The news spread through Yosemite Valley last Oct. 15 like a Santa Ana wildfire: Dean Potter and Tim O'Neill had scaled El Capitan's Nose route in less than four hours—three hours, 59 minutes and 35 seconds, to be exact—a benchmark previously believed to be as untouchable as the four-minute mile had once been for runners. Word of the feat, as it so often does when it involves Potter, soon reached Hans Florine, who had held the Nose record of 4:22. He caught up with Potter and O'Neill outside a deli where they had been celebrating with several other climbers. "Good job," Florine said, handing the pair a gift: a pint of Ben & Jerry's chocolate fudge ice cream. "Guess I'm going to have to go up there and bust it again."
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�. 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.