Yosemite Quicksilver

Posted on: October 1, 2006


[Left] On the Nose of El Capitan. Richard McCracken, Gary Colliver and John Evans during the fourth ascent, 1965. [Right] Night talk, Camp 4. Top row, middle: Eric Beck. Top row, right: Chuck Pratt. Others unknown. [Photo] Glenn Denny

One of the strange things about climbing is the number of climbers who want to write about it. I too felt the urge. I didn't want the experience to disappear, but how to describe it? If I stayed with the facts, the page was clear, but cold. If I said how it really felt, the page ran hot with embarrassing confessions. I couldn't get it right.

I combed the library shelves and read the mountaineering classics. In some of those books I came across photographs that made me say to myself, "Yes, that's it!" Towering, icy peaks, smooth walls with ant-like climbers on them, haggard faces after frosty bivouacs: those indelible images told the story as effectively as words could. I realized I could show what it was like, and not have to explain it.

Night talk, Camp 4. Top row, middle: Eric Beck. Top row, right: Chuck Pratt. Others unknown. [Photo] Glen Denny

So a camera strap was added to the clutter of slings around my shoulders. Under my right arm nestled a small folding camera, as handy as my hammer; when the image of the experience appeared, it had to be captured right now, before it disappeared. Unlike writers, I couldn't wait.

My climbing partners got used to annoying new phrases like "Hold it," "I'm changing film," and the dreaded "Could you do that again?" I didn't say those things to Royal Robbins while he was leading the third pitch of the North America Wall. He had placed a long line of marginal pitons, and the situation was tense. But the light on the rock was beautiful. He had been on his last pin for quite a while. It seemed solid, so I raised the camera. Suddenly he got bigger in the viewfinder, and the belay line started zinging out as if I'd hooked a marlin. I dropped the camera and grabbed the rope with both hands. It hurt like hell, but there was nothing to do except grab harder. After what seemed like a long time, things stopped moving.

Tis-sa-ack, Half Dome. Royal Robbins, first attempt, 1968. [Photo] Glen Denny

I looked up. Royal was a lot closer now. He looked down and said, "Nice catch." The gradual arrest had pulled out only a few pins; I didn't tell him why it had been so dynamic. The rope burns made my palms look like raw salmon fillets.

Camp 4 was the launching pad for our adventures; sometimes it was a refuge from them. Here plans were made, teams were formed, and the rest of life was lived. An odd kind of history was happening each day, and every night the quicksilver of our experience slipped through the cracks in the tabletops and disappeared into the grimy dust below.

I started talking less and seeing more, watching conversations, parties and gear sorts through my viewfinder, waiting for the images to appear. I caught some, but many got away.

Ed Cooper on the Dihedral Wall during the first ascent, 1962. [Photo] Glen Denny

If I could bring one of those scenes back and try again, it would be of Chuck Pratt conducting with an oil dipstick from an abandoned car. He was usually shy about such matters, but once in a while you could find him listening to Tchaikovsky or Mahler on a portable record player, waving his improvised baton vigorously, a beatific smile on his face. It was said that he conducted at parties, but only in the wee hours, when things were far gone. I once saw him standing on a boulder at the edge of Camp 4, conducting the trees and meadows, the cliffs and waterfalls of the Yosemite Philharmonic. He said that each section of the orchestra played beautifully.

Looking at photos, Camp 4. Left to right: Steve Miller, Fred Beckey, Mike Borghoff, Chris Fredericks (with cup) and McCracken, 1965. [Photo] Glen Denny

Royal and Liz Robbins atop the Muir Wall, after the first solo ascent of El Cap, 1968. [Photo] Glen Denny

Child playing in dirt, Camp 4, 1965. [Photo] Glen Denny

Dave Seidman listening to music in Camp 4. [Photo] Glen Denny

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