When Mark Hudon was 18, he visited Yosemite National Park from his home state of New Hampshire. As a young climber, Hudon’s trip out west was something that changed his life, and the granite monolith called El Capitan was the catalyst.
“The first time I saw it, I said to myself, ‘No fricking way,’” he said this week while roasting coffee beans at his uptown Hood River business.
It was 1974, and after becoming one of the youngest men to have climbed the 3,300-foot wall, Hudon returned to New Hampshire to finish up his senior year of high school. Fast-forward 36 years to earlier this month, when he reached the top of El Cap once again, this time at 56, as unofficially the oldest man to solo-climb the same towering rock that has remained the gold standard around the world for big wall climbing.
“Climbing El Cap was a really big deal in my life back then,” he said. “When I went back home to finish high school, I was pretty much set on moving west. Now, being the oldest to solo it isn’t something I really care about. It’s more funny to me than anything else.”
Most people who visit Yosemite gaze up at the valley’s iconic landmarks with not much more than wonder at how people climb the towering walls above; some staying many nights anchored to the rock thousands of feet off the ground.
For Hudon, doing it once or twice was not enough; he’s now climbed El Cap 15 times. Interestingly, 13 of those were more than 30 years ago when climbing was a way of life for him.
“I hadn’t been up El Cap since 1979 and was really feeling the longing in my heart,” he said. “Luckily I still have a good body; I haven’t fallen apart over the years. I knew I could do it, so I decided to go for it. I’m the kind of person who, when I do something, I’m pretty rabid about it.”
Last fall Hudon and a friend, John Fine, climbed El Cap in a single day, which is a feat in itself. With Hudon leading the entire climb, the two sped up about 30 pitches in under 16 hours to reach the summit.
“It was pretty wild, having done it so long ago; but there I was doing it again, and now trying to do it fast, flashing through all the things I had done in my life since,” he said. “I had gotten married, started a business, sworn off climbing, had a child, 30 years of living, and here I was, back again, sweating, plugging in gear, pulling, climbing the same route as I had done a few weeks after meeting the woman I would marry. I don’t know, time compressed and elongated, my whole life was right there.”
Staying in shape since then, Hudon set his sights on his first solo climb. That’s right, his first solo ever, and he was going to do El Cap.
“I had climbed numerous walls but never soloed anything,” he said. “The day I left the ground someone asked me what other routes I soloed.
“I said ‘none.’
“He said, ‘You never soloed anything?’
“I said, ‘Yep, nothing ever, not even a single pitch.’
“He said ‘And you’re going to solo El Cap?’
“‘Yup, I’ll figure it out,’ I replied.”
Solo climbing is more complicated and takes more gear than climbing with a partner or a group. Hudon spent 12 days and 11 nights on the climb, lugging about 250 pounds of gear with him as he slowly ascended the wall.
“Usually it took me from about 8:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening to lead, clean and haul two pitches,” he said. He basically had to climb everything twice; once to lead climb and anchor into the top of each pitch and a second time after rappelling back down to “clean” his gear from the rock. On top of that he would set up a system to haul all his gear up each pitch.
At the end of each day, Hudon would set up a cliff cabana, which is essentially an open cot that hangs from several straps and a bolt secured into the rocks. There he would rest, have dinner, enjoy the sunset with a beer or two and get a good night’s sleep.
Yes, beer. He started the climb hauling 18 microbrews along with him.
“It was just incredibly beautiful and peaceful up there,” he said. “I was actually surprised at how relaxing and comfortable it felt. I had my cell phone, an iPod with speakers, good food, good gear and warm clothes. I was totally comfortable.”
Watching the sun set and rise over some of the most beautiful country on Earth, suspended thousands of feet up on the side of a cliff, alone, relaxed and confident; with climbing in his blood, Hudon had a flawless backdrop for self-reflection.
“It was weird; 35 years before I had first climbed El Cap,” he said. “I was 18 years old and a senior in high school. Climbing had changed my life back then and here I was, 35 years later, living that changed life. I wondered how it could have turned out differently and couldn’t think of anything.”