The 25 Greatest Moments in Yosemite Climbing History
The most pivotal climbing moments in Yosemites storied history, from some of climbings most celebrated athletes and voices
Yosemite climbing pioneer Yvon Chouinard checking out the view from Big Sur ledge the first ascent of the North America Wall on El Capitan. End of pitch 11, Fall 1964.
Is adventure dead? This somewhat depressing question is one we contend with atOutsideall the time. After all, many of worlds great adventure prizes, including the summit of all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks and the North and South Poles, were snagged more than a half-century ago. Todays firsts, meanwhile, are typically defined by an almost comical list of qualifiers: First blind one-armed climber to stand atop Everest. Fastest human-powered Antarctic crossing. In June. During an odd-numbered year. One can look at this increasingly parsed and trodden landscape and conclude that, yes, sadly, adventure is dead. But youd have to willfully ignore the 60-plus years of astounding climbing evolution continuing to take place on the granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley.
This month, as part of our continuing celebration of the National Park Service centennial, were taking a special look at the most pivotal climbing moments in Yosemites storied history. To look at this list is to be reminded that the limits of what is humanly possible when flesh and sticky rubber take on a mountain of vertical granite has been radically redefined by four distinct generations of rock monkeys. In 1958, when El Capitan was still widely considered unclimbable, Warren Harding notched the first ascent after 18 grueling months of hammering in pitons. In 2012,Alex Honnoldand Hans Florine tackled the same route inless thanthree hours. Yes, the latter feat includes a qualifier: fastest. Yet the record is no less relevant in todays sport than Hardings first ascent was 60 years ago.
To capture the essence of all these feats, weve assembled some of climbings most celebrated athletes and voices, including longtimeOutsidecontributorDavid Roberts, legendary climberJohn Long, groundbreaking soloist Peter Croft, and the editors ofAlpinist,Rock and Ice, and the American Alpine Club. As I first combed through their odes, following the thread from Harding to Honnold, I was reminded of something another of our contributors,Greg Child, wrote inOutsidein 2000 inan essay heralding the sports Yankee pioneers: Not long ago, the American climbing landscape and our collective climbing psyche were blank canvases awaiting artists. That canvas is no longer blank, but Yosemites granite continues to be the lodestone that draws the sports most inspiring artists. And the radical progression shows no sign of abating. In 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free climb of El Caps Dawn Wall in 19 days. Last summer, Adam Ondra hinted at his desire to climb it in less than one. If adventure is simply an act of daring enterprise, then each season in Yosemite is proof that it is most assuredly not dead. Chris Keyes
1800s: Cathedral Peak and Half Dome
1950s & 1960s: Half Dome and El Cap
1980s & 1990s: New Heights and Broken Records
2000Present: Honnold, Caldwell, and Jorgeson
1800s: Cathedral Peak and Half Dome
1869: John Muir Makes First Ascent of Cathedral Peak
Yosemite climbing got off to a rollicking start 20 years after the Gold Rush. John Muir was not yet the renowned nature mystic hed become. He was a refugee of the Industrial Revolution back east who had been blinded for months in a work accident and had a case of wanderlust. He walked from Indiana to Florida, then shipped out to the Amazon, only to hear rumors of Yosemite and end up in California. Muir picked up work as a sheepherder, which, by September 1869, landed him in the deep grass of Tuolumne Meadows, staring up at Cathedral Peak.
The striking peak was cliffy most of the way around but on the west side relented to steep slabs. Up Muir went, balancing on the balls of his feet, the leather soles of his boots gripping just enough to keep from skittering back down hundreds of feet. Above rose the spiry summit, its gleaming granite smooth and vertical for 40 feet up every side Muir could reach. He would had to have clambered through a notch onto a ledge that sloped away toward a much more serious drop down the south face. The summit would have been tantalizingly close, but there would have been a death fall beneath him. This is where modern climbers in sticky-rubber shoes cinch on a nylon rope, but of course neither would exist for a good 80 years. All alone and gulping down his unease at the drop below, Muir would have jammed his feet into the gleaming granites only flaw, a vertical crack, which by todays standards is rated 5.4. He would have then pulled onto the summit block, no bigger than a kitchen table.
The view was magnificent: peaks of the national park Muir would later be instrumental in creating spread to the horizon. His flock of sheep grazed contentedly in the meadow below. It was Muirs first summer in the Sierra, which would become the subject of one of his best-loved books,My First Summer in the Sierra. He wrote grippingly of later climbing adventures but curiously said next to nothing about his Cathedral climb. Instead, awed by the mountains that would captivate him the rest of his life, what he said instead in his 1911 book,My First Summer in the Sierra, was, This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California. Doug Robinson
By the latter half of the 19th century, word of the jaw-dropping Yosemite Valley was spreading around the country, and people would ride horseback for days to have a look. Big James Hutchings owned the central hotel in the meadow right across from Yosemite Falls, and John Muir had settled in the Valley, living in a loft above Hutchings sawmill. In his 1869 book,The Yosemite Book, Josiah Whitney, Californias official state geologist, had written off Half Dome as perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been and will never be trodden by human foot.
Whitney didnt reckon someone like an ambitious Valley entrepreneur named George Anderson would come along.
In 1875, Anderson had recently finished toiling as a laborer, busting rocks to build the first stagecoach road into Yosemite. He dreamed of perching a hotel way up on the shoulder of the dome, and guiding tourists to the summit. But his leather-soled boots were too slippery to make it up the steep, 400-foot granite slab on its eastern flank. He tried going in socks, to no avail. He smeared pine pitch onto moccasins, but that didnt work either.
Then Anderson had an idea. He turned to his road-building tools: a star drill and heavy single jackhammer. Affixing himself to a rope, he drilled a small hole six inches deep in the wall, then pounded in an eyebolt, curled his bare toes over the end, stood up carefully in balance, and began hammering away at the next hole. It was a slow way up and a long way back down at the end of the day.
Andersons ascent was Yosemites first aided siege of a big wall and the first use of bolts. Just ten days after making the summit, he guided the first group of tourists up his lines.
Anderson never did build his hotel. Today, chest-high steel cables safeguard the still nerve-wracking climb up Half Domeon a busy summer day, 3,000 people will hike it. Near the summit, if you look carefully, you might spy a few of George Andersons original bolt holesthe beginnings of what is still Yosemites most controversial climbing techniqueone of them sporting a rusted shank that dates back 140 years to the Valleys first bolt ladder. Doug Robinson
At dawn each morning, climbers form a line in front of the entry kiosk to Camp 4, a walk-in campground without cars, which is unique in Yosemite. Each climber is hoping to land a spot in the dirt; the lucky ones end up shoehorned among six strangers into a campsite.
The area, a former Ahwahneechee Indian campsite, has been considered hallowed ground by the local climbing community ever since the first climbing ropes arrived in the Valley in 1933. Its the social center, where partnerships form and tales of epics on the walls are polished over cans of PBR and Old English 800. Scattered boulders are one of its draws. At dead center, on the east face of Columbia Bouldereasily the most mammoth rock in camprises Midnight Lightning (V8), the most famous boulder problem in the world.
While some sponsored climbers can retreat to a house near the Valley, the legions of other climbers flock to Camp 4. But they, like campers throughout Yosemite, must abide by the parks 14-day camping limit. Circumventing that rule can run climbers afoul of park rangers, who have been known to deploy night-vision goggles to ferret out lurkers in the woods.
An event nearly 20 years ago threatened to ruin Camp 4 forever. On New Years Day in 1997, meltwater poured over the rim of the Valley, washing away whole campgrounds and the riverside cabins at the Yosemite Lodge. Park planners drew up an idea to squeeze in a five-story employee dorm building above the Camp 4 parking lot.
In response, climber Tom Frost filed suit against the National Park Service and rallied climbers in protest. The rangers were near panic when 600 of us showed up one day in 1999. Law enforcement on horseback surrounded a photo session beneath Midnight Lightning, and there were speeches.Yvon ChouinardFrosts climbing partnerstood up to address the crowd: If John Muir were here today, would he be staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel? Hell no, hed be in Camp 4!
This gathering bred new respect from the rangers, and on February 21, 2003, Camp 4 was accepted into the National Registry of Historic Places. Its future secured, Camp 4 returned to its perennial role as a crucible. Doug Robinson
During the first decades of the early 20th century, Californias best climbers, most of whom were Sierra Club members, took to the mountains like John Muir had: scaling logical paths to the top of the Sierras highest peaks, carrying neither rope nor hardware. If their routes happened to traverse airy ground, they swallowed hard and made the movesor backed off. But lacking both a rope and the wiles to use one meant the ranges most vertiginous summits lay untouched.
In 1931, Francis Farquhar, a Sierra Club board member and its future president, learned of Harvard professor Robert Underhills travels among the technical peaks of the Alps and invited him to tutor the clubs best climbers in European rope management. Bestor Robinson and Jules Eichorn took part in Underhills classes, and Eichorn and others later accompanied Underhill on forays up two technical 14ers: Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Whitneys East Face.
Back home in the Berkeley Hills, Robinson and Eichorn, along with club member Dick Leonard, practiced and improved on those techniques. In September 1933, they launched off to climb Yosemites most imposing unclimbed summit: the Higher Cathedral Spire. For two hours, they hiked steep talus slopes to the spires 400-foot south face, where, after a daylong reconnaissance, during which they used ten-inch nails rather than proper pitons, the difficult climbing stymied the men. They returned in November with German pitons but again were rebuffed.
In April 1934, the men returned with 55 steel pitons, two ropes, a movie camera, and a retinue that included Farquhar himself. This time, by weighting the pitons to make upward progresswhich become known as direct aidthey gained the summit at sunset, where they unfurled an American flag, and then slid down their ropes to the ground.
Higher Cathedral was an inflection point in the trajectory of Yosemite climbing: direct aid became the solution for surmounting Yosemites gargantuan faces. Perhaps Robinson put it best in his account in the Sierra Club Bulletin: Looking back on the climb, we find our greatest satisfaction in having demonstrated, at least to ourselves, that by the proper application of climbing technique extremely difficult ascents can be made in safety.Brad Rassler
In 1946, John Salath, a Swiss immigrant, was eyeing the Lost Arrow Spire, a 200-foot granite pillar in the Yosemite Falls area that stands alone, offset from the main wall by 120 feet. The Lost Arrow was considered an ultimate prize, and as Salath eyed a route from its base to the tip via a series of cracks and chimneys, he knew it would be the longest and most technical climb yet attempted in Yosemite.
Salath soon learned that the rocks many shallow cracks, which chewed up the standard soft steel pins of the day, would complicate an ascent by piton. His pitons deformed when nailed into a bottoming slot; they also got stuck in the rock, or their heads broke off from repeated hammer blows.
Salath could have bolted his way through the rocks difficulties, but he hated the idea of cheating his way up the climb. He solved the problem by forging a set of pitons from carbon steel containing vanadium, the same alloy used to make Ford Model A axles. The following year, Salath and his partner, Anton Ax Nelson, used the new pitons for five consecutive days and four nights to make the first ascent of the Lost Arrow Chimney. Word got out about Salaths climb and his amazing pitons, but he made just a handful for himself and a few friends.
By the time I arrived in Yosemite Valley in 1957, Salath and his pitons were gone. So I made a similar set for myself, and then for friends, and then for friends of friends, because everyone realized that the chrome-alloy steel piton was the key that unlocked the door to Yosemites big walls.
Take the North America Wall on El Capitan, with its difficult aid climbing at the bottom. Most of those first four pitches go at A3, and we couldnt have climbed them without hard steel pitons. I made 50 in various sizes, which we leapfrogged to the top.
Business school professors and venture capitalists are fond of the term disruptive innovation to describe stuff that fundamentally changes how the game is played. Salaths pitons were certainly game changers. They advanced the state of big-wall art and ushered in Yosemites golden age.Yvon Chouinard, as told to Brad Rassler
The slender Lost Arrow Spire, to the right of Upper Yosemite Falls, was first summited, in 1946, by a group of Californians. The team threw a weighted line over the tip from the Valley rim, 125 feet away. Two men then rappelled into the notch between the spire and the rim and ascended ropes to the summit. Spectacular and effective though [it] was, this maneuver required very little real climbing, admitted 29-year-old Anton Ax Nelson, one of the climbers.
The next year, looking to climb Lost Arrow via a more sporting route, Nelson joined forces with John Salath, a 48-year-old Swiss immigrant who had already tried twice to climb the spire from the notch. Although they were born a generation apart, both men were skilled tradesman, teetotalers, and happy to pack only dried fruit, nuts, and gummy bears, plus about two pints of water per day, for their multiday climb from the foot of the spire. They were armed with 18 of the revolutionary pitons that Salath, a metalworker, had forged from a Model A car axlethese could be repeatedly driven into tiny cracks without bucklingand a curved skyhook for hanging onto ledges.
All through the summer, rival teams traded attempts on Lost Arrow Chimney, the 1,200-foot gash forming the spires left side. Over Labor Day weekend, Salath and Nelson passed the previous high point. Steeper rock then slowed them to a crawlthey managed a total of only 400 feet during days three and four of the climb, enduring long, windy bivouacs sitting on bare rock with no tent or sleeping bags. Food, sleep, and water can be dispensed with to a degree not appreciated until one is in a position where little can be had, Nelson wrote later. On the morning of the fifth day, they finally stood on top. The Lost Arrow Chimney, made possible by new gear and a bold style, was by far the hardest wall climbed yet in North America, paving the way for much bigger faces on Half Dome and El Capitan.Dougald MacDonald
In the annals of Yosemite history, there are two eras of big-wall climbing:beforeHalf Dome, and big-wall climbingafterHalf Dome. Thats how much the first ascent of the walls sheer northwest face changed the trajectory of the sport. The leader of the first ascent team was not only the most gifted athlete of his era but was the first climber to become a brand for vision, ethics, and boldness, years before he launched the clothing line that would bear his imprimatur.
The northwest faces first several hundred feet climbed like much of the rock elsewhere in the Valley. It was the topmost two-thirds that were unprecedented in scale and verticality, with an average angle over 80 degrees. Peering up at the probable route from the base, a team would be forced to connect a discontinuous series of ledges, chimneys, and flakes, and somehow navigate around or through Half Domes Visor, a fearsome overhang that loomed over the 2,000-foot face.
In 1955, Royal Robbins ventured onto Half Domes northwest aspect for the time, accompanied by a trio of seasoned climbers: Jerry Gallwas, Don Wilson, and Warren Harding. But it was so difficultboth technically and psychologicallythat the team abandoned after 450 feet. It wasnt that the climbing was so hard, wrote Robbins in his memoir,Fail Falling, but rather that the vertical vastness cowed us.
Two years later, Robbins and Gallwas tried again with Mike Sherrick, and the three clambered onto Half Domes broad summit, having negotiated features that have become the stuff of legend: the Robbins Traverse, the Robbins Chimney, the Zig Zags, and the improbable Thank God Ledge. When the three reached the top, the competitive Harding, who had coveted the climb, greeted them with a bag of sandwiches and a gallon of water.
Hey, congratulations, you lucky rotten bastards, he said, remembered Robbins in his memoir. The men packed up and began their hike out. They should have returned to the Valley as heroes for conquering Yosemites most iconic wall, but save for a few climbers, most people were ignorant of their venture. And thus with Half Domea climb in which Robbins [began] a lifelong effort to make adventure an aesthetic standard, according to Yosemite historian Joseph E. TaylorRobbins threw down the gauntlet for every climber of his era, and for those yet to come.Brad Rassler
The fall days were cold and short, and climbers Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore, and Rich Calderwood were within shouting distance of the summit on El Capitan. Only one final obstacle, a bald and overhanging headwall, separated them from success on the mightiest rock wall in the contiguous United States.
The four had been on the route for 11 days during their final pushtwice as long as any American had ever spent on a rock climb. Theyd met obstacles no climber had ever faced, let alone mastered: swinging wild pendulums, hammering a string of homemade pitons behind expanding flakes threatening to peel off the face, rats gnawing through their sleeping bags, and rope-hauling hundreds of pounds of food and water up a granite cliff.
At dusk, the climbers ate their last candy bars. Then Harding strapped on a headlamp and started hand-drilling boltsthe only way to overcome the headwall. In a 12-hour marathon, as Merry hung belaying from slings, Harding hammered through the night. Finally, at 6 a.m., Harding asked Merry if he could hang on for one more bolt.
Jesuscan I hang on? said Merry in an interview 50 years later. I had been standing there looking up all night at this little spidery figure haloed by its headlamp, dangling under overhangs and banging away above his headand he asks me if I can hang on!
At last, the rope slipped into the first rays of sunlight as Harding punched home the 28th and final bolt and stumbled to the top. The first ascent of the South Buttress of El Capitanthe Nosethe most celebrated and sought-after rock climb in the world, was finally history. The date was November 12, 1958.
Not until Harding and Co. began their first sorties up the Lower Buttress had anyone even considered climbing El Cap. In the decade after their first ascent, the route came to be considered the best and most well-known climb in the world. John Long
On a September day in 1961, three climbers nearly 1,000 feet up uncharted terrain on El Cap threw three of their six ropes down to the distant ground. Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt were committedhaving chucked their only means of rappel, they could only go up.
Until then, only one route had been climbed on El Capthe Nose, three years earlierand certainly no helicopter or other rescues occurred there. The Salath Wall would be the second route on the monolith.
The three men encountered difficulties demanding the latest techniques. At one point on the wall, Robbins, a pendulum expert, swung wildly sideways on a rope to cross over from one crack system to another. At another point, he led a terrifying unprotected chimney called the Ear. Pratt led a hard jam crack to a glorious bivvy on a 12-square-foot platform topping the detached El Cap Spire.
Four days in, the three men were under a 15-foot roof 500 feet from the top. Frost took lead, finding hidden cracks, stretching his arms to nail pitons in place. As Robbins wrote inMy Life: The Golden Age,I will always remember Tom leading that pitch.
Frost surmounted the roof only to discover the now-famous headwall that overhung for 200 feet. Pratt took over, jamming anew up one of the hardest pitches of the route. For a climber, sticking ones toes to the rock in that section is to feel ones heels hang over vast empty air. On the sixth day, having placed only 13 bolts, the men reached the top.
No new climb the length and difficulty of El Caps southwest face ever had been done in one push without fixed ropes, wrote Steve Roper and Allen Steck in their bookFifty Classic Climbs of North America. The climbers choice to minimize use of such siege tactics on unknown terrain upped their personal commitment, increased the amount of gear and supplies they must carry, and ultimately proved the feasibility of a new idea.
As Roper says today, that first ascent proved that a huge wall could be climbed (mostly) without fixing ropesa big step upward. Going into uncharted land without the umbilical cord was very bold.Alison Osius
The American Alpine Journallabeled Steve Roper as one of two godfathers of American climbing literature, along with Allen Steck. Nobody has written more astutely, insightfully, informatively, and, in some places, enigmatically about American climbing than Steve. Nowhere is his erudite imprint on the genre more evident than in that first Yosemite guidebook,A Climbers Guide to Yosemite Valley. It was the first collection of all the Valley routes, succinctly described per pitch, and it gave any climber democratic knowledge of what was previously available only to a few Camp 4 regulars. The book is no longer used, but it set the standard for todays guidebooks.
When I came to Yosemite in 1968, just after Id started climbing, Roper was an icon, having completed many of the finest first ascents in the Valley. Few Yosemite climbers, novice or veteran, were without his book. It led countless climbers to and through and up and down the finest adventures (and misadventures) of their lives. It established the Yosemite Decimal System as the standard for rating American rock climbs and described the routes in well-written English rather than topo drawings. Topos are controversial in that they tend to make climbing a bit easier on the brain, Roper wrote in the guidebooks second and final edition, published in 1971. Topos assure speed records; they also lessen responsibility Part of the adventure of climbing is removed.
I wish I still had my copy. Dick Dorworth
The current Yosemite big-wall guidebook lists more than a hundred routes on El Capitan, but in the early 1960s, there were just four. Those routes all led up the mountains southwest face, which, while no pushover, is less steep than the then-unclimbed southeast face. In 1963, the methodical Royal Robbins began probing this overhanging territory. His exploratory forays drew him into a moody geologic feature of black diorite that bore an uncanny resemblance to the map of North America.
At the time, Robbins was the driving force of big-wall climbing. He had repeated all the routes on El Cap and pioneered one, the Salath Wall. His vision for the North America Wall was to make a statement about the ethics of climbing the big stone. The wall would be a departure from Warren Hardings months-long siege that created the Nose, with its umbilical cord of fixed ropes to the ground that had become de rigueur on other routes. In the Robbins dictum of rockcraft, there would be no ropes tempting retreat to the ground; instead, there would be total commitment.
In October 1964, Robbins assembled a team with Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, and Yvon Chouinard for his brash climb. With no certain idea of where the discontinuous crack systems would lead them, the men zigzagged through massive overhangs like the ominously named Cyclops Eyehammering steel, dangling in aid slings, and bivouacking in crude hammocksto climb over the top on the tenth day.
In Chris Jones 1976 book,Climbing in North America,the summit photo of the triumphant foursome standing amid a dusting of snow is captioned, For the first time in the history of the sport, Americans lead the world. The California-style big-wall tactics refined in Yosemite would spread to mega-cliffs around the globe. Greg Child
Warren Harding was the polar opposite of Royal Robbins. Where Robbins took climbing seriously, Batso Harding couldnt give a rats arse. He carted flagons of wine up walls. His Camp Four party world of sports cars and girlfriends was infamous. His writings about climbing were irreverent. The title of Hardings 1975 autobiography,Downward Bound, sums up his approach to climbing.
Every first ascent on El Cap has employed a certain amount of drilling, a tactic of tapping a hand drill with a hammer and bashing in a rivet or bolt to connect discontinuous cracks. But in the late 1960s, some climbers developed ethics that shunned too much bolting. Robbins preached that sermon loudly, even though hed bashed 110 bolts into Tis-sa-ack, his 1969 route on Half Dome. Harding, on the other hand, made liberal use of his hand drill.
In November 1970, Harding and Dean Caldwell started up a sweep of rock dubbed the Wall of the Early Morning Light (later abbreviated to Dawn Wall) because its where the first kiss of dawn hits El Cap. They spent 27 days aid climbing and hauling 300 pounds of gear. They endured storms, and they refused rescue by the National Park Service. On top, they met a throng of media.
Why on Gods green earth do you guys climb mountains? asked a reporter.
Because were insane, cant be another reason,answered Harding.
Along with recognition came criticism. Robbins complained theyd beaten El Cap into submission with too many boltstheyd drilled 300. In 1971, Robbins and Don Lauria set out to repeat and erase the route by snapping off the rivet heads with hammer and chisel. After deleting 50 or so bolts, however, they stopped chopping. Why? Robbins and Lauria found Hardings route to be worthy after all, given the technical difficulty. But by then, theyd done everlasting damage to Hardings route.
Harding and Robbins had long been rivals, but neither man quite recovered from having his climb destroyed or from being the destroyer. Harding never climbed El Cap again. Almost a half-century later, the tale still looms over the mountain like a Greek tragedy, with some murky moral about excess and ambition. But Harding may have gotten the last word on it. In his article Reflections of a Broken-Down Climber, published inAscentin 1971, Harding snidely said of Robbins obliteration of his route, Perhaps he is confusing climbing ethics with prostitution morality, like a 100-bolt climb (or a $100-a-night call girl) is proper, but a 300-bolt climb (or a $300-a-night call girl) is immoral.Greg Child
To climbers venturing up Yosemites crack-riven walls in the sports earlier decades, nothing was so reassuring as the ring of a well-driven piton. But as more climbers entered the Valley and vied for the same classic climbs, repeated hammer bashing was transforming those pristine cracks into a series of unsightly divots.
Then, in 1972, Doug Robinsons now-famous essay, The Whole Natural Art of Protection, was published in the Chouinard Equipment Catalog. Robinson made the case for holstering hammers and sequestering pitons and taking up nutcraft, not only for the sake of the stone but also for honing ones mastery of the medium. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man, he wrote. Robinsons polemic was compelling, but a proof of concept was required to carry the day. As it turned out, the opportunity would fall into his lap within the year.
In 1973, Galen Rowell, a climber and auto mechanic, scored his first big break as a photojournalist whenNational Geographichired him to chronicle the ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome. He approached Robinson and Dennis Hennek and was surprised when they demurred after Rowell suggested that they would use pitons to ascend the wall. Here I was, sharing a dr