The Outrageously High Cost of Speed Climbing

Shortly after Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell broke the speed record on the Nose route in Yosemite last week, I spoke with John Long, who made the first one-day ascent of the Nose in 1975. “As this record gets lowered,” he said, “the only way to do it is to take increasingly hairy risks. All these guys are operating at the same level. The fluency on rock is self same. What’s speeding this thing up is increasing the compromises they’re living with in the safety system.”

Most speed attempts involve a variety of unconventional techniques. One of the main ones is known as simul climbing, which eschews the typical pitched out climb with anchored belays in favor of both members moving at the same time attached together by a rope and protected from a fall by a few pieces of gear. “If one person comes off the wall,” Long said, “they’re hoping the gear catches them. There’s really no room for error.”

Honnold told me that one of the reasons he wanted to climb with Caldwell was that he “can really trust him. Tommy cares about safety. He’s a family man and won’t do anything crazy up there.” Still, the risks of climbing at speed are clear. In the lead-up to the record attempt, the pair climbed the route eight times in two weeks to practice. At one point Caldwell, arguably the best trad climber alive, took a 100-foot fall, though he walked away unscathed. The same was not true for Hans Florine, who set the speed record on the Nose in 2002, 2008, and 2012. In May, Florine was running a quick-but-not-record-pace lap when a small piece of gear popped on the 22nd pitch. He fell 25 feet and broke bones in both his legs. Last fall, Quinn Brett, who once held the women’s speed record on the Nose, took a fall on the boot flake, a prominent feature on pitch 17. She broke her 12th thoracic vertebra and was paralyzed.

“There’s a shadow side to this thing that the world should be very aware of,” Long said. He was referring specifically to the Nose record, but might as well have been talking about anyone looking to move increasingly fast up large rock faces. On Saturday morning, the dangerous reality of speed climbing was brought into focus when two veteran Yosemite climbers, Tim Klein and Jason Wells, fell 1,000 feet to their deaths from the lower pitches of the Salathé wall, adjacent to the Nose. The pair were extremely experienced. It would have been Klein’s 107th one-day ascent of El Cap. Wells holds the speed record on Colorado’s 650-foot Naked Edge: 24 minutes, 29 seconds. The two climbers appear to have been simul climbing on relatively easy terrain.

Which isn’t to say they were moving at the same ludicrous speed that Caldwell and Honnold move at. It doesn’t look like they were going for any kind of record, but they were moving fast and likely using some similar tactics.

“I’ve been worrying about this speed game for awhile. The faster you go the more dangerous it is,” Ken Yager, founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association told Climbing magazine over the weekend. “With speed climbing you don’t have time to double check your systems. It’s all fun and games until you lose a party like this. It’s horrible.”

After the deaths, Long wrote a comment on the climbing forum SuperTopo.

“It’s starting to be clear that speed climbing…needs to be reconsidered,” he wrote. “I offer no solution or even recommendation per speed climbing but if it keeps maiming and killing the best among us it deserves a close look… If nothing else this and recent accidents will make perfectly clear what [the] risks are. Then the choice is yours.”

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