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 tugs 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
"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 Salathe 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.
June 17, 2001
"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
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."
Chris came out to Yosemite every chance he got, spending the
summer before his junior year living in the Valley. Word rippled
through the climbing world: A kid is climbing El Cap every week.
Back then they called him Mac the Kid, a nickname that has faded
not because of his age but because of what he's achieved. "He's
still a lot younger than the other big players, but with all he's
done, he's not seen as a kid," says climber Galen Rowell, 61.
"His climbs have been his union card into an elite group."
Last year Rowell and Conrad Anker--who in 1999 discovered George
Mallory's body on Everest--followed McNamara in a climb up the
West Buttress. "Near the peak Chris's rope had a loop in it and
he fell 15 feet," Rowell says. "He wasn't fazed at all."
The event that did shake McNamara occurred in the fall of 1997.
He had just entered Princeton, the school from which his father
graduated (and which Morgan now attends). Chris lasted 16 days.
"All I thought about the whole time was how I could get back to
El Cap," says McNamara. "Then I decided to go. I had a real
passion. How many people find their true passion in life?"
He got into his car and drove, stopping only once to rest before
he pulled up to his parents' home in Mill Valley, Calif., and
shouted, "I'm free!" Says Chris, "I should have been less
exuberant. My dad wasn't too psyched that I'd dropped out of
Steve, who owns the alternative newsweekly Pacific Sun, feared
his son would "spend his life scrambling up rocks" like the
climbing bums who prowl the paths at Yosemite. Chris does spend
much of his life scrambling up rocks, but he also returned to
school--he's working on a degree in geography at Berkeley. He has
also helped transform the climbing community.
A few years ago, unhappy with the topographical route maps
available for Yosemite, McNamara began drawing his own. He
published them in a book, Yosemite Big Walls, that maps out 31
routes on El Capitan. McNamara recounts ascent history and offers
clearly rendered strategies for each climb. "You can tell it
comes from the heart," says Florine. "If I'm doing a route on El
Cap that I haven't done, I turn to Chris's book."
Chris made an even greater impact after he became unhappy with
the old, rusting bolts on many El Capitan routes. In 1997, at age
18, he founded the nonprofit American Safe Climbing Association.
Beginning with an overhaul of hundreds of bolts on El Cap, the
ASCA has replaced 2,300 bolts at various climbing sites across
the U.S. McNamara's wherewithal has been greeted with gratitude,
and no small amount of awe, by climbers of every age.
McNamara, in fact, has become something of an elder to his older
peers. He continues to update the route maps on his website,
www.SuperTopo.com.. Last week in the Valley a climber named
Coiler approached him in a parking lot outside Camp 4, known as
Grovelers' Row. "Dude," Coiler said, "I put up three new pitches
on the Grape Race. It was proud."
Together, Coiler and Chris drew the new pitches on a map. A
Spanish climber named Pep swung by to ask Chris's advice on an
ascent of the Mescalito route, and another climber who'd just
come down from 10 days on the wall talked about the relief he'd
felt at seeing new bolts gleaming in the sun. "I was like, Cool,
Chris has been here," he said.
Last spring McNamara met Sarah Felchlin on a boulder in Marin
County. Five months later they climbed The Nose and spent the
night halfway up on El Cap tower. ("That was her first time,"
says McNamara approvingly, "and she was just the right amount of
scared.") They live together in Bishop, Calif., a small climbing
mecca on the Eastern Sierra about 2 1/2 hours from Yosemite.
McNamara has been bouldering and refining his free-climbing
skills, and one day last week he leaned against the base of El
Cap, pondering what he'd do next. "I don't have a plan," he said.
"I suppose I'd love to get really good at free climbing and do
routes here. Free-climbing the Salathe? What could be better than
Most of all McNamara loves seeing a half mile of air between him
and the ground.