Yosemite National Park in the United States is one of the most famous parks in the world, not only for tourists but for climbers too! With sheer cliff faces, sweeping valleys and spectacular views, climbing in Yosemite have long been a challenge that all climbers want to complete. While the infamous El Capitan was scaled for the first time in 1958, it is still considered a mean feat, even today!
Here we walk through the greatest moments in Yosemite climbing history to take a look at the incredible achievements of climbers in years gone by.
After hearing rumours of Yosemite NP, John Muir made his way to California and found himself staring up at the mammoth cliff face that was Cathedral Peak. While climbers today have modern shoes, training, and equipment, Muir simply had a pair of leather boots and his courage to take him to the top! The steep slabs, vertical drops, and small notches were all challenges he would face in his climb to the summit.
Another first was George Anderson's ascent of Half Dome. This summit was thought to be inaccessible at the time with geologists saying that it "has never been and will never be trodden by human foot.” In 1875, however, George Anderson proved them wrong, climbing all the way to the top using ropes and drills in the first aided ascent in Yosemite. Not only did Anderson brave this summit himself but he soon started bringing tourists in to follow his route to the top!
This foray to the top of Higher Cathedral Spire was a few years in the making, with Dick Leonard, Bestor Robinson, and Jules Eichorn learning European Alp-climbing techniques and taking a practise reconnaissance up the spire, before they were finally able to summit, along with fellow hiker and Sierra Club member, Francis Farquhar.
Lost Arrow Spire is a 200-foot granite pillar that stands proud in the Yosemite Falls area and was seen as one of the toughest and most technical climbs in the park. John Salathé, a Swiss climber, did a number of recces to Lost Arrow to figure out what pins or pitons could be used, before finally attempting the climb with his partner, Anton “Ax” Nelson. The climb took a gruelling five days and four nights, but this impressive feat made way for the use of Salathé-style steel pitons for climbs throughout Yosemite over the years.
While George Anderson completed the first aided siege up Half Dome, Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallawas and Mike Sherrik were the first to ascend the northwest face of Half Moon, a cliff face with unprecedented scale and verticality! Parts of the climb are now named after these legendary climbers, with Robbins Traverse, the Robbins Chimney, the Zig Zags, and the improbable Thank God Ledge all being challenges that new climbers face!
Perhaps the most famous and sought-after rock climb in the world, The Nose, on the south buttress of El Capitan in Yosemite NP was a strenuous challenge undertaken by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore, and Rich Calderwood in 1958. The four climbers spent 11 days scaling the cliff before Harding finally scrambled to the top on November 12, 1958. Nobody had ever considered climbing El Capitan before, and this ascent really put Yosemite on the map, even more so than before!
After a handful of successful summits across Yosemite Valley, it was about time a guidebook about climbing in the region came out. This is where "A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley" by Steve Roper stepped in and gave climbers knowledge and insight into the routes available and techniques required. This was the climbing Bible of Yosemite and no-one in the 60s would have dreamed of visiting without reading this book.
While climbers continued to ascend various peaks in the park with pitons and hammers throughout the 60s, it wasn't until 1973 that Doug Robinson and Dennis Hennek attempted the climb of the Northwest Face of Half Dome without hammers! Robinson was a firm believer in "climbing the rock without changing it" and his use of 'nutcraft' change the game for climbing in Yosemite.
Another game changer in 1973 was the all-female team of Sibylle Hechtel and Beverly Johnson taking on the ascent of El Capitan. The women entitled the story of their climb the comical “Walls Without Balls," which has become synonymous with female climbing in America.
While Robinson and Henneck were the first to attempt hammerless climbing, it was arguably John Bachar, John Long, and Ron Kauk who put Yosemite free-climbing on the map. They used techniques like hand jamming and fingertip face climbing to ascend the East Face of Washington Column, a challenge that was yet unheard of!
Throughout the 80s and 90s, climbers continued to ascend Yosemite’s peaks, both with and without aids. Yablonski, Kauk, and Bachar created Midnight Lightning on Columbia Boulder; Bachar and Dave Yerian surmounted the gold granite of Medlicott Dome; Bachar and Croft climbed Half Dome and El Cap in a Day and Paul Piana and Todd Skinner free-climbed the original Salathé Wall sans pitons!
Climbing The Nose was one of the biggest climbing challenges in the world, let alone free-climbing it as Lynn Hill did in 1993! She had claimed numerous climbing victories in her time, but this was perhaps one of the greatest. Men and women were in awe of her talent and it wasn't until 2005 that another free ascent of The Nose was completed!
Throughout the noughties, Tommy Caldwell challenged himself to a number of free ascents such as Lurking Fear (El Capitan) with Beth Rodden, Magic Mushroom in 2008 with Sjong and The Shaft. He was one of the main free-climbers who redefined what was possible on the walls of Yosemite. Not only this but he also free-climbed The Nose and Freerider on El Cap back-to-back in a day!
Not content with summiting one of Yosemite's mammoth climbs, Alex Honnold tasked himself with soloing the three biggest faces in Yosemite in less than 24 hours! He had already completed this task with fellow climber Tommy Caldwell, but this time he was alone. He ended up ascending all three walls in just 18 hours, 55 minutes!
One of the latest feats of Yosemite climbing was the first free ascent of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in 2015 by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. Instead of an aided ascent like so many climbers before them, Caldwell and Jorgeson decided to free-climb the 3,000-foot vertical granite sheet, taking 19 days and numerous attempts to finally crack it! This climb was shown live on the web and really helped to re-establish Yosemite NP as the epicentre of worldwide rock climbing!