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The El Capitan Climbing War The 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?

Aug. 05, 2002
Aug. 05, 2002

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Aug. 5, 2002

The El Capitan Climbing War The 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?

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."

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2002 issue Original Layout

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 1/2. 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.

"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 unscaled 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 1/2 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, because the
whole point was just to break 24 hours. These guys 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.

"There's no question that Dean is way competitive," says Rick
Cashner, a speed climber and close friend of Potter's. "He says
he's not because he doesn't want to look like Hans."

One morning in early May, Potter's thoughts drift to other
death-defying ascents as he maneuvers up 420-foot Tombstone, a
nearly vertical face along Kane Creek in Moab, Utah. Even if
Florine succeeds in pinching their Nose record, Potter and
O'Neill aren't likely to answer with another attempt until the
fall. Under consideration is slacklining, or tightrope-walking,
across 120 feet of the Grand Canyon on a one-inch-wide piece of
nylon rope. (Potter will wear a safety harness to prevent his
falling to the canyon floor.)

Two ravens circle overhead as Potter sneaks a peek at Tombstone's
summit, some 30 feet above him. After letting out a deep sigh, he
rappels safely to the base of the wall. "I felt distracted," he
says. "One more move and I would have slipped. I've told myself
so many times that falling means death. I'm totally afraid of
falling."

Still, he acknowledges, you'll probably be able to spy him high
above the Yosemite Valley sometime before year's end, chasing
history yet again. Just then a chilling caw echoes off Moab's
brilliant sandstone walls, and Potter watches the first raven fly
off into the distance, the other raven in pursuit. He understands
this too: Florine won't be far behind.

COLOR PHOTO: PATITUCCI PHOTO INSIDE COVER WALL BRAWL For speed climbers, El Cap's Nose has become a battleground PRIZE QUARRY Hans Florine has completed 96 ascents of El Cap, but it's the speed record on the Nose that he covets most.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ ZAK HIGH NOON The first ascent of the Nose took 45 days; last fall Potter (shirtless) and O'Neill finished by lunch.COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL ROCK STAR MENTALITY With his aggressively flamboyant persona, Hollywood Hans has been driving Potter up the wall.COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL ONE-UPMANSHIP Potter has tried to avoid being roped into a war with Florine, but friends say he's just as ambitious as his foe.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ ZAK (LEFT)COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT THE GODFATHER A free spirit and a gifted athlete, Harding drew national attention to an obscure sport.

ANATOMY OF A CLIMB

4. SUMMIT BOLT LADDER

The final eight pitches involved short-fixing, a technique in
which the leader, in this case Potter, scrambled 40 to 60 feet
ahead of his partner and secured the rope with clove-hitch knots,
enabling O'Neill to run up the rope rather than have to navigate
the pitch hold by hold. This gave O'Neill a much-needed break of
sorts after leading through the Great Roof.

3. The Great Roof

O'Neill led on the most technical and dangerous pitches, notably
the Great Roof (5.13c grade). This overhang is the only section
of the Nose in which the partners simul-climbed, or pulled on
their equipment to ascend rather than using it merely to secure
their rope. To save time O'Neill placed cam hooks--which fasten
into a crack when pressure is applied--in the Roof's
fingernail-thin fissures.

2. The Stoveleg Cracks

Potter says the critical factor in setting the new record was a
reduction in gear weight. When the duo reached Stoveleg Cracks
on their Oct. 15 ascent, Potter found it was more effective to
jam his fists into the five-inch-wide fissure than to insert a
large camalot, which fans out when placed in a crack. A cam
weighs about one pound, but every pound counts. On Nov. 2 Potter
and O'Neill eliminated five pounds of weight.

1. Initial Ascent

On Nov. 2 Potter and O'Neill simul-climbed more than 80% of the
route. While simul-climbing, the two were separated by some 70
feet of rope; the leader placed pieces of protective gear--daisy
chains, camalots and other gadgets that secure rope in case of a
fall--and the trailer retrieved them from the rock face. It's a
risky technique. If O'Neill, the trailing climber at the start,
had slipped, he would've pulled Potter down too.

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"Screwing is more enjoyable than drilling bolt holes." --Warren
Harding
"I offered to climb with Dean," says Florine, "but he said, 'I'm
not into doing all that fast stuff.' What a load of crap."
"Every time I do something, Hans panics and tries to beat me,"
Potter says. "He's like a dog humping your leg."
"It's called the kiss of death," says O'Neill. "Maybe [the climb]
doesn't become too fast until we all die."