After climbing my first El Cap route, I stumbled like a zombie back to my campsite Camp 4 at 9 p.m., hoping to just crash into my sleeping bag. Instead of finding my Walmart children’s tent with all my shit, there was a round rock pinning down a pink citation, telling me my campsite was illegal (it wasn’t) and that I had to go to the ranger HQ to pay a fine and retrieve my belongings.

Super bummer.

I spent the next four hours feeling like a criminal, filling out scary papers, having my fingerprints taken (I didn’t have any fingerprints, though, being a rabid rock fiend), and, at every turn, having this jerk-off officer dish out his own brand of verbal justice by reminding me that he was in the position of power and I was not.

In the first week of November, all the climbers left and the snows arrived. Camp 4 was empty and I was one of five people left.

In the last dozen years, all of this has completely changed. Now, by Halloween, all the aid climbers have left, and Camp 4 comes back to life with free climbers who are keen to take their sport-climbing-honed finger strength up onto the Captain.

Tommy Caldwell, after his most recent trip to Yosemite to see Adam Ondra on the Dawn Wall, put it this way: “I walk into Camp 4 now, and I know everybody. It’s really weird!”

Never before have there been as many free climbers on El Capitan all at once as there are this season, the fall of 2016. This year, it seems, marks the dawn of a new era for Yosemite. The old standards and old ideas about difficulty and what’s possible are being replaced by a new generation of gym- and sport-honed climbers who are embracing a new kind of adventure.

“There are probably six or seven different free routes being attempted on El Cap right now,” observed Caldwell a couple of weeks ago. “Several of them are my routes, which haven’t been repeated. I feel like, suddenly, it’s come into its age, or whatever. I spent the last 20 years climbing up there—it was just me, and the Hubers, and a handful of other people, occasionally. But suddenly, it’s like, a thing. It kind of makes me feel a little less crazy because I used to be like, ‘I think this is the coolest thing in climbing. Why isn’t everybody here?’ Now I think it’s starting to catch on.”

The old joke that European sport climbers would come to Yosemite with the cocksure certainty that their 8c-climbing selves would crush the Big Stone, only to find out that they couldn’t even climb 5.11 off-width and they would scamper back home to Europe with their tail tucked between their three-quarter-length manpris just doesn’t work anymore. You can’t make this joke anymore. It’s done. It’s retired.

A predominantly European faction of free climbers have dominated El Capitan this season.

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Jorg Verhoeven on the Dihedral Wall. Photo: Jon Glassberg LT11

Jorg Verhoeven came away with the second free ascent of the Dihedral Wall (5.14a), perhaps the second most-difficult and sustained free climb on El Capitan after the Dawn Wall.

Barbara Zangerl and Jacobo Larcher achieved the third free ascent of Zodiac (5.13d).

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Jacobo Larcher climbing the Nipple Pitch on Zodiac (5.13d). Photo: Jon Glassberg LT11

Pete Whittaker made a one-day free ascent of Freerider (5.12d), rope-soloing the route.

Marc-Andre Leclerc and Brette Harrington put in an impressive, near-free effort on El Corazon.

Robbie Philips sent the Pre-Muir (5.13d), his third free route on El Cap this year—the other two being Golden Gate and El Nino, completed this spring.

And, of course, Adam Ondra crushed the Dawn Wall (5.14d) last week for his very first El Cap free climb.

And Freerider has been sent by what seems to be nearly a dozen different climbers this year.

With this much action, reporting free ascents of El Capitan will soon begin to feel about as significant as another adolescent ascent of God’s Own Stone (5.14a) at the Red River Gorge.

“The climbers are almost like celebrities now,” says Caldwell. “It just feels so different now. All the rangers want your autograph. We went trick-or-treating in Ranger Town for Halloween, and they gave us hugs. Normally, I would be terribly afraid I was going to get arrested … but now I feel like I’m going to get invited in for dinner.”

Climbers getting invited into the rangers’ houses for dinner. … What’s next?

Yosemite climbing is moving forward at a breakneck pace. Aid climbers, move over. This is the dawn of a new era—one that’s not going to involve standing in stirrups and using fifi hooks. Look carefully on the side of the road. There’s the carnage of all the old, tired egos, tossed to the side of the freeway like road kill, still clinging to the day when their standards were the height of climbing world and not the new warmups.

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  • Mikey Schaefer

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time dangling around on the Capitan this fall. This is surely the most impressive free climbing season I’ve ever seen up there. So cool to see all of the routes get the traffic they deserve. Truly amazing. And Andrew, your observation that the efforts were dominated by Euros was spot on. ‘Merica needs to represent!

    A couple observations though, the amount of trash and abandoned ropes on Freerider is astonishing. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again El Cap is unfortunately becoming the Everest of rock climbing. Fixed ropes, fixed camps and trash are becoming more and more normal. I believe there has to a breaking point to this approach and I hope that we are reaching it. It has been proven time and time again that the mountain is free climb-able with this tactic. Dare I say the next logical challenge is alpine style free climbing. No fixed ropes, and no fixed camps. I think that would really be the dawn of a new era.

    • RANGER DANGER

      Mikey, I agree. The alpine style ascent is hopefully a thing of the near future. One thing that will promote this is that established free routes need to stay in free climbing shape so that truly ground up free ascents are possible. Adam, just like Robby and most others climbing on seldom repeated free routes have spent a fair amount of time going top down first on fixed ropes before going from the the ground up. For the reporting aspect, some people don’t report their free-climbs on El Capitan because they don’t support the mass media attention it generates and the popularity that ensues. El Cap is supposed to be a wilderness area even though NPS continues to corrupt Yosemite through their contracts with prison vendors and mass wilderness exploitation. As far as fixed ropes are concerned, it seems the industry isn’t in the least ashamed to use them for making films. “Friendly rangers” will inevitably turn a blind eye to this so long as it is en vogue, but the days of climbing permits and outlandishly expensive commercial use permits are without question in the works.

  • Harald Swen

    Don’t forget about Sébastien Berthe (Belgian) who made the first repeat of the Free Heart Route, a FFA by Mason Earl and Brad Gobright (except 1 move) from ’15. Thanks for the article, as well as the ones in Nat Geo which are exemplary.

  • Sean Patrick

    God I love this article. Keep on killing the shit out of it Bish. You are our greatest climbing writer.

  • Chris

    So after the verbal justice was done, the ranger invited Adam for dinner and gave him a hug too? 😀 Would’ve done his Karma good.

  • Paul Wolf

    It does seem like El Cap is becoming the Mt Everest of sport climbing.

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