“In my five years of climbing, I’d gotten the sense that there were really only two kinds of climbers in California — the ones who were good enough to climb the Nose and the ones who weren’t.”
So says Hans Florine in the early pages of his new book (co-written with Jayme Moye) about his obsession with 31 pitches of rock in one of America’s most beloved National Parks. “On the Nose” isn’t a climbing book in the traditional mold; it’s not centered on one man or woman’s quest to find or top out on a new line, there’s no trekking into the unknown or Himalayan high-altitude deaths. It doesn’t play on any of the “tragedy as a backdrop” conventions that have come to define the genre; rather it’s a love letter to one of the most iconic climbs in the world, the Nose of El Cap. In the detailing of such lifelong devotion, it’s a beautiful meditation on the true meaning of love, on the drive for achievement and on the simple act of putting one hand above the other. Florine never gets a first ascent but in his life as an ambassador for climbing in general and its most storied route in particular, he’s a trailblazer.
Florine opens with his first attempt on the Nose, as a brash kid in way over his head, where he’s forced to bail not even halfway up. And he does a brilliant job showing his own growth as a human juxtaposed against his climber’s growth over annual pilgrimages up El Capitan’s prow. Climbing the Nose 100 times makes a great allegory for aging, whereby wisdom and familiarity trump youthful vigor and brashness, and Florine executes it cleanly.
Who’s Who of Climbing
It also reads like a “Forrest Gump” of rock climbing, from retelling Warren Harding’s couple-month siege of the Nose (illuminated in “Valley Uprising”) to his own climb with Lynn Hill (in preparation for her free climb of the Nose, the first person to ever do so) one of the younglings of Jim Bridwell’s legendary Stone Masters. Florine relives trading speed records with Dean Potter, the iconoclastic climber and member of the Stone Monkeys who took over in the 2000s.
Florine also discusses his domination of the fledgling pro climbing circuit in the early 90s, a sport that will finally be an Olympic event in 2020 (and discusses his role in promoting climbing, both competitive and otherwise); details the early days when Stone Masters like Ron Kauk tried to grok these shiny sport comps. He discusses the birth of climbing gyms (and how he used to practice before these gyms by super gluing rock holds to Los Angeles freeway underpasses).
But back to Yosemite: Florine climbs with Willie Benegas and becomes a tutor to wunderkind Alex Honnold when Honnold first set out to capture the speed record with Ueli Stieck, a fact made even more poignant after Stieck’s death this May (and by the fact that Honnold honed his skills in the very rock gyms Florine helped grow and went on to manage). And Florine talks about how, at nearly 50 years of age, he sets the Nose speed record with Honnold (that record still holds), climbing’s current superstar (whose ropeless free-solo of El Capitan a few weeks ago is another bit of history.) The circle is complete when Florine, on one of his speed records (with Yuji Hirayama) is congratulated at the summit by Tom Frost (who made the second, quicker ascent of the Nose, with Royal Robbins et al, in 1960). If the person was a great climber who made it to Yosemite from 1990 on, Florine either climbed with, or against, him or her.
Climber First, Thinker Second
The moments when he slows things down to explain climbing terms and techniques to nonclimbers come across as pretty stiff (Beta is when you get information before a climb, a camming device is a spring-loaded…). And Florine’s attempts to justify his lifestyle can feel a bit forced. He talks about how “Atlas Shrugged” and Ayn Rand’s objectivism inspired him to spend his life climbing a rock over and over again when Rand’s philosophy values industriousness over all. She would’ve seen an educated engineer who gives up a promising corporate future to bum it in Yosemite as a waste, similar to her disdain for playboy adventurer Francisco d’Anconio in “Atlas Shrugged.” No, Florine’s life is ripped out of Kerouac’s rucksack revolution, and like those oddballs he was simply good enough to achieve success as a very talented dirtbag with just enough adulting to keep the bills paid and the family fed.
Destiny and Inspiration
Florine’s life does read like a destined path, full of triumphs and experiences only awarded to the courageous. And his writing does a great job of conveying this frenetic existence whereby a man can truly make a life for himself doing what he loves, even if what he loves is basically doing the same iconic climb over and over again (at time of printing it was 101 times and he was shooting to be the first person to summit El Cap 200 times)(he’s currently at 161 El Cap summits). And it’s certainly a great summer kick-off book as we dust off our crimping fingers, flake out our ropes and get our stems, jams, gear placements and slab frictions dialed. His is a story about how pure passion can create a whole life and how we don’t have to settle for the straight and narrow when the steep and vast is much more rewarding. A must-read for anybody who has ever climbed, or stared in adulation at people who climb. But the inspirational takeaway from the book is best described by Florine himself:
“Why on earth would anyone climb the Nose 100 times…? I’m not sure that’s the right question. How about this one: Why on earth would anyone work a job they don’t care about, day after day, for 261 days a year, every year? Or this one: Why would someone who has a choice settle for ‘good enough’ instead of going after great?”
So buy a copy; right now Florine will donate $1 out of every sale to the Access Fund and Leave No Trace in his bid for a new climb: to the top of a bestseller list just in time for Father’s Day.