American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A New Season In Yosemite, The Big Walls, Then and Now

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

A New Season In Yosemite

The Big Walls, Then And Now

By Ryan and Tom Frost

Ryan

Inever knew my father.

Now that I’ve grabbed you with that shameless headline, let me qualify it. My father is Tom Frost, but when I was young, that meant nothing to me. He was just Dad. I thought that everyone’s parents put on slide shows, had racks of gear and piles of ropes, and covered the walls of their homes with cool climbing pictures. I wasn’t ignoring his achievements. They, along with most other things, simply did not register in my small mind.

Finally, I arrived at a point in my life where I needed to clear my head and get some priorities, and what better way to do it than to drop out of college and go climbing? Moving into a Boulder apartment, I fell into a bad crowd. More precisely, I fell in with my roommate Ryan Prescott, who already was a strong climber. The rest is history. We climbed for six months straight, sometimes five or six days a week. My climbing jumped four grades. We discovered Hueco Tanks and the Valley. Feeling a desire to learn the tradition and heritage of this new passion of mine, I began to read.

That’s when I found out.

My dad is not a good or famous climber, he’s a legendary one. To put it another way, in all of American climbing, there is one period of time that towers above the rest in terms of adventure, innovation, audacity, and sheer excellence: the Golden Age of Yosemite. And in the 1960s, during this Golden Age, there were perhaps five or six men responsible for most of the pioneering progress. Tom Frost was one of this elite handful.

The older I got, the more I began to comprehend the significance of his accomplishments. At Tahquitz in the late 1950s, he freed the first 5.10 in California. But it was in the Valley that he came alive. At the time, Chouinard and Robbins called my Dad the best aid climber in the world. He participated in the second ascent of the Nose in 1960, the climb that invented the sport of big wall climbing. He helped revolutionize hauling and logistical systems to allow fast ground-up ascents of difficult climbs. In 1961, he climbed the Salathé Wall, since called the greatest rock climb in the world. Also during these years: first ascent of the West Face of Sentinel, and second ascents of the Salathé Wall, the Dihedral Wall, and the Northwest Face of Half Dome. In 1964, he capped off his prolific involvement in Yosemite with the North America Wall—ten days of difficult and terrifying A5. During the rest of the 1960s, he was chief engineer for Chouinard, designing Stoppers, Hexentrics, and RURPs, knifeblades, Lost Arrows, and angle pitons, all still in use today. He made several trips to the Himalaya and the Alps and plucked the best line in Canada—the Lotus Flower Tower. In 1970, he was invited to climb with Britain’s mountaineering elite on Annapurna’s South Face, and in ‘79, while I bumbled around in base camp, he pulled off the second ascent of one of the most photogenic mountains on the planet: Ama Dablam.

Whew! Who’d have thought that all these years my dad was actually a legendary climbing stud? So that’s where all those pictures came from! I had known him all along to be a kind and loving father, but that left unanswered one important question: can he pull hard?

In 1997, it was time. We planned an extravagant climbing tour of the Western U.S. No expense was spared. Eldorado, Hueco, Indian Creek, Little Cottonwood, Zion... we were battered by them all. Then onward to Mecca. What a joy it was to have as my Yosemite climbing guide the legendary Tom Frost! We toured the Valley’s moderate free classics, trying to get some good crack technique beaten into us. Though he is over 60,I can testify that he still pulls hard. He’s right at home up to 5.9, fond of running it out, and always climbing efficiently. He has a horrible addiction to the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel, which I found to be the most strenuous and exhausting climb in the Valley. He’s not afraid of a little approach hike. He is at one with nature, pausing to examine glacier polish or commune with a lizard. He adores Clif Bars.

And to make it a real Yosemite climbing trip, after 33 years without the Big Stone, Tom Frost ventured back onto El Cap. He acted as if no time had passed at all. Well, sure, a few of the cards were shuffled, but he seemed to have a story or recollection about each pitch and each bivy ledge. “That’s where we ate on Camp 6, this was the crux nail-up on the NA, I must have put that bolt in, this is where we were snowed on…." What a connection with the past!

This summer, my Dad and I climbed The Captain four times. We shivered on El Cap Tower on the Nose, wandered up Lurking Fear, zigzagged all over the West Face, and—with wild man Warren Hollinger—dangled off the NA for six days. Dad told stories and jokes, was cheerful and fearless, and climbed fast and hauled hard. It was a true return to style for Tom Frost, and I know him better than ever. I always suspected that he was the best dad on the planet, but now I know that he’s a great person. And also, that he did a little climbing.

Tom

What a joy it was to have as my Yosemite climbing guide the cool Ryan Frost! It was June, 1997. We were three-quarters of the way up the Nose of El Capitan when 1 shared with Ryan my sudden realization: “This is the first time I’ve been on El Cap without Royal!” What comfort it brought, now with Royal absent, that his shoes should be filled by a new light and companion. I never thought I would climb El Capitan again. Thirty-seven years had passed since this route with Robbins, Pratt, and Fitschen had transformed my life. Now suddenly, as great as the adventure of 1960 had been, this new one moved once again up into the unknowns of my life. It almost seemed as though nothing had changed. My first reason to climb has always been the companionship. We climb to be inspired. I enjoy climbing only with companions that help point me toward God. Ryan and Royal do that well. It doesn’t hurt that they also know how to climb.

Coming home to the Valley is sacred business. The rocks of Yosemite are so majestic and beautifully crafted that to know them is, in small measure, to know the creator of them. El Capitan, the object of our design, had not shrunk. We headed around the Valley loop and looked forward to a reunion in that Camp 4 family of which Steve Roper, in his book, had helped us catch a vision. The rock walls of Yosemite may be our gymnasium, workshop, and crucible, but Camp 4 is home. With no small amount of nervousness, we lined up at the kiosk for seven days’ privilege to camp where Kauk, Bridwell, Pratt, Robbins, and Salathé had camped. We took a place in site 23 near our heroes in the SAR (Search and Rescue) camp. What change had taken place! After three decades, they don’t even speak English. Heard in Camp 4 are Spanish, French, German, Japanese, British….

The continuing and growing assembly of this body of climbers testifies to the historical significance of Camp 4 and Yosemite’s home place in world climbing. Chouinard’s 1963 prophecy is fulfilled. The “near future” has happened. In order for “Yosemite Valley…to be the training ground of super-alpinists who venture forth to the high mountains of the world… .," it is first necessary for the alpinists of the world to come to Yosemite Valley.

Several months in 1997 with these super-climbers helped me realize that our Camp 4 heritage is stronger than we imagine. Consider the following influences upon our culture. John Muir’s respect for the creation established the foundation upon which every succeeding generation of Yosemite climber would build. John Salathé saw that artificial climbing and a daring, expeditionary style would open up vast, new possibilities. Like Salathé, Royal Robbins believed in commitment and invented a wall-climbing style to achieve it. Yvon Chouinard created equipment to fit our desires. Chuck Pratt and others laid a foundation of free climbing style that has kept the rest of us humble and more honest. A realization of this heritage brought wonder to every day and every night Ryan and I spent amid these trees and boulders of Camp 4.

We walked, our spirits quiet, along paths between tightly packed tents of diverse creation. We heard in our ears, if not our souls, tones of men and women who assuredly were aware of their presence in a certain type of temple of God. And these climbers no doubt were aware of being among, as our founder John Muir might say, “the rock and water spirits” of Yosemite.

So you might ask, “You returned to the Valley and El Cap after these many years. What do you find different from the early 1960s to the late 1990s?” An excellent question. First, there are so many of you (us). And second, you climb so well. Standards are soooo high. You are professional. We did not know much about training, or climbing full-time. We just enjoyed the feeling of bold, creative prospects amid a quiet Valley. Now many climbers earn a living guiding. The only loss I see in obtaining such an appealing job description is the problem of losing an even more beautiful hobby. Climb to live? Or live to climb?

In the old days, we locals had a sense that routes such as the Nose and the Salathé Wall were world-classic climbs. Here in my mind is a serious change. Now they actually are. The Nose is the most famous and sought-after climb in the world, followed by the Salathé. That popular, huh? Yup. Try queuing up at the base. On early ascents, the El Cap pioneers were up there alone. Sometimes they were the only climbers—or even people—in the whole Valley. Now an entirely new social, sharing-type challenge exists. Fellow super-alpinists happily share your bivouac site with you, whether you want them to or not. And getting started on a climb doesn’t mean being first—somehow, you find yourself in the way of everybody else anyway.

In June, as the time approached for Ryan and me to start up the Nose, we shook our heads and said, “It’s a zoo.” We spotted climbers on every bivouac ledge. The afternoon before our start, we hauled our gear to the base and observed four parties: 1) waiting on the ground for the opportunity to begin, 2) completely blocking the route by making a practice climb of the second pitch, 3) trying to get to Sickle Ledge, 4) already standing on Sickle Ledge.

We arrived early enough the next morning to be passed by only two superb Bulgarian climbers before we could start. Later, as we inched up the Stove-Leg Crack, they rapped by us. They had made certain logistical and route-finding errors and promised to return, which they would—completing the route in two days. In earlier times, of course, there were no ready-made, bolt rappel routes that now offer quick and less scary exit from the walls.

In addition to the huge numbers of good climbers, the other astonishment for an old-timer like this one is the very high standard at which so many of you are able to climb. This progression in performance, I observe over these 30-plus years of time, is illustrated by two experiences.

On that September day in 1961 when I peered over the roof and tried nailing a flared crack on the lower part of the Salathé headwall, the exposure was so big and the piton placements so hard I thought progress nearly impossible. On a September day in 1997,I was waiting atop El Capitan for Ryan and Ryan Prescott to complete the Salathé Wall. Ryan was in the process of pulling over the Salathé roof himself when a team of Japanese photographers and cinematographers hurled their ropes into the void and rappelled past him. They were on their way down to document the next party of climbers lower on the route. Yuji Hirayama was attempting to on-sight the Salathé. Wow.

From the El Cap Meadow the following day, we watched Yuji at work. After taking two falls low on the first headwall pitch because of a route-finding error, Yuji rested, then led straight through without a hitch. That’s performance. Yuji and I obviously are of a similar mettle. It was all I could do to aid the Salathé and all he could do to free it.

Also this season, we watched on as Scott Burke and his belayer implemented a strict and calculated 100-day regimen needed to climb the pitch Changing Comers. This is Lynn Hill’s magically pioneered pitch 30 of the Nose. Scotty believes that Changing Comers is the hardest pitch on the route, now rated, I believe, 5.14a. Scotty’s philosophy: “After you learn to do the hardest part, everything else is easy.” He was prevented from freeing the whole Nose route by the onset of winter storms.

Yuji Hirayama and Scotty Burke. This is my portrait of two 1997-version world-class athletes who, but for the press entourages, are going rather quietly about their affairs.

Continuing with the subject of change, let’s discuss—as Chouinard calls them—the “limited resources” of wall climbing. By what I was able to observe, these resources are holding up well, except for a few problems. Yosemite’s cracks, which suffered so much during the hammer and chromoly piton days of the 1960s, do not appear in 1997, to me, to be deteriorating. Although some may be a little more slippery, their rate of destruction has relatively ceased, to the extent that cams and passive nuts are being used instead of pitons. Some aid pitches now are more difficult (for example, on the route to Sickle Ledge, certain cam-polished pockets will keep you guessing), and some now are easier (the third pitch of the NA is loaded with rusting, frayed bashies. All you have to do is clip and pray). I hope the future finds a way to solve messes such as pitches fixed with bashies.

Free climbing is theoretically easier than it might have been in the ’60s because of the existence now of piton holes and the employment of spring-loaded cam protection. Today’s footwear, chalk, and training methods also enable a higher standard for those who know how to use them. The trade routes, a name given to routes we never would have imagined would be climbed so much, now can be climbed mostly clean—despite what the guidebook says. To enjoy yourself in the odd, flared, slippery, impassable places, such as we experienced on the North America Wall, carry sawed-off pitons (for hand placement), Leeper cam hooks, flared Aliens, Lowe Balls, HB offsets, an interesting assortment of hooks, and a little calmness. Yuji and I agree that driving hexes into holes, which makes it harder for him to free climb and for me to aid, is the most disgusting practice in Yosemite.

On the walls, trash is a problem that needs to be re-addressed by every party that travels with too much junk or feels the heat of El Cap’s pressure for survival. Come on, guys, let’s stop discarding water bottles and plywood belay seats. Carry all your gear with you, and if you must toss into the void a paper sack or empty water bottle, do a big-time sweep of the base when you finish. Boom boxes and sometimes wine, beer, or marijuana characterize, in my view, a certain number of ascents of El Cap. Apparently some people go up onto this beautiful wall for reasons other than just to climb. We should go up to meet El Cap. If we go up on any other terms, or for reasons less pure, it is a loss.

A final point about limited resources would be Camp 4 itself. At this writing, Camp 4 is under attack by the National Park Service, which would build three-story concessionaire and employee dormitories and new upgraded Yosemite Lodge buildings north of Northside Drive between Camp 4 and Swan Slab. It is hoped that this plan, which currently is in process, will, in fact, not be implemented and that Camp 4 can retain its breathing room. It is hoped that Camp 4 will receive a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Until now, the NPS has preserved Camp 4’s integrity, its walk-in character, and its important first-come-first-served, non-registration status. Camp 4 is a prototype for Yosemite’s future. Those dormitories would block out warm rays of sun.

How can we transmit the light of Yosemite, the beauty of what we know, to our posterity? I hope the classic routes that live on Yosemite’s great walls will be cared for. The voluntary custodianship of these resources is exemplified by the likes of Chris McNamara and others of a select but growing band whose climbing style is “preservation.” The style of these climbers is to give more to El Capitan than they take. Their continuing restoration of messed-up and unsafe belay anchors, and their cleaning and caring for routes, is a testimony that the heritage of Muir, Salathé, and Robbins lives. This heritage, unique in the whole world, is the power that will be the salvation of the great routes. We will find no help to preserve El Cap through government regulation and rules. The future of Yosemite—whether it be the cracks or big walls or Camp 4 itself—is in the application of its own climbing heritage by individuals who possess vision, and who know the creation.

Sometime before our Yosemite visit, Warren Hollinger, Ryan, and I had agreed to climb the North America Wall in the fall of 1997. On October 22, exactly 33 years after the start of the first ascent of the route, we stood together at the base. Thousands of feet of steep, gray granite and black diorite swept upward, interrupted only by overhangs. The fears and hopes and joys from a generation before flooded back in.

By a stroke of luck, I drew the third pitch—a cherished nailing memory. But this time, as I inspected placement options in the slightly more used, poorly formed crack, I was armed with modern cams, nuts, and hooks. High rpm treadwork propelled us through the several pendulums of the Borderline Traverse. We arrived at the Tenement Flats, where in 1964 hammocks had provided a bivouac and where the following morning, Royal, Chuck, Yvon, and I awakened—like laundry hung out to dry—to 1,600 feet of exposure. For Ryan, Warren, and me, it was midday. We continued on.

“[Ryan] led the overhang. He placed spring loaded cams up one side of it and followed a horizontal dyke of aplite around the top. Fascinated, we watched the lower part of Ryan’s body move sideways 30 feet across our line of vision. Placements were difficult, and Ryan’s hauling line hung far out from the wall. When all cracks stopped, he ended the pitch and belayed in slings, thus finishing the most spectacular lead in American climbing.

I followed and was forced to leave two nuts because of awkward reaches.

“Man, that was really a fantastic lead. What exposure! Congratulations! ”

“Thanks, Dad.” (AAJ, 1965 and 1998;

The North America Wall in 1997 was like returning to a familiar place but, as the poet would say, “knowing it for the first time.” The overwhelming presence of the wall and the privilege of being up there with good companions felt the same as it had 33 years before.

Yet something was different. I noticed in our North America Wall climb, and in the Valley generally, a subtle and natural departure from Yosemite’s pioneer ethic that resulted in our now-higher climbing standard. I wonder if El Capitan is being overpowered by heavier-handed tactics than necessary. For example, before we started up the NA Wall, Warren promised, “If we take all this stuff, I 99 percent guarantee we’ll reach the top.”

I was grumpy. We took the stuff. We slept comfortably each night, swallowed gourmet meals, hauled hard. And poured out gallons of water when we reached the top.

Why did it feel different? What had happened in Yosemite? Then I remembered my own climbing history and some of the way Royal thought. His desire was to keep the enterprise adventurous. By adventurous, he meant essentially uncertain. Just as in 1961, fixed ropes and overuse of bolts would ensure success but diminish joy, so also in 1997 is adventure lessened by carrying so much stuff or becoming that competent and professional. Without uncertainty, the climb is reduced to putting in the work. Why do it? Warren’s climbing level is Polar Sun Spire (36 days), Nameless Tower (23 days), the Reticent, and the PO in winter with sheets of ice sailing by. Yosemite trade routes are too easy. The logical progression of the Yosemite pioneer ethic of keeping the adventure high is to employ better style, graduate to the Valley’s hard, modem routes, or confront grade VII climbs in the mountains. There will always be dreamers of dreams who will find better ways to “invite nature’s peace to flow into them as sunshine flows into trees,” and for “the winds to blow their own freshness into them and storms their energy….”

Some of the shifts and balances in ethic or style call into my mind questions about why it is we climb these walls anyway. For the professional, business is business. But I believe that I and most of us recreational people still go up for the same reasons the pioneers went up. For one, because we are too afraid not to. Bart Groendycke reminded me that it is scarier looking up at El Cap from the meadow than down on the meadow from El Cap. And so we are willing to face ourselves and find out what is to be learned.

The one thing that definitely has not changed, and which is one of today’s mistaken notions, is that the trade routes are easy. So and so freed it, or so and so did it in a day. Hmmm. Let us look at so and so and then look at ourselves. I’m here to testify that El Cap is just as big and scary as it ever was! Yes, cams enable faster travel. But be forewarned: The climbs are exposed and require as much hard climbing as did their first ascents.

Not knowing these things, Ryan and I continued up the Nose. After our friends from Bulgaria left us and we arrived at El Cap Tower an hour behind dark, rain began. We checked inside our little haul bag and confirmed that two of our three gallons of water had perished on the swing from Sickle Ledge. The night was cold. Rain continued. The next day, we observed that we had the Big Stone all to ourselves. Ryan led a treacherous Texas Flake in stiff boots and lived. The traverse toward Camp 4 was tedious, with pendulums and more wet rock. The Great Roof was not only a roof but great. To keep warm, we by day climbed. By night, shivered. Our final day, high in the huge, open dihedral that forms the top of the wall, with its planes of granite shooting outward, beams of light cut the crisp, clean air, and we ascended where pioneers before had gone.

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