Skip to content
Home » Features » Yosemite in the Fifties The Iron Age: An Interview with the Photo Collector

Yosemite in the Fifties The Iron Age: An Interview with the Photo Collector

Mark Powell, Warren Harding and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer in the Camp 4 parking lot after the first exploration of the Nose. “I had seen a black and white version of this photograph and was searching for a print or the negative for years to no avail,” Dean Fidelman says. “Then quite by chance someone showed me this image. I knew I had to have it. I drove 250 miles, slept in my van and convinced the owner of the image to allow me to scan it. It’s one of the true gems in this book.”

[Photo] Beverly Powell Woolsey

People have long celebrated Yosemite National Park and its deep glaciated valley, which President Teddy Roosevelt called, “…a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

Photographer and Stonemaster Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman first arrived in Yosemite in 1971, and he’s called the place home for decades. He has produced several books celebrating the park’s climbing culture. His latest book is Yosemite in the Fifties, co-authored with John “Largo” Long and Tom Alder, in which Fidelman goes back to a time when climbers were inventing the tools to scale Yosemite’s great walls.

This new gear included the well-known Stoveleg Pitons, which are now almost as famous as the Nose route where they were used in wide cracks in 1958. “The Stovelegs were first made by Frank Tarver who did the second ascent of the Lost Arrow Chimney with Bob Swift. Tarver found the legs of a cast-iron stove at the dump and modified them to be in the shape of a large piton,” Fidelman says. “Before that, climbers from that era used blocks of wood but nothing really worked; they needed a big piton. The Stovelegs are like little pieces of art, and they have the feel of a relic or an artifact. That’s what I like about handling and photographing them.”

The 1950s were a time when many of the resident climbers in Camp 4 hobbled around on crutches because of hard falls. “Especially as they started bouldering, people would break their ankles, legs or get a severe sprain. You’d see it in the roped climbing too, because there wasn’t much protection and when you fell there was a good chance that you’d get hurt. Mark Powell’s fall on Arrowhead Arete resulted in a compound fracture of his ankle, taking him out of the ranks of top climbers. He was one of the original climbing bums. He founded the Camp 4 lifestyle.” The 1950s were long before sticky rubber and spring-loaded camming devices. It was a time when climbers were inventing the items they needed to ascend the long routes and big walls. This 206-page coffee-table sized book includes first-person accounts of great climbs, restored photographs, and images of climbing tools and equipment from the era.

“This is one of my photographs. I made it in 2003 and put it into the rotation for this book. I made it on a camera from the 1950s and hand-processed the film to keep the vintage feel.”

[Photo] Dean Fidelman

Creating Yosemite in the Fifties, according to Fidelman, was a chance to meet and talk with aging Yosemite pioneers, and to reach and “resurrect vanished worlds.” The front cover of the book states, “[It was a] time in the history of exploration and a classic era of Americana.”

Looking through the large-format book, certain images caught my eye that were taken from the Valley floor of the surrounding landscape. I asked Fidelman about scenic photos from places where we spent time together when I lived in Yosemite from 1995 to 2005. I was curious to know whether he selected shots that depicted some of his favorite places. “My photo selection is on a very personal nature,” he said. “It’s supposed to give you a feeling of what it was like in that era.”

Alpinist: What books have you published?

Dean Fidelman: The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, Stone Nudes, Valley Climbers, and this is the fourth, Yosemite in the Fifties. I’ve made all my books with John Long [another Stonemaster from the 1970s]. We have another book that we’d like to do: Yosemite in the Sixties.

ALP: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

DF: That’s what I grew up with. In the ’70s, I thought back to the ’50s. When I put this book together, I met with climbers from that era. And I got to know them. It took a few years to get these photos and get these people’s trust. They had to understand what I was trying to do. They had to let me into their lives.

It’s something that tickles my eye. I know that climbing is made up of more than the climbing. It took me two to three years to get Don Lauria’s trust [Lauria and Royal Robbins climbed the second ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light in 1971 over six days]. He finally understood that what I was doing is very valuable.

Bob Swift on top of Yosemite Point Buttress on its first ascent in 1952. “I found this negative in Al Steck’s archives,” Fidelman says. “It was thin (underexposed) and it had never been printed. This was just what I was looking for, a dusty gem from the past, an image made in the moment and long forgotten. It was finds like this one that kept me moving forward and questing for more.”

[Photo] Allen Steck

Alp: Your book sounds more like a journey than a moneymaker. How did you track down the historic images?

DF: There’s no money in this, dude. It’s what I live for. There’s nothing cooler than driving 100 miles to Jerry Gallwas’s house, [one of the men who made the first ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face in 1957] to look through everyone’s photos. The photos that they like and the ones that they don’t like. I’m doing this for myself; this is what my life is about.

Alp: Were there any setbacks?

DF: The first crux was that I started this book with Stonemaster Press but the company dissolved. Then I had to find another publisher. You have to keep the embers burning when you have these setbacks. I’m very particular about my work and pick my own designer, the big format and quality paper, because I want it to look good for me. You have to keep these things going, because no one else is, and when it’s done, it’s done. It’s about inspiration, it’s about continuing and knowing you’re going to do this.

Alp: What do these projects mean to you on a personal level?

DF: It’s a life sentence. An artist makes art. If you’re not making photos, then you’re collecting art. That’s your purpose, I suppose. My decision in 2000 was to bring art into the climbing community.

Barbara Lilley on top of Lower Cathedral Spire in 1952. “This photo really brought the 1950s feel and style to the book. The original slide was washed out, but I knew with a little restoration it would shine.”

[Photo] Barbara Lilley collection

Alp: What’s your next project?

DF: Right now I’m working on a project with someone who shot here from 1930 to 1953. He shot everything. It’s an amazing collection. I’m a volunteer and helping to get those images digitized.

I want to call the collection Paradise Lost: The Photographs of Ralph H. Anderson. He was born in 1900 and died in 1966. He captured a 20-year period [in the park] that is fascinating. I like obscure photographers because I consider myself obscure. It’s about the continuum of Yosemite history and the community.

Alp: Where can people buy Yosemite in the Fifties?

The book is available on and and at select retailers.