Nobody dominates El Cap’s hard, scary lines like Ammon McNeely. He has close to 30 speed ascents on El Cap and the big walls of Zion National Park, Utah, many of them in-a-day records that won’t be beaten for a long time. But McNeely isn’t just some chaser of records. He simply loves to climb, mostly aid and usually single-push-style big walls with his many friends who know him from Camp 4. Most recently, McNeely completed a 27-hour ascent of Zodiac (VI A3 5.7) with Timmy O’Neill and his paraplegic brother, Sean. Back on terra firma, McNeely is a friend to all. He drinks life in big gulps, and often, beer, too, leaving him with a checkered past full of the kind of stories to rival those of Captain Jack Sparrow himself. Here, the El Cap Pirate speaks up just before launching off on another big-wall adventure.
What’s with the pirate flag?
The Jolly Roger? I’ve been piratical since long before I got serious about rock climbing. A longtime friend of mine, LenDog, used to go to the Renaissance Festivals and he got me into it. Now, the Yosemite locals have been calling me the El Cap Pirate for years. Just sailing the granite seas.
Tell me a pirate joke.
This pirate walks into a bar with a big ship’s wheel down his pants. The bartender says, Excuse me, sir, but do you know you have a ship’s wheel down the front of your pants? And the pirate says, Aaargh, it’s driving me nuts!
Why do you aid climb? What is it about aid that appeals to you so much?
To me, aid climbing is just another technique to ascend a big wall. I am not just an aid climber; I’m a climber. I’ve spent months free climbing sport and trad, as well as bouldering,although big walls are my forte. I love freeing a pitch up there as much as being run out over dicey gear on aid. The wildest thing about aid is you canfind yourself in the most improbable and craziest places imaginable.
To be a climber, do you need to be skilled in alldisciplines?
No way! A climber is anybody who enjoys the sensation of pulling their body upwards.
I’ve met your son, Austin, a few times. What things have you experienced that you hope he does, too?
True love. Also, having a son as awesome as he is. And the thrill and excitement of an unknown adventure.
What’s one thing you hope Austin never experiences?
What’s the biggest myth about hard aid climbing?
That we are up there bashing our way to the top with a hammer, disregarding any damage we are doing to the rock. Also, that it is easy because we’re only hanging on pieces of gear and not free climbing.
Who do you think is a badass?
My girlfriend, Cheryl, Dean Potter, the Huber brothers, Brian McCray, Mike Libecki, my brother Gabe, and Austin.
Also, Jim Bridwell, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Warren Harding and John Muir.
Any good whippers?
Unintentional: An 80-foot whipper on the Sun and Steel pitch on the Shortest Straw. I was in the middle of a cold and wet solo winter ascent when a pin blew in an expanding roof. I ripped through two Screamers and eight pieces of gear before I came to rest.
Intentional: The 200-plus-foot rope jump I took on South Seas that I called the Alcove Drop. I came 30 feet from hitting the slab below.
When were you at your lowest?
The time my son was taken to another state by his mother when he was young.
When were you at your highest?
Seeing my son born, my first El Cap route, my first skydive.
What pisses you off?
[Laughs] I’m not pissed that often, but narrow-minded people, a few unhappy Yosemite rangers and people who act holier than thou can piss me off.
Have you ever chopped fixed gear?
Other than fixing a few of my mistakes? I’ve only chopped a handful of chicken rivets on El Cap that were obviously not drilled on the first ascent.
Describe climbing in five words.
Euphoric, soulful, rewarding, challenging, intense.
Tell me something in pirate speak.
Avast, matey! Ye best not hornswaggle me duffle or me grog, and stay away from me ropes or ye shall be keelhauled or sent to Davy Jones’ locker! Aaarrrrgh!