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Chris McGuinness Goes up The Nose

Looking down The Nose. (Photo courtesy of Chris McGuinness. Click for larger image.)

Stretching 3000 vertical feet up the side of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park, The Nose is arguably one of the world's most famous rock climbing destinations. "As a climber, the minute you go to Yosemite, climbing it becomes a dream," says SLAC graduate student Chris McGuinness. "But it's not always a realistic dream." The rock face is too challenging for casual climbers, and can take many days for those who have the necessary endurance and experience. "I didn't plan on climbing it this summer," he says. "I didn't think I was ready. We were training for another climb and just decided to go for it."

In the early morning darkness McGuinness and friend Justin Brockman set out on what would become a three-day journey up the face. Switching between the roles of leader and follower, they traded responsibility for carrying a single backpack containing supplies, equipment and water. They climbed up the vertical rock face until 8:00 p.m., a total of 14 hours, stopping less than halfway to their goal.

The Nose. (Photo courtesy of Chris McGuinness. Click for larger image.)

McGuinness and Brockman made camp and spent the night on a 3-foot by 10-foot ledge known as El Cap Tower. McGuiness says many people ask how he can sleep on the cusp of a towering cliff. "Well, you're still tied in. And by the end of the day you're the most tired you've been in your life," he says. 

On day two, soreness and exhaustion increased. "You'll be hanging there on the rope and your biceps will just lock up," Mc Guiness says. "Your muscles will cramp because you're dehydrated. The backpack was heavier than we anticipated so that added to the soreness." The amount of food, equipment and water a climber carries depends on the climb's duration, but the weight of the load also increases the time. McGuinness and Brockman carried 30 pounds of water, and passed groups of people carrying larger loads than theirs. The two found out later that one group took seven days to reach the top.

On day three, a very worn-out McGuinness looked down the mountain to see two climbers scuttling up behind him. Neither carried packs, or much gear, and they were rapidly catching up to McGuinness and Brockman. To McGuinness' delight these two men were competitive rock climbers Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama. "It would be like if you were a basketball player and Michael Jordan rolled in and just wanted to shoot some hoops," says McGuinness. "It was an inspiration. We were so tired but it got us motivated." The two new arrivals took a moment to shake hands with McGuinness and Brockman, then they were off up the mountain. Florine and Hirayama hold the record for climbing The Nose in just 2 hours and 37 minutes.

McGuiness (right) and Brockman reach the top! (Photo courtesy of Chris McGuinness. Click for larger image.)

In the early afternoon, McGuinness and Brockman finally reached the top. They brought two cigars with them to celebrate, but instead of lighting them, they hurried to get out of the pouring rain that had just begun to fall. A relatively quick four-hour hike put them back at the base where they had started.

"Climbing is the most intimate and challenging interaction you can have with nature," says McGuinness. "You can't beat the rock by doing it wrong. You have to figure out how to do it right." The walls of Yosemite have a few other, more challenging climbs to offer, though none have the same appeal and history as The Nose. "When I first started climbing I thought if I was ever able to climb The Nose, there would be nothing left to climb," he says. "Now that I've done it, I can't help but think about the next climb to set my sights on."

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, October 15, 2008