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Lurking Fear

Like so many routes on El Capitan, the story of Lurking Fear began with the daring and, some would argue, idiotic temperaments of Yosemite’s Golden Age climbers; pioneers daring enough to judge a 3,000 foot cliff worthy of being climbed. Each of these stories ends with some ridiculously strong free climbers coming along to bag the FFA. True to formula, this is the history of Lurking Fear.


Big Wall


United States




19 pitches, 2,000’

First Ascent

Dave Bircheff, Phil Bircheff and Jim Pettigrew

Lurking Fear

Ascent Log

ClimberSuggested GradeDate of AscentNotes
Dave Bircheff, Phil Bircheff and Jim Pettigrew5.7 C21976First ascent of Lurking Fear
Alan Nelson, Dave Sessions
5.7 C21983Alan and Dave made the fourth ascent. There is no information on any previous ascents.
Steve Schneider, Alan Lester and Jeff Schoen5.7 C21995They free climbed most of the route apart from some of the thinner faces.
Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden5.13c2001Beth and Tommy became the first couple to free climb the route.

Climb Profile

First Ascent

1976: Dave Bircheff, Phil Bircheff and Jim Pettigrew

Lurking Fear is a 2,000 ft route on El Cap’s southwest face that was first climbed in 1976 by Dave Bircheff, Phil Bircheff and Jim Pettigrew. In keeping with the aesthetic of their generation, the party used a mixture of aid and free climbing tactics – free climbing what they could and hammering in pitons for the harder sections.

Phil Bircheff making the first ascent of Lurking Fear

On their first ascent attempt, a 4” wide crack on pitch 8 shut them down. Instead of merely driving wide-angle pitons (called bong bongs) into the crack and placing bolts on lead, they retreated back to the ground to retrieve what gear they would need to free climb the route. 

The team’s second ground up attempt ended after three days spent on the wall, the highlight being Pettigrew’s free ascent of pitch 8, a 5.10+ offwidth crack. The name “Lurking Fear,” according to Pettigrew, was inspired by an H.P. Lovecraft poem and is reflective of the pervasive sense of fear, ever present in the back of his mind, even during the party’s reprieve on the valley floor.

The (Almost) First Free Ascent

1995: Steve Schneider, Alan Lester and Jeff Schoen

Due to its long approach, relative to other popular routes on El Cap, Lurking Fear saw surprisingly few repeat ascents in the intervening 20 years. Then, in 1995, a lycra-clad and savagely strong Steve Schneider and his team, Alan Lester and Jeff Schoen, succeeded in free climbing 95% of the route. Some of the thinner face climbing on the first half of the route stood in the way of a completely free ascent. The last holdouts, pitches 2 and 7, were all that remained to be free climbed.

Alan Nelson on Lurking Fear
Alan Nelson chilling on a bivy while he makes the 4th aided ascent in May 1983 with Dave Sessions

The First Free Ascent

2000: Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden

In 2000, Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden – at that time the new power couple in climbing, both in and out of Yosemite – decided to test their meddle on Lurking Fear. Caldwell had arrived in the valley that spring to attempt to free the Muir Wall, but was forced to change his objectives when his partners bailed. Instead, he and Rodden turned their attention to the captain’s southwest face.

The pair, still new and timid around one another, couldn’t quite get used to the close quarters of life on a big wall. In an effort to preserve some shred of magic in their relationship, when nature called, one would quickly climb a pitch to give the other one some privacy.

Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell on Lurking Fear
Beth and Tommy on Lurking Fear @CoreyRich

It took the couple seven days just to send pitch 2 – the technical crux of the route at 5.13c – but once it was done, their progress went uninterrupted until pitch 7. The intervening pitches feature, in Caldwell’s own words, “Some of the best climbing in the valley. A pitch of tricky face climbing followed by three pitches of beautiful 5.12 thin cracks…”

Pitch 7, a slabby and seemingly blank traverse pitch, kept them occupied for three days, alone, before it was conquered. Then, once more, they went unchallenged until pitch 11, a weird and beta intensive line that dances around the lip of a roof shared with the West Buttress; a section called the Grand Traverse. Steve Schneider, apparently, gave Tommy and Beth some key pointers on how to navigate this tricky section. “If you first traverse beneath the roof and then follow a crack above the roof, a sit-down rest appears. After catching your breath, you traverse a few feet above the lip, downclimb back under the roof for a few undercling moves, and finally finish the pitch with yet more great slab climbing.”

Due to a case of heat exhaustion from attempting to climb the route in May, they were forced to retreat to the valley floor before they could top out. They returned in short order and completed the route, climbing another tough 5.12+ pitch and a heinous overhanging 5.11d off-width before reaching easier slab terrain near the top. 

Header image: ©Cheyne Lempe

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Born and raised in Northern Vermont, Zak's parents were hardcore adventurers, and the appearance of a child in their lives did not slow them down much. Each summer, they would toss him and an assortment of gear in the truck and gun it for the American West. After his first year at college, Zak applied for a job in Yosemite National Park, and for the next decade, he worked seasonally in Yosemite and on the Sierra Eastside, doing whatever he could to be close to those mountains. Currently, Zak lives on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, piecing together a living as a climbing guide, bartender and writer.

Moonlight Buttress
Salathé Wall

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