Vertical World of Yosemite

Article Index

The Vertical World of Yosemite

Edited by Galen A. Rowell, Wilderness Press, Berkeley, California, 1974

The Vertical World of Yosemite is a fine collection of personal climbing accounts by Yosemite climbers. It brings together the ways and motives of men who climb, the technical and ethical developments accompanying climbing advances, historical background for every account and a collection of 131 photographs, 16 of which are in color. At first glance the compilation is bedazzling, and on further reading a subtle strength emerges.

The merit of the book is not a function of grand Yosemite walls, but of the depth of spirit revealed in those who climb them. Basking in the glory of climbs he has done, the avid climber will hold up the Vertical World as a mirror. Those who do not climb will be appropriately awed. But for those looking to find the heart and soul of men intertwined with nature, there is a most intriguing discovery: the climber transcends himself not by scaling harder and higher walls, but through the truthful understanding and artful expression of his unique experience. In this collection of 17 climbing accounts, interspersed with spectacular and historical photographs, the best are those which make the deepest and most honest cut into men who climb.

The editor of the collection, Galen Rowell, himself a climbing dynamo, suggests otherwise: namely, that the vertical world in itself is capable of elevating us like angels. Galen has selected a quote from Aleister Crowley to begin the book, "I meant to tell mankind ... to abandon all their settled manners of living ... to attempt a quixotic adventure with no resources beyond their native strength ... I had done it myself and . . . was certain of this at least: that nothing else in the world except this was worth doing." In the introduction we are told, "Mountains tend to breed thought undisciplined by normal education or urban life . . ." and, "the new perspective is something that comes naturally from intense mountain activity."

However, as we read the several climbing accounts, we find much evidence for remarkably familiar perspectives simply transplanted to the mountain environment. Proctor in his account of the 1884 ascent of Half Dome, an incredible feat, gives as his motivation for the ascent something like patriotic fervor. He says, "No foreigner will do that job (climb Half Dome and replace the cable) 'till we have a try at it," Robbins, in everlasting divulgence, recites familiar existential perspectives while climbing the North American Wall: "If one could only find meaning to make these hard truths of insignificance and omnipresent death acceptable. Where to find this meaning?" Doug Robinson, in writing of Chouinard as visionary explains the mountain experience in metaphysical terms, a perspective then as available as the nearest youth: "Vision is intense seeing. Vision is seeing what is more deeply interfused, and following this process leads lo a sense of ecology." Toward the end of the book, as Robbins parts his ribcage, heart valves and soul for all to see, we find the driving perspectives of the greatest American rock climber to be in some ways analogous to those of businessmen worried about stocks or the soap business. He says, "That was really when I first started being competitive and started pushing myself in a way that I haven't stopped doing since. I suppose I've done this in some ways in order to maintain the pleasant aura of success that made me feel so good in the early days. I liked that so much I determined to keep it coming, no matter what I had to do to get it (italics added)."

If the vertical world or quixotic adventure will not necessarily elevate our souls, bring us to see with the vision of gurus or save us from the lockstep of popular incantations, one might ask what can it bring. The answer is that it brings what life itself brings, that whether one is hanging from under roofs on El Capitan or running a soap business makes little difference. Some of the same hours of trial, companionship, competition, preoccupation, love and hale are to be found in the flat and the vertical world. The editor reminds us that John Muir lived and wrote well while in the mountains, but William Carlos Williams brought about his poetry in between taking urine samples from patients. It is for this reason that the experience of the vertical world is no better than the ability of those who inhabit it to know themselves and say what they know.

Small wonder, then, that all the accounts are not equally good and the best are by climbers who deeply explore their emotions and at the same time write well. Climbers are the first to admit there is a paucity of great writers among the ranks: but there can be little doubt that within the fiery slams of Harding, the unfolding eloquence of Pratt's reflections and the stabbing perceptions of Robbins, a craggy art unveils itself. Reflecting on the painful controversy following his ascent of the Wall of the Early Morning Light, Harding transcends both petty anger and black depression, achieving a moment of greatness: "Another day is drawing to a close. All the old climbers are putting away their toys and games. . . . Perhaps some of the more daring will have a small glass of Red Mountain. ... I remain in my chair a bit longer—I try to probe further back through the years . . . but it all seems like 'I've seen this movie before' . . . always the good guys vs. bad guys. Maybe I should have played cowboys and Indians; only trouble is, I'd surely have been an Indian!" Chuck Pratt finds elemental truth in his ascent of Mount Watkins, and shares his discovery in succinct and confident prose. He writes, "We had all come [to the Valley of Light] as strangers, full of apprehension and doubt. Having given all we had to the climb, we had been enriched by a physical and spiritual experience few men can know ... we were rewarded by a gift of victory and fulfillment for which we would be forever grateful. It was for this that each of us had come to Yosemite, and it was for this that we would return, season after season." Finally, Robbins delves into his ascent of Tis-sa-ack and in a stinging style discovers he is both pit viper and friend to his partner in the vertical world: "I had vowed that I wasn't going to give Peterson an inch, but I weakened. I told him it was a damn good lead."

It is perhaps fitting that Robbins, in his incessant probing, should synthesize the point of the Vertical World. In the final pages of the book, he asserts, "I think the more you can approximate the rigors of climbing to the rigors of life, the more complete a game it is." By the time we finish this collection of essays, we learn a lesson most climbers eventually come to know. Climbing is not the only thing in the world worth doing and the quixotic adventure is not very quixotic most of the time. Climbing, in fact, is as terrible or as wonderful as the men who climb; and the game, then, is only as complete or fulfilling as one's ability to live life well.

American Alpine Journal, 1974