Speed Demons

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A few years ago, I went over to my good friend and climbing mentor Kelly Rich's Yosemite West Cabin for one of the first times. When we walked in there was already a group of people gathered around the dining room table talking and cooking, a regular occurrence at his place I have since found out. At the table, three guys who were fit and strong and clearly climbers, were enthusiastically talking with animated hand gestures. I walked up and listened a minute before they turned to me, introducing myself to all three, I had no idea who I was talking to. I remember wondering "who are these euro guys?" as I listened to them talking about (what I later realized) was spotting the Free Rider line while freeing the Salathe.

So a few months later as I thumbed through Kelly's awesome Climbing Magazine collection I came across issue 254 with Ivo on the cover and the headline article "Speed Demons - Take a visual sprint up El Cap with two big-wall masters." I was intrigued because I just met this guy and had no clue who he was; in fact, I hadn't even really known who the Hubers were. The cover photo looks fast, Ivo's hand is reaching high over head, stretched out, reaching for something, a grim look on his face. Despite the obvious daylight hours of the photo, Ivo's headlamp on his helmet, implying that it is still morning. Below him Ammon McNeely is hanging in his harness, out of focus but clearly busy and in motion, perhaps stacking the rope.

I remember reading through the article, thinking how insane these two guys are, how maniacal you must be to climb routes that take most people 5 or more days, and they climb them in one, non-stop, continuous push? I knew that I wanted to learn to big wall climb, the locations it could take you enthralled me. I remember looking at the easiest routes Half Dome and El Capitan and thinking how incredible it must be to climb them, wondering at what point do you have the skills to try.

A few months later, in the spring of '08, my friend Matt Touchette suggested we try to climb Half Dome. It was the biggest route I had ever imagined climbing, we spent two days on the route, with only small backpacks we shiver bivvied on Big Sandy, and we slept at the base before and after the route. The climb went really well, it was a huge moment for me, my first big wall. As we stood on the summit, we looked across Tenaya Canyon at Mount Watkins and we knew what was next. A week later we spent two nights on Mount Watkins and had a hellish hike to the car at Olmstead point.

The next year I started climbing with Scott Lappin and learned the ways of a honed and fast wall climber. Scott really taught me how to big wall climb, to climb the Yosemite way. I learned the tricks of moving in the aiders, how to short fix and how to nail, he laid out all the essentials that I later realized are the core of big wall climbing efficiently, the techniques for moving continuously upwards for hours, and the fundamentals for climbing walls in a push.

Three years and several walls later, in October of 2011, I got an email from Sky Detray asking if I was interested in teaming up to try and push Tribal Rite. Tribal takes one of the most massive lines up the entire prow of El Cap and had only been pushed once, more than likely, by Steve Gerberding, Scott Stowe and Dave Bengston in twenty three hours thirty minutes, the original big wall pushing bad asses. Sky, Kevin Prince and I hoped to break this record but really had no idea what would happen. We opted to start from the Nose, jumaring with heavy packs all the way to Boot Flake, the bags held all the water we had for the next twenty or more hours of climbing. Kevin took us to Boot Flake, Sky took us until sunset somewhere beyond the middle, and I led into the night through the upper half of the route. Nineteen hours and fourty eight minutes later we topped out, and I helped set my first speed record on El Cap and my eighteenth route.

A week later, after relaxing on the valley floor, Sky, Ammon McNeely and I racked up to try and push Scorched Earth. I was shocked and surprised at how things were unfolding. I was amazed and excited that I was about to climb with Ammon McNeely, the Speed Demon who I had read about in Climbing Magazine years before. I had met Ammon once at Kelly's cabin, but doubted he would remember me, and here we were, about to push a route rated A5, and hoping for the First One Day ascent.

The climb was awesome. From the moment we began there was excitement with Ammon in the lead. Watching him climb was great, he never moved extremely fast or out of control, he just moved constantly. He clipped from piece to piece, bounce testing sometimes, and moving over A4 like it was A2. He warned me he might fall as he tried to hook past a mandatory cheat stick move called 'The Lovetron.' Moments later I heard the 'ping' of a hook popping and I crumpled into a ball expecting to be smashed by a falling body. I saw him fly by my right side ten feet off, he kept falling as I watched him below me and finally slammed to a halt at the end of the rope. It was about sixty feet he flew, mostly unfazed despite the massive rope burn on his arm that removed ink from his tattoo. He got back up and again fell twenty or more feet without pause. Late in the night, in the darkness Sky lead 'The Leavitator,' a 165 foot knifeblades to offwidth pitch requireing 100 foot runout while stacking two pieces of 2x4 and a number six or serious offwidth skills, but at 12:30am that wasn't happening. Sky opted for the former, shouting down how he was more terrified than on The Reticent Wall as he stacked the wood blocks and cams farther up the pitch. I took over for the night shift, starting the climbing around 1:30 or 2am with an A4 pitch right off the bat followed by an extremely runout hooking pitch and then taking us three more pitches to the summit as fast as I could. We topped out 22 hours 28 minutes after starting for the first one day ascent.

This past October has left me wondering and craving more, it was an amazing month and year teaming up with all sorts of friends, challenging ourselves to climb hard and fast.  We succeeded at setting four more speed records on El Cap: Virginia, Shortest Straw, Lunar Eclipse and also Wet Denim Daydream on the Leaning Tower.  I was fortunate enough to help my friend Will Stanhope with the incredible fourth ascent of The Prophet and also to help Jesse Huey in leading every pitch of the Free Rider in a day, jumaring for them, hauling and keeping them motivated and excited as they pushed their limits in climbing.  Climbing with Alex Honnold on Lunar Eclipse was an amazing experience, talking with him as we charged along, approaching El Cap and the Leaning Tower, hearing about his upcoming trip to Oman, past trips to Borneo.  He inspired and motivated me to seek more in my climbing, to look for bigger goals, to travel farther, and to try to take this to new places. Watching him free climb on Lunar Eclipse was incredible and just what I had hoped for when I asked him to climb together. He was equally motivated to learn to aid climb, and he did well, navigating a scary expanding block, following hard aid, learning the tricks as he went. It was funny to me, teaching some of the basics to a master, while in the middle of trying for a speed record on an obscure El Cap route. But we worked well together and topped out 11 hours 22 minutes after starting, just as the sun set we sat on the summit, laughing and joking about what was next and how we should hurry down so we could catch dinner at the caf.

October has left me with a strange feeling inside, so many walls with great free climbing mixed in.  For an entire month I was so focused on climbing El Cap and so driven that now that it is over it feels like it was a dream. The different routes blur together in my mind, yet they stand separate, each as an incredible and important moment in my life, perhaps a moment of change. I did a lot and I want more.  I had plans to travel to Baffin Island this year, but as we prepared to buy plane tickets my partner realized it just wasn't the right trip for him at the moment, work and life are always obstacles for an extended and committed trip.  With those plans changing I am left trying to figure out what it is all for, where to go from here, what to do next. I realize now that the planning, the training both physical and mental, has driven me and given me focus for the past two years.  The idea of that trip, a four thousand foot big wall deep in the arctic, has motivated me and kept me pushing myself to new limits, especially this past October.  Removing that goal from my mind leaves me wondering what to do now and how to re-motivate on a new plan.

It is strange to think back to finding that Speed Demon article and wondering if I would ever climb El Cap, nevermind speed climbing. I found motivation and inspiration from those crazy characters in the magazine who could do five days of climbing in less than 24 hours, climbing A4 and A5 like it is easy, travel to remote ares and free climb new cutting edge routes.  When looking for motivation now I still fall back to the elite group of wall climbers who motivated me from the beginning, climbers like Ammon McNeely, Brian McCray, Ivo Ninov, Alex and Tomas Huber, Aaron Jones, and Dave Turner, who inspired me to push my climbing and especially my big wall climbing, to find comfort in a type of climbing so many think revolves around fear, and to relax and enjoy the challenges.  I coined a new mantra for myself after Scorched Earth, "Climb like Ammon," and I tell myself that before launching into hard climbing. I use it to stay as calm and relaxed as he seems to be, because after all, this is the challenge that we put ourselves here to overcome, right? Why not enjoy it?

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Metallica Blazing, Skiy prepares for The Shortest Straw
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'Make his fight on the hill in the early day'
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Halfway up the Straw
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Ben moving into the second A4 on The Reticent
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Charging up the Straw - Tom Evans
I lead into the sea of nothing - Tom Evans
Atop the first pitch of The Reticent, just left Lay Lady Ledge
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Ben Doyle enjoys coffee from the SUMO!
Ben "Chris Mac" Doyle
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The Southeast Face of the greatest big wall in the world
Wide Angle

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Enjoying a slower route
High on The Reticent wall
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'Not so Reticent' Stemming below The Erie
'You should have taped a hook here.'  Ben cleaning the upper crux pitch of The Reticent Wall

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Free climbing past funky aid is often faster than doing funky aid. -Tom Evans
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Atop Wet Denim Daydream after plucking the low hanging fruit
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Start to finish
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Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  I have some water before I push the line higher. -Tom Evans
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The best big wall in the universe.

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Jesse Huey on Mammoth Terraces while leading Free Rider in a day,
 my job: keep him psyched, and do a little jumaring.
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Will Stanhope scoping one of the lower, serious pitches on The Prophet.