While many people were watching Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold chase their sub-2-hour record on the Nose of El Capitan, which they accomplished June 6, at least four other speed records were set on Yosemite’s Big Stone since May 5– Brandon Adams and Roger Putnam climbed the Shield in 8 hours, 55 minutes; Josie McKee and Diana Wendt established a female record on the Salathe, climbing the route in 16:24 on June 1; David Allfrey set the solo record of 10:52:50 on Zodiac on June 2; and and Alexa Flower, Jane Jackson and Gena Wood completed the fastest all-female ascent of Zodiac in 16:20 on June 15.
June 2 was the same day that Tim Klein and Jason Wells fell to their deaths while doing a fast ascent of the Salathe with Kevin Prince. Allfrey was unaware of the accident until after he topped out, and he told Alpinist that he was grateful not to have known about it while he was still climbing. He wrote on Instagram:
My ability to process the loss of these great, talented, and kind men feels dulled with tragedy upon tragedy weighing upon our shoulders. We don’t want to die in the mountains. We don’t want to die on the rock. So please, go carefully, go safely, and follow your heart.
May 5, the Shield (VI 5.8 A3, 30 pitches) in 8:55
This is the third El Cap speed record Adams and Putnam have achieved as a team, after Flight of the Albatross (9:32 in 2017) and Waterfall Route (6:28 in 2016). They each have El Cap records with other partners as well.
“Roger and I sure had a lot of fun on that one,” Adams said. “It’s always great climbing with someone so capable and confident…. Moving efficiently and consistently can get you up these big faces in short order with modern gear and a good partner.”
“We usually only climb quickly together,” Putnam said.
The previous record of 10:58 on the Shield was set by Chris McNamara and Cedar Wright in 1999. Putnam said he and Adams used a very similar strategy, but probably with less simulclimbing.
“We only did a little simulclimbing at the end of the Freeblast and in the middle of the Shield itself on the bolt ladders,” he said. “Otherwise we short fixed the whole climb. I led to where the Shield branches off from the Muir Wall (after the Silverfish Corner) and then Brandon led to the top…. We did use a hammer. A hammerless speed climb of the Shield sounds kinda sketchy.”
Adams and Putnam had not been up the route recently, either–“more than five years ago, we each did the Shield…as an overnight climb,” Putnam said.
When asked about the most challenging, scariest or most time-consuming part about a fast ascent of such a route, Putnam said:
The scariest and most time-consuming part of it for me is driving from SoCal to Yosemite and back again in time to work on Monday morning. Seriously. I don’t get stressed about the climbing with El Cap speed ascents. It is the commute that gets me the most. The rhythm of speed climbing kinda keeps me focused, confident, and relaxed. Perhaps something is broken in my brain, though….
Roger and I usually end up in Type 1 fun territory the whole day when climbing together. Efficiency, consistent movement, climbing confidently. We can remain within a reasonable safety margin and have a shitload of fun.
“We’ve only roped up together five times, too,” Putnam added. “Three of those times were speed records and one was a Grade VI first ascent. Pretty funny.”
June 1, Salathe Wall (VI 5.9 C2, 35 pitches) in 16:24
In 2015, Alix Morris and Libby Sauter set a female record of 18.5 hours on the Salathe. Although Sauter was ill and had never done the route before, she still managed to lead the crux aid pitches near the top of the route. The overall record of 4:55 was set by Honnold and Sean Leary in 2009 during an attempt to climb the Salathe, the Nose and Half Dome in a day, but they had canceled the final climb because of their exhaustion in the heat; they completed a linkup of three El Cap routes in 2010.
Sauter recently told Jeff Chapman in a story on Climbing.com titled “In Depth: The Evolution of the Nose Speed Record,” that she has stepped away from the pursuit after Quinn Brett’s fall and the deaths of other friends.
“Watching someone go from able-bodied and capable to watching them adapting to paralysis–I don’t think you can really appreciate the gravity of it until you are that close to somebody,” she told Chapman. “It sure makes speed climbing a whole lot less cool…. It is everyone’s personal choice. I’m not telling people not to speed climb, but I’m very much aware that that kind of speed climbing isn’t for me anymore.”
Like Morris and Sauter, McKee and Wendt weren’t necessarily focused on setting a record, and they were just climbing with the aim of moving efficiently. McKee told Alpinist:
We weren’t specifically trying to break the record, but it was a bonus to go up…as a female team, thinking we could probably climb it faster than the only other female team that had done it. I showed up in the valley on a quick break from work with two goals: one was to climb with one of my favorite partners, Diana, before she left to Africa for six months. The second was to convince someone to go up the on the SIAD [Salathe-in-a-day], so I could get more mileage on it, working towards a different goal (if I can climb it faster, I can climb more). It didn’t take much arm-twisting to get the always enthusiastic Diana to go up a route that she loves, thus accomplishing both objectives! And now I know we can go much faster….
Diana is a super strong climber who happens to know the Salathe wall fairly well, but she doesn’t really “speed” climb for the sake of it. She has only climbed El Cap once in a day before this: a NIAD [Nose-in-a-day] we did together four years ago. And this was the first time I had climbed El Cap again since Quinn’s accident [Quinn Brett fell while leading the Boot Flake on the Nose last year and is now paralyzed from the waist down]. My mentality wasn’t really in “speed mode.” I believe that if it was climbed by a team of two women that routinely climb El Cap in a day and have the route streamlined, the time would fall significantly. I do still think it would be a slower time than the Nose, due to a fair bit of wide climbing, the cruxes being at the top when you’re tired and the harder mandatory free climbing. I’ve heard a number of people say that their SIAD time is roughly twice as long as their NIAD time.
Both women are quite familiar with the route. They worked on Freerider together last year, a 5.12d free climb that shares many pitches of the Salathe, and they did “one run up between Heart Ledges and the Alcove (pitches 11-19) several days before, mostly to work on our simulclimbing system (which we had never done together),” McKee said.
When asked about the most challenging or time-consuming part during a rapid ascent of the Salathe, McKee responded:
Two pitches stand out to me as being challenging: the second pitch of the headwall has some trickery–I did three hand-placed beak moves (back-cleaning the first because I only brought 2 beaks), then a tiny (the smallest offset) nut, into some mandatory free moves, which aren’t that hard but always feel scary with that [small] gear below you [when you’re] at the top of the headwall at the end of the day. Then there is the pitch off Long Ledge. On previous ascents, I have done the original pitch (to the right), which now has a pin missing and turns the “5.8 C2” pitch into a slippery 5.10+ R/X pitch. I led that last September, without knowing the pin was missing and decided I never needed to do it again–unless someone replaces the pin! So, I opted for the free variation instead (5.11+, but, for efficiency, I think it was 5.11 AO and steep!), which felt hard and intimidating to lead for the first time at Hour 15!
June 2, Zodiac (VI 5.7 A2, 15 pitches), solo in 10:52:50
The previous solo record of 11:18 was set by Nick Fowler in 2002. The overall speed record of 1:51:34 was set by Alexander and Thomas Huber in 2004.
Allfrey posted on Instagram:
On Saturday I soloed the Zodiac on the Southeast Face of El Capitan. I set out with the goal of climbing quickly, going fast. I had spent months, years really, thinking about how to accomplish this. I am not a soloist, more of social butterfly. Alone on the wall doesn’t really work for me. Regardless, I had put this off far too long.
My goal was to be safe, but I would be lying if it wasn’t to try and go as fast as I could. I love climbing walls in this way, it has been a driving force in my life for nearly 10 years. I planned to use rope systems, technical skills and efficiencies, and good fitness to make this fast.
I climbed with a 100-meter rope allowing me to retreat at any time, a hearty rack, and plenty of rope tricks. I had visualized these systems over and over, thinking through every detail I could come up with, I spent hours, years, contemplating every last detail of how I would do this so I could execute perfectly.
In the end it was a whirlwind of motion. I was as nervous and anxious going into it as I have ever been about El Capitan. It became a fluid rhythm of up and down, clipping, pulling, climbing, rapping. I pushed to keep my heart rate up, to keep my hands moving. I found an incredible focus. Things worked, systems went smoothly and I had the day I had hoped for finishing the route in 10 hours 52 minutes.
Returning to the ground was bitter sweet however. The pride I felt in my accomplishment faded when I heard two fellow big wall climbers, speed climbers, had died in a terrible accident on the other side of El Capitan. A slip, a mistake, a broken hold, we will never know exactly, but in the end two great men, fathers, givers, happy, joyous guys who I had seen many times in the vertical world of El Capitan were gone….
Allfrey, who is associated with quite a few El Cap records listed on YosemiteBigwall.com, elaborated for Alpinist:
I had done the route five times since 2009, but I haven’t been on the route in two years or so. I never went up to it before soloing it, sort of beside the point in my opinion. I love trying to climb things fast, but for most ‘speed climbing’ is not like those guys on the Nose dialing in every little moment of the climb. I like to climb big routes quickly but it’s not about making it rehearsed in most situations, though.
As for hammerless, I have never nailed on the route, it always takes a few hand-placed beaks. Most of the pitches seemed about as I remembered them but the Flying Buttress, the pitch before the Nipple, was a little more difficult than I had remembered it being because of a few variations to the fixed gear; that’ll happen. But what made it possible was a double and triple set of Totem Cams. Those things just work like no other in pin scars. I felt like that was key.
[The scariest part was] probably just zipping back down the rappel line at the Nipple and Mark of Zorro pitches, you are so far off the ground and the pitches are so steep that you end up…almost 40 feet [out] from the wall [when you are level with the belay]. It’s a bit unnerving but I was so focused I didn’t spend too much time contemplating it; it was work, work, work….
I barely stopped to eat; mostly I smashed bars into my mouth and then rappelled or chewed while cleaning an anchor and jugging. I felt like I was moving really constantly, not frantically fast, just consistent and sustained, trying to not slow down at all, go fast when able but just make every move count. I really didn’t want any falls up there.
June 15, first all-female Zodiac-in-a-day
As this article was nearing completion, Alexa Flower, Jane Jackson and Gena Wood completed the first all-female ascent of Zodiac in a day on June 15, finishing in 16:20. All three are members of Yosemite Search and Rescue. Jackson said that she and Flower climbed the route once before, and Wood has soloed it and done it in a day as part of a mixed-gender team.
“[It’s] low-hanging fruit as far as speed records go,” Jackson said. “As far as I know it’s the fifth El Cap route to have a women’s record.”
According to YosemiteBigwall.com, the other routes that have all-female records are Lurking Fear, the Nose, Salathe and Triple Direct. There are also at least two other El Cap routes that have a woman associated with a record–Mr. Midwest and the East Buttress.
Considering the risks
Meanwhile, the accident on June 2 has opened a larger conversation within climbing communities about speed-climbing techniques.
Referencing Caldwell and Honnold’s record on the Nose, Sauter told Alpinist:
While I am aware that skill mitigates risk to an extent, I find it highly disingenuous and foolhardy to argue that 16 pitches on eight cams plus fixed gear is safe. I am in no way advocating that people not go after these pursuits. I know how fun they are. But doing so without being able to use truthful language that verbalizes the in-our-face, back-breaking, life-ending risks to the idolizing (and often young) community comes off as irresponsible. Or maybe just…naive. I was indeed naive when I was at my peak of speed climbing on the Nose. I would do 15 pitches on 10 cams for the first block of the Nose and while it ‘felt safe’ it sure as shit wasn’t. There is a difference between my anecdotal experience and the reality of what has happened.
Efficiency on the Big Stone doesn’t always equate to extreme risk. The tactics that Dave Allfrey used for his ascent are very, very different than what gets used on the Nose or the Salathe in their fastest ascents….
We say as a community that there is a lot of reflection going on after these repeated and similar-ish accidents, but it sure doesn’t seem like all those thoughts are leading to much behavior change. It’s like our own version of “thoughts and prayers”….
Sauter also acknowledges the appeal to speed climbing on El Cap. In Chapman’s story, she said, “It’s something I dedicated five years of my life to. I understand its allure and attraction. It is 3,000 feet of the best rock climbing in the world.”
In a June 13 OutsideOnline.com article by Kelly Cordes titled, “Even Tommy Caldwell Questioned the Nose Speed Record,” Caldwell noted the presence of serious risk no matter how in control someone may feel or how experienced they might be.
“Man, I think of the wingsuit community,” Caldwell told Cordes, “how at first people were like, ‘If you’re super precise in packing your chute, and only fly in these conditions, only fly in this terrain, it’s actually safe.’ And now, everybody knows that it’s just dangerous, no matter what. I wonder if speed climbing is the same. Am I fooling myself?”