Two of the world’s best rock climbers coped with frightening falls and the deaths of two fellow climbers on the same rock in a monthlong quest to shatter a mythical record in Yosemite National Park.
Tenacity paid off Wednesday as Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell reached the top of El Capitan, the most celebrated slab of granite on Earth, in less than two hours, breaking a barrier compared to the four-minute mile.
The blistering time of 1 hour, 58 minutes and seven seconds capped weeks of practice and a few stumbles on the so-called Nose route that runs up the middle of the 3,000-foot (915 meters) sheer monolith.
Honnold didn’t think they were on a record pace until he glanced at his phone timer as he ran for the tree that marks the finish line, he told The Associated Press by phone as he hiked down from the summit.
“Oh my god, we’re doing it,” he thought as he secured the rope to the tree and hoped Caldwell would hurry. “It was slightly emotional when we finished it. I had a wave of, ‘Oh wow.’ I’m pretty proud we saw it through.”
The duo broke the record three times in the past week, carving more than 20 minutes off a 2017 mark. Honnold said it would have been easy to stop after breaking records Monday and May 30, but they pressed toward the two-hour goal he considered the “human potential.”
Hans Florine, who has held the record on and off between 1990 and 2012 — the last time with Honnold — said the mark is equivalent to the ongoing quest to break the two-hour marathon or Roger Bannister’s 1954 achievement in the mile.
“We were pushing the five-hour barrier before and then the four-hour barrier and then the three-hour barrier. So which one of those is the four-minute mile?” Florine said before the mark was broken. “I think it is getting close.”
Climbing times on El Cap have fallen precipitously since Warren Harding and two others made the first ascent 60 years ago. That took 12 days in a final push following 48 days of advance work over 18 months as Harding pounded bolts into the rock to aid his climb.
“As I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was the conqueror and who was the conquered,” Harding said afterward.
Yosemite is mecca for climbers because of its vast array of soaring granite walls and peaks. El Cap, though, looms largest and offers 58 distinct routes. The Nose is the best known and typically takes accomplished climbers four or five days.
Climbers jam hands and feet into finger- and fist-width cracks to inch their way up the vertical wall. Sometimes there is little more to grasp or perch on than a sliver the width of a few coins. Other cracks abruptly end in a smooth sea of granite, forcing climbers to swing left or right to find the next hand or foothold.
“It’s a very complicated route,” said Daniel Duane, author of “El Capitan.” ”It meanders all over the place and it has pendulum swings and bolt ladders and there are little variations where you can go this way instead of that way, so there’s a ton of trickery involved in shaving off time.”
Speed can come at a devastating price. Climbers are roped together for safety, and they clip their lifeline into protective pieces placed in cracks along the way to catch them if they fall.
But the amount of gear in a race against the clock is pared to the bare minimum to save weight, and climbers sometimes move in tandem with neither anchored to the rock.
Two experts were speed climbing in that manner on El Cap’s Freeblast route Saturday when one fell and pulled the other 1,000 feet (305 meters) to their deaths. Spectators in the valley below who had been hoping to see Honnold and Caldwell were horrified.
Honnold and Caldwell were not climbing that day and they canceled plans to go for the record Sunday and instead did a training run.
“It’s really hard to go for it 100 percent after something like that happens,” said Honnold, who said the deaths of Jason Wells and Tim Klein weighed on them. “It’s a worst-case scenario, the stuff of nightmares really.”
Caldwell survived two big falls unscathed, including a 100-footer (30.5-meter) in practice runs.
“It was pretty scary because it was such a gargantuan fall,” said photographer Austin Siadak, who has been shooting video of the team for a documentary. “I saw him hurtling upside down through the air and then bouncing on the end of the rope.”
Once Caldwell came to a rest, he chalked up his hands, swung over to a crack and resumed his upward progress.
Honnold, 32, and Caldwell, 39, are arguably the biggest stars of rock climbing, but both suffered small injuries. Caldwell’s knees and fingers were bloodied and Honnold got a nasty rope burn in a fall that tore a chunk from a finger.
Caldwell shared fame in 2015 with Kevin Jorgeson on a first ascent of El Cap’s Dawn Wall, one of the world’s hardest routes, using no assistance in a 19-day climb and only ropes and gear to protect against a fall.
Honnold is the only person to have climbed El Cap solo without a rope or any protection, a perilous feat that earned him both admiration and criticism for being reckless.
The two climbers represent a “dream team” from a generation that honed their craft in rock gyms and “are showing up in the outdoors with a radically different ability level than they used to,” Duane said.
So even Honnold and Caldwell’s new high marks may not stand.
“It’s hard to imagine, gosh, how could anybody get better than those guys?” Duane said. “Climbing is a lot further along than it was 30 years ago on that curve toward athletic maturity, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the outer limits.”