Up on the Big Stone

You could call it a youthful passion, but why mince words? What seized the author at age 19 was a fateful obsession with El Capitan.

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THERE WAS A TIME—two full years, in fact—when climbing the 3,000-foot sheer granite monolith called El Capitan meant literally everything to me. I was in my early twenties and had somehow gotten it through my head that El Capitan lay as a kind of obstacle to the rest of my life, that I couldn't get on with becoming whoever I was supposed to become until I had thrashed my way up the thing. My parents and my friends all knew this, and they regularly told me that they wouldn't like me any less one way or another—hoping, I suppose, to defuse my potentially fatal obsession. They pointed out that, statistically speaking, 100 percent of humanity led lives in no way dependent upon their having climbed or not climbed El Capitan (or anything else, for that matter), and surely, they said, I could find less hazardous ways of proving myself. None of this meant a thing. My internal apparatus of desire and ambition had simply built itself around this single object; I knew without a shred of a doubt that if I failed to climb El Capitan, I would live my entire life in an intractable fog of doubt and self-loathing.

I got myself into this predicament by accepting wholeheartedly, at about the age of 19, what might be called the Path of the Yosemite Climber. Somewhat out of vogue now, in this era of bolt-clipping gym climbers, and never more than a tacit understanding among Valley regulars, the path is simply a sequence of rock climbs. It begins with practice routes like After Seven and the Nutcracker Suite and proceeds through several years' worth of progressively harder ascents, from the Royal Arches to the Higher Cathedral Spire, from the Nabisco Wall to the Chouinard-Herbert Route on Sentinel Rock. "Do these five 5.9 climbs in good style," the story goes, "and you can then begin to consider trying that one 5.10. Put the following ten 5.10s behind you, without falls, and you might deign to call yourself a 5.10 climber." Less a matter of perfecting your gymnastics—as is the case in sport and gym climbing—this is a carefully calibrated means of acquiring authentic experience. For anyone who wants a path to self-knowledge, or adventure, or enlightenment, or whatever it is that we want such paths for, this still makes a brilliant one, complete with seasonal movements from the short, winter training climbs of Joshua Tree, to Yosemite Valley in the spring, up to Tuolumne Meadows for the hot months of summer, and then back to the Valley for the autumnal big-wall season.

You start out by following other climbers, learning to remove protective gear from the rock, and then you take your first lead on something short and easy, allowing plenty of time to fiddle with the equipment. The leads get harder and longer, and months and whole summers pass in the comfort of this meaningful march forward. Along the way, you probably try a few of the short climbs at the base of El Cap itself, routes like Moby Dick and Sacherer-Cracker, and you feel the stone's absurd stature, its staggering, elemental size—as if you've put your hands on the side of a planet. Three years in and you're ticking off the long, single-day routes, thrashing your way up the finger and fist cracks, squeeze-chimneys and slabs of the Valley's pure granite walls, tasting the remarkable pleasure of running fast over stone all day. Finishing late in the afternoon, you thrill to another of the Valley's peculiar joys: the long, long walk down, stumbling through the trees in the warm night, laughing with the climber's utterly unique brand of elation, a mysterious and giddy delight at things meaningful simply because they are possible.

Living in Camp 4, Yosemite's wonderful, tawdry, overcrowded, and deeply loved old climbers' campground, meant, when I was there in the early 1990s, and still means, late nights with a global rainbow coalition of dirty, smiling aspirants—quesadillas and beers with climbers Japanese, Polish, Venezuelan, all delighted to be there. In the warmth of your bag, you fall asleep with a view of the stars through the treetops, the smell of Top Ramen and campfire smoke mingling with the cedars' perfume. You wake up to the hiss of butane stoves and the clink of climbing gear as someone readies for a long climb. Rest days pass swimming in the crystal-clear pools of the Merced River, sunning on midstream boulders, watching trout flicker here and there. Maybe an ice cream at Degnan's Deli and a long nap in the tall, wind-whispering grasses of El Cap Meadow, sleeping with the peace of physical well-being. Over time, as you lie there day after day looking up, picking out tiny climbers lost in their dreams, you begin to realize where all this is going. An elaborate oral history has crept into your thoughts through the osmosis of parking-lot conversations, all about the Valley's own pantheon of gods and demigods, great achievements, disasters, and debates: how in 1954 Warren Harding got mobbed by biting ants on the first ascent of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, that one-day route you just loved so thoroughly, and how Royal Robbins completed the first ascent of Half Dome in 1957, when he was only 21 years old. Harding's 18-month siege on El Cap, lasting from July 1957 clear through to November 1958, seems a testimony to the wall's unimaginable vastness, and you pass hours picking out the climb's famous features: Sickle Ledge, the Stoveleg Cracks, Dolt Tower, Boot Flake, the Great Roof. Robbins's nine-and-a-half day first ascent of El Cap's next route, the Salathé, with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt in 1961, seems an act of wizardry, and his North America Wall done three years later, with Frost, Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard, seems pure genius.

Even the old ethical arguments loom like scriptural disputes between apostles: To bolt or not to bolt? How shall we, as a people, define what we call right and wrong? The faces from the photographs become likewise etched into your mind. From Yosemite's golden age, in the 1950s, it's mostly Harding, the swarthy, Byronic wisecracker, and Robbins, the bespectacled fanatic. Also funny T. M. Herbert; Yvon Chouinard, gear-master and philosopher; sprightly Tom Frost; and stocky, implacable Chuck Pratt. From the weirder, wilder 1970s, it's all about Jim Bridwell, the man who established Pacific Ocean Wall in the blank sweeps to the left of the black diorite of North America Wall and then set an altogether new standard for boldness and commitment with his still-terrifying Sea of Dreams, harder than anything the pioneers had attempted. Perhaps, if you were paying attention as hard as I was, you knew that even in the 1980s hard new routes were going up all over El Cap, and you tried to catch sight of Rick Lovelace or John Middendorf in the cafeteria and wondered what insane aid wall they'd just come off.

All of this past argues for the primacy of the wall you know you've got to climb next: El Capitan. Remember that this is only one version of a path that many climbers would say doesn't exist, and that there are taller cliffs in the world, such as those on the Trango Towers of the Karakoram, and others on Baffin Island, all with far more fearsome weather and rockfall. No wall on earth, however, drops quite so sheer and smooth in such a perfect vertical sweep of solid granite as does El Capitan, from a flat top to a 90-degree plummet into the soil, or in such a sunny clime so close to a road and a bar and a very big audience.

The effect of that stone's scale and singularity is so great that groups of tourists routinely gather in the meadow below simply to stare at the thing, using binoculars and high-powered telescopes to pick out climbers as if searching the skies for lost astronauts. Indeed, the first recorded non-Indian sighting of the wall comes from a U.S. Cavalry doctor who rode into the Valley in 1851, got one look at El Capitan, and fell behind his regiment to sit staring upward in awe, his heart pounding and his eyes filling with tears. When another soldier called back to the doctor, worried there might be scalping Indians in the trees, the doctor replied, "If my hair is now required, I can depart in peace, for I have here seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being."