Would you ever challenge Ashima Shiraishi to a crimpfest? Or one of the Wide Boyz to an off-width match? Or Adam Ondra to a sport competition?
Not a good idea, right?
But what if a journalist offered you an opportunity similar to one of these? And what if the journalist wasn’t joking? What if she promised she could make the event happen?
Would you say “Yes”?
And could you live with yourself if you turned the opportunity down?
Here’s how it happened: A freelance journalist—Jayme Moye—was interviewing me about guiding high school kids. I run an outdoor program, and we take our students out to climb, white-water raft, bike, camp, spelunk, do orienteering challenges, etc. (and I wrote a book called Let Them Be Eaten By Bears – A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids Into The Great Outdoors), so Moye interviews me every once in a while for different articles on the outdoors and youth.
Our interviews have always been pretty casual, and they stayed that way until the day she found out that I repeat a weird endurance challenge at my local small crag: Basically, I like to race myself on “El Cap Days.” My local crag averages only 47 feet per route, so a person has to climb 64 routes (or laps) to equal the full height of El Cap’s Nose route. To do an El Cap Day, a climber has to commit to a lot of climbing and rappelling in a single day. A lot of gear change-overs. A lot of suffering.
For whatever reason, Moye thought El Cap Days sounded hilarious. She said they sounded like a ridiculous, hard challenge that most people wouldn’t choose to do. Then she said, “Wait, what’s your fastest time on that?”
“On an El Cap Day?” To be honest, I didn’t want to tell her. I knew she worked with professional athletes, interviewed pro climbers, hung out with them and documented their feats. So I wasn’t too excited to tell her my best time, but since this was an interview, I told her the truth: “3:56:42,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, “send me a video of you climbing at The Columns”—-my local crag in Eugene Oregon—“and I’ll send it to my friend Hans. He’ll love this! Then he’ll come up and race you.”
She meant Hans Florine. The super pro: 3-time X-Games champion, 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 one day. Only THAT Hans Florine.
I also knew Hans’ best time for 3,000 feet of climbing. It was 2:23:46, an hour-and-a-half faster than mine.
And as long as we’re getting into comparisons between Hans and me, Hans is seven inches taller than me, yet we’re in the same weight class: 155. Hans is slimmer and stronger than me. He’s much more famous than me, and grows hair on top of his head a lot better than I do. Hans’ nickname is “Hollywood” because he’s so good-looking and chiseled, whereas most people call me “Pedro,” “The Dirtbag,” or “Fat Jeff” (inside joke—and a long story—but the joke centers around the fact that I’m a little…uh…husky in the mid-section).
Another difference: Hans casually does 100 pull-ups each night even if he’s already climbed the Nose. So if this event were to ever happen, I would be in trouble. But—luckily—these things don’t happen in real life. They happen in movies. I mean, what’s the likelihood that an all-time great endurance-climber comes to your hometown to race you on your small, obscure, urban crag?
Honestly, a 5% chance?
A 1% chance?
But Hans emailed me an hour after my interview ended. He wrote: “What are the 64 laps rated?”
I typed, “5.8+ to 5.10d, all easy for a pro climber like you,” still knowing he wasn’t going to come do this thing. He wouldn’t actually, right?
Then he called me. At my house. My home. Hans Florine called me on the phone and said, “This thing sounds awesome!”
He was in, and he wasn’t joking around. If you don’t follow him, Hans’ Instagram says he likes to #DoHardThings and he told me, “This sounds like a hard thing, and you know how I feel about those.”
The race was on.
I was in serious trouble.
3:56:42 wasn’t going to cut it.
I trained for six months—climbed slow and fast, put in mileage at the crag, played soccer and biked for cardio, lifted weights at night, and cut my time down to 3:07:51. Almost 50 minutes off my best climb. But our crag’s times are eerily similar to the real El Cap’s. Only a handful of people are capable of Nose-In-A-Days (NIADS), and most people who climb at the Columns would take three to six days to total 64 laps—and that’s if they’re pushing themselves. Same as average Nose ascents.
My climbing partner and friend Lee Baker called me and said, “Hans is talking trash about you on Instagram!”
“Really?” I said, my voice cracking like a pre-pubescent boy.
“No,” Lee said. “Hans isn’t worried about you. He hasn’t even mentioned you online.”
“Oh,” I said, and pretended I knew all along, “okay.”
And why would Hans Florine mention me? Hans had no reason to be worried. I was still nowhere near world-class. I was just some goofy local who was about to be embarrassed by a super pro.
So I talked to the climbing coach at my local gym, Phil Morton at Elevation Bouldering. Phil has been a coach for many years, and he’s an expert in physiology. He explained training systems to me, aerobic and anaerobic, endurance versus power, etc.
Of course, I listened, wrote things down, researched once I got home, and took more notes.
While I’ve had moments that I’ve been proud of in my climbing life (40 outdoor boulder routes in a day, VB to V8; or a first ascent on a 5.12c R trad route that people said couldn’t be redpointed at my local crag because the gear was too scary), I’ve never trained systematically or been anything close to a pro climber. I’ve always just been “that good local guy, Pedro” (as I’ve overheard people say).
But Phil gave me new things to think about, and I trained like I’ve never trained before.
Then there’s another part of this story: Hans and I each had terrible accidents. Hans famously shattered his legs on El Cap. I was hit by a car while biking to work and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Hans had surgeries and was in a wheelchair for a period. I had seizures, rested in a dark room for weeks, then did cognitive therapy, neuro-vision therapy, and vocational rehab. Had another really scary seizure.
We rescheduled the race for 13 months later, and we both decided to battle back. Hans and I both practiced active rest whenever it was possible, and rested passively when we had to.
I called Hans while he was still in the hospital—to say how sorry I was about his accident—but he said, “Oh, I’m not too worried. With my legs broken, my core is going to get SO strong this year!”
That’s the attitude of a career pro-athlete, and I realized that’s how I needed to think as well.
So if I had a headache, I did push-ups with my eyes closed. Since I had trouble with memory, I wrote my workouts down—kept goal lists and tick-lists. And I came up with other modifications, too: I wore a low-billed baseball cap to protect myself from seizures that could be induced by the fluorescent lights in the climbing gym. I worked out mostly outside since my head felt better outside than inside, even lifting rocks instead of lifting weights sometimes.
But Hans was really injured, too. He was climbing in double boot-casts. He was jugging feet-free. He was getting out of a wheelchair to do his sets of crunches. He never complained. He posted videos of his comeback. And the scars on his feet and ankles looked horrific.
For months, Hans and I battled through our injuries and recoveries. I tried to stay as positive as Hans and keep putting in the work.
From there, and in counseling, I tried to open my mind to all possibilities. I no longer wanted to break just three hours for an El Cap Day. I didn’t put any limits on my own possibilities. I said to myself: “2:40 is possible. And if 2:40 is possible, so is sub 2:30.”
I knew that sub 2:30 was world-class for this endurance challenge, and that Hans Florine could probably break that barrier. I trained intervals at that pace, climbed 5.10 cracks in under 40 seconds, did my change-over, rappelled down, and went again. I tried climbing until I hit max heart-rate, then rested by climbing slowly, and blasted to max heart-rate again afterward.
I worked core and cardio as my climbing rest-days. Biked everywhere as fast as I could on a one-speed bike, even up hills. Then I secretly trained at sub 2:10 pace for a month, telling no one how fast I was climbing.
And suddenly it was race day.
The Actual Race
For the race, we set up eight ropes on eight different routes. To make it reasonable for Hans, we would repeat each of those eight routes eight times to equal 64 laps. So Hans had to onsight each route only once, then repeat that route seven more times. It was a tough challenge, but not impossible for a pro. His first lap on a route might be relatively slow (compared to a local), but then he’d get faster and faster as he went. So my biggest advantage was on that first lap. If I could climb each of the first laps twice as fast as Hans, he’d be climbing from behind for the next seven.
Hans had his own advantage: Basically, he body-shamed me just by taking off his shirt. His fitness is legendary, and on race day he didn’t disappoint. After he took off his shirt, the crowd chanted for me to take off my shirt as well, but…uh…it took me a little while to get up the courage. I decided to climb a few laps first. Maybe look a little stronger once I got some blood pumping in my less-defined muscles.
We staggered ourselves four routes apart, moving left to right, so we were 32 routes away from each other race-wise. We assumed nobody could win by 32 laps.
I went out hard—really hard. We each started on a different 5.8+ route. But I had mine wired: Every divot and undulation of the crack, every foothold and hand-jam. Hans obviously couldn’t have anything memorized, so I gained an early two-lap lead. Stayed focused. Kept climbing.
I was pretty jacked on adrenaline, and I might’ve gone out a little bit too hard. When I came through 32 laps, I was 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 and he kept saying to me, “Relax, Pete. Remember that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
I drank Gatorade and ate a banana, kept climbing. I tried to breathe more evenly as I went. I told myself to calm down, to stay calm, to climb calm. I slowed my pace a bit and Hans sped up. He was climbing on surgically-repaired feet—and they had to be killing him—but he was still climbing well. When he came through 32 laps, he was at 1:14:05. So I had exactly a 15-minute lead. From there I pushed myself.
Ultimately, the race came down to a 5.10d finger crack called The Hard Layback. On that route, I did my eight laps (plus eight rappels) in 18:37.
Hans—having to onsight then repeat—ran those same eight laps in 23:16. So I gained a 4:39 advantage on that route.
Hans completed his full El Cap Day—3,000 feet of climbing and 63 rappels—in 2:27:07, an amazing time at a new crag, and the second-fastest recorded time in the history of our urban crag by 40 minutes. It was a world-class effort by a world-class climber.
But I finished in 2:05:55, breaking my old record by more than an hour.
I’d kept an open mind, trained like a pro, and suddenly anything—anything at all—was possible. Even for a thicker, shorter, non-pro guy that nobody’s ever heard of.
Pete “Pedro” Hoffmeister is an outdoor athlete sponsored by Ridgemont Outfitters and Elevation Bouldering Gym. He has more than 50 first ascents at The Columns, Sisters Boulders, and Secrets Beach, Kauai. He teaches survival and raft-guiding, and is also the author of six books, including the Yosemite novel GRAPHIC THE VALLEY and – most recently – the novel TOO SHATTERED FOR MENDING. Follow him on Instagram, @pedro_hoffmeister or on Twitter, @pbhoffmeister.