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The Valley Climbers, Yosemite's Vertical Revolution

The Valley Climbers, Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution. John Long, editor. Stonemaster Press, 2011. 99 photographs, most in color. 168 pages. Hardcover. $54.95.

A coffee-table book with photos from improbable places, The Valley Climbers is organized around three Fs: fast, free, and first. If one can climb a big route all free, that’s great. If one can climb it really fast, that’s also marvelous. And, of course, to tick a first free or a first one-day ascent should get you drinks in the Mountain Room.

Four of the pieces describe solo ascents: Hans Florine linking El Cap and Half Dome, Alex Honnold ropeless on Half Dome, Dean Potter on the Rostrum with a mini-parachute on his back, and Cedar Wrights jaunt up the Steck-Salathé on Sentinel Rock. On Sentinel Wright wanted to pass this old guy contemplating the Wilson Overhang. It turned out to be Allen Steck, 75, out for the fiftieth anniversary of his first ascent.

A fourth F, fun, isn’t much in evidence, not surprising given severe pain in fingers and toes, bone-deep exhaustion from stringing together so many difficult pitches, and, to allude to an El Cap route that Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell climbed free, the lurking fear in a climber who’s committed when his pro isn’t.

All the same, these experiences are difficult to capture in words or even pictures. Crimps, piton scars, side pulls, smears, offwidths—if we have done some climbing, the book takes us part way to actual experience, but the writing tends to be more about what was done than the experience of doing it. This is not a criticism; it’s just a consequence of condensing hour upon hour, day upon day, of intense physical and mental strain into a few pages. If we are told that there were only three bolts for protection in a 150-foot pitch, we can appreciate the leader’s nervousness, but it isn’t the same as being close to the edge of your ability 50 or 60 feet above the bolt. Often a description is reduced to numbers (5.12 seems popular, and there is quite a bit of 5.13, sometimes with an X attached). In the photos, with a few exceptions, the climbers look relaxed and completely in control, as if they were 10 feet off the ground. (Royal Robbins used to say you should climb as if you were 10 feet off the ground.) Looking at Lynn Hill coming out from under the Great Roof, you don’t get the sense that she minds being 2,000 feet off the deck; she probably likes it, actually. Cool.

You have deduced by now that this book is a sequel to The Stonemasters. John Long seems to be the prime motivator for both books. A Stonemaster himself, he supplied a history of the Stonemasters for the first book. In this new volume’s Foreword, he supplies an overview of the trends that led to the climbs described in The Valley Climbers. (Disclosure: Long wrote the Foreword to my book, Going Up.) Dean Fidelman was the photo editor for both books and has put together a fine collection. Cedar Wright’s article “On the Shoulders of Giants” is a nice homage to Steck and his generation, but I think that old shoulder of giants saw also applies to the climbers brought to life in this fine book. Read and sweat.

Joe Fitschen