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Speed Series Part II: Sean Leary and Dean Potter

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]

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]

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.

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,,

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.”