A Look at Speed Climbing: An Interview with Hans Florine

We recently had the opportunity to speak with speed climbing legend, Hans Florine, to find out the root of his speed passions, his legacy on The Nose, and what it is about Yosemite that has compelled him to climb El Capitan 157 different times:


How did you start climbing?

I started climbing in ‘83 when I was 19 years-old up there on Bishop Peak, [San Luis Obispo] … Someone in the dorms just asked if anybody wanted to go climbing and I said

Yeah I’ll go!

and raised my hand. It sounded fun, so I went up and started loving it. I started dropping all my other recreational activities, which were numerous.

When did you discover you have knack for speed?

There weren’t competitions when I started climbing—or even climbing gyms. But somewhere in ‘86 or ‘87 I discovered the Phoenix bouldering comps, comps at the Sports Chalet in Los Angeles, and then a national one in Snowbird. At one of them there was a speed event, and I was new to it—hell everyone was new to comps—so we all tried. Then at the end I would be like, “Oh I won a rope!” and I’m like, “Shit … I just got a $170 rope.” My eyebrows would go up like,

Why not do this?

I didn’t have any hangups about competition, whereas early on in the 80s and 90s, many climbers came from the “nature,” “love nature,” or beatnik hippies who were like, “I’m climbing because someone told me I can’t.” It was sort of a rebellion from parents or society or whatever, and the blue-jean cutoff shorts were what most climbers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were.

I was kind of one of the first athletes to become a climber; not the first certainly, but out of the very best difficulty climbers who tried it once or twice, I kept at it while the rest got this idea that it was a novelty or whatever. So I got to make more money. And when you do good at something and it’s a way to keep you on the road doing what you love, you just keep doing it.

Photo: Jim Thornburg
Photo: Jim Thornburg

Were you driven by your passion for speed climbing, or was it that your were simply really good at it that led to your speed climbing success?

Initially, I did it as just a pragmatic thing. I loved going around to the comps and I loved competing in the difficulty events—and sometimes I’d do well enough to win something. But I always won something at speed and that kept me on the road. In the beginning, I did it because I liked winning and it happened to be in speed events. And I love to go climbing, and if I can get 3 million Lira from someone in Arco, Italy then I’ll speed climb and that’ll be it! Honestly, I thought it was dumb of the other climbers not to speed climb. It tends to be that the very best difficulty climbers are the ones that win speed events. And the reverse is that the person that wins the speed event, is usually the best difficulty climber. Well, I was the best difficulty climber of the speed event competitors, but some of the best difficulty guys just didn’t compete.

What drives your desire to be the fastest?

Well the carry over—one thing that stayed the same—is that I just love climbing. And speed climbing was a way to get more of what you love in. If I’m going to get 3,000 feet of climbing in a day instead of 1,000 feet, then there is only one way to do that and that is to climb faster. So the only thing better than climbing is … more climbing. It was passion-driven in that way; I got to do more climbing by being effective and efficient. It’s funny, despite all these sort of big words or concepts in climbing, you tag the words “speed climbing” and it scares people away. Even with my book on speed climbing, the publisher initially said, “We can’t call it that. No one will buy it. We have to call it Climb On and really describe what it is,” which is a book on how to get more climbing in.

Hans2

We’ve heard people say, that The Nose can’t safely be climbed any faster. How fast is too fast before it’s just too dangerous?

Is going faster unsafe? A great little picture you can paste in your mind is somebody going up a 3,000 ft wall in three days where you can divide the pitches, and imagine someone’s belaying for an hour and a half on a single pitch. In an hour and a half, you aren’t going to be focusing on the climber the whole time. You’re going to be looking over at a cloud or having a bite of sandwich and a drink. Maybe that’s not unsafe, but your focus and attention for an hour and a half is not going to be the same as me belaying Alex [Honnold] for a minute and a half on that same pitch, right?

He’s moving like crazy and I’m probably climbing myself and focusing hard if we are simul-climbing at that moment. So for the 2h 23m 46s that we were on the rock, I was not EVER thinking about the bills that were due the next day or the trouble I was having with my staff at work—and I never have any trouble with my wife, so I wasn’t thinking about that either … But you get what I am saying; it is pretty amazing that for 2h 23m 46s. There was nothing on my mind but how to stay safe with Alex, and how to move on that rock.

 

Related: A Question of Risk with Alex Honnold

 

How much had you and Alex trained or climbed together before?

Well I bet Alex would be embarrassed to say we trained, so we didn’t. We just climbed together. We climbed the route three times in the fall before we tried twice in the spring and then did the record. In the fall we climbed it in about 4 hours, then 3.5 hours, and then 4 minutes shy of the record. In the spring we climbed it on Wednesday and Thursday, rested 3 days, and then beat the record on Sunday.

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Speaking of The Nose, how many times have you now climbed it?

97 times successfully.

And up El Capitan?

157 times.

Is there anywhere in the world that compares to Yosemite for you?

No. It has the wildest, largest cliffs that are the most easily accessible. There are walls bigger than Yosemite in other places, but you have to take a ferry, then a 3-day yak ride, live in an ice cave for a couple weeks or something like that to get there. There is the Aksu region in Kazakhstan, but then as we’ve seen, you can get kidnapped by rebels and stuff. So, for me, nowhere else compares.

 

Related: Climbing Destination Guide: Yosemite Valley, CA

Photo: Paul Hara
Photo: Paul Hara

What can younger climbers do to insure that they are climbing healthy for decades?

So, first to the naysayers that are in the climbing community who might say that a gym climber is not a climber; for the purposes of this talk I am saying they are. Whether I am right or wrong I am including them. To be a speed climber there’s the health and safety that you need so that you’re not going to be falling; thats just a given, thats a baseline you have to do. With health and overuse injury, I’d say the number one thing, by just looking at stats, is going to be shoulders and fingers.

One tip is icing your hands after climbing, especially with sport climbing or bouldering, where you really need your hands to recover from the micro-tears you’re getting in your tendons and fingers. When you injure your tendons, you need to recover them by increasing your circulation and of course, rest. So just on overuse; ensure that you incorporate exercises helpful to your finger and shoulder health, rehab, or antithesis work. Rotator cuff muscles are super common. Antitheses muscles are those that balance out your shoulders and fingers; for example, extension finger things are good to do. All of those are super important to longevity in the sport, and therefore speed climbing.

How has the role of climbing for you personally evolved and what does it mean to you now?

Originally, I was a college student when I learned to climb and I climbed on weekends or after school. Then I was a yuppie for a few years and it was the weekend’s playtime recreation. I played really hard on the weekend but it was only a recreation. Then I realized when I was a yuppie, “Hey, this is really consuming me and there is no better time than in my 20s to go off and climb full-time.” I would never have thought of using the words professional and climber together then. It was just “I’m going to go full-time climbing.” So I was emphatically not a professional climber. There is no way someone could’ve lived on that money … because there was none. So that was a huge transition, I went from “This is my play, my recreation” to “This is all I’m doing.”

Those first couple years out of being a yuppie, I probably climbed at least 250 days a year. It’s a totally fun, glamorous thing, right? You’re living out of a van and going to Europe and sleeping on the side of the road and making ends meet. That’s all the responsibility you have; it’s pretty freakin’ fun. I recommend it to everybody. Scrape together enough money to make it happen, to live on the road for a year or two.

I was at the beginning of the sport when comps happened, and I quickly took on the role as the Executive Director of the Governing Body for Competitive Climbing and ran it for 5-6 years until ‘96-‘97, handed it off to others, and then progressed into the role of a more senior speed climber guy. It was no surprise I’m not going to keep beating the 18-year-olds at speed climbing. That day arrived and I chose to do the endurance thing on El Cap, which panned out pretty well.

It’s a natural thing for alpinists and mountaineers to then share that story with people. I’ve shared the story with many people within and outside of climbing now and continue to do so.

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Hans Florine is a professional rock climber who has been competitively climbing since 1988. He won the first ever World Championships in speed climbing in 1991, and currently holds the record for the fastest ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, with Alex Honnold.


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