National Geographic : 2011 May
Speed has become the creed of the new überclimbers. "We'll make a lei- surely day of it," Potter promises. To save weight, he goes barefoot during the nasty, bushwhacking approach. At the base, a er stretching on our pain- fully tight rock shoes, we rope up and begin ascending the 1,500-foot route like monkeys, hand jamming up cracks, squeezing through chimneys, climbing face holds as if they were a ladder. We top out in less than four hours. I feel like we've own up the route, until Pot- ter tells me that he o en free solos it in an hour. is is the trend. Most routes are now familiar, and equipment and skills are vastly improved. So speed rather than exploration has become a key measure of a climber's cra . In 1950, when Allen Steck and John Salathé rst climbed the route that bears their name, they took ve days. e rst ascent of the Nose was a 47-day siege over a year and a half, from 1957 to '58, by fun- loving iconoclast Warren Harding. Today slow parties take three to ve days, spending nights on "portaledges," tiny tents hanging from the wall; fast climbers do it in a day. e record for the Nose is an unimaginable two hours, 36 minutes, and 45 seconds, set last November by Potter and Sean "Stanley" Leary. Climbing in the '70s was about adventure as much as athletics. Today it's evolved into ver- tical gymnastics. Elite climbers are disciplined athletes who train constantly, repeating move- ments to perfection. As driven as Lance Arm- strong or Michael Phelps, they're obsessed with their weight, because completing, or "sending," a route is all about defying gravity. Consider the 30 or so climbers who show up at a party at Potter's cabin. In the old days such a gathering would be a rager, roaring till dawn. No longer. Nobody smokes, hardly anybody drinks. Potter serves a sensible vegetable-and-rice dish, four climbers bring homemade apple pies, and one and all are in bed before midnight, because everybody has a "project" they're working on the next day. Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck are among those who attend. Steck, a leading Swiss climber, epitomizes the new breed, following a strict exercise and diet regime. When training, the 34-year-old runs an aston- ishing 10,000 vertical feet a day. Having set speed records on all three of the great north faces in the Alps---the Eiger (2:48), the Matterhorn (1:56), and the Grandes Jorasses (2:21)---Steck has come to Yosemite to sharpen his climb- ing in granite cracks. Last year he and Honnold dashed up El Cap in three hours and 50 minutes. His dream is to take speed climbing to the Himalaya. "No technical route on an 8,000-meter peak has been done in Alpine style," he says, meaning fast and light. " at is my mission." Unlike European pros such as Steck, who enjoy generous corporate sponsorship, most American climbers barely get by financially. Many earn just enough cash to crash in their vans and eat beans and rice. Indeed, because of the seven-day restriction at Camp 4, many live full-time in vehicles at Yosemite. Kate Ruther- ford, 30, and Madeleine Sorkin, 29, who together made the rst female free ascent of Half Dome, both live in their vans. Honnold lives in his van. Colorado climber Tommy Caldwell, 32, one of the best granite free climbers in America, lives in his van when he's in Yosemite---despite having been a professional climber since the age of 16. Yet they still come back. Since 2007 Caldwell has been working on free climbing a new route near Mescalito on El Cap that may be the world's hardest big-wall free climb. "I've been climbing my whole life," he says. "First roped up when I was three years old." Caldwell's father was a mountain guide; Tommy remembers lying in an El Cap meadow as a kid watching his dad climb, just as other kids watched their dads play catch. " ere's something magnetic about Yosemite," he says. "All the history. I freak out the moment I get here and look up at the walls." people visit Yosemite every year, only a few thousand of whom are climb- ers. But the climbers still represent the beating heart of the valley. "I came here as a sophomore Potter has rules for me. I'm not allowed to bring any food or water, no backpack or raincoat, not even a helmet.