In the beginning, there was nothing but a blank face on a hunk of granite sitting front and center of Camp 4 in Yosemite valley. For years, climbers called the rock the Columbia Boulder, but still … it was just a rock.
In 1978, however, an acid-riddled John “Yabo” Yablonski envisioned an improbable line climbing right through the Columbia boulder’s steepest face, and managed to convince his fellow Camp 4 denizens Ron Kauk and John Bachar to try it. At first they thought he was crazy. But as days turned to weeks, Kauk and Bachar found themselves swinging wildly from crimp to crimp, connecting one “impossible” move with the next, and finally climbing to the lip of what they dubbed Midnight Lightning
—named after the Jimi Hendrix tune.
After two-months of effort, Kauk rocked over the boulder’s tenuous mantel, clutched the finishing jug, and in that moment “nothing” suddenly became something significant. Midnight Lightning (V8) had morphed from a pipe-dream into one of the world’s hardest boulder problems.
Gunning for the second ascent, Bachar snapped a crucial horn off of the problem's top out. Some figured it would never be repeated, but Bachar soon managed the less-secure mantel, and became the second person to ride the Lightning. And for the next seven years, Bachar was the only one consistently climbing the problem, which he would sometimes do five times in a row, or even barefoot.
In a moment of artistic expression, Bachar took a piece of chalk and drew a lightning bolt on the smooth face beneath the problem. To many, that chalked bolt became a symbol that would represent the spirit of Yosemite climbing. The boulder problem became famous and a sought-after tick. People traveled from all over the world to attempt it, and those who were able to send it would return to the ground and trace the bolt with a chunk of chalk, leaving their own history on the face of a symbol that would inevitably change over the years and even be damaged by the occasional winter storm, only to be restored like an Italian fresco to stand the test of time … until now.
On March 31, James Lucas—a fixture among the modern climbing scene in Yosemite—began removing the legendary chalked bolt under the cover of night. Erasing the bolt proved more difficult than he anticipated, and the next day a murky, white stain was left in the bolt’s place. Lucas returned the next night, however, and finished the job, writing: “White powder flew from the granite. I brushed more, cleaning the rock. A few minutes later, Midnight Lightning’s bolt vanished.”
On March 31, James Lucas—a fixture among the modern climbing scene in Yosemite—began removing the legendary chalked bolt under the cover of night.
Lucas publicized his deed on his blog and climbers from around the world took notice. Forums were created, discussions became heated, and the motivation regarding the bolt’s removal became a debate. As a total outsider, I personally wanted to understand the intentions of Lucas. I searched for meaning in his blog and found a puzzling explanation.
“Over 30 years, with every passing ascent, the lightning bolt became less of a testament to a remarkable ascent, of lightning striking at midnight,” wrote Lucas. “The chalk had transformed into a trademark, another tourist attraction for passing climbers. The magic left the bolt years ago.”
How could this be, I wondered. A “trademark?” What product was this “trademark” identifying and selling? Was it climbing? Or Yosemite? And more important, who owned the trademark?
Lucas’ claim seemed interesting. So I scoured the Internet for answers. But as is often the nature on Internet forums, there was no constructive debate, and I found few answers. I did, however, read Lucas’ comment on Supertopo.com, which stated: “People focused more on this bit of chalk then [sic] the climb or the people who embodied the spirit of it. In my discussion with the people around Yosemite and certainly on Supertopo, the people who mind don’t matter and the people that matter don’t mind.”
Once again, as a Yosemite outsider, I had trouble discerning who actually “mattered” in that microcosmic world, but I took a wild guess and decided to call Midnight Lightning’s
first ascentionist—Ron Kauk.
Kauk answered the phone and politely let me know he was trying to ride his mountain bike to the Cookie Cliffs for some climbing. “It keeps getting warmer,” he said in his distinguished Californian drawl, urging me to get to the point. So I asked him about Lucas erasing the bolt, which he said was, “curious.”
“The Rangers at Camp 4 wouldn’t call it graffiti. In fact, there’s a certain respect and the emblem represents a certain time.”
Kauk mentioned he had spoken to Lucas directly about the lightning bolt’s removal, but that “he didn’t make a lot of sense.”
“A lot of times we’re struggling to be somebody,” Kauk said. “James might be a little clever for attention.”
I asked Kauk if he thought the bolt had become a trademark.
“It’s a connection to a time that isn’t trademarkable,” he answered quickly. “It’s so original. The lightning bolt recognizes the spirit of a story we created. We didn’t need a plaque or anything to remember it by. We already had our lightning bolt.”
Interestingly, Kauk then compared the chalked bolt to “ancient rock art,” saying, “It was our petroglyph and an icon of those times, which to me represents freedom. We certainly weren’t trying to sell anything.”
Surprised by the comparison, I couldn’t help but juxtapose the famed lightning bolt to say, the horses painted with mineral pigments onto the cave walls of Lascaux, or the Starry-Eyed Man gracing the syenite porphyry of Hueco Tank’s North Mountain. Was there a difference between Midnight Lightning’s bolt and these ancient pieces of rock art? All three of these images have weathered over time and all three have been historically preserved and or restored. And as for their connotations, it is us—the viewers—who assign meaning to the images. The images themselves just exist.
Lucas obviously felt that the bolt had become a negative “trademark”, which had in turn distorted its original meaning—to him. But I wondered if the bolt’s meaning had changed for others who had become a part of Midnight Lightning
by repeating the problem.
“The lightning bolt is a piece of history, and does not pose any type of harmful environmental hazard for anyone,” says Lynn Hill, who made the first female ascent of the problem in 1998. “Perhaps James thought the lightning bolt was not very aesthetic to look at, but I don’t think his opinion gives him the right to alter a piece of history.”
I couldn’t help but juxtapose the famed lightning bolt to say, the horses painted with mineral pigments onto the cave walls of Lascaux, or the Starry-Eyed Man gracing the syenite porphyry of Hueco Tank’s North Mountain.
I chatted with Kurt Smith—the problem’s fourth ascentionist—and received a similar opinion. “Having climbed the problem with Bachar several times, I have a lot of fun memories surrounding that boulder and the lightning bolt is part of those memories,” he explained. “It’s a personal historical icon to me.”
Everyone I spoke with felt that the magic was still very much a part of the bolt. So I decided to ask Lucas himself why he felt so strongly about removing the bolt, and how the drawing had become a trademark. Unfortunately, although he did respond, Lucas refused to be quoted.
Dean Fidelman—original “stonemaster” and photographer—suggested in an e-mail that Bachar had drawn the bolt as a rebellious slap in the face. “James is part of the now,” wrote Fidelman, “and he wanted to make a statement and give us all a slap in the face. And armed with a toothbrush and an iPhone [camera] under the cover of darkness, he did so.”
To me, however, creating something from nothing, as Kauk did by climbing Midnight Lightning
, or as Bachar did by drawing the bolt, is different than destroying something that already exists both physically and in the minds of others. Like all art, the bolt itself has no meaning other than what you bring to it. “It’s just one guy making a declaration that ‘the magic has left the bolt,’” John Long said in a recent phone conversation. “But what is there to substantiate that claim?”
For Lucas, Midnight Lightning’s
bolt is a negative symbol akin to a trademark. But for others, including me, the bolt represents a radical moment in time, when the impossible was realized like a flash of lightning, and “nothing” became the most iconic boulder problem in the world.