Need for Speed

The third and final installment of our three-part series, “El Capitan: Mountain of Dreams.”
A photo of the granite face of El Capitan, with text "El Capitan Mountain of Dreams"

This is the final installment of a three-part series on El Capitan. You can read Part 1: Age of Pioneers here and Part 2: Danger Zone here.

“Hurry, man. We gotta make it down before the bar closes.”

So said a tired and thirsty John Long in 1975 near El Capitan’s summit with teammates Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay. The three climbed The Nose in just 15 hours, the first ascent in less than a day, and then rushed back to a heroes’ welcome at Yosemite Valley’s Mountain Room Bar.

El Cap’s speed climbing era had begun. The Nose record would change hands seven more times by the end of the century. But that’s when the race kicked into another gear.

A dozen men climbing in pairs have laid claim to The Nose speed title since 2000, and the name Hans Florine shows up on that list more than any other. Climbing with various partners, Florine set 13 Nose speed records between 1990 and 2012. Topping them all was his 2012 ascent with Alex Honnold when they sprinted up the mountain in 2 hours and 23 minutes.

“The only thing better than climbing is more climbing,” Florine likes to say.

A three-panel black-and-white comic-book style illustration showing three climbers who set records on The Nose of El Capitan
Hans Florine, Lynn Hill and Tommy Caldwell each shattered records on The Nose. Illustrations by Christopher Hampson

The fight for The Nose speed record isn’t over, but El Cap climbers pursued other ambitious objectives in recent years. Achievement and danger both seemed to magnify in the last decade.

A photo of a climber, with arms and legs outstretched as wide as possible, while hanging on a rock wall.
Tommy Caldwell labored seven years to ascend Dawn Wall. Photo by Red Bull Media House / Corey Rich

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson labored seven years to free climb El Cap’s absurdly-difficult Dawn Wall. The route’s crux (hardest section) is a horizontal traverse across rock with only the tiniest holds for fingers and toes, spaced far apart and sharp enough to draw blood when gripped.

A photo of a climber outstretched, holding on to the wall of El Capitan
Kevin Jorgeson traverses Dawn Wall’s most difficult 15th pitch. Photo by Red Bull Media House / Corey Rich

Caldwell and Jorgeson practiced this 15th pitch (a section of climbing about the length of one rope) hundreds of times before succeeding. Their final push triumphed over 19 days in 2015, drawing international attention and a White House shout-out from President Obama.

A screenshot from, a post from the Obama White House, with former president Barack Obama standing in front of a painting of Yosemite National Park.
Former President Barack Obama congratulated Caldwell and Jorgenson in 2015 for their climb of El Capitan, as seen on this screenshot from Facebook taken Aug. 8, 2023.

Honnold answered with an even more unthinkable feat in 2017: El Capitan’s first and only free solo ascent. After years of preparation, he climbed the Freerider route without a partner, rope or protective gear. Honnold’s self-imposed challenge required him to climb perfectly or die, caused his girlfriend to break into tears, and in the process, he astonished the world.

Those jaw-dropping exploits became well known through the beautifully filmed “The Dawn Wall” and “Free Solo” movies. Filmmakers gave the general public its best look ever at big wall life. Climbing’s popularity grew even greater.

A photo of a climber looking up a rock wall. He is not using any ropes for safety.
Alex Honnold completed El Capitan’s only ropeless ascent in 2017. National Geographic photo

For an encore, Caldwell and Honnold teamed up in 2018 to shatter The Nose speed record, racing up in a mind-boggling 1 hour and 58 minutes. Typically, climbers work in pairs and one leads while the other remains anchored to manage the rope. Speed climbers ascend simultaneously, greatly increasing their pace – and also the danger. If either partner falls, the rope will probably pull the other down also, and their plunge may be long before their gear stops them, if it does. Caldwell and Honnold did not fall, and together set a record that may stand for a very long time.

Increased interest in climbing and the dangerous techniques climbers adopted brought a rash of serious accidents. Since 2000, a dozen fatalities occurred on El Cap alone. An especially bad year was 2018, when Florine broke bones in both legs, another climber broke her spine and two more fell to their deaths. All were highly experienced, with hundreds of El Cap ascents between them.

Some sustain injuries or worse through risks which threaten anyone who comes near the steep mountain. A party dropped a haul bag in 2016, breaking the arm of a climber below. Rockfall, described as “the size of an apartment building,” killed a climber and injured another in 2017.

“Most climbers do a good job coping with the hazards of their sport,” wrote ranger John Dill, a search and rescue veteran with more than 40 years of experience, in a well-read cautionary report called “Staying Alive.

But climbers could and should reduce the accident rate, Dill wrote, by anticipating and preparing for the multiple dangers they could face. Wearing helmets, bringing enough water, carrying rain gear, studying descent routes, rappelling properly, and placing protective gear even on “easy” terrain are a few of his suggestions.

“At least 80 percent of the fatalities and many injuries were easily preventable. In case after case, ignorance, a casual attitude, and/or some form of distraction proved to be the most dangerous aspects of the sport,” Dill wrote.

“Climbing will always be risky. It should be clear, however, that a reduced accident rate is possible without seriously restricting the sport.”

Cathie Yun and Julie Wang, who climbed The Nose in 2022, seemed to embrace the planning and caution that Dill endorses. Before their attempt, they improved their fitness and skills with months of training and practice on the wall’s bottom half. Then they scheduled their adventure for June, when favorable weather was likely. “We are team ‘safety first,’” Yun said.

A photo of two female climbers, smiling into the camera from the peak of El Capitan
Cathie Yun and Julie Wang enjoyed climbing The Nose in four days. Photo by Julie Wang

Wang declared the Stoveleg Cracks “the best pitches ever.” Completing the King Swing maneuver (a wild pendulum traverse) led to “whoops and delight.” One by one, the pair negotiated well-known challenges like the Great Roof and Changing Corners pitches. They spent their nights comfortably on ledges, dining on pad thai and calling friends. A few miscues, like a short fall, a dropped phone and “rope shenanigans,” caused no serious problems as they summitted in four days. 

Supporters welcomed them at the top with hot stir fry, pineapple and champagne. “We feasted, we hugged, and we were so so happy, feeling all the feelings,” Yun recalled.

Yun and Wang enjoyed “the experience of a lifetime.” Perhaps their successful adventure best illustrates why people don’t just dream of climbing El Cap, and risk their necks trying, but actually enjoy it when they do.

A photo showing a climber, with gear attached to the rock wall.
Cathie Yun leads the Great Roof, a famous and challenging feature of The Nose. Photo by Julie Wang

Take record-breaking climbers Florine and Emily Harrington, for example. Both recovered from El Cap injuries and returned to climb again in recent years. Another who bounced back is Becca Skinner, niece of free climbing pioneer Todd Skinner, who died in a 2006 rappelling accident. “I swore I would never climb again. However, six months after the accident, I was drawn back to the rocks,” she recalled.

“​​Climbing will always be a part of who I am. It’s rooted in the depths of my soul,” she added.

A photo of a climber with her body firmly against the rock wall, with fingers pressed firmly into the wall
Emily Harrington climbs the Golden Gate route. Photo by Jon Glassberg

If even those who experienced injuries and lost loved ones keep climbing, those who haven’t suffered losses seem even less likely to turn away.

Among hundreds who summited El Capitan in 2022, a father and son duo gained the most attention. The pair relied on guides to lead a four-day climb and anchor ropes which the Bakers ascended with jumars. Sam Baker, 8, became the youngest climber yet to ascend ropes up Yosemite’s signature mountain. Father Joe Baker gushed with pride.

Some criticized the decision to expose a child to such danger. Yet the elated Bakers seemed unmoved.

“It feels like we’re above eternity up here,” said Joe.

“It was awesome and I’m the youngest to do it,” said Sam. “In a few years, I’m going to come back and free climb it.”

This is the third and final installment of a three-part series.

The Sierra Nevada Ally is supported by readers just like you. Show your support with a financial contribution and help local, independent journalism thrive in our region.

Sign up for our FREE newsletter, and get the latest news and reports sent directly to your inbox.


This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top