The El Capitan Climbing War
Two speed demons have turned the most famous big wall of all into a vertical racetrack, but as they rush to glory, their peers wonder: How long before a spectacular -- and lethal -- crash?
O'Neill laughed and thanked Florine for the ice cream. Potter, barely able to conceal his contempt for Florine, his longtime rival, shrugged without looking up. Neither O'Neill nor Potter doubted that the brashly self-promoting Florine, dubbed Hollywood Hans by his peers, would soon be charging up the 2,900-foot Nose in an attempt to reclaim the record he had held for nearly a decade. In the highly insular, but hypercompetitive world of speed climbing, where records topple as frequently as Third World governments, no record is more venerated than the Nose mark. "It's killer, man, the speeds these guys are going," says one veteran big-wall climber who's close to both Florine and Potter. "These guys wouldn't be putting their lives in serious danger -- and I mean serious danger -- unless there was some major glory in it."
Indeed, nine days later the 38-year-old Florine was back out on the most famous big wall of them all. His partner was Jim Herson, a 41-year-old computer engineer from Emerald Hills, Calif. Though they lost 10 minutes when Herson stopped to fix a broken shoelace, they covered the route in 3:57:27. This time Florine rushed to congratulate himself, sending out a snarky e-mail to several climbers, including Potter and O'Neill. "Even I'll admit this one is going to be hard to break," Florine wrote.
Turns out it wasn't hard to break at all. On the morning of Nov. 2, Potter, 30, and O'Neill, 33, eclipsed Florine's mark by a half hour, in view of their nemesis, who for five straight mornings had dropped off his infant daughter, Marianna, at a day-care center and raced over to Yosemite Meadow to see if his rivals were on El Cap. Unbowed, Florine resolved to launch another assault on the Nose, but it had to wait: the day before he had broken three fingers while climbing El Cap's Aquarian Wall route.
The duel between Florine and the Potter-O'Neill team has transfixed denizens of the Yosemite Valley, the longtime mecca of the world's fastest climbers. Like onlookers at a NASCAR race, many climbers regard the rivals with a mixture of fascination and foreboding, awed by their breakneck speeds but dreading a spectacular crash on these vertical racetracks. "I'm in the same boat with most climbers, who can't comprehend how fast these guys are going," says Chris McNamara, who has scaled El Cap 54 times and owns the speed records on five of the wall's 42 timed routes. "They're definitely pushing the border between safety and climbing outside your abilities."
O'Neill doesn't disagree. "We're all pushing envelopes further and further," he says. "It's just a natural progression of applying our talents." That's the mantra of not only the speed climber but also the entire extreme-sports set. As their sports have soared in popularity in the last decade, snowboarders, skateboarders, surfers and kayakers as well as climbers have been under pressure to find fresh ways to wig out their fans and sponsors, even as a scornful public derides their attempts as little more than elaborate suicides. For climbers, first ascents remain the surest way to fame and sponsor dough, but the number of routes still unclimbed is dwindling rapidly, and in Yosemite there are none left. The response of men like Florine, Potter and O'Neill has been simple: If they cannot be first, they will be fastest.
And if that means paying the ultimate price? The thought has crossed O'Neill's mind. "It's called the kiss of death: In order to break the record you have to be willing to self-destruct," he says. "Maybe it doesn't become too fast or too dangerous until the three of us die."
For the last five years Potter and Florine have floated uneasily in the same treacherous ether, chasing each other up and down the 13 big walls of Yosemite National Park, including Half Dome, Cathedral Spires and the crown jewel, El Cap. With each successive push up the Nose, big-wall climbing's bitterest rivals teeter closer to the edge of madness, gradually eliminating a pound of protective gear here, a bottle of water there, to cut down on weight and shave minutes off the most recent record. "I don't care about going sub-three [hours]," says Florine, who, with Herson, has planned another assault on the Nose for later this summer. "I just want to go lower than Dean and Tim. This is so competitive. I just love it!"
It's enough to make Potter gag. "Every time I go out and do something, Hans panics and starts trying to beat me," he says. "He's like a dog humping your leg." Though outwardly less competitive than Florine, Potter is no less ambitious. "Each time I climbed the Nose, I felt like I had broken down the wall a little," he says. "It can still be refined way down. The Nose will be climbed in under three hours. Someday it will go under 2 1/2. Maybe two hours will be impossible, but if it happens, I'll be the one who does it."
Contrast that with a typical ascent of the Nose, which takes the average speed climber between 12 and 15 hours. Or the first ascent of the Nose, in 1957 and '58: Warren Harding, a bon vivant from Northern California, spent 45 days over 18 months literally carving his route by drilling some 200 expansion bolts into the sheer granite face, infuriating environmentalists but fascinating just about everyone else. Through newspapers and radio the entire nation followed intently as Harding and his team of two other climbers established four campsites on ledges along the way, all of the sites linked by 1,200 feet of rope secured by nearly 700 pitons. Hundreds of pounds of supplies were winched up by a clumsy device called the Dolt Cart -- a pull cart with two bicycle wheels. The circuslike sight caused traffic jams on the main road below, which at one point prompted a ranger to yell at Harding through a bullhorn, "Get your ass down from there!" In October 1958 a ranger demanded that Harding complete the climb by Thanksgiving or abandon it. Finally, on Nov. 12, after a continuous 12-day push, Harding staggered over the rim of the Nose.
"It was not at all clear to me who was the conqueror and who was conquered," Harding would say a year later. "I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was."
So began the popularity of big-wall climbing in the U.S., with Yosemite as the sport's epicenter and Harding as the free-spirited forefather. In late February, Harding died of liver failure at age 77, and as night fell on the Yosemite Valley on May 25, some 400 climbers gathered in a granite quarry behind an abandoned gas station in Bishop, Calif., to celebrate his life. The diverse group included erstwhile rock stars such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, aging Vulgarians -- members of the famously hedonistic sect of climbers who have been part of the Yosemite scene since the '60s -- and big-wall vagabonds who had hitched hundreds of miles. Some recalled Harding's infamous drinking binges while others told salacious tales of his womanizing. At the end of each of his first ascents, for example, a bottle of champagne and a beautiful woman (who had been ferried up a much simpler route) would be waiting. Though his skills didn't match those of his contemporaries Robbins and Chouinard, Harding didn't care to work hard enough to improve. "Screwing is more enjoyable than drilling bolt holes," he liked to say.
Nevertheless, says veteran Yosemite climber Mike Corbett, "People were just drawn to him, and no one's been able to match him. He was so full of life."
So, too, was the Yosemite Valley. While beachboys on longboards were proliferating along the Southern California coast in the early '60s, Harding's antiestablishment band of climbers -- including boozers, dopers and drifters -- was making merry some 280 miles to the northeast. After descending upon Camp 4, the venerated four-acre dirt patch just east of El Cap, the climbers provoked park rangers by mooning tourists and stealing campers' food. They held raucous parties long past midnight. They were incorrigibly loud, except when authorities asked them about matters like the whereabouts of 240 40-pound bales of pot that disappeared from a smuggler's plane that crashed in the Valley in February 1977.
For all their hedonism, these wall rats were also supremely gifted athletes and left no rock unscaled in the valley. By the early 1970s every meaningful big-wall route in Yosemite had been established, and climbers turned to setting speed records. By the mid-'70s advances in climbing technique and gear had enabled climbers to reach the peak of the Nose in less than 24 hours. During an unprecedented 15-hour climb in 1975, Jim Bridwell, John Long and Billy Westbay ditched their haul bags and carried a mere 11Ú2 gallons of water -- not to mention two packs of Camel straights, which they lit up while on each of the route's 34 pitches. "We thought we were so studly," Bridwell says. "We didn't think about trying to set another record, because the whole point was just to break 24 hours. These guys are a new breed. What they're doing is phenomenal."
The first of this new breed, which arrived in the Yosemite Valley in the early 1980s, included Peter Croft and Dave Schultz, speed-climbing pioneers who employed riskier techniques such as simul-climbing, in which two roped-up climbers ascend together. Croft and Schultz, soon joined by Florine, turned the Nose into the autobahn, completing ascents in nine hours and 15 minutes, then 8:02, then 6:40. When Croft and a partner went sub-five in 1991, Florine inquired about teaming with him to try to set a new record. Croft agreed, and in June 1992 the duo took the wall in 4:22. "Everyone thought what they did was mind-blowing," O'Neill says. "I thought that record would never be broken."
Not long after Croft dropped out of the Yosemite scene, in 1994, Florine sought out Potter -- who by then had set several speed records -- to be his partner in busting the seemingly unbeatable four-hour mark. "I offered to climb with Dean, but he said, 'I'm not into doing all that fast stuff,'" Florine recalls, mimicking Potter's low, brooding voice. Florine flips his bleached platinum hair and snorts. "What a load of crap."
It's not hard to understand Potter's snub. The two climbers couldn't be more different. Florine, the self-proclaimed fastest climber in the world, has completed 96 ascents of El Cap over 23 timed routes. The chest-beating military brat is also eager to share other particulars of his résumé: making the fastest ascent of Chile's Torres del Paine (1997), winning three Summer X Games gold medals in speed climbing (1995, '96 and '97), and marrying former Elizabeth Arden model Jacki Adams (2000). But Florine didn't help speed climbing's quest for respect when, in 1998, he explained his nine-day blitz of California's 15 14,000-foot peaks by saying: "We're not hoping to prove anything. We say we're doing it for the environment, but that's just so we can get sponsors."
Potter, in contrast, is thoughtful and introverted, and he rationalizes his need for speed in more spiritual terms. As a teenager in New Boston, N.H., he spent afternoons scaling Joe English Hill, a 250-foot cliff near his home, wearing Chuck Taylors and forgoing rope. Explaining his preference for free soloing, which eschews both rope and placement gear, he says, "I want to strip climbing down to its purest level, where I climb only with my hands and feet. For me, it's about man trying to live [to the fullest]."
Still, Potter is no less determined than Florine to make climbing history. After hearing that Florine would try to set the record for soloing both the Nose and the Half Dome's Regular Northwest Face on July 28, 1999, Potter, who was climbing in Colorado's Estes Park, flew to Fresno on the morning of the 27th, took a taxi 85 miles to Yosemite and pulled off the feat himself that afternoon. (Florine eclipsed it a day later.) Last year, two weeks before breaking the Nose record for the first time, Potter and O'Neill completed the Triple Link, scaling Yosemite's three largest walls -- El Cap, Half Dome and Watkins -- in a shade over 23 hours. Earlier this year Potter cranked out three first ascents in Patagonia, including a sub-10-hour charge up the famously brutal 11,073-foot Fitz Roy massif.
"There's no question that Dean is way competitive," says Rick Cashner, a speed climber and close friend of Potter's. "He says he's not because he doesn't want to look like Hans."
One morning in early May, Potter's thoughts drift to other death-defying ascents as he maneuvers up 420-foot Tombstone, a nearly vertical face along Kane Creek in Moab, Utah. Even if Florine succeeds in pinching their Nose record, Potter and O'Neill aren't likely to answer with another attempt until the fall. Under consideration is slacklining, or tightrope-walking, across 120 feet of the Grand Canyon on a one-inch-wide piece of nylon rope. (Potter will wear a safety harness to prevent his falling to the canyon floor.)
Two ravens circle overhead as Potter sneaks a peek at Tombstone's summit, some 30 feet above him. After letting out a deep sigh, he rappels safely to the base of the wall. "I felt distracted," he says. "One more move and I would have slipped. I've told myself so many times that falling means death. I'm totally afraid of falling."
Still, he acknowledges, you'll probably be able to spy him high above the Yosemite Valley sometime before year's end, chasing history yet again. Just then a chilling caw echoes off Moab's brilliant sandstone walls, and Potter watches the first raven fly off into the distance, the other raven in pursuit. He understands this too: Florine won't be far behind.
Issue date: August 5, 2002
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