Speed Demons

A corps of rock rats in a hurry is putting the pedal to the mettle in big-wall climbing

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At 7 a.m. one morning last summer, two young climbers, Chris McNamara and Miles Smart, were sitting in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria fueling up on coffee and bagels when Ron Kauk, 42, one of Yosemite’s leading climbers, stopped by the table to see what the boys had planned for the day. McNamara, 21, and Smart, 19, explained they would be heading up Zodiac, a 16-pitch route on El Capitan that took Charlie Porter seven days to summit when he pioneered the climb in 1972. Today, most big-wall veterans take between three and five days to thread their way up Zodiac’s 1,600-foot overhanging face. Kauk warned the partners that the weather forecast called for rain the next day and advised them to be prepared. But for McNamara and Smart, the point was moot. “We should be off by tonight,” they said.”Tonight?” echoed Kauk, who isn’t easily impressed.

“Yeah,” the partners replied. “Wanna grab dinner when we get back?”

What McNamara and Smart pulled off that day is something that conventional climbers find hard to digest: Carrying one rope, two CamelBaks, and six candy bars, they hurtled up Zodiac in seven hours and 40 minutes. Their time, which broke the existing record by more than an hour, cemented the partners’ position as the fastest aid-climbing duo among a coterie of Yosemite rock rats who have emerged as, quite simply, the fastest climbers in the world. Led by McNamara, the Yosemite cabal is pioneering a new style of big-wall climbing that may see its most impressive airing when this year’s season kicks off in April. Their style places a premium on speed and audacity—but mostly speed. And it is drawing nods of approval even from veteran rock climbers who worry about its potential dangers. “Being this fast isn’t conducive to being safe,” says Mark Synnott, one of America’s finest alpine and big-wall climbers. “But it’s pretty much the boldest thing anyone has ever done on a big wall.”

When Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, and John Long bridged El Capitan’s Nose route in a 15-hour blitzkrieg in 1975, they proved that some big walls could be scaled without hauling heavy bivouac gear and massive supplies of food. (The first team to ascend the Nose spent 45 days hoisting hundreds of pounds of equipment before summiting in November of 1958.) In the years since, speed has become an end in itself as vertical racing has made appearances in climbing gyms and X Games events. But nothing compares with what took place last season in the Yosemite Valley, where climbers obsessively sprint up an ever-expanding roster of granite faces. During a three-month period last summer, no fewer than 25 records were broken—a number that may well be trumped again this summer.

Today’s top speedmeisters—a group that includes Hans Florine, Tim O’Neill, Russel Mitrovich, and Dean Potter—draw on two distinct styles of climbing. The first is free-climbing, in which a climber uses only his hands and feet to ascend. The free-climbing approach is daring and impressive, but it’s limited by the nature of the rock. The second method, aid climbing, involves routes whose features are too smooth or too irregular to ascend without hexes, hooks, camming devices, and other pieces of protection. A slower and more meticulous process in which a climber’s “pro” becomes a weight-bearing extension of his body, aid climbing also happens to be a requisite skill for most of the planet’s remaining trophy ascents. And among the small group of the world’s finest aid climbers, McNamara sits at the very top. In the space of a single month last summer, he and various partners shattered speed records on 12 Yosemite walls, including a 13-hour dash up a route on El Cap called Grape Race that slashed the previous record by 23 hours. “He never puts the wrong piece in,” says Synnott. “Mac is the aid master.”

A native of Mill Valley, California, McNamara started climbing at age 15. A year later, he and his brother Morgan, 13, became the youngest team ever to tackle Zodiac. (Mom and Dad monitored their progress from lawn chairs plunked down on the valley floor.) In September 1997, McNamara enrolled at Princeton. After 16 days, he bailed and made a beeline for California. Since then, he’s been dividing his time between the University of California at Berkeley and Yosemite. He climbs virtually every weekend, often summiting two days in a row.

His records are impressive, but equally significant are the methods that McNamara and other climbers are honing to achieve these speeds—techniques that range from the intriguing to the insane. Climbers place as little protection as possible, and they shave seconds by skipping the step of bounce-testing their hardware with practice jumps, or “safety bumps.” They also rely on a method called “short fixing” in which a lead climber moves seamlessly from one pitch to the next without waiting for his partner. The approach enables continuous ascending, but it means that for 40 to 60 feet at the start of each new pitch the lead climber is not on belay. “It hasn’t happened to these guys yet,” notes Synnott, “but if the bottom guy falls, he’ll pull the top guy off.”

Yosemite’s dry conditions lend themselves perfectly to speed comparisons, but the valley also fuels ego clashes, and rivalries often fester into feuds. Last summer, after Florine announced his intention to set a new record by soloing the Nose and Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face in under 24 hours on July 28, Potter flew into Fresno from Colorado on the 27th, took an 85-mile taxi ride to Yosemite, and pinched the record. Unfazed, Florine pinched it back the next day, attacking the routes in reverse order. Despite such jousting, what’s going on in Yosemite elicits respect even among the old-guard climbers whose achievements are being so blithely shredded by the youngsters. “So they can do in nine hours what took us nine days,” laughs Tom Frost, 63, who is best known for the first ascent of El Cap’s Salathé Wall in 1961. “I guess that’s progress.” Does Frost plan on climbing with McNamara this season? “Oh no,” he hoots. “He’s too fast for me.”


Biting Back

An infamous mosquito-borne illness once again rears its ugly head


Malaria, that old-fashioned scourge of tropical explorers and canal workers, is returning with a vengeance, and not just in hidden corners of the world. The reason: burgeoning numbers of anophelinemosquitoes are now spreading the disease. From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, malaria was under control everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to a widespread eradication program utilizing the pesticide DDT. For the past five years, however, malaria has reinvaded a broad swath from Asia to the Americas, with rare occurrences even reported in the United States. “This is not a disease of other people anymore,” says Robert Desowitz, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s becoming everyone’s nightmare now.”

The surge in malaria cases stems in part from the curtailed use of DDT through government regulations and outright prohibitions (the UN is scheduled to vote on a worldwide ban this summer). Third World countries can’t afford to combat the spread with expensive alternative pesticides like deltamethrin, which breaks down more quickly than DDT. But even more disconcerting is the malaria parasite’s tenacious adaptability: A growing percentage of Anopheles now carry strains of malaria that are invulnerable to preventive drugs, even Lariam, the most popular anti-malaria prophylactic for Americans.

Hot spots are scattered across Africa, Asia, and South America. In Sri Lanka, cases have risen from 17 in 1963 to more than 200,000 35 years later. In Peru, the rate of infection has increased 300 percent since 1990. And last year in Kenya, epidemics erupted through a number of highland villages situated above 6,000 feet—confounding scientists who believed Anopheles couldn’t survive the cold, high-elevation temperatures long enough to spread the disease. “Basically,” says Desowitz, “if you go to these places, you bite the bullet and realize you can get very sick.”

While the current drug-resistant strains of malaria, which commonly result in symptoms like intense chills, sweating, and high fever, are medically treatable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says it will be a few years until new prophylactics are available. Although serious, the outbreak poses far less of a threat to travelers than it does to those living in the Third World. “If you’re going to take a vacation to a tropical country, you’re not exposing yourself as much as the locals,” says Donald Roberts, a leading expert in tropical public health. “But for them, it’s a way of life. A miserable way of life.”



Fins de Siecle

A new split design has divers in a tailspin


Last August, four scuba divers set off in pursuit of a manta ray near the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Three of the men were sporting new split-blade fins, while the fourth, a Green Beret and an experienced diver, had decided to stick with the more traditional single-blade fin. As the ray accelerated, the three split-bladers kept pace with the slightest flutter of their ankles. But no matter how vigorously the Green Beret kicked, he lagged woefully behind. “Later, I swapped fins with him,” laughs Tim Core, a Navy SEAL dive instructor. “He swam about ten yards, stopped, and started hollering underwater.”

His excitement stemmed from an innovation in underwater gear design that will no doubt interest the hordes of divers heading off on trips to the Caribbean this month. In studies conducted by ScubaLab, an independent testing company on Santa Catalina Island, California, split fins increased speed while decreasing air consumption between 20 and 40 percent. Thus, divers are able to stay down longer on a single tank, and snorkelers can explore larger sections of reef before coming up for air.

A patent is held by Pete McCarthy, a former software licenser from Laguna Niguel, California, who spent seven years working on his concept, which he calls Nature’s Wing. But Bob Evans, a renowned diver and photographer, claims he was first, since his Santa Barbara­based company, Force Fin, brought a split-blade model to market back in January 1998. About the only thing the two men agree on is that their ideas were inspired by a fish. The fins mimic the biomechanics of the wahoo, a mackerel that can swim at speeds of nearly 70 mph thanks to tail fins that flutter independently of each other, pushing water like a boat’s propeller.

While the design-origin issue may be headed for patent court, McCarthy is concentrating on other matters: licensing his technology to as many manufacturers as he can. Which is good news for divers. When Atomic Aquatics, a scuba company in Huntington Beach, California, begins production this month, tens of thousands of pairs will flood into dive shops throughout the country.

Nature’s Wing Fins: Apollo: 800-231-0909; ScubaPro: 800-467-2822; Atomic Aquatics: 888-270-8595 Force Fin: 800-346-7946


In This Workout, the Fat Lady Always Sings

And you’re up next for Karaoke Spinning, the hot new trend among L.A. fitness fanatics

Imagine breaking into a high-resistance stint in your Spinning class as “When Doves Cry” blasts over the sound system. Suddenly, a microphone is shoved into your face, and your demanding instructor expects you to sing The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s falsetto part. Sure, Spinning is the best way to get into condition for spring cycling, but it’s also stationary, monotonous, and, well, boring. All of which might explain (but not defend) the latest fitness craze: Karaoke Spinning.

In the battle to attract new students to their classes, health clubs like Crunch and Bally Total Fitness generate buzz by applying ever-more baroque twists to the concept of the theme-based workout. September 1998 saw the emergence of Urban Rebounding, in which exercise buffs bounce up and down on mini trampolines to a disco beat. A few months later, Cardio Thai Boxing debuted, melding hip-hop sound tracks and martial arts moves. Neither of these routines, however, achieves the hybridized weirdness of Karaoke Spinning, conceived last fall by Stacey Griffith, a 32-year-old instructor at Crunch in Los Angeles who sidles up to her students during “climbs” and high-cadence pedaling “runs” and holds a cordless mike to their lips. Taking their cues off a large screen at the front of the room, the students alternately gasp and belt out lyrics. “Brass In Pocket” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” are mainstays. At the chorus, the entire class chimes in.

Currently the most popular class at the L.A. Crunch, Karaoke Spinning has migrated to Miami and New York—where it is meeting with mixed reviews. “I think it’s hilarious,” says Mary Noonan, a producer for CBS’s 48 Hours who works out at Manhattan’s 38th Street Crunch. “Of course, I myself wouldn’t do it in a bazillion years.”

Dubious as the trend may be, karaoke can actually help you determine how hard you’re working out: As long as you can sing clearly, you haven’t exceeded 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is where you should be for much of your training. Try to wail “Purple Rain” if you’ve gone beyond that threshold, however, and—questions of taste notwithstanding—you’d better stick to lip-synching.


May Save Lives…and Take First at the Tractor Pull

If Medi-Cats offer the latest in on-slope medical care, how come a ski resort near you isn’t rushing to buy one?


“If you are paying $60 for a lift ticket, lashing two toboggans together is not an appropriate medical response,” says Eric Jacobson. “It’s a flaky system.” Jacobson is referring to tandem toboggans (or, in ski-patrol parlance, “meat wagons”), the chief means of carting injured skiers off the mountain at most resorts. In search of an alternative, Jacobson, an entrepreneur from Telluride, Colorado, teamed up with his cousin Roy Davis (who sells swimming pools in Kalamazoo, Michigan) and designed a vehicle capable of offering skiers state-of-the-art emergency medical care.

Christened the Medi-Cat, the machine is a tracked snow ambulance equipped with oxygen tanks, defibrillators, IVs, and heart monitors. Its 212-horsepower engine and rubberized treads will, in theory, bring ER-quality help right to the scene of the accident. “This machine can deliver the highest standard of care,” says Art Seely, director of Littleton, Colorado’s Snow Operations Training Center. “If you have a spinal injury, the first handling of the patient can make a difference between recovery and permanent paralysis.”

Surprisingly, the company’s most logical customers have little interest: Not a single ski resort has placed an order. The $250,000 price tag and the machine’s inability to climb the steep stuff seem to be deal-breakers. “It’s a limited-use vehicle and can only travel on certain slopes,” explains Bob Persons, medical supervisor for the ski patrol at Colorado’s Keystone Resort, whose request for a Medi-Cat was denied by management for cost reasons. Nonetheless, the partners hope it’s only a matter of time before resorts are seduced by the Medi-Cat’s special features, such as the compressed-air foam firefighting system that, Davis insists, would be perfect for Vail (which suffered a $12 million arson incident in October 1998). “Right now,” he says, “if there’s another fire, the only thing they can do is show up with a weenie-roast fork.”


A Cool Breeze and Some Tasty Clear-Cut

Two skaters from Seattle strive to perfect a trick new winter ride


The urge to slide on snow—what the french call glisser—cuts across continents and species. Otters are notorious schussers, black bears occasionally enjoy a skid down the hill, and humans have evolved from sled to ski to snowboard in their quest to better glide across a snowy expanse. Now two old-school skateboarders from Seattle have developed the latest tool for snow conveyance: a shrunken surfboard with teensy tail fins that floats on fresh powder like a Jeff Clark gun on the swells at Santa Cruz. Inventors Curt Buchberger and Steve Dukich have christened their product the SnoDad ( “It’s from the old surfer’s term ‘ho-dad,'” explains Buchberger, 31, “which is what they called the greaser who hung out in the parking lot and didn’t surf.” It’s a fitting name, since they promote their design as a step backward in snowplay evolution—an anti-snowboard that won’t work on the packed snow of ski resorts. “Grooming,” intones Dukich, 31, “is the enemy of the SnoDad.”

The SnoDad was born four years ago when Buchberger and Dukich, who often spend their summers riding Washington State’s frigid coastal waves, passed a glassy surf day goofing around the slopes of Mount Hood with an old wooden Snurfer, the 1960s-era banana sled. The Snurfer, with its bindingless hop-on-and-ride operation, felt more like snow-surfing than snowboarding. Inspired, they crafted their own Snurfer-skateboard hybrid, with kicktail and all. “That was a complete disaster,” recalls Buchberger. “It was like trying to stand and ride an aluminum saucer,” adds Dukich. After a few more trips to the drawing board they hit upon their master design: a five-foot-long, seven-ply maple deck with a rubber footpad, three fins arranged in a thruster pattern, no bindings, and no metal edges. “It’s not an extreme sport, but in powder you can duck down, come up, and get these nice airs,” says Dukich. “It feels like you’re planing on top of the snow instead of cutting through it.”

Since the fins can’t slice through packed snow, SnoDadders must either poach freshies before the chairlifts open or find their own corniced backcountry waves. A board that won’t work on the groomers likely won’t turn its inventors into the next Jake Burtons, but that’s fine with Buchberger and Dukich. The idea, they say, is to have fun messing around in the snow without a lot of expensive gear. Indeed, the board may float best on the trashiest terrain. (Logging clear-cuts are ideal.) Dukich, who moonlights as the bassist for the Seattle-based blue-collar punk band Steel Wool, discovered a dreamy run last winter during a low-budget Alaskan tour. “We were playing Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage,” he says, “and found these hills outside the club right next to the freeway. For two nights, between sets we took the board out there and completely rode out the hillside. That’s the point—just put on your Sorels or Doc Martens and ride.”



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