[This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 76, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 76 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
APRIL 22, 2021: the day before I was scheduled to leave for a month in Yosemite, there was a knock at the door while I was hurriedly packing. My neighbors stood on the stoop smiling. They handed me an envelope that contained a polished, multicolored stone–a dream stone. A letter explained that I was to keep the ruby kyanite close at hand or plant it in a special location, and it would help “bring dreams into reality while releasing old patterns.”
Yosemite is a place where dreams are born, and also shattered, or perhaps temporarily forgotten. Some things never alter, even as others shift or disappear, like the huge segments of routes that disintegrated into memories after the massive rockfalls on Half Dome (Tisayac) and El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La) in 2015 and 2017. “Geologic time includes now,” some of my scientist friends chime before scuttling beneath a fall zone. Change can happen quickly, or so slowly that it’s almost impossible to perceive in the moment.
Later, looking back, you can feel as if you’re gazing at the youthful face of a younger self who now seems like a different person.
M FIRST TRIP TO YOSEMITE was in June 2001. I was eighteen years old and had just graduated from high school. My dad, who had been my main climbing partner since I was twelve, planned a two-week trip. We drove out from Colorado in an old van with loose steering. In the middle of the night, while we made our way across the Nevada desert, I felt as if I were riding in a boat, drifting back and forth between the painted highway stripes, scattering the occasional rabbit. Upon arriving at the gates of Yosemite, we slept in the van outside the park. We woke before dawn and took our place in line in front of the Camp 4 kiosk, awaiting the ranger’s arrival at 8 a.m.
Those were the good old days when it was relatively easy to camp in the Valley. By the time I returned a few years later, the line would form the day before, with people leaving items to mark their place since they weren’t allowed to stay overnight. Typically, only the first ten or so people would get a site. As for the rest, it was best not to ask where they disappeared to after dark.
While my dad and I waited in line, we met a small group of East Germans and ended up sharing a campsite with them. Their leader, Michael, was a veterinarian who spoke English fluently. After learning of my ambitions to climb Astroman, a historic–isn’t everything in the Valley historic?–ten-pitch 5.11c on Washington Column, they invited us for a day of cragging at the Cookie Cliff.
At that point, my awareness of world-class standards was limited to a stack of old books and tattered magazines. I felt both tickled and terrified by a full-page photo of Ray Jardine hanging upside down and sideways from the roof crack of Separate Reality, thousands of feet above the valley floor. As I understood from my limited reading, 5.10 was daunting, 5.11 was for the masters, and everything beyond was the realm of the gods.
At the Cookie Cliff, my jaw dropped when I watched Michael swim up Outer Limits, placing only three cams in the entire 105 feet of the bulging 5.10 crack. At the East German cliffs where Michael and his friends mostly climbed, they wedged knots into cracks for protection to avoid damaging the soft sandstone with metal gear. Here, on the solid granite of Yosemite, the spring-loaded cams provided Michael with more than enough confidence, judging by his rapid pace up the rock, even if those placements were spaced wildly far apart. Seeing my reaction, he explained with a wink, “If you can fit your hand or your fist into ze crack, it is secure and zere is no need for protection.” I still repeat those words to myself whenever I run out of gear on a steep hand crack: It is secure…. It is secure.
As the day waned, I followed the Germans up six or seven pitches of 5.10 and 5.11. Michael invited me to do a few more. I shook my head. He egged me on, but still I declined, not wanting to embarrass myself by flailing more than I already had. My dad told me later that if I’d managed to follow all nine or ten pitches, they probably would have invited me to join them on Astroman. As it turned out, I’d have to wait nearly a decade before I got a chance to experience that sweeping, 1,000-foot route, hailed as the Valley’s first proper big-wall free climb when John Bachar, Ron Kauk and John Long established it in 1975. Instead, I walked with the Germans as they scouted the approach. I gazed up at the Harding Slot–a dark, gaping fissure through a massive roof halfway up–with curious, if dreadful, longing.
I’d led only a few pitches of 5.11 in my entire life then, and my dad had never led anything. Which is to say that we were limited without our new friends. Among several other routes, I took us up the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, tiptoeing up the narrow, golden edges on the exposed face, pleasantly surprised as each move revealed itself. I remember a guy shouting down to his partner, “The kid is freeing the bolt ladder!” Soon afterward, on the East Buttress of El Capitan, I was humbled again by runouts on water-polished rock.
Meanwhile, the Germans climbed the Nose and then the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Cap’s southeast face, a route that had marked a leap in big-wall standards when Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East pieced the granite seams together in 1975, envisioning a line that had seemed invisible until Bridwell studied the face with a telescope when the sun was at just the right angle to cast shadows on the thin features. My dad took a photo of me staring across the Valley at the 3,000-foot face of Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La–my dreams were so close but still years away.
I RETURNED TO THE VALLEY for a month each summer between college classes in 2004 and 2005. Thanks to my good friend Todd (who would serve as the best man at my wedding a decade later), I learned the ways of big-wall climbing–how to haul heavy bags up granite slabs; how to set up a portaledge while hanging in space; how to poop in a bag; and how to balance on iron hooks that wobbled on slender stone edges. I also learned how to live on the fringe: bandit camping under rocks in the forest when sites in Camp 4 weren’t available.
What I remember more than the climbing in those years was the coming of age as a young adult. I was still so childish, searching wide-eyed for the dirtbag lifestyle I’d read about in the Stonemaster tales. John Long’s words made it sound so simple, idyllic even, and maybe it was for him and his friends back in the 1970s. For me, the romance of living in the Valley was soon clouded by the grimy Camp 4 bathroom and the predawn ranger patrols with flashlights and barking voices. But the walls still glistened in the sky like gateways to heaven. In his book The Stonemasters, Long himself wrote, “Only later would I realize that the shift from reciting other people’s stories to chasing after your own always involves breaking an illusory taboo, held in place by fear of the unknown.”
Those years also marked my first foray onto Separate Reality, which represents a great deal of history in a mere forty feet. The route was originally rated 5.12, but the edge of its roof fell off sometime around 1980, according to recollections on SuperTopo.com. The first breakage made the roof shorter. It also resulted in better holds that allowed people to avoid the desperate thin crack at the end, reducing the difficulty to 5.11c. Then the roof crumbled again and left the classic that we know today, with the rating settled at 5.11d+.
When I first tried the climb in 2004, I’d never attempted anything so overhanging, not even in a gym. Each time I jammed my hands into the polished, downward-slanting roof crack, I felt a connection to those who had traveled this same passage: Ron Kauk on the first ascent in 1977, Ray Jardine in the famous photo on the cover of Mountain 56, Wolfgang Gullich on the first free solo, and other lesser-known wild spirits. I imagined those men and women wearing bandanas to keep their shaggy hair out of their eyes as they shuffled along the same crack, clipping their thick ropes into oval carabiners while experiencing many of the sensations and emotions I did: breathing hard, desperate to reach the end and, at the same time, never wanting the climb to end.
I did all the moves but I couldn’t get over the roof without hanging on a finger-size cam near the lip. I didn’t care, however, because my mind had just then expanded to comprehend new possibilities. A young British woman had joined me that day. I remember belaying her from above, sitting near the edge where updrafts tousled my hair. When she flipped around and kicked her foot over the lip of the roof, some silver coins jingled out of her pocket, twinkling in the beams of morning sun as they fluttered into the vast wishing well of the green valley far, far below.
WHILE DRIVING OVER TIOGA PASS on a solo trip in 2008, I picked up a German hitchhiker named Arne (pronounced Arnie, short for Arnold). I’d just quit my job as a newspaper copy editor to join the touring circuit of vagabond friends I’d envied over the years as they passed through my home territory each season, following the weather like surfers chasing waves. My decision was poorly timed: the US economy was firmly in the grips of the Great Recession. I wasn’t entirely ignorant of the financial risk, having read the news stories every day for my job, but my inner restlessness needed release. I’d built up some savings and committed myself to a direction: West.
As I crossed the deserted Nevada highways alone for the first time, I felt like a different person from the youth who first drove the weaving van with his dad. Then there was Arne with his thumb out on the side of the road, a pack of climbing gear at his feet. I knew I’d found the perfect partner for the Rostrum and Astroman even before the car came to a stop.
Arne had already climbed both routes and was happy to follow every pitch so that I could lead them onsight, so to speak (because how much can you “onsight” a route in the traditional sense if you’ve already studied topos with rack descriptions and pitch lengths?).
“Place more cams!” he pleaded from the belay as I approached the Alien Roof on the Rostrum. He was concerned he wouldn’t have enough gear to aid the crack when he followed. I did my best to oblige, but I had yet to weight the rope that day, so there was an internal struggle to balance Arne’s wish for easy aiding with my wish to climb it clean and free. I fought and flailed to establish my feet over the roof, but I couldn’t quite accept that I was there: the sharp, offset edges of the slender fissure biting into the sides of my fingers, my shoe rubber pasted to little more than rough-grained granite with empty space all around. It wasn’t that I lacked the strength. It was more that I didn’t feel I could manifest the dream. In the critical moment, I failed to embrace what was in front of me and believe in myself–so I fell. I got up the pitch with several more hangs and gobies, but no regrets. My mind had expanded again, just a little more.
On Astroman, I raced up pitch after pitch, so fast that I got ahead of myself. Climbing folklore and personal expectations swirled in my head, and I slipped on the Boulder Problem, a short, steep flake with a thin crack barely wide enough for my fingertips. I lowered and tried again, eventually redpointing it. The mistake annoyed me–I’d failed to flash a route I’d been mentally rehearsing for so many years–and I dwelled on it so much that I made another mistake and slipped trying to enter the Harding Slot. Feeling even more frustrated, I forgot to retrieve half the rack from Arne before I started the Changing Corners pitch, and I found myself at the crux with a meager selection of stoppers and cams.
Only then did I achieve a complete focus in the present moment. At last I felt a natural flow, an internal grace, the core reason why I climb. I knew I could pull and balance on the thin edges in the smooth, golden rock. So instead of retreating, I forgot about my belayer, who was out of sight, I forgot about the small nut clipped to the rope a nautical league below my feet, and I did what I knew I could do. We topped out with daylight to spare, and I vowed to return. I longed to link all the steps from beginning to end in the uninterrupted rhythm of an extended dance.
Alone again, sitting in my car at the Half Dome trailhead, on the last day of my trip, I pondered if noon was a foolishly late time to set out to solo Snake Dike. From here, it would mean a round-trip of approximately sixteen miles with 5,000 feet of gain. I figured I would at least enjoy a nice hike and scope the approach. The miles clicked by, and to my surprise I found myself scampering to the top in evening light. Above the technical difficulties, I removed my shoes and walked barefoot up the smooth, low-angle granite slab that continued on for perhaps a thousand feet. I savored the feel of the rock on my skin, and I couldn’t resist the urge to kneel and kiss the dome just below the summit. I made it back to the car at dark, just as the first snowflakes of an October storm swirled down through the tall pines.
APRIL 2021: I WAS BEGINNING to wonder if the dream stone was a blessing or a curse. A vertebra popped out of place while I was sorting gear in the garage. The recovery delayed my trip, but the extra time allowed me to get a Covid vaccine. Maybe the dream stone is working magic after all. Then, while I was on my way to Yosemite, a voicemail appeared on my phone: my climbing partner was bailing because of work. I had the gear to aid solo some walls if I couldn’t find other people to climb with, but it took me the remaining miles to California to shift my outlook to be open to any possibilities. Since my previous trip in 2008, I’d gotten married, advanced my career and built a life, so my time was limited and I was determined to make the most of whatever days I had in the Valley.
The camping situation had been a lingering question mark even before the altered plans. Camp 4 had been closed since the pandemic. Everything else had been reserved months in advance. Aside from cancellations or a few walk-up sites in the Pines area–scoring one of those upon arrival would be like winning a lottery–the best option, I’d been told, was to sleep alongside Highway 140 just outside the park entrance.
A hotel property posted with No Trespassing signs extends to within about two hundred yards of the park boundary. Overnight parking along the remaining stretch of road had been tolerated for many years, mainly because jurisdictions were muddled. On the north side (Forest Service land), there’s a gravel pullout bordered by cliffs. On the south (California Department of Transportation), another pullout is hemmed by a boulder-strewn floodplain and the crashing spray of the Merced River.
Upon my arrival just before sunset on Thursday, April 29, vans, trucks and cars were lining up bumper to bumper. Every spot was full by dark, including the stretch posted as No Trespassing in front of the hotel. Not surprisingly the situation had raised the ire of hotel managers and El Portal residents. (Authorities have since installed No Camping signs.) Drivers headed into the park at sunrise would lay on their horns with middle fingers raised–as I’d soon experience after waking on the ground in my bivy sack.
Still, I found a new climbing partner almost as soon as I parked the car. Ryan Murphy (who went by his last name) was a wildland firefighter from Salt Lake City. He and his companions had glanced over at me with a friendly gaze that invited me to introduce myself. They were in their early twenties, yet they had summited more big climbs around the world than I had in my thirty-eight years. Like other young people I met on this trip, they weren’t inclined to partying and boozing as much as the wild, Warren Harding risk-takers of yore; they were more focused on daily habits of eating healthy and building fitness. Many of these young climbers had seasonal jobs or worked remotely, enabling them to travel regularly. Meanwhile, the Internet makes it easier to learn about all sorts of techniques and strategies, or even to see videos that demonstrate the movement of testpiece boulder problems like Midnight Lightning.
In Yosemite, I felt that I was witnessing the convergence of endurance, gymnastic ability and mental fortitude. Boulderers are now sport climbing, sport climbers are trad climbing, and everyone is ultrarunning, or at least logging lots of miles in the mountains, which sets the stage for free climbing big walls and linking together long routes and vast ridges. Later, in August, Vitaliy Musiyenko would complete his massive Goliath Traverse, enchaining sixty summits above 13,000 feet, including eight Fourteeners, along the Sierra Crest, and covering approximately thirty-two miles of mostly technical terrain with 80,000 feet of elevation gain–all in the span of eight days. But even many of the regular climbers I met were doing enchainments on a smaller scale. While descending from a solo ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire, I met a pair of young guys who’d just come down from the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral and were continuing to the Spire although it was a blazing hot afternoon and the route had just come into full sun. Not that long ago, an ascent of the first route would’ve satisfied most of us.
As I learned from Murphy, the game has become don’t stop. He wanted to get on top of tall things, at an efficient pace, ideally in a single push. Nonetheless, I convinced him to try Separate Reality with me. Despite nearly fifteen years of climbing 5.13 overhangs on bolts, I still felt jitters when I gazed out into the windy void below the huge roof. My body tense and rigid, I extended for the lip too soon and fell. The next try went better. At last, I got to experience the long-awaited sensation of connecting those thrilling moves without weighting the rope–cutting my feet and swinging around to the lip, and then bicycling them up over my head until my right toe hooked…then pushing myself, palms down, over the top!
Murphy had expressed doubts about his ability to climb it, but he lowered from his attempt with a big smile, now believing it was possible.
MURPHY SOON GOT ME up to speed on contemporary Yosemite big-wall tactics: short-fixing and simul-climbing with a seventy-meter lead line and a short tag line that’s mostly used to haul gear that the follower has cleaned. His suggestion that we climb Lurking Fear together sounded fun, though I’d never climbed El Cap in a push, and this aid route has one of the longest approaches and descents on the wall.
He wanted to use a forty-foot tag line, but I lobbied to have the insurance of at least two full-length ropes, emphasizing the guidebook’s caution that “two 60-meter ropes are mandatory” for retreat. The short-fix strategy is to keep both climbers moving as much as possible: when the leader reaches a belay stance, they pull up all the remaining slack and fix the rope to the anchor, and then continue leading with a self-belay while the follower ascends the rope with jumars and cleans the gear. When the leader runs out of rope or gear, they wait for the second to reach the fixed anchor to free up more rope and clip the gear they cleaned onto the tag line for the leader to haul up.
Murphy and I cached most of our gear at the base of Lurking Fear the day before our ascent, but when we returned to the start at 4:00 a.m., he remembered that he hadn’t included his harness. Running back down and up again, he lost some of his energy. Still, we reached the top of the second pitch in the early morning twilight, passing a rope-soloist who was just waking up in his portaledge. Brent Barghahn was on a ground-up “sussing mission” to practice free climbing Lurking Fear, in which he would aid up a pitch and then work the free moves on toprope while cleaning the gear. An hour later, looking down from above, I marveled at his smooth efficiency. Afterward, I’d learn that Brent performed all the moves up to a short section of seemingly blank rock at the second 5.13 crux. Two weeks later, he completed a free ascent of Father Time, a 2,000-foot 5.13b that connects thin cracks on Middle Cathedral, as a ground-up rope-solo over five days, finishing on the eve of a thunderstorm.
He also had to avoid the temptation of the fixed ropes that were strung along the length of Father Time, though he used them on his descent. For the ascent, he explained, “I pretended they weren’t there,” out of respect for the style of the first ascensionist, Mikey Schaefer. On this trip, I’d noticed more fixed lines than I’d ever seen in the Valley before. I learned of several routes on different formations that were equipped for hundreds, even thousands, of feet with static ropes so that climbers could rehearse the moves without recruiting a partner for tedious belays. It was becoming a divisive issue.
Murphy and I ended up taking nineteen hours to finish our own aid climb of Lurking Fear. We’d had to wait behind a slower group for a while, and then I got off route on the final slabs and had to down climb an entire ropelength of unprotected, low-angle rock by headlamp. Yet that foray turned into a blessing, since it deposited me in an alcove as big as a band shell, right on the brink of a huge overhang. I took a moment to pause, catch my breath and simply marvel. I was already regretting the lack of time on the wall to appreciate my surroundings: the hand-size bat that walked out of a crack to greet me as I was placing a cam; the surreal mafic blobs and dikes I had to stop and touch; the starry skyline now bordered by distant city lights and shadowed mountains.
Alas, our focus had to be finding our way down, especially since we promptly got lost in the trees and manzanita. Murphy, who’d started nodding off on the last belays, suddenly came awake and got us back on course, and we clomped into the parking lot at 3:30 a.m.
IN A CAPTION FOR his book of photography, Yosemite in the Sixties, Glen Denny depicted a “traditional end-of-the-season party” in Camp 4: “An odd kind of history was happening each day, and every night the quicksilver of our experience slipped through the cracks in the tabletops and disappeared into the grimy dust below.”
During the evenings, when I gathered with other climbers for cookouts, and gazed around at faces and eyeglasses reflecting the orange light of flames, I felt a strong connection to our predecessors. I’m not sure if it’s the “quicksilver” in the dust that lives on through us or the afterglow of our new experiences. I think it’s probably both. What I do know is that in some moments I feel as if I’m floating: the past, present and future meld as a singular orb in the space of a beating heart–a heart that is mine and also not my own. The ghost of youth unfurls from where I stand as a shadow on the ground, joining the chorus of generations, whispering in my ears, prodding embers of distant shared memories. Then the sunrise on the cliffs and the crisp, blue skyline warm my soul yet again, kindling visions of what may come. I can pick out the faintest cracks on El Capitan, remembering what it had been like to climb them with old friends, and I can imagine what it would be like to be up there again, perhaps following different fissures up the walls with friends I have yet to meet.
The “El Cap Lieback”–lounging in the meadow, staring for hours on end–never gets old for some of us. It’s as though time stands still until we leave the Valley.
Eventually, however, most of us must depart.
THE CANADIAN CLIMBER Bronwyn Hodgins was fretting about her pending departure when I met her by the bear boxes at El Cap Bridge one morning. She’d been working on a free ascent of Golden Gate, a 3,000-foot route that branches away from Freerider above El Cap Spire and features four pitches of 5.13a. While she’d invested a lot of time and effort to rappel in from the top and rehearse the crux pitches, there was still a single move that she had yet to do, let alone perform it in succession with an entire pitch of free climbing in the midst of a multiday El Cap ascent.
While trying the move, she’d cut a deep hole in her fingertip. She showed me the flap of skin and asked to borrow nail clippers to doctor the wound and prevent further tearing. I handed her my clippers, and she described her situation while sitting on the curb of the road and trimming and filing her finger. She had merely a matter of days before she had to return to Canada–only just enough time to make a ground-up attempt. She’d hoped to have all the crux moves figured out before going for a push from the ground, she said, and the hole in her finger diminished her chances of success even more. She seemed to vibrate with stress.
I found out later that she decided to go for it. On May 13 she became the third woman to free Golden Gate after an eight-day push. I saw Bronwyn again as she was hurriedly packing to leave Yosemite. I can’t remember anyone looking so happy on their drive out.
Soon after, Amity Warme, from Colorado, became the fourth woman to free climb Golden Gate, and she did it ground up, without toprope rehearsal, in just five and a half days. She and her climbing partner Tyler Karow each led three of the four 5.13 pitches, with the exception of the Golden Desert, which Amity onsighted and Tyler followed cleanly on toprope. The two had never climbed together before, Tyler recounted in a YouTube video, “but I got the vibe it would be a good partnership.”
My prediction is that the future will see a renewed emphasis on ground-up free climbing. Now that routes and strategies have been mapped out so well, climbers in search of unknowns might focus more on boldness again, relying on less gear and embracing more uncertainty at a much higher level of athletic performance. For centuries, climbing styles have cycled from cautious to audacious: from ridge scrambles and obvious lines of weakness (free climbing), to gear-intensive sieges on sheer rock faces (aid climbing), then back to free climbing on those once-impossible walls, thanks to bolts and the use of fixed ropes (sport climbing, essentially). The modern climber has so much information and so many technological advantages that soon the only way to complete another loop in the spiral of evolution will be to cast off once more with “a rope, a rack and the shirt on your back,” as the old saying goes.
I WAS HANGING AROUND the bear boxes one evening when I overheard two silhouetted figures bantering in the dark. Alix Morris was dancing to jam-band music while a friend of hers was making fun of her musical taste. I jumped into the debate, playing both sides, and we shared laughs over a bottle of tequila. Alix is emblematic of the modern Yosemite denizen: she has all the local connections and knows where to find the best caves to sleep. She seemed to appear randomly out of the forest to grab food between long days of climbing. She might be most famous for her tenacious free ascent of Freerider with Bronwyn in 2016. The Teflon Corner variation was the first pitch of 5.12d Alix had ever completed, which she managed to put together with the rest of the route on her second attempt from the ground.
One day I parked the car on Highway 120 to scout the approach to the Phoenix. In 1977, this parallel-sided overhanging crack became one of the first 5.13a routes in the world, the proving ground for Ray Jardine’s spring-loaded camming devices that became known as “Friends” and the start of a new age for free climbing. I’d wanted to get a look at the Phoenix ever since I saw the famous photo of Jardine on it in history books. But there’s no obvious vantage point, and the best approach is to rappel from trees above. I followed a faint, meandering trail along steep, wooded hillsides above Cascade Falls and arrived at the edge of a cliff. Hmm. I was close but unsure where I’d gone wrong. I scrambled around until I heard voices on the other side of a rocky rib. Alix and a partner were coiling ropes after some one-hang lead attempts. “Do you want to come back here with me tomorrow?” she asked. Yes!
Rain was spitting from the sky by the time we arrived at the base of the crack the following afternoon. Alix gave it a full effort nonetheless, fighting to maintain poise as she made the delicate moves on damp stone. On her second attempt, she fell thirty feet up, and then continued to the top, grunting with effort as she pulled around the lip of the leaning dihedral. I had just enough time to follow the pitch on Micro Traxions before the rain became a downpour. It’s hard to describe the discombobulating, vertigo-inducing angles of the climb. The overhanging face tilts left then right, and at the crux traverse you make a weird transition between twisted angles, relying on toeholds that are just barely there.
Alix drove us back into the Valley, soaked and smiling. Rainbows appeared in a beam of sun between dark clouds. Then I remembered that I had neither ground to set up a tent on, nor enough room in my car to sleep in…. I was grateful to find a big rock for shelter!
Another cold storm was blowing in on my last full day in the park. I climbed Astroman with Isaac Kroger, another young van-dweller I’d met through mutual friends at the Highway 140 pullout. He was eager to lead the Harding Slot, since it was his first time. There was only a moment of struggle–“NO!” he grunted– before he pulled through. Once again, as I followed, my foot skittered, and I slipped. It was as if I still couldn’t break what Long had called, “an illusory taboo.” I wondered if I would ever properly climb the storied route that has haunted me since I was eighteen.
On the top, I was a little hurt when my young partner said Astroman was good, but he wondered what all the hype was about.
IN THE EARLY MORNING, a golden light reflects off the facets of El Capitan with a beauty that appears outside of time. It’s easy to forget just how much the decades and centuries have marked this place, and how many human histories, conflicts and aspirations have swirled through here, intersecting with those of visiting climbers and persisting beyond them.
In Alpinist 66, Lonnie Kauk–the son of Ron Kauk and Lucy Ann Parker, a local basketweaver of Miwuk, Paiute and Kashaya Pomo heritage–described one of his favorite stories from childhood: the origin of the Miwuk name for El Cap, Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La, after an inchworm who climbed it to save two bear cubs. In the story, the worm chants its name as it crawls up the stone: Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La.
In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion–a California state militia of white miners–drove Chief Tenaya and his Ahwahnechee people out of Ahwahnee (their name for Yosemite) and forced many of them onto a reservation by the Fresno River. Years later, the Ahwahnechee returned to the Valley and continued to struggle to remain on their lands and to preserve their heritage here. Today, the Southern Sierra Miwuk, an Ahwahnechee group with a traditional connection to the Valley, is still striving to get federal recognition of their tribal existence and rights.
A descendent of Chief Tenaya on his mother’s side, Lonnie grew up in Ahwahnee, and he is one of the strongest young Yosemite climbers, known for hard trad ascents. In Alpinist, he explained that he climbed “to carry on hiking through these hills like our ancestors did, to climb the rocks like our ancestors did. To carry on and go as high and as far as we can in the most respectful manner.”
I’D PLANTED THE DREAM stone in the crook of a tree at the base of El Capitan soon after I arrived in April. I’d held it in my hand and meditated upon my deepest wishes before setting it in the tree and covering it with dirt and leaves. It was low enough to the ground that a small child might find it. I thought I might return to retrieve the beautiful talisman at the end of my trip. But I never did.
Of course I wished to keep the polished stone forever. I still hope to hold it again. Yet the thought of keeping it on my bookshelf–where it would collect dust as a souvenir, all but forgotten, devoid of its real purpose–that bothered me more. I imagined the dream stone as a seed, something to plant if it was to have a chance of growing into something bigger, more beautiful. I smile to picture a stranger’s joyous surprise at finding it. And if no one finds it, or if the stone is left in place, perhaps the tree, watered by the runoff from Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La, will grow around it for decades to come.
–Derek Franz, Carbondale, Colorado
[This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 76, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 76 for all the goodness!–Ed.]