- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. With headlights lighting the way out of the abyss, two rock-climbers scrambled atop El Capitan and stepped into the record books on the most celebrated hunk of granite on Earth.
Hans Florine and Steve Gerberding, two of the best climbers in the world, each scaled the 3,000-foot wall for the 100th time Sept. 14, setting a mark that once seemed unreachable. In the process, they demonstrated just how much the sport of rock-climbing has evolved in a half-century.
After 14 hours of nonstop climbing, Mr. Gerberding sprawled on the rock and said it would take a few days for the personal milestone, 19 years in the making, to sink in.
"When you're wasted, nothing feels that special," he said. "Special would be if there's a helicopter up here."
As the duo contemplated how they were going to get down, an exhausted and dehydrated Mr. Gerberding vomited.
"I'm not going to die, I'm just beat, dude," he said when his buddy expressed concern. They were 7,000 feet above sea level.
On the valley floor, car headlights looked like lightning bugs darting through the trees and meadows. Any onlookers who had stopped to gawk at the various high-wire acts on the face had packed up and left after dark. If any were lucky enough to spot the pair speeding to the top, they were probably unaware they had witnessed climbing history.
"The fact that they've each done it 100 times definitely shows that climbing El Cap has evolved from the unimaginable in the mid-'50s the four-minute mile of its time, an unbreakable barrier from something nobody's even tried to something guys build a life around," said Daniel Duane, author of "El Capitan," a history of the peak.
The sport of climbing sheer rock walls like El Capitan was in its infancy in 1953, when the summit of Mount Everest half a world away was reached. It would be five more years before anyone conquered El Capitan.
El Capitan casts an imposing shadow over the Yosemite Valley, elevation 4,000 feet. It was considered unassailable until new techniques and equipment were developed after World War II.
The first ascent took 45 days. The second trip took less than a week. Today, the fastest climbers, including Mr. Florine, have made it up the most direct route in less than four hours.
"If we climbed it once in a season, we figured we could go home," said Tom Frost, who was on the second team to summit. "These guys could climb it every day. Things have changed so much you couldn't have foreseen the differences."
For accomplished climbers the summit is still a three- or four-day proposition, as they cling to barely visible outcroppings on the sheer cliff, pry their way up cracks invisible from below and haul hundreds of pounds of gear behind them.
Those who can reach the top in less than 24 hours are a new breed of climber, taking less equipment, moving faster and taking greater risks.
Like other extreme sports, where fewer firsts remain, the emphasis among a core of elite athletes is on speed or some other measure of accomplishment. With the 100th climb, which shattered the previous 22-hour mark for that route, Mr. Florine has 13 records on El Capitan.
Mr. Florine proposed the climb to Mr. Gerberding because they had both topped out 99 times. Reaching the summit for the 100th time was less a goal than an inevitability after years spent going up and down.
Mr. Gerberding, 42, a reserved climbing instructor from Joshua Tree, said he was "bummed out" when he finished climbing El Capitan for the first time in 1983 and has returned ever since, exploring new avenues to the top.
Mr. Florine, 38, a marketing representative for a San Francisco rock-gym company, said his act of repetition is more a matter of convenience unlike other mountains, El Capitan is less than 15 miles from the nearest highway.
Both men reached the summit by way of the lesser-scaled route up Dihedral Wall. They exchanged a quick handshake at the top, Mr. Florine phoned his wife and then the two climbers posed for a couple self-timed photos to record the event.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide