A big day out - Pete Whittaker solos half dome & El Capitan in under 24 hours.
Pete Whittaker goes into detail about his sub-24-hour solo link-up of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite, USA.
What Do Your Big Days Look Like?
For Pete Whittaker, big days and testing goals are personal challenges he eagerly accepts. His recent sub-24-hour solo ascent of both of Yosemite’s notorious big walls Half Dome and El Capitan punctuate this point.
Prior to Pete’s ascent on November 11, 2018, a solo sub-24-hour link-up of Half Dome and El Capitan has only been completed 3 times by Hans Florine, Dean Potter, and Alex Honnold. For Whittaker’s achievement, he climbed The Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.12) (5.9 C2) on Half Dome and The Nose (VI 5.14a) (5.8 C2) on El Capitan for an impressive 4,900’ of climbing in 20 hours and 19 minutes.
We caught up with Pete after his return home from Yosemite to get the details on his accomplishment.
Congrats from everyone here! How does it feel to have completed this link-up?
The thing I am most pleased about is just getting it done and being able to complete it in a short space of time. Truthfully, I went for it with a limited preparation period and still did it with plenty to spare in terms of energy. This feedback tells me I wasn’t at my limit and then I automatically start questioning, what’s next, how can I challenge myself a bit more?
This questioning doesn’t take away from completing this project though I really enjoyed it; I am just always looking to progress.
How did the climbing itself feel?
Overall the day felt great, of course, there were some mistakes but I expected this to happen so when they happened it never surprised me.
For these ascents, I decided to try a new style of climbing where essentially I got up the walls by any means; pulling on gear, aiding, and French freeing I just couldn’t ascend a fixed line. This was a new style for me but it allowed me to pretty much assure the climbing never went above 5.10 so I could move quickly. This style is what 95% of people use when climbing big walls in Yosemite and it’s how Dean [Potter], Hans [Florian], and Alex [Honnold] previously did their solo links. Overall it allowed me to move quickly up the wall.
How did this solo compare to your 2016 solo of Freerider? First, to clarify I didn't traditionally rope solo every single pitch (up, down, up), as some pitches are too easy and some pitches lend themselves well to other solo techniques such as back looping and moving belay techniques. Either way, I still had to lead each pitch to get the rope and myself up.
Overall though, this time I topped El Capitan and was much less tired than in 2016. 2016 was my first time up a big wall by myself so I took more for a kit and moved slower. Now with more experience, I was confident in taking a lighter kit with a lighter, shorter, and thinner rope, less gear, and fewer supplies. This and my systems experience both allowed me to move quicker and more efficiently, saving me loads of energy.
Was this your main goal for Yosemite? Had you been preparing before arriving?
It was 1 of 3 projects I had in mind; I was really focused to try and climb two walls in a single day.
For training I hadn’t been specifically focused on anything as I knew it would just be a big day out and I feel like I am naturally comfortable dealing with those grinds; I feel like I can do them off the couch usually. I had just come from a redpointing trip in Norway though where I had done no more than 50 moves a day and my endurance energy was low from adjusting my diet. I sorted the energy levels out quickly though by eating. I love treats and America is certainly a great place for treats so I guess that was my focused training, just eating.
What did you do to prepare once in Yosemite?
For this project, I wanted to climb both routes in single days to get a feel for them, as I hadn’t done either one before. I was quiet about my final plans so I had to find partners who were just keen for a day out.
I took an initial lap on El Capitan with a friend Hayden Jamieson who let me lead from pitch four up. My second El Cap lap was only a few days later with my old friend Tim Exley who again let me lead most of the route. For Half Dome, I climbed with my girlfriend Mari Salvesen. After our summer climbing in Norway we had been discussing a single day push on one of Yosemite’s walls so this seemed like a perfect fit. We even added some extra spice into the day by walking The Death Slabs in the morning and taking the hideous long descent off the back in the evening.
While climbing both of these walls I stuck to my “anything goes” means of ascent which allowed me to maintain climbing that felt consistently around 5.10. If it felt any harder I would step on bolts, pull on fixed gear, stand in ladders, or pull on Friends. It was surprising how much easier this made the climbing feel and how quickly I could move.
The next step was to calibrate my solo pace. The guidebook said if you can climb to Sickle Ledge - the 4th pitch on The Nose - in 1 hour, then your pace for the entire route would be around 12 to 14 hours. After I had tried and accomplished this I did a slightly generous calculation based on this figure and added in time for approaches and descents, then realized I could do it in under 24 hours.
Take us through your actual day of climbing.
I started climbing Half Dome at 6:30 am and aside from a 15 minute unintended detour of new routing on some unclimbed slab, the climb was rather uneventful. I arrived at the top of Half Dome in 4 hours and 33 minutes, which was 2.5 hours faster than my intended pace. Actually, I was a bit surprised, as I had felt slow, turns out my rope tossing and Friend pulling technique was on point though.
After a gentle jog down The Death Slabs and a steady pace over to The Nose, I was back climbing. I made it up to the Sickle Ledge in under an hour this time, at which point I stopped worrying about the ticking clock and relaxed into my pace, knowing I could keep it to the top. The rest of the climbing felt great aside from the point where I became short on water. I had only brought 1-liter as I had done on my test climb and it had long been depleted leaving me in a desperate sense of thirst that haunted me until I had made it over the Great Roof, pitch 22. However, I found some climbers who were kind enough to give me water. After a short chat with them, I made a steady pace feeling tired but strong.
After 13 hours and 26 minutes on The Nose, I reached the top. Alone in the dark and feeling a little cold I stopped shortly before my descent to applaud myself for completing the link-up in 20 hours and 19 minutes.
I'm psyched for this winter. I want to improve my snow bashing [ice climbing].
Pete's Yosemite Kit
1 ISLAND, 2 MONKS AND UNTOUCHED GRANITE
“Why did James and I pick a small dot on the other side of the planet?”
Because Yuji told us about it. The last time Yuji proposed us a trip, we ended up in Kinabalu, the now oh so famous mountain where untouched granite will overwhelm the climber. The Real Rock tour has thrown Kinabalu into fame, but 5 years ago, when we went there, no climber could even put it on the climbing
Kinkasan is a small island not far from Fukushima, on the north east side of Japan. It has 26km circumference and is inhabited by two monks. From Tokyo it is a six hour journey. Yuji didn’t say that much more: Kinkasan’s coast is covered with granite cliffs, and there is a Shinto shrine on it. Yuji mentioned as well the damages made by the tsunami…
We began our journey with next to no expectations about the climbing, and a big question mark for the rest. 3 days in the trip and I know exactly why we came: for Japan.
2 years ago we spent a week in this unique country and both James and I knew that we had to come back one day: how could I compare it? Well, the first time you taste wine, you have heard a lot about it. But you smell, and you only smell the alcohol, you taste and you can’t put words on it because wine is subtle, complicated and requests an education. You have to go back to it, learn to enjoy, differentiate and remember. Japan is maybe a little bit like wine.
There is this astonishing mix of modernity (the Japanese toilets and their multi jets, music and self cleaning options give you an idea of the immensity of your difference) and spirituality, respect, focus.
We arrived at Base Camp, the gym that Yuji opened 5 years ago in Tokyo, and I oscillate between marvel and shame. I am a pro climber, and most of the boulders are too hard for me, the Japanese climbers around me seem to evolve so effortlessly, like flying cats on the wall. But then you realise: the world championship have just finished in Paris and in the bouldering competition, 3 of the 6 medals are not only Japanese, but from Tokyo, from Base Camp. Yuji and his company helps the athletes become professional and they often climb together. Shall I repeat that? Half of the world’s medals come from one gym! Surely there is no wonder that Yuji owns that gym… But that is only just the very top of the iceberg, because behind this 3 medals, there are a lot of other athletes with an incredible level. I have never seen so many good, extremely good boulderers in one place. And I am a former competition climber, trust me, I know what I am talking about.
“Why are they so good?”
The answer is surely complicated but here are a few elements: climbing has become very trendy in Japan, with over a 100 gyms in Tokyo. The Japanese body type is perfect for climbing; light, powerful and explosive muscles. The Japanese constant pursuit of perfection pushes the athletes to train hard, just like everyone around them simply accomplished every task with perfection.
It was dry for the crossing, and after unpacking our bags at the shrine we bouldered on a nearby beach for 1 hour before the rain came. With so much rock to see and so little time, we hiked out anyway along the coast to search out potential lines. The rain became heavier, we became wetter, and after 4 soggy hours we returned to the shrine, hopes high but spirits low. We’d been preparing this trip since September 2015, putting the team together, finding funding from sponsors, organizing the local logistics, yet it would all be in vain if the weather didn’t brighten up.
A morning of rain gave us the excuse to sit down and record some interviews, though truthfully we had little to say as we’d done little climbing. Toru, ever the silent optimist finally dragged me out to the closest boulder spot during a break between two showers, and we were surprisingly able to climb! Toru lived up to his reputation of boldness and brilliance, making the first ascents of two of Kinkasan’s boldest and hardest problems. Finally things were looking up. The forecast was good for the following days, and group psyche could not have been higher. We began to plan our upcoming adventure and our first trip to the other side of the island – the area with the highest concentration of rock, and the biggest cliffs, but had to cut them short as bad news broke.
With my thirst for climbing temporarily quenched, we left the island in limbo, happy, yet sad, but knowing we’d be back in less than 24 hours. We passed the day visiting some of the worst tsunami affected towns in an effort to better understand what hardships the local people had to live through, and how they are moving forwards towards the future. It is one thing to watch the news from the comfort of your lounge back home, it is another thing entirely to see it first hand, and speak to the people who have lost everything - houses, possessions, loved ones!
Suddenly our troubles with the rain seemed embarrassingly small, and we remembered why we were actually here in the first place.
Our personal climbing desires must come second to the larger goal of showing this place to the world. Rain or shine, we have to get out there. Hike around, document the potential, and if in the end we are lucky, open up some new routes.