Be­yond the Bolt

Guide­book author James Lu­cas ex­plores the past, present, and fu­ture of Yosemite’s sin­gu­lar gran­ite boul­der­ing.

Climbing - - CONTENTS -

“I drew the orig­i­nal bolt on Mid­night Light­ning,” wrote John Bachar in a June 2007 Su­perTopo fo­rum post. “It was ‘ found’ Mid­night Light­ning. He was sit­ting in front of it one day and said he found a new boul­der prob­lem. He said it would go. We laughed and said it was im­pos­si­ble. We thought there was about as much chance of do­ing it as there was the chance that a light­ning bolt could strike at mid­night ( like in the Hen­drix song ‘ Mid­night Light­ning’)— so I drew a bolt on it in chalk. That’s it— pretty stupid, huh?”

In 1978, Ron Kauk jumped to a jagged edge—the “light­ning bolt hold”—on the Columbia Boul­der, a gi­ant block in Camp 4. He matched, swung his feet across the wall, and threw his body into a com­mit­ting man­tel. Kauk pressed out the gran­ite to com­plete the first as­cent. Bachar soon fol­lowed. After fin­ish­ing the prob­lem, Bachar drew the bolt, ce­ment­ing its iconic sta­tus. In the en­su­ing decades, Mid

night Light­ning be­came Yosemite’s “only” boul­der prob­lem—it eclipsed all oth­ers. And then for a week and a half in April 2013, the light­ning bolt dis­ap­peared.

Below three-thou­sand-foot cliffs and mas­sive wa­ter­falls, amidst pon­derosa pines and se­quoias, amongst talus fields and forests, and cov­ered in pine nee­dles and moss car­pets sit the quiet boul­ders of Yosemite. Five years ago, I started writ­ing a new boul­der­ing guide­book to the Val­ley, doc­u­ment­ing its sig­na­ture prob­lems up smooth slabs, sharp cracks, rounded arêtes, and slick faces dot­ted with tiny crimps. As my friend Shan­non Joslin, a Fol­som, Cal­i­for­nia, boul­derer, and I tried to doc­u­ment both the his­tory and the cur­rent de­vel­op­ment, new prob­lems kept crop­ping up. All told, when our book comes out in early 2018, it will fea­ture more than 1,200 prob­lems—1,199 more than the sin­gu­lar Mid­night Light­ning that’s be­come syn­ony­mous with Yosemite boul­der­ing.

Y OSEMITE’S BOUL­DER­ING HIS­TORY dates back at least to the late 1940s/ early 1950s. Back then, Allen Steck, Royal Rob­bins, Yvon Chouinard, Jeff Foote, and Chuck Pratt es­tab­lished prob­lems in Camp 4. They fo­cused on man­tels and slabs around the Columbia Boul­der and the Wine Boul­der, a sim­i­larly sized boul­der a thou­sand feet north. They used the boul­ders around Camp 4 to train for ders be­came the lab for pin and head place­ments in the back of Camp 4, for bolt lad­ders on the LeConte Boul­der, for chis­el­ing footholds to ac­cess the Columbia Boul­der’s west side, and later for re­in­forc­ing holds with glue in the eth­i­cal DMZ of the 1980/1990s.

In au­tumn 1963, Colorado climber Lay­ton Kor snagged one of the Camp 4 plums when he climbed a smooth wall of green streaks north­west of the park­ing lot. The Kor Prob­lem, to­day given V3, be­came a test to see if big-wall climbers were ready for the larger routes. Five years later, Pat Ament climbed an arête next to the Yosemite Falls Trail—the Ament Arête (V4). With a his­tory in gym­nas­tics, Ament brought chalk to the Val­ley, an idea that helped rev­o­lu­tion­ize the climb­ing game. The men climbed in Spi­ders and Kron­ho­ef­fers, far cries from mod­ern sticky-rub­ber shoes. None­the­less, in 1968, Ament climbed a smooth face right of Ament Arête. It was re­peated a few years later by Ron Kauk, named the Kauk Slab, and later graded V8.

In the 1970s, Dale Bard, John Long, Mike Gra­ham, Bachar, and Kauk pushed the dif­fi­culty fur­ther. Clas­sics around Camp 4 like the slab elim­i­nate Blue Suede Shoes (V5), Bat­tle of the Bulge (V6), and the high­ball

Shiver Me Tim­bers (V5) were all es­tab­lished. The boul­der­ers be­gan a slow pro­gres­sion be­yond Camp 4. Bard walked to the south side of the Val­ley below the Sen­tinel where he de­vel­oped the house-sized B1 Boul­der. Sans pad, Bard put up No Holds Bard (V7), an 18-foot

to House­keep­ing Camp and es­tab­lished Pur­ple Bar­rel (V7), and later Cross­roads Moe (V6) near Bri­dalveil Falls. These men, part of a core crew of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia climbers later dubbed the Stone­mas­ters, pi­o­neered free climb­ing in the United States in the 1970s and the 1980s. Most of their boul­der­ing re­volved around get­ting fit for the longer climbs. “We did it for train­ing. There was no gym,” Bard said of do­ing hand tra­verses near Swan Slab, a few min­utes from Camp 4.

Stan­dards were slowly pushed. In 1984, Kauk added Thriller (V10), a high­ball line of crimps up a loom­ing face in Camp 4. In 1991, Mof­fatt added The

Force (V11), a few feet left of Thriller. How­ever, a hold was re­in­forced on the prob­lem. “There was so much glue you weren’t even grab­bing the hold—just glue,” Bachar wrote in a 2009 Su­perTopo post. Bachar, ever the purist, then “used my nail clip­per file thing to pry the hold off.” In 1993, Mof­fatt skipped on climb­ing the Nose with Kurt Al­bert and in­stead linked a se­ries of flat edges on the back of the Wine Boul­der, es­tab­lish­ing Dom­i­na­tor as the bench­mark V12. Tellingly, in terms of how com­pressed/sand­bagged boul­der­ing grades are in Yosemite, only a few prob­lems harder than “V12” have been es­tab­lished since.

“I F I CLEANED I T, I wanted to do it first,” Yosemite boul­der­ing pi­o­neer Rick Cash­ner said. In the 1990s, El Por­tal res­i­dent Ken Yager turned Cash­ner on to a trea­sure trove of a dozen boul­ders below the Cathe­dral Spires. The thing was, Cash­ner wasn’t ready to share it un­til he’d picked the plum lines. “It was my se­cret,” Cash­ner said. Yager re­turned to the boul­ders with Dean Pot­ter, and the pair saw Cash­ner’s chalk. Pot­ter be­gan climb­ing there with Cash­ner, and to­gether the two de­vel­oped most of the prob­lems. As they walked to the trail­head, the men would cover their faces with one hand so as not to be rec­og­nized by climbers driv­ing by. How­ever, keep­ing any climb­ing area se­cret, es­pe­cially in a ge­o­graph­i­cally and so­cially small com­mu­nity like the Val­ley’s, can be nearly im­pos­si­ble.

One day in late 1996/early ‘97, Cash­ner and Pot­ter saw a cou­ple of un­known cars at the Cathe­dral trail­head. At the King Boul­der, the cen­ter­piece of the Cathe­dral Boul­ders, they saw Kauk, video cam­era in hand, tap­ing Mof­fatt on one of Pot­ter’s projects. “He was kind of burn­ing us off,” Cash­ner said of his friend Mof­fatt “steal­ing the as­cent.” After the in­ci­dent, they named the prob­lem Be­have (V8).

A lot of these new finds were es­tab­lished in the pre-pad era, like So Good (V5) at Cathe­dral, the Gen­er­a­tion Boul­der on the west end of the Val­ley, and the Wood

yard Arête (V6). First as­cen­tion­ists de­vel­oped the prob­lems on toprope and then later “free soloed” them. In some cases, a lit­tle land­scap­ing went on, in­clud­ing the buried pal­let below the base of the Thriller Boul­der. As pads came into the Val­ley, Cash­ner and Pot­ter be­gan us­ing them. “We used to boul­der, and it felt like cheat­ing when we had a towel to wipe our feet off,” Cash­ner says. “Now I go there and feel naked with­out all my crash­pads.”

In the past decade, pads have al­lowed climbers to push heights. In 2009, Randy Puro dropped six pads below Ron Kauk’s 30-foot two-bolt 5.13c, Two Bolts or

Not to Be, and boul­dered it out. Puro also boul­dered out Ben Moon’s Happy Isles prob­lem Egyp­tian (V10), which had been an ob­scure toprope for decades. In 2010, Dean Pot­ter dropped pads below the LeConte Boul­der, climb­ing the 40-foot King

Air (V10), an arête sand­wiched be­tween two prac­tice aid climbs. In 2015, Na­tional Park Ser­vice em­ployee Keenan Takahashi sent the 30-foot Ze­phyr (V12) at the

Crumbs below the Cookie Cliff. While the crux comes low, a slopey V7 arête with your heels 25 feet above the land­ing guards the sum­mit. “I did Evi­lu­tion the month be­fore, and Ze­phyr was way scarier,” says Takahashi. As Bay Area boul­derer and Yosemite climber of 20 years Paul Bar­raza says, “Boul­der­ing didn’t re­ally get that much safer with pads; peo­ple just went higher up. It’s an arms-race kind of thing.” High­balling in Yosemite has be­come so ex­treme that, in 2017, Alex Hon­nold even boul­dered out the Freerider, a 3,000-foot V7 on the south face of El Cap­i­tan.

“IT’S MY TURN,” Lu­cho Rivera said, grab­bing the holds on a 15-foot arête. It was 2005, and we’d heard about new de­vel­op­ment in the woods below the Lost Brother. Here, in 1998, Mar­cos Nunez had climbed Don’t Be­lieve the Hype, an im­mac­u­late 5.11 cor­ner. Matt Wilder, who was up­dat­ing the old Don Reid boul­der­ing guide­book, and oth­ers were brush­ing off new prob­lems and call­ing the area Candyland. In the end, it would yield 50 new prob­lems. After see­ing the arête, my friends and I started climb­ing on top of each other. Lu­cho sorted the open­ing moves. Zach Romero brushed holds. Lichen sprin­kled on my head as they scrubbed while I climbed. I grabbed a crimp and made a big move to a jug on the arête. I stuck it. My feet ped­aled on the dirty gran­ite as I con­tin­ued to the top, ec­static.

I had started boul­der­ing in 2001 as an em­ployee at the Yosemite Lodge. I’d make beds and then would climb on the mod­er­ate prob­lems of Curry just a 10-minute walk from my tent-cabin door. I had a copy of Don Reid’s sec­ond-edi­tion guide to the boul­ders, which in­cluded over 500 boul­der prob­lems. My per­cep­tion, much like that of the early Yosemite climbers, was that the boul­der­ing was sec­ondary to the routes. I’d climb on the cracks that split the mod­est boul­ders below Stair­case Falls, and on the Horse Trail. I dreamed of climb­ing Ja­son Camp­bell’s tight-hands Lost Brother test­piece De­liv­er­ance (V8) or Pot­ter’s heinously pin-scarred Sas

quatch (V11) on the LeConte Boul­der, or even thrash­ing through Cedar Wright’s river­side 30-foot of­fwidth roof crack Cedar Eater (V5). Some­times, I’d ven­ture onto faces. As I spent more time in the Val­ley, I came to re­al­ize that the boul­ders were “big­ger” than El Cap, in the sense that most were harder to get up.

“If a tourist hit the gas pedal wrong, they’d run into the damn thing,” Bar­raza jokes of the “hid­den in plain sight” Wall to Wall Car­pet, a line of crimps, slop­ers, and ath­letic moves be­tween two moss streaks 100 feet from the Bri­dalveil Falls Park­ing lot. In 2005, the Bay Area crew—Scott Frye, Tim Me­d­ina, Justin Alar­con, Scott Chan­dler, Puro, and oth­ers—started Be­taBase, a web­site to doc­u­ment their as­cents. They scrubbed the blocs around the Ah­wah­nee, the Horse Trail, and Bri­dalveil, es­tab­lish­ing clas­sics like El Rey (V12), Drive On (V10), and Junebug (V12). Bar­raza alone cleaned and climbed over 50 FAs. Puro and the rest of the Be­tabase crew added hun­dreds of prob­lems, climb­ing with a new-school style, ditch­ing the slabs and man­tels for po­gos, big throws, and wild slaps.

While the Beta Base crew de­vel­oped the west end, Colton Lin­de­man, Ryan Alonzo, and other con­ces­sion em­ploy­ees walked into the woods on the east end below Half Dome. The con­struc­tion of 27 new one- and two-story em­ployee-hous­ing build­ings in the mid­dle of the Curry Boul­ders spurred re­mote de­vel­op­ment. Lin­de­man and Alonzo es­tab­lished 100 prob­lems around Mir­ror Lake and Happy Isles, climb­ing mod­er­ates like Stem Money (V2), Slab Money (V5), and with Lin­de­man climb­ing the high­ball Bell Tower (V5). They showed the breadth of po­ten­tial in the Val­ley still, even in the mod­er­ate grades.

In 2011, I be­gan col­lect­ing data for a new book, work­ing with my friend Shan­non. How­ever, as we poked along, keep­ing up with de­vel­op­ment be­gan to feel im­pos­si­ble. More­over, many Yosemite lo­cals were less than en­thu­si­as­tic about a new guide. In 2014, 3.8 mil­lion peo­ple, the 20-year av­er­age, vis­ited Yosemite; in 2015, visi­ta­tion was 7.3 per­cent above av­er­age; and, in 2016, visi­ta­tion was 30 per­cent above av­er­age. The num­ber of climbers in the park in­creased ev­ery year as well, mean­ing that once-se­cluded “lo­cals’” boul­ders now saw more pads be­neath them, fur­ther ero­sion, and higher traf­fic.

ON APRIL 1, 2013, I walked my friend’s dog Kuna from Yosemite Vil­lage, where I was hous­esit­ting for a park ranger, to Camp 4. I car­ried a spray bot­tle and a brush.

Ev­ery year, hun­dreds of climbers paw the start­ing holds on Mid­night Light­ning. Ev­ery year, Kauk and other as­cen­tion­ists re­draw the light­ning bolt. Climber-tourists gawk at the prob­lem, tak­ing pic­tures of the bolt and pos­ing on the first move, pol­ish­ing the start. Weather ru­ins the bolt, leav­ing streak marks. Though the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion tries to ad­here to a Leave No Trace ethic, the graf­fiti on the Columbia re­mains. In 1976, Bachar and fel­low Stone­mas­ter Dean Fidel­man pierced their ears in Estes Park, Colorado, with light­ning-bolt ear­rings. Bachar drew the bolts “wher­ever we went,” Fidel­man says, “So ev­ery­one would know that we were Stone­mas­ters.” Imag­ine if Bachar drew a de­sign on the Columbia to­day—if, in­stead of lis­ten­ing to Hen­drix and draw­ing a light­ning bolt, he rocked out to Katy Perry and drew a heart with an ar­row through it. At 8 p.m., as I walked over to the Columbia Boul­der with Kuna, spray bot­tle and brushes in hand, I came upon a ran­dom dirtbag sleep­ing un­der­neath the boul­der. “Are you eras­ing the bolt?” he asked. “Yep,” I re­sponded. He went back to sleep, ap­a­thetic.

For a week and a half, the bolt dis­ap­peared and the Val­ley re­mained quiet. Cruz McClean, a climber from the East­side, re­drew the bolt. There was no men­tion of the bolt’s dis­ap­pear­ance—un­til I wrote a blog about eras­ing it. Climbers from across the globe be­came im­me­di­ately in­censed. They felt own­er­ship over a doo­dle chalked onto the stone. It was as if some­one had turned a lever and shut off the faucet that feeds Yosemite Falls. I won­dered if I should go into hid­ing, like Sal­man Rushdie after writ­ing The Satanic Verses.

For many in Yosemite, there’s a be­lief that the Val­ley should stick to old ideals, keep­ing decades-old chalk graf­fiti or sand­bagged rat­ings. Prob­lems like Mr. Pink Eyes (V0), Ini­tial Fric­tion (V1), No Holds Bard (V7),

Mid­night Light­ning (V8), and Thriller (V10) feel hard, if not im­pos­si­ble, for their grades. And there seems to be an un­spo­ken agree­ment that noth­ing, ever, should

be rated higher than V12, even if it re­ally is. (Though ear­lier this year, vis­it­ing climber Jimmy Webb es­tab­lished Hap­pier Days, a short roof pro­ject by Happy Isles, dar­ing to call it V13.) “Yosemite has a his­tory of un­der­play­ing the dif­fi­culty of things, which keeps them from get­ting that pop­u­lar,” says Tommy Caldwell, who has added a few boul­der prob­lems of his own, in­clud­ing Yabo Roof, a long un­der­cling roof to high­ball fin­ish be­tween Camp 4 and El Cap­i­tan. “It’s one of these places that you get the Bay Area crew, you get all the trad climbers that go boul­der­ing a lit­tle bit, but you don’t get much of the in­ter­na­tional boul­der­ing crew.” Per­haps it’s all the red tape of stay­ing in the Val­ley, or, says Caldwell, per­haps it’s the tech­ni­cal style—but in any case, “It’s not a good place to go ré­sumé-build.”

“IF YOU DO THIS PROB­LEM in three tries, you can write the guide­book,” Beth Rod­den said to me in Camp 4 in March 2016. Rod­den, like other lo­cals, didn’t want my guide­book to hap­pen. A Val­ley boul­der­ing afi­cionado her­self, she’d es­tab­lished one of Yosemite’s hard­est slab prob­lems, Av­o­cado (V8), a line of mi­cro-crimps and smears up a re­mote boul­der above Half Dome Vil­lage (for­merly Curry Vil­lage). She feared the in­flux of climb­ing tourists.

Rod­den, Randy Puro, and I were in Camp 4, play­ing with two slop­ing holds that marked both the be­gin­ning and the end of an un­named prob­lem just left of the

Pratt Man­tel, on Bard’s Fly­ing Tra­verse Boul­der. Two weeks ear­lier, I’d ac­cepted a job at Climb­ing Magazine, which meant a steady pay­check, a move to Boul­der, Colorado, and a dras­tic change from my 15 years of climb­ing across Cal­i­for­nia. I was back in the Val­ley to boul­der and to grab a few boxes I’d left in stor­age.

“Do you think it’s the end of an era?” Puro asked me, paw­ing at the holds and try­ing to press them out while Rod­den watched. He fell. A New Mex­ico na­tive and founder of Good Eggs, a Bay Area com­pany that de­vel­ops apps for food pro­duc­ers, Puro was also a master at man­tels. He’d made the first as­cent of the Pit Stop

Man­tel, a sin­gle-move V9 just down the trail. More than any­one in the Val­ley, Puro had pushed Yosemite boul­der­ing, putting up dozens of dou­ble-digit prob­lems. His strug­gle didn’t bode well for me. When it was my turn, I couldn’t even lift my feet off the ground. Puro fired the prob­lem then ex­plained how I should turn my hand. My sec­ond try, I could have al­most passed a sheet of pa­per be­tween my feet and the ground. Al­most. I rested, and thought about his ques­tion.

I was un­sure. Be­fore ac­cept­ing the job, I’d planned on spend­ing the rest of the year in Yosemite, fin­ish­ing the guide­book. I loved Yosemite but also knew that I needed to leave to grow—to es­cape the dirtbag life­style, to move be­yond my ob­ses­sion with gran­ite walls, to leave be­hind fes­ter­ing in the ditch. Carlo Traversi, who es­tab­lished Cold Snap and Sideswiped, both Yosemite V12s, once told me, “Ul­ti­mately, the boul­ders of Yosemite will al­ways be step­ping stones for over­com­ing new chal­lenges on the walls.” Now, as I pon­dered this man­tel, I thought that Traversi’s fram­ing of the sub­ject felt an­ti­quated—the boul­der­ing here has grown to be more than just train­ing.

Yosemite’s tech­ni­cal slabs, arêtes, and faces dif­fer from the cur­rent “cut­ting edge” of global boul­der­ing. Prob­lems here lack big grades, the big holds and gym-style move­ment, and the con­ve­nient camp­ing of the big-ticket des­ti­na­tions, like Hueco and Rock­lands. But per­haps there could be a resur­gence, a move back to­ward aes­thetic lines, del­i­cate move­ment, and rich ex­pe­ri­ences, to the sin­gu­lar style of climb­ing that makes Yosemite so mag­i­cal. Per­haps the Val­ley could be about more than just the cliffs; per­haps it holds the fu­ture of climb­ing move­ment. On the south­west side of the Columbia Boul­der is a barely-there arête, there are projects on the Yabo Roof boul­der, and the house-sized boul­der at Candyland and the Ho­tel Boul­der at the Sen­tinel both have po­ten­tial for the near-im­pos­si­ble. Be­yond the ex­ist­ing projects, other fu­tur­is­tic of­fer­ings await ex­ploratory boul­der­ers in Te­naya Canyon, around Happy Isles, and to­ward Yosemite West, with po­ten­tial for V15 glassy slabs and sui­ci­dal, 40-foot V13 arêtes—al­though they’d all, of course, be rated “V12.”

“One more try,” Rod­den said. I gulped, turned my hand side­ways, and felt my feet come slightly off the ground. When I felt the space be­tween my shoes and the pine nee­dles, I sum­moned a de­mon into my tri­ceps. I pushed and pushed and pushed. My foot matched next to my hands and I stood on the dirty slab. I scram­bled to the top, elated at my ef­fort.

“Good job, James!” Randy said.

BELOW: Lyn Bar­raza crimps up Beth Rod­den’s Av­o­cado (V8) in Half Dome Vil­lage; Thomasina Pid­geon works Thriller (V10) in Camp 4.

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