In Dean Potters and Sean Leary's 2010 attempt to take the speed record of The Nose at El Capitan in Yosemite, Dean Potter has something white on his legs (and arms?):

enter image description here

What could this be, and which purpose does it serve?

  • 6
    I'm guessing sunscreen. Feb 17, 2019 at 13:22
  • 2
    @PeteBecker oh. That's kind of... embarrassing not to have thought of this :D Feb 17, 2019 at 14:26
  • 1
    Well, wait until you get comments from people who actually know. As I said, that's a guess, and the fact that there's none on their faces could mean it's wrong. Feb 17, 2019 at 16:53
  • 2
    Pretty sure it'll be sunscreen, there is no shade on El Capitan
    – user2766
    Feb 19, 2019 at 8:57
  • When you say "attempt to take the speed record", are you meaning their successful climb shaving 30 seconds off the previous record?
    – Gabriel
    Feb 19, 2019 at 16:36

2 Answers 2


All answers will always veer on the side of speculation, but there are a few points which make a likely candidate for this specific case:

  • The Nose is on south-facing El Cap, directly in the sun;
  • November air temperatures in Yosemite are between 57°F(14°C) maximum to 30°F(-1°C) minimum;
  • This climb was done in 2 hours 36 minutes.

The most logical conclusion would be a mineral sunscreen. Adressing my 3 above facts:

  • Provided it is not cloudy, the sun beats down brutally on that wall. It's usually a good idea to climb when it's not cloudy as you definitely don't want any unexpected shower to ruin your speed attempt. Some level of sun protection is required. Furthermore, that orientation makes the heated rock warm the air significantly close to the wall in calm conditions, not mentioning how hot the rock itself can be.
  • Since the climb was done in not even half a day, most probably in the morning, we can expect air temperature to have been cool, but definitely manageable with bare skin. From the linked article about another November climb:

    Verhoeven climbed mostly in the early morning to escape the heat, and relaxed at night. [...]

    At times, the rock can get so hot that it's dangerous to free climb with just your bare hands.

  • Considering the pace at which they climbed, the 31 pitches took on average 5 minutes 3 seconds. 5 minutes of belaying is enough to cool down from the massive effort, but nothing serious.

I highly doubt a skin conditioning and cold-resistance product was needed. Even in November, climbers need to escape the heat on that wall.

  • Thank you for this answer, this is solid reasoning. I reviewed the video and Sean Leary takes off jacket and hat later, Dean Potter even his shirt, so they definitely are not cold, which makes sunscreen the most likely candidate. Nevertheless, I don't think its impossible Dean Potter warmed up before the climb and didn't want to get cold/stiff again while it was still cold, but also didn't want to bother with a jacket. They are pretty tanned and as you said finished early, so getting a sunburn from November sun is maybe not too likely either... Feb 19, 2019 at 16:55
  • 1
    I was in northern Arizona in November 2017, just slightly lower in latitude, and I can testify that the sun was more than enough to cause sunburn. On southerly sun-exposed slopes, the temperature rose to ~25-30°C by 10-11 in the morning after we wore down jackets as we exited the tents.
    – Gabriel
    Feb 19, 2019 at 17:11
  • You make good points there. Also, the elevation should not be ignored. 2000 m make quite a difference when it comes to sun intensity. Feb 19, 2019 at 17:23
  • Hi Gabriel C, Idgorman and others, please forgive me if my potential (note "can't say for sure" and "might have been using it") suggestion was either partly or fully incorrect. It's never my intention to mislead anyone. I upvoted this. It seems possible that the climber used both, since the one I found is definitely not a sunscreen. I'll do more research and, as Paul asked, find out what the one I suggested looks like when it dries. Right or wrong, I'll update my answer when I have more information. It needs to be as complete as possible! Feb 19, 2019 at 18:18
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    @Sue Don't feel bad, I didn't infer any ill-will on your part. Idgorman's comment wasn't exactly polite and I didn't share his apparent outrage although I already doubted the product you linked was used.
    – Gabriel
    Feb 19, 2019 at 18:22

Tragically those specific climbers are deceased. I read some of Dean Potter's climbing journals and articles, and didn't find a mention of which specific sunscreen or other products he used. What I'm suggesting is purely from a online research, and reports from athletes who have used it.

There's a thick white lotion used by mountain climbers, other athletes, and people who work outside throughout the year. Dean Potter might have been using it, either to keep him warm or as part of his general skin-care gear ater, sun, wind, and heat.

In extremely cold conditions cold and windy conditions, it's used as an "added layer" (barrier) to keep skin warm without adding another layer of clothes. It reduces the risk of frostbite, and windburn. It's also used as a cream to protect chapped skin in sun, heat, and wind. It's not a sunscreen, or substitute for one.

This brand seems to meet the above criteria, but this is not a product recommendation. I have no affiliation, haven't used the product, or know anyone who has. I replaced the brand name in the quotations with "it.") All quoted text and picture are from either their Product Website or references to it by others.

Included on the website description, especially pertinent for climbers like Dean:

It is a very effective cream for moisturizing and insulating the skin. Torture-tested in such diverse climates as the North and South Poles, the Grand Canyon, and Mt. Everest.

This thick white cream provides an added barrier and insulating layer for extra warmth in addition to normal attire or prevailing conditions, without the weight of additional clothing. It can be used on the face, torso, legs, hands, arms and feet. It helps protect against frostbite and windburn. It's used as an all-season skin aid, and, even in the summer, guards against the drying effects of water, sun, wind, and heat.

It's not greasy, and soothes skin that's already cracked or calloused. It's safe and effective for all ages, including children. It's meant to be used in addition to an appropriately high level of sunscreen.

It incorporates soothing botanicals, including Aloe, Balm Mint, Matricaria and Mistletoe.

It helps protect all Nordic sport enthusiasts who ski, snowboard, cross country ski or snow mobile. In all seasons, it's used to make white water rafting, kayaking or canoeing more comfortable.

Craig Nicholson, known as the The Intrepid Snowmobiler reports his experience with it in his article on gear called Tested on Tour.

Gotta-Have Skin Protection:

Even the most macho riders can suffer from cracked, dry skin or mild frostbite. That’s why NFL players, mountain climbers, ski patrollers, letter carriers and even polar explorers protect their flesh with it. It's a heavy-duty, non-greasy barrier cream and moisturizer.

While on tour last winter, I used it each morning on hands and face as a protective layer. Then I replenished these areas with it again at each day’s end.

The result? While my hide is still the same ugly one I’ve always had, it never chapped, cracked, wind-burned, sunburned or itched despite the constant extremes of long days on the snow. And it even helps keep my skin feel warm–no wonder NFL players apply it to their bare arms and hands before the big game!

His reference to the NFL is because it's been used by them since 1990. It was part of the Minnesota Vikings "must have" clothing kit for the absolute frigid conditions for Superbowl 48. Pictures of the kit along with the reason they chose it are in a CNN news video on this page. That video is also on YouTube. It shows the lotion being applied. It's thick and white and the person is rubbing it in circles on the hand of the football player.

These are pictures of actual users who are wearing it when the pictures were taken.

Sitting on mountain Standing on mountain Skiier Bike rider Kayak

  • This looks like a very likely alternative - thanks for your research and extensive answer! Feb 18, 2019 at 7:28
  • 1
    @PaulPaulsen, my pleasure! You're always so kind to people, especially new users, the least I could do was try and help you! Feb 19, 2019 at 1:32
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    @ldgorman Would you mind to expand on this? Why do you think this is not true, and what would you suggest it could be? For me this sounds like a reasonable, while not the only possible, suggestion. I would be happy to hear your thoughts about this! Feb 19, 2019 at 16:45
  • @Sue Thanks, I try my best, and I have to return the compliment :) Regarding your answer, do you know how it looks on the skin? Is it transparent or does it leave behind a white film when dried? Feb 19, 2019 at 16:50
  • 1
    Is there any 3rd party evidence that this cream actually provides meaningful protection against the cold and or wind? I have never heard of climbers using a cream like this and it seems unlikely that a thin layer of cream would provide any significant insulation.
    – Qudit
    Feb 21, 2019 at 21:27

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