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Photo courtesy Hans Florine
A Q&A with the world-record setting speed climber about his latest feat—in the water, no less.
For more than two decades, climber Hans Florine has pushed his physical and mental limits scrambling up staggering vertical heights at speeds many would be happy to jog at on flat surfaces. A former All-American college pole vaulter, Florine has been a big-wall and speed climber since the 1980s, holding numerous speed records in outdoor climbing, from sport routes to alpine ascents, including three X-Game gold medals. Most notably, the 48-year-old Californian has set the speed climbing record at El Capitan—Yosemite National Park’s legendary 2,900-foot granite cliff—nine times over the past 22 years. He set the record most recently this past June, when he and climbing sensation Alex Honnold raced up the Nose route at El Cap in 2 hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds, squashing the previous record by 13 minutes.
So what does a superb athlete like Florine, who’s perfectly comfortable dangling from precarious heights that would terrify most of us, do to step out of his comfort zone and push himself in new ways? He pursues challenges he deems not “Hans-friendly.” Such as the Death Ride, or “Tour of the California Alps,” an annual endurance cycling event in the California Sierras that spans five mountain passes and covers more than 130 miles in one day. Florine checked that off his bucket list two years ago.
This year, he decided to test himself again not on land, but at sea, swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco—a 1.5 mile crossing long-believed to be unswimmable due to the Bay’s treacherous currents and cold, shark-infested waters. Part of Hans’ brain (probably the part that warns the rest of us that El Cap is best admired from the ground) begged him not to do it. “Let’s just say the Alcatraz swim is very much not Hans-friendly,” Florine explained. Nevertheless, on Saturday, November 17, after astonishingly little training and preparation, he took the ferry out to Alcatraz, leaped into the brisk waves with 14 other brave souls, and completed the swim in just over 75 minutes.
When did you first get the idea to swim from Alcatraz?
The seed was planted decades ago when I’d see friends take on big challenges like the Ironman Triathalon. I dabbled with triathalons back in the 80s, but I was such a bad swimmer that I figured I’d never make it out of the water in anything but last place. I couldn’t make the time investment to become good at it. But I always thought I’d like to do the iconic swim—the Alcatraz swim—just as people who run want to do the Boston Marathon. They do it once and they’re done with it. It’s like the Nose route at El Cap—it’s the iconic route in climbing. They do the Nose to have that feather in their cap. That’s how I saw Alcatraz.
How did you prepare?
I thought of it this way. Say you’re an above-average fit person, who invests a couple of months in swimming long distances, including some open-water swimming. I figured that that person has about a 99 percent chance of making the swim from Alcatraz to shore. So I thought, if I really wanted to make the swim challenging, I should do it straight from the couch. Maybe put on some striped overalls, like an Alcatraz prisoner, and just jump in the water, you know? But the more I thought about it I realized I’m pretty scared of that swim. Or at least I was. So I didn’t go that far. Instead, I started swimming in a heated pool nine days before the actual swim.
How far did you swim in the pool, and did you do anything after that?
I swam 1.1 miles, which is about the distance from Alcatraz. Then, two days later, seven days before the swim, I put on a borrowed wetsuit and jumped in the Bay, on the calm side near Berkeley, where I swam for about 35 minutes. I knew the actual swim was going to be at least an hour, but I just wanted to see if I could handle the salt water, the wind, and the waves. It wasn’t pleasant, but I survived, so I figured I could handle the swim. The next day I paid the fee for the boat ride out. At that point, I was committed to doing the swim Saturday. I didn’t want to plan it much further out, because I didn’t want to have to dread it for a month or two. I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve never parachuted before, but I imagine my thinking would be the same there. Why sit in a plane gripping the door for 10 minutes? Just jump and get it over with.
No other training?
I went back to the pool three times that week for about 15 to 20 minutes each time. On Thursday I went into the ocean with the wetsuit one more time for about 15 minutes, just to get used to the salt water again. Then I drove out with my wife to the Bay on Saturday morning, and I jumped in the water.
It sounds like it was more of a mental than a physical challenge for you.
It was definitely a mental challenge, and it helped that Saturday was drizzly, rainy, and overcast, because it was more pleasant to be in the water than it was sitting up on the boat. When you’re swimming that far out in the water, San Francisco doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer after five or ten minutes. Mentally, that can be debilitating. So, even though you have to keep your head a certain way to keep your bearings, I tried purposely not to look around for at least 15 or 20 minutes so I wouldn’t feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere. But it was physically challenging, too. The swells were really big, about three to five feet. Experienced swimmers will tell you those are good conditions for the Bay, but they were the biggest waves I ever swam in.
How were the currents?
There was a flood tide, which means the tide was coming in and trying to sweep me into the Bay. There’s an entrance to Aquatic Park at the beach where you land. You’re supposed to aim 100 feet to the right of it, in order to make the gate into the beach, and I thought I was on track. But the closer I got, the stronger the flood tide became, and it swept me past the gate. I was exhausted because I had already been swimming for 50 or 60 minutes, swallowing lots of salt water. I swam as fast as I could back against the flood tide, and I could see that I wasn’t really moving.
I was worried I wouldn’t make it. I was about halfway in a pack of 15 people, and I could see that a lot of the people were giving up, or so I thought. They were hanging onto the kayaks and getting taken downstream to the marina. Just when I was thinking of quitting, a guy on a kayak said, “No, you can float downstream to the other side of the sea wall barrier.” So I got swept down about 200 or 300 feet, and then I zipped inside the sea wall, where the current is about half as strong, and I was able to swim against it back to the beach.
Any big surprises during the swim?
Well, my legs cramped up after about an hour, either from the cold, my lack of kicking, or because my body was sending all its energy to my arms. I wondered whether I should call a kayak to save me because I couldn’t move my legs. Then I thought, “No, I’m so bad at swimming that I don’t use my legs anyway, so what do I need them for? I’ll just finish with my arms.” I basically dragged my legs behind me.
No shark sightings, I gather…
No, but your visibility is really bad out there, like four feet below. Which makes it scarier, because you can’t see what might be coming at you from the gloom below. It might be a totally different story if you could see 50 feet under the surface.
How did you feel when you landed?
I guess I looked bad because this big guy came running toward me before I even stood up. He grabbed me and pulled me to where my wife was, saying, “Get this guy into a heated car, get some hot fluids into him, and get him out of here.” I felt fine, but these people were concerned, so I let them take care of me. Before I reached my van, however, I did have to double over and get all that salt water out of me.
How does the Alcatraz swim compare to some of your climbing feats?
My training and preparation were far less than for any of my climbing accomplishments, because I was so terrified to do this swim that I just pulled the trigger on it. It was really rewarding to conquer my fears, but I can’t say I enjoyed the actual swim.
Adventure climbing is never like that for me. Climbing three or four big routes in Yosemite in a day—that’s something I really look forward to. It’s totally fun, and there’s nothing monotonous about it, like swimming, swimming, swimming with nothing but more water in front of you. When you’re climbing, there’s beautiful rock and beautiful scenery all around you, and you have no chance of drowning.
What’s your next goal?
I’m going to do the Mount Diablo challenge, where I have to bike to top of the 3,250-foot mountain in less than an hour. You have to be really good to do that. I did my best time last week—73 minutes. I still have to take off 13 minutes, which is huge chunk. My goal is to do that by the end of 2012.
After that? Maybe a marathon. My wife is an ultramarathoner—she does those 100-mile runs. I’ve never even done a marathon. So that’s on my list, though it all depends on my knee joints. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
Hans Florine is the co-author, with Bill Wright, of Speed Climbing!, 2nd: How to Climb Faster and Better.