Weekend Warm-Up: Two Relatable Yosemite Climbing Stories in ‘FREE’

For a rock climber, there’s nothing like spending a crystal-clear day in Yosemite Valley. To get a feel for the reasons why, look no further than Jorg Verhoeven and Katha Sauerwein’s “FREE”.

Sauerwein and Verhoeven have traveled all over the world to put up adventurous and cutting-edge first ascents in far-flung locales. But, as Verhoeven explains in this short La Sportiva documentary, their minds both tend to wander back to the Valley at the end of it all.

“I knew straight away that this was going to be one of the places I would come back, year after year,” Verhoeven says. “Yosemite Valley is just a very magical place.”

Sauerwein, meanwhile, points to the well-documented sensation of awe that tends to wash over climbers when they get their first glimpse of El Capitan and Half Dome.

Having experienced that sensory and emotional wave myself, I tended to track pretty closely with Verhoeven and Sauerwein’s descriptions of the place.

For a rock climber, there’s the first time you see Yosemite, and then there are the various “firsts” inside the Valley. For me, it was the first time I saw the Le Conte boulder, where Dean Potter’s “King Air” soars 10m toward the firmament at V10.

But most climbers I know focus right where Verhoeven and Sauerwein did: squarely on “The Captain”.

Because of the formation’s sheer scale and the myriad complications it creates, many climbers won’t get on it right away. Most, like Sauerwein, will work their way up to it by cutting their teeth on other climbs around the Valley first.

A few, like Verhoeven, will dive right into the deep end.

“FREE” tells the stories of both climbers’ Yosemite seasons in parallel.

A Steep learning curve

Sauerwein’s main challenges reflect her experience as a sport climber and boulderer. Early on in the film, she admits that she wasn’t sure if she would have fun on the trip. Placing gear and climbing long routes both make her uncomfortable.

katha sauerwein free yosemite climbing

Photo: Screenshot


That’s all understandable from the perspective of someone who climbs Sauerwein’s style — even at the very high level she does. On top of that, Yosemite granite is bizarrely specific in ways that can intimidate a new leader. It produces slick spots that are hard to detect without a trained eye, and somehow tends to conform away from typical hold shapes.

In the film, it’s clear Sauerwein will need to draw on her total resources as she advances along a steep learning curve.

Verhoeven, meanwhile, tangoes with a monster. The number of climbers that had repeated Tommy Caldwell’s masterful “Dihedral Wall” (VI, 5.14a) in the 10 years between the first free ascent and Verhoeven’s visit remains at zero.

As is the rule on top-end Yosemite routes, ridiculously thin cracks and foot holds that barely exist guard the passage.

jorg verhoeven dihedral wall in free

Photo: Screenshot


All in all, “FREE” collects the major themes of classic rock climbing documentaries. You’ll find teamwork, self-discovery, anguish, joy, and humor as the protagonists ride a seesaw familiar to all climbers: incremental success on one side, obstinate failure on the other.

Photo: Screenshot

No spoilers; watching Verhoeven and Sauerwein hunt down their objectives is too much fun to give away the endings.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.