Speed Series Part II: Sean Leary and Dean Potter


Dean Potter tops out on the Boot Flake during his record speed-solo of The Nose in 2001. Footage of the ascent appears in Masters of Stone 5. [Photo] Eric Perlman

It seems like you really have to choose your speed-climbing partners carefully. For the fun factor and for safety. You have to be at a pretty similar ability level when you're climbing. What do you look for in a partner?

DP: Absolutely. That is another thing—Sean and I have climbed in Yosemite for so long. I know what he's capable of and he knows what I'm capable of. We just know if we're simul-climbing, I'm not the strongest on lie-backing, so Sean can be like "oh, f***, Dean's on a lie-back so I'd better plug in a piece of gear." Sean's amazing on lie-backs so Sean's on a lie-back down there and I'm leading I'm just like "I don't have to worry, Sean's a lie-back machine."

SL: Yeah. Finding the right partner is super key. It's this amazing amount of trust, especially when I'm simul-climbing something like on The Nose. Your life is literally in the hands of your partner, so you have to trust them and you have to be on the same level. With Dean and I, it's been this great experience. We've sort of clicked into this groove. I can tell if something's up with Dean while he's leading by the way that he moves. He can tell if something's weird with me and throw in a piece of gear, or something.

What do you think climbing is "about" and how does speed climbing fit into that philosophy?

DP: There's so much that climbing's "about." A lot of it is just about going out and having fun... I taught myself to climb back in high school. Climbing, for me, was about getting away from all of my worries and getting out and just moving my body and making the chemicals inside me balanced. Then when I was actually out there on the rock, I started to realize that I was thinking at a much higher level and sensing at a much higher level than I ever had before. That's the hook for me now. That's why I climb. It brings on a heightened awareness and my senses are more acute than when I'm doing anything else.


I imagine that's especially true with speed climbing.

DP: Absolutely. Your brain has to be firing at an amazing speed. Like what Sean and I are doing on The Nose right now is different. We simul-climb everything and it's way more dangerous that way. We're always filled with the knowledge that if we fall, it's a minimum 100-footer and probably way more. You're going to kill your friend and probably mutilate or kill yourself. That sort of danger is really what triggers heightened awareness as well as the speed part, but mostly it's the danger. I've been doing this for close to 22 years and keep surviving. But being close to death, your whole being knows it and it works as hard as it can to survive. That often means seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, intuiting at a much higher level than normal.

Sean, speed climbing is criticized for the amount of media attention it gets even though the climbers aren't necessarily developing any new terrain. What are your thoughts about that?

SL: In other sports that exist in society there are always quantifiable benchmarks, like how fast some did the 100-yard dash, how many touchdowns a team made, etc. So I guess as far as public interest goes, people have been trained to think in more countable terms. And although our climbing grades do that, they aren't generally accessible to non-climbers, so when a certain fast time is reported, suddenly people are able to understand a little better.

I've always thought it was odd that speed climbing is more impressive to the public than big free-climbing link-ups (which are way harder to do), but the reason for that must be that the free link-ups are so outside the box for most folks that they can't realize how difficult they actually are. Same goes with extreme free climbing or V grades, especially when the super-talented climbers people see in the videos "float the gnar" like it was nothing.

Too bad it is so hard to "quantify" this whole other realm of climbing and why we climb—the camaraderie, the nature experience, the sense of adventure and sheer beauty of being up thousands of feet in some magical place. Hard to put a number on that sort of thing.

Sean Leary and Dean Potter pause for a summit photo atop Half Dome. This fall and winter, the duo have climbed nearly everyday, seeking other objectives when The Nose is wet with snow-melt. [Photo] Dean S. Potter

Dean, What are your plans for 2011? Do you think you'll do more speed climbing or was climbing The Nose with Sean just a brief return to it?

DP: Sean and I are both here in Yosemite. Like I said, we're both about 20 minutes from El Cap. We used to climb Royal Arches where we used to be like, "Hey let's meet and go for a run and climb Royal Arches." Now The Nose is just that for us. We're like, "Hey, let's meet in the morning and climb The Nose and let's do something afterward. We love climbing that and we love climbing together.

We have other ideas about projects we'd like to climb together but we at least know that The Nose gets us incredibly fit, and plus, we're super inspired by this idea of the perfect run on The Nose. I don't think we'll stop until we really feel like it's perfect. We also believe that it's achievable to bring the record down under two hours. We went on The Nose five times before we broke the record, and that really isn't that much... Neither of us were training like Olympians. So when we broke the Nose record we were just two guys that were naturally fit and we brought our fitness up some. Now we know that if we train like Olympians, we'll go way the hell faster.

Sources: Sean Leary, Dean Potter, alpinist.com, speedclimb.com.

Speed Series Part I: Alex Honnold - "It's all super safe as long as no one falls."

Speed Series Part III: Ueli Steck - "I think it is nice to be able to climb a peak in several hours instead of several days. You don't have to suffer so much."

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