On June 6, 2018, in California’s Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell accomplished the seemingly impossible—climbing the 3,000-foot Nose route of El Capitan in 1 hour 58 minutes and 7 seconds. “It’s like breaking the two-hour marathon barrier, but vertically,” says Hans Florine, who, with his climbing partner Yuji Hirayama in 2002, was the first to take the speed record on the Nose under three hours.
The Nose is widely considered the greatest big-wall climbing route on Earth. It runs straight up the prow of the massive granite formation known as El Capitan and is the monolith’s most recognizable feature. Every spring, it draws the world’s most adventurous climbers to test their mettle. Most take three to five days to scale the challenging terrain, “camping” on the wall in portaledges anchored to the stone. For elite climbers, the time to beat is NIAD, or Nose-in-a-Day, climbing it all without an overnight. For Honnold and Caldwell, the route is their morning workout. “It didn’t feel that fast,” Honnold says of their latest record attempt, “but when I popped over the top I saw 1:57 and was like go, go, go, go!”
A Race Through the Decades
The speed record on the Nose can be traced back to 1975, when a team of three climbers—Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay—set out to climb it in less than 24 hours. Prior to that, the route was always considered a multi-day undertaking, even by the best. While the climbers didn’t precisely clock their time, Long estimates it took them just under 15 hours. Their ascent became the first entry in the Nose’s unofficial record book.
“Hard core climbers in Yosemite, like Royal Robbins, had been doing projects to reduce the time of climbs from days to hours since the 1960s,” says Long. “By the 1970s, all the other big formations had been climbed in a day. The Nose was the last to go. It’s the biggest, the most prominent, the most intimidating.”
Speed climbing on the Nose didn’t really capture the general public’s attention until the early 2000s, when one of climbing’s most influential characters, Dean Potter, took an interest. At that time, the record had stood for nine years, set by Florine and Peter Croft at 4:22. In October 2001, Potter, along with climbing partner Timmy O’Neill, went after the record and took it under four hours, to 3:59:35. Two weeks later, Florine partnered with Jim Herson to reclaim it, making to the top in 3:57:27. Potter and O’Neill returned the favor three days later, logging 3:24:20. “It was a significant turning point,” says Florine. “For the first time, crowds were showing up in El Capitan meadow to watch. You could hear them cheering from 2,000 feet up the climb. It was pretty cool.”
In 2002, Florine partnered with Yuji Hirayama of Japan, one of the greatest free climbers of his time, to take the record under three hours, catalyzing what’s become known as the Race for the Nose. Over the next decade, some of the world’s best climbers, including Potter, Sean Leary, and German brothers Alexander and Thomas Huber, would try and win back the record from Florine. Multiple filmmakers, most notably REEL Rock founders Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, documented the drama for the big screen.
In his 2016 book On the Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb, Florine announced his retirement from the record. He’d held it with Alex Honnold at a time of 2:23:46 since 2012. In October 2017, standout Yosemite climber Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds, a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue, bested the time in 2:19:44.
Preparing for the Record
The new record inspired Honnold to try again with partner Tommy Caldwell. “Since 2012, when I set the record with Hans, I have always thought it could potentially go sub two hours,” says Honnold. “When Brad and Jim finally broke the record, it was open season again and time to give it a try.”
Honnold and Caldwell began training together on the Nose in May 2018. It was Caldwell’s first foray into speed-climbing, but certainly not his first time in Yosemite. In 2005, Caldwell and Beth Rodden became the third and fourth people to free-climb the Nose (free-climbers use ropes and other gear only for protection in case of a fall, not as aid to help pull them up the route). Caldwell has made first free-ascents of several other big walls in Yosemite and several notable linkups, but he is perhaps best known for the 19 days he spent dangling from the side of El Capitan, on the route just to the right of the Nose known as the Dawn Wall. When Caldwell and partner Kevin Jorgeson finally topped out on the Dawn Wall, on January 14, 2015, they’d achieved the first free-ascent of what’s widely regarded as the hardest rock climb on the planet.
Honnold and Caldwell have been climbing together for years, building a long list of memorable ascents. One of the most epic: a 2014 first ascent of the iconic Fitz Traverse, a grueling five-day effort traversing the ridgeline of Patagonia’s Cerro Fitz Roy. Their sub-two-hour feat on the Nose came after several weeks of concentrated training in Yosemite. In May and early June, they climbed the Nose about a dozen times together, including two attempts, on May 30 and June 4, that whittled the record down to 2:10:15 and 2:01:50, respectively.
“The main thing with speed climbing, in general, is to trim inefficiency any way you can,” says Honnold. “I think part of what makes Tommy such a good partner is that every time we climbed the route we’d do a big debrief up top, then we’d spend most of the down hike talking about it, and then throughout the day we randomly ask each other questions, figure out ways to do things potentially better. We were both constantly evaluating what we did, and how we could do it better.”
Imperfect but Enough
When the pair set off the morning of June 6 for a third record run, Honnold was confident in their ability to break two hours. The only question was whether the climb would go smoothly enough to allow for it. With 3,000 feet worth of rock, there are plenty of places to get a rope stuck and have to backtrack to free it (as happened during their second record run) or to have to pass another party of climbers, eating up precious minutes. Plus, Caldwell had just returned from a book tour event in Texas, returning to Yosemite at about 10 p.m. the night before.
Honnold needn’t have worried, despite there being moments that could have derailed the pair. They had to pass four other parties of climbers, including a non-English speaking group from Japan at the Great Roof, on one of the route’s trickier sections. Tommy dropped an essential piece of gear, a jumar, off the wall. Still, they shaved more than 3.5 minutes off their prior time and definitively broke the two-hour barrier. “It didn’t go perfectly,” says Honnold, “but that’s the nature of it. It went well enough.”
As for whittling down more time in the remaining weeks of the Yosemite climbing season, Honnold says they’re done. “I honestly think the limits of human potential on this route is more like an hour and a half,” he says. “But I don’t think we have any interest in pushing there now, you know?”
Of course, that could change if a new competitor steps up. At this stage though, there may be no one else on Earth who can match the experience and skill of a Honnold-Caldwell speed-climbing team. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this record holds for like 10 to 15 years,” Honnold says. “We’ll see.”