This article originally appeared in the American Alpine Journal 1963.

Modern Yosemite Climbing
By Yvon Chouinard

Tom Frost climbs out of a chimney on the north face of Quarter Dome.  Yvon Chouinard

Tom Frost climbs out of a chimney on the north face of Quarter Dome. Photo by Yvon Chouinard

Editor’s note: American climbers will remember from various anthologies Yvon Chouinard’s most famous early pronouncement: “Yosemite Valley will, in the near future, be the training ground for a new generation of super-alpinists who will venture forth to the high mountains of the world to do the most esthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth.” Those words conclude his essay in the AAJ 1963, excerpted below. For the sake of Internet reading, we have deleted 2,200 words devoted to the nature of Yosemite’s climbing, including sections on “Special Problems,” “Safety,” “Free Climbing,” “Artificial Climbing,” and “Equipment,” all of which are fascinating to those interested in the state of the art circa 1963. We highly recommend reading the complete article, which can be downloaded in its original form, with numerous photographs, in this PDF (2.7 MB).

Yosemite climbing is the least known and understood and yet one of the most important schools of rock climbing in the world today. Its philosophies, equipment and techniques have been developed almost independently of the rest of the climbing world. In the short period of thirty years, it has achieved a standard of safety, difficulty and technique comparable to the best European schools.

Climbers throughout the world have recently been expressing interest in Yosemite and its climbs although they know little about it. Even most American climbers are unaware of what is happening in their own country. Yosemite climbers in the past have rarely left the Valley to climb in other areas, and conversely few climbers from other regions ever come to Yosemite; also, very little has ever been published about Yosemite. Climb after climb, each as important as any done elsewhere, has gone completely unrecorded. One of the greatest rock climbs ever done, the 1961 ascent of the Salathe Wall, received four sentences in the American Alpine Journal.

Just why is Yosemite climbing so different? Why does it have techniques, ethics and equipment all of its own? The basic reason lies in the nature of the rock itself. Nowhere else in the world is the rock so exfoliated, so glacier-polished, and so devoid of handholds. All of the climbing lines follow vertical crack systems. Every piton crack, every handhold is a vertical one. Special techniques and equipment have evolved through absolute necessity.

Royal Robbins and Tom Frost on the Salathé Wall.  Tom Frost, Royal Robbins

Royal Robbins and Tom Frost on the Salathé Wall. Photos by Tom Frost, Royal Robbins

Ethics and Philosophies. The most obvious split between European and Yosemite rock-climbing philosophies is whether to leave pitons in or not. In Europe they are left in place. In Yosemite, even if a climb has been done a hundred times, the pitons are still removed. I believe that nearly everyone, whether European or American, agrees that if practical, a route should not remain pitoned. It is entirely practical in Yosemite to take the pitons out. With the pitons removed and with no guidebook to show the way, a third or succeeding ascent of a route is as difficult as was the second, It is conceivable that a climber who is capable of doing the Bonatti Pillar on the Petit Dru with all the pitons in might not be able to climb the north face of Half Dome, although both climbs unpitoned are of equal difficulty.

In the Alps climbing is not called artificial until a stirrup is used. Free climbing in California means that artificial aid of any sort is not used, whether it be a sling around a knob of rock, a piton for a handhold, foot-hold or to rest on. After a piton is placed for safety, it may not be used for aid in climbing without changing the classification of the climb.

Especially on short climbs, free climbing is forced to its limits. Guidebooks list not only the first ascents of a route but also the first free ascent. Some climbers feel that it is more of an honor to do the first free ascent than the actual first.

Nowhere else, except on the sandstone climbs of the Southwest, is the need for expansion bolts more pronounced than in the Valley. However, this does not mean that they have been indiscriminately used. Climbers have gone to extremes to avoid placing one of them, except for an anchor, where the ethics are less stringent. The usual attitude toward bolts is that they should only be carried by the better climbers because only they know when a bolt must be placed. If a bolt is put in and a later party feels it unnecessary, then it is chopped out. Lack of equipment, foul weather or a less-than-expert leader is never an excuse for a bolt.

It has become popular in other parts of North America, especially in the Northwest, to lay fixed ropes up a climb to avoid having to bivouac or take a chance with the weather. These ropes create an umbilical cord from man to where he truly belongs and to where he can quickly retreat if things get tough. This manifests American love of security and shows that the climber should not be there in the first place. The only routes now being done with fixed ropes in Yosemite are those that take so long on the first ascent that they could not be done in any other way; such are the multi-day routes on El Capitan.

Perhaps I have given the reader the impression that I feel that Yosemite is the only place to climb and that its philosophies and ethics are the last word. Personally, I would rather climb in the high mountains. I have always abhorred the tremendous heat, the dirt-filled cracks, the ant-covered foul-smelling trees and bushes which cover the cliffs, the filth and noise of Camp 4 (the climbers’ campground) and worst of all, the multitudes of tourists which abound during the weekends and summer months. Out of the nearly 300 routes in the Valley, there are less than 50 which I should care to do or repeat. The climbing as a whole is not very esthetic or enjoyable; it is merely difficult. During the last couple of years there has been in the air an aura of unfriendliness and competition between climbers, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. Like every disease, it was initially spread by a few, and now it has reached a point where practically no one is blameless.

Yvon Chouinard crack climbing and T.M. Herbert friction climbing on the Salathé Wall. Steve Roper, Tom Frost

Yvon Chouinard crack climbing and T.M. Herbert friction climbing on the Salathé Wall. Photos by Steve Roper, Tom Frost

The native climbers are a proud bunch of individuals; they are proud of their valley and its climbs and standards. An outsider is not welcomed and accepted until he proves that he is equal to the better climbs and climbers. He is constantly on trial to prove himself. When he is climbing, he is closely watched to see that he does a free pitch free, that he does not place more than the required number of pitons in an artificial pitch, and that he does the climb speedily. Climbers have left the Valley saying that they will never return because of the way they were treated by the native climbers. These problems will, in time, resolve themselves as the Yosemite climbers move afield and see that there is no room or need for competition or enmity in the mountains.

There have been times when I have felt ashamed to be a Yosemite climber, and there are times when I feel as if I truly hate the place; but then there are times when I should rather be there than anywhere else in the world. If at times I hate the place, it is probably because I love it so. It is a strange, passionate love that I feel for this Valley. More than just a climbing area, it is a way of life.

The future of Yosemite Climbing. Nearly all of the great classical lines in Yosemite have been ascended. All of the faces have been climbed by at least one route. This does not mean that there are no new routes left, because there are countless new lines on the cliffs which lie between the great formations. Some will be as difficult as any yet done, but that is all they will be. They will offer very little esthetic pleasure. The rock is often poor, the cliffs covered with bushes, and the cracks filled with dirt and moss; blank areas will require bolts. As a line becomes less logical and direct, the esthetic beauty of the climbing also diminishes.

To do a winter climb for the sake of making the first winter ascent is senseless. Winter conditions can be better than in the summer. To do a route under actual winter conditions means climbing immediately after a storm, which is nearly impossible and suicidal. Because the rock is so smooth, ice will not adhere to it except during and directly after a storm. To climb then means having to clear off all the verglas on the holds because the ice is too thin and badly anchored to climb on directly. To clean off all the verglas is a slow process. At Yosemite’s low altitude, the hot California sun early in the morning loosens great sheets of ice and sends them crashing down.

Solo climbing will not be practical until the routes are pitoned. Otherwise, because of the great amounts of direct aid, a two-man party can climb faster and more efficiently on the big climbs. I doubt that the big walls will be pitoned for a long time to come. Besides, at present solo climbing is against the law.

Climbing for speed records will probably become more popular, a mania which has just begun. Climbers climb not just to see how fast and efficiently they can do it, but far worse, to see how much faster and more efficient they are than a party which did the same climb a few days before. The climb becomes secondary, no more important than a racetrack. Man is pitted against man.

The future of Yosemite climbing lies not in Yosemite, but in using the new techniques in the great granite ranges of the world. A certain number of great ascents have already been done in other areas as a direct result of Yosemite climbers and techniques, notably the north face of Mount Conness in the Sierra Nevada, the west face of the South Tower of Hawser Spire in the Bugaboos, the two routes on the Diamond on Longs Peak in Colorado, the Totem Pole and Spider Rock in Arizona, the north face of East Temple in the Wind Rivers, the northwest corner of the Petit Dru (voie Americaine) and the first American ascent of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses in the French Alps. Although these ascents are as fine and as difficult as any in their respective areas, they are merely the beginning of a totally new school of American climbing, that is to say technical climbing under Alpine conditions. The opportunities here are limitless. I have personally seen in the Wind River Range and Bugaboos untouched walls that are as difficult and as beautiful as any ever done in the history of Alpinism. There are in the Wind Rivers alone opportunities for fifty Grade VI climbs. The western faces of the Howser Spires in the Bugaboos are from 3,000 to 5,000 feet high. The Coast Ranges, the Logan Mountains, the innumerable ranges of Alaska, the Andes, the Baltoro Himalaya all have walls which defy the imagination.

Who will make the first ascents of these breath-taking rock faces? From the Americas the climbers can come only from Yosemite. The way it now is, no one can climb enough in the high mountains to get in shape to do a Grade VI climb, either in the mountains or in Yosemite. These extraordinary climbs will be done by dedicated climbers who are in superb mental and physical condition from climbing all year round; who are used to climbing on granite, doing much artificial climbing and putting in and taking out their own pitons; who are familiar with the problems of living for a long time on these walls, hauling up great loads, standing in slings, sleeping in hammocks for days at a time; and who have the desire and perseverance needed to withstand the intense suffering, which is a pre-requisite for the creation of any great work of art. Yosemite Valley will, in the near future, be the training ground for a new generation of super-alpinists who will venture forth to the high mountains of the world to do the most esthetic and difficult walls on the face of the earth.

Click here to download a PDF (2.7 MB) of the full article in its original form, with numerous photographs.

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