Yosemite Climbing: Into the Valley

October 30, 2009

Coming off of my first trad climbing trip just a few weeks earlier, Ben and I decided that we wanted to get another trip to Yosemite in while the weather was nice.  In those three weeks, the temperatures up in Tuolumne had dropped into the 50’s and 60’s and the park service had closed the Tuolumne campground.  So we set our sights on lower elevations and that meant Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley is without a doubt one of the most well known natural landmarks in the world.  Known by most tourists for the largest waterfalls in North America, the steep granite faces of El Capitan and the towering presence of Half Dome.  While it’s quite obviously a destination for rock climbers, few know much about the history of climbing in Yosemite.

It’s not just a great place to go climbing, Yosemite Valley is and has been from almost the beginning of the sport the place to go climbing.  Advancements and movements tend to emanate from epicenters where the best and the brightest get together.  After World War II, Yosemite was the epicenter for the climbing community.  It was here where the present climbing style and ethics were all born.  The push to free climb routes instead of pulling on gear, innovations in rope management, the use of pitons to ascend harder routes, the rise of removable protection to avoid scaring the rock, the development of active protection and hundreds of other advancements.

Camp 4 Plaque

Photo: Flickr/hoipolloi

Not only did all of this happen inside Yosemite Valley, it was confined to one place, a campground called Camp 4.  Camp 4 is where the climbers lived and shared ideas, sometimes staying at the camp for months while working various projects in the valley.  In fact, Camp 4 was so central to the climbing community that it was here that Yvon Chouinard invented and sold his high tech pitons that allowed climbers to ascend new routes, that company is now called Black Diamond.  Chouinard also created a line of technical clothing under the familiar name Patagonia.  This is just one story of what came out of the community of climbers in Camp 4.  As a result, in 2003 Camp 4 was added to the national registry of historical places.

I’d stayed in Camp 4 before, but never as a climber and never for more than a couple nights.  The campground has room for about 210 people and is the only walk-in campground left in the valley.  Because of this, the sites there are extremely sought after.  To maximize it’s usage, the park service puts six people in every site.  This means that you’ll likely be sharing with some strangers.  While some might not think much of that idea, it’s actually an extremely cool experience.  It kind of forces you to hang around the campfire and hear what others have been up to and it’s a big part of what makes the tight knit community at Camp 4.

Because of the demand, Ben and I couldn’t get into the campground on our first night so we camped outside of the valley.  The next morning we got up before the sun rose and got ourselves a place in line by the campground registration window around 7am.  Because the window doesn’t open up until 8:30am, we got out our sleeping bags and took a little nap while we waited.  There were a number of parties in front of us but we managed to get a site.

We unloaded some gear and headed out for a climb (more about the climbing in a later post).  When we returned we got to meet our fellow campers.  All four of them were from the east coast but two of them will forever be in my memory, Dustin and Katie.  Dustin and Katie were in their early 20’s and decided to go on a mammoth road trip.  They left at the end of August and didn’t plan on going home until the end of December.  They had been climbing in Yosemite for the previous couple weeks and were very enjoyable to talk to.  To me, the two of them were so iconic of the lifestyle of so many climbers in Camp 4, in touch with the things that mattered to them and willing to make sacrifices to make it happen.

When the weekend rolled around a couple of new campers rolled into our site.  When Ben and I came back from our climb they were making themselves some dinner and asked if we’d be cool with some of their friends coming over to hang out.  Naturally we were fine with this but we didn’t quite realize what we were agreeing to.  About an hour later or so our campsite was filled with no less than 14 people in it.  One of them started a campfire and by the time we finished our dinner it was getting dark and we all hung out around the fire.

A bit later in the night some of our neighbors even joined us and brought along their guitars.  At this point we probably had almost 20 people huddled around the fire, singing, playing music and staying warm.  A park ranger even stopped by and commented on the fact that our site was the place to be that night, it was a very cool experience.

As the night progressed we slowly realized that all the extra friends were intending to actually stay at our campsite.  With a maximum of 6 people per site, 14 seemed like a pretty ridiculous stretch.  We were pretty cool with it until the group tried to setup a 7th tent, that was just making it too damn obvious.  So instead they crashed on their crash pads and in the vestibules of other tents.  It was all quite humerus in a way, however around midnight I was really wanting some peace and quiet so I could get some sleep.

That’s the way things seem to go in Camp 4 and I was feeling very fortunate to be a part of it.  I was wondering if I’d enjoy the climbing in the valley as much as I enjoyed it up in Tuolumne.  While the trip didn’t quite end the way we hoped it would, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it.

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