Hanging around El Capitan Meadow on a recent summer afternoon, while the Merced River ran clear and the hot breeze ruffled the tall green grass, you might not have realized you were in the company of legends.
The Yosemite rock-climbers’ underground -- that loosely knit crowd killing time down by the bridge, skinny-dipping and watching the cliffs -- looks much the way it has for generations, like a filthy, shabby, scraggly haired and infectiously happy tribe of insanely fit young people.
You’d probably have to have been an aficionado to have recognized the demigods in the crowd. The blue-eyed beauty standing in the shade was Lynn Hill, perhaps the most famous woman rock climber of all time. Talking to her was a huge raven-haired specimen named Dean Potter, the reigning prince of American rock, and with him was his wife, Steph Davis, who would top anyone’s short list of the world’s great female alpinists. Ron Kauk was also there -- movie-star handsome and responsible for some of the most audacious climbs in Yosemite history.
Drifting closer, and listening, you would have heard the old talk about a limit somebody intended to push or an unbreakable record somebody had just broken. Since the 1950s, Yosemite has been the international crucible of big-wall climbing, the proving ground for new techniques that later get applied at peaks including the Alps and the Himalayas.
In fact, just then, the leading big-wall hotshots of the current generation, Ivo Ninov and Ammon McNeely, were up on El Capitan, drawing the attention of the crowd below. There was plenty of talk about how they were trying to set a new speed record by climbing straight through the night without a bivouac on a dangerous route called Zenyatta Mondatta. And McNeely’s sister, Amanda, who stood aside from the crowd, was concerned. The two had been high on El Capitan the night before, visible only as two pinpricks of light, and she had seen one of them take a long fall.
“I’m sure it wasn’t Ammon,” a friend tried to comfort her. “You really shouldn’t worry about it.”
“But I just know it was him,” Amanda said, fighting back tears.
The drama of Ninov and McNeely’s climb aside, if you’d lingered in the meadow, among the underground, you would also have heard a very different topic competing for time: the sad and angry feeling that Yosemite climbing culture may be dying and that the Valley’s law enforcement rangers and vested commercial interests are engineering its death.
If you’d asked for evidence, you’d have been pointed down the road about a mile or so to Camp 4, an unremarkable collection of dirt campsites, picnic tables and barbecue pits under the limbs of tall evergreens.
If Yosemite is this sport’s mecca, its international pilgrimage destination, then Camp 4 is the spiritual center of its climbing community. One of the most famous campgrounds on Earth, and steeped in history and lore, Camp 4 is also, in the view of many local climbers, under serious attack and at risk of becoming an artifact of the past.
“Camp 4’s dead,” pronounces 19-year-old Aaron Young, a wiry, dark-haired kid sitting below the burnished rock wall of the massive El Capitan. Scrawled on the outside of his backpack is a coarse expletive directed at the park rangers, instantly signaling his point of view.
Climbers, Young continues, “are a target for simply being in the park, no more, no less. Just criminals because we’re here. That’s what it works down to. You can’t be in Camp 4 without being harassed: ‘What’s your name? Where you going? How long you been here?’ I’ve heard it’s new management, and they’re trying to get rid of the climbers.”
Week’s stay, max
The perspective of the National Park Service, needless to say, is quite different.
Law enforcement ranger Keith Lober, himself a longtime climber, is the manager of Yosemite’s elite search-and-rescue team. Parking his gleaming white National Park Service SUV in front of the kiosk at the entrance to Camp 4, he surveys the long line of young people, hoping for vacancies, that has formed in front. Those who hold the first few spots in line have clearly spent the night there in the dirt and are still tucked into their sleeping bags as they await their turn.
Lober is a rail-thin, focused man with salt-and-pepper hair and a pressed uniform. Nodding at those in line, he walks into the campground -- past a bulletin board bristling with handwritten notes asking for climbing partners and advertising gear for sale. In the shade of the big trees, laundry hangs drying on makeshift lines, expedition tents crowd together in the dust, and climbing gear lies strewn across picnic tables. Slack lines are tied between various trees for balance practice, and odd ladder-like devices turn various tree limbs into an open air climbers’ gymnasium.
“One of the paranoias of the climbers,” Lober says, “is that the rangers hate the climber. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The law enforcement ranger can’t tell a climber from the average citizen. So what he’s looking for is someone who’s up to no good. And there are a lot of ‘dirtbags’ who come here, and you start to look at certain ways people dress, their hygiene, and, of course, that becomes a conflict.”
Lober pauses and starts to explain the challenges that Camp 4 presents to rangers. Three million people a year visit Yosemite Valley, and on summer evenings the population pushes 30,000. As the numbers have grown over the years, the number of available campsites has actually shrunk, and new park rules permit no more than seven nights in the Valley floor between May 1 and Sept. 15.
“When the sun sets,” Lober says, “the proliferation of people walking over carrying sleeping bags” -- to sleep illegally in Camp 4 -- “begins, and it goes on until late into the night.”
The reasons are simple: Seven nights are barely enough for climbers to get their bearings in Yosemite, much less to climb the big routes that draw them here in the first place. Although climbing conditions can be good in April and in the early fall, the weather is less predictable than in the summer; witness the deaths of two climbers -- and the rescue of five others -- on El Capitan last October. So playing by the seven-night rule is a little like an Olympic athlete agreeing to experiment with his chosen event only seven times a year. So nobody does, which makes things difficult for the rangers.
“We’ll have people who come and stay the entire season,” Lober says. “We will often see cars here, and we’ll track them for months on end. And they don’t have legal residences anywhere, so you do the math. Where are they? What are they doing?”
The ranger’s complaint is complicated by the other users in the park, whose pastimes he considers just as valid as the climbers’. “Everyone wants their cut of the pie,” he continues. “Other users have just as much legitimacy, whether you’re a golfer, or you play badminton, or you surf, or you climb. They’re all just sports. It puts us in the school monitor role, which is very uncomfortable.”
Aaron Young, of course, disagrees. He struggles to articulate what many climbers feel: that their user group is not like others, that climbers have a special relationship to Yosemite and should receive special consideration.
“We’re trying to say we should be grandfathered in,” Young says. “We’ve been here this many years; we should be allowed to stay all summer. Even people in the Ahwahnee Hotel have a one-week limit, but what is a tourist going to do for more than a week? There’s only so many waterfalls, so many stores to go in, but climbers have a 7-mile stretch on either side of just solid rock.”
Antagonism not new
Climbing, unlike other park activities, has long doubled as a tourist attraction for non-climbing visitors. The weeks-long first ascent of El Capitan, in 1958, caused such a commotion that traffic became badly clogged. Today’s tour guides routinely point out climbers on the walls, and the gift shops offer climbing-themed T-shirts and paraphernalia.
But Lincoln Else, a ranger who is also a climber, and who has been charged with mediating between the two communities, says the problem has little to do with climbing itself, and a lot to do with the fact that “climbers, stereotypically, are a young rebellious counterculture. They are here to climb, but have the same problems of anyone in terms of staying too long, and obeying the rules.”
With their lives utterly given over to their almost Dadaist lifestyle, as they pour all their imagination and energy into ever more audacious ascents -- and with very little money in their pockets -- climbers have always provoked a certain amount of antagonism.
Stories are still told about the early days, when pioneering climbers, who were busily inventing now-standard equipment such as modern pitons, sky hooks and the porta-ledges that permit bivouacs on vertical terrain, often washed their clothes in Lodge bathrooms, acquired keys to Lodge showers from sympathetic employees and slept in the then-heated Camp 4 bathrooms. When food ran low, climbers were even known to scarf leftovers from soiled cafeteria plates.
More recent antics include using campground bear lockers as storage units, poaching electricity with surreptitious extension cords and a tendency to drink beer and do the odd bong hit -- an excellent way to make rangers, charged with enforcing laws, wish this headache would disappear.
For years, in fact, the Park Service insisted on calling Camp 4 “Sunnyside Walk-In Campground,” despite the fact that most Park employees used the historic moniker. And in 1998, when a flood wiped out hotel rooms and employee dormitories in the Valley, the Park Service decided to rebuild right on top of Camp 4. The plan was discovered when a curious climber asked about survey stakes along Camp 4’s boundaries. The international climbing community rallied together, hired attorneys, and -- with the eventual cooperation of certain rangers, who had the open-mindedness to see both sides -- they saved Camp 4, winning its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
For a while, this detente produced a new spirit of hope. Plans began circulating for a Yosemite Climbing Museum, which is still in the works, and the American Alpine Club is looking into building an additional “climbers ranch” campground outside the park boundary, to alleviate overcrowding. The Park Service has also created the new law enforcement title of Yosemite Climbing Ranger, currently held by Else, who hosts regular Sunday morning “climber coffees” in Camp 4.
In fact, according to Steve Shackleton, Yosemite’s current chief law enforcement ranger, more than a few rangers have started out as climbers.
“I’m kind of a duffer now,” he says, “but I used to spend a lot of time climbing.” For that reason, Shackleton considers good relations with climbers to be an extremely high priority. But he admits that it is once again becoming a thorny issue.
“Rangers have an enforcement job to do,” he says, “and rock climbers are not awfully constrained by rules and are free spirits, and have a little bit of the gypsy blood, sort of vagabonds, and there’s often fertile grounds for some sort of clash.”
Walking the line
“Usually I start in March or April,” says Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman, drinking coffee in the Yosemite cafeteria and describing his climbing year. “And I’ll climb straight through to November. I have no house, no home, nothing like that.”
A 30-year Valley climbing regular, Fidelman is a slender man with a narrow, weathered face and intense eyes. He says he winters on a friend’s sailboat in Monterey Bay, and he prefers not to discuss where he sleeps while visiting Yosemite.
Suffice it to say, he shows up at the cafeteria most mornings, sitting at the usual climbers tables in the far right corner of the room. Joining him today are Sanam Pejuhesh, a 19-year-old climber, and Cedar Wright, a sponsored North Face athlete who regularly appears in climbing magazines and videos and has numerous El Capitan speed records to his credit.
After finishing breakfast, they amble through a wet meadow to a secret, illegal slack line and spend several hours working on their balance. Half Dome looms overhead, the constant stream of cars are, for once, hidden, and the Valley seems a quiet paradise as the climbers take turns walking the line.
Balancing on one foot, and refining their ability to focus and to control fear, they swing side to side and even jump up and down. After a lunch break, they hike up the far side of the Valley, following no existing trail, to reach a good practice boulder conveniently located next to a secret sleeping spot. Working on their finger and arm strength, they climb up and down and up again.
The majority of rock climbers are weekend warriors, unthreatened by the seven-day camping limit and happy to drive up on weekends and sleep in authorized camp sites. But for those who constantly push the limits of the possible, that kind of constraint is simply unacceptable.
As a result, few of them dispute the rangers’ basic charges against them, admitting that many serious climbers risk steep fines by overstaying the seven-day limit, or sleeping in unauthorized places. And they also feel that this shouldn’t bother the rangers.
“We call the rangers ‘the tool,’ ” says Dean Potter, a Patagonia-sponsored climber with a near-mystical reputation for ropeless ascents. “They’re just kind of a tool of the government machine. They don’t use their own mind.”
Despite his language, Potter is trying to articulate what climbers feel to be missing in the dialogue: a sense that what they do has a special place here and is at its heart rather innocent.
“Instead of seeing us as people enjoying this place, pushing the boundaries of mind and body on the rocks, [the rangers] say, ‘That guy’s been here more than a week. That guy slept under a tree. That guy rode a bike at night without a headlight.’ They press the rules to the max,” Potter says.
Fidelman, for his part, takes a more conciliatory approach, believing that everyone should get a fair piece of the pie. The Park Service is already making value decisions, he says, by offering hundreds of hotel rooms on the valley floor, maintaining campgrounds large enough for RVs and allowing the unrestrained use of private vehicles on all Valley roads, which turns the entire Valley into a vast parking lot on busy weekends.
His solution -- to ban private vehicles in the Valley -- is actually one of the few points of agreement between climbers and rangers.
The Yosemite General Management Plan, adopted by the Park Service in 1980, calls for construction of large satellite parking areas outside the Valley, regular shuttle service in and out and an end to the use of private cars in the park.
Twenty-five years later, however, this still hasn’t happened, and it’s unclear if it ever will.
In the meantime, Fidelman argues that even the most marginal aspect of the climbing culture has its value. In climbing vernacular, he points out, “dirtbag” has become a proud buzzword for life lived on the edge, in pursuit only of the personal growth made possible by engagement with the natural world.
“Dirtbagging is the white man’s equivalent of blues,” Fidelman says. “That [climbing] bum is the soul. And a lot of climbers with good jobs and wives and kids, deep down they want to be that guy. And I think the community is aware of that core. It’s going away, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The real deal
Later in the afternoon, Ninov and McNeely emerge from the trees below El Cap. They carry enormous packs full of equipment. They are positively filthy; their skin is sunburnt, and their hair is foul. And they radiate the exuberant well-being that comes only from authentic physical adventure.
McNeely’s sister is so happy he’s alive that she bursts into tears. Then a long-haired climber produces a bottle of booze. Putting the bottle to his lips, Ninov takes a draw and then shudders.
“Whoa!” he says. “That’s pirate rum!”
And then, he and McNeely immediately start telling the story of their latest adventure, making it abundantly clear that the soul of dirtbag culture isn’t gone yet.
Daniel Duane is the author of “El Capitan: Historical Feats and Radical Routes.” His father, attorney Richard Duane, successfully represented a coalition of climbers in their 1998 lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to save Camp 4.