The Art of the Topo

Posted on: July 1, 2005

The southeast face of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California. [Photo] Clay Wadman

Why do we consider a painting to be a piece of art and not one's life?*

In the 1960s, on the Hill in Boulder in the back room of a bar called the Sink, Wayne Goss asked Layton Kor what mattered most in life. "He paused a second," Goss wrote of Kor's response, "images running across his mind... of first [ascents] to be: El Cap, The Diamond, The Eiger.... Layton leaned across the table, his elbows sliding over the many names, oaths and fantasies carved into it, looked me square in the eyes and said, 'The big walls, man, the big walls."

For me and my close friends growing up in Boulder, the metaphor of that night created the medium of a lifestyle. Just as primary colors form the raw material of an artist's landscape, our climbing experiences became the basis for depth and perspective in our lives.

The time we spent sitting in El Cap Meadows in the 1980s tracing one hypothetical line after another up the smooth monolith seems now to be the essence of youth itself. Topos were archaic then, discontinuous symbols that illustrated George Meyer's book Yosemite Climbs. After climbing a route—or sometimes during it—I would draw custom topos to recall my adventure. They became for me a form of diary.

In 1992, I drew my first topo of the Diamond, on Longs Peak. The Diamond is all about lines, bottom-to-top routes that go from base to summit. My friend and mentor Eric Goukas had drawn the wall; his ashes and the memories of his climbs sleep beneath the Diamond to this day. I wanted a map like his, one that documented each climb. And not just the routes: I wanted to map the ascents themselves. I wanted to trace my fingers up Roger Brigg's Eroica and Alan Lester's one-day ascent of the Diagonal to King of Swords. I wanted to see a crux pitch high on the wall and remember that Eric had soloed it. As I mined the first ascensionists for details for my topo, I listened to their stories and could feel their passion—the same passion that Kor had spoken about so long ago.

For me, one map led to another, each bigger, more detailed, more accurate. More importantly, each led to more stories. Even now I can hear Matt Buckner's description of "Dead Fly Flake" on Half Dome's Jet Stream—of the millions of hollow fly husks cascading from the creaking, expanding stone.

Topos are bare without such stories. As art, a topo's end purpose is not to show others where to go or to kill their adventure. It is to paint a line of beauty up a face. When I draw routes, I become empathic, chronicling near-forgotten dreams. A topo's role is to spark the empathy in all of us, to let us re-experience moments of past time, to feel the presence of its first ascensionists.

My maps all stare back empty, in spite of the collective memories and accomplishments of my mentors. The walls are a place where humans can enter another realm, and that realm, though we try to map it, chronicle it, define it, is a topography utterly devoid of human reference. Confronted with its vastness, our stories fall silent and our lines fade. Yet they are all we have: to create points of orientation, to leave the ephemeral marks of our passions and our selves. Each of the topo artists included in this magazine has his own vision; but each shares a fascination with the relationship between climbing and drawing, between the landscape and the mind. If by chance I had been born a writer, perhaps I would have written a book—about our elders and us, the disciples, trying to follow in their dreams while we create our own. But I'll have to use my art instead. I trace the lines on these drawings, mine and those of my fellow alpinists and topo artists collected here, and I think I know another answer to Goss's question, at least for me.

It's the line, man, the line!

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