Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing

Publication Year: 2004.

Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing. Steve Roper, editor. Palo Alto: Stanford University Library Press, 2003.290 pages. Paperback. $20.00.

We are fortunate to have had Steve Roper to chronicle the evolution of Yosemite climbing and its unique society. In his earlier Camp 4, which contains his own reminiscences, and in this new anthology of others’ writings, he has vividly captured the early climbing life of the Valley, preserving and making accessible a special chapter in the history of our sport. Though climbers who were there may need glasses to read them, revisiting these stories will certainly evoke sharp memories of wonderfully misspent youths.

Many of the articles in Ordeal by Piton have appeared in Summit, Ascent, the Sierra Club Bulletin, and the pages of this journal. But it is especially nice and useful to have the best of these writings collected in one volume. (Gathering this material into book form evolved from a book about the Stanford Alpine Club produced for a Stanford University Library exhibit four years ago. Roper had written the introduction to the SAC exhibit book, which featured photographs by Tom Frost, Henry Kendall, and Leigh Ortenburger and the writings of Stanford Alpine Club members.)

Fifty-four articles are included, with contributions by David Brower, Royal Robbins, Layton Kor, Chris Jones, Galen Rowell, Tom Higgins, Rob Wood, and others. Roper provides a short introduction to each, supplying context and rationale for the selection. Among my favorites are classics by Allen Steck, Sybille Hechtel, and Chuck Pratt.

Steck, who wrote the article “Ordeal by Piton” from which the book takes its title, here recounts a moment from the first ascent of the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel Rock:

I remember watching, my lips tight and drawn, while a little bead of water seeped out and smoothly slid down the rock. It was barely enough to moisten my lips and wetten my mouth, yet is was a wonderful sensation.

Chuck Pratt’s “South Face of Mount Watkins,” gets many climbers’ votes for best-written climbing story. This justly famous passage ends with a self-fulfilling prophecy:

As we unloaded packs at the parking lot, two young ladies approached us to ask if we were some of the Yosemite climbers. Yvon modestly pleaded guilty and pointed out our destination. They asked if it were true that Yosemite climbers chafe their hands on the granite to enable them to friction up vertical walls. We assured them that the preposterous myth was true. Then, with perfect timing, Harding yanked a bottle of wine and a six-pack out of the car, explaining that these were our rations for four days. We left the incredulous young ladies wondering about the sanity and good judgment of Yosemite climbers. And so the legend grows.

I really enjoyed seeing Sibylle Hechtel’s 1974 article in print with its proper title, “Walls without Balls.” It was simply called “Untitled” when it first appeared in the AAJ. (As Ad Carter explained, while he loved Sibylle’s title, the Board would not approve.) This article tells the story of Sibylle’s and Bev Johnson’s first all-female ascent of El Cap. Hechtel writes:

This remains one of the most memorable and beautiful nights of my life. Despite any physical discomforts of my position, I was glad to be there. Serene in the knowledge that we were only three pitches below the top and would reach it early the next morning, I settled back to munch gorp and read Asimov. The rock swelled into a roof up to the right, a beautifully sculptured curve that I could just perceive in the beam of the headlamp. Cars twinkled by, 3,000feet down, threading their way along the flowing moonlight below me where the river had been earlier that day. I leaned back to await my last sunrise here and, perchance to sleep.

Some, of course, will quibble with the selections, asking why this was left out or that included. But I am grateful to Roper for a job well done. Many of the book’s photos are recognizable from his Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, published in 1964. It is nice to see them back in print. However, if I have any criticism of Ordeal by Piton, it is in the plain presentation. It would have been nice to have seen a book more along the lines of Camp 4 with its lush black and white photographs.

Great writing and fond memories recreate a special time and place in Yosemite climbing history. It is not that the “Golden Age” was better than the years that followed. Who from that time is not awed by climbs of 5.14, or the climbing of El Cap three times in one day, or the Nose in … how fast was that? But, for us it was a special time, and it is a great pleasure to share our adventures and misspent youth with today’s climbers through this new collection of old Yosemite tales.

Robert Schneider