The concept was simple. Hans Florine, one of the greatest speed climbers in the world, would come to a small cliff in Eugene, Oregon, to race the local speed record holder: me. A mutual friend thought up the idea. The race would be brutal: 3,000 feet of rock climbing in a single morning—the exact height of El Capitan—and the first person to complete the challenge would win. I didn’t know Hans, but of course I’d seen his climbing films, and my only question (outside of how badly we’d burn our hands rappelling between route laps) was whether my home-turf advantage and six months of training would be enough to beat a legend.
Hans Florine is a three-time X Games winner, world speed-climbing champion, current world record holder for most El Cap ascents, and the only person in history to climb the Nose 100 times and solo El Cap twice in a single day. He also partnered with some guy named Alex Honnold in 2012 to send 3,000 feet in 2:23:46—the Nose’s world speed record at the time.
If you haven’t heard of me, that’s because nobody’s heard of me. Hans is a world champion. I once won a state championship. Hans is sponsored by all the big names. I’m sponsored by my local gym and a small clothing company. Hans holds numerous world records. I was once the fifth-best Greco-Roman wrestler in the United States—in my weight class. And speaking of weight class: Hans and I both weigh in at around 155 pounds, but Hans is a lean, strong, 6'1", and I come in at a bit chunkier 5'5".
The average route at my crag, the Columns, is 47 feet tall. To equal the Nose on El Cap, a person has to climb and rappel 64 routes. For this challenge, we chose to rope solo, to drag a single device on a fixed line so we’d survive an accidental fall. We’d climb eight different routes eight times each, with ratings ranging from 5.8+ to 5.10d. Done in a day, this is called an El Cap Day, something people do at gyms around the country and—sometimes, rarely—outdoors. The thing is, outdoor El Cap Days are absolute sufferfests. You climb and rappel for anywhere between three and 24 hours, sometimes using a headlamp to send into the night to finish your 3,000 feet. Your shoulders and back get destroyed, your forearms get pumped, your calves cramp, and your hands get covered in gobies (rock rash).
Hans and I would start at the same time but stagger four routes apart, or 32 laps, so we would never be on the same route at the same time. The first climber to complete 64 (and thus, 3,000 total feet) would win glory, a burrito, and a beer.
I reached out to local climbing coach Phil Morton for training advice. He told me, “Only climb moderates. Nothing harder than a V4 in the gym. And outside, do cardio and build up your aerobic system.”
So I began climbing intervals at the Columns, cardio climbing, and varying workouts. I’d send 22 5.10s in under an hour, or I’d race 500 feet, climb slowly for 100 feet, and then ascend as fast as I could for the next 500. I also became that weird guy at the gym—while everyone else was enjoying themselves, chatting between efforts, I was literally jogging from route to route.
The race was scheduled for the spring of 2018. Hans shattered his legs on the real El Cap a month before, and I was struggling with post-concussion syndrome from a bad car accident, delaying our race by a full year. But when I called Hans in the hospital between surgeries, he said, “Oh, I’m not too worried. With my legs broken, my core is going to get so strong this year!”
Neither of us could climb at all for three months, but we slowly built our bodies back up. Hans had another surgery. I broke my left foot. Then we both climbed in boot casts for another two months. In November, we met up and took a selfie of our injured bodies. We rescheduled the race for May 2019.
The Training II
I held the record of 3:07:51 for an El Cap Day at the Columns, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t fast enough to beat Hans. The times at our small crag were similar to real El Cap Nose-in-a-day times. Based on Hans’s Nose history, I estimated he might break 2:30, so I began training with that pace in mind.
Mid-training, Hans called me at my house and said, “You’re not sandbagging me, right?”
“I don’t think so.” How could I sandbag Hans Florine?
But after that call, I pushed myself even harder by practicing the first 1,000 feet at a sub-two-hour pace until I was at max heart rate and then climbed slowly as a recovery. I pushed myself as hard as I could through each workout, rested for two days, and came back to climb to exhaustion again.
Our silly little challenge became A Thing. Climbing filmmakers signed on to document the project. We had a race emcee. We had scorers, multiple race clerks, and write-ups in the newspaper. I mean, world record holder Hans Florine was coming to our small town. This was a big deal!
On the morning of Saturday, May 18, I headed down early and hung ropes with my friends and the race coordinators. I went through my structured warmup. The scorers set up their table, and the emcee, holding a megaphone, walked around in a bright-pink shirt and panama hat. Then Hans appeared, joked with the crowd, handed out Honey Stinger packets, and spread a tarp at the base of the Columns to begin his stretching and warmup routine.
I showed Hans our eight race routes. Hans asked me how I was going to do my changeovers between laps and how I’d switch from rope soloing on an ascender to rappelling back down. He put his Traxion self-arrest device on the line and made sure it would drag smoothly behind him in case of a fall.
The filmmakers and race crew were worried about a thunderstorm set to roll through the valley in five hours, so they asked us to finish warming up. Hans and I put on our climbing shoes and clipped our solo devices onto fixed lines. The emcee counted down from ten, and the race began. I went out hard.
We both started on 5.8+ routes, but I had mine memorized, every divot and undulation, so I gained an early two-lap lead. I pushed it to four. Then six. I was jacked on adrenaline. I clocked 32 laps at 59:05, a new half El Cap record for the Columns by eight minutes, and I still had 32 routes to go. My friend Lee was at the top of the Columns saying, “Relax, Pete. Remember that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
I slowed my pace as Hans sped up. When he finished his 32nd route, one of the filmmakers told me that he was at 1:14:05. I had a 15-minute lead. I kept pushing.
We were staggered apart and climbing each route at different times during our competition. Ultimately, the race came down to a single 5.10d finger crack named the Hard Layback. When it was my turn on that route, I climbed my eight laps from memory in 18:37. Hans, having to learn the route while he raced up, ran those same eight laps in 23:16.
Throughout the morning, the crowd loved Hans and chanted his name over and over. He finished hard on his surgically repaired, aching feet and crushed an El Cap Day with a time of 2:27:05, beating my old Columns record by 40 minutes. In the end, though, the race went to the local. I was tired but closed my last eight laps in 12:48, clocking an overall time of 2:05:55, breaking my old Columns record by more than an hour and beating Hans by 20-plus minutes. I was still roughly eight minutes off the real El Cap speed record—currently held by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell—but I had set a course record and felt good about it.
Hans came over to congratulate me afterward. He smiled and gave me a hug. “We both did hard things,” he said.
We were ready for food, a beer, and a nap.