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Back in 1986, when Peter Croft climbed the Nose with John Bachar in just over 10 hours, he wasn’t out to set a record and he certainly wasn’t trying to start a competition for one of rock climbing’s most coveted honors.
“I was never really that interested in the record,” Croft says now, more than 30 years later. “It was really more about being lazy. Hauling a bag for days up the cliff is a lot more work than the climbing, so being able to climb El Cap in a day and leave the bags behind seemed like a way to have all the fun and none of the work.”
Nevertheless, Croft’s and Bachar’s confirmed 10-hour time marked the beginning of what has become a famously competitive race to climb the tallest section of El Cap as fast as possible. It stood for four years before Hans Florine and Steve Schneider beat it by almost two hours in 1990. Shortly after that, Croft went up the Nose with Dave Schultz in 6:40, but again, he insists he wasn’t trying to one-up Florine and Schneider. Rather, he and Schultz wanted get up El Cap as fast as possible so they still had time to climb a second El Cap route, the Salathé Wall, the same day.
A year later, Florine lowered the time to 6:01 with partner Andy Puhvel, and then Croft and Schultz did the route in 4:48. By then, Croft and Schultz had the Nose so dialed, they occasionally did it before reporting for work with the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service at 8 a.m.
“It was just so handy,” Croft says.
Then, in 1992, Croft and Florine teamed up to establish a time of 4:22, yet another record and one that would stand for nine years.
“When I got a speed record with Hans,” Croft recounts, “we get to the top and he is flipping out because we beat the record. And I’m like, ‘OK great, it’s early, let’s go do something else—we got tons of time,’ and he looked at me like I was speaking a different language. He wanted to go to the deli.”
So, according to Croft, Florine headed for the deli while he went off to climb by himself, free-soloing the Steck-Salathé on the Sentinel, Northeast Buttress on Higher Cathedral, and East Buttress on Middle Cathedral.
“I had a great day,” he says.
What enabled Croft, Florine, and crew to take the time on the Nose down from 10 hours to a little over four in the span of just six years? Croft explains that the combination of new tactics and visionary thinking evolved together, continually redefining what was possible. In 1975, John Long, Jim Bridwell, and Billy Westbay did the first one-day ascent of the Nose in a little under 18 hours. Long led the first half of the route, Westbay took over for the middle section, and Bridwell jumped on the sharp end for the last nine pitches, nailing his way to the top. Back in the days of pitons, before anyone knew what a camming device was, climbing El Cap single-push style in under 24 hours was a towering achievement. The iconic photograph of the trio posing below El Cap in their flamboyant hippie regalia says it all: Their cocksure expressions can only be interpreted as a resounding affirmative to the question, You guys just did what?!
In the late 1970s Ray Jardine began manufacturing his Friends, and by the mid ‘80s, no one pounded iron on routes like the Nose anymore, which allowed climbers to spend much less time placing and removing gear, not to mention lightening their racks considerably. But Croft’s 10-hour ascent with Bachar was still accomplished inch-worm style, with the pair regrouping at every belay station.
Once Croft and Schultz got the idea to simul-climb various portions of the route—sometimes with only a single piece of gear between them—they began to realize how various factors could contribute to compounding speed gains: Going a little faster with some simul-climbing meant they could bring less water, which meant they were up the route before it even started getting hot, which meant bringing less water still, until they were carrying next to nothing and felt confident simul-climbing even more of the route, and so on. Along the way, Schultz came up with short-fixing as a way to keep both climbers moving over terrain that couldn’t be simul-climbed. Before long, it was plausible to knock off the Nose before work.
While Croft dismisses his own several Nose records as “a side thing” and “inconsequential,” Florine is happy to count his speed ascents among his greatest achievements, and he’s quick to credit them as his most noteworthy claim to fame. Long after Croft moved out of Yosemite Valley and lost interest in racing up the Nose—the route was usually too crowded when he visited—Florine kept chipping away at his times. Over a 22-year period, he set seven records with five different partners. He and Alex Honnold held the record until just last year, when Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds beat their time by four minutes, topping out in just under 2:20.
“It’s recognized all over the world,” Florine says of the Nose speed record. “When I would travel in the ‘90s, people from out of nowhere would come up to me and congratulate me for having the record on the Nose. I was half-way across the world and people would open their doors for me and welcome me into their communities.”
When his record would be broken (by the likes of Dean Potter and the Huber brothers), Florine would think back on the impact the Nose record had made on his life and he’d want to go break it yet again.
“There’s some competitiveness to it,” he says, “and it’s also just, ‘hey, this is my home climbing area and, as long as I can, I’d like to hold the mark on this iconic, famous route.’”
And he always did reclaim the record within a year or so—until now.
Last month, Florine was climbing the Nose with a friend, aiming for a casual 12-hour ascent of what would have been his 110th trip up the route. More than 2,000 feet up the wall, a nut that he was using for aid popped. Florine’s rope caught him after a 20-foot fall, but not before he slammed onto a ledge and badly broke both ankles. His partner lowered him a couple of pitches to a larger ledge that he could rest on while waiting for YOSAR to mount a rescue from above. Florine expects to climb again—hopefully by early next year—but says his Nose record days are over, particularly now that Honnold and Caldwell have dropped the mark to under two hours.
Florine doesn’t attribute his fall to climbing fast, noting that he was aiming for a pace many times slower than his speediest ascents. But even still, 30-plus pitches in 12 hours means you can’t follow the same safety protocols as you would moving at a slower, more methodical rate. Florine was on self belay, short-fixing, when he fell. Had his rope arrested his fall only a few feet higher—which he says would have happened if he had been on a tight belay from his partner—it would have been an unmemorable incident, a small hiccup in an otherwise fine day of climbing.
A photograph from Honnold’s and Caldwell’s sub-two-hour climb shows Alex free climbing on the sharp end of a giant loop of rope that dangles down to a piece to which it’s tied off far below. Tommy hangs at the other end of the line beneath two more widely-spaced pieces, ascending the rope. The safety compromises—or at least the deviations from standard climbing practices—for the sake of speed couldn’t be more evident.
Gobright, who before getting the Nose record last year, made a name for himself free soloing on Eldorado Canyon’s notoriously slick and fluky sandstone (the 5.12c Hairstyles and Attitudes among others), says the risk of continually upping the ante with speed climbing shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I think it’s far more dangerous to speed climb the Nose,” he says, when asked to compare his free soloing with speed climbing. “Both speed climbing and free soloing: we’re climbing well within our limit—I’m never getting pumped or doing dynamic throws—but with speed climbing, just packing all that climbing into such a short amount of time, the chances of slipping are a little greater.”
Gobright explains that big-wall speed climbing inherently necessitates an ongoing evaluation of the tradeoff between safety and the potential to go faster. It’s a line that must be redrawn, or at least reaffirmed, again and again as a team refines its tactics and gains familiarity with a given route.
“That’s kind of a hard line to find,” he says. “There’s potential to shave off time without adding danger, but at a certain point, the run-outs are going to have to get bigger, there’s going to be less points to chalk up, and stuff like that where you just have to draw that line a little lower. I think it’s important to think hard about it, where that line is going to stop.”
And the theoretical line between prudence and undue risk is just that—an idea of a reasonable safety cushion, not an actual one. Just this past weekend, between Honnold and Caldwell setting their initial Nose record and subsequently going under two hours, Tim Klein and Jason Wells, two highly accomplished big-wall speed climbers, fell to their deaths while moving fast up the Freeblast on El Cap. The pair was on the 5.7 pitch just below Mammoth Terraces when Wells, who was leading, fell. According to an eyewitness account, he plummeted hundreds of feet before pulling Klein off. It’s not clear whether Wells had placed any gear between himself and Klein, but if he did it was evidently minimal and insufficient to arrest his fall.
What’s more, the two were actually climbing with a third partner, Kevin Prince, who was ascending a rope Klein had fixed for him at an anchor. At this point, it’s not known why Klein wasn’t somehow attached to that anchor. Presumably he would have needed to trail Prince’s rope up behind him, in which case there’s no obvious rationale for him to be unclipped entirely from Prince’s rope and anchor system. For now, we can only know that the climbers were moving quite fast (confirmed by eyewitness reports) and had deviated, deliberately or otherwise, from conventional safety protocols.
According to a friend, Klein had climbed El Cap in a day 106 times before, and many of those ascents were with Wells. The pair was obviously comfortable simul-climbing—if that’s indeed what they were doing—the moderate and familiar terrain they were on. It’s not known how Wells fell, but, notwithstanding initial speculation, there’s no evidence to suggest he was knocked off by rockfall or dropped gear. The most likely scenario, then, is that he slipped or otherwise lost his footing.
Libby Sauter holds the current all-female Nose record of 4:43, which she set with Mayan Smith-Gobat in 2014. She’s also a close friend of Quinn Brett, a previous record holder who last year fell 100-feet speed climbing on the Nose and became paralyzed from the waist down. Sauter was the first person at Brett’s bedside in the ICU the night of the accident. She spent a lot of time with Brett over the next month and was with her when the doctors explained her condition and future prospects.
“Watching someone go from able-bodied and capable to watching them adapting to paralysis—I don’t think you can really appreciate the gravity of it until you are that close to somebody,” Sauter says. “It sure makes speed climbing a whole lot less cool.”
When Sauter first moved to Yosemite a decade ago and started big-wall climbing, she understood the risks, that people die climbing: “I knew death from a distance, but I didn’t know grief, I didn’t know it first hand,” she says, “I hadn’t lost anybody that close to me yet. And then I had a number of friends die climbing.”
Most recently, Sauter’s close friend Niels Tietze died in a rappelling accident on Fifi Buttress in Yosemite, only a month after Brett’s fall on El Cap. The accumulation of tragedies among her inner circle has caused Sauter to step back from cutting-edge climbing. These days she only occasionally gets out with her boyfriend, following him on toprope or doing easy moderate climbs. She’s given more attention to mountain running and other aspects of her life. But she acknowledges that setting aside climbing has left a hole in her life.
“I think it will be very difficult to replace,” she says, reflecting on what it has meant to her over the years and pondering whether she’ll perhaps get back into it more seriously at some point. “It’s still fun, I just cry about fifty percent of the time I go out,” she says. “To be a great climber you have to deny reality.”
And that, she goes on to say, couldn’t be more evident than Honnold and Caldwell going back up on the Nose one day after Well’s and Klein’s fatal accident, doing the exact same type of speed climbing. “Tommy and Honnold are incredibly competent, but so were Wells and Klein, and so was Quinn,” she says.
Reached by phone on the East Ledges, descending from his historic climb on Wednesday, Honnold acknowledged that the fatalities of the previous Saturday altered his and Caldwell’s plans for the next day, which they had slated for a sub-two-hour attempt.
“The accident was pretty heavy and definitely affected us,” he said, “and so for our Sunday lap we went pretty casually, just took it as a practice climb.” But the pair remained undeterred in their goal to break the two-hour mark. “We definitely thought about it a little bit,” he said, when asked if they considered walking away from the project. “But to be honest, we thought about those things beforehand anyway. We already evaluated the risk and thought about the potential…. Ultimately climbing is just a dangerous game.”
And yet, in typical Honnold fashion, he went on to downplay the actual danger of climbing a big wall with minimal protection points and enormous run-outs. “We thought it all through and made sure that those are good protection points and that they’re in the right places,” he said. “The thing is, if you feel uncomfortable you can always place more…. It’s kind of up to you how sketchy you want to make it.”
“That’s just what makes Honnold so great, he can be faced with the obvious risks and he can say, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ It’s a denial,” Sauter says. “If you are a talented 5.11 or 5.12 climber and you know the techniques, you can very safely—as far as rock climbing big walls safely can be done—do the Nose in a day, in eight hours, 14 hours, whatever your fitness level is…. What Tommy and Honnold did, what Mayan and I did—we know it’s not safe.”
Sauter says we need look no further than to Caldwell’s 100-foot fall while practicing for the Nose record last month: “They are the best, but Quinn was one of the best and look what happened to her. Tommy took a 100-footer, Quinn took a 100-footer. It just was luck that Tommy wasn’t above a ledge like she was.”
But Sauter is by no means out to rain on the speed-climbing parade. “It is everyone’s personal choice. I’m not telling people not to speed climb, but I’m very much aware that that kind of speed climbing isn’t for me anymore,” she says.
Of course that wasn’t the case until recently. “It’s something I dedicated five years of my life to. I understand it’s allure and attraction,” she says. “It is 3,000 feet of the best rock climbing in the world.”
And there’s the rub. The Nose is quite simply the most stunning piece of rock ever climbed. From all perspectives, the upswept prow of Yosemite’s tallest formation draws the eye irresistibly thousands of feet into the sky. It’s a line that beckons rock climbers from all corners of the globe. If we fixate on this one route, it’s simply the inevitable expression of our basic human yearning for transcendent experience—whether that be a weekend warrior’s ultimate lifetime achievement of just getting up it, or as the single route on Earth worth risking the whole show for the chance of setting a record on. Undoubtedly that urge will continue to propel future generations of climbers up the Nose at ever-faster clips.
Though he recently compared his two-hour goal on the Nose to a two-hour marathon, Honnold by no means thinks his mark represents the limit of human potential. He notes that indoor competition speed climbing is bringing new techniques and a new awareness of how a body can move over vertical terrain into all aspects of the sport, big-wall climbing included. He thinks tomorrow’s climbers can take the physical technique and fitness aspects of big-wall speed climbing to a new level. Ultimately, he says the Nose record could go as low as 1:30 or 1:15.
Hans Florine agrees, noting that spelunkers have jumarred the 3,000-foot Southeast Face of El Cap in only 48 minutes. Asked what he thinks the Nose record will be in 20 years, Florine pauses thoughtfully. “Fifty-nine minutes,” he finally declares.
“He’s smoking something stronger than I have access to,” Croft says of Florine’s prediction. “Until you fully have an actual bionic man,” he continues, “the record won’t go much lower than it already is.” He thinks Honnold and Caldwell do, in fact, represent the near-pinnacle of human achievement on the Big Stone.
To know which of these predictions will be born out in the future, we may just have to wait for the next crop of Yosemite prodigies to come along. “We’re both done speed climbing El Cap forever,” Honnold declared from the East Ledges yesterday. “We could keep shaving time off, a couple minutes every time, but there’s just no real point.”
While the Nose record won’t represent the signature achievement of either Caldwell or Honnold—Caldwell has the Dawn Wall and Honnold of course free soloed El Cap last year—Croft wonders whether it will end up overshadowing some of their other more-than-noteworthy accomplishments.
“I could see publicizing and popularizing the notion of a two-hour-mark as overshadowing when Tommy and Alex free-climbed El Cap, Mount Watkins, and Half Dome in a day,” he says. “To me that is one of the most amazing rock-climbing things ever.” But Croft thinks it’s harder to communicate the magnitude of that achievement—free climbing 7,000 vertical feet up to 5.12+, not to mention all the additional miles and thousands of vertical feet of approaching and descending, in under 24 hours—compared to the simplistic appeal of racing a clock.
But if we all pause for a moment to consider why people are drawn to scale cliffs in the first place, why climbing, as Libby Sauter says, “is this thing that captivates us and holds us,” we might be inclined to agree with Croft when he says he’s resistant to making big-wall climbing all about a stopwatch.
“I think it’s cool and it’s fun and hats off to those guys for doing that,” he says. “But it seems like Yosemite is more than that.”