This story appears in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
On a bright Saturday morning in September a young man is clinging to the face of Half Dome, a sheer 2,130-foot wall of granite in the heart of Yosemite Valley. He's alone, so high off the ground that perhaps only the eagles take notice. Hanging on by his fingertips to an edge of rock as thin as a dime, shoes smeared on mere ripples in the rock, Eminem blasting on his iPod, Alex Honnold is attempting something no one has ever tried before: to climb the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome without a rope. He's less than a hundred feet from the summit when something potentially disastrous occurs—he loses the smallest measure of confidence.
For two hours and 45 minutes Honnold has been in the zone, flawlessly performing hundreds of precise athletic moves one after another, and not once has he hesitated. In the sport of free soloing, which means climbing with only a powdery chalk bag and rock shoes—no rope, no gear, nothing to keep you stuck to the stone but your own belief and ability—doubt is dangerous. If Honnold's fingertips can't hold, or if he merely believes his fingertips can't hold, he will fall to his death. Now, the spell suddenly broken by mental fatigue and the glass-slick slab in front of him, he's paralyzed.
"My foot will never stay on that," Honnold says to himself, staring at a greasy bump on the rock face. "Oh God, I'm screwed."
He hadn't felt that way two days before, when he'd raced up the same route with a rope. That climb had gone so smoothly he was certain he could free solo it, despite the route's legendary difficulty. When Half Dome was first climbed, in 1957, it had taken Californian Royal Robbins and his teammates five days. To get to the top, 4,840 feet above the valley floor, they'd pounded a hundred or so pitons, thin wedges of steel, into the rock, from which they'd hung ropes to climb—a style called aid climbing. A generation later, in 1976, Coloradans Art Higbee and Jim Erickson climbed Half Dome almost completely free—relying only on hands and feet wedged into the cracks, using ropes only to catch a fall—in 34 hours. For Honnold to free solo Half Dome would be to raise the bar almost beyond belief.
Now, clinging to the granite, Honnold vacillates, delicately chalking one hand, then the other, vigilantly adjusting his feet on invisibly small footholds. Then abruptly he's in motion again, stepping up, smearing his shoe on the slick knob. It sticks. He moves his hand to another hold, crimping his fingers on the tiny edge. Within minutes he's at the top.
"I rallied because there was nothing else I could do," Honnold tells me later, releasing a boyish laugh. "I stepped up and trusted that terrible foothold and was freed of the little prison where I'd stood silently for five minutes."
Word of his two-hour-and-50-minute free solo of Half Dome flashes around the world. Climbers are stunned, and bloggers buzz. On this warm fall day in 2008 the nerdy, plays-Scrabble-with-his-mom 23-year-old from the suburbs of Sacramento has just set a new record in climbing's biggest of big leagues.
This is the magic of Yosemite: It forges heroes. No matter where they come from, from the Alps to the Andes, all self-respecting rock climbers yearn to make a pilgrimage to "the valley" to measure themselves against its giants: El Capitan, a shimmering prow of stone so immense it makes the hundred-foot ponderosa pines at its base look miniature; Cathedral Rocks, a dark fortress forever in the shade; and Half Dome, a granite apple cleaved in half, its soaring northwest face an invitation to the boldest climbers in the world. To climb here is a rite of passage.
I made my first journey to the valley in the 1970s, a hungry teenager hitchhiking from Wyoming with a $20 bill and a climbing rope. Having grown up on the High Plains and tested myself in the Rockies, I wanted to believe I was ready. A vacationing family from Iowa in a station wagon, with three kids and a golden retriever, dropped me off in a meadow beneath the shadow of El Capitan, and I must have stood there with my head tilted back, stunned, for 15 minutes.
I stayed in Camp 4, Yosemite's notoriously rowdy campground for climbers. Back then, Camp 4 was all bell-bottoms and beads, torn tents and worn sleeping bags. Climbers were long-haired, hard-partying rebels, addicted to independence and the thrill of scaling big rocks and thus the bane of park rangers, who were known as "the tools."
The feeling was mutual. One midnight, after barely getting up a big wall, my friends and I stumbled back into camp only to discover that the rangers had confiscated our tent because we'd overstayed our permit. We slept in the dirt that night and from then on "stealth bivvied," rolling out our sleeping bags in the forest or among the boulders, sleeping under the stars, and returning to the walls before daybreak (still a common practice). We collected aluminum cans for cash and lived on peanut butter and cheap beer, and we couldn't have been happier.
But I was a Camp 4 tourist, soon to return to Wyoming. The lore of Camp 4 came from those who lived there all summer, every summer, like hobo kings, constantly pushing the limits of their abilities and the park's tolerance. To this day, Camp 4 fables are staples of campfires round the world. Once, a drug smugglers' plane stuffed with bales of weed and wads of cash crashed in the high country. The ragged, sandaled lads of Camp 4 marched back and forth through the snow, absconding with the loot. For a time, T-bone steaks replaced tinned sardines. One climber rolled out of Yosemite in a broken-down DeSoto and returned ten days later in a red convertible Lincoln Continental. A few others lit out for the Alps with dreams of grandeur but didn't make it any farther than a bordello in Bordeaux, returning fat and flat broke the next year.
That was then. Things have changed. Visiting a Yosemite climbing camp today, you're just as likely to meet a divorce attorney from Delaware as a wild-haired dirtbag. Walking through Camp 4 one morning, I hear a dozen languages—Czech, Chinese, Thai, Italian—and meet climbers from all walks of life. A young German engineer, grinning ear to ear, has just completed a five-day ascent of El Cap. A barefoot young woman from Denmark, with nose ring, dreads, a tattoo, walks a slackline—a tightrope strung three feet off the ground between trees. A mom and dad from Washington State teach their two kids how to climb. Rock climbing is no longer a fringe sport. It's mainstream. And unlike the early years, there are nearly as many women as men on the rock—a welcome change reflected in the accomplishments of one person: Lynn Hill.
"I started hanging out in Camp 4 when I was 15," says Hill, now 50. "I was practically the only girl there." A former high school gymnast, she was a fearless climber, bringing a fluid gracefulness to the sport. By the time she was 17, Hill had scaled Half Dome.
"Lynnie was a genetic freak," says climber John Long. "She was the strongest, most stubbornly dogged, most gifted climber I'd ever met. Her weight-to-strength ratio was ridiculous."
After perfecting her craft in Yosemite, Hill moved on to other venues, winning dozens of competitions in Europe. Then in 1994, at 33, she returned to Yosemite with an audacious plan: to free climb the Nose on El Capitan in a day. "All the naysayers said it was impossible," Hill says. "Except John." The Nose, a 2,916-foot line on El Cap, may be the most famous rock-climbing route in the world. To scale it, you must painfully twist your hands and feet, fingers and toes into vertical cracks. In 1975 Long, with Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay, completed the first one-day ascent of the Nose, although his team relied on aid climbing to get past the Great Roof, a harrowing overhang two-thirds of the way up.
Determined to free the Great Roof, Hill clung to the smallest fingerholds, hanging upside down, feet skittering off the slick wall. Using what she calls "delicate tai chi dance steps," she managed to surmount the roof with what were essentially fingertip side pulls. She reached the summit of El Cap in 23 hours—a feat considered by many today to be the ultimate climbing accomplishment of the late 20th century.
Regardless of ability, every climber comes to Yosemite with a dream: a route he or she is aching to do. When I first arrived, I had my heart set on the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel Rock—a route that requires plugging your whole body into a wide crack. Alas, in the event, the wall was too big and my partner and I too green. We ignominiously bailed only halfway up.
Now, 30 years later, Dean Potter offers to climb it with me. One of the last long-haired rebels still living in the valley, Potter, 38, is intense, built like Tarzan, and known for his ropeless ascents and bold BASE jumps, leaping off cliffs with a parachute. But Potter has rules for me. I'm not allowed to bring any food or water, no backpack or raincoat, not even a helmet. "It's the only way to move fast," he says.
Speed has become the creed of the new überclimbers. "We'll make a leisurely day of it," Potter promises. To save weight, he goes barefoot during the nasty, bushwhacking approach. At the base, after stretching on our painfully tight rock shoes, we rope up and begin ascending the 1,500-foot route like monkeys, hand jamming up cracks, squeezing through chimneys, climbing face holds as if they were a ladder. We top out in less than four hours. I feel like we've flown up the route, until Potter tells me that he often free solos it in an hour.
This is the trend. Most routes are now familiar, and equipment and skills are vastly improved. So speed rather than exploration has become a key measure of a climber's craft. In 1950, when Allen Steck and John Salathé first climbed the route that bears their name, they took five days. The first ascent of the Nose was a 47-day siege over a year and a half, from 1957 to '58, by fun-loving iconoclast Warren Harding. Today slow parties take three to five days, spending nights on "portaledges," tiny tents hanging from the wall; fast climbers do it in a day. The record for the Nose is an unimaginable two hours, 36 minutes, and 45 seconds, set last November by Potter and Sean "Stanley" Leary.
Climbing in the '70s was about adventure as much as athletics. Today it's evolved into vertical gymnastics. Elite climbers are disciplined athletes who train constantly, repeating movements to perfection. As driven as Lance Armstrong or Michael Phelps, they're obsessed with their weight, because completing, or "sending," a route is all about defying gravity. Consider the 30 or so climbers who show up at a party at Potter's cabin. In the old days such a gathering would be a rager, roaring till dawn. No longer. Nobody smokes, hardly anybody drinks. Potter serves a sensible vegetable-and-rice dish, four climbers bring homemade apple pies, and one and all are in bed before midnight, because everybody has a "project" they're working on the next day.
Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck are among those who attend. Steck, a leading Swiss climber, epitomizes the new breed, following a strict exercise and diet regime. When training, the 34-year-old runs an astonishing 10,000 vertical feet a day. Having set speed records on all three of the great north faces in the Alps—the Eiger (2:48), the Matterhorn (1:56), and the Grandes Jorasses (2:21)—Steck has come to Yosemite to sharpen his climbing in granite cracks. Last year he and Honnold dashed up El Cap in three hours and 50 minutes. His dream is to take speed climbing to the Himalaya. "No technical route on an 8,000-meter peak has been done in Alpine style," he says, meaning fast and light. "That is my mission."
Unlike European pros such as Steck, who enjoy generous corporate sponsorship, most American climbers barely get by financially. Many earn just enough cash to crash in their vans and eat beans and rice. Indeed, because of the seven-day restriction at Camp 4, many live full-time in vehicles at Yosemite. Kate Rutherford, 30, and Madeleine Sorkin, 29, who together made the first female free ascent of Half Dome, both live in their vans. Honnold lives in his van. Colorado climber Tommy Caldwell, 32, one of the best granite free climbers in America, lives in his van when he's in Yosemite—despite having been a professional climber since the age of 16.
Yet they still come back. Since 2007 Caldwell has been working on free climbing a new route near Mescalito on El Cap that may be the world's hardest big-wall free climb. "I've been climbing my whole life," he says. "First roped up when I was three years old." Caldwell's father was a mountain guide; Tommy remembers lying in an El Cap meadow as a kid watching his dad climb, just as other kids watched their dads play catch.
"There's something magnetic about Yosemite," he says. "All the history. I freak out the moment I get here and look up at the walls."
About four million people visit Yosemite every year, only a few thousand of whom are climbers. But the climbers still represent the beating heart of the valley. "I came here as a sophomore in high school and never went back home," says Ron Kauk, 53. "This place, Yosemite, was my education. If you let it, it can imprint a value system on you." To that end, Kauk started the Sacred Rok program to bring troubled kids to Yosemite to teach them how to think and feel for themselves. "Passing a bottle of water to your partner a thousand feet off the ground," he says, "you make sure he's got a good grip on it."
Kauk established some of the hardest routes in the valley, almost always climbing with a rope—which may be why he didn't become one of the 83 climbers who've died here since 1955. By contrast, free soloing leaves no room for error. As Dean Potter bluntly puts it, "You mess up, you die." Climbing unroped eventually caught up with two of Yosemite's best soloists: Derek Hersey, a Brit who fell from the Steck-Salathé in 1993, and Californian John Bachar, a former climbing partner of Kauk's who died in 2009 while free soloing near Mammoth Lakes.
Nevertheless, Honnold insists that Yosemite climbers still haven't reached the limits for free soloing. "Theoretically, you should be able to climb harder without a rope because you have less weight, fewer movements," he says. Looking past Half Dome, many routes here have never been free soloed. It's just a matter of time until someone—maybe Honnold—gives them a try.
My last night in the valley I wander through Camp 4 at dusk. The scent of pine sap and campfires floats in the air, and a couple of stars have just come out. There's laughter, and someone is playing a guitar. At one campsite two young men are methodically laying out gear—ropes and carabiners and milk jugs of water—talking gravely about what they hope will happen on their wall the next morning. At another picnic table three women with bloody knuckles, all in pigtails and wearing headlamps, are crying, hugging each other, having just come off a three-day ascent.
Like those who made the pilgrimage before them and those who will follow, they've come to Yosemite to test themselves against the rock. They know that these walls are more than mountains: They're giant mirrors that unsparingly reflect what lies inside each climber.