New Movie “To the Limit” Shows Record Speed-Climb of El Capitan Nose Route at Yosemite National Park

Climbers contemplate El Capitan’s Nose route. By
tpuyol via Flickr.

Big wall climbing is not your ordinary sort of climbing. Climbers who specialize in this sport love to scale massive vertical walls that pose very difficult challenges.

Big wall climbing is not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to make a total commitment. Unlike garden variety sport climbing, which is a heavily protected, very athletic “dance on the rock,” big wall climbing typically entails dealing with heavy haul bags, fatigue and thirst, untrustworthy belays, sudden storms, portaledge bivouacs, and potentially complicated rescue situations.

For the daring men who invented big wall climbing at Yosemite National Park back in the 1960s (the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing), El Capitan and Half Dome were the grand prizes. The two imposing granite monoliths framed Yosemite Valley for park visitors, but for big wall climbers they defined the root challenge for their emerging sport. Half Dome's northwest face is a monster wall, and El Capitan is even bigger. Indeed, El Cap is the largest granite monolith on the planet. Could walls like that really be climbed? Most people thought it just had to be impossible.

It was not impossible. The 1,800-foot vertical face of Half Dome was scaled in 1957 by Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas. The team took five days for the project, the first Grade VI climb in America, and used nearly 200 direct aid pitons (metal pegs driven into cracks). The 3,000-foot vertical face of "El Cap" was conquered the next year by Warren J. Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore after 47 days of hard labor (spread over two seasons) and the placement of 700 pitons and 125 bolts. This became the Nose route, so named because it follows the massive prow jutting out between El Cap's Southeast and Southwest faces.

Big wall climbing evolved rapidly, yielding tremendous strides in gear and techniques. Half Dome was first climbed “clean” in 1972 by climbers who used chocks, cams, and other removable protection instead of pitons and bolts. Half Dome is now a classic climb for hundreds of talented weekend climbers.

In 1986 a pair of climbers teamed up to climb both Half Dome and El Capitan in a single day, and now lots of big wall specialists can pull off this single-day double. By 1992, El Cap had been scaled by a paraplegic (so much for “impossible”) and the speed record for the Nose was down to four hours and 22 minutes. Lynn Hill shocked the climbing world in 1993 when she became the first person to free climb the Nose without artificial aid. That was thought to be impossible, too.

Many outstanding big wall routes have been put up at Yosemite, including classic climbs like Lost Arrow Spire, Middle Cathedral Rock, Sentinel Rock, the Royal Arches, and the Nabisco Wall. But El Capitan and Half Dome are still the two main attractions. Both can be climbed via a number of different routes.

With its wonderful rock, gorgeous setting, and rich history, the Nose is arguably the most aesthetically pleasing big wall climb in the world. The Yosemite visitor who sees colorful dots high up on El Cap’s ridiculously high vertical wall thinks: “Those climbers have got to be stark raving mad!” The big wall climber has a completely different perspective that can be summed in the single phrase: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Although even blind people and kids have climbed the darn thing, there’s still nothing quite like the Nose. It’s the most famous rock face in the sport of climbing, and probably always will be. About 60 percent of the climbing teams who attempt the Nose make it to the top, typically taking two to five days.

What can you still do on the Nose that's truly notable? Well, for one thing, you can climb it faster than anyone else ever has. In 2002, Yuji Hirayama and Hans Florine speed-climbed the nose in two hours, 48 minutes, and 55 seconds. That record stood for five years until the Huber brothers eclipsed it last year.

Thomas Huber and Alexander Huber, two German adrenaline junkies with a solid resume (Bavarian Alps, Patagonia, etc.), thought that the Nose might be climbed in as little as two and a half hours. On October 8, 2007, almost exactly half a century after the Nose was first climbed, they made it to the top in two hours, 45 minutes, and 45 seconds. (This was actually their second record-setting attempt at the Nose in less than a week.) Not two and a half hours, but the new record was still pretty darn good by any reasonable measure. It works out to about 18 vertical feet a minute.

The brothers decided not to try to break their own record after concluding that it would be too risky. To be sure, one might argue that all speed climbing is too risky. To trim their time on the rock, speed climbers take incredible risks by stripping their gear to a bare minimum and employing tactics such as climbing simultaneously with little or no fall protection in place. The climbers are roped together, so if one falls he is likely to pull the other off the rock with him. It is axiomatic that you must be a skillful and lucky speed climber if you are not to be a dead speed climber.

The Hubers' record climb was documented on film, thank goodness, and not by just any old filmmaker. To the Limit is the work of Academy Award winner Pepe Danquart, who used four cameras to capture breath taking footage from angles seldom seen. Some Patagonia climbing footage is included.

To the Limit, a 95-minute German language film with English subtitles, is now showing in an exclusive New York first run at the Cinema Village (in Greenwich Village), where it opened Friday, June 13. A trailer can be seen at this site. Information about additional big screen offerings (if any) is not available at this time.

Perhaps more to the point, the movie is scheduled for release on DVD in October 2008. Ordering information for To the Limit DVD: Huber Brothers Speed Climb the Nose ($29.95) and additional information about the Hubers and their record climb are available at this site.

Incidentally, To the Limit completes a sports film trilogy by Danquart. The other two are the award winning Home Match (2000; German film prize for Best Director) and Hell on Wheels (2004).