WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS RACE
"I heard her yell, and looked over to see her freefalling a vertical wall with no gear for over a hundred feet. She impacted the flake below and behind me."
ANYONE that’s stood at the base of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, has been in awe of the majestic granite cliffs that tower more than 3,000 feet into the crystal blue skies. With the majority of the attention focused on the men's death defying race up the most predominent feature on the cliff (The Nose), the women, in comparison, have received very little attention. Until now.
On October 11th, 2017, shortly before Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds shattered the Nose speed record (read Worlds Most Dangerous Race - Part One), previously held by Alex Honnold and Hans Florine, Quinn Brett was seriously injured when she took a 100-foot fall while speed climbing up the Nose with Josie McKee.
Until that moment, the thought of falling from the Boot Flake (Pitch 16) was unthinkable. It was believed such a fall would be fatal, because not a single piece of gear was placed between the leader and the belayer. Why would they take such a risk? We recommend you listen to the Podcast. But in short, this form of speed climbing can shave off a great number minutes, because the belayer on Texas Flake (Pitch 15), won't have to clean that pitch. They can simply do the King Swing and continue firing up The Nose.
There's been much speculation as to what happened. Whether Quinn slipped while pulling out a cam, or if a weighted cam disengaged, is anyone's guess. But what we do is know is worth sharing.
If it's true, what we think about, we bring about. We must analyze what thoughts were being processed leading up to the accident, especially considering Quinn was more than capable of firing up this pitch. She could probably do it in her sleep. So what happened ?
According to Josie and Quinn, they were both thinking and grieving over the deaths of Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins. For those not familiar with this Shakespearean like tragedy, here’s what I know.
On October 7th, 2017, Hayden, a 27 year old alpinist and well regarded sport climber, got caught in an avalanche with his girlfriend, Inge Perkins, on Imp Peak, in South Bozeman, Montana. Hayden survived. But his girlfriend, Inge was buried alive and died. Hayden was so distraught, and unable to cope with the lost of his partner in life, he took his own life the following day.
Josie McKee Private Collection
As you can imagine, this news had a devastating effect on the climbing community, especially with Josie and Quinn, who were close friends. Intuitively, neither were motivated to get an early start. Josie was up most of the night having nightmares. And according to Quinn, her last thought before she fell, was about Hayden. It was the last thing she remembered.
Mayan Smith Gobat & Libby Sauter
Along with Josie McKee, Quinn Brett, and Hazel Findley
Also available on Apple Podcast
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So the risks are real. In what will prove to be one of the most heroic rescue operations in Yosemite Valley’s history, YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) elite helicopter rescue team went quickly to work. Brandon Lathum, the head climbing ranger, and Aaron Smith, both decorated rangers with numerous rescues under their belts, were flown up (via a rope) to the scene of the accident by Keith Nelsen, the helicopter pilot.
If it weren't for the bravery and technical skills of the rescuers, and the helicopter pilot, whose blades were just meters from the granite cliff, Quinn Brett would not be alive today. And the same is true with regards to Josie Mckee. Her swift and decisive actions to remove and upright Quinn, who was upside down inside the Texas Flake, bleeding profusely, Quinn would have died before YOSAR could have gotten to her.
Not to be critical, because I have nothing but respect and admiration for everyone competing in this race, couldn’t we, as a climbing community, collectively put our minds together and devise some sort of safety mechanism - like a collapsable - pop out safety net that could catch a climber in a no fall zone? I’m just saying. Cirque du Soleil has safety nets, but yet, we’re still blown away by their most amazing trapeze acts.
In my opinion, if the race up the Nose has any hopes of flourishing, the climbing community needs to address this today, not tomorrow, when a fatality occurs. Next time it could be dude. We all know they are gunning to break the 2 hour barrier. That means there’s a lot of potential for something to go horribly wrong, and when and if that should ever happen, I seriously pray it doesn’t, speed climbing up The Nose, as we know it, will be a thing of the past. The National Park Service will shut it down.
With zero prize money or trophies being handed out, many wonder why so many are willing to risk their lives trying break a time that few, relatively speaking, really cares about. Is the lure of the adventure to see what is humanly possible? Or is it to prove, as Lynn Hill did, that women can not only climb as hard as men, they can climb just as fast?
I'll let you be the judge. When I spoke with each of these amazing women, I never once got the sense they were being ruled by their egos. Although, Quinn was brave enough to suggest it may have clouded her judgement before her horrific fall. With plenty of reflection to go around, I wanted to focus on the ladies that currently hold the record, Mayan Smith Gobat and Libby Sauter.
Of all the women competing in the World's Most Dangerous Race, Mayan Smith Gobat is undoubtedly front and center. In 2009, Gobat free climbed Free Rider 5.13a in a day. In 2011, Gobat became the second woman (the first was Steph Davis - see profile) to free climb Salathe' 5.13b on El Cap.
Then in 2012, Gobat teamed up with Chantel Astorga to established a new female record for climbing The Nose of El Capitan and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in a day. Their time: 20 hours and 9 mins. So there's little doubt that Mayan Smith Gobat will remain a major contender.
Gobat's partner, Libby Sauter, is no stranger to the world of big wall speed climbing. In 2014, Sauter teamed up with Quinn Brett to climb two routes on El Capitan (The Nose and Lurking Fear) in less than 22 hours.
Naturally, we wanted to know what techniques they were incorporating to get their times down. Their answers weren't surprising, but disconcerting all the same. Like the men, the women have been incorporating techniques such as simul-climbing - which is when both climbers are scaling the route at the same time with just a few pieces of gear in between.
The other technique is known as Short Fixing or The Pakistani Death Loop, where the lead climber pulls up the slack in the rope upon reaching the top of the pitch, ties it off to the anchors so his or her partner can jug up the rope, then sets off climbing again. This technique can save a considerable amount of time, but it's also extremely dangerous. If the lead climber should fall, they'll fall the entire length of the slack rope, as what happened to the Pakistani, who was killed incorporating this technique. So beware.
As to whether the women will continue to participate in this race, especially after what happened to Quinn Brett, is anyone's guess. But one thing was clear, none of the women I spoke too, including Hazel Findlay, who many believed would be a contender, has any desire to go for the record any time soon. But we'll see what happens in the next couple of years. Time has a way of making people forget how dangerous this race really is.
NOSE SPEED CLIMBING RECORD
10/2014 - 4:43 Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter
10/2014 - 5:02 Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter
09/2013 - 5:39 Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter
09/2012 - 7:26 Mayan Smith-Gobat and Chantel Astorga
06/2012 - 10:19 Jes Meiris and Quinn Brett
09/2011 - 10:40 Libby Sauter and Chantel Astorga
2004 - 12:15 Heidi Wirtz and Vera Schulte-Pelkum
2017-10/21 Jim Reynolds, Brad Gobright Time: 2:19:44
2012-6/17 Hans Florine, Alex Honnold Time: 2:23:46
2010-11/6 Dean Potter, Sean Leary Time: 2:36:45
2008-10/12 Hans Florine, Yuji Hirayama Time: 2:37:05
2008-7/2 Hans Florine, Yuji Hirayama Time: 2:43:33
2007-10/8 Alexander and Thomas Huber Time:2:45:45
2007-10/4 Alexander and Thomas Huber Time: 48:30
2002-9/29 Hans Florine, Yuji Hirayama Time: 2:48:55
2001-11 Dean Potter, Timmy O'Neill Time: 3:24:20
2001-10 Hans Florine, Jim Herson Time: 3:57:27
2001-10 Dean Potter, Timmy O'Neill Time: 3:59:35
1992 Hans Florine, Peter Croft Time: 4:22
1991 Peter Croft, Dave Schultz Time: 4:48
1991 Hans Florine, Andres Puhvel Time: 6:01
1990 Peter Croft, Dave Schultz Time: 6:40
1990 Hans Florine, Steve Schneider Time: 8:06
1986 John Bachar, Peter Croft Time: 10:05
1984 Duncan Critchley, Romain Vogler0 9:30
1975 Jim Bridwell, John Long, Billy Westbay 14:55