Second Ascent of El Cap’s Prophet (5.13d)

posted by dpm on 11/23/2011


Sonnie Trotter with Will Stanhope has completed the second ascent of Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles’ El Cap free route The Prophet.  The route has quickly gained a reputation for being a serious endeavor due to many pitches of unprotected runouts, sometimes poor rock, and committing leads.  The A1 Beauty pitch, near the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan offers up the technical crux but is relatively well-protected. 

Sonnie and Will.  Photo: Sonnie's blog

In Yosemite Valley, a decade ago, I recall eavesdropping over Leo Houlding’s shoulder as he explained what would become his next project.  He chattered maniacally about attempting a new free route on El Cap from the ground up.  This was something that hadn’t been tried before, and for good reason.  The logistics of it are nightmarish.  Casting off into the unknown based on what was seen through a telescope from the valley floor with little idea if it even goes, could be considered dangerous.  And dangerous it was.  Their original ground up push in 2001 got them through multiple pitches of R-rated climbing as difficult as 5.13b.  It’s one thing to push through a runout knowing that safety lies above and entirely another to continue with no guarantees.  They eventually hit an impasse and were forced to retreat.  After ten years of effort and rappel inspecting the top of the route, Leo and Jason finally succeeded in the fall of last year.

The A1 Beauty crux pitch, a perfect splitter just a few hundred feet from the top of the wall.  Photo: Sonnie's blog.

When Sonnie and Will approached the route they wanted to attempt it in as much as the same style as the first ascent party.  Style is a big deal for Yosemite climbers and rightfully so.  There is a big difference between climbing the Nose in a four-day assault and climbing it in two and a half hours.  So, much like the Brits that came before them, they started from the ground in an effort to preserve the bold nature of the route.  Sonnie wrote on his blog,

I’m spending most of my days up on the sharp end on the most terrifying rock climb I’ve ever attempted.  I mean, honestly, I can’t remember the last time I backed off a 5.13b.  Sure, I’ve fallen off plenty of them, but never actually backed off, like crying for my mommy backed off.  But that’s what has happened now, 3 times.  I backed off the 4th 5.13a (E7) pitch once, and the 5th Screamer (E8) pitch twice.

I feel that Leo and Jason set a precedent here and I personally think that we have a responsibility to try and match their highpoint.  If we rappelled in and pre-inspected the entire route from the very beginning, I think we could have done it by now.  But, who cares.  This ground up business is where we are having the most fun, the greatest education, the deeper connection.  It’s been an enlightening challenge and one of the best months of climbing in my life.”

High on The Prophet.  Photo: Sonnie's blog.

Just like Leo and Jason, Sonnie and Will eventually rappelled in to inspect the upper half of the route and after a month’s work, Sonnie succeeded in a clean redpoint ascent.  Tragically, Will fell only once on the A1 Beauty Pitch preventing him from an immaculate ascent. 

In his most recent post Sonnie wrote, “5 weeks in the Valley, 5 failed ground up attempts, 4 days in Lake Tahoe, 2 days in Santa Cruz, and over 25 days climbing, hiking, rappelling, hauling and slogging.  El Cap is a glorious son of a bitch – that’s a fact.  And the Prophet, is one of the richest, most deeply rooted climbing experiences I have ever had, with a partner who’s got both a boyish charm, a man’s ambition, and a spirit that’s tougher than leather.  It was more like an expedition than a climbing trip.”

The entire story is written up in multiple posts with great pictures on Sonnie’s blog and Will's thoughts are shared on his blog.