This is a boy meets rock story. It begins in 1993 when the boy is 14 years old and the rock is maybe 30,003. The boy is camping with his parents in the High Sierra of Yosemite National Park when he rugs on his mother's sleeve and asks her to drive him into the Valley. She agrees. The rock is taller than the boy by about 2,995 feet, and when they drive up close to it, he shouts, "Here!" and leaps from the car. He runs along a wooded path and scrambles through the scree, and when he comes to the base of the rock, he presses both hands upon it. The boy's name is Chris McNamara, and the rock's name is El Capitan. That day, says the boy's father, Steve, "we knew a love affair had started."
As affairs go, this is one for the ages. The boy writes odes to the rock. He works hard to smooth its blemishes. Once, in a flush of passion, the boy drove thousands of miles through the dead of night to be with the rock again. McNamara, now 22, has climbed El Capitan 54 times. Only three people have ascended it more often. That trio—Steve Gerberding, Hans Florine and Steve Schneider—are all at least 15 years older than McNamara and have been climbing for three times as long as he has. Between his first ascent of El Capitan (in 1994) and his 54th (three weeks ago) McNamara has spent roughly 250 days climbing or resting on the rock. That calculates to 6,000 hours, or 10% of his life during those seven years.
"There isn't a more committed climber anywhere," says Tommy Caldwell, who last month became the first person to free-climb El Capitan's Muir Wall. "Climbing El Cap is like running a marathon—it's a lot of work. Chris is amazing, although he's a little crazy to spend that much time on El Cap and still get excited by it."
Love is a large thing built upon small details. McNamara has climbed the rock swiftly (he holds the speed record on five of the 42 timed routes, with times ranging from a seven-hour, four-minute ascent up the 1,800-foot Zodiac route to 23:29 up 2,900-foot Muir), and he has climbed it leisurely, several times spending a week or longer on the rock face. He loves to put up a new pitch and climb a stretch of El Cap that no one has climbed, and he loves to work his way along familiar cracks and ridges. He adores the view of the wooded valley from spots like El Cap Spire, 1,600 feet up the Salath� wall. But most of all McNamara loves the exposure, the sense of looking down, one pitch from the peak of El Cap's Nose and seeing a half mile of air between himself and the ground.
"It's terrifying but appealing, too," he says. "I get into all the little things about El Cap, all the gear sorting that people complain about. I'm not sure what's going on, but I need to do it. I really want to do it, so I do. That's what's going on."
Native American legend says that El Capitan—3,000 feet at its highest peak and 7,500 feet around its protruding girth—rose one night beneath a pair of sleeping bear cubs. The next day the forest animals tried to scale the rock and rescue the cubs. Their vain attempts, and subsequent sliding falls, account for the cracks and coloration of the face—the gorgeous range of hues that run from deep rust to gold to brilliant white to muted charcoal. Geologists say El Capitan was carved by glaciers in the Sherwin period and further shaped in the Tahoe period 10,000 years ago. The colors and cracks, they say, come from rock falls, weathering and natural variations in the granite.
Because El Cap runs perpendicular to the ground, it was long regarded as an impossible climb. Soon after Warren Harding led the initial ascent of El Capitan in 1958—it took him 45 days over 18 months to carve his route—it became the most prestigious big wall in the world. Virtually everyone, McNamara included, ascends El Cap as an aid climber, the style in which the climber uses ropes and other protection to help him up. (In free climbing you use protection only for safety, not to assist in the climbing.) In the international climbing community, El Cap is known simply, and reverentially, as The Rock.
In 1995 two veteran Swedish climbers arrived at Zodiac, located on El Capitan's southeast face, eager to attempt the great feat. There they found McNamara, then 16, preparing to lead his brother, Morgan, 13, on Morgan's first ascent. Two days later Chris and Morgan became the youngest duo to climb El Cap. "Oh, great," one of the Swedes said, "the kindergartners beat us here."
Steve and Kay McNamara watched their sons from the valley floor, a tense 48 hours spent peering through a telescope. "People kept coming by and looking up," says Steve. "The tourists who didn't know about climbing would say, 'Do you know a 13-year-old is up there?' The climbers who came by said, 'Do you know a 16-year-old is up there leading every pitch?' That was amazing to them."
That historic ascent came less than two years after Chris climbed anything at all. He attended a party at a climbing gym in 1993, when he was an eighth-grader. "I was hooked," he says. He became a regular at gyms, even investing $5,000 in the then fledgling, now formidable chain of Touchstone Gyms. When McNamara was 15, Mark Melvin, Touchstone's president, led him up El Cap for the first time. Within months Chris was setting pitches himself. "It's incredible how fast he has gotten so good," says Florine, who has ascended El Cap 82 times. "Most people need many years before they can even follow on El Cap, let alone lead."