Comment on the Two Ascents of the Wall of Morning Light

California, Yosemite
Author: TM Herbert. Climb Year: N/A. Publication Year: 1971.

After 14 years of rock climbing, I have finally been moved to written comment.

What prompted this? One of the most important events I have witnessed during my years of climbing, an event which was completed on February 4, 1971, when Royal Robbins and Don Lauria without fanfare made the second ascent in 5½ days. What now could be more important than raising American rock-climbing standards? What about the fine first ascents by Robbins, Frost, Kor, Chouinard, Pratt and others of the golden generation in an age when new lines fell one after another? I often wonder if anything anywhere in the world could ever top the solo ascent of the Muir Wall. I have seen fine free and artificial climbers pushing themselves to their limit using runners, nuts, pitons, and a rare bolt occasionally for protection. Many of my companions have risked nasty falls, even their lives, trying first ascents without placing a single bolt. In the 2000 feet on the west face of El Capitan, Robbins and I kept the bolts down to one.

In November, amidst helicopters, reporters, rangers and tourists, two climbers came bolting, bat hooking and aluminum riveting over the summit of this mountain of rock which in the past has given me the finest climbing experiences of my life. It seemed to me that everyone I met, climber or not, was talking about the two on El Cap. I felt like screaming, “But they bolted the damned thing, and then they sold it to millions on television!” I wonder if the British and American teams waiting to get onto Cerro Torre felt like this when the summit was reached recently by an obsessed man with a mechanical bolt-gun who used something like 1000 bolts to bag the top. There are no laws against drilling a few holes in the rock, or even 550 holes at five-foot intervals, to eliminate all the nasty pitons and put in a super direct (not just a direct) route on El Capitan. There are dozens of new routes to be done, and on many of them we could avoid using any devious zig-zaggy cracks.

What was this most important event I witnessed in February? It was not a climb which raised American climbing standards, but rather it was the elimination of a climb which had lowered the standards. This winter Royal Robbins and Don Lauria chopped the first 300 feet of bolts out of the bolt-ladder route on El Capitan, while completing the second ascent in five-and-a-half days.

TM Herbert