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Bronwyn Hodgins is in Pursuit of Difficult Big Walls

"I found out that exposure doesn’t really affect me that much and that all my experience camping, and tripping came in useful for planning. I loved big walls right away.”

Photo by: Jacob Cook

American big wall climber Alix Morris coined Bronwyn Hodgins the one-off nickname, Bronwyn Almighty, after watching her free climbing on El Capitan, but with her all-round skills, backcountry big walls and Golden Gate free climb, it isn’t too far fetched.

“We arrived at the Move pitch in the early afternoon,” says South African climber Danford Jooste, who was with Bronwyn Hodgins on her successful ascent of Golden Gate in 2020. “We set up our portaledge and waited four or five hours for sun to get off the wall before trying it.”

Bronwyn had a lot on her mind. There are 34 pitches on the El Capitan free route, including four 5.13- pitches all found in the top half of the route. There’s also lots of other climbing to give pause to an aspiring El Capitan free climber: The 5.11 offwidth crack, the slick slab on Freeblast, and a dozen more 5.12 pitches. The climb requires a full range of skills from hard slab climbing to offwidths, finger cracks and even boulder-type moves. Not surprisingly, only two other women, British ace Hazel Findlay and American pro Emily Harrington had previously sent the route. For Canadian Bronwyn Hodgins, however, the pitch called the Move, with a V6/7 boulder problem, was by far the crux.

“I rarely boulder on granite,” she says, “I have little burly power.”

She had rehearsed the moves on rappel in the weeks leading up to her attempt, a common strategy for El Capitan free climbers. She rappelled the route, an intimidating prospect for most climbers, and camped out 300 metres from the top to try the move. It took three separate trips rapping into the pitch before she managed to work out a sequence. After nearly giving up, she finally said to herself, “I actually may be able to do this.”

When the sun went off the pitch, Bronwyn went for it.

On the summit of Mount Thor, Baffin Island. Photo Jacob Cook

“It starts with a run-out 5.12 slab,” says Jooste. “Then she gets to the boulder problem and just fires it, but her foot slipped, and she fell above. She lowered and I tried it next. I worried she may have ruined her fingertips’ skin on those razor crimps and her chances of freeing the pitch.”

By now, it was dark, but Bronwyn put on a headlamp and gave it another go. “Magically,” says Jooste, “she just did it.”

The path to a free ascent of Golden Gate was open.

Bronwyn, 28, grew up in Perth, Ont., immersed in outdoor culture. Her parents are backcountry tripping and whitewater guides who headed for the bush with Bronwyn and her brother and sister whenever they could. She was also a natural athlete, who swam and ran cross-country in high school and made it to provincial championships.

“Bronwyn gets her stoke from her parents,” says high-school friend and climbing partner Thor Stewart, “and she is full of stoke.” And the stoke isn’t just for completing her own projects, but for getting other people to fulfil their potential in the outdoors.

Asgard approach. Photo Jacob Cook

In high school there was no cross-country skiing team, so Hodgins started one. “She borrowed secondhand skis for everyone,” says Stewart. They ended the season in a big competition where they came last in every category, but had more skiers compete than any of the other schools.

On trips, she organizes all the food, logistics and treats, like birthday whisky and fireworks. She includes family and friends, almost no matter how intense her plans are. She’s taken her father up Lotus Flower Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables. When her partner, Jacob, had to unexpectedly leave Yosemite in the middle of their trip back in 2015, Bronwyn had reunited with Thor (a new climber at the time) to come follow her up a four-day ascent of the Lost Arrow Spire!

She has been known by the nickname, the “Organator,” for good reason.

As an engineering student at Queen’s University in Ontario, Hodgins ran on the varsity cross-country and track teams. It wasn’t until a third-year exchange to Leeds University in England, however, that she had her first introduction to rock climbing.

The Leeds University Mountaineering Club offered a beginner’s day top roping on a gritstone crag. By the end of her first day, she was so taken that she signed up for a weekend at Tremadog in Wales, a roadside outcrop with a wealth of classic traditional climbs. It was dark when they arrived and most of the club members opted for the pub.

Bronwyn, however, was raring to hit the rocks, by headlamp if necessary. Luckily, so was mathematics PhD, seasoned trad climber, and former British Youth comp champion Jacob Cook. Bronwyn proceeded to climb her first trad multipitch, by moonlight, and led the easy final pitch, after a brief description of the basics of trad gear. Cook was impressed.

Hodgins and Cook in Yosemite. Photo Jacob Cook

Soon they were seeing each other and touring Britain’s classic climbing routes every weekend. U.K. climbing offered some intimidating experiences, like climbing over the ocean in Pembroke, or negotiating wet rock and tricky protection, but instead of being intimidated, Bronwyn hungered to get out on the sharp end of the rope as often as possible.

At the end of the year, she was back at Queens for the last year of her degree. She bouldered in the gym and got stronger. Cook visited and got his introduction to the Ontario wilderness and whitewater.

After two years in a long-distance relationship, they both graduated and hit the road together for an open-ended road trip. The first stop was Yosemite.

“In some ways, on long routes, we were both beginners,” Bronwyn says. “After three weeks of figuring out our systems, we climbed the Nose over four days. I found out that exposure doesn’t really affect me that much and that all my experience camping, and tripping came in useful for planning. I loved big walls right away.”

That winter, they went to Spain to sport climb and deep-water solo in Mallorca. It was Bronwyn’s first time sport climbing and pushing as hard as she could until she fell. Soon she was climbing 5.12s and realizing sport climbing’s potential to make her stronger.

Hodgins on Mount Asgard, Baffin Island. Photo Jacob Cook

They spent much of their second year climbing nearly full time back in the States. Indian Creek became a favourite stop, as was Zion, where Bronwyn had her first big wall free climbing experience on Moonlight Buttress 5.12d: “I went to support Jacob and then I ended up trying to free the route myself. After that, I knew that big wall free climbing was something I was interested in.” It wasn’t just a matter of free climbing skills. She had a mental affinity for the big wall setting. “I don’t think about another pitch until I get to it,” says Hodgins. “And I don’t get freaked out by exposure.”

Back in Yosemite in 2015, she supported Jacob on his new goal, a free ascent of El Cap’s Freerider, 5.13a, 13 pitches, a massive step up from anything she had ever tried. Jacob and Chris Bevins freed the route, but Bronwyn knew this was too hard for her at the time and was content climbing simply as free as she could. Jacob encouraged her, however, and in 2016, she tried it twice, and was able to do all but the crux boulder problem while climbing with American female climber Alix Morris, who managed to free the route. “I spent so much time on it,” Bronwyn said, “but I failed on the boulder problem crux. It felt impossible. I told myself my legs were too short; I wasn’t flexible enough. I made excuses and didn’t come back for two years.

In 2018, she finally sent Freerider, with Jacob in support, becoming the first Canadian woman to free El Capitan. Bronwyn’s psych for harder routes just builds with every send, and she turned her attention to Golden Gate, which was even harder than Freerider, with four 5.13a pitches.

“It took a long time to build skills and confidence to try Golden Gate,” says Bronwyn. “On paper it looks like not much of a jump up, but 5.13 on granite is hard for me and having to send four of them in the top half of the wall was going to be a serious challenge.

Cook and Hodgins, Freerider 2018. Photo Jacob Cook

She decided to try it in spring 2021. She put together a six-month training program, it was the first time she had ever focused this directly on training for a specific climbing goal: “I had to work on quick and efficient redpointing, to be able to send a 5.13- each day for multiple days in a row. Would this even be possible for me? I moved to Saint George in Utah, and sport climbed all winter. I focused on sending low 13s in as few goes as possible. I would have a beta-finding attempt, come down, run through sequence in my head, and then start having redpoint attempts. I imagined climbing under pressure, like I would be on a big wall. I really honed my mental process. I asked myself, how good can I get in six months, and I was able to see significant improvement.”

At the end of the training process, Bronwyn flashed her first 5.13a, but she still jokes that she was the “weakest person ever to be able to send Golden Gate. I nailed strategy and the mental aspects to pull off what was just barely within my physical reach,” she says.

Danford Jooste, her South African partner, had only met her two days before the climb. “Climbing with Bronwyn,” said Jooste, “was super fun. She’s easy going, confident. We swung leads the whole way. It was great being up there with her to support her goal, but she also wanted me to free as much of it as I could.”

Hodgins on Flight of the Challenger 5.12c, Squamish. Photo Alex Ratson

After she managed the crux that had daunted her for a year, there was the A5 pitch—another crux—but she sent it on her third try, a few more 5.12 and 5.11 pitches, and then she was on top. “It was an emotional moment, clipping the chains of the traverse,” says Bronwyn, “the end of seven days on the wall, of pushing so hard.”

And, as if all of that wasn’t incredible enough, in 2020 Bronwyn and Jacob established two new routes on Baffin Island: a 400-metre 5.13 called The Niv Mizzet Line and a 600-metre 5.10+ called Never Laugh at Live Dragons.

For now, Bronwyn has some other goals. “I’ve been single-pitch climbing, taking a little break from big walls,” she says. “After Golden Gate I was completely burned out, I didn’t want to climb or push myself, I would just sit on the rope if it was hard. It was such an intense experience, so close to what I was able to do. I had to do it all perfectly, it required so much focus, I felt like I had depleted my body of these things.”

At the end of summer 2021 she also became a full Association of Canadian Mountain Guides rock guide, a professional outlet for her natural impulse to help others achieve their goals: “I really enjoy seeing peoples’ reactions, seeing improvement, playing a role in getting them to where they want to be. It’s not only about skill, but about them learning how to be comfortable and confident.”

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Gripped The Climbing Magazine

Lead photo: Jacob Cook