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Yosemite History Posted on 06.10.2010 by greg.kuchyt

Well, I figure the best way to kick off the Yosemite dispatches is to do a quick history lesson on climbing in Yosemite. In America, Yosemite is to climbing as Philadelphia is to liberty. Yosemite is the launching point for the development of techniques necessary to climb the massive faces of rock in Yosemite Valley. “Big Wall” climbing, as it became known, was born in the valley in the middle of the 20th century. This period, 1950s-1960s, is referred to as the “Golden Age” of climbing in Yosemite. Before we get too far into the start of what we would today consider “climbing” we need to talk about how all of it started.

In the late 19th century, climbing was mostly un-roped scrambling of various formations throughout the Yosemite National Park. John Muir reportedly is credited with the first climbing in Yosemite with his solo scramble up Cathedral Peak in the Tuolumne Meadows. The climbing activity that followed for the next 60 or so years was in the same vein as Muir’s ascent of Cathedral Peak; scrambles up terrain considered “pedestrian” by today’s standards. It is the lack of the use of ropes that limits the technical progression of difficulty, unlike in Europe where more technical ascents were occurring due to the use of ropes and rope skills.

In the early 1930s, European rope-work technique made its way to the Sierra Club by way of Americans who learned the trade in the European Alps. With this skill, climbers are able to climb without a fall ending absolutely in death, although the hemp ropes used at the time were a slim safety margin. Climbers also learn to use pitons, a type of protection hammered into cracks in the rock and clipped to the rope to limit the distance a climber would fall.

The climbers of the time turned their new found skills and eyes towards various spires in Yosemite, with a premium being placed on standing on the summit of “something”. However this traditional mountaineer’s perspective was dashed when in 1936, the first ascent of a major wall was accomplished after Morgan Harris, Kenneth Adams, and Kenneth Davis completed the first ascent of Royal Arches. To contrast for our East-Coast climber friends, this is about the same time that Fritz Weissner and Hans Kraus began climbing in the Shawangunks.

While climbing continued in Yosemite through the 30s and 40s, the impact of WWII was definitely seen in the historical record by the lack of paradigm re-defining accomplishments. Many of the Yosemite climbers served in WWII and used their technical skills in the early formative years of the 10th Mountain Division. While the war diminished climbing activity in Yosemite, it also paid back dividends in the form of the war time development of lightweight aluminium carabiners and much safer nylon kernmantle ropes. As well, pitons were available as army surplus following the war, giving climbers a cheap source of pitons that was previously filled by expensive mail orders to European climbing shops.

Post-war climbing in Yosemite was most notably defined by the work of John Salathé, a Swiss-born blacksmith. Salathé realized that the soft iron pitons in use were not durable enough to stand up to the repeated use required to tame the larger faces of Yosemite Valley. Being a blacksmith, Salathé produced the first steel pitons that could stand up to repeated use in the hard Yosemite granite. Using his newly produced pitons, Salathé made ground-breaking ascents between 1946 and 1950 proving his re-designed pitons a success. In the process, Salathé became the first to bivy on-route in Yosemite; a tradition to be both willingly and unwillingly followed by countless climbers to come.

The 50s saw the beginning of the “Golden Years” with two prominent climbers coming into the limelight and cutting their teeth on many first ascents in Yosemite Valley; these climbers were Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. Both Harding and Robbins began exploring longer and harder routes in the Valley refining their technique. In 1957, Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas, and Mike Sherrick completed the NW Face of Half Dome, proving that even the long, steep, imposing walls of the Valley were not unclimbable. Harding, his sights originally set on the NW Face of Half Dome, turned his attention to the quintessential wall in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan. In 1958, after 47 days spread over a year and a half, Harding finally topped out on El Capitan after a siege war of attrition with the wall. Harding’s route which ascends the prominent prow of El Capitan is named simply and aptly, The Nose. Both Robbins’ and Harding’s ascents were visionary and progressive for their times and re-defined the idea of what was possible.

The 60s ushered in an era of progression and an influx of new climbers. The now well known names of Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, Layton Kor, Chuck Pratt, and others were very active in the Valley, constantly expanding the boundaries of what was possible. In the late 50s Chouinard began making his own steel pitons and selling them out of the back of his car. By the mid-60s, demand was so great that Chouinard partnered with Frost and started the Chouinard Equipment Corporation, the precursor to today’s Black Diamond Equipment. About this same time Royal Robbins returned from a climbing trip to the United Kingdom and brought back “chocks“, a removable type of “clean” protection that are wedged into cracks by hand and do not damage the rock like the hard steel pitons. In order to prove their efficacy, Robbins established several climbs using only nuts as a means of protection.

The 70s begin with a growing concern over the increased number of climbers and the scarring of the rock being caused by the steel pitons used to protect the climbs. Chouinard, being influenced to not destroy the climbs he so cherished, began manufacturing his own line of chocks and invented the hex, another type of passive protection used to cleanly protect a climb. In 1972, Chouinard Equipment included in their catalog a 14-page essay by Doug Robinson in which the argument to abandon pitons in favor of “clean” protection was made. This essay is credited with jump starting the clean climbing movement virtually overnight in the US and ending the era of prevalent piton usage. In addition to the clean climbing movement, the 70s also saw speed records on The Nose (less than 24 hours), increasingly harder free climbing grades, and the introduction of the spring-loaded camming device by Ray Jardine. The 80s followed in the same suit as the 70s; increasingly faster, harder, and more daring climbing continually re-defined the possible in Yosemite. The 90s continued to see further refinement of speed records and increasingly difficult and bold climbs. However, climbing in Yosemite during the 90s was most notably defined by one person, Lynn Hill. Lynn Hill’s groundbreaking 1993 free-ascent of The Nose established a new benchmark for style and planted the seed for future climbers to bring free climbing to the big wall arena.

To this date, climbers in the Valley are forever pushing the boundaries; climbing faster, harder, and bolder than the previous generation of climbers. Visionary climbers like Tommy Caldwell are planting the seeds today for the future generations of climbers in Yosemite with his attempt to free the aid route Mescalito. The limit is far from being met, but the bar is set so high at this point that progress comes in small, yet groundbreaking steps.

So that’s a “quick” run-down of climbing history in Yosemite. As you can see, this area is pretty integral to the progression and development of climbing in the US. It’s incredibly humbling to think about being in a place like this, imagining these pioneers setting foot on these massive granite faces looking up into the unknown that hung above them. It makes what we do look like child’s play with our modern gear and detailed descriptions of the routes and what to expect. Their experiences are the true essence of adventure and their accomplishments are all the more visionary and bold because of it. We can only hope to achieve such great things in our lives, but we’ll settle for walking in their steps, thankful for their foresight and work the whole way.


Yager, Ken. “A Short History of Yosemite Rock Climbing.” Yosemite Climbing Association. YCA. 10 Jun. 2010

Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. New York. Penguin. 2006