Speed Climbing
Media: Climbing

Speed Climbing

Is Addictive
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Yosemite Valley, California, USA

AUTHOR: Chris Van Leuven
PHOTOGRAPHY: John Dickey

Autumn 2012, Mayan and I are 200 feet off the floor of Yosemite Valley, California. In the distance, the iconic Yosemite Falls Wall, 2,425 feet tall, which usually draws people from all over the world, is dry and the tourists are gone. In a few weeks, Sierra storms will lash the high country and it will run again. For now all we hear is the sound of a light wind ruffling the trees. I hold the rope between us firmly near the entry point where it passes through the belay device. My eyes follow and anticipate her every move. Mayan Smith-Gobat, 33, from New Zealand, climbs the overhanging, finger-width crack above. Her short, dirty blond hair wisps over her ears. As she moves up the sharp crack her skin never cuts.

When she looks down to check the position of her feet, I see her childish grin. She pulls rope up with her free hand, bunching up the slack with her teeth as she reaches for more in order to clip into her next piece of protection. A split second later all points release from the crack and she falls like an elevator car. The pile of rope she'd pulled up snaps free. Quickly, instinctively, I reel the rope in and lock it off stopping her from slamming into the ledge below. "That's never happened before," she says calmly. After a brief rest she goes up on the crack again. When she finishes the climb and returns to the ledge she releases a single word of excitement: "Great." Then looks down at her fingers, examines them. "They're not too bad."

Spend five minutes with Mayan and you can tell right away she's not like anyone you've ever met before. She's curt when she talks, and focuses in on goals to the point where it almost doesn't look fun. See her on the rock while holding the rope in your hands, and her smile shines as she looks down at you and you'll see how she glows.

Mayan got her start on small crags in New Zealand and occasional trips to Mt. Arapiles, Australia; now she is rapidly becoming one of the most recognised female rock climbers in the world. She's climbed up to 5.14b sport and most recently freed El Cap's Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b/c) making the second female free ascent. Additionally, she's climbed El Cap all free in 14 hours via a variation to Salathé, called Free Rider (VI 5.13a, established, solo, by Alex Huber in 1995). Smith-Gobat's sheer tenacity — her ability to pick a hard goal and follow through — is an inspiration for climbers of any ability.

"After climbing the Salathé, I was super happy, but also felt a real sense of loss," Mayan says while organising her rack on the porch of a Search and Rescue cabin behind Camp 4, Yosemite's climber campground. "And I felt very lost for a while, because I no longer had a major goal. Free climbing El Cap was a life goal, something I had dreamed of for as long as I can remember." This season she came to Yosemite, now her 4th season in the Park, to set the women's speed record on the Nose — the most prominent line up the tallest and proudest wall in Yosemite, El Capitan, at 3,000 feet.

On the same day, Mayan and her partner Chantel will climb Half Dome, at 2,000 feet, for the first women's linkup. Chantel Astorga, 27, held the previous record with Libby Sauter, which was 10 hours and 40 minutes. Recently, in June, Jes Meiris and Quinn Brett had beaten their record at 10:19. The Huber Brothers once held the men's speed record at 2:45.

Libby broke her leg this June while descending a peak in the Sierras, and despite being out of the climb, she's helping with logistics and planning. Chantel stands several inches above Mayan. She's climbed the West Rib of Denali and skied it in 2006.

Mayan's arms are defined from constant climbing on hard routes while Chantel's are thick, a product of Olympic weightlifting in her open sided shack in Idaho. "I lift at dusk in an open shed with snow all around. It's a special thing."

"I did the Nose for the first time and Libby belayed me the whole way," she told me as we sat around a picnic table at Curry Village. "I was always good at the endurance stuff. This will be the first time I test my Olympic weightlifting training in the field."

A View of El Cap and Half Dome

The top of El Cap crests over itself, like a big wave; something you'd see at the deep water reef break known as Jaws in Hawaii. The wave is golden, with black specs of lichen. Arching cracks and boulder fins crest over the edge. Looking down from the top, the valley floor below is a green splotch of dark green trees. From the top of Half Dome, looking down from its centre point that juts out above the wide face called the Diving Board are varying shades of grey, the centre of the face is yellow and white with a broken black line down the centre. In this black line is a face resembling an old, crying woman.

The Climb, Practice and Preparation

Day 1: 19 September, 3:37 am — In the middle of the night the El Cap Bridge is bustling with people. Mayan talks in her typical low voice requesting that I keep quiet so she can stay focused on the task at hand. Once at the base of the Nose, four sets of ropes hang to the ground, the sign of many parties vying for a multi-day ascent.

4:34 am — The women are now climbing. 400 ft above, another team lets out the occasional cough Mayan releases a single grunt. Passing other teams is tricky and will add time to Mayan and Chantel's ascent. In the moonless night there is no definition between headlamps and stars. John Dickey, the photographer, calls the lights "El Cap constellations". After several hours of hiking around to the east side of El Cap and ascending fixed ropes, we make it to the top of the Nose and wait for Mayan and Chantel. In the early afternoon I faintly hear Mayan say from below: "Off belay." Minutes later Mayan crests over the rim but is unable to move more than a few feet at a time as she approaches the tree marking the end of their route. For 15 minutes they drag themselves up the lip of El Cap. Below, Chantel says, "Sorry, my hands cramped." Mayan is barefoot, visibly thirsty, and heat exhaustion shows on her face. Sun bakes the golden slabs. Soon they both reach the tree that marks the top of the climb and Mayan checks her watch: 2:29 pm, they shaved nine minutes off the record for a total time of 10:10."Yay, we won the record!" they say in unison. "It's awesome watching you climb," Chantel says. "If we start earlier and not in the sun, we can cut two hours easily," says Mayan. While hydrating she recalls the five teams they had to pass. "I'd like to do this in eight hours and then go for the link-up." The next day, back at Curry Village, I ask them why they speed climb walls. They laugh and say there is no point to it. Later, Mayan says it's addictive to move continuously over such huge walls. As Hans Florine and Bill Wright state in their book "Speed Climb", "The ability to move quickly by cutting out extraneous gear provides a joyous sensation of unrestricted motion."

The Big Day

22 September, 1:46 am — I'm waiting for Chantel and Mayan at El Cap Bridge. It's still, unlike last time. There are fewer cars and trucks parked along the side of the road. I hear a fish surface in the Merced River and crickets in the distance. I think about the day ahead: up and down El Cap and Half Dome is 16,810 feet of elevation change. I imagine how the last hours of the day will feel.

2:25am — Chantel and Mayan arrive at the bridge. "It's warm," says Chantel as they rack up. Soon we head to the base of the Nose.

2:53 am — Mayan takes a sip and says, "I'm going to start heading up. 10 second warning right now. "Gear jangles and aluminium carabiners collide and slide along the rock as they weave up to the start of the route. John and I turn and head up the East Ledges. We arrive to the summit as quickly as possible so we don't miss them topping out.

10:35 am — Mayan reaches the tree at the top of the Nose. She looks confident, psyched. She's pulling the rope up and around the tree. "Go Chantel!" she yells with encouragement. "I'm timing on my clock." Chantel tags the tree. Their time is 7:26. They shaved nearly three hours off the record. One after another they yell: "Yee hah! Yeah hoo!" "That went perfect," says Mayan. "You did awesome." "We're the fastest women up, women or mixed team. It's gonna take a little while until anyone beats that." Chantel has a confident smile; her cheeks are uplifted and tucked beneath her shades.

After rehydrating we head to the East Ledges and rappel off the side of El Cap. Libby, Chantel and Mayan are grouped around a picnic table. There's spinach, sausage and water. The women, hands still taped up from the climb, wolf down food with their dirty hands. Someone hangs pink and white leis over their necks. Soon we're on our way to Curry Village to pick up our bikes before riding the path to Mirror Lake. Once there we'll stash them and dash up the Death Slabs, the scorching sun beating on our backs, and up to the base of Half Dome.

4:04 pm — Mayan has the rope in a "kiwi coil", she says, over her shoulder. They're prepared to simul climb. Chantel is racked up with a huge amount of gear. It wraps the front of her like a rainbow of metal and webbing. Both women have a look of fatigue to them and each motion takes more effort to execute than it did earlier in the day. I can see in their eyes that they're thinking about what's ahead and the pain to come. "Reality hasn't set in yet that we're about to start climbing," says Chantel. "I'm not as excited to climb this now as I was at the top of El Cap," says Mayan.

4:28 pm — Chantel steps off the ground, moving slowly, cautiously. 30 feet up she places her first piece of protection before stemming out onto a small roof. Dickey and I turn and prepare to meet them on top.

11:19 pm — Mayan is nearing the top of Half Dome. Once on top she quickly makes an anchor and belays Chantel to the top. Then asks for space. "Let me get away from the edge," she says. Without untying or taking off any of her gear, she collapses on the slab, far from the edge and lies still with her head tucked in her arms. Moments later she gets up and her eyes are wet. "I held it together until the end," she says. She explains that she overlooked eating and drinking on Half Dome. There's a brisk wind. They talk but not much. After they exchange a hug we hike down the steep, slick Half Dome cables route, cut off the shoulder and descend the Death Slabs. At 2:30 am, back at the bikes, we see Libby's gift: two beers stashed by the bikes and "Just sent" drawn in cursive on a cut up, decorated shoebox. We get on our bikes and ride back.

The next afternoon I meet up with the women and the crew in El Cap Meadow. "I may even be back for the triple next year, are you keen?" Mayan asks to Chantel, referring to adding the 2,000 feet Mt. Watkins in 24 hours as well. She also mentioned freeing El Cap and Half Dome in a day. She's excited to do it. We'll see.

Chantel returns to Idaho. A few days later, Mayan teams up with Sean Leary and they climb the Nose in 4:29. He writes in a blog, "I'm absolutely positive Mayan can do it at least two hours faster if she wants to." Later that day she leaves the valley and catches her flight back to Australia for her next climbing objective. She leaves Yosemite not only having set the women's team record but also the mixed team record.

In 2014 Libby and Mayan returned to Yosemite and set the female record at 4:43.

Fact Box:

WOMEN'S NOSE RECORD
16.09.2011 Chantel Astorga and Libby Sauter set the record at 10:40.
11.06.2012 Jes Meiris and Quinn Brett set the new record at 10:19.
22.09.2012 During their practice run, Chantel Astorga and Mayan Smith-Gobat set the new record at 10:10.
26.09.2012 Chantel Astorga and Mayan Smith-Gobat set the new record at 7:26, taking nearly 3 hours off the record.

MIXED GENDER NOSE RECORD
29.09.2012 Sean Leary and Mayan Smith-Gobat climb it in 3:29.

MEN'S NOSE RECORD
08.10.2007 Alex and Thomas Huber set the new record at 2:45.
06.11.2010 Dean Potter and Sean Leary set the new record at 2:36.
17.06.2012 Alex Honnold and Hans Florine set the new record in 2:23.

Mayan Smith-Gobat

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