They say vertigo isn't a fear of heights, but a fear of jumping. It's a different sensation, though, staring up a towering 1,500-foot wall of granite in vertiginous Yosemite Valley, a historical epicenter of the sport of rock climbing. It's not fear of heights climbers face here, but a feeling of insignificance: I'm insect-small and about to scale this monstrosity.
But insignificance can be strangely empowering, a reminder of how our egos have deceived us since birth. The stunning cliff looming above is Yosemite Point Buttress, which my climbing partner and I will attempt along an unknown and difficult passage. As the half-light of dawn gathers, and a damp chill blows across the vertical wilderness from the roaring Yosemite Falls, I suddenly feel like a small yet essential part of something far grander than myself.
I turn to Nicolas, my climbing partner, whose eyes are still fixed skyward. He, too, is enjoying the sensations: anxiety, uncertainty, determination, the crispness of the air, the distinctive wet-concrete smell of dewy granite. East Bay climbing legend Allen Steck first conquered this rock in 1952, and I'd wanted for years to repeat his heroic climb. But if it's anything like his infamous Steck-Salathe route up Sentinel Rock, or his seldom-repeated Lost Arrow Chimney, it's gonna be a bitch -- some decidedly advanced terrain.
I comfort myself by recalling how Steck, now 78, enthusiastically wished us good luck via cell phone on our drive here from Berkeley. Steck has climbed his way around the globe in a career spanning more than fifty years, but Yosemite is still revered territory for him. In fact, "The Valley," as climbers call it, is venerated by climbing enthusiasts worldwide. It is bounded by famously towering cliffs with hundreds of routes. With a little experience, the right equipment, and adequate preparations, even beginners can cut their teeth on such moderate classics as the "Royal Arches," "The Snake Dike," and "The Nut Cracker."
At the base Nicolas ties one end of our rope to his climbing harness using a figure-eight knot. I tie into the other. We're bound together from here on in -- a team responsible for one another's lives. We'll take turns climbing throughout the long day ahead, one of us stationary and keeping the rope taut -- a process called "belaying" -- while the other ascends. The route will progress one pitch at a time, each no longer than our two-hundred-foot rope allows.
To minimize the risk, we will occasionally clip the rope through pieces of protection -- any of the various devices climbers insert, tie, pound, or drill into the rock to stop a fall. One of the most amazing pieces used today is an expanding mechanical wonder commonly called a "cam." Ray Jardine, an engineer and climber, invented and tested the design in Yosemite in the early '70s, and suddenly the number of climbable routes around the world exploded. Devices such as the cam opened up climbs once considered too dangerous.
Over my shoulder, I heft our "rack," a loop of cord with pieces of protection dangling and clanging like some gaudy, metallic purse. Then I set out, the sticky rubber on my specialized shoes adhering to the speckled granite as my hands comfortably work upward along a crack in the rock. From below, Nicolas is watching my progress intently as he feeds me slack from the rope. I stop to place a cam in the crack, where it expands to make a snug fit. I then clip to it a D-shaped gated link called a carabiner, and snap our rope through. Moving on, I pause periodically to place more protection. Ten minutes later I reach a ledge at 150 feet, then belay Nicolas as he climbs, removing each piece of protection as he moves past it.
One pitch down, fourteen to go.
The equipment was quite different when Allen Steck first tackled this route. Much of it was surplus from World War II, in which he'd served. During his ascent, he wore hard leather boots with stiff soles, much like today's hiking boots. He carried an Army-surplus nylon rope, a selection of iron "ring angles" from the famed WW II Tenth Mountain Division, and a hammer to pound the iron into the rock for protection. Most ring angles were removed even then, but the process irreversibly damaged the rock, and sometimes the hardware had to be left behind.
As climbing became more popular in the '60s and '70s, concern grew about the harm being done by climbers. The debate became especially intense in Yosemite and led to development of devices such as the cam that could be placed and removed harmlessly. Nowadays mountaineers embrace an ethical code by which they strive to come and go without leaving any sign of their presence.
Even with modern gear, Steck's route is no picnic. As the day progresses, Nicolas and I labor upward. We worm up a three-hundred-foot "chimney," grunting for every inch gained. Some sections of the climb appear impossible until we find ingenious ways around that our forebears discovered for themselves half a century before. While belaying one another, we rest upon ledges and watch the changing shadows of the cliffs across the valley floor thousands of feet below, or examine the delicate flowers growing from a thin crack. We track the birds whipping past below us: a screeching peregrine falcon, a pair of ravens plying an updraft, hundreds of acrobatic swallows.
Daytime wanes as the valley floor diminishes in the distance. We view the sinking sun with fading energy and growing anxiety. With only a few pitches left, I lead out from what Steck had dubbed "The Pedestal" -- an enormous ledge with an expansive exposure. This is the most difficult climbing yet: A thin crack rises three hundred feet, bisecting a sheer wall of granite. It requires delicate balance and concentration. I inch upward along the crack with thousands of feet of empty space all around me -- nothing but the sound of my breathing, the touch of the rock, and motions of my hands and feet. My exhaustion gradually turns to exultant energy as I get through the long and difficult stretch and realize we're going to make it.
We reach the top just as the umber setting sun flames Half Dome and the countless Sierra peaks to the east. We are both thrilled and relieved. Behind a climber's passion for adventure, a nagging presence constantly reminds us of the dangers. What makes our pastime so thrilling is that it brings a difficult goal to fruition in a time frame seldom experienced in everyday life. In climbing, the feedback comes quickly. The sport can become a joyous game in which we challenge delusions about our limits and abilities and learn something about our true nature.
Laughing and chatting, Nicolas and I coil the rope and crunch through the snow, hiking four horizontal miles and one vertical mile down to the valley floor. On the way, we are already talking about our next climb.
Climbers like to talk about their sport nearly as much as they like to do it, so it was with great excitement that I arranged a meeting with Allen Steck to compare notes. The setting was Berkeley IronWorks, a local gym where East Bay climbers hone body and technique on artificial walls textured with thousands of bright plastic holds. We figured we'd work a few indoor routes as we dissected the details of Yosemite Point Buttress and discussed the East Bay's historical ties to the sport.
Yosemite Valley is to climbing as Silicon Valley is to microchips -- that much is evident from the gym itself: Steck and I began our workout on a wall with route names honoring early Yosemite and East Bay climbing pioneers. There's the Roper route -- the East Bay's Steve Roper teamed up with Steck to write the climbing bible America's Fifty Classics and authored other notable climbing literature. And the Rowell route, which lauds famed Berkeley climber and photographer Galen Rowell. The Schneider and Florine routes recognize two local modern-day speed climbers. I fruitlessly looked for a Muir route, since East Bay resident John Muir was the father of the entire East Bay lineage of mountaineers -- and a David Brower route, after the Berkeley local who followed in Muir's footsteps as a key mountaineer and conservationist. I pointed to the Steck route and suggested we give it a go.
At first glance, with Steck's steel hair, stiff gait, and slight hunch, it was hard to imagine him climbing hard. But the octogenarian-to-be quickly dispelled that impression by moving easily up the route that bears his name. He glided from one plastic hold to the next with a grace perfected long before some entrepreneur dreamed up indoor climbing. His center of gravity was balanced, his weight borne by his feet to spare his hands and arms. He moved unhurriedly, finding veiled positions to rest as he plans his next move.
Steck has a clear gaze and genuine smile that reveal the combined intensity and humility of a man who has spent a lifetime climbing in awe-inspiring settings. Even now, his eyes communicate an intimacy with his limits and a zeal to challenge them. Conversation with him is easy, filled with the babbling slang that unites all of us climbers.
I asked him about the most difficult stretch of the Buttress, curious how he dealt with it more than fifty years ago. "Off the pedestal, we aided up a thin seam to the right," he recalled. "In those days we had nothing big enough to protect the crack that you climbed."
"I saw the seam. It looked hard," I replied. "I think I saw some of your pitons there still."
I asked about some of the sections we encountered toward the bottom. "Oh, so you did the variation?" Steck asked. "When we first did the route we came up to the right of where you were."
"The variation done by Chouinard and Frost?" I clarified. "So you came up the gully that we joined on the right side of the Pedestal?"
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