Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Mind Over Mountains
My friend Hans is up to something pretty cool. He and Yuji Hirayama are trying to break the Huber brothers' speed record on The Nose. This wouldn't be big news without the back story, since Hans and Yuji held the record for years and Hans has held it numerous times with different partners and is probably more synonymous with speed climbing than anyone alive. But this attempt is different.
A Brief History of Speed
In the late 80s, John Bachar and Peter Croft did The Nose route on El Cap and The DNWF of Half Dome in the same day. This ascent was so ridiculously ahead of its time that there wasn't a big line up to try and repeat the feat but it was really the catalyst for a younger generation to begin attempting to push wall climbing into a new era.
Prior to this, speed was mainly "for safety" in the mountains. In traditional mountaineering, the faster you went the less likely the weather was going to change and force you into a life-threatening epic. Speed on rock walls meant, mainly, that you might get to sleep in your own bed at night. So speed ascents were basically nothing but good old fashioned competition, something most climbers weren't too overt about.
The Nose route on El Cap was different. Because it was such an important route in the history of climbing each new style of ascent was deemed a milestone. When John Long, Billy Westbay, and Jim Bridwell cracked it in less than 24 hours it was major news. Ditto when Lynn Hill became the first person to free climb it.
Enter Hans Florine
With a background in college sports, Hans came into the sport with a zest for competition—something that seemed to offend many of the sport’s traditional stallwarts. It wasn't so much about winning or losing but just getting out there, pushing a bit, and trying to obliterate what was thought possible. With various partners, Hans and Croft took turns breaking each others times up The Nose, which essentially started the sport of speed climbing in America (the Russians had been doing it for years but with different objectives). Eventually, Florine and Croft combined forced and set a time on The Nose that was so fast it was ignored for years.
In the mid 90s there was a small fringe group dedicated to blasting up walls as quickly as possible. Nearly every route on El Cap was climbed "in a push" (meaning you climb ‘til you get to the top no matter how long it took--no bivy gear, which was exemplified by Hans' license plate the reads "no bivys"). Eventually, a motivated Valley local named Dean Potter set his sights on Hans and Peter's Nose record and beat it.
He and Hans spend the next half a decade in a celebrated competition for speed records in Yosemite. Potter played the old school soul climber. He claimed to eschew competition but was, in fact, so competitive that when he heard of Hans' attempt to be the first person to solo The Nose and Half Dome in a day he drove half way across the country to get the jump on him. When Hans finished, thinking he was the first, he found out Dean had pipped him by a few hours.
The culmination of all of this was still in The Nose record. Potter and Timmy O’Neil beat Hans’ time twice. Finally, Hans teamed up with an ex-sport climbing superstar who had turned his sites on free climbing big walls, Japan's Yuji Hirayama. He and Hans ended up obliterating The Nose record. Their time was so audacious to even consider breaking that the competition again disappeared. Dean set his sites on different objectives elsewhere while Hans became a dad and got an office job.
The Uber Hubers
This German duo had come to the Valley in the mid 90s to see what their sport climbing skills could accomplish in climbing's most notable theatre. When the dust settled they had, again, changed the game of wall climbing. By free climbing, or at least attempting to and treating traditional aid routes as free climbs, they were the driving force between turning the bastion of "wall climbing" into a mere crag. Hot shot climbers from around the globe followed suit and many of El Cap's classic aid routes are now grade IV free climbs, provided you have the requisite fitness and skill.
After a decade the Hubers’ hall of fame tick list had one obvious omission: the speed record on The Nose. They set their sites after it full bore, and even made a film about it before the record was broken, likely assuming they'd get it once they set their minds to it. Turns out that film took years to complete. They did finally break the record. Then they broke it again. Here's a trailer for their film:
Here is a list of speed ascents of The Nose:
1975 - the FIRST one day ascent was made, took about 17 hours and 40 minutes.(Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell, and John Long)
1979~ - the route was done in under 13 hours.(Thierry ' Turbo' Renault + other)
1984 - the route was done in under 11 hours.(Dave Shultz, and John Middendorf, also Duncan Critchley and Romain Vogler)
1986 - the route was done in 9:17. (John Bachar and Peter Croft, they then went and climbed the NWRR on Half Dome)
1988 - first NIAD Beta/description written by John Middendorf.
1989 - first one day solo ascent was made.( Steve Schneider )
1990 - 8:06 became the record then 6:40,(Steve Schneider and Hans Florine, then Dave Shultz and Peter Croft,- respectively)
1991 - 6:01 became the record then 4:48,(Andres Puhvel and Hans, then Dave and Peter, - respectively)
1992 - 4:22 became the record.,(Peter and Hans)
2001 - 3:59:35 became the record, then 3:57:27, then 3:24:20,(Timmy Oneil and Dean Potter, then Jim Herson and Hans, then Timmy and Dean again.)
2002 - 2:48:50 became the record,(Yuji Hirayama and Hans)
2007 - 2:48:35 became the record, then 2:45:45, (Alexander and Thomas Huber set and broke their own record)
The Desk Jockey
Each climber mentioned, along with many others, has had a hand in shaping how the public views El Capitan. When Warren Harding first summited it in 1958 a TV crew was there to capture "the impossible". Now it's turned into a venue for rising stars to prove their skills by free climbing something that was once considered perilous just to ascend using any type of style or equipment necessary. To make your mark on El Cap these days requires that you be a full time climber who dedicates your life to training. When Hill free climbed The Nose she spent a year training specifically for it. When Tommy Caldwell free climbed The Dihedral Wall, perhaps the most continuously demanding rock climb in the world, his training was Herculean. He would get up before dawn and spend hours working out moves high on El Cap. Then he would come down, eat, and go bouldering to gain more specific strength.
Once again, Florine seeks to break the mold. But instead of training in the Valley, where he was once a resident, he’s been slaving away in an office. It's been a long time since he's done anything noteworthy in climbing, or even athletically (at least compared to what he used to do). In fact, just last fall he called me to see if I'd like to see how many of “these trendy endurance events” we could complete off the couch. Now he's found the perfect carrot. His beloved record has been broken. His old partner is still game. And now he can become the first weekend warrior to hold a world class record.
Yuji flew in from Japan on the 22nd. He and Hans reconed the route yesterday in 4:48. Hans is now back at work while Yuji probably recovers from jet lag. On Friday, they recon one more time. On Sunday, they go after the record.
This reminds me of an old Sports Illustrated cover from when Ali was challenging Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title at 42. The title was “Don’t count the old man out.” Of course, Ali got pummeled. The romantic in me is still giving Hans a fighting chance.
You'll find more info and can follow the attempt at:
pic: Yuji above the Great Roof