The Nose of El Capitan Feature Image

Rock Climbers: Not To Be Out-Done…

I guess there was a time, or, maybe, might have been a time, when I would have embraced rock climbing. But if there ever was one, it has passed. My son ran across a video called Valley Uprising[1] that he said I might find interesting. He hadn’t watched it, but did notice in a preview that it seemed to have scenes from Yosemite. So we sat down one weekend and gave it a gander.

The Nose of El CapitanIt was absolutely fascinating! It is not like I’ve never heard of rock climbing. You’d have to be blind not to have noticed the Mountaineering School at Camp Curry or the groups of ground gazers looking up at El Capitan from its meadow. But it was fascinating to learn that Rock Climbing, as a sport, has its roots in Yosemite.

It wasn’t invented there, but it became the Mecca of Rock Climbers of those, quite literally, all over the world. Until the 1950’s THE rock climber was a Swiss named, John Salathe. Until this time, rock climbing was just a learning tool for the more established Mountain Climbing.

Originally, and for a long time afterwards, the sport was practiced only by a few whose sole goal in life was to climb and party. Their base camp was Camp 4, a walk-in campsite near the base of Yosemite Falls. The history of rock climbing in the valley is almost a mirror of the social change during the 50s, 60s, 70s and to some extent, the 80s.

This is hardly surprising since the climbers are youngsters out on their own for the first time and, as youngsters, were card-carrying members of “The Church of What’s Happening Now”. In the fifties, they were anti-establishment beatnicks, loud and crude. During the sixties and early seventies, they were long haired, boisterous, disruptive dopers that would unsettle the more sedate park visitors and were often confused for the more aggressive war protestors and became the bane of the park rangers. In the eighties they were more sedate and some had even gone “corporate”; aligning themselves with sponsors, or even starting their own businesses.

Until the late sixties or early seventies, there was no restriction on how long you could camp at Yosemite. Because of the boisterous and disruptive nature of the climbers (at least, in part, it may also have been the increased attendance required action to give more people an opportunity to camp there) the park restricted camping to 7 days at a time. Had it been held up by the climbers, it would have ruined the sport. It takes near constant practice and exploration to tackle the giant granite slabs at Yosemite. Many climbs may take more than 7 days to complete. Some of the climbers started camping by stealth, creating more tension with the park rangers.

Initially, the early climbers took existing routes up and around the side and back of Half Dome under the tutelage of Salathe until one of them, Royal Robbins, planned out and tackled, as 5-day bivouac, a route up the North Face of Half Dome. He was the first to do so.

See climbers in the “7” on the southeast face of El CapitanEach period in the rock climbing history was marked by one or two individuals that, almost by accident, advanced the tableau of rock climbing by redefining the nature of the sport. Robbins was one. Another was contemporary of Robbins, Warren Harding (no, not the president). Harding was a salty boozer and ne’er-do-well climber and clashed with Robbins on a number of occasions. Harding had missed a chance to join the Half Dome climb with Robbins and was looking for something else when he targeted “The Nose” of El Capitan. This was a totally outrageous goal by all accounts, not merely because it had not been done before, but because it was so massively tall[2]. He began the climb with two others. They would climb up for a distance setting pitons and extending ropes and the come down for the night, going up a bit farther on the next climb. This went on for 18 months culminating with a 45 day thrust to the top in the late fall of 1958.

Harding’s motivation was, admittedly, to do a one-up on Robbins, but his style was lackadaisical Climbers at the top of the “7”and punctuated with partying until the end. Nevertheless, the ground time wasn’t completely wasted as he and fellow climber (and equipment inventor) Bill Feuerer would discuss the latest climb and speculate on the next one. During the 18 months of this climb, fellow climber Mark Powell broke a leg on an “in-between” climb and had to drop out off the team. Feuerer dropped out due, essentially, to boredom and the lack of progress, but kept on as Harding’s technical adviser. Harding picked up three other climbers as replacements for the final push.

The clash between Robbins and Harding widened. Harding had raised the bar in rock climbing by showing that El Capitan could be done. Robbins then planned out his own attack of the nose and completed the climb in one push lasting 6.5 days. Robbins was a firm believer in a “clean” style of climbing. No pitons. No bolts. Just use of the natural features of the rock. This has grown to become more of an environmental issue as their use will damage the rock.

Close-up of ClimbersRobbins believed so strongly in his clean style that he actually followed Harding’s climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan and began to chisel off the bolts as he went up. Ironically, Robbins soon found that Harding’s climbing had displayed a genius Robbins had not seen before. He left the remaining bolts in place as he finished the climb. He came down with a new respect for his fellow climber.

This technique evolved into what is now called “free climbing”[3] as opposed to “aide climbing.” Ropes, bolts, pitons, cams, etc. are used in free climbing only as a safety measure, not an aide to the actual climb. This became the norm by the mid 70s.

Also, the mid seventies saw the first one-day assent of El Capitan by the team of John Long, Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay all members of what has become known as the “Stone Masters.” Lynn Hill was the first to free climb The Nose in 1993 and she repeated the climb a year later in less than 24 hours.

The next technological advancement in climbing became known as “free soloing[4]”. This is, basically, climbing without a net. No ropes, No pitons; nothing except chalk, fingers and shoes. This was pioneered by John Bachar in the 1980s. With some minor modifications, this is basically where the art stands today. It is, by no means a safe standard. One false step and it is over. John Bachar actually died from a fall during a free soloing climb at Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California in July 2009. He was 52.

This generation of climbers are known as the Stone Monkeys and have “reined” since 1998. Speed climbing came about during this period. Dean Potter, with fellow climber Sean Leary, was most noted for his speed climbing of The Nose of El Capitan in November 2010 where he set the record of 2 hrs, 36 minutes and 45 seconds. But interestingly, his record was only 20 seconds better than the existing record set the previous October. Dean later climbed El Capitan AND the north face of Half Dome in the same day.

Dean is, probably, best known for “freebase” climbing. “Base jumping” is parachuting from cliffs and is illegal in Yosemite. Dean, a base jumper at all kinds of venues (where legal or not), combined “base jumping” with “free soloing” to create “freebase climbing.” He’ll dawn a chute and free climb deploying the chute in the event of a fall in an effort to “skirt” the restriction on base jumping. Characteristically, he’d get near the top of a climb and “oops, I’m falling.” The current “lead” climber of Yosemite, Alex Honnold, admits that freebase climbing does open up more difficult routes to climbers than free soloing alone. But whether Base Jumping or Freebase climbing, deploying a parachute or wingsuit, regardless of the reason, is illegal in Yosemite. Tragically, Dean and a climbing buddy, Graham Hunt, were both killed recently (May, 2015) attempting a wingsuit jump from Taft Point (in Yosemite). Though they have both made that jump before, this time something went horribly wrong.

This activity seems to be getting more prevalent. These deaths tally up to the fifth death from base jumping in Yosemite just since January 2014[5]. Until 2012 only 6 deaths were recorded (the first was recorded in 1982 and the last in 1999)[6]. I don’t have official numbers for 2013, but know of one I saw on the news. A group of people based jumped off of El Capitan and one of them was killed when her chute failed to open. If that was the only death that year, then there were 7 deaths between 2013 to present (May 2014) yet only 6 in all the years prior. So remember, boys and girls, life is fatal. You’re not getting out of it alive, but there is no point in “begging” for it.

Finally, Alex Honnold, raised the climbing bar by christening and setting Yosemite’s “triple crown” by climbing The Nose of El Capitan, the regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and Mt. Watkins all in the same day. His time was 18 hours 50 minutes. He and fellow climber, Hans Florine. hold the joint title of the fastest climb of The Nose of El Capitan at 2 hrs, 23 mins, 51 seconds it was set June 17, 2012 beating the Potter/Leary climb of November 2010 by 12 minutes and 54 seconds.

It is a constant amazement to me the heights to which these people reach. Not just in “feet” but in “feats” as well. Warren Harding, trying to do one better than Royal Robbins tackles El Capitan. Sure, it took 18 months to get it all done, but he did it when no one else even considered it. Robbins turns around and does it in about 7 days. Honestly, it’s hard for me to applaud that. Harding took the time he did because, (1) there was no hurry and (2) he had to explore every inch of it, wondering if he’ll come to a point beyond which he could go no further. That doubt is is partially why Feuerer dropped out. Robbins started off knowing it was possible. That is a tremendous psychological advantage. It allowed him to focus on the task at hand, rather than if it is possible at all. But he did stand on the shoulders of Harding and advanced the sport, setting the bar higher.

Robbins also set down “rules for climbing” which, basically, defined the activity as a sport. These rules laid the ground work for changing “aide climbing” to “free climbing”; using the ropes and bolts for safety rather than aiding in the actual climb.

Once “free climbing” was established, it was an easy psychological step to say, “Hey, we don’t need no sticking ropes” and that was the advent of free soloing. Once again, the bar is set higher and it would not have even been considered had it not been for the advancement of the idea free climbing.

Now, once unencumbered by the paraphernalia of aid and free climbing, now you can consider racing up the rock and “speed climbing.” This opens the door for guys like Alex Honnold to run up and down cliffs in less than a day that took, literally, years to accomplish not too much earlier.

This “evolution” in climbing and climbing techniques shows that each step required the previous one. The possibility of each “improvement” in the sport had to seem apparent. Royal Robbins would not do El Capitan in a week had Harding not first spent 18 months climbing it, showing it was possible. “Free Climbing” would not have existed unless there was “Aid Climbing” in the first place. It was during aid climbing the lead of the team would, basically, “Free climb” to place the next rope. This made it apparent that “free climbing” could be the next challenge. John Bachar could not have started “Free Soloing” unless “Free Climbing” was a technique from which to deviate. Once, after numerous climbs, it could be seen that the “safety net” of those ropes might not be necessary at all. Of course, “Speed Climbing” wouldn’t exist unless climbers were already unencumbered by the traditional paraphernalia of rock climbing. I mean, who’s going to consider running up a cliff with 80 pounds of rope and bolts strapped onto your back?

Even after I walk through this logical evolution of the sport and I can’t help but remain awestruck by their feats. The common thread to this evolution is that the possibility of the “improvement” had to seem apparent. As a more mundane example, let me tell you a story I heard from Ron Kauk. He was one of the “Stone Masters” from the seventies who climbed with Jim Bridwell, John Bachar and others from that era. I met him last month at Yosemite where he gave a talk about his video, Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey[7] and his current interests.

As a young climber, new to the group, he had asked what he could do to prepare himself for the “big climbs.” They said, “Kid, you need to do 100 pull-ups from your finger tips…every day.” He had no way of knowing they were joking; they were “razzing” him. So he worked on it and got to the point that he could actually do them, daily. He assumed they all did it, so not to be out done, he did it, too.

That is so like the whole fascinating story of climbing. They all stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, because the possibility of the feat, whether real or imagined, seemed apparent.


[1] Sender Films (2014). Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen Directors

[2] Doug Scott (1974). Big Wall Climbing. Oxford University Press. p. 147

[3] Not to be confused with “Free Soloing” to be discussed shortly

[4] Not to be confused with “Solo Climbing” which is just going up alone, without a team.


[6] Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, Ghiglier and Farabee, Puma Press revised 2013, page 84-85

[7] Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey Director: Sterling Johnson with Ron Kauk, © 2006, 2008, 2014