Before there were the ubiquitous water bottles of all shapes and sizes—before there was high-tech camping gear—a
group of climbers in Yosemite National Park hauled heavy military-grade sleeping bags and canteens up the side of mountains in their quest to pioneer
the sport of rock climbing.
The contrast between today’s climbers and the climbers in the 1950s and 1960s is remarkable—not only for the gear but also because these climbers
were going where nobody had gone before.
Glen Denny was one of those early climbers, and his memoir, Valley Walls: A Memoir of Climbing and Living in Yosemite,
recounts the early days in Yosemite’s Camp 4, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the excerpt below, Denny tells the story of his and Warren Harding's epic on The North Face of the Rostrum during a heat wave in Yosemite
Two white spots on the river.
I wish they wouldn’t do that.
I looked down at Harding. He had taken out the belay anchors, moved up, and was working on the next piton. The hauling bag continued its pendulum, almost
touching the wall, then swinging out into space. In the middle of its arc, it crossed the line of the river, far below. That’s where they were jumping
in and making those white spots. That splashing was driving me crazy. I closed my eyes.
Ting . . . ting . . . ting.
His turn to work now.
Ting . . . tang . . .
Tang . . . tong . . . tung.
The piton notes modulated down the scale as it loosened under the hammer blows. There was a hollow scrape and then a clank as he pulled it out of the crack
and clipped it onto his hardware sling.
I opened my eyes. Warren looked up at me, and I nodded yes. He stepped up in his aid slings as I pulled in the belay rope until it was snug on his waist.
He grimaced as he stretched up, reaching for the next piton. Then he settled back down and started working on the next pin.
The worst thing is the scum in my mouth. Yesterday I still had some slime to work with. Now the scum is caked hard, and I can’t move it.
No. The worst thing is this weakness. On each pitch I run out of steam earlier and have to rest more. I was pretty shaky at the end of this one.
No. Here comes the sun. That’s the worst thing.
I shifted my position, facing away from it. When the sunlight hit me, it felt like I was standing too close to a furnace and someone had just opened the
door and shoveled in more coal.
Christ, it’s worse than yesterday. It’s killing us. I thought we’d be up before the sun hit again. The day is half gone already. I don’t want to do that
roof in the dark.
The North Face of the Rostrum. A nice little wall. It’ll only take a day and a half, I had said. Looks like some free-climbing on the lower part. Aid on
the upper half, but the crack system is excellent. It’ll go fast. Overhanging the last few hundred feet, and no ledges. Some nice airy dangling up
there, I said. Take a look with the glasses. See that roof on the last pitch?What a finish!
But what about this heat wave? Everybody came down from Half Dome and Sentinel. They were wiped out on the first day.
We’ll only need one gallon of water, I had said. Drink nearly all of it the first day, so we’ll feel good on the second morning. Then just a few hours
of doing without. Zip right up those good-looking cracks and over the roof before the heat gets to us.
Why aren’t there any clouds? This heat should generate some heavy storm action in the high country, big enough to drift down here.
It’s never been this bad. It’s worse than that time on the Leaning Tower, when we got to the sloping ledge after dark, out of water and croaking with thirst.
George Whitmore went down to the car to get us something to drink. He came back up the talus and shouted up, but we couldn’t understand what he was
saying. So he walked out away from the wall and yelled some more, and we croaked back a little, but it made the thirst worse. So we gave up on getting
any relief that night, and sat back on the sloping ledge to get some rest, with our feet in slings to keep from sliding off.
Then George started making strange sounds. Long noises kept coming up the wall, like he had appendicitis or something. He was mooing. We hadn’t been able
to understand his words, so he thought we might under- stand his sound effects. But we couldn’t understand what a man mooing in the talus in the moonlight
could possibly mean.
He had thought milk would be soothing for parched throats. And next day, when he brought it up, hot from the sun, we told him it was disgusting and nearly
So that night we had sat there on the wall, with George mooing down below. Warren told me about descending Mount Williamson in a blizzard, wallowing down
through deep winter snow—it sounded lovely—barely finding the car, digging down for their lives, and getting into it for the night. Then
staggering out to the highway the next day, taking the bus back home, and coming back for the car in the spring, when it melted out.
The last time you could swallow food was yesterday morning. Some salami, with that last real drink of water. You saved the sardines for dinner because the oil in the can would make them easier to swallow, but the scum in your mouth got too hard during the day. The oil just softened it a little, and the sardines stuck to your tongue like flies to flypaper. You couldn’t spit them out. You had to dig them off with your finger, and that made you gag, and you retched up some stinking bile that stayed in your mouth all night.
There was a little patch of slime, way back under your tongue, and you tried to make it grow, and finally worked it up on top of your tongue. But you spread it out too thin and it dried up. You tried to get it started again, but it wouldn’t come back.
You should have saved that piss. It might have cut through the scum. Sailors used it when they were desperate. You pooled it in your hand, but it was brown and stank so bad you opened your fingers and let it go.
The hauling bag is heavier today. That’s not right—it has to be lighter. Just lift it one foot on each heave. Slow and steady. Every move counts.
Don’t start breathing too fast. You hyperventilated yesterday. That dizzy, numb feeling was scary. You can’t lose control like that today or you’ll
never get off this wall. Here it comes. . . .
I clipped the bag into an anchor piton, pulled out the water bottle and gave it a shake. Two or three ounces left. My lips were glued together. The heat
had turned my saliva into a film of black crud. I scraped it off with a fingernail, unscrewed the lid, tipped up the bottle, and let in a fraction
of an ounce. I rolled my head from side to side, trying to feel the water running over the layer of scum sealing my mouth. I waited for it to seep
down so I could taste it, slough off the scum, and loosen that crusted toad stuck in the back of my throat. The water gradually soaked in and . . .
dried up. There was nothing left to swallow.
I hadn’t heard any hammering for a while. I looked down. Warren was halfway up the pitch. He was slumped down in his slings, head resting against the wall.
His arms hung limp at his sides, hands slowly clenching and unclenching.
looked up, counting the pitons he had to take out. I gestured with the bottle, offering it, but he shook his head no.
I looked inside the white plastic bottle. It was filled with soft, glowing light. I tilted it and listened to the water cascading across the bottom. It
gurgled into a new puddle on the other side. The silt and food particles settled into a new pile at the bottom of the puddle. That little bug was still
Life Savers—maybe you missed one. I searched my pockets and pulled out the candy wrappers. No luck.
Calm down. Stop wasting energy. Ignore the sun. Think about other things.
Dawn is the best time. The shadow of our wall running out across the canyon floor. Cool dark greens and shadows on the river. Swifts arcing out into the first golden sunlight. Why not join them? Just spread your arms, like you do in dreams, and launch off. The palms work very nicely. Your fingers are like the long feathers at the end of raptors’ wings, feeling the air. Turn and glide, down between the trees now, make a V in the water with your toes, settle in and fold your wings.
Two swifts tumbling past in a twittering bundle. Imagine doing it like that. They always let go just in time.
My feet are asleep in my slings. I have to stand up and move them. The last time they felt like this was last year on Mount Robson. My boots and pants
were soaked from the melting afternoon snow. At dark, my pant legs were frozen stiff as pipes. We can’t spend the night here, but we had to. I sat
there in the snow and dreamed of the sunny walls of Yosemite. By dawn I couldn’t feel anything.
Those are your feet
You still have ten toes
The more they take off
The fewer your woes.
Ahhh, Mr. Denny. We’ve been expecting you. Went a little too far this time, did you? Let’s see. Oh, my. Advanced hyperdesiccation. Here, and here . . . and it’s spreading. I’m afraid we’ll have to . . .
Warren handed up a sling. I took it, pushed the hauling bag aside, and clipped it into the main anchor piton next to mine. With a clatter of hardware he
lurched up, clipped in his seat sling, and slumped down beside me.
He looked like a desiccated coyote. But a wolfgleam still glinted at the back of his eye.
I handed him the water bottle, sloshing it so he could hear how much water was left. He raised it and held it to his lips for a long time. I watched
anxiously, but his throat didn’t move. He lowered it, licked his lips, and almost managed a smile. The water sloshed as he handed it back—he
hadn’t drunk any.
I raised the bottle and felt the heavenly moisture on my closed lips, held it there awhile, then lowered it.
I handed it back. He raised it again, then so did I. I offered it back again, but he shook his head no. I sloshed the bottle again and put it back
in the bag. The sound still hadn’t changed.
Warren put his head against the wall and closed his eyes for a long time. His breathing was shallow and rapid.
The canyon floor rippled with heat waves. The ant people kept jumping into the river. The insect cars kept crawling along the road in slow motion.
The sun was merciless.
Warren squinted up at the next pitch. It would end under the roof. He pawed through the hardware. Watch out for that angle with the broken ring. Belay
rope runs here, there, then there. The loop of slack is clear, dangling away from the wall. Don’t forget the hauling line. On belay, I nodded,
and he started up the next pitch.
It’s the third day and we’re barely moving. That sun is killing us. My brain is frying. It’s going sunnyside up. Come on, Thor, give us a blast. Better
to be fried by lightning than baked into buffalo chips.
Attention all campers. A flash flood has struck the high country. It will hit the Valley in one minute. Dangling from cliffs is recommended. Look at them up there, Martha. Not much higher than they were yesterday. Yes, but don’t you think they’re doing very well, for buffalo chips? Did you check your knots today? Stop that damn splashing! When the Valley was full of ice, would we be off the ground yet? Let’s go to Peru. The peaks are all snow. Listen to music from ice flutes and cornices.
There hadn’t been any hammering for a long time. Warren’s head was resting against the wall, his arms dangling. His eyes were open, but they were staring
down at nothing. I got the bottle out of the bag and waved it. His eyes picked up the motion. He nodded yes.
I caught the hauling line in the air behind me, tied on the bottle, and he hauled it up. He held it to his mouth for a long time. Then the bottle
came back down, and the hammering began again. I shook the bottle and listened to the water. He still hadn’t taken any.
I raised the bottle in a silent toast to the man who would not drink the water he needed so desperately. All right, I won’t either. When we reach
the top, we’ll finish it off together. That will be our victory.
When you wake up, the water jugs will be waiting outside your tent. They are made of green, blue, and clear glass and have a satisfying weight as you carry them over to the table. You look through the glass and wonder which color will make the water taste best.
When you mowed Grandma’s lawn, the sun was very hot. The sweat built into a glaze, and when you then went into the house it was cool and dark. The big glass on the table was full of lemonade. You could hear the ice cubes clink as you lifted it. The sides of the glass were frosted with condensation. Large drops ran down, leaving a clear path where you could see the lemonade inside.
He’s almost at the roof now. Better get ready to go. You’ll be stronger after this rest. No you won’t. Every rest comes sooner and takes longer.
Each move you make is weaker than the last.
Yes, but you will always make one more.
Valley Walls: A Memoir of Climbing and Living in Yosemite is
available May 10, 2016 wherever books are sold or through Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Yosemite Conservancy.
“Not many of us old guys are left who can remember the history of Yosemite climbing in the sixties. Thankfully, Glen Denny has put together these
stories of the great days that were so important.” —Yvon Chouinard
“A superbly written portrait of larger-than-life characters and go-for-broke ideals brings forth a sense of great envy for a time when purity came
from the fact that we did not yet know if these walls could be climbed.” —Tommy Caldwell
“Glen Denny was part of an age that is iconic to every generation of climbers and epitomizes Yosemite’s spirit and soul.
His photographs and stories are as famous as the time, and now his book gives us an even deeper glimpse into such an incredible era.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glen Denny was born in Modesto, California, in 1939 and grew up in the nearby town of Livingston,
where his father taught mathematics and music at the high school. His first outdoor experiences came through fly-fishing trips into the Sierra
with his father. When Denny moved to Yosemite in 1958 to learn to climb, the first ascent of El Capitan was under way. Inspired by this historic
event, he was soon climbing the most challenging routes in Yosemite Valley, including some of the early ascents of El Capitan, with many of
the big-wall pioneers of the late fifties and early sixties. Among his partners were legendary climbers Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, and
His first ascents include the west face of the Leaning Tower, the Prow on Washington Column, and the Dihedral Wall of El Capitan. Originally self-taught,
Denny began photographing Yosemite climbs and climbers in the early sixties before studying photography and filmmaking at San Francisco State
University, where he earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree. His climbing films have won awards at several film festivals and his photography
has appeared in a number of publications, culminating in his prize-winning 2007 book, Yosemite in the Sixties. Denny lives in San Francisco.