A Half-Century Of Battles For The Biggest Rock Walls

Jan 11, 2015
Originally published on January 11, 2015 9:00 pm

Right now, two men are hanging out on the side of a 3000-foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, hoping to make history. For the last two weeks, they've been free climbing the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. If they succeed, it will be the most difficult climb ever completed.

NPR's Melissa Block spoke to both climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, earlier this week — you can hear the interview, read about them and see pictures here.

But Caldwell and Jorgeson are the first to acknowledge that their expedition is made possible by attempts on the same wall over the past half century. A new documentary, Valley Uprising, tells the story of the adventurers who came before them.

The story begins in the 1950s, when beatnik culture was emerging in San Francisco, just 300 miles from Yosemite.

"This was really not only the birth of climbing but the birth of American counterculture," Nick Rosen, who co-wrote and directed the documentary with Peter Mortimer, tells NPR's Arun Rath.

"A lot of these early climbers were inspired by a book Jack Kerouac wrote in 1958 called The Dharma Bums," in which he and a group of young men climb a mountain in Yosemite.

At the same time, Rosen says, Yosemite was run by the federal government. The National Park Service didn't like the camps of beatnik climbers coming in. "There was kind of a cultural clash that happened between these two groups even dating back to the 1950s, and one that pretty much continues to this day," Rosen explains.

In the early days of Yosemite climbing, there was also a culture clash happening within the new sport of rock climbing. At its core, it was a disagreement about the role of gear in climbing. Some climbers felt that the sport was first and foremost about getting to the top of cliffs, by any means necessary. They would drill as many permanent bolts into the rock as possible, hoisting themselves up by with ropes. Leading this group was a vagabond construction worker named Warren Harding.

"[He was] this hard-drinking, iconoclast kind of nutcase of a man," says Rosen. "When he was doing a climb he could bring up bottles of wine and food and Thanksgiving turkeys and women and have these crazy parties up there."

But others saw this as sacrilege. Climbing, they thought, was a pure endeavor, to be done with as little gear as possible. The leader of this group was Royal Robbins, "this very imperious, purist, philosopher king who was also the most respected and talented climber in Yosemite Valley," Rosen says.

Both climbers made major first ascents in Yosemite Valley during the 1950s and 1960s. But it was Royal's philosophy that won out.

El Capitan's Dawn Wall — the site of the current expedition — is a cliff first scaled by Warren Harding. He used permanent bolts and climbed assisted by ropes; still, the rock face is so sheer that it took him 28 days to reach the top.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the climbers currently tackling the Dawn Wall, are purists, climbing the rock by human power alone. Their ropes are only for safety. If they reach the top, it will have been by pulling themselves up with just their hands and feet — an achievement Rosen says would be the hardest big-wall rock climb ever performed, anywhere in the world.

In their attempt, he says, they stand on the shoulders of the pioneering Yosemite climbers of decades past.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Right now, professional rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson are hanging from the side of a 3,000 foot cliff on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Caldwell explained their expedition to NPR's Melissa Block last week.

TOMMY CALDWELL: There's hundreds of people that climb El Cap every year. The thing that makes our climb different is that we're just trying to free-climb an extremely difficult part of the wall. And don't get free-climbing confused with free-soloing. We do have ropes with us. We actually fall quite often. But we are climbing the rock face. We're not actually ascending the equipment. It's just a extremely blank, very, very difficult part of El Cap - captured our imagination and seems to be capturing the imagination of the climbing world as well.

RATH: If they make it to the top, it will be the most difficult big climb ever completed. But Caldwell and Jorgenson aren't the first to scale this cliff. A new documentary, "Valley Uprising," reveals the story of the birth of climbing in Yosemite and its rise. I spoke to one of its writers-directors, Nicholas Rosen.

NICHOLAS ROSEN: This valley is only about 300 miles from San Francisco, so at the birth of American rock climbing back in the 1950s, it didn't take much for budding, aspiring climbers to find this place, look at these walls and dream of climbing them. And it was a pretty audacious dream at the time. Most people didn't think it was possible.

RATH: Can you take us back, though, to the beginning of the climbing scene there, you know, who the characters were who were defining what was a new movement in climbing?

ROSEN: You know, this was really not only the birth of climbing but the birth of American counterculture. In fact, a lot of these early climbers were inspired by a book that Jack Kerouac wrote in 1958 called "The Dharma Bums." At the same time, Yosemite National Park is run by the federal government, which - and the National Park Service, which, you know, has the culture of a federal bureaucracy - quite - much more conservative than your average climber type. And so there was kind of a cultural clash that happened between these two groups, even dating back to the 1950s and one that pretty much continues to this day, actually.

RATH: Now, there also - you track in your film how fraction starts to develop within and among the climbers. There's a controversy that emerges about how you climb. And it turns into this weird kind of moral argument. Can you explain that and talk about the kind of rival camps and the people that represented them?

ROSEN: Yeah, Absolutely. In the early days of Yosemite climbing, there were sort of two giants on the landscape - two climbers that were more ambitious than anybody else. And they also happened to be sort of diametrically opposed personalities. On the one side, you had Royal Robbins, who was this very imperious, purist, philosopher king who was also the most respected and talented climber in Yosemite Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VALLEY UPRISING")

ROYAL ROBBINS: Even to this day, I consider myself a climber first and foremost. Whenever I get on the rock, I feel it's something that makes me whole.

ROSEN: On the other side, you had this guy Warren Harding, who is this hard-drinking, iconoclast, kind of nut case of a man.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VALLEY UPRISING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're picturing a hardhat construction worker with a serious drinking problem and a penchant for a lot of women, radical sports cars, a really childish sense of humor.

ROSEN: When he was doing a climb, he would bring up of bottles of wine and food and Thanksgiving turkeys and women and have these crazy parties up there, which to Royal Robbins, who viewed climbing as this spiritual, elevated activity, that was a sacrilege.

RATH: So the climb that's going on right now - and the stories are as dramatic as ever in the sense that, you know, one guy just tearing his hands up. But now they're actually tweeting live and online live as they do it. Where does this climb fit in to all this?

ROSEN: Yeah. Well, what's kind of amazing is that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson are up there as we speak, battling it out on something called the Dawn Wall. And this will be by far the hardest big wall rock climb that's ever been done anywhere in the world. But really, these guys really stand on the shoulders of the pioneers that came before them. So what's pretty amazing is that 25 years ago, one of the big scenes in our film is when Warren Harding, the crazy, drunk construction worker, goes up and climbs this same stretch of rock. But he ends up - it's so difficult at that time. The wall is so sheer and devoid of any features to climb or any cracks to pound your steel wedges into. It takes him a month. It takes him 28 days to get to the top. And he battles through storms. And then the National Park Service comes and tries to rescue him. And he says, screw you guys. I'm not being rescued. And he's all drunk up there, like, telling the National Park Service where to go. And, you know, he eventually reaches the top after this Herculean effort. And there's this corps of press and photographers and cameramen at the top. It's almost, you know, as one observer says, it's like the Beatles landed in the United States for the first time. And there they are. That's 1970. It was the hardest climb that's ever been done anywhere in the world. And here we are 25 years later, and these guys are up there on the same stretch of rock with the same - with the world's media watching once again, climbing it in this very athletic style that's just completely reimagined the sport.

RATH: Nicholas Rosen is the writer and director of "Valley Uprising," a new documentary telling the story of rock climbing. Great speaking with you - really interesting. Thank you.

ROSEN: Thank you, Arun. It's an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.