Review of Camp 4, Steve Roper

Article Index

Camp  4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rock Climber

By Steve Roper, The Mountaineers, Seattle, Washington, 1994.

Read this book. It's funny. Touching. Revealing. Named after the famous Yosemite Valley campground, Camp 4 is a chronicle of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley during the "Golden Era," from 1933 to 1971. The author, Steve Roper, transports us to the era with detailed renderings of climbs, characters and conversations, as well as with perceptive and understated black-and-white photographs. He pulls out the best and worst of the time and place, the noble and farcical, the juvenile and tragic. Then he surprises us by going beyond the chronicle. Roper shakes out essence and grit for any climber with half a heart who was or is young, crazy, limber and passionate, and for whom walls devoid of routes beckon like a goddess.

Using personal recollection, letters, articles and interviews, Roper portrays climbers as a vivid blend of foibles, talent and drive:

• Royal Robbins was aloof with a "measured speech pattern" and "perfect bearing." He surrounded himself with "yes men." And he appeared all the more removed next to the Camp 4 crowd given to "laughing outlandishly, gesturing, shouting, drinking, farting." He climbed not so much for love but in response to an "unrelenting demon inside" and soloed because of "the ego" and "to prove something." But the same self-centered man rappelled 700 feet down the snow-plastered south face of Half Dome to rescue Harding and Rowell. At night.
• Mark Powell once was overweight and "furiously" smoked cigarettes, then reversed course, got fit and passionate and became a Valley star with "angular face and sparkling, ultra-blue eyes" radiating charisma few could resist.
• Layton Kor paced like a lunatic, "chased women," told filthy jokes with "childlike glee." At the same time he climbed like an unstoppable machine.
• Warren Harding drove flashy cars, and drank jug wine. He carried out publicity stunts, seiged and over-bolted. But by sharp eye, sheer force of will and abandon he created stunning lines such as Washington Column's East Face and Dawn Wall, the latter involving "some of the hardest nailing" ever done, according to the nailing expert, Robbins. And in an act of heroism, Harding gave up all his precious water supply to Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard on the fifth dehydrating day on Mount Watkins.
• Roper himself climbed the Lost Arrow spire solo in spite of his paralyzing fear because his girl friend "might refuse to mate that night with a known coward." And in the same high flying mood he "ran up Royal Arches alone in less than an hour, mostly unroped." For all his skill and speed, he lost sleep before every hard climb, and later found many hard men suffered the same plight.
• One of the best free climbers of the era, Frank Sacherer, tended toward "arrogance and recklessness." His temper was so fierce and "legendary," Roper envisions him shaking his fist at his partner or God amidst his death throes on the Grandes Jorasses.
• Among the few saints or near saints, Tom Frost, Mike Sherrick and Chuck Pratt, the best of them, Pratt, appears to have been beset by deep quandaries about reasons for it all. On Ribbon Fall, he said, "I could climb for a million years and still not know why I do it . . . why am I here?" But such quandary never kept him from creating some of the most fearful first ascents done in the period.