Interview with 28-year-old Canadian rock climber Bronwyn Hodgins who this spring made a free ascent of the 5.13a big wall Golden Gate on El Capitan in Yosemite.
From the 5th to the 13th of May 2021 the Squamish-based Canadian rock climber Bronwyn Hodgins completed a free ascent of the big wall Golden Gate on the SW Face of El Capitan in Yosemite, freed by Germany’s Thomas and Alexander Huber in summer 2000. In doing so Hodgins has become only the third woman to successfully free climb all 34 pitches; the first to have achieved this feat was Britain’s Hazel Findlay a decade ago, while Emily Harrington made a repeat in 2015 before returning in 2020 for her milestone single-day ascent. Hodgins’ ascent is all the more remarkable because she only took up climbing properly eight years ago!
Bronwyn congratulations! How did you come up with the idea of climbing Golden Gate?
The idea of freeing Golden Gate really blossomed at the end of summer 2020. I was feeling fit and strong after a great summer season on Squamish granite, my hometown. It had been two years since I’d sent Freerider and become the first Canadian woman to free climb El Capitan. I felt motivation building for another big goal and Golden Gate was the obvious progression — instead of Freerider’s one 5.13 crux, Golden Gate has four!
And 34 pitches!
At 34 pitches, Golden Gate is a huge undertaking! Though most of the pitches are more moderate, the route really boils down to four 5.13a (7c+) cruxes. The challenge becomes staying fresh enough to be able to execute these hard pitches, all of which are located in the top half of the route! I found the cruxes really difficult, especially the Downclimb (pitch 19) and the Move (pitch 24), as both are fiercely bouldery. I had to strategically redpoint these two pitches and really pull out the “try hard” when it counted!
You climbed in a single 8-day push. Did anything surprise you?
Sending the downclimb was the first surprise. I spent two days camped at this pitch on the push. It turned out to have the hardest individual move on the route for me and I was thrilled, and somewhat in disbelief, when I made it through on day 4! I surprised myself again one day later at the next crux: the Move pitch. In the weeks prior I’d rapped in from the top to rehearse this pitch, but I’d still never sent it. I set off at dusk, climbing through all the hard parts only to have a foot slip at the top! I put on a headlamp and sent next try. I was ecstatic! With the two hardest pitches behind me, the realisation that I might actually pull the whole thing off was all too real.
Who were you climbing with?
Danford Jooste. I actually met him only days before we set off! I had a couple of good friends recommend him and link us up. He turned out to be an incredible partner for the mission — easy going, psyched, and very supportive!
Free climbing on El Cap is really special
Yeas! Perfect granite and complete with all styles, from crack to slab to offwidths to crimps. Golden Gate shares its first half with Freerider and then cuts right up the seemingly blank and gradually steepening wall. It looks so unlikely that the line would go free, but little crimps or pockets seem to appear exactly where you need them when the macro features fade out.
Can you still remember your first big wall in Yosemite?
How could I forget! In May 2014 Jacob Cook (my boyfriend now husband) and I climbed The South Face of Washington Column, an 11-pitch route which took us a whopping four days! I’d only been climbing for a year and a half. Teaching ourselves all the big wall systems, we had many rope tangles and I definitely broke down in tears more than once! But we stubbornly pushed on to the summit. It was exhausting, humbling and empowering all at once.
So what has taken you to this point?
For the past seven years I’ve built my life around climbing, and for the past three years I managed to do it full time. But it’s not just about volume. Every time I go climbing, I get on things that are hard for me. The focus is always on pushing myself, learning and improving. My husband Jacob has also been a huge inspiration. He repeatedly sets outrageously ambitious goals and scrapes through with success more often than not! His belief in me too has always amazed me and dared me to dream bigger, and open my mind for what might be possible!
What’s your biggest asset?
Perseverance and just trying really freakin’ hard! For Golden Gate specifically, I think a huge factor in my success was my ability to turn on the intense focus required to quickly redpoint very near to my physical limit. I didn’t have excess energy to flail at the cruxes up there. I needed to send in as few goes as possible, separated by strategic resting. This put an immense amount of pressure on each attempt, but I tend to do well under stress and that knowledge gave me the confidence I needed.
Looking back to that first visit to Yosemite: did you ever believe a feat like climbing Golden Gate free would be possible?
No. Not because I’m one to set limits, but because something like Golden Gate was so far out of reach at that time, I never would have considered it. I started climbing shortly before my 20th birthday. I’m now 28. It’s been a wild and exciting journey to get here!
BIG WALL FREE CLIMBS
• Golden Gate (5.13b, 34 pitches), El Capitan, Yosemite, May 2021 (third female ascent)
• Freerider (5.13a, 32 pitches), El Capitan, Yosemite, Nov 2018 (first Canadian woman to free El Cap)
• El Corazon (5.13b, 35 pitches), El Capitan, Yosemite, Oct 2017 (not all free)
• Lotus Flower Tower (5.11a, 19 pitches), Cirque of the Unclimbables, Jul 2016
• Moonlight Buttress (5.12d, 9 pitches), Zion, Utah, Apr 2015
• Never Laugh at Live Dragons (5.11, 600m), South Tower of Asgard, Baffin Island, Jul 2019
• The Niv Mizzet Line (13a, 400m), Baffin Island, Aug 2019 (one fall at crux)
• Dr. Bronner’s 2 in 1 (5.13 roof crack boulder/trad hybrid), Squamish, Oct 2020
MULTIPITCH TRAD ONSIGHTS
• Shear Lunacy (12c, 9 pitches), Zion, Feb 2021
• Monkey Finger (12a, 7 pitches), Zion, Feb 2021
• Alaska Highway into The Ron Zalko Workout P1 (12a, 6 pitches), Sep 2020
• The Left Side of the Grand Wall (12a, 8 pitches), Squamish, Jun 2018
• Riders on the Storm (12b, 7 pitches), Cirque of the Unclimbables, Jul 2016
SINGLE PITCH SPORT
• 13d Redpoint: Killer Bees, The Hurricave, Utah, Jan 2021
• 13a Flash: Cliff Dwellers, The Hurricave, Utah, Feb 2021
• 12d Onsight: Bastard Step Child, Wailing Wall, Utah, Mar 2021
SINGLE PITCH TRAD
• Master Blaster 5.13c, Zion, Utah, Feb 2021
• The Optimator 5.13a, Indian Creek, Utah, Mar 2018
• Zombie Roof 5.12d, Squamish, June 2017
• Zap Crack 5.12d, Squamish, Sep 2020