On November 12, 2018, I jugged all 3,000 feet of the Nose. It was the 60th year anniversary of the first ascent, and it was my 179th ascent of El Capitan. I did the route far faster on many of my previous ascents, but this about far more than speed.
I had placed a passive nut, tested it with a daisy, and when I stood on the nut with an aid ladder, it popped out and I was airborne. My rope came tight three feet below the ledge that I hit. I was about 2,200 feet up the 3,000-foot wall, and my partner Abraham Shreve was cleaning the previous pitch. It was clear right away from the angle of my left leg and the intense pain any movement caused that I had done some terrible damage to my lower extremities.
Despite the pain and inability to do much, I immediately starting thinking, “What can I do to get myself out of this fix?” There wasn’t room to articulate or feel sadness or woe about the situation and my future climbing prospects. I called 911. I also spoke with my brother-in-law, who is an orthopedic surgeon, my wife, my daughter and a few friends. Abe noted that the one time he saw me get emotional up there was when I spoke to my daughter.
I wanted to be strong for my family, my friends and those involved in the rescue. I figured they could do their job better if they could count on me to hold it together. Somehow it didn’t seem a burden; it felt like a role that I wanted or needed to play. I think what went through my head was something like, “If this is going to happen to me, this is how I want to handle it.” I was a spectator of myself, and spectator-Hans expected injured-Hans to be calm, cool and collected.
By 7:00 p.m., two Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) personnel and a litter were next to me, and by 10:00 pm they had me hauled to the summit.
The following morning a helicopter lifted me off the top and down to the valley floor, where a waiting ambulance took me to the trauma center in Fresno. There my left leg was aligned and external fixator bars locked my tibia, fibula and entire left foot in place so that I could be transported to the Bay Area for further surgery. On May 20, surgeons operated to install screws, plates and rods to fix a broken tibia and fibula in my left leg and a fractured calcaneus bone in my right foot.
It was going to be a long while before I got on the rock again.
After surgery came two months of wheelchair life. I weaned off pain blockers and meds two weeks out from surgery. There was still aching pain for months—there is even today—but not enough to lose sleep over.
Those two months were enlightening, surprising, amazing, humbling. Family and friends took me in to their homes, fed me, transported me, did my laundry, handled simple tasks for me that I couldn’t do myself. Field nurses came to check on me twice a week at first, then once a week. I had physical therapy visits once a week. Friends and family rubbed my feet daily.
I started going through an amicable divorce earlier this year, which meant moving, while in a wheelchair, into a ground floor apartment. The thought of moving is daunting, but doing so in a wheelchair took it up another level. I had to ask friends to do all the heavy lifting, something so completely anti-Hans that I almost broke down just from the help I was forced to accept.
I felt guilty ordering, pointing my finger, and asking for this and that to be picked up here and placed there. I couldn’t fathom how I’d repay all the people who helped. It took some internal contemplation to realize that the help I was getting is exactly the help I love giving to others: the feeling one gets from giving that help is itself the reward and payback.
Instead of obsessing over my slowly-healing legs, I focused on what I could control. I worked my upper body like never before. My bench press and core strength are now at a ten year high. And while no one close to me was happy about my predicament, my 17 year-old-daughter was still ecstatic that she got my car for two months.
In mid-July I graduated from the wheelchair to a knee scooter, reclaimed the car from my daughter, and started taking baby steps on the rock. I took part in a mile-climb challenge for Paradox Sports the last weekend of July. I used adaptive climbing gear that is typical for paraplegics to contribute toward the goal during the event. Intermittent crutch use happened in August as I weaned off the scooter. I also started with some one-foot climbing indoors. Committed crutch-use and some unaided walking for short distances became the norm in September.
I had my first outdoor experience climbing at the Gunks in New York after the Access Fund Annual Dinner, and in October I made my return to the walls in Yosemite. I went up the first couple pitches of the Salathé—some free, some jugging—and I jugged the first pitch of the Nose. At the end of the month I led the eight-pitch East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. I used the wrist crutches to get to the base of all these routes.
The goal became to make it all the way up the Nose on November 12. Jordan Cannon and Abe Shreve signed on as my partners.
The day of, as we started up, I said to Jordan and Abe that I was good with us getting to Sickle Ledge or Dolt Tower and turning back. “Let’s just see how it goes.” I had no idea how my feet would hold up on the vertical wall for such a long time. I didn’t have any PTSD about being there or flashback visions of old fragile bones exploding from a short fall. Perhaps I’m simple minded or superior, or just able to move on from shear lack of judgement. Whatever the case, I paused at the ledge where I fell, shot a video, and was appreciative that I wouldn’t be stopping there and calling 911.
I jugged the entire route. It was tempting to lead a couple of pitches, but in the end I felt it was a better learning experience for me to let someone else take the lead, just as I had relied on friends and families to reach things from cupboards and deliver groceries over the preceding six months.
When we reached the top, we started rapping right back the way we came. My poor knees, aching feet and atrophied leg muscles would not have been happy on the rappels and hiking involved with the traditional East Ledges descent route. There’s still plenty of time to work up to that.
I have been climbing for 35 years. Before May 2, I had never needed a rescue. My worse accident involved rope burn and a broken tooth. I think that given the type of climbing I do and the mileage on the rock for that type of climbing, the record shows I am a safe climber. I am open to learning new things and generally will switch my technique if I see a safer way to do something. How I build and assess anchors, along with how I belay, has changed numerous times in the past 35 years, I believe for the better.
[Also Read OP-ED: Average Speed – Playing the Game]
But, ultimately, I don’t think I “learned” anything that would make me a safer climber from this particular accident. Certainly I could have placed the nut better, used a more appropriate nut or cam, had my rope slack shorter, or pushed out from the wall to miss the ledge. I know that driving on the road is dangerous and it is a rare person who goes through life with not a single automotive accident. I put more mileage on the road than most; I am appreciative I didn’t total my vehicle in this accident.
In those 35 years, I have found immense reward in sending a 50-foot sport route, and on rare occasion I’ve even had a good feeling from sending a boulder problem. But a big climbing adventure where I am totally spent at the end of the day is what really puts a big grin on my face. So what is next? It doesn’t matter so much to me if I climb 1,000 feet of 5.7 or 3,000 feet of 5.14 A0. If I am spent at the end of the day I am going to be happy.
Next season I’d like to think that I can run up the Salathé in a long day while getting to lead half the pitches. If that doesn’t happen then I’ll find some other way to push myself. I have been coaching a good number of people to do big days and specifically NIAD (Nose in a day). I get a buzz out of reports from others that used my beta download on the Nose, or just report in to me about how it went for them.
If it would please the readers, let Tommy and Alex know that their speed record is safe for six months or so. And I’d be OK with letting them have it for a bit longer.
HANS FLORINE is a professional rock climber and motivational speaker based in San Francisco. He holds the record for number of ascents of the Nose on El Capitan. He has held the speed record on the Nose multiple times, most recently with Alex Honnold, and a time of 2 hours 23 minutes 46 seconds, set in 2012.
To read more about Florine’s multi-decade obsession with speed climbing and the Nose, pick up a copy of his book On the Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb.