Lessons from Yosemite’s first climbing guidebook
“I have this idea,” Mikey texted last October. “Let’s climb all of the suggested routes from the Yosemite red-cover guidebook.” I agreed immediately. The tattered copy of A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley arrived in the mail less than a week later. First published in 1964 by the Sierra Club, it was the first stand-alone resource for the hundreds of routes put up over the previous three decades.
I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing those early days of Yosemite climbing and seeing this place I knew intimately in a different way. He texted one stipulation, “No online research, we can only use the info in the guidebook.” A project like this could take multiple seasons to tick off the recommended classics, which apparently ranged from “short scrambles to the most demanding routes yet accomplished.” A few looked short and relatively easy, others would require long days, and the majority read like historic footnotes scattered across the Valley.
Even though Mikey and I had met over 20 years ago scrap-jumping leftovers in the Lodge cafeteria, we’d yet to tie-in together. The fact that it would be to uncover old-school choss piles and not to establish a new-wave test piece was a nod to our roots as toilers in search of obscure challenges. It was appropriate that all the climbs we’d be pursuing were put up before we were born.
“They can publish a key to a climb, but they have no key for a climber,” wrote David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, in his publisher’s foreword to A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley. He was referring to the danger of the dilettante who knows just enough to get into trouble. But I believe he was also alluding to the climber’s commitment to the lifestyle. Just as minimal weight is required to reach the summit, maximal belief is needed to leave the ground. Climbing is a blend of treading lightly while thinking deeply.
We went in April—a trip shoehorned last minute between Mikey’s impending trip to southern Chile and mine to Joshua Tree. I hitched into the Valley for our rendezvous under threatening stormy skies with an extended weather forecast that was even more bleak. Never ones to miss even the slightest weather window, and with a few hours of remaining light, we decided to go for the northwest face of Middle Cathedral, reached via the Gunsight gully, still filled with early-spring snow. The ’64 Red Book is to the latest Valley guide what the landline is to the smartphone—a relic—and that was the point, to rely on scant info about unknown climbs with no previous knowledge. Plus, Mikey threatened to throw my phone out the window.
We topped the formation after weaving together various cracks and shallow dihedrals linked via low-angle face moves. It was a read-and-run, simul-climb mission that rewarded us with a twilight portrait of El Capitan, a perspective I’d never had before. I felt both the immensity of the moonlight and its sudden smallness within the greater expanse. It was enlivening to climb a quality route that I didn’t know existed, and it reminded me of something I’ve often felt—that when the trail ends and the climb begins, the world is made anew.
The rain pelted down as we dashed the short, slanting walk to the left side of Reed’s to find the Iota, a series of squeezes hidden behind a thick-cracked slab capped by a jumble of monumental boulders. I gamely started up a low-angle chimney but quickly reconsidered as hail accumulated on every edge. Steve Roper, the guidebook author, writes that the recommended climbs “are usually distinguished by good rock, a lack of dirt and good protection.” It was the last one that worried me, considering the wet rock. The idea of becoming part human pinball and part pencil eraser was enough to resort to direct aid, foot in sling, yard on rope. I felt absurd for using direct aid on a 5.4 put up in ’56 until Mikey quipped, “Dude, the rad dads would be proud of your style.” I realized that using such an antiquated guide was a bit like taking fashion advice from a 1960s Vogue.
First ascents are like good seats in a theater: The obvious ones are taken immediately, just as the significant features are often the easiest way up, and we’re often instructed to “follow the prominent weakness.” Lunch Ledge, done in 1933 on Washington’s Column, was the first modern-day roped climb in Yosemite and was long the most popular. It consists of 300 feet of ramps and broken buttresses dotted with bay bushes and pine trees. The Column’s Direct route, a committing Grade III that calls for a full day, continues skyward for another 800 feet.
The process of trial and error practiced over years of multipitch climbing creates a strong sense of direction as you see and feel the line overhead. Mikey and I covered ground quickly, worming our way through the multitude of chimneys that were described as “evil-looking” and “rotten.” And Roper’s assurance that the climbing was “moderate but strenuous” was welcome. We took breaks to eat and chat, often bringing up the names and stories of our friends who are no longer alive. As we traced the topographical maps of these climbs we unconsciously encountered the icons that remain alive within the legends. On top, we coiled the rope and took in the soul-piercing panorama of Half Dome’s northwest face.
Climbing requires a diverse reading list—not only topo maps and route descriptions, but also weather, hazardous terrain, your partner’s skill level and commitment and, most importantly, intuition. Guidebooks provide inspiration. Turning to a resource like the ’64 Red Book that’s more than 60 years old speaks to the breadth of our communal experience. The brotherhood and sisterhood of the rope is another big “why” for me as, with every friend and climb, these guidebooks transform facts and figures into a family album.
This essay was featured in the 2019 Patagonia September Catalog.