I heaved myself onto the big ledge, nicknamed the Sheraton Watkins, and immediately started making a chaotic pile of cams and slings, frantically shedding gear. I was covered in sweat and couldn’t control my breathing. Off came my helmet and sun hoody, but the cool air on my skin just made me feel nauseous. Jordan looked horrified, wondering if his partner was about to collapse into a broken mess.
“I just need a minute… I’ll be good to go”, I choked out between haggard breaths.
We’d been on the move for 20 straight hours, had already covered roughly six thousand feet of vertical granite, and only had another thousand feet to go. The late evening sun was slanting orange across the face of Half Dome, just a couple miles away. We’d been on that face a few hours earlier… glad to be done with that one! Now we were midway up the South face of Mt. Watkins, the final wall of the mythical Yosemite Triple.
The Yosemite Progression
Yosemite Valley has always been the biggest arena for rock climbing in the United States. Successive generations of amped-up young climbers, eager to prove themselves, have let their imaginations pull them to ever bigger and more elaborate goals.
Just reaching all of the elusive summits initially provided ample challenge. From the 1875 ascent of Half Dome to the 1934 summit of Higher Cathedral Spire, the cutting-edge climbers of the day planted the flag on every hard-to-reach pinnacle.
While these summit hunters would search for the path of least resistance to their goal, the next generation instead sought out the steepest and blankest faces. 1957 and ’58 saw an imaginative leap with the first ascents of the Northwest face of Half Dome, and the massive Nose of El Capitan, respectively. Now the glory went to the climber who could chart a path up the most imposing wall.
With the accumulation of technique, emphasis on physical training, and ever-better equipment, by the 1970s no wall could be called unclimbable. Another imaginative leap was required to give the new generation a way to make their mark. In the spring of 1975 two major climbs showed two paths forward.
Astroman and the first NIAD
Free climbing is the challenge to ascend a rock with the strength of your fingers and toes alone. Of course you can use your knees, elbows and other body parts too, but you can’t pull on pitons or stand in webbing ladders like climbers always had before. Ropes and protection equipment are still used, but purely as a backup to the climber’s strength and balance. This new style felt so revolutionary that when Bachar, Kauk and Long first pulled it off on the “East Face of Washington Column” (which had been a classic for 16 years already), they felt justified in re-naming the route “Astroman” to show a new era had begun.
In addition to style, speed has always been appreciated in climbing. But the first “Nose-In-A-Day” created speed climbing as a game with it’s own rules and potential glory. Bridwell, Westbay and Long fired the starting gun by boldly racing up the Nose, Yosemite’s undisputed King Line, in just 15 hours. Before them, no team had ventured up into that massive granite desert without plenty of food, water, and shelter, all laboriously hauled up on ropes. It’s still common for “wall-style” teams to spend 3 or 4 days inching up the wall and camping on ledges, though now they share the route with plenty of lighter NIAD teams.
These two new disciplines continue to keep climbers busy, with new FFA’s (first free ascents) and FKT’s (fastest known times) still dominating headlines and instagram. But a further twist was added to the speed climbing game by Bachar and Croft in 1986 when they climbed both El Capitan and Half Dome in one day. The bigwall linkup concept wasn’t immediately obvious; most climbers relish the return to flat ground after a difficult ascent. Pizza and beer are probably the only things you would want to “link” after either of these heroic climbs. But so honed and full of energy were these new stone masters that no single mountain was enough.
Birth of the Triple
Dean Potter was the Dark Wizard. Insanely talented and driven, he was the singular figure pushing Yosemite climbing forward at the start of the 21st century. Every story I’ve heard of Dean features him screaming, whether at his partners or the rock itself. But he is also inevitably described as spiritual, artistic and brilliant. When he became obsessed with breaking all of the known speed records in Yosemite, he found his “secret weapon” in Timmy O’Neill.
I called up Timmy to ask him about the spring of 2001, when he and Dean were undoubtedly fastest granite-climbers in the world.
Their first successful Yosemite Triple began with the Regular NW Face of Half Dome, then the pair rode a “tandem Schwinn” down the valley to the Sentinel and free soloed (climbed without ropes or protection) the famous Steck-Salathe route. After descending they biked across and finished with a lap on the Nose. All this was fueled by their signature mix of “Coca cola and viking-sized cinnamon rolls”.
That insane mission upped the ante on the linkup game, adding a major formation to the classic Croft-Bachar double. But of course they dreamed bigger still.
“You’re eating Grade VI’s for breakfast, so you decide to make 3 meals of it… breakfast lunch and dinner” -Timmy O’Neill
A climb’s commitment grade reflects the difficulty and length of a route. You might climb a Grade II before lunch, but a Grade VI usually requires 2-4 days of intense effort. That had all changed with the speed climbing revolution however, and now Dean and Timmy could contemplate pairing a massive bigwall with each meal of the day.
The team settled on the South Face of Mt. Watkins as the third course for their proposed Triple Grade IV day. Not visible from most tourist overlooks, Mt. Watkins gets far less attention than Half Dome or El Cap, but it presents just as demanding a challenge. The approach alone, including miles of bushwacking and nearly a thousand feet of scrambling, is enough to keep the crowds away. The climbing is spectacular, slashing diagonally across a mostly blank face that just gets steeper as it goes. With a solid two thousand feet of climbing and intricate aid sections, Watkins fit the bill for the third leg of a truly mega trio.
But as Timmy recounts, once they had envisioned their ultimate linkup, the challenge just grew in their minds:
Once they did finally get going though, they really flew. They began with Half Dome, which they hiked up to early in the morning. Both men had climbed the route many times, and their experience showed. Dean, however, wasn’t impressed with their performance:
Clocking in at two hours and change, they had missed the route’s speed record by about 15 minutes, but had set a blazing tempo for such a marathon day.
They next moved up valley to Watkins, and here they did set a new record, “around 3 and a half hours” Timmy remembers. From the top they made the quick hike to the road where Dean’s van was stashed and then booked it down to the base of El Cap, where they slowed down dramatically…
Climbing in the dark wasn’t new to them, but since they’d blitzed the first two routes they must have let off the gas a bit. Then about halfway up their dream day was nearly derailed:
They finished the Nose in 9 and a half hours, a relaxed pace for the two fastest climbers in the Valley, but it was good enough to wrap up the first Yosemite Triple in 23 hours and 15 minutes.
Now the bar was set: if you were a true granite master, you could complete all three of the biggest walls in Yosemite in a single day.
I was a sophomore at Northville High School in suburban Michigan in 2001, and I can’t say that the news reached me there. But 7 years later, when I made my first pilgrimage to Yosemite as an authentic dirtbag, the Triple was securely established in Valley mythology as the pinnacle of stone mastery.
Over the next decade, the new generation pulled off even more impressive versions of the Triple. Free (Caldwell and Honnold 2012), solo (Honnold 2012), even faster (Gobright and Reynolds, 18.5 hours in 2018). My friends Dave Allfrey and Cheyne Lempe also completed the Triple in 2014, rounding out a short and distinguished list of Valley hardmen. Of course I wanted to try it!
In June of 2016, my friend Brad Gobright and I completed an El Cap Triple, climbing the Zodiac, Nose, and Lurking Fear routes in 23 hours and 10 minutes. This had been Brad’s idea and I was reluctantly pulled in, thinking there was no way that I could climb that hard for that long. My arms would fall right off! Brad set our tempo though, and all I had to do was follow his (insanely run-out) leads. On my lead blocks, which included the more aid-intensive pitches, I just had to keep the rope moving upwards and give the “Adorable Crusher” a quick chance to rest.
In November of 2019, Brad slipped off the end of his rope while descending from a limestone bigwall in Mexico. He bounced off a ledge and fell all the way to the ground. We lost him forever.
While Brad wasn’t speed climbing at the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the Yosemite culture that killed him. The confidence that comes with “eating grade VI walls for breakfast” replaces the fear and respect that used to surround these steepest cliffs. Brad and his partner were simul-rapping, they didn’t set the rappel rope to its middle mark or tie back-up knots in the ends. They pared back the clunky redundancy we’re all taught as beginners, and then one quick mistake was all it took for the whole system to unravel.
In May of 2018, elite climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein fell a thousand feet while simul-climbing on El Cap, leaving their children without dads. The previous October, Quinn Brett fell while going for a blazing quick ascent of the Nose. She was so far above her last cam that it was a ledge that finally caught her fall, 120 feet below. While she’s alive and more adventurous than ever, her adventures are mostly now on a wheelchair and she might never walk again.
These losses and others, expert climbers at the height of their careers suffering catastrophic accidents, could not be ignored by anyone paying attention. We all had been telling ourselves that climbing wasn’t some crazy adrenaline sport, that we were more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the cliff, or that only beginners made mistakes. But we also all know that, in pursuit of ever faster times, or as a result of comfort and complacency, we cut corners and take unnecessary risks. The risks might be tiny every time, but they add up. And the cost is staggering.
Climbing is a Team Sport
I met Jordan Cannon through my girlfriend Sandy, who described him as young and sweet, and insatiably stoked to climb anything with anyone. We decided to rope up for the first time on the West Face of the Leaning Tower, one of Yosemite’s mini bigwalls, in the spring of 2018. While our first route together was a blast, it certainly left some room for improvement.
On the second pitch of the climb, battling up into the wet and slimy crux, Jordan slipped and came flying off the rock. His nearest cam pinged out of the rock, and though the next piece did hold, what really stopped his fall was my right leg. He had whipped all the way back to me at the belay and swung in like a wrecking ball, with my right knee taking the brunt. I was sore for a week!
Falls happen, no big deal, and I was able to continue up the route on adrenaline and ibuprofen. We cruised smoothly through the rest of the climb, not quite pulling off a clean free ascent, but moving well and having a good time. On the rappel, however, we got caught by a surprise rainstorm. In a rush to get down quickly, I didn’t notice when our tag-line blew around a corner and wrapped itself around a loose flake. While Jordan waited in the rain above, I sketchily swung and pulled myself over to the flake and freed our line. Again no big deal, but somewhat embarrassing for a Yosemite veteran.
On the hike down though, all snags were forgotten as we excitedly rattled off our lists of dream climbs, and we both hoped that this new partnership could enable us make them real.
Two weeks later, Jordan was climbing on El Cap when Jason and Tim fell. He was one of the nearest witnesses to what happened, and though we didn’t talk about until a year later, I knew that he was shaken to the core. Neither of us had the heart to scheme up big adventures for a while after that.
Life also provided more practical challenges to our partnership. I was working too much to feel truly fit, and Jordan was launching his career as a professional climber, climbing all over the West and never lacking for partners. But as 2021 began, we got back in touch and committed to the goal that had been at the top of both our dream lists: the Yosemite Triple.
At this point, you the reader must be wondering “Wait, what?! Didn’t their friends just die doing this stupid sport? They’re going back!?!?”
The truth is… we never seriously considered abandoning our climbing goals. Why?
the physical experience of flowing smoothly up the rock
the razor focus of leading
the strategic puzzle of piecing together a mega day
the honest fatigue of pushing your body to the limit
the shared laughter at the absurdity of the situation
the all-day movement across a landscape, like the sun and the moon
the giddy joy
the spontaneous whoops from the summit
the friendship forged by challenge
It’s obviously not a rational calculation. It’s an existential poetry, a home-spun philosophy for living.
For us, the decision to keep climbing, and to keep trying bigger and harder things, was an easy one. So now the question was how to do it as safely as possible. Here rationality comes back into play, and as a team we decided on a set of shared principles:
- It’s not always about the speed record. Competition ratchets up the pressure to cut a bit further, do without one more piece of gear, simul-climb one more pitch, rely on luck rather than redundancy. Our goal was to finish all three climbs in a 24 hour day, which we knew would be enough time if we moved efficiently, but more importantly our goal was a come down safely and have a good time.
- We decide on our approach ahead of time, and hold each other accountable while we’re climbing. For example, while simul-climbing it’s crucial to have at least two bomber pieces on the rope at all times. Easy enough to say, but when we get to that long rambly section of Half Dome, gear is sparse and the climbing is dead-easy. We could have just adapted on the fly, rationalizing that we didn’t really need two pieces if the climbing was this easy. Or we could just slow down, put out a bit more rope, and allow the leader to climb all the way to the next good piece before the follower continues.
- We carry a bit more gear. Equipment has gotten so much lighter just in the 20 years since Dean and Timmy’s first Triple. There’s no excuse not to bring that one more cam that makes the difference between a death defying run-out and an exciting but safe lead. On the Nose, we brought stacks of extra ‘draws and ‘biners so that we never had to skip a piece of fixed gear. For Watkins, we knew that the final handcrack pitches would come at the very end of our long day. Though just 5.10, we tossed an extra #2 and #4 on the rack to make them a bit safer.
- We gave ourselves plenty of time to scout the climbs. We did the Nose together a few weeks ahead of time, and then in the week before the big day we climbed Half Dome and Watkins (on different days). This allowed us to go slightly heavier and slower on the practice mission, and decide what strategy/gear would best balance safety and speed.
- We recognized the role of luck. No matter how much you prepare, bad luck can always hit when you least expect it. So of course having redundancy in the system can help, preventing small mistakes from spiraling into catastrophes. But more than that, you need to accept that much is outside your control and make sure the goal is worth the objective risks you’re accepting.
Jordan was the perfect partner for this approach, since we share the nerdy love for planning. We spent hours refining the rack, scheduling our practice and rest days, plotting out where we would simul and where we would short-fix, coordinating our gear stashes with the friends that volunteered to help out, and generally indulging our obsession for the details.
All that was left was to actually do it!
After a few minutes on the Sheraton Watkins, I’ve gotten my breathing under control. Despite the thousands of vertical feet and many hard miles behind us, my eyes are wide and thoughts sharp (Thanks certainly to the copious amounts of sugar and caffeine). I pick up the chaotically strewn cams and ‘biners, and organize them onto my harness. Jordan shares the last few sips of water, and now I’m ready to climb.
My lead block begins with a railroad track of twin splitters, angling up the face. It feels amazing to have the rock under my fingers again, after I had jugged the last few pitches. Jugging felt frantic and rushed, I needed to get up to the anchor as quickly as possible to free the rope and put Jordan back on belay. But now leading, I feel unhurried, and I just enjoy the texture of the perfect crisp granite.
After a few pitches the light fades, and our headlamps shrink our world to a glowing orb of white. The movement comes without any thought, just reach from hold to hold. Balance, lock off, high foot, rock up, twist my fingers in a crack, reach up and clip a piton.
Jordan simul-climbs behind me, and we anticipate each others’ moves. When he reaches a crux, I clip a micro-traxion to a bomber piece and thread the rope through, so that it will lock tightly when Jordan pulls down. This way he can quickly pull through the steeper sections without slowing to find the tiny holds, and then we both continue moving when he’s back on easier terrain.
My lead block brings us to a narrow ledge, and in the dark it’s hard to tell where on the wall we are. Again the cracks angle off to the left, and Jordan takes back the lead. We had already decided that here, rather than continue to simul-climb, I would switch back to jugging each pitch. While this is slower than simul climbing, I knew that I would be too tired to continue that delicate dance. I needed to slide into the back seat and just let Jordan focus on leading.
His headlamp shrinks as he swims off. He finally finishes the long diagonal traverse that defined the middle of the route, and now laser-straight cracks lead us directly to the summit. For me these last pitches are a blur of burning biceps, dry throat, and dark timeless rests. I jug as quickly as possible, get Jordan back on belay, and then turn off my headlamp to conserve battery. The rope just keeps snaking upward as he climbs, but we can’t see or hear each other.
I haven’t looking at my phone in hours, I have no idea what time it is. I know we need to reach the top by midnight in order to achieve the 24 hour goal, but this seems irrelevant compared with my need for water and sleep. I just want to lay down.
A cheer rings out from above! Jordan must be at the top. As soon as the rope is fixed I click on my jugs and frantically pull myself up the rope. Cramping elbows don’t matter, and my heartrate would be concerning, if I could slow down enough to hear it.
Sam is there at the last anchor, a good friend who had hoped to shoot some photos of the climb. Obviously we were too late for that, it’s been dark for hours, but he shows no trace of disappointment as he high fives and hands over a precious water bottle.
We coil the rope and slog uphill, it’s a long way to the top of this darn mountain! But as we crest over the last steep slap, there’s more headlamps and cheers ahead. Four more friends pop out of sleeping bags and jump up to welcome us with hugs. Not only have they all hiked in to celebrate with us, but they brought pizza and beer!
Another hour of excited story-telling, shoving folded slices of pizza into our mouths, and squeezing limes over cold Modelos passes before we finally turn off all the headlamps and lay down. With the stars so close you could touch them, not a breath of wind to disturb the quiet, and friends sprawled all around on the smooth granite, our day feels complete.
photos by Drew Smith
We didn’t slow down to take more photos on Watkins (the ones above were from our practice run a few days before), but we topped out at 11pm, wrapping up the Triple in an even 23 hours.