This summer, Hans Florine turned 50. To celebrate, the world-class climber took a solo hike.
Florine scaled the Triple Direct route, a 2,950-foot ascent of the very vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. On July 13, a day when temperatures peaked at 106 degrees and even bugs baked on the rocky cliff, Florine capped a first-ever, in-one-day world record of 17 hours, 29 minutes.
One week later, the manager of Concord's Diablo Rock Gym shared his story of the grueling climb at the Brenden Theatres Concord 14.
"I'm totally knackered," Florine said, describing his post-climb condition. Behind him, a selfie filled the enormous screen that, if placed on El Cap, would represent an area smaller than a postage stamp. "I've been lying there for 40 minutes, trying to get up energy to pack my gear."
To understand the significance of the climb and why a man marking a half-century might be thrilled to lie atop a mountain with bits of cheese strewed across his chest, it's important to know that the valley is teeming with arguably similar, nutty speed-climbing athletes -- and has been for decades.
Before 1956, no one even thought the valley's comparatively "lower" 2,000-foot Half Dome could be climbed. Those who tried, stored their water in tin cans or huge rubber bladders similar to those that soldiers once used on battlefields. They wore cotton pants and 45-pound gear packs.
Half Dome, roughly two-and-a-half times the height of San Francisco's Trans America building, Florine said, had those early climbers only managing to cover a few hundred feet after five-day attempts. One team, climbing 33 days spread out over 18 months, found themselves stuck and only two-thirds of the way up. Eventually, a three-man team managed the feat in 1957.
Instantly -- and indicating things to come -- American climber Warren Harding, who had been unsuccessful on Half Dome, upped the ante. On Nov. 1, 1958, Harding and his team climbed El Capitan's more formidable facade.
Like a cork exiting a Champagne bottle, the race was on, as competitive climbers racked up reduced times in subsequent years. By 2000, Florine said, showing a photo taken at a reunion in Yosemite, the sport could boast 600 endurance athletes who'd climbed in the valley throughout the decades.
And from the first ascents, as the number of participants boomed, clothing, gear, team size and the time between record-smashing speed climbs underwent constant reduction. Florine outlined the ping-pong of record titles: El Capitan was mounted in three-and-a half-days (1963); nine hours (1988); 3 hours, 59 minutes (2001); and 2:45 (2007).
Florine's own times also shrank: beginning with a whimper in 1988 as a college kid with a headlamp who took 13 hours and only reached The Face's sickle ledge, he'd cut it to 16 minutes for the same distance by 2003. Having won and lost the El Cap record more than a half-dozen times, Florine holds the world record for climbing "The Nose" route in 2:23:46, set on June 17, 2012, with Alex Honnold.
Dressed in Outdoor Research Ferosi NIAD pants and a short-sleeve Astro man shirt, carrying today's ropes, free biners, runners, Camalots, nuts, one gallon and one liter of water, energy bars and Field Trip Jerky -- and the omnipresent cell phone for pictures -- Florine's Triple Direct record marks his 157th El Cap journey.
For the roughly 100-member audience of climbers and Contra Costa County Search and Rescue personnel invited to the event at the Brenden Theatres, Florine's solo endeavor represented inspiration -- and perhaps, a challenge. After all, if a 50-year-old dude could take a hike, couldn't they?