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Yosemite’s Climbing History On Display For First Time In New Museum-Gallery

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For the first time, more than 10,000 artifacts and photographs from Yosemite’s rock climbing history are accessible in the same space—such as the stoveleg pitons and John Salathé’s carabiners, among countless others. The Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA), nonprofit since 2003, is ready to open its museum and gallery on Yosemite’s climbing history.

[Support the Yosemite Climbing Association Gallery and Museum]

Yosemite climbing museum
John Salathé’s pitons. Photo: Dean Fidelman.

The museum is in Mariposa, a town outside of, but near, Yosemite Valley. An additional exhibit in the Valley is expected to be completed June 18. The Valley exhibit is a collaboration between the YCA, Yosemite Conservancy, and the American Alpine Club—all non-profits. Precisely when both sites open, however, is dependent upon evolving COVID-19 restrictions in California and Yosemite.

The museum began because of the Yosemite exhibit. In order to create the exhibit, Founder and President of the YCA Ken Yager needed a space to display the artifacts so that the designers could select which ones they wanted to show.

“And laying it out, I just realized, wait a minute, this is a commercial building. I’m just gonna keep this building and put the rest of the stuff up on the walls,” said Yager.

Yager’s collection spans over 100 years, from a spike used by George Anderson in the first ascent of Half Dome in 1875 to Alex Honnold’s rope from his 2010 solo link-up of Half Dome and El Capitan.

[Check out a Full Photo Essay of Yosemite Climbing Artifacts by Dean Fidelman in Ascent 2020, Free To Read Online Now!]

Warren Harding prussiking up a rope. Photo: George Whitmore.

Lynn Hill’s shoes from the first free ascent of the Nose, Warren Harding’s hammer, gear and slideshows, and John Salathé’s rope, pitons and letters are just a small sample of the other pieces in the collection. The museum even has the shirt John Long wore in the iconic photo with Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay after their first one-day ascent of the Nose. Though Long wore the shirt, it belonged to Bridwell, who made the buttons out of manzanita.

Yager also has the Higher and Lower Cathedral Spire notebooks, which include Ansel Adams’s and Marjorie Bridge’s photos.

“These books are just priceless,” said Yager. “It’s the introduction to real, modern climbing to Yosemite and they’re well documented in these books, including taking pictures from all different angles of the spires and then using a protractor and figuring out which the lowest angle side was.”

Yager had been thinking of preserving climbing history for decades, but Salathé’s death was a catalyst.

“The main thing that kinda triggered the whole thing was when John Salathé passed away. And nobody knew,” said Yager, “This grandfather of modern big wall climbing, right? And there was no obituary in any of the climbing magazines.”

yosemite climbing museum
First ascent of the East Buttress of El Capitan. Photo: Allen Steck.

Yager realized that there are lots of people who have never climbed but are eager to learn about it. As such, the exhibit in Yosemite is geared toward the non-climbing public, whereas the museum-gallery in Mariposa has enough art and artifacts to satisfy even the most avid climber.

“Climbers generally have a certain outlook on life, and have certain views on how to live your life that are really valuable, I think, for the larger society,” said YCA Managing Director Allyson Gunsallus.

Gunsallus hopes the museum will not only help preserve climbing history, but also serve as a gathering place. The museum will have social events, showcase new art and videos produced by the outdoor community, and be a place where climbers can speak and tell their story.

[Also Read Stone Nudes Turns 20 And Takes One Final Victory Lap]

Yosemite climbing museum
Dolt pins, early 1960s. Photo: Dean Fidelman.

“I felt that conversations about how to improve culture and aspects of our sport could take place in that space,” said Gunsallus.

The Mariposa site is called a gallery-museum because of the merging of photography and artifacts, art and history.

“It almost creates like a magical space where not only are you interacting with the physical artifacts but then you’re in front of all of these spectacular photographs that are depicting climbing in different eras,” said Gunsallus. “It feels almost like the same feeling that compels us to climb in the first place, like there’s a lot of reverence for the history.”

yosemite climbing museum
Warren Hardings wall vest for the Nose, 1958. Photo: Dean Fidelman.

Although the building is ready to open, it is uncertain when that will happen due to the Coronavirus shutdowns. The YCA has a Kickstarter fundraiser during June to help pay rent and utilities until the museum space is able to open. Long term, the money will go toward continuing to catalogue and expand the gallery, which will also sell photography to help fund its mission.

“The space in Mariposa is an asset for the climbing community,” Gunsallus said. “We’re all working to provide this space because we really see it as an asset, showcasing the history of our community and also the culture.”