabbed the pinch, kept his body tight, hit the crimp, readjusted his feet and stabbed for the ear. In the second between holds, his body sagged. Two days of sitting in a portaledge, staring out a wet window weighed him down. He failed.
Mikey’s head froze against the cold rock. For the past two hours he had tried the Boulder Problem, grabbing the subtle pinch, snatching the crimp, and trying to stick the elusive ear hold. His fingers numbed and he fell. This twenty-foot section guarded his path to a free first ascent of the Northwest face of Middle Cathedral.
The way his body sagged when he hit the ear hold, how his fingers opened snatching the crimp, the sheer difficulty of the Mikey Schaefer Pitch suggested that Mikey might not be able to do it. I looked across the Valley to El Cap. We were about the same height as the Boulder Problem on Freerider.
“You can do it,” I said with a conviction I did not believe. Encouraged, Mikey tried again and again. With each attempt, he got closer.
On the eighth day, Mikey moved his feet a little differently. He grabbed a hold a few inches to the right. The move to the ear became easier. Suddenly, he stood on top of the Boulder Problem. Success.
The Athletic 12c
Mikey fired into the next pitch, a forearm-sapping layback flake. We called the pitch The Athletic 12c, an ironic note on how strong climbers call 5.13 pitches “athletic 12c.” At the end of the difficulties, he torqued his knee behind a flake, resting before the final hard moves to the anchors. He hiked the pitch and returned to camp successful. The line would go free.
Mikey casting off on the Athletic 12c. Photo: Sean Leary (@seanleary)
In the morning, I raced up the fixed lines to Mikey’s camp for the fifth and final time. The slabs to the portaledge passed quickly below my feet as I pushed my ascenders up the fixed lines. I stepped up to his camp and hit the stopwatch.
“29 minutes 45 seconds,” sweat poured down my face.
Mikey barely looked up, “I think my knee is jacked.”
Mikey pulled himself off the portaledge. Torqueing his knee on The Athletic 12c pitch, nine days sleeping on the wall, rationing five days of supplies into nine, and the endless effort of Father Time were taking their toll. Bright red stubble covered his face. His hair, salted with more white than I remembered, stood on end. Insanity crept into his eyes.
“You might need to lead some pitches.”
“Sure,” I said. I heard more than a request for a top rope in his voice. On the Index Corner, the last bit of the headwall, he had grabbed two wrinkles and nearly pulled the mountain apart to hike his foot half an inch. He had finished the Mikey Schaefer Pitch, The Athletic 12c. He needed to complete the route, to finish the mega project. There was just a little more but even the tiny bits were crushing him.
When we reached the highpoint, Mikey tied in. “I’ll try and lead this pitch.” He slowly climbed up a perfect corner. He winced as his knee turned in the crack. He kept going.
Mikey fought through the pain. He punched through another boulder problem and then held on through a final steep section of rock. We reached a large ledge two pitches from the top of Middle Cathedral. Two hundred feet of death blocks guarded the summit. The climbing wore through the last of Mikey’s mental reserves.
We clambered to the summit of Middle Cathedral. Mikey gave a tired smile, a reward that would last. Our headlamps lit the wall as we rappelled down to camp.
“I’m too tired to go down. I don’t think I can make the hike anyway.” Mikey hunkered into his portaledge. Tomorrow, he’d come down – worn, tired, and complete. As I descended, I stared across at El Capitan. The headlamp on Father Time shone across the Valley. The light hit the Boulder Problem. I’d try again. I’d stay committed. I’d put in the time. I’d climb like Mikey. I left the base of Middle Cathedral and walked towards El Capitan.
On October 21, 2012, Alex Honnold, supported by Stacey Pearson, made a one-day free ascent of Father Time and the second ascent. “It’s 5.13b, straight up,” reported Honnold. The route was attempted by Tommy Caldwell and Jonathan Siegrist on October 19, a day after Mikey finished. The pair climbed free up to the Index Corner, which Caldwell redpointed but Siegrist did not. They descended from that pitch.
More photos from the free ascent:
After nine days on the wall and nearly 60 days of effort spread over two years Father Time is officially finished! No longer the #megaproj now the #megaroute. So many people to thank that helped out: James Lucas, Kate Rutherford, John Dickey, Sean Leary, Patagonia, Josh Huckaby, Jeff Johnson and Ben Ditto. Photos: Mikey Schaefer
Mikey at the base of Father Time. Photo: Jenning Steger