Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Posted on: September 1, 2008
[Illustration] Jeremy Collins
The Wilderness Within
MARCH 1868: to a young drifter, the world seemed ripe with promise. On a whim, he stopped a man in the streets of San Francisco and asked, "Where's the nearest way out of town?"
"But where do you want to go?" the man asked.
"To any place that is wild," he replied.
Afraid that the stranger might be crazy, the man sent him immediately to the Oakland ferry.
John Muir began to walk toward Yosemite. "Every day was a holiday, so it did not seem to matter to which one of the world's wildernesses I first should wander," he later wrote. After hiking up through dense forests for days, Muir stood on the Valley's rim. Below him, waterfalls leaped in the wind, turning into rainbows as the sun struck. Beyond the waterfalls, surrounded by cliffs as high as mountains, rose a perfect wall of granite, 3,300 feet tall: El Capitan. Gazing at the Valley was, he wrote, like looking into a vast temple "lighted from above." No one else was around, there were no roads, and in all the Sierra Range surrounding him, "no mark of man" interrupted his gaze.
As Muir meandered through the wild forests and scrambled up peaks, huddling under rocks in an army coat when it rained, he could not have known that his journey would later inspire generations of environmentalists and pioneering rock climbers—nor could he have imagined that the untrammeled valley would one day seem as crowded as the city he'd left behind.
SEPTEMBER 1958: Another young man made his way into the Valley, hoping to learn how to climb. At the Meadow he found himself stuck in a traffic jam. Hordes of people had stopped their cars in the middle of the road and were milling about, pointing up at El Cap. He found a place in the crowd and borrowed a pair of binoculars. Upon the bright immensity of empty stone, tiny dark specks were moving. It was the first ascent of the Nose. In that instant he realized that he'd "come to the right place."
During the next few years, between climbs, Glen Denny would keep looking up at El Cap's colossal expanse, which seemed "like something from another planet." When he and other climbers began their explorations of its untouched lines, the adventures they were living appeared without precedent. And yet they weren't as removed from the world as they seemed: already Denny was aware of the passage of time. As he would describe it forty-eight years later in our Issue 17, something essential about those moments was slipping away like "quicksilver." So he began to take a camera with him, capturing in black-and-white the historic ascents and their protagonists.
Today, in his book Yosemite in the Sixties, the stillness of those images has an almost unbearable beauty: TM Herbert puckers his face, frozen in the midst of a pantomimed jest. Dave Seidman pauses in the middle of Camp 4 to listen to music, a finger raised to his lips, unaware that a year later he'll be buried in an ice avalanche on Dhaulagiri. A group of climbers huddle around a single candle, the light illuminating the shadowed curve of a hand. Under that picture, decades afterward, the older Denny will write, "The challenges of the great walls seemed to be staring down at you, disturbing your sleep."
Another challenge might enter the viewer's mind now: the vastness of the gap between those years and today. Denny remembers the first time he ever saw another rope team on El Cap at the same time as his (although not on the same route) in 1962. Only ten years later, in his essay, "Coonyard Mouths Off," Yvon Chouinard wrote about the crowding—and its effects—on the wall: "The Nose of El Cap up Sickle Ledge is a disgusting experience. You now use inch-and-a-half angles where the pioneers used RURPs.
Bashies have been welded into piton holes, leaving the rock once again smooth and flush, except for the rotten sling sticking out. Cracks are deteriorating, flakes are broken off, trees are being girdled by rappel ropes." In 2006 climbing ranger Jesse McGahey and three other climbers removed a haulbag of garbage from Camp 6; last year McGahey took out another haulbag, but much more remains.
Discovering John Muir's "any place... wild" is much more difficult than it was 150 years ago. Yet today, the same quest for wildness that motivated Muir, Denny and Chouinard continues to animate the modern pioneers in the evolution of their style. When the author of this issue's Crag Profile, Tommy Caldwell, free climbed the Salathe in 1998, he returned to the ground between pushes. Today he strives to free the walls of El Cap ground up, in a push—as he did with Justen Sjong on Magic Mushroom in May 2008. Such an approach makes success more elusive, but it stretches the boundaries of climbers' imaginations in ways that restore some of the unpredictability of the Golden Age.
APRIL 2008: Tom Frost's voice runs like water through a glacial bed. From our Jackson office, we call him up to ask him again about the 1960s. We could sit and listen for hours as he speaks: "We all loved what we were doing, loved the rock and being part of the team... how you do anything is how you do everything.... We were defining who we were to ourselves.... How you climb is who you are.... El Cap was the best of the rocks, so we tried to be the best we could for it." With no topos or route descriptions he and the other pioneers just read the rock instead. From their adventures into the unknown, they learned "a confidence in life that [we] belonged here."
THIS NOVEMBER will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent of the Nose (coincidentally, it marks this magazine's silver anniversary issue as well). Warren Harding has passed away, but Wayne Merry, who was with Harding on the climb, has written some of his memories for our tribute. Others whose ascents took place in the decades that followed have contributed their visions as well—and within such stories lies the heart of the heart of our pursuit. Working on this issue, which we've dedicated to Yosemite and its climbers, we've realized that the Golden Age can still persist today in the experiences of those who climb El Cap. From the pioneers to ordinary climbers through the decades, it remains a matter of attitude: the purest wilderness lies within. Royal Robbins once said with nostalgia for Yosemite's first days, "We longed to tremble before unclimbed walls again." That one great wall has taught us: even when the last line is traced on the last blank topo, climbers will always find their own ways of trembling before the magnificent El Capitan.