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A Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley

Posted on: June 12, 2015


[Photo] Mike Lorenz

In 1956, at age fifteen, a bespectacled Steve Roper stood below his first Valley climb. The route on the east face of Glacier Point, he recalls, "was a silly one, with no real features. But it got us up a few thousand feet." At the time, route information was largely viva voce, and as Chris Jones explained in Climbing in North America, news traveled along a bumpy and fissured "transcontinental grapevine." For Yosemite, the only written record was a thirty-eight-page chapter in the 1954 High Sierra Guidebook and route notes in the Sierra Club Bulletin. Little did young Roper know that his growing Valley fixation would someday lead him to write A Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley: the famous 1964 "Red Guide."

In spring 1960, Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost began testing the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton (RURP). The slinky, heat-treated steel could be pounded into Yosemite's seams, enabling lines that were previously unimaginable, such as Royal Arches Direct and the West Face of Sentinel. The Valley's cragrats, Roper among them, gathered in Camp 4 in the evenings, drinking beer and discussing the latest groundbreaking climbs. Their upward wanderings remained largely uncataloged.

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Chuck Pratt, who had a penchant for naming Camp 4's most notorious bears, kept a running list of new routes until he was drafted in 1961. A year later, Roper began scribbling information on sullied napkins and bits of paper, a practice that quickly evolved into fastidious note-taking. Soon, whispers of creating a Valley-specific guidebook wafted through Camp 4, and in 1963 Roper approached the Sierra Club's executive director, Dave Brower, with the idea. Although Brower was enthusiastic, others hesitated to share the mountains, fearing congestion. "Some claimed that with a guide and a bolt kit, any dolt could get up routes they 'shouldn't be on,'" Roper recalls.

Nonetheless, in 1964, the Sierra Club published Roper's A Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley, with the red cover featuring a photo of Lost Arrow Spire. It contained 195 brand-new routes, each including a description with roughly a sentence per pitch. Years later, accustomed to such relatively spare entries, Sierra climber Doug Robinson got lost trying to follow the meandering Owen-Spalding on the Grand Teton. The scale of the Teton guidebook's details were "way more granular," he says, than that of Roper's book.

The Red Guide featured black-and-white photos of Valley hardmen toiling upward, as well as Al Macdonald's elegant hand-penned topos. Roper's prose revealed his devotion to chronicling both the history of Yosemite and a developing code of ethics. "Every climb is not for every person—this statement is ethically correct, yet the use of excess bolts makes it a paradox: they can make climbing too easy," he wrote in the introduction.

Conscripted into the Army, Roper received his first copy at a Georgia base on Independence Day, 1964. Upon his jubilant return to the Valley in spring 1966, Roper noticed the arrival of Brits. As two Frenchmen climbed the Nose, Yosemite seemed poised to become a worldwide destination. "[I]t was obvious my guide had encouraged climbers to seek the Valley's walls," Roper noted.

Roper's book also featured the Decimal System (now the Yosemite Decimal System), a choice that had an effect far beyond the Valley. Before, many climbers outside of Yosemite were employing a rating system that combined the SC Mountaineering Committee's Class 1-6 and the Decimal System developed by Royal Robbins, Don Wilson and Chuck Wilts. Others favored Teton guidebook author Leigh Ortenburger's National Climbing Classification System (NCCS). Whichever was featured in the Yosemite guide was poised to overthrow the rest. Realizing the power that Roper wielded, Robbins accurately predicted: "In reality you have the big stick, and I believe that whatever system you use...will become the national standard."

"The 1964 edition...is arguably the urtext of modern rock climbing," writes Joseph Taylor in Pilgrims of the Vertical. Indeed, the guide forever changed the Valley culture: whereas before outsiders had been obligated to depend on locals for information, they could now readily obtain it in written form. But more significant was its effect on the local climbers. Roper's book gave the unkempt community of Camp 4 a tome for their exploits, something to measure from and mark upon as they traced new lines up the granite.

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