Chantel Astorga passed nine teams on the Nose of El Capitan to set a new women’s solo speed record at 24:39 this autumn, just short of the in-a-day threshold. A month later, on October 24, she returned to make another speed ascent that she barely finished and is just now recovering from. In hot conditions, Astorga set a quick pace but ran out of water. As muscle cramps set in, her brain became sluggish and her speed climb slipped away.
She began her record climb on September 26 at 6 a.m. By noon, she’d already climbed past Dolt Tower on Pitch 11. After leading the Great Roof (P22), a climber jumped on her line while she was jugging it. “It was pretty outstanding that he hopped on my rope. I told him to get off but he ignored me,” she said over the phone from her home in Lowman, Idaho. Shortly after her rope was hijacked, she dropped both an ascender and an aider.
Unwilling to save time by free soloing 5.11 terrain like Alex Honnold, she chose instead to build anchors throughout most of the route. She free soloed half of the Stovelegs (P9-10) and from Dolt to Texas Flake (P11-15). Climbing in this combination of styles, she says, sets a 24-hour pace — almost.
She topped out at 6:39 a.m. the following day to best Jes Meiris’s 27:20 record by 2 hours, 41 minutes. “My hands and feet were getting worked the most,” she said. “Those take the longest to recover. It took four to five days before they felt good again. I was so close to doing it in a day.”
She returned to the route a few weeks later. On a warm, windless day on October 24, she’s only been climbing 4:40 when she reached Dolt Tower, but by Camp 4 (P20), she’d run out of water. “I would stare at the belays…not sure if I was clipped in. I felt super bad and had these emotional breakdowns. I would cry but didn’t know why. I [had to] trust that I was in a functional state to complete the route,” she said. Her time was 25:40.
Tom Evans, who has been photographing climbers on El Cap since the mid-1990s, captured both of Astorga’s ascents with his camera. He told me what it was like from his perspective.
“She was psyched. And then it went into a survival contest,” Evans said from his cabin in Crestline, California.
Astorga’s been climbing the Nose since August 2010. Her first time up it was with Libby Sauter, who broke the all-female team record on the Nose and climbed El Cap and the Nose in a day this autumn.
In 2011, Astorga and Sauter set the women’s team record on the Nose at 10:40. Then she teamed up with Mayan Smith-Gobat twice in 2012 to top out in 10:10 and, a week later, 7:26. The duo went on to climb the Regular Route of Half Dome before the day’s end.
After the linkup, Astorga took two years off from climbing. In that time she took up competitive mountain biking, continued with Olympic lifting, kettle bell training, uphill sprints and circuit training. She tells me she’s lost 15 pounds, to be a leaner climber, and has a renewed focus on the Nose solo because it requires more endurance than power.
This September she made a practice solo run to Dolt Tower in five hours, rested a few days and then set the women’s speed solo record on September 26.
I asked her why she didn’t ask for water from the team at Camp 6. She said, “Several years ago I was guiding on the West Rib of Denali. The Giri-Giri Guys stumbled near us. They refused [our offer of water]. They dealt with it. I walked away with that. That’s a good way to roll…. I made my decision to bring the water I did and chose to get myself out [of] that situation. There wasn’t much conscious thought to [the decision] really.”
Evans said later, “I got an email from the guys at Camp 6.” They stated that if they had known the seriousness of her deteriorating condition they would’ve shared their water, had she asked.
Astorga won’t confirm or deny any plans to return to the Nose for another solo ascent. For the time being she’ll be focusing on her career as a full-time avalanche forecaster in Idaho and on training for a five-week expedition this coming spring to Alaska.