Speed Series Part II: Sean Leary and Dean Potter

Posted on: February 15, 2011

Outdoors enthusiasts love to quantify their pursuits. Kayakers measure difficulty with a I-VI class system; BASE jumpers use meters and seconds; even skiers have the D System for quantifying risk, difficulty and length. But no outdoors-person loves to quantify his or her feats more than climbers. From length and commitment to medium and style, climbers have a classification for everything. The growing popularity of speed climbing has brought to the forefront an entirely different way to quantify our sport: time.

Recently, we at Alpinist picked the brains of the speediest climbers to learn more about speed climbing and how it fits into our grade-crazy community.

This week, we sat down with Sean Leary and Dean Potter, who broke the speed record on The Nose by 20 seconds last October. Climbing partners and residents of Yosemite, Leary and Potter have grand plans for improving their record in 2011.

Dean Potter takes the lead while Sean Leary belays during their record-breaking ascent of The Nose last October. This screenshot is a snippet from Sender Films' footage of the climb, which will air at the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour. [Photo] senderfilms.com

Tell me about getting the speed record on The Nose. Was it an objective you worked toward for a long time?

Dean Potter: It had been close to 10 years since I'd speed-climbed. Sean and I hang out and he was super amped up to go for the record... I didn't really think I was going to like it. We went for some practice runs earlier in the season. I had forgotten just how much fun it is to move like that. We could see that it wouldn't be too far out of our ability to take the record.

Why did you stop speed climbing and why were you so reluctant to start again?

DP: There are a lot of reasons. I enjoy the artistic part of climbing more than the competitive part. And that, I think, is the main reason. Another reason is when guys like Sean and I go for the record, we know we'll do it eventually. If we try hard enough and we try over and over again, we're gonna do it. And so that—taking the sort of "unknown" out of it—didn't seem appealing to me... but it was pretty darn hard for us to break the record.


Sean, tell me about the record-breaking climb.

Sean Leary: Getting the record was a step in the process and that sort of caught me by surprise. The time before that, we had done it in just under three hours and I thought it would take us a couple more burns to get to the record. Dean and I both live here, so we can just do it whenever we want. That's a good advantage and it's also really fun to have such a quality climb on my back doorstep.

DP: The day we did do it our run before was 20 minutes slower. We didn't even expect to break the record that day, because that is a big chunk of time to chop off. But near the top we saw that we were near the record. We have this watch that talks in a woman's voice—we call it the "Big Wall Bi-otch." You press the button and she tells you how fast you're going. Big Wall Bi-otch said we were close to the record. When you know you're close, it's easier to gun it.

How does it compare with other big objectives of yours?

DP: The other objectives—like the more creative stuff I've done—have pushed my mind way more. Even though speed climbing The Nose is one of the most dangerous things I've done, it isn't as dangerous as some of the other stuff. My struggle with whether I'm gonna die or not is greater on some of my free solos, FreeBASE on the Eiger and stuff. I just like creativity and beauty being the motivations. When I actually started climbing up The Nose I realized just how beautiful it is for two guys to move together up The Nose in two and a half hours. The most beautiful line, pretty much, on El Cap is The Nose. It's amazing to free climb those thousands of feet all in such a short amount of time on the world's most beautiful rock climb.

What climbing strategies do you use to improve your time on The Nose?

DP: The cool thing that Sean and I do on The Nose is that we simul everything. That's a little bit different than the way other parties do it. They do a lot of short-fixing. Sean and I climbed it with both of us doing just about every move. There are little sections—like at the Great Roof—where we don't. Other than that, it's pretty much all simul-climbing.

SL: A lot of [our strategy] is pitch-by-pitch. The more familiar we are with the climb, the more we know exactly which pieces of gear go where. We've figured out the bare minimum of gear we can get by with and still be safe. When we're simul-climbing we want to make sure we have at least a couple pieces between us. I think the biggest piece is a No. 1 Camalot. It's a really small, lightweight rack—a bunch of quickdraws and 10 cams, or something.

Part of the strategy, also, is being really efficient with our changeovers. In reality, it would probably be faster if one guy led the whole climb, but we both like leading. We both share leads the whole way, so part of the strategy has been figuring out the most efficient places to switch.

Sean Leary on the Glowering Spot pitch above Camp 5 on The Nose. [Photo] senderfilms.com

How difficult was it?

DP: Before, when Timmy [O'Neill] and I broke the record 10 or so years ago, it was pretty easy to do. Now to be at the cutting edge, everything needs to be perfect. You need to have powerful lungs and a healthy body. You need to be recovering quickly so you can climb the route several times in a week and be that familiar with it.

Like the marathon, for instance. It was back in a similar state sixty or eighty years ago. The world record was around two and a half hours. Now people are pushing it to the lower two hours—2:06 or something like that. That's a great parallel because in the early years, it was just a bunch of guys going out and running and they could get it down to two and a half hours. But with super meticulous training and focus and whole lifestyle changes... Man has—at least with the marathon—come close to that physical limitation where it's a "perfect" human being running a marathon.

We're way behind in climbing, but I think it's starting to be more like that. Some years ago I would have even been embarrassed to say that, because I would just party and stuff—go out and climb and have fun. Now I like to be more precise with what I'm doing.

For [Sean and me], we've noticed a huge increase just from being super clean and it helps in a couple different ways. One is that my mind is really sharp and doesn't wander. Before, I'd be a little over stimulated and I'd always just trash myself climbing. Now I'm much more thoughtful about it. I'm training more like an Olympian. In some ways, we were world-class athletes 10 years ago, though it was more out of luck than out of thought. Now I'm trying to be more like the ultra runners or the cyclist who put a lot of thought into what they eat. I've changed how I schedule my workout and recovery time.

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