Paul Piana heard the grinding of granite on granite before he saw the boulder begin to move. He watched as his climbing partner and friend, Todd Skinner, disappear over the edge. Piana felt a crushing pain in his leg as the rock then squeegeed him over the edge behind Skinner. When Piana stopped spinning, he hung from his climbing rope in the air, waiting for the inevitable pull that would drag him after Skinner and to their death thousands of feet below.
Instead he heard a raspy command: “Get the rope.”
The day before, June 15, 1988, Piana and Skinner had sprinted up the last rope lengths — known as pitches — of the Salathé Wall, completing the first free-ascent of the climb on Yosemite’s El Capitan after more than 30 days of effort.
They’d savored the moment only briefly before descending to their last cliffside camp, and their gear, a few pitches below, before it became dark.
They celebrated the ascent, which many had believed to be impossible, by drinking extra water.
“It was done,” Piana said. “We’d done it. Our dream had come true.”
They’d free-climbed what was considered at the time one of the hardest rock climbing routes in the world.
The next day they climbed to the top again to haul up their gear. They tethered their ropes to the massive rock climbers always used at the top as an anchor. Piana supplemented the natural bulwark with a Friend — a camming device inserted into a crack in the stone monolith — and in a spasm of extra caution also tied off to an old piton — a metal spike hammered into the stone.
Upon Skinner’s arrival at the top, Piana removed the Friend. That’s when all Hell broke loose. The stone anchor slowly slid toward Skinner who didn’t have room to move out of its way. It knocked him wildly over the edge and crushed Piana’s leg before he, too, tumbled behind Skinner. It was the end, Piana thought. Then the breathy command from the abyss.
Piana painfully pulled himself up and watched as a bloody hand on a crushed mechanical rope ascender slid up the dangling line and into view. Skinner had broken his ribs and his pelvis. Piana’s leg was broken in five places.
Luck saved them, Piana said. Skinner’s ascender had prevented the rock from cutting his rope when it rolled over it. And the old piton Piana had clipped them to held fast.
From there the descent, which normally takes less than two hours, took them seven. They had only one rope. Piana couldn’t walk on his own, or even crawl, so he crab-walked with his broken leg extended in front of his body.
Thirty years after Piana and Skinner’s first free ascent of the Salathé, people talk about the significance of the climb.
Outside magazine said in a 2016 article that Skinner and Piana “redefined what was possible on Yosemite’s biggest walls” and that before the two tackled it, “no one had climbed such mind-boggling difficulty in such an outrageous position.”
When Piana, thinks about it, he marvels that the two climbers survived the accident at the top.
June 15 marks the 30th anniversary of the climb that many credit with ushering in a new era of free-climbing on Yosemite’s big walls. The route is now a target for speed records. Some high-end climbers complete it in mere hours. Even recreational climbers claim free ascents on the wall on weekends.
“It’s just a nice, long, hard climb now,” Piana said.
But in 1988 Piana and Skinner were on the edge of a frontier.
Free climbing involves ropes that save climbers if they fall. But the sport doesn’t use equipment to aid in the actual climbing. Skinner and Piana were always free climbers, Piana said. He grew up in Newcastle and learned to climb in the nearby Black Hills, which didn’t lend themselves to pitons or other aid devices that climbers might use to pull or stand on. When he and Skinner became climbing partners while at the University of Wyoming they both adopted an affinity for free climbing and notching first ascents.
Piana doesn’t remember when they set their eyes on the Salathé. The route up Yosemite’s famous El Capitan, a rock monolith that rises almost 3,000-feet from the valley floor, was something they’d talked about for years.
Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost first climbed the Salathé Wall in 1961. Frost’s black-and-white images showed soaring cracks, silver-toned dihedrals and an overhanging wall. Trees below the wall looked like miniature plants from above. And then there was the single crack threading the headwall.
“The headwall crack is what makes the Salathé,” Piana said. “It was magic. It looked like such a great adventure.”
They listened to the skeptics who said it would never go; that at least a few of the pitches were impossible to free climb. They watched other climbers attempt free ascents with varying degrees of success. Skinner even made attempts, planned too late for Piana to join.
Max Jones and Mark Hudon came the closest to a free ascent in the 1970s. They made breakthroughs on the climb and eventually freed all but a few hundred feet. If they’d spent more time on it, Piana thinks they would have claimed the first free ascent.
Instead they paved the way for Skinner and Piana.
Piana and Skinner arrived in Yosemite in May of 1988. They guessed it would take them about two weeks to conquer the wall. Ultimately they required more than 30 days to complete their 35-pitch route. Much of the time was spent on reconnaissance, studying the route and practicing moves on short trips on the wall.
They cached extra water and cans of beans at critical spots. When they ran out of food they held a yard sale in a parking lot, auctioning any item not critical to the climb. They sold enough to buy Pop Tarts, Snickers and cans of tuna. They weren’t going to leave until they finished.
The first pitches weren’t too bad, Piana said. Climbing difficulty is rated using the Yosemite Decimal System. The easiest climbs are rated 5.0 and today, go up to 5.15, a level of difficulty that didn’t yet exist in the 1980s. The first pitches of the Salathe required 5.10 and 5.11 climbing, considered hard at the time, but nothing beyond what Skinner and Piana had climbed before. But then the climbing grew more challenging. They’d go onto sections with 5.12 and 5.13 climbing — unimaginable for many in that era.
At times, it looked “improbable,” Piana said, even now refusing to say, or think, impossible.
They climbed sections where their hand-jams in the cracks, were so tenuous that Piana said he had to look to make sure they were actually solid. He wrote later in his book “Big Walls,” that “even a change in the blood pressure in Todd’s hand would see The Salathé flick him off and send him screaming far below the roof until the force of the fall would crash onto my belay anchors.”
There were nights when one or both of the climbers battled bouts of wavering confidence. They worried about injuries and the weather.
They read Louis L’Amour books to pass the time and doctored their hands. Day after day of climbing bludgeoned their forefingers. Their knuckles swelled. Sometimes, at the end of a day, their hands would be so tired they couldn’t close them to make a fist. Jamming their hands into small cracks and openings in the rock peeled back their cuticles. At night they’d superglue the skin back to the fingernail to keep it in place.
After weeks of scouting, caching, probing, experimenting and learning, the final push took nine days.
It was the hardest climbing Piana had ever experienced. It was also the “grandest climbing in the universe,” he said. “The beautiful, inspiring crack system splitting the sweep of the golden wall at the top of El Capitan — it’s one of the most overwhelming experiences a rock climber can have.”
Skinner and Piana went on to other important big climbs. They notched first free ascents around the world — from the Wind River Mountains to Greenland — until Skinner’s death in 2006 of a climbing accident in Yosemite.
Piana continues to climb and still finds new routes and challenges in the Black Hills near his home in Newcastle.
But in their storied careers, the free Salathé defines their legacy. It was “door-opening,” Piana said.
People began to look at El Capitan and other big walls and suddenly they could see the possibilities.