Climbing in Yosemite Valley

Climbing in Yosemite Valley

Climbers in Yosemite Valley, until recently engrossed in the complexities of aid-climbing on the big walls, are now concentrating on short free climbs, and working hard to limit the use of pitons. Here Jim Bridwell, a leading figure in this free-climbing renaissance, reports on the new mood that grips the valley.

The general concept of climbing in Yosemite is centred on the mystique of Big Walls. However, the glorious sweeping plains of sunlit granite that capture the imagination of the primary climbing urge have lost their lustrous aura. Advancements in equipment and, more precisely, in knowledge have stripped the mystery shrouding the 'Big Walls', laying bare the boring and laborious logistics and the stifling repetition and tendency of placing one gadget after another into begrudging cracks. In more recent years an ever-growing vanguard of imaginative and progressive young climbers has been fostering a fast-moving renaissance of Yosemite free-climbing. Refined techniques, strength training, equipment improvements have led to amazing new routes. Yesterday's aid climb is today's standard free climb. The pressure of the ever-evolving spirit within has started to be felt and is now expressing itself in the idealism of imaginative new routes, in the beauty of control of mind, and the precision of movement which is required for the execution of these route.

Originally, free-climbing in Yosemite was not as important as aid-climbing technology, for the major walls were unclimbed. The evolution of climbing marched onward to the first prize and, once the walls were mastered, the goal moved on toward refinement. Free-climbing was primarily a display of virtuosity. A master of free-climbing was not held captive by the ball and chain of mechanical reliance. The urge was to excel oneself and due to that consequent free-climbing began to evolve.

What could be more exhilarating than climbing steep rock uninhibited by aid gadgetry? Bouldering developed as a separate pastime with its own unique challenges. Some climbers stopped climbing and took up bouldering exclusively, while others used it to develop techniques for harder free-climbing. Short, hard free climbs began to be made and names such as Chuck Pratt, Frank Sacherer, Mark Powell, Bob Kamps, Dave Rearick, and Royal Robbins soon moved into the limelight. Climbs like Crack of Doom and Split Pinnacle Lieback had as much prestige as The Nose or Half Dome interest started to grow. Another, not so distinct, generation began to appear. 1964 started a new era, with Frank Sacherer and Chuck Pratt leading the way. Routes previously done with aid went free. One route after another fell to the bold imagination of Sacherer and Pratt. Ethics started to change, ideas and attitudes underwent reconsideration. More and more possibilities were opened. After the ascent of Dihardral, with its uncanny reaches round blind corners and its fingertip liebacks, the word 'impossible' was used cautiously. A bold style evolved, where aid slings and an extra rope were left in the camp. This involved an attitude of commitment which increased the determination of the attempt. A few younger climbers began to emerge after serving an apprenticeship with the masters of the art. Their energy was added and the brew thickened. Tom Higgins and Chris Fredricks were among the young energy. They brought a few touches of their own to the free-climbing boom. Higgins, a protégé of Bob Kamps, quickly became a genius with tiny holds. Along with Kamps, he put up several tense climbs on Glacier Point Apron, as well as eliminating the aid on the Powell/Reed route on Middle Cathedral Rock.

At about this time physical training poked its magical head into the Yosemite Scene. Frank Sacherer and Eric Beck started it by circuit training in Berkeley and climbing at weekends. With this system they turned out two masterpieces: the West Face of Sentinel (in one day, and without Jumars), and the Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock - all free. On the latter they knocked out eighty aid pins by intricate route-finding and masterful climbing. This demonstrated the usefulness of strength training and opened doors into the future. At this point Sacherer left the climbing scene and bequeathed the raising of the standard to the younger breed of fast developing disciples. This achievement, along with Chuck Pratt's, marked the era between 1963 and 1965. Chuck's poise, natural ability and control, along with Frank's brilliance, daring and vision, earmarked climbing styles for those who followed.

Big walls were still foremost on the agenda for the majority of climbers. Such routes as the Sacherer Cracker, Left Side of the Slack, Bridal veil East, Right Side of the Hourglass and the strenuous, poorly protected Twilight Zone were left neglected while the young gained the climbers confidence.

From 1966 to 1968 the free-climbing symphony had a few movements added to it. Chris Fredrick's fierce route English Breakfast Crack, repelled several attempts, while Lloyd Price added the Vendetta, with its bold, unprotected off-width problem on the second pitch. Pat Ament, a sensitive young climber from Boulder, made an appearance and started some waves in the free-climbing sea. His contributions included the Left Side of the Remnant and the Centre of the Slack - all free - as well as the freeing of Limbo Ledge. These were certainly demonstrations of expertise.

In 1968 Frank Sacherer's premonition that the Stove Legs on the Nose of El Capitan would go free was realized by Jim Bridwell and Jim Stanton. The Legs section is now done as a climb in itself. This bit of the Nose is today one of the most sustained free climbs in the country. The vertical lines of the cracks make it a most exhilarating route to look at, as well as to climb. Every sort of problem is encountered, from finger cracks to off-widths, with lie backs and chimneys and a pendulum now and then for spice. The Legs are a true challenge, even for the best free climbers.

1969 saw few new hard free routes, but many of the existing hard problems were repeated. Beginning in 1970 the big boom of volcanic free-climbing erupted in the Valley. Several young stars started to shine: Mark Klemens, Barry Bates, Peter Haan, Jim Bridwell and Mead Hargis were among those shining most brightly. Mark Klemens returned to the Valley after a two year lay-off and like a lightning bolt became the main motivating force of the year. The fact that he began completely out of shape didn't seem to affect his smooth, controlled style. As an opener, he pioneered Absolutely Free, a respectable route with 5.10 fist and off-width jamming. New routes were his 'bag', and he sacked New Dimensions as his next prize. The climb is very sustained and consistently thin, a real test of finger strength and technique. In the same season, Klemens mounted two more virgin crack systems on Absolutely Free, plus routes such as Gripper, Independence Pinnacle, and Henley Quits. All of these were aesthetic as well as difficult. Barry Bates was also developing quickly in 1970. After three years, his route on the Centre of Independence will still send a thrill even through those experienced at thin hand cracks.

At this stage the hydra of ethics and style began to show its many heads. Fine points normally overlooked assumed importance. The scruples of a first ascent have always been met either with criticism or praise, and unwritten laws have gradually been formulated over the years. But suddenly everything shifted into high gear. Good new routes were, and are, coveted and consequently kept secret from the waiting ambitions of eager climbers.

From 1971 to 1972 some appalling new routes were conceived. These initiated a new precedence in attitudes, techniques and equipment. The eye saw lines that were only possible after certain specialised strengths had been developed. A programme of progressively more difficult and specialised climbs was devised to prepare for a specific route. Esoteric exercises as well as unique boulder-ballet problems now elaborated the training tables of the climbing athlete. Using this system, many fine routes were composed on sight. Some of the great problems of the past two years epitomize the best in Yosemite climbing.

New Dimensions, originally done free by Barry Bates and Steve Wunsch, was the first of these routes. Persistently difficult and strenuous climbing leads to the final 5.11 finger-tip crack up a leaning corner.

The Left Side of the Hourglass, a work of genius by Peter Haan, remains one of the most respected leads of the day. One thinks of the potential fifty-foot fall while leading the overhanging, 5.10 off-width crack. This single lead, with its 5.10 hand crack to a 5.10 off-width, all without resting spots earmarks the accelerative pitch.

Cream is a fine demonstration of off-width art. The route was improvised on sight, at the first attempt, by Mark Klemens. Mark is known for his masterful control in off-width cracks. The climb is strenuous and hard to protect. The feeling of security flees from reach on this lead, and you know why when the rope hangs out eight feet at the bottom!

Several of the leads on Basket Case would constitute a crux on most routes. At present the route stands as the most difficult off-width problem in the country. Twenty-foot runouts on four-inch 5.11 cracks, and a 5.10, one-and-a-quarter-inch crack on the lower pitch accent the variety of this climb. The first free ascent was done by Mark Klemens and Jim Bridwell.

The 1973 season is continuing the acceleration of the standards. At present styles and ethics have become homogenized into Spartan austerities. The new ideals have left certain free-climbing ethics passé. All-nut ascents, and 'flashing' a route (climbing on first try) are more desirable than using pitons. Today, few climbs (big walls excepted) are done initially as aid climbs. New ethics now regard top-roping, or placing protection on rappels, as highly undesirable. Unfortunately these styles and ethics form the basis of insidious competition which can prove quite abrasive to the psyche of the climbing community. Is it art or insanity? Will the Law of Diminishing Returns bring a halt to the present progress? How much working-out and how many self-inflicted morals is a section of stone worth? Or does the answer lie deeper, within the very soul of a man? Will the new disciples tend to purify the lust for perfection of the whole being? Maybe the competitive ego will be replaced with an open-minded appreciation of form; ethics may fuse with aesthetics, making practice rather than personality paramount.

The form is defined, the refinements infinite. The seeds are already sprouting in many devoted practitioners of the art. When art becomes a way of life, with religious significance to the individual, that art gains a useful position in the cosmic scene. Aleister Crowley, with his bold spiritualism, may have been a mutant prototype of a coming generation of climbers. There are many various speculations, but the future definitely holds exciting possibilities. The unusual situation presented by Yosemite has developed a unique life. The concentrated, difficult climbing and the easy-living environment are conducive to long periods of stay in the Valley. All this has given rise to an attitude of mind that believes nothing is impossible, and has made Yosemite a climber's Utopia: the Mecca of rock-climbing in America and maybe the world.

The Future

Yosemite is the home of most equipment advances in America and, for that matter, the world. Throughout the valley's history there has been a steady and rapid development of climbing regalia, from Salathe's hard steel piton to the present polycentric nut and the even more subtle nuances of chalk and tincture of benzoin. The farsighted and creative activists in Yosemite have constantly been seeking the paraphernalia manifesto. Ethics and aesthetics are an important feature of this development. As new vistas are opened, changes will inevitably occur. Moral decisions will have to be made about certain technological innovations, such as chalk and resin. I am not arguing either course, but if some development makes one route easier to climb, it will make another route possible, and for that route use of the innovation may be obligatory. That in turn may make a two-sided coin: a nuisance to climbers and a boon for manufacturers. As far as the consumption of products is concerned, creation will be the responsibility of the whole climbing community.

Ethics are also due for alterations. Top-roping will probably be used not only for physical conditioning and confidence building, where bouldering will not suffice, but also as a prerequisite in the case of dangerous unprotected leads by the climbing avant-garde. We may frown at these ideas, but they are likely to become selectively assimilated as part of the future norm.

Difficult face-climbing routes are now being done with the aid of a cliff-hanger in a shallow, which facilitates placement of a regulation anchor. Eventually, aluminium allow dowels may be used as protection, which would preclude the need for cliff-hanger and protection procedures. Siege tactics are being used and will continue to be used on new free routes. As ever more improbable rock is attempted, these practices may become more prevalent.

The decisions to be mad in this respect will be the responsibility of the new generation. These decisions will direct the future of the art and determine whether or not it is to remain an art.

A Brief History of Friends

Some day we climbers may wear special gloves and shoes enabling us to scale blank walls like spiders. Should we fall off, like spiders our body harnesses may instantly attach safety lines to the rock. If and when inventors develop this technology, we will no doubt consider it clever but climbing wouldn't be as exciting as before. But for now, none of us can envision the details.

And so it was with the Friends 25 years ago when Ray Jardine was inventing them. The need was apparent, at least to him, but the actual configuration was elusive to everyone.

Seeking a device that would anchor itself in a crack, and hold with greater power the harder the pull, he began the inventive process in 1971 with a dual sliding wedge design. Taking advantage of his aerospace engineering background he analysed this configuration and found it mathematically unsound. The internal friction between any kind of wedges reduce their holding power, and in many situations such a device could pull out. He was inventing for his own use, and was not about to increase safety.

The summer of 1973 Mike Lowe tried to sell Ray a few of his new Cam Nuts, which he said his brother Greg had invented. They worked, he explained, on the principle of the constant angle cam. Intuitively Ray Jardine saw that the concept was viable, and felt that here might be the idea he had been looking for. He bought three of them. Unfortunately the first time he used them all three flipped out and went sliding down the rope into his belayer's arms, leaving me running out a 5.9 fist crack unprotected. That was also the last time he used them.

The constant angle spiral is ubiquitous in Nature, from seashells and pinecones to swirling barometric pressure gradients and the great spiral nebulas. Really, it is just an expression of uniform growth. Descartes described the principle mathematically in 1638, calling it the equiangular spiral. Since then, constant angle cams have been used in uncountable mechanical devices. He doesn't know where Greg got his idea of applying the concept to a crack anchoring device. Perhaps it was from the Jumar ascender, which uses a more-or-less constant angle cam to clinch the rope. At any rate we have Greg to thank for introducing the concept to crack anchoring technology.

Configuring a workable device, however, proved to be an enormous task. In retrospect it took someone with aerospace engineering skills, a questing mind coupled with extreme motivation and a passion for climbing - something of a rare combination perhaps. For months Ray worked in Bill Forrest's machine shop building camming prototypes, testing them at the local crags and innovating design improvements in the evenings at home. In the end he filled a couple of sizable boxes with discarded prototypes.

Many of these designs were later backwards engineered on the basis of Friends by other companies, and are in production today. This despite the fact that he found and discarded them. For after all, he did not have to compete with himself, and therefore he had the luxury of moving beyond inferior designs.

Then one day after trying absolutely everything he could think of, and continually straining his mind for ever more ideas, the Creator enlightened him with the concept of a double set of opposing and independently spring loaded cams. Like wheels of a car having independent suspension, each of these cams would be able to adjust to widely varying surface irregularities, within limits of course. He put one of these 'quads' together and took it to the crags for testing. The cams were spring loaded against each-other, and they were held together with a high-tensile steel bolt. But the bolt was wrapped with a piece of ordinary strap iron as a stem, and of course the device lacked any kind of trigger. On a 5.8 route which he called Fantasia, located at Split Rocks, he climbed to a stance where he could almost let go with both hands, and managed to squiggle the Quad into a hand-sized crack. By the way it behaved he knew instantly that it was the solution to the problem he had been working on all that time.

The following spring, 1974, Ray Jardine took his first set of working prototype Friends to Yosemite and climbed dozens of difficult routes with them. These units were rough hewn and extremely limited by today's standards, and he had only a few 2-1/2's and 3-1/2's. But they certainly proved their worth, and at season's end three climbers, Ray included, used them in an attempt to climb the Nose in a day. Three hours of downpour late that afternoon immobilized them beneath the Great Roof and forced a bivouac at Camp V. But they did finish in 28 hours total climbing time, and managed to cut the previous three-day record in half.

For the next six years he continued making improved prototypes. His focus was not in their commercial application, but on the literally thousands of routes he used them on, mostly in Yosemite. His partners were limited in number and 'sworn to secrecy' because he felt a little paranoid about the idea being ripped off by some manufacturer. Meanwhile, he certainly did give the Lowe brothers plenty of time to introduce workable camming devices of their own invention, which they did not.

In 1977 Mark Vallance invited Ray to the UK to help him start manufacturing Friends. Mark is a highly dedicated and gifted individual, and was the first person to foresee the widespread appeal of Friends. Friend marketability is obvious now, but it certainly was not then, and Mark was the visionary who made it happen. The next year Mark founded Wild Country and started selling Friends.

What does Ray Jardine think of today's preponderance of Friend look-alikes and so-called improvements? First, he feels that a certain amount of it is blatantly inferior. In the same vein that people would not go to quacks for brain surgery, climbers would be unwise to entrust their lives to cheap Friend imitations made of inferior materials. If you have something like this on your rack, you might consider getting rid of it. Secondly, there are all sorts of gizmos out there which, in my mind at least, are theoretically unsound. Three cam units are one example. Analogously, three wheeled vehicles were banned from the marketplace years ago because of their inherent instability. Many other gizmos out there are mathematically unsafe, and he certainly would not bet his life on them! Thirdly, there are a number of so-called improvements which in reality are nothing but patent work-arounds. He suspects that they will fade from vogue over time - meanwhile we might be aware of the hype. And lastly, now that the Friend patents are expiring we are seeing virtual-copies by major manufacturers.

Big Wall Climbing


The art and sport of climbing is one of the purest forms of physical activity there is. Using physical strength and grace, mental toughness, and a tool-kit of aids (see equipment), climbers ascend steep rock faces to attain their goal, the top point of a climb. Usually, though not always, this is the summit of a peak or rock wall, such as the top of the Trango Towers in Pakistan or the peaks of the Torres del Paine in Patagonia. Often, however, a climber's goal is simply the top of a particularly difficult 'pitch' or section of a wall. Other related sports -- such as ice climbing, bouldering or even mountaineering -- partake of some of climbing's thrills and skills, and as a broad category 'climbing' can include these sports as well.

Although climbing descends from the sport of alpinism that swept Europe in the 19th century, today climbing has extended far beyond the Alps of its origin. Even in Himalayan mountaineering, the technical skills of roped climbing with pitons up sheer walls can be quite important. Still, some of world's classic 'pure climbs' are in Yosemite National Park, in particular the twin challenges of Half Dome and El Capitan.

Big Wall Climbing, in particular, relates to the technical ascent of a rock wall large enough to involve multi-day ascents -- though speed-climbers such as Hans Florine have shattered even this once-reliable criterion. Many believe Big Wall Climbing to be the distillation of the climber's skills. Big Wall climbers pride themselves on low-impact climbing, the refinement of established routes or development of new ones, as well as speed ascents and other more esoteric activities.

El Capitan: First Ascent

One of the foremost rock climbing areas in the world is Yosemite valley, and one of its premiere climbs is the ascent of El Capitan. While a number of routes are possible up the sheer face of this 3,000-foot granite monolith, the most famous remains the first: the Nose, straight up the Big Wall.

The first climbs in Yosemite Valley were no doubt those accomplished by John Muir, whose enthusiasm, athleticism and pantheism is the stuff of legend. A more technical era began in 1932 or 1933, pioneered by Sierra Club climbers trained by Robert Underhill of Harvard. The skill level increased with each passing year, and following the Second World War ever-more difficult and demanding routes were explored. But the most dramatic rock faces, the 2,000-foot wall up Half Dome, and the 3,000 foot prow of El Capitan, resisted all attempts for over 20 years. Among the notables who cut their climbing teeth in the Valley during this era were Willi Unsoeld, Allen Steck, Mark Powell, and Royal Robbins.

In 1957, three climbers from Southern California -- Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick -- made off with the first ascent of Half Dome, ascending the difficult North West Face in five days. Other Valley climbers were understandably disappointed, and some of them who had planned to bag this first ascent themselves began to suddenly think seriously about the far higher, and more imposing, El Capitan. Foremost among these disgruntled yet ambitious rockers was Warren Harding.

A notably durable climber, whose stamina had been demonstrated again and again, Harding proved the perfect general to lead the assault on El Capitan. He and his companions Mark Powell and Bill 'Dolt' Feuerer began their ascent of the Nose on July 4, 1957, just days after the successful climb of Half Dome. The climb was the most difficult any member of the team had ever attempted, and after a week they were only a third of the way up. Other climbers, including Wally Reed and Allan Steck, joined the party, but the Park Service called a halt to their attempt with complaints of rubber- necking tourists causing traffic jams.

Returning in the autumn (once the tourists had cleared out), the climbers were hampered by a serious injury to Powell, perhaps the most skilled climber on the team. A compound fracture of his ankle crippled Powell, and although he continued to climb he was unable to contribute as he had. The highlight of the autumn 1957 assault was a Thanksgiving dinner on Sickle Ledge, complete with turkey and wine hauled up from the Valley floor.

The next spring they returned again, this time with Wayne Merry sharing leads with Harding instead of Powell. Bill Feuerer's experimental climbing gear, later marketed under his nickname 'Dolt,' was much in trial on this ascent. Again the team had to quit climbing during the popular summer months, and continue exploring their route in the autumn.

Throughout this assault, the team members would climb for a few days then retreat to the floor, there to rest up and reconsider their routing and techniques. On November 1, 1958, a final team was assembled: Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore and Rich Calderwood, with Wally Reed helping haul supplies on weekends. As the days wore on, Calderwood withdrew from the attempt, while Merry, Whitmore and Harding continued on. The evening of November 11 found the three men on a ledge below the final summit overhang, and with the end so close Harding decided to work through the night.

For hours he drilled holes into the bulging overhang, placed bolts, set line, moved a few inches and began to drill again. At almost 6 am the morning of November 12 he drilled his last bolt and scrambled atop the overhang to reach the summit -- culminating an 18-month assault on 2,900 feet of rock.

Still, the controversy was just beginning. The total time on the face was 45 days; some 675 pegs and 125 bolts had been placed, and some critics labelled the entire effort a 'stunt' and 'trick climbing.' Today, while the ascent of the Nose can be accomplished in a long day by a handful of proficient climbers, it is worth noting that while all the mistakes may have been made on that first ascent over 18 long months, those mistakes make today's success possible.

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