from Climbing magazine May 1, 2001 issue.
Turning Back Time in Yosemite's Latest Golden Era
1999. I am 800 feet up the Shield when it hits me: I am breaking
almost every rule I learned in Rock 101. Simul-climbing behind Cedar
Wright on El Cap, I slam hands and feet into 5.7 hand cracks and abandon
any elegance to shave time off the ticking clock. Suddenly, Cedar hits
easier terrain and picks up the pace even more. The rope to my harness
snaps tight, goes slack, then yanks tight again. Clearly, Cedar wants me
to get a move on.
the rope. I can't keep up," I yell to him.
fixed!" Cedar shouts, only seconds later.
grab the rope, paste my feet flat on the wall, and lean out into space.
With sobering clarity I see that the rope runs straight from my harness to
Cedar, who didn't bother to place any protection between us. I take a deep
breath, then frantically climb hand-over-hand, Batman-style, up the rope.
Flaming forearms just get me the 75 feet to his ledge. Spent, I flop onto
the stance and glance at Cedar, who is braced in a squat position. He
carries a rack of cams, but hasn't placed any for the anchor. Cedar is the
audacious approach gets us up the first 14 pitches of the Grade VI in a
little over two hours. On Gray Ledges, the halfway point, we switch leads
and I begin my block of 10 A3 pitches. Instantly, the sweeping exposure
and heady runouts fade from my mind, replaced by the focused rush of
moving up steep rock at a blistering pace. Ten hours and 58 minutes from
the time we tied into the rope, Cedar and I high five on the summit. I
take things in briefly and then race back to the Valley floor for a stab
at adding Zodiac to the day.
Shield was my introduction to the new brand of big-wall speed
climbing, a game of few protection placements and even less margin for
error. A game that in 1999 reduced many of Yosemite's proud Grade VIs from
multi-day to multi-hour affairs
of the most recent speed tactics may be new, but speed climbing isn't. In
1961, Steve Roper and Frank Sacherer chopped an hour and a half off
Sentinel's Steck-Salathé record, then held by Royal Robbins and
Joe Fitschen, by climbing the route in just over eight hours. Robbins, who
watched Roper and Sacherer's ascent through binoculars, greeted the pair
afterward with congratulations and champagne. He then waited a day, teamed
up with Tom Frost, and blazed up the route in 3:15, demolishing Roper and
Sacherer's time by more than five hours. "So shocked was I by this
feat that I neglected to buy champagne," wrote Roper in his book Camp
the need for speed? According to Roper, "It was not so much speed for
its own sake, but to nicely better the time of our competitors. Nobody
referred to it as speed climbing. We just thought of it as
40 years later, in February 1999, Climbing ran a photo of Dean
Potter soloing high on Half Dome's Regular Northwest Face. Potter,
a talented boulderer and free soloist, had turned to speed climbing when a
tendon injury held him back from his normal diet of V10s. On Half Dome, he
carried a light free-climbing rack and rope, but free soloed pitches up to
5.11 and "French freed" the aid sections, yarding from one
placement to the next, at times totally committed to a single piece of
fixed gear. Potter's tactics let him blitz Half Dome in four hours and 17
minutes -- a full 16 hours faster than the previous solo record.
people could or would climb as boldly as Potter, but his big runouts and
innovative ways of climbing fast turned the heads of Yosemite's local free
climbers. Though he and the likes of Hans Florine, Jose Pereyra, Tim
O'Neill, Russ Mitrovich, Miles Smart, Steve Schneider, Eric George, and
others were there to tick off Yosemite's free routes, they realized that
if they applied their free skills to the big walls they could rewrite the
book on speed climbing. And if in the process they struck up a little
friendly rivalry, all the better.
to 1998 most speed climbers had spent years climbing big walls in standard
multi-day style, improving their times by finding more efficient methods
to rig hauling systems and belay stations. Climbing faster wasn't as much
a function of developing new techniques as it was of refining old ones.
This all changed when 1999's cast of players, many of whom had never slept
in a portaledge or led a real nailing pitch, set their speed-climbing
sights on Yosemite's big walls. Paradoxically, their inexperience forced
them to invent their own tactics. The result was a hair-raising approach,
heavy on speed and light on protection. In the coming year, the inspired
Yosemite regulars took up the challenge and slashed more than 40 records.
Some incorporated Potter's blend of free soloing and ropeless aid soloing,
but the majority used "short-fixing."
works like this: The leader climbs to a belay, pulls up the slack on the
60-meter lead line, fixes the rope to the belay, and then continues
leading, self-belaying on the section of slack rope. Meanwhile, the second
jumars the pitch and, upon reaching the belay, puts the leader back on
belay. Properly executed, short-fixing all but eliminates belay
transitions and down time. But because the leader and second seldom if
ever meet at the belay, there are few opportunities for the leader to
replenish the rack. Result: The leader back cleans, or removes the gear
behind him, for up to 70 feet or more on A1 or A2, and may not place gear
at all on free pitches easier than 5.10. The leader often forgoes a
self-belay once he's anchored the rope, and instead launches off with a
70-foot loop of rope hanging from his harness. "There is a similar
feeling to free soloing," says O'Neill. "In many sections you
know you absolutely can't fall." Furthering the commitment, most
speed teams dispense with "non-essential" gear. No retreat rope,
no descent shoes, no bivy gear, no headlamp, no drill kit.
1999, short-fixing facilitated an unprecedented series of speed ascents.
In March, Potter and Smart raced up Tangerine Trip in 11:56,
cutting more than six hours off the old record. May and June each saw
three new records. In July, six. August, seven. September, six. October,
eight. And these times were not just broken, they were crushed. The time
on the Shield went from 18:05 to 10:58. The North America Wall,
once called by Roper "the most difficult rock climb ever done,"
was climbed in nine and a half hours instead of its original nine and a
half days, and a full 12 hours faster than the previous record of 21:48.
Mitrovich obliterated the speed solo record for Zodiac by
dispensing with the rope altogether, and simply using three daisy chains
to clip from placement to placement. Mitrovich's 12-hour solo ascent cut
the previous record by almost eight hours, and took solo speed climbing to
a new level of boldness.
tactics were also kicked in for tackling some of El Cap's hardest
nail-ups. In a little over a month, a trio that usually included Mitrovich,
George, and Sean Leary made continuous "push" ascents, ones that
required hard nailing and hooking in the dead of night, of five tenuous
nail-ups. Wyoming Sheep Ranch (VI 5.9 A4), normally a week-long
outing, was climbed in 29:31. The time of seven days on Kaos (VI
A4) was boiled down to 27:50.
it was hard to ignore the accelerated times posted on Yosemite Grade VIs,
it was equally hard to ignore the risks taken to achieve them. Many
observers predicted that it was only a matter of time before someone was
seriously injured or killed. But during this two-year burst of record
setting not a single person sustained an injury. Evidently, the climbers
who were bold enough to set the pace were also focused enough to not blow
that there weren't moments of excitement. On the Nose, at the end
of a lower-out into the Stovelegs, Tim O'Neill felt that something was
wrong with his rigging. Even so, rather than double-check his systems and
burn a couple of precious minutes, he released his lower-out rope. Instead
of swinging a few feet to the right, O'Neill watched the featured granite
in front of him blur as he accelerated in a free-fall. One hundred feet
later he jolted to a stop on the end of his rope. In his haste, O'Neill
had failed to attach his jumars to the rope. He wasn't injured, but the
incident was a heads-up reminder to everyone.
most other incidents weren't life-threatening. On the chimney pitches on
Half Dome's Regular Northwest Face, Potter and Pereyra faced a
difficult passing situation: A climber splayed just ahead of them in a
wide stem. Instead of waiting for the leader to finish the pitch, Potter
threaded himself between the climber and the rock. The baffled leader
hardly had time to react before Pereyra, simul-climbing behind Potter,
also wormed his way through the human tunnel. Potter and Pereyra continued
to the summit in 2:56, a record at the time.
climbers have reduced many Grade VI climbs to day-long outings, but don't
expect other vertical 3000-foot walls around the globe to submit so
easily. The extraordinary amount of fixed gear on the walls is unique to
Yosemite. Many trade routes like the Nose, Zodiac, and the Regular
Northwest Face on Half Dome are permanently laden with fixed nuts,
cams, pitons and even some ropes at pendulum points. Fixed gear means that
the intricate nutting pitches of days past, such as the Great Roof on the Nose,
are mere clip-ups needing little but a rack of quickdraws. While fixed
gear muddies the waters, other issues, such as clipping another party's
gear in passing, and when to start and stop the clock, are beginning to
Florine, "I would like people to do [all] things in the same style,
so that we can accurately compare times. But ... the most important thing
is for people to openly disclose any styles that are different from the
norm." No doubt, in the future when the difference between
speed-ascent times will be in minutes or seconds instead of hours,
questions of rules and ethics will move to the forefront.
the Valley, speed-climbing rules, tactics, and results continue to evolve.
The first and second solo ascents of Half Dome and El Cap in a day
by Dean Potter and Hans Florine were the crowning achievements of 1999,
bound to inspire even more insane, futuristic link-ups, such as El Cap,
Half Dome, and Watkins in a day. While the 2000 Valley season had been
predicted to equal or top the preceding year's big-wall velocity, Y2K
proved in the end to be nothing special. Impressive speed ascents were
made but records not broken as dramatically or as frequently as in 1999.
Many of the talented climbers spent their summers applying their skills,
with varied results, in the big mountains. Clearly, 1999 was special. It
is unlikely that the same fantastic results will occur until there is
another mass migration of talent to the Valley.
attention will always focus on the Valley's fastest times and most
prolific players, some of the tactics of speed climbing may benefit those
who are not out to set records. "If you move lighter you move
faster," a key principle of speed climbing, also applies to
first-time wall climbers. Trim down that haul bag and you won't spend so
much effort and time dragging it up the wall.
you get rid of all that weight and all the cluster that goes along with
it," says George, "it turns out that climbing the wall really
isn't all that much work." Granted, taking less gear and moving
faster is a big step, but it is the new direction for wall
climbing. Hans Florine hopes to speed along the process with his
soon-to-be published how-to book on speed climbing. "Even people who
are not competitive can learn all the cool skills," he says.
and I descend El Cap as the setting sun ignites the Valley's thick soup of
smog. Hours later I stand at the glass counter in the Curry Village
Mountain Shop. "I need headlamp batteries," I stammer, "and
I don't have much time."
hours after beginning the Shield, Cedar leads the first pitch of Zodiac
while I recharge my body with a Value Pak of cheese Danishes. We are
drained by our Shield ascent, but with 10 hours left in the
"day," driven by the prospect of becoming the first team to
climb two "real" aid routes on El Cap in a day.
Cedar completes the Zodiac's first pitch, I'm pleasantly euphoric
with exhaustion. By the time he reaches the second belay, however, I can
barely sit upright. Cedar is likewise nearing that hazy border that
separates the bold from the stupid. After a few shouts back and forth we
turn once again to the clock for advice: The bar closes in one hour. Looks
like two routes in one day will have to wait.
McNamara has eight speed ascents to his credit, including records for the Shield
and Zodiac. He recently moved to Bishop, California, where he
attends online classes and works on his guidebook business, SuperTopo.com.