The youngest person to free climb El Capitan in a day may be the most mature climber I’ve ever talked to.
On October 14, 2021, Sam Stroh and his partner, Graham Webb, topped out “Freerider” (5.13a, 30 pitches, VI) just before 8 p.m. local time. The 18-hour, 51-minute ascent earned him the title of the youngest person to free climb El Cap in a day.
Except for his fresh-faced appearance, apparently bottomless energy, and evident brain plasticity, you’d never guess he was 20 years old.
In fairness, Stroh is 21 now — his birthday is in November. But the story of his record-setting El Cap attempt is as much about solid support from friends and a steady approach to climbing as it is about a burst of youthful brilliance.
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Is Skateboarding Scarier Than Falling?
Stroh’s climbing life started in 2017. That August, his family visited Taos, N.M. while relocating there from Houston, Texas. They hired a professional guide to take them climbing at a local crag on the trip.
Stroh took to it right away, with one caveat.
“I was so terrified,” he said of his early guided outings. “I never wanted to go to the top of the cliff because I was really scared of heights. I would be halfway up the top rope thinking ‘I could [just stop] here ….'”
Soon, though, instincts from his background as a competitive skateboarder took over. Thanks to his previous experience with slamming the ground, he found that falling on a rope didn’t particularly faze him once he started leading.
The effect wasn’t immediate. But when it started to click, it helped Stroh develop a quality many new climbers struggle to cultivate — a good head game.
“I developed it over time. Right off the bat, the similarities weren’t that obvious. I mean, you skateboard outside too, but it’s not the same as being out in nature, so it was hard for me to compare. But then I started noticing I was pretty good on my feet and with hand-foot coordination,” he said.
“I don’t think I get quite as scared on lead, and I wonder if that’s from skateboarding. When you fall off a skateboard, you’re hitting the concrete pretty hard; but if you take a big whip, you’re most likely not going to land hard like that.”
Stroh thus learned to crawl before he could walk. But soon, he was off and running. He started training with a group of friends at a tiny bouldering co-op in Taos and worked his way into the 5.13 range before finishing high school.
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Campus Life Begins and Abruptly Ends; Stroh Hits the Road That Leads to El Cap
When he graduated, he headed for Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend, Oregon — next door to Smith Rock. Psyched on climbing there, he studied social science before COVID-19 lockdowns forced him out of his dorm and back home to Taos.
Stroh found he had little to do other than going climbing and keeping up with classes online, so he promptly sold his car, built out a van, and embarked on a semipermanent climbing trip with his girlfriend.
Rapid-fire visits to Ten Sleep, Rifle, Indian Creek, and Zion ensued. The methodology that would ultimately lead to his Freerider-in-a-day (or “FRIAD”) success started to develop on these early trips.
He recalled epics on single-pitch climbs at Indian Creek, as he taught himself how to jam and place gear on lead. Classics like “Supercrack of the Desert” (5.10) almost spat him off as he struggled with equipment and wobbled with insecure technique.
Within a month, he was climbing 5.12 at the Creek.
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The approach — show up, try hard, and learn techniques on the fly — began to characterize his climbing development. Soon, it would lead to ambitious projects with equally psyched partners. Not long after he figured out how to hand jam, he onsighted Zion National Park mega-classic “Moonlight Buttress” (5.12c, 10 pitches).
Stroh then headed to Red Rock National Conservation Area and soon made an influential acquaintance. He met Adrian Vanoni, another young climber on the rise, during a session at the Kraft Boulders.
The chance encounter would be a turning point for the 19-year-old.
“I think we both could sense it at the time. I’d had a good mentor before in Taos, but he was quite a bit older than me. Adrian was the first person I’d met who was my age and had similar goals,” he explained.
Stroh and Vanoni got along right away and tested their climbing limits as a team just as immediately. On their second day tying in together, they decided to tackle “Jet Stream” (5.13a, 650 feet). Many regard the route, 2 miles into the backcountry, as considerably hard and committing.
“We’d done ‘Desert Gold,’ [a hard single-pitch route] on our first day. But when we were on ‘Jet Stream,’ we realized that we can be really good partners for each other in difficult moments — [during] bigger days when we’re both getting kinda scared or not sure about sending.”
The two quickly recognized that the strength of their relationship could help them approach their mutual climbing goals.
“We were both searching, and we had these big goals, but we didn’t know who we were going to do them with,” Stroh said. “Then we stumbled upon each other, and I think we were both appreciative of it.”
By April 2021, they found themselves standing at the base of El Capitan, getting ready to launch into a ground-up push on “Freerider.”
‘Freerider’ Take One: ‘Good Luck’
Big walling would be significantly different than anything Stroh had ever tried in terms of logistics. Two critical pieces of the puzzle were missing: how to haul gear and camp on the wall.
In the end, the team’s strategy was one familiar to Stroh: they resolved to learn the techniques during the climb.
“It was the first time I’d showed up to Yosemite to really climb anything except [less serious] moderates,” he said. “Neither of us had ever hauled before. So to learn, we were sitting in El Cap Meadow with a brand new haul bag, a brand new swivel, and a ‘How to Big Wall Climb‘ book.”
Laughing, he recalled meeting other, more experienced wall climbers in the meadow, who quickly spotted their inexperience. When Stroh told them what route he and Vanoni planned to climb, they said, “Good luck.”
Their systems loosely consolidated, they soon left the ground.
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“Our experience up there was kinda epic. Hauling our bags was epic. It probably took us 10 hours to get our bags up to Heart Ledges that [first] day.” Heart Ledges is before any of the most challenging climbing and about one-third of the way up the wall.
But Vanoni and Stroh persisted, despite massive difficulties. They slept on some marginal, sloping ledges and struggled with exhausting gear hauling.
They got rained on but hadn’t brought rain gear; they also didn’t have a portaledge, so they just got wet. Stroh didn’t know off-width climbing technique, so he crimped and gastoned his way through the route’s multiple wide pitches.
Amazingly, Stroh would have freed the 5.13a route except for a 5.10 off-width near the top, called the “Scotty Burke.” They topped out after their fifth day of climbing. Lessons learned, the two were far from demoralized.
“We like to prepare a little bit, but we really like to cut our teeth by messing up,” Stroh said. “Trial by fire is usually our way. And we’ve gotten a lot better.”
The next time Stroh visited the Valley, logistics on El Capitan would indeed prove to go a lot better.
Impromptu: How an Unplanned El Capitan Record Attempt Came Together
The 20-year-old landed in Yosemite in October 2021. At the time, he didn’t have any plans to do what he was about to do. To make the trip, he had leveraged online schoolwork into a chance to grab a weather window.
“I was really psyched, but Adrian couldn’t come because of school, so I didn’t really have any goals,” Stroh said. But soon, he took cues from Emily Harrington and Jordan Cannon’s then-recent one-day ascents of El Cap’s “Golden Gate” (5.13a) to develop an idea of what to do during his stay.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘you know, the climbing on ‘Freerider’ is actually not that hard.’ What we got wrecked by were the hauling and the logistics.
Maybe if I put all that aside, I can just go do it in a day,” he reasoned.
Piece by piece, the plan started to come together. The Valley was smoky from surrounding wildfires when he first drove in, but the air soon cleared, and Stroh’s friends filtered in. He was able to get his bearings by running a couple of laps on “Freeblast” (the first 10 pitches of “Freerider”) with them. Then, Graham Webb offered to belay for him on his one-day attempt.
Webb’s support would prove instrumental to Stroh’s effort. Even if he felt comfortable with his ability to send all 30 pitches on the route, he knew his margin for error was slim due to logistics.
Neither he nor Webb had substantial big wall experience; the attempt would be Webb’s first time jugging a rope on a longer route. Altogether, it seemed to mean that Stroh couldn’t afford many falls if he were to finish in under 24 hours.
With a dedicated belayer, though, he would be free to focus on the moves.
He kept preparing with a few more rehearsal sessions. Once, he rappelled the whole wall alone and rehearsed sequences on the way down, like the “Scotty Burke” off-width that had shut him down in April.
Stroh was surprised to find the climbing felt significantly more manageable than the first time he’d tried the route. The difference, he thought, was mental rather than physical.
“I don’t think I was that much stronger than I was the previous season,” he said. “I think I approached it with a lot clearer mindset. I was thinking really hard about the most efficient ways to do everything.”
He cruised every off-width section on the route and dialed in the crux “Boulder Problem.” Back on the ground, he and Webb concluded they were ready for the push.
Youth Takes Over, El Capitan’s ‘Freerider’ Goes Free in a Day
They scheduled their start for 1:00 a.m. on October 13. Stroh was napping in the Church Bowl parking lot that night, planning to leave for El Capitan Meadow before the lot closed at midnight. Around 11:30, Park Rangers hassled him awake instead.
He patiently complied, and then met Webb as planned. The episode had been unwelcome and distracting, though, and the Valley was bitter cold. The two debated whether to go up with the temperature at 34 degrees.
“Once we started climbing, though, everything started going incredibly well,” Stroh said. “Climbing in the dark made the ‘Freeblast’ easier because I found all these new footholds, and the rock was sticky from being so cold.”
Black Sabbath rang out from the wall as the two finished “Freeblast” on schedule.
“We had a super good time,” Stroh said. “We had a bunch of good snacks; we were romping. I climbed the Monster [off-width] super fast. It wasn’t too hot, but eventually, I started to feel a little tired.”
Lack of sleep and sustained effort started to take their toll. He cruised the Boulder Problem, but the famous Enduro Corner three pitches above almost spat him off. By the time the team hung below the “Scotty Burke” off-width, Stroh was wasted — but he still hadn’t taken a fall.
“We were up there in the last light of the day, in this beautiful pink alpenglow, but I was so wrecked,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, but I had crashed. I was reaching around to rack gear on my harness, and all the muscles in my arms were cramping up and seizing.”
But he barely held on, then cruised to the top. When he checked his phone timer, it read 18:51, and the record was his.
“It was a mixture of feeling really proud and also really surprised by what I had done,” he said. “I’d come into it with pretty low expectations. Overall, I was really excited by what was to come as well.”
No Rest for the Principled: Stroh Stays Stoked
What was to come? Stroh and Webb chatted briefly, and then walked down the East Ledges back to the Valley. The next day, Stroh celebrated in a way only someone with the physical recovery abilities of youth could.
He went climbing. Like, a lot.
He’d previously told another friend that he would climb “Father Time,” a 2,000-foot 5.13b on Middle Cathedral, with them. Not one to renege on promises, he followed through and showed up on time to climb the route.
Ultimately, that’s what appears to define Sam Stroh. Instead of sitting back to bask in the glow, he’s focused on the way forward. It’s what got him from a fear of heights to climbing El Capitan in a day.
And it’s what got him from climbing El Capitan in a day to freeing “Golden Gate” — which he did last week with Adrian Vanoni.
“We’re goal-oriented,” he said, referring to himself and Vanoni. “We’re stoked to push it; when we show up, we’re really gung-ho. Because of the [climbers] who have come before us and written their names all over these walls like Brad Gobright, Will Stanhope, Mason Earle, Tommy Caldwell, and Alex Honnold, we really like to try hard and see what we can do.”
We can’t wait to see what they do next — based on their track record, we might not have to.