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John Long: Gravity

Death on El Cap pulls two climbers in opposite directions


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Steve Roper: Genesis | Ascent


Steve Roper, author of Yosemite’s first guidebook and long-time editor of Ascent, with Eric Beck.

In October 2008 I witnessed a miraculous event. Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama stormed up the Nose of El Capitan in slightly more than two and a half hours, trumping a year-old record by minutes. When not focusing my binoculars on them, I spied climbers on four other routes. A slow party had just begun the Nose, undoubtedly astonished and perhaps a bit pissed to see Hans and Yuji fly by like phantoms. Portaledges glared from two other routes. Two women faced the Cyclops’ Eye, high on the North America Wall.

As I shivered in my lawn chair in the meadow below, pondering my long climbing life, I thought of the famed Yosemite hardman Warren Harding. He was first to climb the Nose, in 1958, and he and I had been friends since then, with on going disagreements about style and ethics. In his popular 1976 book Downward Bound he suggested that one day I was to be relegated to playing chess at the “Old Climbers’ Rest Home.” Now the time had almost come. A balding old man wrapped in a blanket sat in a lawn chair, staring upward.

But the memories roiled through my head. When I first roped up back in 1954, El Cap was to be unclaimed for four more years. The first time that two parties were simultaneously on the Captain was 1966. The first all-female ascent took place in 1973. The first one-day ascent of the Nose came two years later. Times had certainly changed. But I smiled recalling that Layton Kor, Glen Denny and I had once held the Nose speed record for three full years. Our time: three and a half days! I wondered how this could be. Was I once a climber?

Where would I be without the Sierra Club? Would I have become a drudge living in a dull place? In a sense, I owe the club my life. During the 1950s virtually every California climber learned the ropes from this organization, which in those days was a mountain-oriented fraternity, with hiking and climbing being high-priority activities.

My dad was a research chemist, and his boss was a gangly fellow named Hervey Voge. Hervey had been on the first-ever roped Yosemite route, in 1933, and in 1954 had just edited the first climbing guidebook to the High Sierra, published by the Sierra Club. My father, laid up after a hernia operation, had volunteered to do the index, and I had tarried by his bedside, entranced by those exotic sheets called galley proofs. Voge suggested that we should attend one of the club’s scheduled practice climbs in Berkeley, which sported three tiny crags.

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