It is dawn in California's Yosemite National Park, and as the
early-morning light changes from gray to gold, champion speed
climber Hans Florine scans the sheer granite walls of El
Capitan. As he prepares to ascend, Florine thinks of other
climbers still in their sleeping bags. He turns to Mark Melvin,
his climbing partner, and says, "Let's go. We'll be halfway up
the Nose before most of them wake up."
Cocky words, perhaps, but Florine can back them up. With the
avowed goal of "making molehills out of mountains," Florine
sprints up perilous big-wall routes that most climbers take days
to conquer. But it's not just his signature speed ascents that
have earned the 32-year-old professional climber the nickname
Though he struts his stuff in competitions--from a 1991 world
championship in speed climbing to first place in the climbing
races at the 1995 and '96 Extreme Games--what sets Florine apart
from other elite climbers is the commercial height that he has
reached. Whether he's blazing up a competition route or just
fast-forwarding his way up a mountain, Florine is never too busy
for a photo op.
This day is no different. While Melvin wipes the sleep from his
eyes, Florine quickly scouts out a good angle from which to
record the moment. Setting the timer on his camera, Florine
dashes next to Melvin. The camera captures both climbers, the
towering mountain and, most important, Florine's Boreal shoes,
his Champion Nutrition T-shirt, the PowerBar logo sewn on his
Petzl harness, and the Smith sunglasses logo gracing his chalk
bag. Then Florine lets out a war cry. Having done his bit for
his sponsors, Florine begins his 23rd ascent of El Capitan's
Though known as one of the most forbidding testing grounds for
hard-core climbers, El Capitan is practically Florine's
performance platform. Speed adds to the danger. To go fast, both
climbers have to ascend simultaneously--if one falls, the other
gets dragged down as well. And the route itself has several
pendulums, where a climber has to swing across, then wait for
the other climber, and steep roof sections with small cracks,
which make it tougher to get good handholds. In 1992 Florine and
Peter Croft set the speed record for ascending the Nose,
reaching the summit in four hours and 22 minutes. Last summer
Florine and Steve Schneider chopped the four-day record on El
Capitan's Son of Heart route to just under 30 hours.
When he's not climbing, Florine searches for commercial sponsors
to fund his pursuits. Unlike most climbers, who might mark their
accomplishments with an extra beer at base camp, Florine works
overtime to publicize his feats, sending out announcements by
fax. The way Florine sees it, America's romance with adventure
sports bodes well for skilled daredevils like himself.
"Climbing is right on the edge of becoming more mainstream, and
I'll do everything I can to promote it," says Florine, who
worked in the aerospace industry before he made climbing his
full-time profession in 1990. "My reasons are partly altruistic
and partly selfish. Yes, I want the sport to grow, but I also
want to profit from that growth."
But while Florine embraces opportunity, many other climbers feel
his attitude violates an unwritten creed of climbers: Thou shalt
not seek attention. Croft, one of the best solo climbers in the
U.S., says most climbers are individualists, loners. "Climbing
is not a team sport with an arena or spectators," he says. "It's
anticulture, antirules, antiranger and antiauthority." For many
climbers, the sport is also anti-mass media.
Florine, of course, disagrees. "A lot of people complain that
I'm turning climbing into showbiz," he says. "But if that is
what it takes to make climbing a professional sport, so be it. I
work hard for my sponsors. I let them know what I'm doing."
The story goes that Florine once stopped midway up a competitive
route to take a bite out of a PowerBar. "Unfortunately the
photographer completely missed it," he says. "Until prize money
gets decent, I'll do what I can. Hey, you can finish a
competition and either climb into your camper or drive away in a
Range Rover. I know what I'm going for."
Eileen Hansen, a freelancer who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., is
an avid rower and runner.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM THORNBURG Florine never lets climbing interfere with a photo op. [Hans Florine hanging from rock wall]