American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Modern Yosemite Climbing

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  • Publication Year: 1963

Modern Yosemite Climbing

Yvon Chouinard

Yosemite climbing is the least known and understood and yet one of the most important schools of rock climbing in the world today. Its philosophies, equipment and techniques have been developed almost independently of the rest of the climbing world. In the short period of thirty years, it has achieved a standard of safety, difficulty and technique comparable to the best European schools.

Climbers throughout the world have recently been expressing interest in Yosemite and its climbs although they know little about it. Even most American climbers are unaware of what is happening in their own country. Yosemite climbers in the past have rarely left the Valley to climb in other areas, and conversely few climbers from other regions ever come to Yosemite; also, very little has ever been published about Yosemite. Climb after climb, each as important as any done elsewhere, has gone completely unrecorded. One of the greatest rock climbs ever done, the 1961 ascent of the Salathé Wall, received four sentences in the American Alpine Journal.

Just why is Yosemite climbing so different? Why does it have techniques, ethics and equipment all of its own? The basic reason lies in the nature of the rock itself. Nowhere else in the world is the rock so exfoliated, so glacier-polished, and so devoid of handholds. All of the climbing lines follow vertical crack systems. Every piton crack, every handhold is a vertical one. Special techniques and equipment have evolved through absolute necessity.

Special Problems. Since Yosemite has characteristics all of its own, it also has its special problems and difficulties. Because the Valley lies at an altitude of only 4000 feet, the cliffs are often covered with trees and bushes, and the cracks are usually filled with dirt and grass, making it more difficult, time-consuming and uncomfortable for the first ascent party.

Situated in the center of sunny California, the threat of stormy weather is not serious; however, when an occasional storm does hit, usually in the spring or fall, it can be serious because most climbers are not prepared mentally, physically, or materially for it. American mountaineers have tended to belittle the climbing in Yosemite because of the fact that it lacks the storms of the high mountains, but personally I have never suffered so much from the weather as I have in Yosemite.

Bad weather in California means hot weather. The usual climbing temperature is 85° to 90° during the day and 50° at night. Temperatures above 100° are common. During June and July of 1961 there were fifteen consecutive days with temperatures of over 95°! It is usually too hot to do much climbing from late July to the first of September. The heat poses a related problem, that of carrying great loads up the walls. The minimum water that must be taken on the big climbs is 1½ quarts per man a day. Water, food and bivouac equipment, combined with the usual 45 pitons and 35 carabiners, make a considerably heavier load than one carried on a comparable climb in the high mountains. On a two or three-day climb, the second man climbs with a fairly heavy pack, while the leader hauls up another. The latter always has two ropes, one to climb with and the other to haul up extra pitons or the pack.

Safety. Even with the standard of extreme difficulty which has been achieved, safety has not been disregarded. There are many reasons for this, the most important, of course, being the American’s love of safety and security and his innate fear of death, which have caused revolutionary innovations in belaying and equipment. Pitons are used far more numerously for protection than in Europe. Objective danger is also less in Yosemite than anywhere else in the world. There is little danger of natural rockfall, loose rock or bad storms ; as the rock is so smooth and steep and has few ledges, a fall usually only helps to build one’s confidence.

Free Climbing. Not only is every piton crack vertical, but nearly every handhold is a vertical one. Lay-backing, jamming, chimneying, pinch-holds and friction climbing are the usual techniques. Face climbing, such as one finds in the Tetons or the Rockies, is a rarity.

Most persons who have never climbed in the Valley are under the impression that the rock is similar to that in Chamonix or the Bugaboos. This is not so. They have completely different types of rock. Yosemite granite does not fracture in angular blocks as does the granite of the French Alps or even the rest of the Sierra Nevada. The Valley is actually a series of exfoliation domes that have been cut in half by a river and glaciers. This means that most of the climbing is on flakes, be they small and thin or large dihedrals. Pitons are placed almost always behind a flake or in a vertical inside corner. This vertical-crack climbing takes not only a great deal of technique but also enormous strength. Yosemite climbers develop certain characteristic muscles as a direct result of using vertical holds.

There is undoubtedly more chimney climbing in Yosemite than in any area in the world. Chimneys range from those that require one-arm and one-leg techniques to others that have chockstones bigger than a house, from perfect “Rébuffat” types to flaring, bomb-bay, horizontal “horror” chimneys, and from short slots to some that are over 1000 feet high. Also characteristic of the Valley is friction climbing on glacier-polished slabs. There are climbs in the Valley that have hundreds of feet of this. Very difficult moves have been made on these slabs, using friction, fingernail holds, and edging on tiny flakes. These must be treated as if one were only a few feet off the ground because the second one loses confidence, even for a moment, hands sweat, legs shake, feet slip—and one is out in space.

All the techniques of free climbing were established not in Yosemite but at Tahquitz Rock in southern California. From the 1930s to the present day, it has been the training ground for nearly every prominent Valley climber. This magnificent rock has over seventy routes on massive, exfoliated granite, similar to Yosemite’s except for its lack of glacial polish and dirt in the cracks. This means that a move will go free at Tahquitz where normally in Yosemite it would require direct aid. Because of its accessibility, compactness and sound piton cracks, Tahquitz offers ideal conditions for pushing free climbing to its limits. Most of the routes were first done with direct aid, but over a period of time nearly every one has been done free. It was the first area to have class 5.9 climbs and continues to have the greatest concentration of class 5.8, 5.9 and 5.10 routes in the country.

When one finds a lay-back or a friction pitch at Tahquitz, it is a textbook-type pitch; a lay-back is a pure lay-back requiring pure lay-back technique, a friction pitch requires pure friction technique. Nothing else will do. One can develop granite-climbing technique here far better than in Yosemite or anywhere else. I can not impress it enough on climbers from other areas to climb at Tahquitz before going to Yosemite. Every spring even the native climbers spend a week at Tahquitz getting in shape for the Valley walls.

Artificial Climbing. Because most piton cracks are vertical and there are few ceilings, the double-rope technique, standard throughout the rest of the world, is never used in Yosemite. Nor is tension used except on overhanging rock. Instead, only one rope is run through all of the pitons and large numbers of runners are used to eliminate the rope drag. The use of one rope has greatly increased the efficiency, simplicity and speed of artificial climbing.

Stirrups (slings) made of 1-inch-wide nylon webbing have taken the place of step stirrups. There are many reasons for this: 1. The slings grip the sides and cleats of the climbers’ heelless kletterschuhe and give a much greater feeling of security and comfort, especially when belaying in slings for a long period of time. 2. The slings can be used for runners around large blocks, bushes or trees. 3. In an emergency they can be cut up and used for rappel slings. 4. They can be carried more neatly on the person or pack. 5. They can be used for prusiking more efficiently. The only additional things needed are three small loops of ¼-inch or 5/16-inch cord. 6. They make no noise so that the belayer can hear the little familiar sounds that help him to understand, without looking up, what the leader is doing and to anticipate the belay signals. 7. They allow one to “sit” in one’s slings, thus saving a great deal of energy. 8. There is less chance of dropping them either when a piton pulls out or through carelessness. As far as I can tell, they have no disadvantages over step stirrups. Possibly the reason why they have not been adopted by Europeans is that they are unable to obtain the flat nylon webbing needed for their construction.

Each climber carries three 3-step slings. The leader never leaves them in place but moves them up from piton to piton. A carabiner is kept on each sling and is never removed. On low-angle rock, only one sling is used; on steeper rock, two are used, one foot placed in each. On overhanging rock, a third sling is used to clip into the next piton. When cleaning out a pitch, two or even three slings are often clipped together to reach pitons that are far apart.

The actual technique is done thus: A piton is placed, a carabiner is clipped in, the rope is inserted, and finally the slings are clipped onto this carabiner. On doubtful pitons, the slings are clipped in before the rope is inserted; the climber steps up and tests the piton and then inserts the rope. This leaves less slack in the rope if the piton should pull out. Of course, a carabiner must be used whose gate can still be opened while the carabiner supports body weight.

Equipment. The first pitons were developed for use in the Dolomites in limestone, where a piton is expected to flow into a very irregular crack or hole and fill all the tiny internal pits and irregularities and have such great holding power that it can never be taken out. It was generally considered that only a piton of very malleable steel or iron had the qualities to fulfill these requirements. All European pitons today are still being made thus whether they are going to be used in limestone or not.

John Salathé was the first to realize the need of a piton for climbing on granite. During his attempts on the Lost Arrow, he saw that he needed a stiffer, tougher piton that could be driven into solid veins of rotten granite without buckling, that was lighter than an iron piton, that had greater holding power, and that yet could be taken out faster and more easily and be used over and over again. Out of old Model A Ford axles, he forged some beautiful horizontals, which to this day are almost revered by those lucky enough to own them.

The alloy-steel piton is based on a theory radically different from that of the iron piton. It is not expected to follow cracks but rather to act like a spring, pressing against the sides. It has been proven to have greater holding power in granite and similar rock because it can be driven harder and deeper without buckling into the typical smooth cracks so that it is actually tighter. The entire length of the piton is stiff, so that the head does not bend when removed, thus making it possible to do a several-day, 300-piton climb without leaving a single piton in place. The invention of the alloy-steel piton is as important to rock climbing as is the new ice screw to ice climbing.

In the early 1950s a new piton was invented by another famous Yosemite climber, Charles Wilts, which helped as much as anything to set such a high standard of artificial climbing. This piton, with a blade the size of a postage stamp, was appropriately called the “knife blade”. It was the first piton to be made of chrome-molybdenum aircraft steel and could be used in very thin cracks where no other piton could possibly enter. Although they were originally made for artificial climbing, it was soon found that these pins often had even greater holding power than angle pitons. Gerry Gallwas in 1957 forged some regular horizontals out of chrome-molybdenum steel (SAE 4130) for the 1957 ascent of Half Dome; some of these have been used over a hundred times and are still in use.

Yosemite, as any granitic area, has many wide piton cracks. Wooden wedges were never much used because these large cracks are usually filled with dirt. Several persons made large angle pitons, some up to 4-inch-wide, of various materials. Some, made by William Feuerer for the 1958 ascent of El Capitan, were fashioned from aluminum channel, angle iron and cut-off stove legs.

All of these pitons were made by individuals in home workshops and available only to personal friends. Salathé sold a few, but most climbers thought his price of $.55 too expensive! In 1958 the author started to make this newer type of equipment on a commercial basis. He developed a new aluminum carabiner, stronger than existing steel models, which had a gate that could still be opened under a climber’s weight and shaped to be used in combination with the Bedayn carabiner in the Yosemite method of artificial climbing. Ringless alloy-steel angle pitons were invented that were superior in every way to existing models. The larger angle pitons were made of heat-treated alloy aluminum to save weight. A full line of horizontals of alloy-steel was developed, ranging from a knife blade to a wedge.

Abortive attempts on Kat Pinnacle’s west face showed the need for a piton which would go into tiny bottoming cracks1 which even knife blades failed to enter. From the need came the “RURP”. This “Realized Ultimate Reality Piton” helped to usher in the A5 climbing and was instrumental in allowing tens of existing bolts to be passed up and chopped out. These diminutive pins are far from being just novelties but have become an absolute necessity on nearly all of the newer climbs.

The importance of this new equipment can best be emphasized by saying that since 1958 every major rock climb in North America has used my equipment. The future of rock-climbing equipment lies in the use of the lighter steel and aluminum alloys. Weight is now the major problem to be overcome.

Ethics and Philosophies. The most obvious split between European and Yosemite rock-climbing philosophies is whether to leave pitons in or not. In Europe they are left in place. In Yosemite, even if a climb has been done a hundred times, the pitons are still removed. I believe that nearly everyone, whether European or American, agrees that if practical, a route should not remain pitoned. It is entirely practical in Yosemite to take the pitons out. With the pitons removed and with no guidebook to show the way, a third or succeeding ascent of a route is as difficult as was the second. It is conceivable that a climber who is capable of doing the Bonatti Pillar on the Petit Dru with all the pitons in might not be able to climb the north face of Half Dome, although both climbs unpitoned are of equal difficulty.

In the Alps climbing is not called artificial until a stirrup is used. Free climbing in California means that artificial aid of any sort is not used, whether it be a sling around a knob of rock, a piton for a handhold, foothold or to rest on. After a piton is placed for safety, it may not be used for aid in climbing without changing the classification of the climb.

Especially on short climbs, free climbing is forced to its limits. Guidebooks list not only the first ascents of a route but also the first free ascent. Some climbers feel that it is more of an honor to do the first free ascent than the actual first.

Nowhere else, except on the sandstone climbs of the Southwest, is the need for expansion bolts more pronounced than in the Valley. However, this does not mean that they have been indiscriminately used. Climbers have gone to extremes to avoid placing one of them, except for an anchor, where the ethics are less stringent. The usual attitude toward bolts is that they should only be carried by the better climbers because only they know when a bolt must be placed. If a bolt is put in and a later party feels it unnecessary, then it is chopped out. Lack of equipment, foul weather or a less-than-expert leader is never an excuse for a bolt.

It has become popular in other parts of North America, especially in the Northwest, to lay fixed ropes up a climb to avoid having to bivouac or take a chance with the weather. These ropes create an umbilical cord from man to where he truly belongs and to where he can quickly retreat if things get tough. This manifests American love of security and shows that the climber should not be there in the first place. The only routes now being done with fixed ropes in Yosemite are those that take so long on the first ascent that they could not be done in any other way; such are the multi-day routes on El Capitan.

Perhaps I have given the reader the impression that I feel that Yosemite is the only place to climb and that its philosophies and ethics are the last word. Personally, I would rather climb in the high mountains. I have always abhorred the tremendous heat, the dirt-filled cracks, the ant-covered foul-smelling trees and bushes which cover the cliffs, the filth and noise of Camp 4 (the climbers’ campground) and worst of all, the multitudes of tourists which abound during the weekends and summer months. Out of the nearly 300 routes in the Valley, there are less than 50 which I should care to do or repeat. The climbing as a whole is not very esthetic or enjoyable; it is merely difficult. During the last couple of years there has been in the air an aura of unfriendliness and competition between climbers, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. Like every disease, it was initially spread by a few, and now it has reached a point where practically no one is blameless.

The native climbers are a proud bunch of individuals; they are proud of their valley and its climbs and standards. An outsider is not welcomed and accepted until he proves that he is equal to the better climbs and climbers. He is constantly on trial to prove himself. When he is climbing, he is closely watched to see that he does a free pitch free, that he does not place more than the required number of pitons in an artificial pitch, and that he does the climb speedily. Climbers have left the Valley saying that they will never return because of the way they were treated by the native climbers. These problems will, in time, resolve themselves as the Yosemite climbers move afield and see that there is no room or need for competition or enmity in the mountains.

There have been times when I have felt ashamed to be a Yosemite climber, and there are times when I feel as if I truly hate the place; but then there are times when I should rather be there than anywhere else in the world. If at times I hate the place, it is probably because I love it so. It is a strange, passionate love that I feel for this Valley. More than just a climbing area, it is a way of life.

The Future of Yosemite Climbing. Nearly all of the great classical lines in Yosemite have been ascended. All of the faces have been climbed by at least one route. This does not mean that there are no new routes left, because there are countless new lines on the cliffs which lie between the great formations. Some will be as difficult as any yet done, but that is all they will be. They will offer very little esthetic pleasure. The rock is often poor, the cliffs covered with bushes, and the cracks filled with dirt and moss; blank areas will require bolts. As a line becomes less logical and direct, the esthetic beauty of the climbing also diminishes.

To do a winter climb for the sake of making the first winter ascent is senseless. Winter conditions can be better than in the summer. To do a route under actual winter conditions means climbing immediately after a storm, which is nearly impossible and suicidal. Because the rock is so smooth, ice will not adhere to it except during and directly after a storm. To climb then means having to clear off all the verglas on the holds because the ice is too thin and badly anchored to climb on directly. To clean off all the verglas is a slow process. At Yosemite’s low altitude, the hot California sun early in the morning loosens great sheets of ice and sends them crashing down.

Solo climbing will not be practical until the routes are pitoned. Otherwise, because of the great amounts of direct aid, a two-man party can climb faster and more efficiently on the big climbs. I doubt that the big walls will be pitoned for a long time to come. Besides, at present solo climbing is against the law.

Climbing for speed records will probably become more popular, a mania which has just begun. Climbers climb not just to see how fast and efficiently they can do it, but far worse, to see how much faster and more efficient they are than a party which did the same climb a few days before. The climb becomes secondary, no more important than a racetrack. Man is pitted against man.

The future of Yosemite climbing lies not in Yosemite, but in using the new techniques in the great granite ranges of the world. A certain number of great ascents have already been done in other areas as a direct result of Yosemite climbers and techniques, notably the north face of Mount Conness in the Sierra Nevada, the west face of the South Tower of Howser Spire in the Bugaboos, the two routes on the Diamond on Longs Peak in Colorado, the Totem Pole and Spider Rock in Arizona, the north face of East Temple in the Wind Rivers, the northwest corner of the Petit Dru (voie Américaine) and the first American ascent of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses in the French Alps. Although these ascents are as fine and as difficult as any in their respective areas, they are merely the beginning of a totally new school of American climbing, that is to say technical climbing under Alpine conditions. The opportunities here are limitless. I have personally seen in the Wind River Range and Bugaboos untouched walls that are as difficult and as beautiful as any ever done in the history of Alpinism. There are in the Wind Rivers alone opportunities for fifty Grade VI climbs. The western faces of the Howser Spires in the Bugaboos are from 3000 to 5000 feet high. The Coast Ranges, the Logan Mountains, the innumerable ranges of Alaska, the Andes, the Baltoro Himalaya all have walls which defy the imagination.

Who will make the first ascents of these breath-taking rock faces? From the Americas the climbers can come only from Yosemite. The way it now is, no one can climb enough in the high mountains to get in shape to do a Grade VI climb, either in the mountains or in Yosemite. These extraordinary climbs will be done by dedicated climbers who are in superb mental and physical condition from climbing all year round ; who are used to climbing on granite, doing much artificial climbing and putting in and taking out their own pitons; who are familiar with the problems of living for a long time on these walls, hauling up great loads, standing in slings, sleeping in hammocks for days at a time; and who have the desire and perseverance needed to withstand the intense suffering, which is a prerequisite for the creation of any great work of art. Yosemite Valley will, in the near future, be the training ground for a new generation of superalpinists who will venture forth to the high mountains of the world to do the most esthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth.

1. A crack where the piton hits bottom before being fully inserted.

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