"It's probably the only campsite in America known worldwide because of its history, and if the Park Service goes through with its plans, many of the reasons to go there will be erased," declares Tom Frost, 62, who completed the second ascent of El Capitan's Nose route in 1960. The camp to which Frost is referring is a four-acre patch of dirt in the Yosemite Valley just east of the base of El Cap. Known simply as Camp 4, it is revered by rock jocks from the Shawangunks to Trango Tower as the place where, during a halcyon interval in the 1950s and 1960s, modern big-wall climbing was born.
It was here that Frost, together with Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Warren Harding, TM Herbert, Chuck Pratt, and others, fashioned the tools and techniques that took them up the Valley's granite monoliths. It is here that successive generations of wall rats have made pilgrimages to test their mettle and learn from the masters. And it is here, within 500 feet of the cradle of contemporary climbing, that the National Park Service now wants to build a parking lot, 12 cottages, a registration building, an Indian cultural center, and four three-story dormitories containing 340 beds.
While similar forms of expansion have overtaken parts of the park in recent years, Camp 4 has remained somewhat aloof from the sort of concession-industry ravages that makes Yosemite Valley synonymous with overdevelopment. Until a few years ago, rangers rarely even visited the unruly cantonment, where picnic tables were typically adorned with neat rows of hardware and the ground between was strewn with beer bottles, haul bags, and radios blaring the Allman Brothers. When climbers who called this place home weren't cutting their teeth on routes like Crack of Despair, Lunatic Fringe, and The Meat Grinder, they were crashing church picnics, mooning the tourist bus, and attempting to inveigle young women into their unwashed sleeping bags (or, in the case of one intrepid Don Juan, into a secondhand tent appointed with purple sheets purloined from a Nevada brothel).
All of which may help to explain why the Park Service's plan has provoked a level of protest more typically associated with the desecration of an ancient Indian burial ground. "If they put up more buildings," asserts photographer Galen Rowell, who has about 30 Yosemite first ascents to his name, "they're just plain stupid." In their defense, park officials point out that construction will take place adjacent to the campground and will not touch a single tent site. Most of the new structures, however, would be highly visible from Camp 4 — and thereby corrupt the mythic essence and legendary funk of what Frost calls, with risible but endearing grandiloquence, "an ever-evolving colony of minds and spirits."
Since last January, Frost and 26 other prominent climbers have been spearheading a crusade to stop the plan. In November, just as this magazine went to press, they won a temporary victory when their threat of a lawsuit induced the Park Service to withdraw its current plan and begin crafting an alternative, details of which could be announced as early as this month. Unfortunately, insiders fear that the new plan will simply modify the existing one and that it is only a matter of time before the project goes forward. That, however, has done nothing to dampen the determination to protect a living testament to the spirit of the people who invented modern big-wall climbing. Plus, adds Chouinard, "it's the only place left where climbers can really dirtbag it."