Dispatches, September 1998
Hi, My Name is Hans. Now Gimme My Check
Lessons in gold-digging from America's speediest wall rat
By Bill Donahue
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
— John MuirSomewhere deep in the Sierra, Muir's ghost must be flitting through the woods in a full-blown rage, flinging pine needles into the air and wailing, "No!" Because this month, "Hollywood" Hans Florine — a notoriously shaggy and abrasive rock jock who also happens to be America's premier speed climber — intends to desecrate the legendary naturalist's wilderness temple. The plan? To rocket up and down all of the West Coast's 14,000-foot summits in a flamboyant bid to showcase a smorgasbord of consumer products and his own Rainier-size ego.
During his so-called Pacific Ceiling Tour, Florine and three friends — Russ McBride, Tony Ralph, and Vicki Travis — will wend along the Sierra, sprinting up the easiest routes and then barnstorming back down with the aid of in-line skates, BMX bikes, short skis, and paragliders. If all goes as planned, they will tornado through their 16-peak tour in less than two weeks, shattering the 1974 record of 15 days and inspiring spectators everywhere to exclaim, "Pretty impressive. But what's the point?"
Actually, the point is speed, and within the growing community of quicksilver climbers who treat mountains as vertical racetracks, Florine, 34, reigns as something of a radically cool icon. Since launching into the sport of speed climbing in 1989, he has racked up a glittering roster of achievements: nailing the fastest ascent of Chile's perilous Torres del Paine last winter, sharing the record for the swiftest climbs of El Capitan and The Nose in Yosemite, and snagging three consecutive speed-climbing gold medals at the X Games (though he logged a disappointing fourth-place finish this year).
Impressive as his climbing prowess is, however, Florine's flair for self-promotion outshines it by far. Take, for instance, his most infamous Kodak moment: At a 1993 competition in Snowbird, Utah, he took eighth place after squandering his chance at victory by pausing halfway up the route to nibble conspicuously on a malt-nut PowerBar (one of his sponsors). An equally mercenary impulse seems to have infused his Sierra tour. "We're not hoping to prove anything," Florine confesses. "We say we're doing it for the environment, but that's just so we can get sponsors." And indeed, Black Diamond, Marmot, and eight other firms are showering cash on the venture.
It's a testament to Florine's skills that upon hearing such shameless admissions, his colleagues can only shake their heads and laugh. "He's unabashed about promoting himself," chuckles Alison Osius, president of the American Alpine Club, "but he's an incredibly versatile, creative climber. This Sierra thing may be silly, but it's a fun idea, and you've got to respect Hans for how much he has done."
Photograph by Jim Thornburg