Posted on: April 1, 2010

Classic Rock: Myth and Climbing's Golden Age

"I had not been climbing on the mountain. I had been climbing on some vast accretion of stories, childhood fantasies, rainy-afternoon daydreams and photo books." —Ron Matous

BEFORE A CLIMBER CAN TRAVERSE a vertical landscape, his mind and spirit must cross it first. The eye instinctively seeks the route and creates passages that the consciousness begins to follow: a corner, a flake, a long ledge and then who knows? And for the traveler who wants to consider the meaning of the journey, his memory and imagination may have wandered that terrain again and again, until any lived experience has been inexorably written over, altered and reinterpreted. If we accept the physical reality of the cliff as relatively constant, as rooted as anything can be in space and time, everything else about it seems to be in flux.

As years pass, the records of that experience assume greater and greater importance, and the archive of them becomes its own experience, its own reality. Consider the effect of black-and-white photographs of the 1960s big-wall climbers. The nubbly texture of trees below El Cap glows in the Valley's golden light; pale ropes arc out across infinite space and vanish into gloomy recesses far above. Almost fifty years later, like signals pulsing from a star in a faraway galaxy, they radiate a message from a time now lost—remote dispatches that shine from an unreal distance, images as iconic as the landing on the moon. Many of them had originally been taken as snapshots, almost random documents. Now their patterns and forms have grown a life of their own, overlaying the actual moment with the tracings of heroic dreams and the veneer of artistic creation.

Words become even more transformed, as marks on the page require an active imagination to have any life and meaning in the present. What are the boundaries between reception and re-creation, understanding and inevitable alteration? Can we ever re-anchor them to the concrete sources of experience?

CLIMBING HAS ALWAYS CONTENDED with these ghosts of memory. A fixed piton high on a route is in itself a simple physical artifact. Yet many accounts of climbs hinge on just such an object, investing it with the psychic weight of crucial decisions and lives in balance. The "Death Bivouac" on the Eiger was merely a location, until two climbers froze there in 1935. The "Ear Pitch" on the Salathe still maintains a reputation that has outlasted the fame of features on later routes, regardless of its relatively low technical difficulty. Tinged with the memory of its first ascensionists' fear, the bomb-bay chimney has an aura that appears to transcend time and circumstance.


But I've begun to wonder why we are hearing so much recently about the Golden Age of climbing in America. While the remaining protagonists of the 1960s and 1970s grow older—and while some, sadly, die—their deeds assume ever-more legendary proportions. The praises become loftier, the remembrances more elegiac—and more profuse. In 2009 Dean Fidelman, Mike Graham and John Long published Stonemasters, a book that sought to document the 1970s California climbing scene as a "kind of last hurrah for the traditional age of American rock climbing." Those who drank in the atmosphere of George Meyers' Yosemite Climber or Steve Roper's Camp 4; who devoured the articles in Summit, Mountain and the early decades of Climbing; who aspired to those mysterious states of consciousness described in Ascent, have only now to visit the forum at Supertopo.com to relive it all vicariously, from the epic stories to the seemingly infinite amount of historical trivia.

The predominant version of the Golden Age story reminds us to view its legacy as that of the good fight for truth, freedom, righteousness and the spirit. In comparison to the present, we are told, these early climbers were true pioneers, explorers of human potential, brave warriors on the edge of the possible. Climbing was the finest game, the mirror to our weakness and to our potential courage. Yosemite granite or Eldorado sandstone always gleamed like a fresh-cut diamond; the air was redolent with the fragrance of softly swaying pines and the sound of freshly driven steel. We emerged, mixing metaphors, from the crucible of stone, as better people.

Legends, I would argue, are never as compelling as the truth; the god is never as vibrantly alive as the actual human being. This process of mythmaking deserves some examination, not merely repetition—and perhaps it needs a view from outside the circle. It may be human nature to enlarge and gild the old days. But I propose that much of this augmentation is merely art, and that the distance it inserts between reality and the viewer erodes the possibility of knowing something real, something that ultimately, and perhaps rightly, we may never know.

I WAS ONCE A BELIEVER. I wore the painter's pants back when I started climbing in New England, not knowing that the great days had passed. Elsewhere it was already the 1980s, that uptight anorexic decade of overtraining, bolt wars and other weirdness. New England locals still hewed closely to the traditional ethics of climbing ground up, never hanging on the rope, and never placing any bolts on rappel.

Sure, the granite cliffs of New Hampshire were too small for multiday epics, and there was no Camp 4. Instead of scaling soaring vertical cracks or placing strings of copperheads up Yosemite's Big Stone, I climbed licheny slabs in the rain, encountering swarms of black flies that didn't seem to mind the bad weather, and tourists who could drive to the top of New Hampshire's Cathedral Ledge. But I could dream. After all, I was told that New England had its own heroes like "Hot" Henry Barber who performed great deeds among the towering pines.

I loved this stuff. I was a nerdy, useless teenager, but I could create a new self-image based on the pictures I saw in Climbing or Mountain or in the pages of Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton's 1977 Climb! When I put on the shoes, I became someone else, a real climber, separated from the commonplace aspects of life. I was truly alive, aware of each crystal and flake as it glinted in the sun....

Oh wait, that's the Pat Ament influence cutting in.... The classic stories had saturated not just my imagined reality, but even my own representation of it. I savored the feeling that something truly significant happened each time someone cast off into the vertical realm. Close calls, confrontations with the forces of nature, questions of immortality and the specter of death—all these elements meant that climbing heroes were made of the "right stuff," like the early astronauts of Tom Wolfe's book, venturing bravely into the unknown. It was the kind of stuff that sometimes, after a good climb, I was persuaded I had as well. It all seemed to make sense, even if I wasn't thinking very hard about it.

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