Adventure Lab: World's Best Climber

Nov 5, 2009
Outside Magazine

Welcome to the Adventure Lab, our new blog dedicated to the intersections of science, sports, education and nature. The connections will sometimes be loose, but that should make it fun. Please comment and ask questions.

This week at NASA's Dryden Research Center in California, three teams of scientists are competing to propel robotic climbers up cables using directed lasers. The sponsoring partners hope the competition spurs development of a climbing elevator that can work in outer space. That's why they're offering the winner $2 million. (You can watch the competition live here.)

No doubt some of the climbing designs get their inspiration from nature. This fact, and the coincidence that Dean Potter will be featured this Sunday on NBC's World of Adventure Sports FreeBASEing the Eiger, lead me to reach for the question: What animal is the best climber on earth?



Constant climbing has made DeanPotter’s hands tougher than the bottom of most people’s feet. “I can stick myhand into crystallized cracks and hold on to razors,” said Potter.

While a marathoner may prep byrunning 50-70 miles a week, Potter “easy” free-solos up vertical faces four orfive days a week, three to four hours each day. In the spring and summer hefrequents Yosemite, in the fall and winter Patagonia, Chile, and Moab. Theconstant movement—balancing, flexing, wedging, launching—builds a physicalknowledge that allows him to approach a state of grace on harder routes. “Ithink that’s where the highest level of climbing happens, when you’re movinginstinctually,” said Potter. “I kind of, more and more, don’t think about itrationally.”

Such a zoned in approach hasallowed him to free-climb El Cap and Half Dome in under 24 hours, and free-solo Separate Reality, Dog's Roof, and Astroman. In 2005, he free-soloed Heaven, a 5.12d/13a, 40-foot cliffthat overhangs the Yosemite Valley at a 40-degree angle (see the video above from Brad Lynch and Eric Perlman). “There’s no chance tolive if you fall,” said Potter. “It’s roughly a half-mile down.”

But it’s not the constant training,calloused hands, or expert sense of balance that Potter credits most for hissuccess. The most important thing he does?  Using yoga to not be scared. “A lot of what I do is dealingwith the fear side of climbing,” he said. “I’m just emptying my mind to whereI’m not concentrating on anything other than breathing.”

On a difficult climb, Potter willoften practice at the same time every day. The similar light allows him to seethe moves, holds, and shadows on the rocks in the same way.  When he attempts the route with nosupport, he’s ready.

The combination of light and rockinspires him. Before he starts a climb he’ll clear his head through meditation,using yoga to harness and focus his energy for the climb. He channels his energyfor tough moves and often releases it after the completion through screams andyelps. Now, he’s taking free soloing a step further by strapping on a BASE suitand launching himself off sheer wall faces before flying down into deepvalleys. This new sport is called FREEbasing. Perhaps most famously, Potter freeBASEd a 5.12+ on the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger.

Why would he invent and attemptsuch new extreme routes? “A lot of these things – what I do – is for theheightened awareness,” said Potter. “I bond with the place and through this bonding connect to nature.


The Tokay Gecko’s motivation is more primitive. It scampersup cliffs, trees, and buildings at night to feast on unsuspecting insects,birds, and small mammals. The 14-inch-long hunter can run straight up a smoothsurface at speeds up to 1 meter a second and can hang from a horizontal ceilingusing only one of its 10 toes.

It's connection to nature is more elemental. Atthe molecular level, everything gets sticky as it gets smaller and can fit intocracks. We have relatively flat hand molecules that can’t get close enough to awall to stick strongly. Potter needs the thick shell of dead skin around hishands so he can wedge into jagged holes. He needs increased finger strength sohe can hold his weight against pimple-sized nubs.

Evolution has provided the tokaywith toes that just need to touch a surface milliseconds at a time to stick andmove forward. Each gecko toe has ridges called scansors (.5mm long and 2 mmwide hairs) covered uniformly with roughly 14,000 threads called setae everysquare mm (1/10 the diameter of a human hair and 2 hair diameters long) thatend in smaller tips called spatula (250 fit across the diameter of one humanhair). “The tokay has millions of tiny hairs on its feet, each with hundreds ofsplit ends,” said Kellar Autumn of Lewis and Clark College. “Millions of thosesplit ends get very close to the surface, so the gecko can stick.”

Plus,the tokay’s toes are self-cleaning, defeating the stereotype that all goodclimbers are smelly dirtbags. Autumn and colleagues discovered how the tokay scampered at high speeds up sketchy routes, then used the science behind the discovery to createa self-cleaning adhesive that can function in the vacuum of outer space.

While a human climber like Potterhas to worry about the danger of falling—even medium distances related to hisbody size—the Tokay can climb bolder routes without consequence. 

You can drop a mouse down athousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slightshock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed,a man is broken, a horse splashes. `On being the right size', by J. B. S.Haldane (1928).

“A gecko is just small enough to fall and not get hurt,”said Autumn.

Ofcourse, the tokay does have to watch out for predators like snakes, owls andbats. And many of it’s lesser known relatives are endangered due to loss of habitatfrom human encroachment. Why should you care? “There are over 1100 species ofgecko, each with unique feet,” said Williams. “Think of all the designs thatare out there in nature that we don't even know of yet.” 

The Winner: The Tokay. Potter has pushed the limits toawe-inspiring extremes. But the tokay is faster, stronger, and has evolution on it's side (no yoga required). And though Potter’s yell can startle (see video above), the tokay's call is downright intimidating. There’s a reason American troops in Vietnamcalled it the “F*$K You Lizard.”

--Joe Spring

Note: Interviews conducted previously for an article that did not run.

Filed To: Adventure, Science, Climbing

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