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Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers & Nature at Risk

Author : Joseph E. Taylor III
Published : 2010-10-15

For anyone who has spent just a few days in Yosemite National Park, know that rock climbing and rock climbers are an important part of the history of this legendary park.  It literally goes back to the Second Great Age of Discovery (if not further), when geologists Clarence King and Josiah Whitney scrambled from one Sierra peak to the next in search of a knowable “earth age.” 

During the busy summer months, hundreds of visitors stand at El Cap Meadow astonished as they watch “these crazy kids” hover over the valley floor, like apparitions, silhouetted members of some truly remarkable secret society pushing further and faster, up and over as they scale unfathomable heights. 

From the likes of Richard Leonard, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Dean Potter, Ron Kauk, Lynn Hill, and John Bachar, Yosemite can boast of a Who Who’s listing among climbing greats as part of a 20th century mandate to be the best and the brightest. It’s an exhausting tale filled with agony and ecstasy, life and death, triumph and despair. 

Despite the temptation, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature At Risk does not reduce its subject to mere romantic frivolity and fantasy.  Rather, Joseph E. Taylor III has too much respect for Yosemite to shrink this important book to the likes of a Danielle Steel novel. 

In a sense, Pilgrims of the Vertical reads a bit like Moby Dick—structurally that is—by dividing the chapters into consistent parts, equally curious about narrative flow and the technical virtuosity of climbing.  As a result, the book probes an inner core of values and beliefs but counterweighs existential rhetoric with the solid mechanical tools of big wall climbing.  It’s a successful methodology that gains significant traction during WWII with the need for better and more reliable equipment for the famed 10th Mountain Division.  In fact, so many of the original Yosemite climbers, notably David Brower, but most especially Richard Leonard, willingly shared their expertise with the military to design new and better ropes, pitons, and carabiners.    

It’s this commitment to history that makes Pilgrims of the Vertical a valuable book.  For indeed, there are numerous published accounts of climbing exploits, especially in today’s era of literary memoir.  For the most part, these books collectively seek to unravel the so-called spirit of the wall, an inward pull that reduces rock climbing to an individual expression of the self. 

And though a worthy approach to an interesting story, Pilgrims of the Vertical, to the contrary, expands upon the literary technique common to climbing literature and adds a much needed contextual analysis that locates Yosemite within a larger historical spectrum.  Mr. Taylor’s objective, of course, is to reinforce Yosemite’s significance as the epicenter of American rock climbing.  It’s an undeniable truism that few places in the United States rival the Sierra.  Its reputation has inspired climbers all over the world to seek and conquer classic routes like El Capitan’s Sea of Dreams or Half Dome’s Arcturus. 

Mr. Taylor’s book draws upon a European tradition set in the mid- to late-19th century in which heroic climbs were part and parcel to a renewed sense of nationalism and imperial ambition.  Great Britain scores big in this regard, but so too does the scientific community.  Botanists and geologists alike, featuring the well-known such as Louis Agassiz, scaled Mount Blanc and the Matterhorn “to measure the air, and earth,” endeavors that were “respectable during this era of scientific exploration.” 

In America, the Scottish-born John Muir was doing the same, climbing peaks in Yosemite to quench a growing fascination with glaciology.  It is here, too, where Mr. Taylor introduces a primary theme for the book, this notion that climbing mountains was really about young men proving their masculinity in an age of increased mechanization.

The first two chapters, Adventurers and Victorians, quickly give way to the Pioneers, those trailblazing American climbers out of Berkeley and southern California who formed loosely confederated unions of local climbing clubs modeled after the established Mazamas Club in Oregon and the Sierra Club in San Francisco.  Here, the first real stars of climbing are introduced, Richard Leonard and Robert Underhill, whose vastly different approach to climbing sets in context a familiar technique Mr. Taylor employs throughout the book. 

Navigating a swath of fits and starts, rock climbing in Yosemite builds upon parallel events in national park history organized by a familiar chronology.  What had been a communal endeavor during the Depression years, climbing morphed into a more competitive and individualistic coming-of-age quest to the generations that followed WWII. 

Larger than life climbers such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard later used their prestigious names to capitalize on a growing outdoor recreation ethic by building multi-million dollar corporations.  It’s here where Mr. Leonard’s moral compass of communal solidarity is directly threatened by aggressive marketers.  Climbing is pulled from the cozy Bay Area neighborhoods, from Cragmont Rock and Wildcat Cave, where Mr. Leonard called attention to safety-first principles rather than “star” quality solo treks.

During and after the war, new techniques and equipment allowed the next generation to climb faster and higher, dubious to the communal spirit adopted by Mr. Leonard.  It is here too, during the rush of the Cold War, where the moral dimension of big wall climbing came to represent competing values embodied by the unique mission of the National Park Service. 

Charged with conserving natural and historic objects for the enjoyment of future generations, national parks are deliberately managed by a dynamic set of competing interests.  Caught within this fluid and often contentious set of imperatives, climbers fought over the use, or misuse, of mechanized drilling and piton placement as a means to access otherwise inaccessible areas.  Chapters 8, 9, and 10 are especially compelling, moving deliberately from the so-called “moralists” to what Mr. Taylor calls the “dirtbags.” 

Sharp moments of dramatic confrontation between legendary climbers cull out an intense devotion to technique and practice, a sort of generational challenge that pushed the limits of accepted, if unspoken, rules.

Pilgrims of the Vertical is a valuable book for reasons already mentioned, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy book to read.  For the general reader, Pilgrims of the Vertical might appear more content speaking to the chosen few, the brethren of big wall climbing.  It devotes too much time and energy waxing poetic about equipment and technology rather than fully invest in key cultural events that might otherwise attract a broader audience. 

Members of the climbing community did, and continue, to make significant contributions to major cultural events.  Take the Great Depression, World War II, the 1960s, and the environmental movement, topics somewhat considered in the book.  But each are absorbed, even consumed, by the author’s obsessive devotion to a select few alpha males. 

Add to that page after page of detailed descriptions of piton and carabiners, though important, lends itself more to those firmly inside the loop.  In the interim, Mr. Taylor missed a golden opportunity to explore Yosemite’s climbing community en masse, a considerable force beyond a few famous names.

Even so, Pilgrims of the Vertical more than adequately fills a gaping hole in the historic record.  Satisfying the historiography of Yosemite is still a work in progress, but the book goes a long way in helping to complete it.  Important people such as Lynn Hill, Galen Rowell, Steve Roper, Mark Powell, and Jim Bridwell, pioneer climbers, photographers, environmental activists, and world-class athletes are finally accorded a place at the table. 

Beyond Ansel Adams, John Muir, big waterfalls, and tourism, thanks to Joseph Taylor let’s now add climbing to the fascinating story of Yosemite.

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