Over four days and three nights in mid-September, Pearl Johnson, age 9, climbed the Triple Direct route on El Capitan, earning her the title as the youngest person to ascend the 3,000-foot formation. Pearl climbed with her mother, Janet, and a family friend, Nick Sullens, of Yosemite Search and Rescue. Pearl’s dad, Philip, a law enforcement ranger in the park, met them at the top.
“Someone asked me if I was nervous, and I said ‘No,’” Janet said after. “I knew I was comfortable up there. I’ve climbed a lot with Pearl. I knew what she was capable of.”
Pearl, however, was nervous, according to Sullens. “A lot of time was spent overcoming her fear,” Sullens said. “I was impressed with her wanting to keep going. If it were me at nine, I would have wanted to be out of there. Sometimes she would say, ‘I want this to be over, this is really scary.’ I would offer to bail and be down in two hours, and she would say she wanted to be there. She had a desire to pursue the goal. She wanted to climb that mountain.”
Little girls have been having a banner year in Yosemite this season. In June, 10-year-old Selah Schneiter climbed the Nose on El Capitan with her father Mike and his friend Mark Regier, making her the then-youngest person in the world to climb the granite monolith. The story went viral, and Selah appeared on ESPN, The Today Show and ABC News.
Pearl also wanted to climb The Nose, but it was crowded, so they switched to the less-popular but equally long Triple Direct route, which parallels the Nose before joining it for the upper third of the climb. Unlike Selah, Pearl did not lead or clean any of the pitches on the route. She used ascenders to climb the static rope that the team used to haul their equipment.
Janet and Philip, both longtime Yosemite locals, have decades of climbing experience under their belts. And so Pearl’s earliest memories are of climbing, which she picked up when she learned to walk. Her biggest climbs before El Cap include Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows at age 6, the 15-pitch Royal Arches route at age 7, and Snake Dike on Half Dome at age 8.
Pearl has seen Free Solo, and knows Alex Honnold, who stayed next door to the Johnsons during filming.
“One of my favorite parts of Free Solo was when Alex encountered the guys in the pink bunny suits,” Pearl said. “I climbed it in tights covered with cats and donuts.”
Pearl summited El Cap on September 16, in the midst of a hailstorm and plummeting temperatures. “I ran to the big juniper tree for cover while Nick and my mom were hauling up the bags one at a time,” she said. “The top was scary. We were in a cloud, and my fingers were purple.”
The hail turned to rain, soaking the team. But Pearl’s dad was building a fire. She knew that soon she would be comfortable again—the worry would pass, just as it had on the wall.