SI Vault
Yi-Wyn Yen
August 05, 2002
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?
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August 05, 2002

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?

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"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 unsealed 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 1� 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, I because the whole point was just to break 24 hours. These guys I 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 resume: 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.

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