Taking Back the Record – The Nose, Yosemite
In this excerpt from Hans Florine’s new book, On the Nose: a Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb, Hans talks about what it’s like to climb with Alex Honnold, who thinks his hands are as good as cams.
On June 17, 2012, the speed-climbing legend Hans Florine teamed up with Alex Honnold to try to take back the Nose record, a title Florine had held almost continuously for 20 years, but had lost to Dean Potter and Sean Leary in 2010 by 20 seconds. In this excerpt from Florine’s new book, On the Nose: a Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb, Hans talks about what it’s like to climb with a guy who thinks his hands are as good as cams.
A new rock star was rising in Yosemite. In 2007 a 21-year-old from Sacramento named Alex Honnold free-climbed two classic Yosemite routes, Astroman (5.11c) and the Rostrum (5.11c), back-to-back, in a day—without a rope. Astroman ascends for 1,100 feet, and the Rostrum for 800. One mistake—grabbing onto a loose piece of rock or slipping on a patch of moisture—would have most likely been the end of Alex Honnold.
A year later, Alex did the unthinkable—he free-soloed the 2,000-foot Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (5.12a), and became known in the Valley as “that crazy kid who climbs without ropes.” But I noticed Alex also did plenty of free climbing with ropes, setting several new speed records in the process. Most notably, in 2009, Alex and Sean Leary ratcheted down Yuji Hirayama’s free-climbing time of 13 hours on the Salathé (5.13b) to 8.5 hours.
I’d seen Alex, a gangly guy with a mop of brown hair and a big smile, here and there in Yosemite, but our paths didn’t cross until spring 2010, when I heard he was attempting the speed record on the Nose with Ueli Steck.
The next time I saw Alex in Yosemite, I approached him to get the scoop. He told me that Sender Films, the company that co-created the popular Reel Rock film tour, was on-site getting footage of Steck for the film The Swiss Machine. They’d asked Alex to take a run up the Nose with Steck for the camera. Alex said he’d read my book on speed climbing in preparation, and he seemed genuinely excited to apply what he’d learned to the Nose.
While my ego wanted to hold onto the speed record, I liked Alex’s enthusiasm. It was a good opportunity to try out a new role as mentor. I gave Alex my number and offered advice if he had any questions. He took me up on it, calling a few times during the filming. I enjoyed those talks and learned that Alex has a wry sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity about climbing.
Shortly after another film, Race for the Nose, about Dean Potter and Sean Leary’s successful effort to break the Nose record, premiered, I saw a call from Alex come through on my cell. I was pretty sure he was calling, under the guise of offering condolences, to rib me for losing “my precious.” I answered and braced myself.
“I saw Race for the Nose,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, somewhat sarcastically. Alex paused. Here it comes, I thought.
“So I was thinking we should take it back,” he said. “You know, the record.”
I nearly dropped my phone. “You,” I said, “and me, the old guy?”
“Exactly how old are you, anyway?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Oh, and Alex?”
Alex was well on his way to fame at that point. Sender Films had released Alone on the Wall, which chronicled Alex’s attempt to free-solo the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. The startling photo of Alex standing, without a rope or any protection, on a tiny ledge on Half Dome some 1,800 feet off the Valley floor would soon grace the cover of National Geographic, and Outside magazine would run the feature “No Strings Attached” on Alex in its April 2011 issue. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Alex Honnold would be rock climbing’s closest thing to a household name. Surely he was capable of setting the speed record on the Nose.
But as soon as I hung up the phone, I panicked. I’d made a rash, emotional decision. I went home after work and fretted to my wife, Jacki. She listened for about two minutes and then cut me off.
“Honey, it’s not going to hurt anything if you speed-climb the Nose with Alex Honnold. And it will probably be a lot of fun.”
I stood very still.
“What about Yuji?” I said. In 2008 Yuji and I had set the Nose record time of 2:37:05, which was subsequently beaten by Potter and Leary by 20 seconds.
“Write him a courtesy e-mail,” she said. “It’s not like you guys made a commitment to be speed-climbing partners till death do you part.”
She was right. I exhaled.
Alex and I met on October 13, 2011, to climb together for the first time—the Nose, of course. Alex was rock climbing’s biggest star, while I was the Nose Guru, the guy who’d climbed it 83 times. Yet on a clear fall day in El Cap Meadow, we were just two guys sorting gear and debating the rack.
Alex has a certain mindset. Let’s call it minimal to the point of reckless. I understood his motivation—the less gear on your rack, the lighter and faster you climb. But I had a different perspective: Place enough gear so you feel safe, and you climb faster.
“You’re bringing a two?” Alex asked, raising his eyebrows.
The cam he was referring to is just about the most indispensable piece of gear for climbing the Nose—the device you jam into two-inch cracks, mainly about 100 feet of the Stove Legs.
“Actually, I’m bringing two number twos,” I said.
Alex’s eyes widened. “My hand fits perfectly into a crack that size,” he said. “So I’m all set.”
Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “This is a test climb, practice, remember? I’m bringing it.”
Alex rolled his eyes. But he didn’t let up. “And why are we bringing number threes?”
I sighed. It was the same reason. There are about 120 feet worth of three-inch-wide cracks in the Stove Legs. I knew Alex knew that.
“Why wouldn’t we bring threes?” I asked, looking him square in the eye.
He held my gaze. “What’s on the edge of your wrist?”
I wondered if this was some kind of trick question. Before I could muster an answer, he said, “Your hand. It’s the same size as a number-two Camalot. Turn your hand to the side, and it’s the size of a three. Make a fist, and it’s a four. So there you have three pieces of gear that you are already equipped with since birth.”
“OK,” I said, looking away to hide my grin. “Then maybe you should lead the Stove Legs.”
I had to chuckle at Alex’s logic. And his nerve. I was 22 years his senior. I had started climbing before he was born. It wasn’t that Alex was disrespectful, but he had no qualms about challenging the status quo. I sensed that I needed to give him more than a cursory explanation.
“Look, Alex, if I put more pro in, I climb better, I climb faster. It’s a peace-of-mind thing.”
He paused, considering the statement. I could almost see his brain sucking in the piece of data, analyzing it against his own experience to determine its validity, and then spitting back out the answer.
“I climb the same regardless,” he said.
In 29 years of climbing, I have never met anyone like Alex. In the end he deferred to my judgment on how many pieces of gear to bring—at least on our first climb.
We set out in late morning, with one rope and a slightly pared-down rack. The plan was to climb the Nose the way Jim Herson and I had done it in 2001 when we took the record back from Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill. I would take the first 16 pitches, to the King Swing, and Alex would take pitches 17 through 31.
We worked the route like a puzzle, identifying exactly how and when the follower would give the gear he’d cleaned back to the leader. And we bickered over the finer details like an old married couple.
“Alex, it’s easier if you use the bolt ladder on Changing Corners instead of free-climbing it.”
“It’s no problem for me to free it,” he said.
“I get that, but it takes less energy if you use a biner and just pull from bolt to bolt.”
“Maybe for you, Hans, but you’re a lot older. It doesn’t feel any harder to me.”
“That’s great, Alex, but it’s just plain faster to use the bolt ladder.”
Even with all the discussion and process re-engineering, we topped out in 4:37. I felt pretty good about that.
As we started the hike down, Alex said, “You place gear really fast.”
“Is that a compliment or your way of giving me permission to carry up as many threes as I want?” I asked.
“Neither,” Alex said, then broke into a giant grin. “No, both.”
As we hiked down, I learned some interesting facts about Alex. He’d had an unusually high GPA in high school, like a 4.7, for excelling in so many advanced classes, but then dropped out of UC Berkeley because he felt it was a waste of time. He likes to read, and we like some of the same books, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Like me, he lost his father too early. And like me, he is an atheist.
Our similarities helped increase my comfort level in climbing with him. For atheists, there is no afterlife. This is it, so we tend to follow the motto carpe diem, or “seize the day.” But we don’t do it with reckless abandon. We’re very careful with our one life. Barring some crazy accident like Boot Flake peeling off the face of El Capitan, I knew I was safe with Alex.
We trained over the next two weeks, whittling our time to 3:16, then 2:37:30—just 45 seconds shy of the record. While it would have been cool to take back the record that year, the winter weather moved in and shut down any further climbing in Yosemite. We agreed to continue our quest in 2012, as soon as the route was dry.
During the winter and spring, I trained indoors at Diablo Rock Gym. As a dad with a full-time job, I found it great to have such a strong goal to work for in the spring to improve my fitness level. I was 47, and many of my friends were starting to slow down, exercising less, climbing easier or shorter routes, and getting, well, sedentary. Luckily, I had Alex sending me regular text messages to make sure my “psych is still high.” In other words, to check that I was continuing to bust my butt in the gym.
I also spent time really dialing in the route in my mind, stripping it down to the exact pieces of gear I’d use on each of my 16 pitches. I made a list, by pitch, noting each piece I’d need, in the order I’d need it.
And I solicited advice from the experts, including Eric J. Hörst, the foremost authority on climbing fitness and the author of eight books.
“You could shave five minutes off your time by sleeping at altitude,” he told me. I was intrigued but not ready to invest in a hypoxic chamber for my home. Translation: Jacki vetoed it as “ridiculous.”
Bill Wright, my good friend and co-author of my speed-climbing book, flew out from Colorado for a reconnaissance climb with me on June 10, before Alex arrived. It was a good way to relieve some stress, scouting the Nose to make sure nothing had changed, and reminding myself of critical points of execution enroute. Mostly, I wanted to make sure I remembered exactly where I needed to place a piece of gear in the thin seam that leads to Boot Flake. There’s an exact spot where the cam fits, and if you don’t get it right, you waste time fiddling.
When Alex showed up two days later, I felt comfortably tuned up from my climb with Bill and ready to get to it. Our plan was to attempt the record on Sunday, June 17, Father’s Day and the day before my 48th birthday. Weekends were always best for cheers of support, not only from friends and family but also the media, climbing-community supporters and tourists—the Race for the Nose had become that big of a public spectacle.
Alex and I took a test run up the Nose on June 13 to see where we were process- and fitness-wise. It took us 2:53. We were 17 minutes and 8 seconds off the record, but it was an incredible start. On the hike down we brainstormed improvements.
“I hate carrying gear on my shoulder,” Alex said, referring to the sling he wore to clip in the pro he cleaned when following. During my lead, in between pitches six and seven, he removed it and handed it back to me. I did the same for him at roughly the halfway point on his lead.
“I could try to make something you wear around your waist,” I said. “But it needs to be something you can take off really fast so we don’t spend too much time handing over the gear.”
“What if we just don’t hand over the gear?” Alex asked.
“So I carry enough gear for all 16 pitches so I don’t need you to replenish me, and you just hold onto the gear you clean?”
My initial reaction was “no way.” But Alex had earned enough of my respect that I stopped to think about it. It was certainly possible. And it would remove the two time- draining gear handoffs.
“You’d have to pare down your rack, of course,” Alex added.
“Of course,” I said.
In reality, I’d have to add some pieces to be able to climb both my leads without replenishing my gear. But that was an argument for later.
“Let’s try it,” I said.
“How about tomorrow?” Alex asked.
“How about a rest day first?” I said.
It will be really good training to climb it while we’re tired,” Alex said.
“Can you handle it if I’m so tired that it takes us like six hours?” I asked.
Alex rolled his eyes.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I need you to be prepared that it might take me that long.”
“Yeah, yeah, Hans, whatever.”
On Thursday we met in the morning and quibbled a bit. For my 1,600-foot block, I’d pared the rack to 16 cams, 22 quickdraws, three long runners with biners, and 11 free biners. That equates to one piece of pro per every 31 vertical feet—as light and fast as I was willing to go. As we set out, I felt physically beat but mentally amped to try a new method.
On the wall I got a little spooked leading the Stove Legs. It was the one section where I would have liked to place more pro. A fall of potentially 50 feet would have most likely ended with a serious injury, and while I’d never fallen on the Stove Legs, the thought made me hesitant to climb at full speed.
When we topped out, I ran hard for the tree, smacked it, and sat down. Alex watched as I pulled my stopwatch off the back of my harness, then pressed a couple of buttons to access the main menu to change it from “time of day” mode to “chrono” mode so I could stop the time.
Despite having run the vertical marathon up the Nose the day before, we’d done it 14 minutes faster. To use Alex’s term, my psych level was high over eliminating the gear handoffs. I could only imagine how fast we could climb when we were fresh. We were definitely going to set a new record.
But Alex looked upset.
“You know it took you at least five seconds to stop the time,” he said, more a statement than a question.
“Well, I switch it to time-of-day mode after I start it so it doesn’t accidentally stop if I bump it while I’m climbing,” I explained. “So when we’re done, I have to switch it back before I can stop the time.”
“Dude, we need to time how long that takes and subtract it,” Alex said.
He wasn’t kidding. And he had a point. In fact, I was kind of surprised I hadn’t thought of it. I reset the stopwatch, and we tested how long the fiddling took me: seven seconds.
“We can deduct seven seconds on Sunday,” I said.
I drove back to the Bay Area and caught up on work. The next day, Friday, I climbed a couple of easy 5.10s in the gym to stay loose. On Saturday I e-mailed everyone that I thought would care that we were going for the speed record on the Nose. Alex stayed in Yosemite and “recovered” by spending two days backpacking 18 miles in the high country of Tuolumne Meadows. When he came out of the wilderness, he was a bit taken aback by the level of publicity I’d garnered for our record attempt. He called me up, sounding nervous, which was unusual for a climber known among friends as Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold.
“I don’t want a lot of people there when we start,” he said. “It might mess with my focus.”
“But you want them there at the end?” I asked.
“Yeah, of course. Whatever,” Alex replied.
I paused, trying to come up with a solution or something that would put Alex more at ease. He spoke before I did.
“Can we just tell everyone we’re starting at 7 a.m.? Then we’ll go early and start at 6 a.m.”
The plan didn’t work. When we arrived Sunday morning at 5 a.m., about a dozen people were already milling around the meadow. Fortunately, Alex handled it just fine. We started at 5:52 a.m., slightly ahead of schedule.
About two-thirds into my lead, I reached the Stove Legs and summoned my courage. I needed to blast through hundreds of feet worth of cracks flawlessly and at warp speed, with only minimal gear.
As Alex simul-climbed hot on my heels, I concentrated on jamming my hands and feet into the sharp crack, bloodying my ankle in the process. I took only one brief pause to catch my breath, noting that Alex would surely tease me about it later. But it was worth it to lower my heart rate and steady my breathing. There was an updraft in the Valley that day, which carried the cheers of the hundreds of people gathered in El Cap Meadow.
When it was my turn to follow Alex, I drew on every ounce of physical and mental energy to keep up. As the follower, I was very aware that I was the one holding the Grigri, so safety was largely in my hands. Not only was I belaying, I was climbing at the limit of my cardiovascular ability. By the time I raced up the last pitch to the top, I was dizzy with exhaustion. And elated. I knew without even checking the time that we had the record.
I hit the tree and stopped the watch, subtracting the agreed-upon seven seconds. I pulled out my phone and called down to Jacki, who was in the meadow with the kids.
“2:23:46,” I told her.
Alex and I had broken Stanley and Dean’s record by 12 minutes and 59 seconds.
“I think it can go in under two hours,” Alex said.
“Maybe next year,” I said, mostly kidding. “For now, let’s enjoy this.”
We walked over to the edge of El Capitan so the people in the meadow could see us, standing side by side, our arms raised in victory against a cloudless blue sky. The wind pulled the roar of their cheers up to us. I realized then that this was a record that might last for a long time.
HANS FLORINE is a climber, author, motivational speaker and manager of the Diablo Rock Gym in San Francisco. In addition to holding the speed-climbing record for the Nose, he has won three gold medals in X Games speed climbing.
JAYME MOYE is an adventure writer based in Boulder, Colorado. For more, see onthenosebook.com.