How Yuji Hirayama and Hans Florine reclaimed the record
July 2, 2008: “Go Hans! Go Yuji! Go Hans! Go Yuji!” a crowd of onlookers howls from below the 3,000-foot prow of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, California. The cheering spurs on Yuji Hirayama and Hans Florine, mere specks on the Nose (VI 5.9 C2; 2,900 feet; 31 pitches), as they charge to reclaim the speed record held since October 2007 by the German brothers Alex and Thomas Huber. The crowd’s excitement grows as they near the top — this is the duo’s third and final attempt, in a week, before Hirayama has to return to Japan.
The Climbers Hirayama, 39, and Florine, 44, are an unlikely, yet complementary, pair. On the wall, Hirayama takes the lead, moving with fluidity, commitment, and power, red-lining his body and then finding out how fast he went after the fact. Florine, as the second, moves in a flurry of details, using systems refined over the years to keep safety margins high. Both men are lean and cut, but while Florine is tall and lanky, and pale from his fulltime desk job, Hirayama is broad-shouldered and golden from years of climbing outside for a living. Hirayama is serene and Buddha-like, while Florine is intensely driven. Both men are married and have two kids. Florine lives in the Bay Area, hours from El Cap, and Hirayama lives in Hidaka “Nowhere Near El Cap,” Japan. The veteran Florine has played and won the speed-climbing game for decades — he’s climbed the Nose 68 times and holds many other El Cap speed records. Hirayama, on the other hand, entered the speed-climbing arena just six years ago, after two World Cup championships and years of high-end onsights (up to 5.14b) and hard bouldering (he recently sent two V14s in Japan). Together, this supercharged duo performs at the very limit of the possible. In 2002, they set a record time of 2:48:50 on the Nose; it stood for five years.
A Better System Hirayama and Florine constantly refine their approach, ruthlessly cutting operational fat. For example, the pair experimented with (but abandoned) lead-swapping six years ago, and now Hirayama takes the lead position exclusively. “It’s ridiculous to think anyone can jug or climb up to the leader, and arrive rested,” says Florine. “As in business, specialization yields better results for the team.” The pair gained still more efficiency by extending pitches. “If you define a pitch as a place where you hand off gear,” says Florine, “we do the route in four: first at the pendulum out of Sickle Ledge, then at the King Swing, then at the Great Roof, and last at the Glowering Spot” — an average of 725 feet per pitch. The pair have streamlined their rack to a terrifying minimum, too (see “Record-Breaking Rack,” facing page). Alternatively, the Hubers shared leads, using a system so refined they switched no gear, as the second already had collected the necessary pieces on his rack. Hirayama and Florine follow simple rules. If it’s on the route, it’s fair game — ratty slings, rusty pitons, bolts — they’ll grab the gear in spots to go “French-free.” But mostly they’re pulling glassy El Cap granite — stacks of 5.10 and 5.11 free climbing. Hirayama does all the leading, and Florine the cleaning, seeing to the belaying (with a Grigri) and rope-safety management. While during the Hubers’ climb, the second jugged much of the route, Florine jumars only 520 feet (less than a fifth) and climbs the rest at the same pace as Hirayama.
The Send The July 2 climb did not begin well. Hirayama took a warm-up lap on the first pitch, a polished, pin-scarred 5.10d. Halfway up, he missed a hold, falling 20 feet. But, said Hirayama, “[The fall] just made me focus more.” And focus they did. The pair counted down together in Japanese — “San, ni, ichi!” — and then Florine hit the stopwatch, with Hirayama firing up the crack. The two reached Sickle Ledge (500 feet) in 16.5 minutes, and then Dolt Tower (1,200 feet) in 51 minutes. At the start of his launch across the 70-foot King Swing, Florine spun an aerial barrel roll. The pair made it to Eagle Ledge (1,500 feet) at 1:13, where Hirayama drank half a can of energy drink and passed the rest to Florine. On P20, Hirayama clipped one bolt and then climbed to the top of P21 — a 150-foot runout. (He often climbs 30 to 40 feet — and often much more — without pro.) Hirayama also led from the base of the Glowering Spot to the summit without restocking his rack, placing no gear in the 5.10b crack on the penultimate pitch because he had none left. At one point, the pair had a 10-minute lead on the Hubers’ record pace, but minor mistakes slowed them down. Below Dolt Tower on P9, Florine had to lower 20 feet to unsnag the rope. Starting up the bolts above Texas Flake, Hirayama forgot to unclip his aider and had to pause, reach back, and unclip it. After Florine touched the finish-line tree, Hirayama read the stopwatch attached to the harness of his prone, exhausted ropemate. 2:43:33 — two minutes, 12 seconds faster than the record. “It didn’t feel that fast with all the holdups,” said Florine, “but I guess we did OK.” In this case, OK means just more than five minutes per roughly 115-foot pitch . . . for 31 pitches. “We can go much faster,” stated Hirayama. “We will come back in September, maybe get down to 2:30, or 2:20.” Thomas Huber was enthusiastic about the new record: “Hans and Yuji did a great job. Congratulations from my heart,” he said. Alex Huber, meanwhile, was philosophical. “The nature of any record is that it will get broken sooner or later,” he said. “Once, Thomas and I [were] the fastest on the Nose, and we are happy about this. Thus, it is a finished story for us.” He added he and Thomas don’t intend to try to reclaim the record.
Record-Breaking Rack Yates 9.4mm big-wall speed rope (60m), 6mm tag line, 18 quickdraws, four long slings, six carabiners, five Camalots (No. 0.5, two No. 0.75s, No. 1, No. 2), nine TCUs (two No. 00s, two No. 0s, two No.1s, two No. 2s, No. 3), nine nuts, one cam hook, and one Yates Rocker
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