On November 9, twenty-eight-year-olds Dave Allfrey and Alex Honnold climbed El Cap's Excalibur (VI 5.10 A3+) in 16 hours, 10 minutes, marking the route's fastest ascent and first in under 24 hours. Excalibur, made notorious by its incessantly wide cracks, was described by its first ascensionist Hugh Burton as an "alligator route" requiring much wrestling.
Burton and Charlie Porter completed the route in 1975. In 1998, Steve Schneider, Willie Benegas and Andreas Zeger set the previous speed record at 39 hours, one minute. Pitch 5 follows a thin seam that was briefly graded A5 and called 'the hardest pitch in Yosemite," according to Supertopo: Yosemite Big Walls. On the first ascent, Burton and Porter stacked RURPs and knifeblades to surmount that section.
Earlier this month, Allfrey and Honnold moved quickly using an 80-meter rope and no hauling, and by a combination of Honnold's free-climbing and Allfrey's aid-climbing prowess. Ultimately, they cut a sizable 23 hours off the 1998 time.
"I couldn't even do the pitches that [Allfrey] was aiding, and he couldn't (efficiently) do the pitches I was freeing.... He's like a magician with his pouches of pins," said Alex over the phone. "I've never placed any of that shit, I don't even know how to use it."
Though their rack, heavy with wide cams and iron, was the largest either of them had carried, it was still light considering the nature of the route. They brought a double set of cams to #6, beaks and hooks, sawed angles and Lost Arrows.
"I was climbing with a [big cam] in each hand. I wasn't using aiders or daisies," Honnold said. "I would have one leg wedged in the crack [and] getting the 5.11 offwidth experience. I was getting pretty wicked pumped from pulling on cams. My leg is all bruised from offwidth-ing."
Reaching Pitch 5, "[t]he crack petered into a seam," Allfrey said. "I had to tap beaks fast and gentle to get them in. I was concerned that I'd take a 50-footer into a ledge. Alex told me I had a 15-foot margin of error, which was not enough margin of error for me." Near the top of the route, in the dark, both climbers experienced difficulties.
"The second-to-last pitch [Pitch 27] is a glassy slab," Allfrey said. "There's no gear, and it's some of the weirdest [terrain] I've ever climbed. I could sit down on this slab and set gear but I can't walk across it. All I had were two cams that would fit, and I climbed through a whole 40- to 50-foot section and then it got hard. It was really bizarre that the FA went that way. Maybe they were over the wide climbing at this point."
Honnold took the lead for Excalibur's final pitch and nearly fell out of the offwidth. "I started slipping out [and began] squealing in the night—'Watch me Dave!' I was just tired," he said. "When I see a topo that says 5.11, I think it won't be a problem. But that particular offwidth was a 10-inch slot, and there was no gear to pull on. I threw myself into it, and I was like, 'Holy fuck!'"
Allfrey and Honnold first met in September 2012 at the North Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley. Honnold was driving his white van out of the campground when Allfrey, still brushing his teeth, flagged him down to convince Honnold to climb with him. After hearing him out, Honnold asked him one more time if he really knew how to aid climb and admitted his own weakness in the techniques. They tested their rope partnership on Lunar Eclipse soon after, and have set four speed records in Yosemite since: Lunar Eclipse (VI 5.8 A4) at 11:22; Wet Denim Daydream (V 5.6 C3F or A3) on Leaning Tower at 2:55 and 20 seconds; West Buttress (VI 5.10 A2+) at 7:01 and now Excalibur.
After the wall, Allfrey drove back home to Vegas, though he'd been intending to solo Zodiac. "Excalibur took a lot out of us," said Honnold, who left for Sacramento to spend time with his family.