Jorg Verhoeven took a relaxed sip of water from his bottle, having just come from Amsterdam where he set the final routes for the Dutch Lead Nationals. He’s a little shorter than we expected – though of course professional climbers are rarely tall. His foldable bicycle was rested against one of the tables in the bar of Monk bouldergym in Eindhoven. Later that night he’d be giving a talk about his trip to the USA at this gym. He was quick to mention he felt tired, from all the travelling and the route setting. But with the Dutch Nationals and the opening of his brother’s bouldergym ‘Kei’ coming up over the weekend, it didn’t look like Jorg would get the chance to rest any time soon. Fortunately he did squeeze the interview with Siked! in his schedule, to talk about…The Nose of course!
You’ve managed to make quite a few headlines recently…
Actually I was quite surprised by this myself as well. Of course I knew what I was getting into, but the first reactions from Camp 4 especially were quite funny. At first I was a total stranger, some weird guy baking pancakes every morning. Then all of a sudden I was the weird guy who free climbed The Nose!
After my send, I put a message about the climb on Facebook. Then after two days time I noticed that 100.000 people had seen the post! I was quite surprised and took a minute to spell-check the post again. Other than that I’ve pretty much just let the thing run its course, I didn’t really seek out the media. After the climb all my energy was gone, not even from being physically tired; the climbing was actually quite relaxed. The Nose basically consists out of short bouldery sections that don’t wear you out that much. Mentally however, I was entirely exhausted.
The first three days after the ascent I sat around in the Valley and ate more than I ever had done before. Usually I lose some weight during a trip like this, since it’s hard work: walking with material, applying rope techniques, rappelling down, hauling bags and the climbing of course. I would normally lose around five kilos, however this time I gained five! After the send I drove down to Bishop, climbed one boulder and jumped into a hot spring.
You posted on Facebook that you had a hard time finding a belaying buddy…
Finding someone to belay me was hard yes. Everyone I asked was like: “yeah I think I’d want to do that”, but I was looking for someone who would really enjoy it and not someone who tags along because he has to. Then finally I found a guy who had been hanging around in the valley for a couple of weeks and he was totally psyched to get on the wall. He simply loved being on El Capitan!
Still, belaying is kind of a menial task in a situation like this. I did tell him to bring along his climbing shoes, to toprope some pitches, since I wanted to lead every single pitch. But in the end he didn’t climb at all and he was totally fine with it. I brought two portaledges and totally stocked up on food and water. He told me he had never had an all-inclusive stay on the wall like this before. I was really nervous most of the time, while he was just chilling out a bit and having a good time. It was great to have a belaying buddy like that.
You took it upon you to climb one of the most iconic routes in the world. Was this not an incredibly hard goal, mentally?
The Nose was a project I thought I’d complete over the course of multiple years and I really did believe I would finish it eventually. This belief actually surprised a lot of Americans. They’d ask me if I’d make it eventually, and I would answer that I thought my chances were really good. They found that hard to understand, maybe a tad arrogant. However, my thoughts were: I worked hard for this and I know I can do the two hardest pitches. Of course something can always go wrong, but then I’d just come back next year.
What was the moment you realized you were going to complete this route?
Changing Corners is one of the crux pitches and it’s the pitch that scares most people. A lot of strong climbers did try it for an hour and concluded they would never make it.
The pitch starts with a dodgy bit of straight wall, after this you encounter an edge and then there’s a corner. This corner contains some pin scars where you can just fit your fingers. The Yosemite granite is extremely slippery; most people who first climb on it are caught off guard by that. If Changing Corners was a pitch on sandstone, it would have been a 7c at most. The slippery surface makes it really hard to do any moves, there are almost no footholds. First you have to get into the corner, then you have to manage to stay there. It can probably be compared to an 8A boulder like “Duel” (in Fontainebleau), at a height of 900 meters.
Every day I started working on the moves first thing in the morning. The sun exposes the wall fairly early, making the pitch impossible to climb. At 9 or 10 I had to stop working on the moves and climb back up. The crux is only about seven meters long, so I would try the moves like two or three times and then get fed up with it. The cold and the exposed nature of the wall made resting impossible.
After four mornings I knew I was ready. I then spoke to Tommy Caldwell, who told me he had worked on the pitch for ten days and thought I should just put some extra time into it. Lynn Hill also told me I’d be hanging around in the corner for weeks on end and not be able to make any sense of the moves. Both of them had advised me to work on the hardest moves of the route from the top of the wall. My initial plan was to start from the bottom and then work out all moves going up. Tommy and Lynn warned me this would take far too much time. They also advised me to camp out on top of El Capitan, where I ended up spending quite a few nights.
When the moment of truth had emerged, I climbed the first 21 pitches in a single day so I could start The Great Roof as fresh as possible the next day. I climbed that pitch on the first try! On the third day I also managed to finish Changing Corners. I almost made that pitch in one try, but fell during my first burn. Finally I completed the pitch on the third go and then made it to the top of El Cap.
In the end I had a good plan and I was well prepared. I was full of energy and I was convinced I could make it. You also need a bit of faith, regardless of whether you actually make it. An infinite supply of motivation is vital for completing a project the size of The Nose. I spent three weeks walking around, hauling water and material, and stashing it on the wall. It’s nothing but hard work. I rappelled down the entire Nose twice by myself, one time hauling as much as 40 kilos of gear. It’s really no walk in the park. At those times it’s incredibly important to keep thinking of your goal and retain your motivation and energy.
Before you set off for Yosemite, you climbed some boulders in Colorado. Would you say this was the right preparation for climbing a big wall?
Climbing boulders in Colorado actually turned out to be a good thing. Back home I thought about how to best prepare for The Nose. I realized I would not have a whole lot of time to prepare before I would go bouldering in Colorado with Katha (Jorg’s girlfriend, fellow climber Katharina Sauerwein). Any specific training I could have done for El Cap at home would have been rendered useless after bouldering outdoors for a month anyway. In the end, outdoor bouldering may just have been the best preparation possible.
We also walked a lot in Colorado, since the boulders are situated pretty high up there. This resulted in me being in pretty good shape overall. The explosive power that comes with bouldering came in really helpful for the key sections of The Nose.
To climb on Yosemite’s slippery granite, you need the proper technique and feel for the rock, but you actually learn this after climbing there for a few days. Then the challenge of the route is really just short bouldery sections, sometimes even single moves. The Nose is really a bunch of short and weird bouldery sections.
“I spent about five weeks in Yosemite. You’re only allowed to stay there for 30 days. After my permit expired, I first hid on the wall and then when I came down I registered as Wolfgang Gullich (a German climbing legend) to avoid being kicked out of the park.”
So you free climbed the Nose, which is a different thing from redpointing a route like we’re used to in Europe. Can you explain the difference?
The difference between these two styles is unclear to a lot of people. I even find it hard to explain it myself, but the most important thing to remember is the amount of freedom climbers have here. In big wall and alpine climbing, there’s a lot more freedom in determining your exact style for an ascent, more so than in sport climbing and bouldering.
What’s most vital, is that climbers are clear about how exactly they completed an ascent. There are some guidelines, but I feel people are too quick to judge. People who haven’t climbed a big wall before make accusations, without knowing what the climber did exactly, or even knowing what big wall climbing is like. I heard about the discussion on the internet concerning who free climbed The Nose. Do these people have nothing better to do? It’s actually more interesting to me to think about why there’ve only been so few people who succeeded, regardless of the exact number.
Free climbing The Nose is often attempted, but numerous strong climbers are turned off by the style of the route. Another often heard complaint is that there’s too many people on the wall. But then why not try the route in November? You really shouldn’t climb The Nose in September when all the aid climbers are there, moreover it’s far too warm then anyway. Perhaps strong climbers also think the route takes too much effort. The Prophet has seen four ascends in about five years. Climbers may be scared of The Nose because it has this reputation of being a weird and dodgy climb. The route contains a lot of hard and weird boulders and the most difficult sections are situated near the top of the wall. If you ask me The Nose comes down to two boulder sections, seven meters each.
I’ve made it my goal to stimulate people to try The Nose, because it’s such a cool route to free climb. It really is the line on El Cap. When you drive into the valley and the treeline opens up, the first thing you see is The Nose. There isn’t another line that has this much significance: it’s the first route on El Cap and should receive far more attention from strong climbers for that reason alone. Perhaps we will return next year to shoot some quality video footage. Climbers like good beta-videos. And there’s a chance people will think: if this competition climber from Flatland can do it, maybe I can do it as well!
I think every strong boulderer can climb The Nose in the end. It’s just a matter of how much effort you put into it. With the right beta and a motivated climbing buddy the route can even be climbed far more quickly.
You mentioned it’s important to be clear and open about your exact climbing style for a send like this. How did you free climb The Nose?
Let me explain how I did it, and what Tommy and Lynn advised me to do. First of all it’s important to start at the bottom of the wall. A free climb starts at the bottom and ends at the top. Between those two points it’s vital to free climb every pitch, and not go back down or up to the top of the wall in between pitches. This means you need to bring all your supplies, or you could’ve stashed them on the wall beforehand. Naturally, there are some exceptions: if you run out of water two pitches before the top, it may be excusable to fetch some water from up top. Still, there’ll be discussions about a situation like this – whether people should bother or not.
Second, I think it’s important to do more or less the same thing as your predecessors. You can really make things a lot easier for yourself this way. It’s your own principles that should be the decisive factor in the end. Climbers should be honest, both with themselves and the general climbing community. There’s one climber, Scott Burk, who worked on the moves in The Nose for 260 days and free climbed every pitched in the end, except for The Great Roof. He toproped that hard pitch. It’s mind-bending why anyone would want to toprope a pitch like that. The roof is virtually horizontal, making toproping just about as hard as leading it. For me, I considered it a strict rule to lead every pitch.
Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden climbed the route together in 2005. People were quick to note that this meant Beth didn’t lead every single pitch. You should consider though that leading every pitch is nearly impossible in a scenario like that. The first climber would have to lead the pitch, then climb back down. The second climber then leads the pitch and climbs the next pitch as well. Then gear is hauled up and the whole process is repeated, for as much as 32 pitches! I really don’t care if climbers complete 6a pitches using a toprope. I had the opportunity to lead every pitch and was very glad about that. However, it was my original goal to just lead the hardest pitches, which is exactly what Beth did as well. As far as I know she led all pitches 7b and harder. For that reason, I wouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge her free ascent.
Does the route on The Nose also contain the King Swing, and would an artificial traverse like that fit within the free climbing ethics?
Free climbing The Nose actually doesn’t include the King Swing, and to be totally honest I never tried the swing. Avoiding that section turned out to be pretty handy, it enabled me to overtake a fair amount of climbers who diverted to the swing.
As I explained before, free climbing ethics is a very gray area, one has to be careful not to be too quick to judge. When I wrote on Facebook I took the fourth ascent of the route, I did that based on what Tommy told me. He mentioned that Lynn, Beth and he had done it before me. Back then I didn’t even know about Scott Burk. In the end I think it doesn’t really matter. But if you pressed me for an answer, I’d say he didn’t free climb the route, and I even think he admitted this himself. He said he really would have wanted to lead through The Great Roof.
Then there’s the discussion about using preplaced gear or not. The Great Roof contains a lot of fixed gear, and it’s hard to get back in the pitch since it’s 45 meters long and traverses for a fairly long distance. This means it’s hard to remove your gear from the pitch. If you fall, you just try to get back to the start of the pitch, pull your rope and leave the gear hanging in the wall. If you stuck to the principle of placing all gear yourself each time, you’d be on it for such a terribly long time, being unable to use any of the fixed gear already present. I think this is exactly where bigwall climbing allows for some freedom.
Similarly, Changing Corners allows for some discussion. You start from Camp 6, climbing a large crack upwards for about 15 meters, where you encounter a small alcove. You can sit here using no hands. The topo for El Cap shows a belay station here, because the pitch would be too long and you may run out of rope otherwise. Changing Corners starts directly from here. By using this rest and two good bolts, you don’t return to Camp 6 if you fall, but to the no-hands rest. You are then able to try Changing Corners again, which is how I did it. The first time I did start from Camp 6 and then slipped from the last foothold. I then rested in the alcove and tried again. From the rest there, the climb goes upwards for five meters, where you find a bolt. You clip it and then climb back down the crack, traversing to the right from the crack afterwards. At this point you’re practically climbing on toprope, which is pretty comfortable, but of course you did clip the bolt yourself. You then climb to the next bolt, which is at the same height as the first bolt. Then you get to the crux section, where you go around the corner. Climbing up in the corner is a pretty dodgy section. I didn’t want to bring an extra friend, making the final moves in the fingercrack quite scary. Tommy told me he was also terrified at that point. The rock is very slippery, and it’s a long way down if you fall. You’re just so happy when you make it out of there!
Again, plenty of room for debate. When I was climbing though I didn’t think about this at all. I do think about ethics a lot otherwise. As my interest was shifting towards alpine climbing, I’ve always pondered the style I wanted to use for climbing and opening routes, and what I wanted to accomplish with it. I certainly have an opinion about what’s not agreeable. For instance, placing bolts in high alpine areas because people are scared isn’t acceptable. Still, it’s so hard to judge.
Do you consider yourself to be an ambassador for climbing The Nose?
It’s such a shame that about 500 to 600 aid-climbers attempt to take on The Nose, of which about half don’t make it, while the route is hardly ever free climbed. Everyone’s trying to establish their own line or variation of a route on El Cap, but no one seems to remember that The Nose is such an awesome line. I’m trying to get this classic back in the picture. The route’s more than worthy of that. People are going to be so excited when they put some effort into it and climb it in the end, mark my words.
One of the things that amazed people on American online forums was the fact that you climbed The Nose on La Sportiva Solutions, a very downturned shoe!
If I had climbed the entire route on Solutions I really wouldn’t have any feet left at all. Both crux sections involve very subtle, slippery and miniscule footholds. I tried Changing Corners wearing slightly more comfortable shoes once, because my feet hurt so much. That didn’t quite work out. Fortunately enough La Sportiva’s American office was more than happy to send me a new pair of shoes. I ended up sending Changing Corners wearing a brand new and tiny Katana Lace on my right foot. I needed that shoe for the footholds that were the size of a peanut and required an extremely stiff sole. For my left foot I was wearing a small and old Solution, which I’d worn during comps. It’d been decently broken in, making it perfect for smearing on the wall. The combination of these two shoes was killer.
By the way, I don’t think choice of shoes is the main reason people have such a hard time with Changing Corners. The problem is really not having the slightest idea of what to do at first. I spent five minutes dangling in front of the wall searching for footholds. In the Great Roof I marked every single hint of a foothold with a tickmark the size of my thumb. Other climbers found this quite amusing. It did help me a lot though, while climbing the marks looked like a proper foothold when really they weren’t. Sometimes it’s useful to deceive yourself.
Will you be focusing on bouldering or on bigwalls in the future?
I’m not sure really. Right now my focus is on bouldering. It’s hugely popular in the USA right now. Of course there’s plenty of sport climbings areas like Red River Gorge, but the bouldering areas are really the ultimate destination for Europeans coming to the USA. And then of course there’s Yosemite and the Moab desert towers, which are unlike anything found in Europe. I’m thankful to be able to consume whatever an area has to offer me. Yosemite does offer some options for bouldering and I even tried a few. But honestly, El Cap is unique and not found anywhere else. And it’s just by the side of the road. I find it incomprehensible that climbers would come to Yosemite and not try El Cap. The wall’s so incredibly accessible, you’d be crazy not to give it a try.
Our next trip will be all about bouldering, since Katha is not such a fan of bigwalls. She’s a bit scared of them, there’s too much wind and she doesn’t want to sleep on a portaledge.
Finally, what’s on your bucket list for when you return to Yosemite? You’ve already climbed the most iconic route of them all after all…
There’s about 150 routes on El Cap, of which 15 can be free climbed. These aren’t even all unique routes. It’s my ultimate dream to establish my own route on El Cap that can be free climbed, now that there’s still some room. In ten years this probably won’t be possible anymore. It’s hard already to find a single continuous line that can be free climbed in its entirety. There’s large sections of the wall that are totally point blank and impossible to climb. It’d be so awesome to open my own route. I think this was secretly always a bigger goal for me than free climbing The Nose.
Interview by: Bram Berkien & Paul Kaufman
Photo’s by: Jorg Verhoeven or provided by Jorg Verhoeven.