My initial encounter with Yosemite Valley was in the summer of 1972, to start a backpacking journey into the High Sierras. Nothing can prepare you for that first sight of El Capitan – the scale is so colossal that the sheer and gleaming rock wall rising endlessly out of the forest seems too big to be real. The whole place was several orders of magnitude beyond anything I’d ever seen − enormous waterfalls pouring thousands of feet into empty space, serene meadows surrounded by fragrant forests of towering pines. Stunning natural beauty. And everywhere you looked there were massive cliffs of shimmering white stone embedded in the cobalt sky. The impact of Yosemite was so strong that I took up rock climbing the very next year.
So I was lucky enough to undergo many of my formative climbing experiences in the Valley in the 1970s, during the Golden Age of Yosemite free climbing. Life in the
Valley was good: hanging out in Camp 4 and climbing everyday on soaring sundrenched cracks and immaculate slabs. Swimming in the Merced River and sunbathing in the meadows. Lounging in the shade at the deli drinking beers in the afternoon. Smoking spliffs and drinking wine around a campfire at night, sleeping under the stars.
In those days the counterculture was still strong, and the California Stone Masters were at the forefront of technical prowess. Dropouts, druggies and longhairs living in the dirt outside of society’s grasp − hardened devotees of freedom. Climbing was still esoteric then, a path apart. It was a rebel sport and hadn’t yet sold its soul to gear manufacturers and the mass media.
When I first stayed there, Camp 4 cost just 25 cents a night and there was no time limit - you could remain as long as you wanted. The legendary Jim Bridwell was a fixture at the Camp 4 rescue site, and younger emerging rockstars like John Long, John Bachar and the teenaged Ron Kauk were always on the scene. Behind the rescue site there was an elaborate outdoor gym set up in the trees − the Yosemite climbers’ version of an Olympic training camp, replete with the original Bachar ladder, pull-up bars, fingertip pull-up boards, parallel bars, iron cross rings, a fat knotted rope for thumbs-up jamming power, as well as a slack chain set up between two trees for honing your balance while resting between upper body sets.
The Valley was a mandatory pilgrimage site for dedicated climbers from around the world, including people like Pete Livesey, Ron Fawcett, Reinhardt Karl, Bill Denz, Wolfgang Gullich, Kurt Albert. There was avery special vibe to Yosemite in the 70s. At that particular moment in time it was at the cutting edge of the possible − the place where the future was already happening.
The last time I’d been to the Valley was in the autumn of 1987. The world climbing scene had by then undergone turbulent and dramatic changes and seemed to be in a downward spiral. The bolt-chopping wars were still raging in California, while sport climbing was in the ascendancy everywhere else, tacky lycra was in vogue, and most of the new generation climbers slagged off the Valley as a clueless and backward-looking obstacle to climbing’s future − the place where it definitely wasn’t happening.
I’d done a lot of climbing with Randy Leavitt in thepast couple of years, including a number of trad/sport- crossover bolted first ascents in Joshua Tree, and I knew that for better or worse, climbing was moving inexorably in an altered direction. But I still felt allegiance to the purity and integrity of the traditional ethos, as well as to the unsurpassed natural power and beauty of Yosemite itself. Like most years during that stage of my life, I’d spent an idyllic summer living out of my old VW van and climbing in the high country paradise of Tuolumne Meadows. Then in mid September, when the Meadows started getting cold, I’d drive down the winding mountain road into the Valley and climb there for a couple of golden autumnal weeks, before finally heading back to Southern California and starting the academic year as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.
But for the next few years after that my climbing got sidetracked by the fact that I had to concentrate on finishing my PhD and finding a job. Quite unforeseeably I was offered a Lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1989. So I followed my academic career path, moved to Scotland, and was abruptly wrenched away from the land of sunshine and perfect granite. Yosemite gradually faded into a fond and distant memory.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2012. From out of the blue I received an email from the American Alpine Club, inviting me to participate in their International Climbers Meet (ICM), to be held in Yosemite Valley during the second week of the coming October.
There was no way I could resist. I’d been a local host at three of the Scottish International Winter Meets, and had always found them to be highly enjoyable occasions. Like the Scottish Meets, the purpose of the ICM wasn’t competition, but rather to foster goodwill and camaraderie among the members of the hosting club and climbers from all over the world. So the event would offer me a unique opportunity to represent Scotland and the MCofS as a climbing ambassador rather than host at an international gathering. Plus it would give me a totally unexpected excuse to return to the long-lost world of Yosemite.
I flew to Fresno, California a couple of days before the meet began, and took a YARTS bus from Merced to Yosemite. Entering the Valley once again after so many years was a heady 70s deja vu. The pines were still towering and the endless expanse of El Capitan still seemed too big to be real.
I got off the bus in Curry Village on Saturday afternoon and met Carol Kotchek, the ICM’s organizer, and a few of the local hosts and participants who were already there, including Andrey from Brazil, and Ulrika and Susanne from Sweden. I spent a pleasant first evening sitting around the camp picnic table, drinking wine and chatting with new acquaintances.
Then on Sunday, before the meet began, I went cragging with Ulrika and Susanne − they’d been out climbing the day before and thankfully had a rental car.
After consulting the guidebook we decided on a 3 pitch 5.9 route called Commitment at the Five Open Books area near Lower Yosemite Falls. It seemed like an excellent warm-up plan − I wanted to ease my way back into things and try to remember how to climb smooth and slippery granite cracks. Plus I’d spent the summer on six and seven thousand metre icy peaks in Tajikistan, and then early autumn on indoor plastic at Ratho − hadn’t touched real stone or placed any rock gear in ages.
An uphill trudge through the forest led to the base of the crag, but it wasn’t clear where the route began. I went searching off to the right to no avail, and when I returned Ulrika and Susanne had disappeared. What the hell?
After some calling back and forth and general confusion, I eventually scrambled several hundred feet up and around the corner to re-join Team-Sweden at the rather unobvious base of the route. Unfortunately another party had just started − one guy was on the ground belaying and the other one was about 35 feet up on the lead.
“Hi Paul”, the lead climber called down in a familiar manner. What? − he seemed to know me. He looked maybe in his mid 40s, so it was possible I’d met him before, when I lived in California. I trawled my fading memory banks but couldn’t make a connection. “Looks like you picked up a couple of Eurobabes − nice one!” he continued.
“Huh?” Now I was genuinely bewildered. “Do I know you from some past life?” I inquired. “Nah, just jokin’, man. We met Susanne and Ulrika yesterday on Nutcracker.” “Ah, right.” Well, at least they wouldn’t be solemn and po-faced companions on the route. After waiting for the second guy to start climbing and clean some of their gear, the blonde and suntanned Ulrika led the first pitch − an elegant 5.8 splitter crack.
By then it was sunny and hot and the rock was slick. Susanne ventured forth on pitch two, and accidentally opted to do a harder and run-out face variation instead of the normal route. She chattered away nervously the entire rope length, but Ulrika assured me this was a good sign − you only had to worry about her when she was quiet. According to the guidebook, my pitch three was ‘the clear crux of the route’ and the reason for the name. The clear crux was an awkward undercling to a blind lieback move around a corner. But the gear was bomber and after an insecure step-around the lieback edge turned positive. The rest of the pitch to the top was pure fun and I began to feel like a real trad climber again.
On Monday morning October 8th the meet officially began. It got off to an auspicious start when the Nepali team performed a blessing ceremony and bestowed a white prayer scarf and a ‘namaste’ upon each participant. The strategy for the first couple of days was to divide people into groups of 6 or 7 with a local host, so the participants could mix and mingle and meet each other.
After a leisurely breakfast my group, along with three others, headed off to the Pat and Jack Pinnacle area for a pleasant and sociable day on the rocks. Initial re-acquaintance with Yosemite 5.10’s didn’t seem too bad, with Knob Job and Knuckleheads. But then I soon rediscovered the fact that Yosemite 5.11 flaring groove cracks can be damned hard, when I seconded Ted from Montana on The Tube, an old Bridwell testpiece from 1974. Just like Ted, I fell off and had to rest on the rope before managing to crank through the technical and vicious crux section.
Through the good graces of the National Park Service, the AAC had scored an excellent group camping site, located deep in the tranquil and secluded forest of Yellow Pines Campground. And they’d also hired a top-notch catering outfit. When we returned to camp in the evening, a self-service feast was laid out on a row of tables under the trees.
Overall there were 20 International visitors from 11 different countries, 23 US participants from the AAC, 10 American host climbers, and a photographer. Mealtimes were very affable affairs, eating on outdoor tables and talking with assorted people from around the world, the majority of whom had never been to Yosemite before. After dinner folk gradually migrated to the campfire, where conversations and libations continued into the night.
As a climbing bum in the 70s and 80s I’d developed an ingrained distrust of the National Park Service (NPS), having been harassed by Park Rangers on endless occasions. In those days climbers often bivvied in their vans and trucks in the Yosemite Lodge parking lot across the street from Camp 4, in order to avoid the highly restrictive time limits imposed by the NPS. But it was hard to get a restful sleep there, because the rangers would patrol the parking lot twice a night, once at midnight and then again about 3am. They’d cruise slowly through the lot and beam their powerful car-mounted spotlight onto every vehicle, and at any suspect rig that had the windows curtained-off they’d stop with searchlight fixed on their target.
Then with the guttural V-8 engine still running and police radio squawking away in the background, two handcuff-carrying and sidearm-toting Rangers would emerge from their patrol car with bludgeon-like flashlights in hand, and proceed to pound on the doors and windows, shouting, ‘open up! − we know you’re in there!’ Shining their flashlights through every tiny gap in the curtains, trying to get a definite sighting of an illicit camper within. If that didn’t work, they’d start rocking the car violently back and forth in an effort to freak out any hapless climber inside. It was a game of cat and mouse, and if you didn’t lose your cool and they didn’t actually see someone inside to justify escalating their tactics, they’d eventually give up and go on to the next suspect vehicle.
In those days I often had to live like a fugitive from justice. And what was my crime? Loving the Valley and wanting to climb there as much as I could. So it was now a gratifying but also somewhat disconcerting experience, sleeping peacefully in a deep and tranquil forest with the apparent blessing of the National Park Service. Times change.
On day two I was paired up with John Bragg, a renowned American climber from the old days. Amongst a numerous other things, in 1973 he’d done the first free ascent of Kansas City, one of the earliest 5.12s in the Shawangunks, and in 1976 he’d done the first ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia with Jim Donini and Jay Wilson. Now he was one of the head honchos in the AAC and the easy-going overseer of the Meet.
Our original plan was to do the Central Pillar of Frenzy, a mega classic 6 pitch 5.9 route on Middle Cathedral Rock. I’d done it before, long ago, but certainly didn’t mind doing it again. But when we emerged from the forest at the base of the route our lingering suspicions were confirmed: one of the prices these days for being a mega classic is being mega crowded.
“That party of three on the second pitch will take forever” John observed critically. And there was another party just starting the first pitch. So he sagely suggested doing the Kor-Beck
Route instead. It was another 6 pitch 5.9, but the climbing was harder than the Central Pillar and had a different character; a more physical and awkward corner system with flaring cracks, liebacks and wild stemming moves on polished footholds − classic Yosemite – with the added attractions that no one else was up there and I’d never climbed the route before.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” I agreed. And it was great climbing once again with an old school American. Like me and virtually no one else at the Meet, John didn’t wear a helmet. And he set up belays the same way I did − nothing was equalised, there was no clear directional, and not a cordelette or locking karabiner in sight. Sunshine rock climbing should be casual!
On Wednesday we had another day of sociable climbing on Manure Pile Buttress, near the base of El Capitan. I was settled into the rhythm of the ICM and really enjoying a good-spirited and well-organised event. Then on Thursday the unthinkable happened − it rained. So we spent the day puttering about on some short routes down the Valley and below the clouds at Reed’s Pinnacle. As it ironically transpired, one of the other climbers on the Reed’s Pinnacle excursion, Dan Moore, was also from Scotland. Turns out he’d been living in Edinburgh for the past six years and we’d never even stumbled into each other before – I had to fly halfway around the world and attend an international gathering to meet someone from my own city.
The forecast was fluctuating, and initially Friday was predicted to be clear. So on Thursday evening Dan and I prepared for the NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock,
a long and committing 5-star route on one of the highest formations in the Valley. Higher Cathedral Rock is a steep and beautiful crag, and the NE Buttress takes a classic 11 pitch crack line straight to the summit. The route itself requires 7-9 hours, and with a steep one-hour approach and an hour and a half descent, it all adds up to a long and strenuous day − just what we wanted.
But rain began pattering on my tent wall as I drifted off to sleep that night. I got up in the 5am darkness to take a look, but the sky was filled with low clouds and the ground still quite damp from overnight rain. So Friday turned into another soggy and low-key day, spent on short, non- committing routes up on Camp 4 Wall. Things were now getting critical − tomorrow was the last day of the meet, and we were both flying back to Scotland. I desperately wanted to do at least one long, super-classic route before the precious week was over.
Then things started looking up on Friday evening. The latest forecast was announced at dinnertime and it was for clearing weather on Saturday. So after dinner Dan and I re-racked our gear for the NE Buttress.
That night one of the planned activities of the Meet was to attend a talk and slide show by ‘Hollywood’ Hans Florine on El Cap speed records. I didn’t really care about El Cap speed records, but the whole phenomenon is a sign of how much things had changed since my last visit in ‘87. The tide had already started turning in the Valley with Todd Skinner and Paul Piana’s first free ascent of the Salathé Wall in ‘89. Climbing Yosemite’s fabled Big Walls as fast and free as possible was the visionary way forward, as pioneered by Long, Bridwell and Westbay’s inspired and Hendrix-attired Nose-in-a-Day ascent of 1975. The vision was later carried forward with Lynn Hill’s milestone first free ascent of the Nose, followed by her incredible free-in-a-day ascent and more recently the exploits of the Huber brothers, and Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling achievements. Yosemite has now firmly regained its status as a happening and cutting edge destination on the world climbing circuit. And that’s not even to mention slack-line mania.
There was a very special vibe to Yosemite in the 70s. At that particular moment in time it was at the cutting edge of the possible.As Dan and I ambled along the dark, semi-concealed pathway to the lecture hall for Florine’s talk, we unexpectedly encountered the entrance to a neighbouring theatre, with a table outside and a poster advertising a film featuring Ron Kauk. This made me stop and consider. Kauk has to rank as one of the most talented rock climbers of all time, with a string of remarkable first ascents including Astroman, Separate Reality and Tales of Power, along with Midnight Lightning, probably the most famous boulder problem on the planet. Crowds of people were flooding into the hall for Florine’s talk, while the entranceway to the Kauk film was deserted. Strange.
A very professional and polite woman was standing at the table, and seemed encouraged by the fact that Dan and I had stopped and were pondering our options, rather than just mechanically proceeding to our scheduled destination. There was a somewhat scruffy looking bloke, heavy-set with long oily black hair, standing in the shadows about five feet away, calmly watching people and taking things in.
The woman went into a low pressure sales pitch, saying it was an award winning film about climbing as a way of life, called Return to Balance. And as an added bonus, the climber himself would introduce the film. I looked again at the guy in the shadows. I hadn’t seen Kauk since the 1986 California Bouldering Championships at Mt Woodson. He’d aged a fair bit and put on some weight, but that had to be him. “Hi, you’re Ron, aren’t you?” “Hey Bro, how’s it goin’,” he replied as we shook hands. Ron’s talk and the film in which he featured were not mainstream climbing fare. The cinematography was expert and the images superb, but the images weren’t primarily about climbing. Instead, they centred on the magnificent and ever transforming wild beauty of Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
The soundtrack was supplied by the haunting Native American cedar wood flute of Jeff Ball and his ensemble, and the music and scenery were in perfect accord. Kauk had done the voiceover for the film. Instead of a self- centred retrospective on his many landmark climbing feats, he talked in a direct and unpretentious manner about basic truths that unfortunately are often dismissed as clichés: the beauty and wonder of nature, the interconnectedness of all things, respect and appreciation for the environment and one’s fellow creatures, thankfulness for being able to live in a place as magical and inspiring as Yosemite. Sequences of Ron climbing in totally relaxed and masterful style were interspersed with footage of soaring birds, flowing steams, lush forests, rainbows, stormy cloudscapes, crashing waterfalls. Awesome climbing on glowing stone just blended in as an integral part of the big picture.
After the film I went up and bought a copy of Kauk’s book, Spirit of the Rock − he was definitely tuned in to something real. When he was signing the book I asked if there was any truth to the fabled story about how Midnight Lightning got its name.
According to climbing folklore back in the day, Bridwell, Bachar, Kauk and some other Camp 4 locals were sitting beneath the overhanging Columbia boulder one stormy night, tripping on acid. A sudden bolt of lightning split the sky, illuminating the rock face, and in a flash of psychedelic inspiration the key sequence was revealed to Bridwell. The next day they worked on the problem, following Bridwell’s prophetic vision, and Kauk was the only one who could pull off the moves.
Ron laughed in reply. “Nah man, Bridwell had nuthin’ ta do with it. Yabo and Bachar were workin’ on the problem so I started workin’ on it too. I was the one who got it first.” “So it’s just named after the Hendrix track, like Astroman?” “Yeah, it’s a great song.”
The beauty and wonder of nature, the interconnectedness of all things...I woke up again at 5am and this time the ground was dry. I got the MSR pocket rocket purring in the darkness and put on a pot of espresso, ate breakfast and packed up my gear by headtorch. The NE Buttress was like a long rock route in the Dolomites or Swiss Alps and we needed to get an early start. We motored up the steep and forested approach track in the dark − it was a weekend and we wanted to be first on the route. The initial four pitches were fun and the sky turned bright and blue − it was going to be a good day. A funky and exposed traverse after the fourth pitch gained the sustained and committing upper headwall, with pitch after unrelenting pitch of physical, old-school climbing in hand cracks, fist cracks, off-widths and flaring chimneys (I hadn’t used that kind of technical body language for ages).
On the summit we were rewarded with amazing views of the Valley, and especially El Cap − we were directly across from the Nose and at the same height as where it topped out. Then a bitter-sweet descent through an ancient and serene pine forest in the late afternoon. My lungs savoured once again that unique and evocative Valley fragrance of pine trees and bay leaves. It had been a great route and a perfect way to end the trip. But when would I return?