It is dawn in California's Yosemite National Park, and as the early-morning light changes from gray to gold, champion speed climber Hans Florine scans the sheer granite walls of El Capitan. As he prepares to ascend, Florine thinks of other climbers still in their sleeping bags. He turns to Mark Melvin, his climbing partner, and says, "Let's go. We'll be halfway up the Nose before most of them wake up."
Cocky words, perhaps, but Florine can back them up. With the avowed goal of "making molehills out of mountains," Florine sprints up perilous big-wall routes that most climbers take days to conquer. But it's not just his signature speed ascents that have earned the 32-year-old professional climber the nickname Hollywood Hans.
Though he struts his stuff in competitions—from a 1991 world championship in speed climbing to first place in the climbing races at the 1995 and '96 Extreme Games—what sets Florine apart from other elite climbers is the commercial height that he has reached. Whether he's blazing up a competition route or just fast-forwarding his way up a mountain, Florine is never too busy for a photo op.
This day is no different. While Melvin wipes the sleep from his eyes, Florine quickly scouts out a good angle from which to record the moment. Setting the timer on his camera, Florine dashes next to Melvin. The camera captures both climbers, the towering mountain and, most important, Florine's Boreal shoes, his Champion Nutrition T-shirt, the Power-Bar logo sewn on his Petzl harness, and the Smith sunglasses logo gracing his chalk bag. Then Florine lets out a war cry. Having done his bit for his sponsors, Florine begins his 23rd ascent of El Capitan's Nose route.
Though known as one of the most forbidding testing grounds for hard-core climbers, El Capitan is practically Florine's performance platform. Speed adds to the danger. To go fast, both climbers have to ascend simultaneously—if one falls, the other gets dragged down as well. And the route itself has several pendulums, where a climber has to swing across, then wait for the other climber, and steep roof sections with small cracks, which make it tougher to get good handholds. In 1992 Florine and Peter Croft set the speed record for ascending the Nose, reaching the summit in four hours and 22 minutes. Last summer Florine and Steve Schneider chopped the four-day record on El Capitan's Son of Heart route to just under 30 hours.
When he's not climbing, Florine searches for commercial sponsors to fund his pursuits. Unlike most climbers, who might mark their accomplishments with an extra beer at base camp, Florine works overtime to publicize his feats, sending out announcements by fax. The way Florine sees it, America's romance with adventure sports bodes well for skilled daredevils like himself.
"Climbing is right on the edge of becoming more mainstream, and I'll do everything I can to promote it," says Florine, who worked in the aerospace industry before he made climbing his full-time profession in 1990. "My reasons are partly altruistic and partly selfish. Yes, I want the sport to grow, but I also want to profit from that growth."
But while Florine embraces opportunity, many other climbers feel his attitude violates an unwritten creed of climbers: Thou shalt not seek attention. Croft, one of the best solo climbers in the U.S., says most climbers are individualists, loners. "Climbing is not a team sport with an arena or spectators," he says. "It's anticulture, antirules, antiranger and antiauthority." For many climbers, the sport is also anti-mass media.
Florine, of course, disagrees. "A lot of people complain that I'm turning climbing into showbiz," he says. "But if that is what it takes to make climbing a professional sport, so be it. I work hard for my sponsors. I let them know what I'm doing."
The story goes that Florine once stopped midway up a competitive route to take a bite out of a PowerBar. "Unfortunately the photographer completely missed it," he says. "Until prize money gets decent, I'll do what I can. Hey, you can finish a competition and either climb into your camper or drive away in a Range Rover. I know what I'm going for."