Speed Demons

A corps of rock rats in a hurry is putting the pedal to the mettle in big-wall climbing

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

At 7 a.m. one morning last summer, two young climbers, Chris McNamara and Miles Smart, were sitting in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria fueling up on coffee and bagels when Ron Kauk, 42, one of Yosemite's leading climbers, stopped by the table to see what the boys had planned for the day. McNamara, 21, and Smart, 19, explained they would be heading up Zodiac, a 16-pitch route on El Capitan that took Charlie Porter seven days to summit when he pioneered the climb in 1972. Today, most big-wall veterans take between three and five days to thread their way up Zodiac's 1,600-foot overhanging face. Kauk warned the partners that the weather forecast called for rain the next day and advised them to be prepared. But for McNamara and Smart, the point was moot. "We should be off by tonight," they said."Tonight?" echoed Kauk, who isn't easily impressed.

"Yeah," the partners replied. "Wanna grab dinner when we get back?"

What McNamara and Smart pulled off that day is something that conventional climbers find hard to digest: Carrying one rope, two CamelBaks, and six candy bars, they hurtled up Zodiac in seven hours and 40 minutes. Their time, which broke the existing record by more than an hour, cemented the partners' position as the fastest aid-climbing duo among a coterie of Yosemite rock rats who have emerged as, quite simply, the fastest climbers in the world. Led by McNamara, the Yosemite cabal is pioneering a new style of big-wall climbing that may see its most impressive airing when this year's season kicks off in April. Their style places a premium on speed and audacity—but mostly speed. And it is drawing nods of approval even from veteran rock climbers who worry about its potential dangers. "Being this fast isn't conducive to being safe," says Mark Synnott, one of America's finest alpine and big-wall climbers. "But it's pretty much the boldest thing anyone has ever done on a big wall."

When Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, and John Long bridged El Capitan's Nose route in a 15-hour blitzkrieg in 1975, they proved that some big walls could be scaled without hauling heavy bivouac gear and massive supplies of food. (The first team to ascend the Nose spent 45 days hoisting hundreds of pounds of equipment before summiting in November of 1958.) In the years since, speed has become an end in itself as vertical racing has made appearances in climbing gyms and X Games events. But nothing compares with what took place last season in the Yosemite Valley, where climbers obsessively sprint up an ever-expanding roster of granite faces. During a three-month period last summer, no fewer than 25 records were broken—a number that may well be trumped again this summer.

Today's top speedmeisters—a group that includes Hans Florine, Tim O'Neill, Russel Mitrovich, and Dean Potter—draw on two distinct styles of climbing. The first is free-climbing, in which a climber uses only his hands and feet to ascend. The free-climbing approach is daring and impressive, but it's limited by the nature of the rock. The second method, aid climbing, involves routes whose features are too smooth or too irregular to ascend without hexes, hooks, camming devices, and other pieces of protection. A slower and more meticulous process in which a climber's "pro" becomes a weight-bearing extension of his body, aid climbing also happens to be a requisite skill for most of the planet's remaining trophy ascents. And among the small group of the world's finest aid climbers, McNamara sits at the very top. In the space of a single month last summer, he and various partners shattered speed records on 12 Yosemite walls, including a 13-hour dash up a route on El Cap called Grape Race that slashed the previous record by 23 hours. "He never puts the wrong piece in," says Synnott. "Mac is the aid master."

A native of Mill Valley, California, McNamara started climbing at age 15. A year later, he and his brother Morgan, 13, became the youngest team ever to tackle Zodiac. (Mom and Dad monitored their progress from lawn chairs plunked down on the valley floor.) In September 1997, McNamara enrolled at Princeton. After 16 days, he bailed and made a beeline for California. Since then, he's been dividing his time between the University of California at Berkeley and Yosemite. He climbs virtually every weekend, often summiting two days in a row.

His records are impressive, but equally significant are the methods that McNamara and other climbers are honing to achieve these speeds—techniques that range from the intriguing to the insane. Climbers place as little protection as possible, and they shave seconds by skipping the step of bounce-testing their hardware with practice jumps, or "safety bumps." They also rely on a method called "short fixing" in which a lead climber moves seamlessly from one pitch to the next without waiting for his partner. The approach enables continuous ascending, but it means that for 40 to 60 feet at the start of each new pitch the lead climber is not on belay. "It hasn't happened to these guys yet," notes Synnott, "but if the bottom guy falls, he'll pull the top guy off."

Yosemite's dry conditions lend themselves perfectly to speed comparisons, but the valley also fuels ego clashes, and rivalries often fester into feuds. Last summer, after Florine announced his intention to set a new record by soloing the Nose and Half Dome's Regular Northwest Face in under 24 hours on July 28, Potter flew into Fresno from Colorado on the 27th, took an 85-mile taxi ride to Yosemite, and pinched the record. Unfazed, Florine pinched it back the next day, attacking the routes in reverse order. Despite such jousting, what's going on in Yosemite elicits respect even among the old-guard climbers whose achievements are being so blithely shredded by the youngsters. "So they can do in nine hours what took us nine days," laughs Tom Frost, 63, who is best known for the first ascent of El Cap's Salathé Wall in 1961. "I guess that's progress." Does Frost plan on climbing with McNamara this season? "Oh no," he hoots. "He's too fast for me."