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Churning in The Wake


by Peter Darmi

March 21, 2003

(a neophyte’s introduction to Valley Speed Climbing)

California, Yosemite Valley
On August 11, 2002 Peter D. and Hans F. fell 1,200 to their deaths down the popular Royal Arches route in Yosemite Valley. The pair had been speed climbing (i.e. simul-soloing), utilizing no running belays or anchors, and connected only by a pitifully inadequate 100’ length of 5mm Perlon accessory cord. What were they thinking???!! Both climbers had years of experience and should have had the sense not….

“STOP IT!!” I tell myself. I’d begun writing the accident report the night before our climb when Hans showed me his “rack”: four biners and two slings. As I’m digesting that bit of info he delivers the coup d’ grace in his laconic California drawl, “Are you OK with this rope?”

I look for a rope. I do not see a rope. I see what appears to be a knot of purple Dental Floss™ in his hand –one hundred feet of faded, fraying 5mm accessory cord.

“We won’t have much weight to carry down.”, he offers.

“Sure.” I manage to croak. Hans of course is picturing us running down the nasty ball-bearing scree coated North Gully descent from Royal Arches.

I, on the other hand, am picturing our carcasses pin-wheeling down the route and landing like so much bloody road kill on the hood of a stunned Touron pulling his BMW out of the Awahnee parking lot. This is to be my baptism by fire into Valley Speed Climbing.

Though I’ve known Hans (Florine) for thirteen years we’ve only managed to climb together a hand full of times. During that time, Hans was the undisputed master of the speed climbing game played on the vertical granite of Yosemite’s Big Walls. His and Peter Croft’s record time on El Cap’s Nose route stood for an incredible ten years --before he shaved it to an unbelievable 2:47 this year. He also managed to simultaneously hold the USA National Titles in both Speed and Difficulty competition, and the World Speed Championship! He was also the X-Games speed champ in 1995, ‘96, & ’97. But Hans’ Magnum Opus was his solo of the Nose and Half Dome –in under twenty four hours! His self proclaimed title of “World’s Fastest Vertical Human” is no idle boast.

Those few times we did manage to climb together were fast, but they were roped and sane. It’s not the simul-climbing or soloing part of the Speed Game that weirds me out (God knows I’ve done plenty of both), it’s doing it so fast that gives me the hebes. Soloing for me is a meditation like Tai Chi, slow, rhythmic and studied. “This, is nuts!” I think as set our watches at the car (…3, …2, …1, Go!) and dash off for the start of the route.

Hans drops the pile of “Dental Floss™” at the base and ties in. I notice he is not wearing a harness or climbing shoes. Hans does not need a harness or shoes. Hans will not fall. I, on the other hand, must not fall.

Hans is up the first 100 feet of 5.7 before I’ve even finished tying my shoes. The “rope” comes tight and I stumble onto the rock, feeling like a dingy being towed behind the Queen Mary.

I’m grateful for the belay until I see our “anchor” consists of nothing more than the friction of his skinny ass seated casually on the rock as he reels me in hand over hand like an old tire caught on a fishing line.

We lope up the 4th class pitches, and simul-solo much of the 5.6 and 5.7 above. I repeat “Imustnotfall, Imustnotfall, Imustnotfall” to myself until it becomes a meaningless, soothing mantra.

It’s amazing to see yards of rock pass by in seconds that normally (for me at least) would take minutes. It’s exhilarating! I’m really getting into this! My confidence soars as I paddle up the sticky granite, struggling to keep a little slack in the “Dental Floss™” between us.

We’re now seven pitches up the route and flying! Then Imagination rears its ugly head again when Hans casually says, “Wow, it would be really cool if we fell and were caught by our accessory cord on this old resident hex I just clipped!” (one of three pieces he clipped in the entire fifteen pitches of the route)

I manage a weak smile.
“Yeah, cool.” I say.
“Fuck that shit!!” I think.

…Both climbers had years of experience and should have had the sense not to waste their lives doing things that wouldn’t even have gotten them on David Lettermans’ Stupid People Tricks. YOSAR personnel responding to the accident reported the two bodies were so badly mangled that identification was impossible…

STOP IT!!” I command myself. “Imustnotfall, Imustnotfall, Imustnotfall” I mutter, trying to get back that soaring exhilaration.

I briefly consider trying Dean Potter’s borrowed martial art technique of a letting out a piercing cry to get control of my outer breath, but abandon the idea, fearing my “piercing cry” will sound more like the shriek of an old lady who just had a large spider drop into her lap. The danger would be Hans laughing so hard he falls off.

We’re now at the A0 pendulum. I’ve been concentrating on climbing and didn’t see him swing across. “I’ll belay you across the pendulum.” he yells down to me.

“Thanks!”, I say.
Beautiful!” I think. “Belayed by Dental Floss™ in his bare hands with an anchor consisting of his skinny ass pasted to some tiny divot in the rock. Fucking beautiful.

I grab the rotting pendulum tat that’s been there since Kletter Shoes were in vogue, and swing across on one arm like Tarzan. I look at the “belay”. It’s exactly what I expected. Why did I bother with a harness??

We trot across the long traverse ledge to what used to be the Rotten Log pitch. That tree was a scary affair in 1936 when the route was first done, and it lasted incredibly through thousands of ascents over the years until it finally fell down in the early eighties.

You had to shinny across that creaking, swaying relic with a thousand feet of air sucking at your heels. It was so far rotted you could actually see all the way through some of the holes. Today, you make a much less exciting detour by climbing through some other still living trees, one of which resembles a dugout canoe.

Before I know it, we’re at the final long traverse across the slabs to the spring that’s provided welcome water to many thirsty climbers. Only one problem: there is exactly one bolt protecting the pine needle and sap covered slabs, and our laughable “rope” only reaches part of the way across.

Then with a sly grin Hans says, “Let’s make it more ‘sporty’ and go across low.”, and proceeds to simply walk across without even using his hands for balance.

I’m standing there sans anchor, watching this maniac walk across the snot slick slabs, four feet from the edge of a sheer 1,200 foot drop without a single piece between us and I’m perfectly fine with it. I’ve obviously lost my mind too.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve tuned into that Valley Speed Climbing mind-set, intoxicating and seductive that allows one to transcend the boundaries of what one thinks he/she is capable of … or even possible.

For a fleeting moment I glimpse an existence just outside the rim of the known universe of ropes and gear, helmets and protection -and peer into the blazing core of minds like Hans Florine, Dean Potter, Tim O’Neal, Peter Croft, and others. It’s like looking into the sun.

Hans is a bit short of the other side of the traverse when the rope comes tight. But I am tuned in!! and launch across unconcernedly, blithely dismissing visions of us falling together like clack balls, dangling 1,200 feet up on a single antique bolt; the “ass-glue” anchor and hand over hand belay no longer alarm me.

I unclip the bolt and look down at tree tops shrunken to broccoli. No more need for climbing shoes, or even a rope! I will not fall –and walk fully upright feeling like a cross between a lizard and the first hominid who discovered he didn’t have to drag his knuckles.

…That is until Hans drawls, “If you slip, do what (Peter) Croft did when he fell soloing here, and try to land on that pine needle covered ledge about thirty five feet down.”

“Right.” I say.
Fucking beautiful!”, I think. Homo Erectus reverts to Australopithecine as I knuckle-drag my way across the slab.

Another couple hundred feet of 4th class brings us to the top and I breathlessly click my watch timer: one hour, ten minutes, forty seven seconds from the car, up fifteen pitches. Cool!

“Hans, what’s your best time on this route?” I ask, trying to sound casual. I’m sure we haven’t set any record, but I’m curious to see how I stack up against the Big Boys.

“Fifty eight minutes.”, he replies.

“Cool.”, I say.
Way fucking cool!!!”, I think. –until he delivers the coup d’ grace:

“…round trip.”

“Oh.” I say.
Oh.” I think.

Then comes the final blow: “I actually don’t even hold the record. Record time is fifty three minutes by Cedar Wright.”

I positively flat line at that information. “How… what… ??” I stammer.

“He basically did a controlled fall down the 5.4 variation of the North Gully descent after he ran up the route.” Hans explains in a tone reserved for infants and the feeble minded. “Kinda what I did too, only he did it faster.”

Faster??” A quick mental calculation tells me Wright had to be moving at an average pace roughly equivalent to a fast walk up the 1,200 feet of vertical rock!! Then he had to clock about a six minute mile pace running along the rim to make his “controlled fall” down North Gully, followed by another six minute mile back to the start of the route.

“Holy shit.”, is all I can manage.

I’m still digesting this astonishing conclusion as we’re trotting along the rim to North Gully.

But wait kiddies! The fun’s not over yet! I’ve avoided the North Gully descent since rap anchors appeared on Royal Arches several years ago. Now I remember why as Hans runs down ahead of me. I gingerly pick my way, mindful of ball bearing scree and ankle spraining talus. I eye Cedar‘s fall line/descent route and am even more impressed.

Run down this?? “Controlled fall” down that?? I’d as soon sprout wings and fly naked to the moon.

I don’t start running until we hit the Valley floor, fully into shaving a little time off my personal best. Without gear clanking around our waists or a rope tied to our backs we look like two dudes out for a morning jog. We canter past the back packer campground. I can almost hear the question behind the quizzical stares: “Why’s that dude jogging wearing a harness?”

Hans’ car swims into view as we make the Awahnee parking lot. BEEP! goes my watch as I click it off for our total time: 3:10. Three fucking hours vs. Hans’ best of 58 minutes. I’ve got a long way to go.

For Hans, this was a (very) leisurely morning stroll. For me it was a quantum leap in my thinking. I’ve caught the bug! I can’t ever look at a climb the same way. I’ll always wonder just how far I can sanely push the speed envelope, forgoing protection on terrain comfortably within my ability --and more importantly, pushing the envelope of what I think I’m capable of.

After all, isn’t that part of why climbing holds us in such thrall? It rubs our noses in our mental and physical limits at the same time inviting us to step beyond them. Each time we do, we stop, look back, and marvel at the wonder of it all.

Before driving off for breakfast we stop to look back up at our route.

Hans and I exchange a silent nod. There’s no need for words.
Way cool.”, we think.

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