Blog Brief Look Into The Early Rock Climbing Feats Over The Years In Yosemite
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Alex Silgalis | 11/03/2020 | Outdoor Activities |   

As soon as you arrive in Yosemite Valley and look up, you realize why this place has always been a hot bed for rock climbing. Shear granite faces pop-up everywhere from the valley floor, sparking the imagination of even the most timid person. After watching the adrenaline pumping film “Free Solo”, where Alex Honnold free solo climbed (as in without any ropes) El Capitan, it made us look back at all the climbing feats achieved throughout Yosemite's history. Here’s just a small taste of the early rock climbing triumphs over the years in Yosemite.

1869: 1st Ascent Of Cathedral Peak (John Muir)

Teddy Roosevelt & John Muir - Photo by: Thom Bopp  

What better way to start this list than with the man himself who singlehandedly showed Teddy Roosevelt why Yosemite should be a national park. Imagine someone with only a pair of leather soled boots climbing up what was most likely the first class 4 climb anywhere in the Sierra Nevada. A class 4 is typically defined as a climb that often has exposure. So, if you do fall, it could be fatal hence the use of a rope.



1875: 1st Ascent Of Half Dome (George Anderson)

Spike used by by George Anderson in the 1875 ascent - Image appears courtesy: Yosemite Climbing Association   

Even from miles away, Half Dome is visible. It's the calling card of Yosemite National Park and the largest piece of granite in the world. Thought to be insurmountable with many failed attempts, that all changed after George Anderson showed up. A Yosemite guide, he used ingenuity and grit to succeed. Using his road-building tools, he affixed himself to a rope and drilled holes, pounding an eyebolt into the granite. Balancing himself on it, he would then work on the next one, continuing for over 975 feet! As you near the top, look carefully because you might see one of them, dating back over 145 years!

1957: 1st Ascent Of The NW Face Of Half Dome (Royal Robbins)

 Warren Harding signing the summit register after climbing the Nose of El Capitan on November 12, 1958 - Image appears courtesy: Yosemite Climbing Association When it comes to the history of rock climbing in Yosemite, there’s a dividing line between what became the “standard” in American big wall. Although George Anderson may have summited first, it was done so via the famous Half Dome cables. Royal Robbins, along with Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick, did it via the Northwest Face which became the FIRST Grade VI climb in the U.S. The route consisted of awesome features like the Robbins Traverse, the Robbins Chimney, the Zig Zags, and the improbable Thank God Ledge.

1973: 1st Hammerless Ascent Of Half Dome (Doug Robinson)

Cover Of National Geographic   

Before 1973, the ring of a well-driven spike (piton) placed into the crack-riven granite was the typical way to climb. Unfortunately, the years of hammer bashing caused unsightly divots in these cracks. A year before, Doug Robinson wrote an essay on how hammers should be put away and climbing done via nutcraft. While in theory, it sounded great, talk is just that - talk. No Yosemite Grade VI climb had EVER been done without pitons and hammers. Within the following year, Doug was able to prove his concept. Through National Geographic, they confirmed an ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome without pitons and hammers was possible. This climb sparked a revolution away from those tools into what is called nutcraft. The concept is just using simple climbing tools. Placed into cracks within a rock surface, attaching a climbing rope and then climber, climbing was possible without damaging the rock.


So, when you do visit Yosemite National Park and gaze upward to see people climbing sheer granite faces, remember this isn’t just a beautiful place but also a mecca for rock climbing.

2015: 1st Ascent Of The Dawn Wall On El Capitan (Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson)

El Cap, as climbers call it, is a 3,000-foot brutish face of granite. And when it comes to climbing, the Dawn Wall is considered the biggest and toughest in the world. The first thing most non-climbing enthusiasts will say is, “Don’t people climb things this tough all the time?” Sure, but for only small stretches of 100-150 feet. Nothing thousands of vertical feet tall with such a technically arduous climb. Let’s just lay out the sheer challenge of the Dawn Wall. For starters, it took Tommy and Kevin over seven years to piece together all 32 pitches. Second, the Dawn Wall has more 5.14d pitches on this one route than the rest of El Capitan combined. Rated from the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the description of a class 5.13-5.15 climb is strenuous, technical and vertical.

Dawn Wall Film

See Yosemite’s Climbing History In Person

As you can see, Yosemite’s inspiration to the evolution of rock climbing is undeniable. It’s motivated countless individuals to make the impossible… possible. It wasn’t until this year though that the park itself will finally have a permanent rock-climbing exhibit. With the help of the Yosemite Climbing Association, Yosemite Conservancy, and the American Alpine Club, the new display will exist in the Yosemite Valley Center. In addition to providing a glimpse into its history, it will also be interactive. The idea is to give visitors a taste of what rock-climbing entails including an opportunity to hop on a portaledge – a hanging tent used by climbers who spend multiple days on big wall climbs.


For an even bigger immersion into the sport, head forty-three miles from the valley to the new Yosemite Climbing Association Museum and Gallery in Mariposa. Within its four walls, nearly 10,000 artifacts and photos will showcase the ongoing evolution. It features items like a spike used by George Anderson in the first ascent of Half Dome. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, its doors are temporarily closed but you can help by donating to the cause.

So, when you do visit Yosemite National Park and gaze upward to see people climbing sheer granite faces, remember this isn’t just a beautiful place but also a mecca for rock climbing.

Alex Silgalis

Alex founded localfreshies.com® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.

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