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On the Nose with Hans Florine and Jayme Moye

On the Nose by Hans Florine and Jayme Moye. Falcon Books, 2016. 203 pages. Hardcover, $25. [Photo] Paula Wright

On the Nose by Hans Florine and Jayme Moye. Falcon Books, 2016. 203 pages. Hardcover, $25. [Photo] Paula Wright

Around the start of his climbing career in 1988, Hans Florine speculated, “There were really only two kinds of climbers in California–the ones who were good enough to climb the Nose and the ones who weren’t.”

Throughout the autobiography On the Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb, Florine, with co-author Jayme Moye, routinely measures his life against the Nose’s iconic 3,000 vertical feet on Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Florine was 25 when he first climbed the Nose in 1988, just before joining the nascent climbing competition circuit in the US. At that time, Florine narrates, before climbing gyms brought scruffy plastic holds to every corner of the US, city dwellers without crags nearby trained on broken rocks and fragments epoxied to concrete blocks beneath bridges and highway overpasses. Florine was one such early routesetter, and went to work creating a traverse to train for the Nose. At one point, a police officer confronted him about rumors of vandalism under the bridge. When Florine explained that the vandalism was really an underground training site, the officer told him he was doing “good work” and to carry on.

Florine first claimed the Nose speed record in 1990 with Steve Schneider, in 8 hours, 5 minutes. Today, Florine still holds the record he and Alex Honnold set in 2012, with the time of 2:23:46.

On the Nose returns to the iconic climb again and again, not only as an anchor in Florine’s life, but also as a touchstone against which achievements in climbing history are viewed. As the book explains, Warren Harding’s siege-style ascent of the Nose in 1958 was five years after the first ascent of Everest. All told, the first ascent of El Capitan’s most prominent line took 45 days. Two years later, a team led by Royal Robbins repeated the feat in a week.

Part of the book’s historical narrative attempts to sort out where speed ascents fit in the taxonomy of climbing. Florine urges the reader not to view the race for the speed record as an influence of sport climbing; rather, he argues, big-wall speed ascents have more in common with traditional mountaineering, where “risk and danger [are] an integral part of the experience.”

At the time On the Nose went to press, Florine had climbed the Nose 101 times: a figure he describes in the book as “ludicrous.”

“Equally ridiculous,” he says, “is that I have no intention of stopping anytime soon.”

Interview with Hans Florine and Jayme Moye

Alpinist: I’m interested in how the idea for this book came about. The autobiography of course is organized around the Nose, but I’m curious to know whether that structure pre-dates the planning stages of the book or if it came naturally. Perhaps a different way of asking this question is, could there be another Hans Florine autobiography that doesn’t begin and end with the Nose?

Hans Florine: I’ve been journaling my ascents of the Nose and other big wall routes since I started climbing in 1983.

I will be doing a “full biography” at some point. After reliving some early climbing stories through Jayme’s interviews, it was clear that there are many fun stories yet to be told that did not take place in or around the Nose. I suppose it may start as: “I was born on a military base in Virginia with an older sister and brother ready to show me around.”

Alpinist: What was the process of writing the book like? How did the two of you approach co-authoring the book?

Jayme Moye: We started the writing almost immediately after climbing the Nose in September 2015. Our goal was to turn in a first draft of the entire manuscript by December 31, 2015, which gave us just over three months to write it. In retrospect, this was fast. Like stupid fast. But considering it was Hans Florine’s book, how else could it be?

We took it one chapter at a time. In the morning, we’d do a phone interview, for 45 to 90 minutes. Then I’d work on the writing the rest of the day, pinging Hans by text with any additional questions that came up as I wrote. Once I had a chapter written, I’d send it to him for review and he’d send me back suggestions and questions.

One of my biggest challenges was learning Hans’ voice; the adjectives he uses, the phrases he uses, the climbing jargon he does (or does not) use. We didn’t know each other prior to collaborating on this project, so in the beginning it was a lot of trial and error. Hans was very patient. He’d say, “I don’t think I would have said it that way.”

I also felt like we needed to include something special about El Capitan. How exactly did it come to be? I decided to add a Prologue called “The Birth of El Capitan” to set the stage for the rest of the book, and to document this information all in one place. I leaned heavily on Yosemite National Park’s geologist Greg Stock to help me translate the science. I’m particularly proud of the Prologue, and think it’s one of the things that sets Hans’ book apart from other athletes’ memoir-style stories.

Florine: I love how fast Jayme and I worked together to meet the tight timeline for On the Nose. I do not think the book would be better if the time we took to write it were doubled. I can only speak for myself in this regard, but when the next book project comes I will push for a short deadline.

Alpinist: There’s a brief passage in which Hans addresses why he hasn’t pursued the challenge of free climbing the Nose: “I realized that while I supported attempts…I wasn’t interested in sacrificing even one of its fun, quirky features to do so. I liked the Nose pretty much exactly as it was.” Can you say more about that? Is there a sense of tradition or nostalgia attached to the Nose “as it was”?

Florine: I am not comfortable with the general use of the word “sacrifice,” and I’m not sure of all the context [in which] I spoke to Jayme…about this. “As it was” makes a reader think that I was not going to chip it, which I wouldn’t. But I think the reward and fun of “moving through” 3,000 feet of granite, whether over four days or four hours, is so darn wonderful to me that to “camp” at a single pitch and work it for days makes the experience so different that I haven’t, as yet, been able to muster the psyche to do it–and may never.

In general I’ve always been an onsight climber. In my 10-year dedication to sport climbing and comps I rarely projected anything. If I didn’t get a 5.12 or easy 5.13 my first try I would move on to another route. There were exceptions, but rare. After Yuji [Hirayama] and I took a recon climb of the Nose to see if it would go free, Yuji commented: “I think it would go for us, but would take a bit of work.” At the time I did not have a wife and kids, but I still had a yearning to do a variety of things and camping on the side of El Capitan was not in the top-20 list. I love and respect what Tommy [Caldwell] and Kevin [Jorgeson] did on The Dawn Wall, but I don’t have that particular patience.

Alpinist: Jayme, the book mentions that you were partnered for Hans’ 100th climb of the Nose. What was your experience on that climb?

Moye: When I agreed to co-author this book with Hans, in the summer of 2015, and we started working through the proposed chapter outline with the publisher, I didn’t think I needed to climb the Nose in order to write the book. I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles about athletes setting records or doing otherwise amazing things in the outdoors–and I don’t do those things myself. But by the end of the summer, I felt differently. I couldn’t get inside Hans’ head, really get inside Hans’ head without experiencing the Nose firsthand. The thought initially terrified me. I hadn’t climbed outside since the year after college, which was, well, a long time ago. Even then, I’d never climbed anything beyond one pitch. It was going to be a big stretch for me. Meanwhile, Hans had planned to do his 100th in September with his friend Fiona, a polar explorer from the UK, and was considering if he should add a third. On one of our calls, I blurted out, “Take me!” He was like, are you serious? And I was surprised to hear the conviction in my voice when I said, “Yes. I can’t write this book at the level I want to write it without climbing the Nose.”

Hans immediately started vetting me, wanting to know my climbing experience and what I’d accomplished in the outdoors. Suddenly, he was the one asking all the questions, which was kind of a fun role reversal. He must have been satisfied with my adventure resume, because he set me up with a mentor, his good friend and co-author of his How to Speed Climb book, Bill Wright. Bill took me up a classic climb, The Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon to make sure I could keep my head on a multi-pitch route, and also taught me how to jug. I replaced all my old gear…and joined my local climbing gym to build some endurance and get re-aquatinted with belaying. I had about four weeks to prepare.

The climb was a stretch for me–the height, the exposure, the vertical camping, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It wasn’t physically all that difficult, since I wasn’t leading, or even climbing really. Mostly I just jugged. But the mental strain was intense, for the reasons I mentioned, but also because, I mean, you’re belaying Hans Florine on the Nose! And even though he was climbing at a gentleman’s pace, you don’t want to be the one to slow him down because you can’t manage the ropes.

Alpinist: The book routinely makes the case that El Capitan is the most iconic rock wall in the world. Could any other climb, on any other cliff, become “The Nose” for the next generation?

Florine: In the realm or category of “very long rock climbing routes,” the Nose has high quality rock, dependable weather, easy access, (in every sense of the access issues), place in climbing history/lore, and beautiful views. I personally do not know of any route in the world that can match it on all those points–and I would be so bold as to say you won’t discover a cliff to match, because it would never catch up with the Nose for its place in history.

Click here to read a 2011 Alpinist interview with Florine about speed climbing. Also, here is a story about Miranda Oakley becoming the first woman to solo the Nose in a day in 2016, and a story about Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter setting the overall female speed record of 4:43 in 2014.