Nelissa Milfeld climbs the smooth, granite corner with confidence, using a creative blend of techniques — laybacking, jamming, stemming — to suit her expertise.
She’s 2,400 dizzying feet up El Capitan, where fear has a way of gripping the minds of even the most seasoned climbers. Yet Milfeld, who goes by “Nellie,” calmly negotiates this pitch — the infamous Enduro Corner near the top of Freerider (5.13a).
It’s late October and I’m hanging from the anchor above the corner, watching and learning. She and I have rappelled from the top to rehearse this specific section of the route. As she gets higher, her grimace reveals effort, yet she doesn’t appear close to her limit. It seems as if she could climb this pitch indefinitely.
Happy with how it felt, she deemed this her final “practice” on Freerider.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 10, Milfeld left the ground and successfully climbed Freerider bottom to top over four days, becoming the fifth American woman, and one of fewer than 15 women worldwide, to free the massive route.
If you haven’t heard of Milfeld, you’re not alone. Despite being one of the more accomplished climbers on the Front Range, the 36-year-old has somehow kept a low profile. Perhaps it’s because her husband, pro climber Cedar Wright, gets the attention.
Or maybe it’s that her career as a criminal defense lawyer in Boulder leaves little time for fame.
In any case, she climbs at a professional level while thriving at her full-time job as owner of Milfeld Law. She started her business in April 2018 after working for more than eight years as a public defender.
Milfeld also worked hard to free El Capitan. It was the culmination of 10 weeks of effort over three different seasons, starting in May 2018.
“Ever since I started climbing (in 2006) I’ve been drawn to really big, intimidating, long routes,” she said. “For me, it felt like the the culmination of mastering different types of climbing.”
“I think it’s proud,” said Alex Honnold, the notoriously hard-to-impress climber who did Freerider without a rope in 2017. “It requires such a broad array of skills. I think that’s the hardest thing to acquire while working a full-time job.”
Indeed, for an entire month before her Yosemite trip this fall, Milfeld worked a minimum of 10 hours per day including weekends. She still brought work to Yosemite, but she had time to switch gears and focus on a different task.
Over four days Milfeld led every pitch of Freerider, with her husband in full support mode. Wright belayed, then ascended the rope with their pack. He organized gear and did everything possible for her to focus on the climbing.
“He even converted a sunglasses pouch into a snack pouch so I’d have easily accessible snacks when he’d get to the belay,” she said. “He was so supportive and amazing. He knew how important it was to me.”
The greatest challenge during the climb happened Day 3, when she fell off the crux Boulder Problem pitch.
“I was really stressed,” she explained. “I had this moment where I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I just want to go down.’ And Cedar was looking up and he’s like, ‘We’re going to the summit!’”
She lowered back to the belay, pulled the rope and tried again. In the cool air of twilight she “power screamed” through fingertip holds and contortionist moves, reaching the anchor in total darkness.
The following morning she fired the Enduro Corner, then raced up the remaining six pitches (up to 5.12a) to top out at 2 p.m. on Day 4.
“I’ve always wanted to be a well-rounded climber,” said Milfeld. “And for me, that sort of put a stamp on it.”
In the wake of her ascent one thing’s for sure: she has not only raised the bar for climbers with full-time jobs, she is — and will continue to be — an inspiration for women everywhere.
“The more women doing it,” she said, “the more who are going to try, and realize it’s possible.”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.