Climber Has a Dream as Lofty as Yosemite’s Peaks

Times Staff Writer

During three decades as a rock climber, Ken Yager has amassed plenty of personal history on the towering granite walls framing Yosemite Valley. He’s ascended El Capitan’s wrinkled face more than 50 times and established scores of knee-quaking routes up other cliffs and sheer spires.

But his biggest mark may come on flat terra firma.

Yager is behind the push to build a museum celebrating Yosemite Valley’s center-stage role in the development of modern rock climbing.

If Chamonix in the French Alps is a birthplace of the sport and Everest its most celebrated conquest, then Yosemite is the Cape Canaveral of climbing, a place where Americans rocketed past the dominant Europeans in the 1950s and ‘60s with new techniques, tools and raw tenacity.

They did it while practicing an environmental ethos passed through the years from naturalist John Muir -- one of Yosemite’s early climbers -- to big wall pioneers like Royal Robbins, who took pains to avoid defacing the rock.

You’d barely know that rich history existed by visiting the valley today. Although contemporary climbers use sweat and chalk-dusted hands to spider up 3,000-foot cliffs once deemed unassailable, the park has provided virtually no record of the climbing revolution that unfolded on those shoulders of granite.


Into that void has slogged Yager.

At 46, straddling the years between old-timers and the current crop of youthful climbers, the tousle-haired Yager has toiled for more than a dozen years to see a climbing museum planted in the valley.

To that end, he has gathered a collection of 5,000 artifacts, much of it stuffed for now in cardboard boxes relegated to his garage.

There are antiquated hobnail mountaineering boots and massive old iron pitons fashioned out of hacksawed stove legs. His storehouse includes countless early versions of nuts and cams and other safety equipment that revolutionized the sport.

Yager has also conducted video interviews with gray-haired climbing icons, coaxing old stories from the rock. The old-timers often pulled out dusty heirlooms: journals of epic first ascents, black-and-white photos, postcards and letters bounced between peers.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment has been cajoling National Park Service officials, long at odds with the climbing community, to include the museum in Yosemite’s much-debated blueprints for the valley’s future. Construction is envisioned for 2011 adjacent to the climbers’ historic launch pad, an unassuming collection of picnic tables and fire rings dubbed Camp 4.

“You have to do pretty extreme stuff to make the records books. You have to be first one there, you have to open a door. Well, Ken is opening a door with this museum,” said Tom Frost, a groundbreaking Yosemite climber during the ‘60s. “He’s the guy on this one. He has the attributes to bring everyone together.”

Yager offers a more humble assessment: “I just want to see this thing happen.”

The push to preserve Yosemite’s climbing heritage began in 1991 out of ruminations among kindred souls.

Yager had built a climbing wall at his home just outside the park. It became a rainy day hangout for aficionados. Yager’s longtime climbing buddy, Mike Corbett, suggested they preserve some of the old gear folks would cart along. Yager jumped at the idea.

After a fast start, the museum effort hit steep realities, most notably a balky park hierarchy. In the view of many Yosemite rangers, climbers were a scruffy lot who hogged campsites, sometimes shoplifted and grabbed leftover food off vacated commissary tables.

“They didn’t see the importance of it,” Yager recalled.

Corbett eventually parted ways with the project, but Yager continued to push this longshot dream.

All the while, he had the blessing of the old guard, folks like George Whitmore.

“So often artifacts will be kept for a while and then eventually disappear, and nobody knows what happened,” said Whitmore, 74, now the Sierra Club’s Yosemite liaison. “It would be nice to see it preserved.”

Whitmore made his own contribution to Yager’s archives: a couple of pitons he fashioned out of I-beam steel for the successful 1958 first ascent of El Capitan, led by the legendary Warren Harding. The bigger of the two, nearly a foot long, was named Big Brute.

For a while it seemed there would be no permanent spot for such historic mementoes. But the Park Service’s reluctance eventually began to melt.

Frost and other longtime climbers had launched an effort to save Camp 4, slated for replacement by employee housing. That battle, which ended with the campground named to the national register of historic places, prompted members of Yosemite’s hierarchy to rethink their attitude.

In a key move, Yager pushed fellow climbers to flood the park headquarters with letters, more than 1,000 by some accounts. The campaign helped convince park officials that the valley master plan should include a climbing museum.

Scott Gediman, park spokesman, said officials today are “fully cognizant of the role climbing has played” and welcome a repository for climbing history.

As now envisioned, the museum will be a combination of lounge and exhibit hall.

Yager hopes the most fragile and important pieces -- 1940s letters from climbing guru John Salathe, a spool of hemp rope Harding used to summit El Cap -- will be reserved for exhibition in climate-controlled cases at the park’s main village museum."I think Ken’s done a fine job to just get permission to put it anywhere,” said Robbins, retired now in Modesto. “What surprises me is there’s interest. When we practiced climbing, it was a fringe activity. What we were doing was considered some sort of acrobatic engineering. But we didn’t care. We were just doing what we loved.”

Problems still loom. The park may be able to foot the bill for construction, but operation would be handled by the Yosemite Climbing Assn.

Yager, a climbing guide and the group’s president, has been trying to whip up fundraising to create an endowment and eventually hire a small staff. But so far he’s far short, the biggest chunk a $28,000 donation from the nonprofit Yosemite Fund.

“It’s a devilishly difficult thing to do financially and logistically,” noted Linda McMillan of the American Alpine Club, which for years has tried to establish a museum at its headquarters in Colorado. “With all our resources, we can’t find a way to make it economically viable. Ken’s grappling with those same difficulties.”

For now, the public can see some archival history of Yosemite climbing; it’s crammed into four spare glass display cases Yager put up at the Curry Village mountaineering shop.

Gaze inside with Yager and the stories whirl out.

There are the skinny 10-inch hardware-store nails used by Richard Leonard, Bestor Robinson and Jules Eichorn during their first failed attempt up Higher and Lower Cathedral spires, eventually topped in 1934. To pay for the venture, Yager recalled, Eichorn washed prints in photographer Ansel Adams’ bathtub in Berkeley.

Around the corner is an ode to Salathe, the grandfather of big-wall climbing. Trained as a blacksmith, the Swiss immigrant forged his first pitons out of a Ford Model A axle. Salathe became a vertical carpenter, pounding steel pitons into cracks and attaching wire stirrups, creating a makeshift stepladder up the rock face.

Another display case has what Yager calls “the most famous piton in the world,” a heavy slab of cast iron stove leg fashioned to wedge into granite cracks. Harding used several of these to surmount El Cap but grew irate over breaking his hammer pounding in one of the huge pitons. The perch was christened the Glowering Spot.

Yager has so much more not on display: a climbing bolt dating to the days of John Muir, hardware from the record-breaking (and hard-partying) “stone masters” of the 1970s, a videotaped interview with the late Ax Nelson, who joined Salathe up Lost Arrow spire in 1947.

He can hardly wait to let the public see it all, Yager said. “It’s long overdue.”