Ammon McNeely topping out on The Wall of Early Morning Light, which he and Brian McCray (in foreground) climbed in 23:43 on September 9. Over a five-month period, McNeely climbed eleven El Cap routes, nine of them in record time, five for the first one-day ascents. [Photo] James Q. Martin
In March 2004 in Zion National Park, Utah, I incurred multiple injuries from an incident involving a loose, refrigerator-sized piece of sandstone. When I limped into Camp 4 in early May, my ankle was still swollen. Cedar Wright was in the parking lot with his gear in a pile. I was like a wind-up-toy that had been tensioned for two months: I wanted to hit El Capitan with all the force I could muster.
Cedar and I agreed on Iron Hawk (VI 5.9 A4) as our first objective. On May 6, thirty hours and forty-two minutes after we began the route, we stood on the summit. It was my first speed record of the year. My brain was fried, my muscles ached and my injuries had flared up. This would be a typical condition for me for the rest of the year.
Two weeks after my climb with Cedar, I hooked up with my good friend, Ivo Ninov. My Bulgarian bro is new to the speed-climbing scene and still learning some of the advanced techniques, but his best asset is his attitude: Ivo is always psyched to climb.
On May 25 we made the first two-man ascent of Pacific Ocean Wall (VI 5.9 A3) in 33:02, shaving three hours off the record. It was the longest I’ve spent climbing without sleep.
I spent the next couple of months working, then showed back up in the Valley with my son, Austin (13). Ivo, Austin and I wasted no time, climbing Shortest Straw (VI 5.10 A3+) on July 4 in a twenty-six-hour push.
My best partner, “Fly’n Brian” McCray, showed up in The Ditch shortly thereafter. Brian is a machine, and he was as focused on speed climbing El Cap as I was. In a three-week period we climbed four El Cap routes, three in record time. On July 19 we climbed Lost in America (VI 5.9 A4) in 18:04. Next up was the Atlantic Ocean Wall (VI 5.10 A4). Rumor had it the route had some serious expanding flakes; we were not disappointed. We topped out in 23:38 on August 3, completing the first-one day ascent.
Next was Eagle’s Way (VI 5.10a A3) and some good-natured rivalry: our friends Cedar, Miles Smart and Timmy O’Neill held the record. Brian and I sent the route in 9:08 on August 7, shaving 1:42 off the record.
We were on a roll. Yet on August 11, when we climbed Sunkist (VI 5.9 A4) in 19:57, we missed the record by thirty-three minutes–the first time we had missed a record together in eleven outings.
Chris McNamara and I had never climbed together, but when he called to see if I was available, we decided to try Never Never Land (VI 5.9 A4). On August 24, we made the first one-day ascent in sixteen hours.
Descending the East Ledges that night, we saw Fly’n Brian and Hans Florine on Wall of Early Morning Light (VI 5.10 A3), eleven pitches from the top and suffering. Some chopped bolts had slowed them down, and they missed the record.*
A week later Brian flew out for a bit of retribution. With his prior knowledge of the route, we were able to make the first one-day ascent in 23:43 on September 9.
On October 8 Chris Mac and I tied in for the second time and made the first one-day ascent of Horse Chute (VI 5.9 A3) in 20:39.
Eric Kohl had soloed the first ascent of Pressure Cooker (VI 5.10 A4) in 1990. The route had been on my mind the entire season. I finally got a chance to make the second ascent when Ivo and I climbed it in 23:41 on October 25.
In all, I climbed eleven El Cap routes in five months, nine of them in record time, five as first one-day ascents. It was the greatest number of speed records anyone has made in a year in Yosemite. But without my partners, it would not have been possible. I owe many thanks to Chris, Ivo, Cedar and Brian for these amazing adventures.
*See Alpinist 9, page 10, for more information on this incident -Ed.
— Ammon McNeely, Lake Arrowhead, California