|Date of Ascent
Chuck Pratt, Tom
|First ever ascent. Instagram Post
|Todd Skinner, Paul Piana
|First free ascent. Rock & Ice Magazine
|First redpoint ascent.
|First female ascent. Video
|10th Feb 2011
|Hazel Findlay, Jonny Baker
|This marked Hazel’s fourth El Cap climb. Planet Mountain
John Salathe’s Impact on Yosemite
Since rock climbers first came to Yosemite in the late 1950’s, huge strides have and continue to be made in the sport. At the center of these advances, what seemingly every die-hard climber has been drawn to at one time or another, is El Cap. The legacy of many men and women are etched into these walls, but the story begins, not with the mythic figure of Royal Robbins – as many like to think – but with a Swiss immigrant by the name of John Salathé.
John Salathé came to Yosemite in the 1940’s. A blacksmith by trade, he invented the first carbon steel piton, a tool that more or less defined the climbing ceiling for years. Alongside Anton “Ax” Nelson and Allen Steck, Salathé is credited with completing the first ascents of Lost Arrow Spire and a route dubbed the Steck-Salathe on Sentinal Rock, the first big wall routes in Yosemite. These accomplishments and others earned Salathé a place in the unofficial rock-climbing hall of fame. But more importantly, he supplied future generations of climbers with the fiery inspiration to chase their goals.
The First Ascent
1961: Royal Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt
In 1961, a few short years after the first ascents of The Nose on El Cap (Warren Harding, 1958) and the Northwest face of Half Dome (Royal Robbins, 1957), the stage was set for a revolution. The biggest and baddest of formations already conquered, climbers were setting their sights on more challenging and technically difficult routes.
Royal Robbins, the grandfather of rock climbing, undertook what could only be compared to a holy crusade. His mission was to climb as much of these glistening walls as possible. In 1961, alongside Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt, Robbins approached the Southwest face of The Captain. Their intention was to climb a series of cracks that started just left of the main buttress. After six days, he and his team topped out on the nearly 3,500’ wall. He named the route the Salathé Wall in honor of his idol.
The Almost First Free Ascent
1979: Mark Hudon and Max Jones
Over the course of the next twenty years, the Salathé Wall saw repeat ascents from other talented climbers, each determined to expand upon the pitches that Robbins and co. had free-climbed. Still, nobody was under any illusion that it would ever go completely free. As the would-be FFA teams would discover, continuous and sustained difficulty over 30 pitches was no laughing matter.
In 1972, Peter Haan became the first man to rope solo the route. In 1975, climbers like John Long, John Bachar, Kevin Worral and Mike Graham started free-climbing select pitches lower on the route, piecing together what is now a stand-alone 10-pitch climb called The Freeblast Slab.
Mark Hudon and Max Jones came along at the end of the decade and free-climbed most of the route from the ground up, relying on aid to get them through only the most difficult pitches. This moment represented a monumental landmark in El Cap climbing; not only had the team accomplished an elite climbing objective and added numerous free pitches from 5.11 to 5.12+, they also put the first free ascent within arm’s reach.
The First Free Ascent
1988: Todd Skinner and Paul Piana
Then, in 1988, climbers Todd Skinner and Paul Piana topped out after nine days spent on the wall. They had successfully free-climbed the first major route on El Capitan. The grade was set at 5.13b/c, a rating that sent shockwaves through Yosemite and beyond.
Routes of equal or greater difficulty had, by this point, popped up all around the U.S. and Europe. Jean Baptiste Tribout freed To Bolt Or Not To Be, a 5.14a face route at Smith Rock, OR, in 1986. Grand Illusion, the first by-consensus 5.13b crack, had been established by Tony Yaniro at Sugarloaf near Lake Tahoe in 1979.
Without underplaying the free ascents of these routes, each of them are only single pitch climbs. The nature of Salathé Wall, by comparison, is worlds away from techy face climbing, or overhung finger cracks, for that matter; burly with a capital B, replete with slick cracks and, in the case of the crux pitch, overhung Yosemite offwidth. Take these qualities and extend them over 3,500 feet, no less than 30 pitches, the amount of strength and endurance necessary to climb it free becomes almost too much for the mind to comprehend.
The story of the Salathé Wall is a very special one. After the Salathé Wall went free, a tidal wave of first free ascents washed over El Cap. Lurking Fear (5.13c), Dihedral Wall (5.14a), Magic Mushroom (5.14a), just to name a few. This route, just like its namesake, was just the beginning.
The story that follows is etched in the living stone; it tells of the tenacity, passion and talent brought to Yosemite year after year; men and women with fire in their eyes and enough gall to dare the impossible. This is the lasting legacy of John Salathé.