The Dawn of Urban Big Wall Speed Climbing

Over Labor Day weekend, Freddie Wilkinson and Rufus Lusk set a new record. They single-pushed the Nose (5.9 C1) on El Cap—from Brooklyn, New York. “It wasn’t about the record though,” says Wilkinson, “It’s been an 11-year dream.”

By Rock and Ice | September 11th, 2015

Freddie Wilkinson and Rufus Lusk on their record setting Brooklyn-El Cap single push. Photo: Cheyne Lempe / Mountain Hardwear.Over Labor Day weekend, Freddie Wilkinson and Rufus Lusk set a new record. They single-pushed the Nose (5.9 C1) on El Cap—from Brooklyn, New York. “It wasn’t about the record though,” says Wilkinson, “It’s been an 11-year dream.”

Climbing buddies since college, Lusk and Wilkinson hadn’t shared a rope in years. Though their lives have taken them in opposite directions, they’ve maintained their friendship. Lusk is now a filmmaker in NYC and climbs plastic once a week. Wilkinson is a professional climber and writer, living in a shack— which he prefers to call a Shabin —in New Hampshire.

Despite the distance, Lusk and Wilkinson saw this as an opportunity and spent many years mulling over the prospect of climbing El Cap together from Lusk’s front door in Brooklyn.

Their goal was to do it in a single, 24-hour push. While they fell short, by only two-and-a-half hours, they call their trip a success.

“I think this is just the beginning,” says Wilkinson. “I see a lot more attention coming to Urban Big Wall Speed Climbing.”


Q&A with Freddie Wilkinson and Rufus Lusk

Lusk - first time on El Cap - learns to Jumar on the climb. Photo: Cheyne Lempe / Mountain Hardwear.Congrats on the big climb – how’d it go?

Wilkinson: Like any big climb, there were ups and downs. You can look at this as the glass half full or the glass half empty. We did succeed in single-pushing the Nose in a day but I want to be honest with you Hayden, we didn’t make our 24-hour goal.

Lusk: It wasn’t about the record though.


What was your time?

W: From Brooklyn, it took us 26, we’re calling it 26-and-a-half hours. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

L: After Freddie’s second block, we knew it would be pretty tight.

W: I think it was the chicken fingers I had at JFK—they were messing with my digestive track.

L: Yeah, must have been the chicken fingers.


When does time start; when you leave the door or take off?

W: That’s a good question. Since it was the New York City send we started time when our physical contact with New York City ended.


What were the traveling logistics?

W: We hit the ground at SFO, got the rental car and tore out.

L: Yeah, we made the drive in under three hours.

W: You could fly into Mariposa airport and cut down on driving time, but there isn’t a direct flight from New York City, so you’d have to make a connection somewhere.

L: And it has to be commercial flights. You could charter a plane straight to Mariposa…

W: Yeah, that would be bullshit.

L: Pretty much like fixing the first half of the route.

W: So you have to fly commercial. And take your own gear—having it stashed there would be cheating too.


Freddie Wilkinson. Photo: Cheyne Lempe / Mountain Hardwear.How long did the total approach take?

W: Rufus started the first pitch at around…[mumbles]. So it was about 11 hours Brooklyn to the Nose.

L: Is that right? Maybe 10 hours.

W: Yeah, you’re right. Ten hours to the Nose.

L: But there were definitely areas to cut down time. Like if you’re part of the National Car Club and could have a car waiting for you instead of waiting at the desk—you could save 20 minutes there. And if you sat towards the front of the plane…

W: We also messed up a little going from the car to the wall. We lost the car keys in the parking lot for five minutes in the dark.


Think you could do it under 24 hours?

L: I think we can definitely beat 24 hours.

W: Our Nose time was around 14-and-a-half hours, so we have massive room for improvement there. It was an onsight for Rufus, actually, his first time on El Cap. And I hadn’t been up there in years, so our big-wall technique was a little rusty.

L: Sleeping on the plane is the real crux.


W: Yeah, got to be careful with caffeine intake. And food.

L: I had a fancy dinner the night before in New York—had a few too many drinks.

W: But the thing about El Cap is that you don’t have to be a super strong climber. The beginning is 5.9 then some easy aid up higher. We cruised the first half of the Nose, until the Great Roofs. Then Rufus had to aid climb.

L: There was a lot of on-the-job training.


Rufus, had you ever aid climbed before?

Rufus Lusk. Photo: Cheyne Lempe / Mountain Hardwear.L: I had done a little but only on some shorter pitches, so yeah, there was a lot of on-the-job training. But by the end of the climb, I was really starting to learn how to jumar. The climb really got slow though when I had to aid.

W: Really slow. There was a lot of grunting. But being there and seeing Rufus have to dig that deep was painful—but totally inspiring.

L: Hey, thanks Freddie. We’ve been friends for a long time but hadn’t tied in together in like two or three years.

W: And that was just for some sport climbing.

L: I think the last time we had done a serious climb together was when I was 22.

W: Like we said, it wasn’t about the record, it was about friendship.


How did the Brooklyn Nose-in-a-day idea come about?

W: It’s been an 11-year dream.

L: I don’t have a lot of time, living in the city, and this has been a dream of ours ever since I started living here.

W: Everyone climbs El Cap in a day now, but who does it from Brooklyn?

L: Maybe some climbers in Boston have considered it.


Would you try again?

L: Definitely eager to do it again.

W: We need to keep things in check. We had sponsors sweating us on this and we don’t want that pressure. But, no surprising if you see us ordering an Uber to JFK.

Let’s be honest, every record, once you publicize it, people will try to break it. Hans Florine, Alex Honnold—we’ve heard some rumors. But that’s the life of being Urban Big Wall Speed Climbers.

L: If one of those guys asked me, I’d have to decline. I couldn’t do it without you Freddie.


Do you think it could be done NYC to El Cap back to NYC in 24 hours?

Wilkinson (right) and Lusk (left) celebrating their record setting Brooklyn-El Cap time at the summit. Photo: Cheyne Lempe / Mountain Hardwear. L: Ultimately, New York City door-to-door in 24 hours would be the Holy Grail. Let’s see, if you climbed it in under four hours, and the flights go smoothly, yeah, I would say it’s definitely possible. It would be hard—cutting edge—but it could be done.

W: But if you go back in history, and asked Royal Robbins if he even thought El Cap could ever be climbed in a day, what would he say?

L: It could definitely be done in a day if you had a full day off from work—call the boss the night before and tell him you’re sick, then go climb the Salathé or some route, and be back at the office at 9 a.m. the next morning. That’s the dream.

W: I think this is just the beginning, Hayden, I see a lot more attention coming to Urban Big Wall Speed Climbing. I could see, that say, if this became a Rock and Ice online article, people would be trying to break all sorts of records.

L: I think this is a call to action for east coast climbers. If you have a Frequent Flyer membership, you could be climbing in Yosemite on the weekends. People could be doing it.

W: It’s not about the record though, it’s about inspiration. And friendship.

L: I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Freddie.

W: Aw, thanks Rufus. Yeah, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if Rufus didn’t live in New York City.

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