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Yosemite Hardwomen: An El Cap Speed Ascent Debrief

Posted on: October 30, 2014


[Update: Just 24 hours after we published this article, Sauter and Smith-Gobat returned to the Nose October 31 and deducted another 19 minutes off their record, bringing the fastest ascent of the route by an all-female team down to 4:43.—Ed.]

Libby Sauter and Mayan Smith-Gobat in El Cap Meadow on the evening of October 28. They had just deducted 37 minutes from their 2013 women's speed record on the Nose (VI 5.9 A2). Eleven days before, Sauter teamed up with Quinn Brett for a linkup of the Nose and Lurking Fear (VI 5.9 A2). [Photo] Samuel Crossley/Adidas Outdoor
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Someone hit "Fast-forward" on the El Capitan VHS this October. David Allfrey, Skiy Detray and Cheyne Lempe lopped six hours off the fastest recorded ascent of Zenyatta Mondatta (VI 5.7 A4), while Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold made the first sub-24-hour ascent of El Corazon (VI 5.13b). [Chris Van Leuven recorded the details in a flurry of phone interviews. Read his story in the October 17, 2014 NewsWire.—Ed.] A few days later, Quinn Brett and Libby Sauter picked up where Caldwell and Honnold left off, and climbed El Cap twice in less than 22 hours. Sauter then roped up with Mayan Smith-Gobat to break the women's speed record on the Nose, topping out after 5 hours and 2 minutes of simulclimbing and short-fixing.

Brett and Sauter, who shared a rope for the first time only days before, started their linkup with the Nose on the morning of October 17, then moved over to Lurking Fear. "We had originally planned to do Lurking Fear first with the desire to avoid the hike to the base...but Tom [Evans] reminded us that the hike just isn't that long and that we would be exponentially slower on the Nose if we did that second," Sauter told Alpinist. "Also, if we topped out the Fear first and were fatigued, it'd be easier to bail with the bigger objective still looming."

They climbed the Nose smoothly, passing three parties after a stuck rope stalled them for 20 minutes. At 8 hours, 25 minutes they topped out and descended the East Ledges to reach the base of Lurking Fear at 4:40 p.m. They split the route into two lead blocks; Sauter led Pitches 1-9 and Brett took over at the Pillar of Despair, she told climbing.com. At 21:17, they stood atop El Cap again, the first all-female team to have climbed it twice in a day.

Sauter leads past a team from Colorado on the Pancake Flake while Brett belays below. [Photo] Tom Evans/elcapreport.com

Then on October 28, Sauter returned to the Nose with Mayan Smith-Gobat, with whom she broke the route's female speed record in 2013. They planned the ascent as a practice run for a record attempt, but the duo reached the tree marking the Nose topout 37 minutes faster than their 2013 ascent. The women's record now hovers at 5 hours 2 minutes.

Once Brett, Sauter and Smith-Gobat were back on the Valley floor, we issued the El Cap hardwomen these few questions.

What speed climbing techniques did you use? In what ways is that style different from that of other Valley speed climbers?

Sauter: [On the Nose-Lurking Fear linkup] there were a few pitches were we simulclimbed through easier sections, but mainly the leader would short-fix while running the PDL, and the second would jug. The short-fixing with a PDL was used for about 95 percent of the climbing. As well, we back-cleaned a fair bit. On both the Nose and LF, we each only tagged and re-racked gear once per block (generally about 10 pitches/block). These are the standard Valley speed climbing techniques used by most any NIAD [Nose-in-a-day] aspirant, although we may take some of these techniques a little further than most. It is common to short-fix and self-belay with a GriGri but on the mellower and well-rehearsed pitches of the Nose/LF, that feels unnecessary for us.

Smith-Gobat: [During our speed ascent of the Nose] Libby and I simulclimbed the first half of the route, with her leading up to the top of the Boot. I stayed below the Boot at the pendulum point, did the great swing, then led off and did a mixture of simulclimbing and mostly short-fixing to the top of the Nose...the main difference between us and the guys who are climbing it in 2:30, is that they simulclimb more of the upper half of the route, where we are short-fixing more to keep it within the safety margin we are happy with.

Did any of you take falls?

Sauter: Quinn took an inverted daisy fall when a fixed piece popped on our practice lap up LF but during the actual run, things went smoothly.

Smith-Gobat: No, neither Libby or I took any falls. The style we are climbing in means that we are being very careful not to fall as there are not many places where we can, safely.

Sauter and Smith-Gobat pause below the tree marking the top of the Nose. [Photo] Samuel Crossley/Adidas Outdoor

Libby, what kind of planning goes into a major linkup like yours on the Nose and Lurking Fear?

Sauter: The amount of planning that goes into a linkup varies per person/team. For me and Quinn, this was a fairly impetuous decision. We had talked for years about trying to rope up together but didn't formulate these plans until late September 2014. Luckily for us, we have each spent countless seasons climbing in the Valley and getting accustomed the the Valley granite and scale. It makes the more last-minute plans possible as we have the ability to go out for long days on short notice.

On the more micro scale, the most important thing for me planning-wise is food and caloric intake. I'm way too good at not eating right and so the days leading into a big day, I have to really try and focus on eating enough/right...it's hard for me to have an appetite when I am trying that hard!

What compromises to your safety do you make during speed-driven ascents like this?

Sauter: I like to keep things as safe as possible. As Hans Florine has said regarding speed climbing the Nose, "Feeling/being safe helps me go faster." We would short-fix with lockers, but run a PDL. I put a 'biner on my top jug for traversing pitches but rarely tie back-up knots. I back-clean a ton but if I get scared or know a hard bit is coming up, I place something bomber. It's all about the compromises that I feel are acceptable on the risk/reward profile.

Quinn: I free climb a lot of 5.10 terrain without a belay, but feel comfortable with the risks/safety margin of this style of climbing.

Smith-Gobat: Speed climbing is definitely a discipline that pushes the line between safety and speed. Placing less means you can climb farther on a set amount of gear. Libby climbed the whole lower half [of the Nose] with only a double rack, so we have a maximum of two pieces per pitch. I simulclimbed behind her, so if I fell it would have had some very nasty consequences for Libby. Then on the upper half I was short-fixing most of the way, with a [PDL], which also means that falling was simply not an option most of the time. So, we are definitely putting ourselves in very risky positions for a lot of the climb, but doing in a way that we are comfortable with. We only free climb what we are absolutely confident on, otherwise we French free or aid.

Is it important to you to climb as an all-female partnership? Why? How does it change the way you climb? How does it change the way other people see your climb?

Sauter: I like to climb with people that I relate to and whose company I enjoy. Be they male or female, having a good time together and sharing a common goal is what matters. The gender of my partner doesn't impact the way I climb in the least. And as for the way my climbs are perceived based on the sex of who I've tied in with...you'd have to ask them. I climb for myself and not for the opinions that come of my climbing.

Quinn: I would agree with Libby. I like to climb. I like to move fast, I like to cover ground and have big days. If I can get someone to say "yes" to that type of day and tell jokes along the way, it is a glorious match. Climbing is fun and moving all day is the only way I catch a full night's sleep. Speed climbing does take a certain comfort with higher risk threshold. Regardless of gender, competency and laughter are bigger factors.

Smith-Gobat climbs above the Changing Corners with a huge PDL. Sauter follows in her wake. [Photo] Chris Alstrin/Adidas Outdoor

Smith-Gobat: For me climbing with a good friend, whom I trust and have a good understanding with is what is important, not whether they are male or female. I do not think that climbing with a female changes the way I climb. I love climbing with my good male friends just as much as with my girl friends, and I actually do not spend much time climbing with women, just because that is the way it has worked out. However, for this goal it was important to climb as an all-female team as Libby and my goal was to bring the female record to a time that we felt proud of.... I also believe that an all-female partnership provides a more tangible inspiration for some females.

When people think about labels for women's achievements in climbing—first female ascents, fastest female ascents, ect.—it seems like their opinions fall into two categories. One is a feeling that these labels give recognition to women for achievements that might not have otherwise been recognized. The other is a feeling that, by putting these achievements in a special category that's determined by gender, we're diminishing those accomplishments; by calling out female firsts, we're saying female climbers can't compete with male climbers and should therefore be measured on a different yardstick. Do you think this is a question worth considering? What are your own opinions?

Sauter: The issue of gender equality is worthy of discussion since inequity continues to be prevalent throughout our society. I've thought a lot about this topic since I became the "first female to walk the Lost Arrow Spire Highline" in 2007, and both those arguments where raised then. At this juncture, I support the female-specific recognition. There is a drastic difference in the number of men versus women climbing El Capitan, and gender is a trait that people still use to relate to others, to create bonds. I personally can envision myself in the place of a female climber easier than I can that of a male. So if women-centric recognition helps to motivate those ladies still on the ground looking up to give walling (or any activity) a try, I'm all for it.

Quinn: This is not a valid question. It is fine to categorize us by gender in sports as we have for thousands of years. What seems out of balance is the recognition of the accomplishments. Libby and I don't climb for recognition. We climb because we know we are capable of pushing ourselves, our bodies and our minds further. It is how we get a good night's sleep.

Brett tops out on the Nose during her linkup with Sauter. [Photo] Tom Evans/elcapreport.com

Sauter: I wish I could say I was as pure of heart as Quinn. I grew up seeking approval through my athletic endeavors and, while I would never undertake a risky objective just to please my friends, there is an undeniable bit of me that really enjoys all the high fives in the meadow after a big mission.

Smith-Gobat: I believe that women are not far behind in climbing and that we could be measured on the same yardstick, but our bodies do have definite physical differences... In general, women do have to work much harder to gain muscle mass and power than men. I believe that by having separate categories, women are much more likely to be motivated to participate, compete or achieve a "women's record" as they know that they have a much greater chance of being recognized than if there were no separation.... Maybe at some point this could change, but at this stage I believe that having this separation is a good thing.

Sources: Quinn Brett, Libby Sauter, Mayan Smith-Gobat, climbing.com, elcapreport.com, rockandice.com

Sauter and Smith-Gobat celebrate atop El Capitan after breaking the women's Nose speed record. [Photo] Chris Alstrin/Adidas Outdoor
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