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This Speed Record Feels Different, but the Same

El Capitan

I’ve been following climbing news and media for over 20 years and every accomplishment leaves me motivated and inspired.

But the June 6 speed record up The Nose by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold felt different.

Yes, they finally climbed the route in under two hours (in one hour, 58 minutes and seven seconds to be exact), but instead of the “Yeah, boys!” thoughts I often have, I’m left thinking “Oh thank god, it’s over.”

Maybe it’s because of the recent deaths of Tim Klein and Kevin Wells on Freeblast, or maybe it’s because of the recent accident that left Hans Florine with two broken legs after a speed climb fall on The Nose, or maybe it was Quinn Brett’s 2017 fall from a speed climb up The Nose that left or paralyzed, or maybe it was speed climber Ueli Steck’s death in 2017, or maybe it is all of these things combined.

But this speed record, which was done by two of the best climbers in the world as safely as it could’ve been done, feels different.

Perhaps it was that we were all holding our collective breath (because the climbing world is more connected now than ever thanks to social media) until they made the sub-two-hour ascent of The Nose and hypoxia was setting in.

And now once we take a deep breath and let the oxygen return, we’ll be able to reflect and celebrate the record in all its glory.

Or maybe this is the end of speed climbing for The Nose record for this generation of climbing, although that’s doubtful.

After they got the record, Florine (who has had the record a number of times) said, “OK, I will stay retired from this record. Way to go Alex and Tommy.”

Caldwell and Honnold averaged three minutes and 48 seconds over each of the 31 pitches. They moved at a rate of more than 7.6 metres (25 feet) per minute.

On his third lap of The Nose this season, weeks ago, Caldwell took a 30-metre fall but was left uninjured.

In a social media post, Caldwell’s wife, Rebecca, commented (maybe joked) that she was making them wear helmets.

Caldwell’s celebration post on Instagram even had a feeling of melancholy, as he wrote, “I’m feeling mighty thankful for my friendship with this guy. Thanks for hauling the geriatric handicapped dad up the mountain this morning. 1:58.07.

“It was a heavy and thoughtful week here in Yosemite. I am so saddened by the deaths. RIP Jason Wells and Tim Klein. I can’t imagine the pain of the families. The only way to do this stuff reasonably safely is to climb with the worlds most prolific big wall climber and analyze everything carefully. Thanks Alex for keeping it safety first. This was a experience I will not soon forget.”

Caldwell and Honnold won the Piolet d’Or for their Fitz Roy Traverse and have now climbed The Nose in under two hours.

Separately and together they have countless amazing accomplishments, from solos to 5.15s to freeing routes.

In 20 years from now, young climbers will read about the three speed ascents by Caldwell and Honnold from the past month and likely won’t know about all of the other bad things in the climbing world right now.

Just like when we look back at the first one-day ascent of The Nose in 1975 and don’t think about the death of Mick Burke on Mount Everest that year and how it shook the climbing world.

Burke was on the first British team, with Rob Wood, to climb The Nose in 1968.

Burke wrote in the 1969 American Alpine Journal, “The positions above the Great Roof. Those enjoyable free pitches just before the top. The final bolt ladder easy as it is now, still has 3400 ft of fresh air below to keep it in its perspective and, finally, the fun of climbing with Rob.

“It would have been a difficult task to find someone who would have more enhanced those five days in the vertical desert.”

Climbing is full of tragedies and triumphs and this past week has left us with both. Maybe that’s why it feels different, but the same.