Climbing the Granite Frontier, From Muir to the Masses

In 1869 John Muir scrambled up a soaring granite tower named Cathedral Peak, becoming the first person to stand atop the table-sized summit, which offers a magnificent view of California's High Sierra.

[Yosemite] Corbis

The Nose on El Capitan has become a magnet for speed-climbers.

"No feature, however, of all the noble landscape as seen from here seems more wonderful than the Cathedral itself, a temple displaying Nature's best masonry and sermons in stones," Muir wrote. "This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California. . . . In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars."

Muir was Yosemite's first climbing bum -- a rara avis then, but a species that is not at all endangered today. Witness the queue to get a tent site in the park's Camp Four, where bedraggled climbers with duct tape holding their down jackets together mass early every morning hours before the ranger station opens. And those are the orderly ones, not the so-called dirtbags who sleep illegally in the bushes, ignoring the regulations and spending months at a time in the park pursuing their passion. It's not uncommon, moreover, to find climbers lined up to scale popular routes such as Cathedral Peak, although most use a rope to protect themselves from falling off the summit -- unlike Muir, who trusted all to his hands and feet and steady nerves.

The ascent of Cathedral Peak was notable not just for its physical accomplishment but even more so for the mental aspect, which in Muir's case was inescapably spiritual. The son of a harsh, itinerant preacher who viewed all fun as frivolity, Muir transmuted his father's stern philosophy into an unreservedly generous worldview that marveled at the wonder of nature and saw God's love manifested in every petal of a flower or broken chunk of gleaming granite. To Muir climbing was not merely exercise but essentially an act of transcendence. Climbing, like love to Paul Valery, was "where self and not-self meet."

It's also a lot of fun. That's something I was reminded of again and again walking through a new exhibit that recently opened at the Yosemite Museum. Called "Granite Frontiers: A Century of Yosemite Climbing," the show traces the evolution of the sport from Muir's ascent of Cathedral Peak to the speed-climbing frenzy that has seen the record for running up the Nose on El Capitan repeatedly bested in the past year (it currently stands at 2 hours, 37 minutes and 5 seconds, although most people take three days or longer to do the route).

[Yosemite National Park] Jonathan Bayless/National Park Service

Visitors explore the climbing exhibit at the Yosemite Museum.

The exhibit was organized by Ken Yager, who in his dirtbag youth spent two years living in a cave in the park and now runs the nonprofit Yosemite Climbing Association. The show, which is on display through Nov. 9, uses photos, artifacts and the words of participants to try to explain the exploits of climbers to those who usually see them only as dots on the sheer walls surrounding Yosemite Valley.

Although the start of mountaineering as a leisure activity is usually dated from the first ascent of Mount Blanc in 1786, no single place has been more crucial to the development of technical climbing as we know it today than Yosemite, the proving ground for much of the equipment and techniques that currently define the sport.

Muir, unlike many weekend warriors who rack up with thousands of dollars of space-age equipment, was a minimalist. A blanket, a crust of bread and a drinking cup constituted his usual kit. Muir's tin cup is on display, adorned with his signature, much like modern climbers who mark their gear (I use nail polish).

A lot of metal is on exhibit, including about 100 pounds of pitons, the minute engineering advances of which perhaps not every visitor will find fascinating. One neat feature is a section of granite spilt with cracks where visitors can practice placing nuts and caming devices -- the removable gear to which climbers clip their ropes for protection. Although judging by some of the poor placements I saw, I hope the people in front of me weren't heading up a real wall anytime soon.

But the real advances in climbing have been conceptual, mental breakthroughs of what is thought possible, rather than pure engineering triumphs.

In 1870, for example, Josiah Whitney looked at the towering blank mass of Half Dome and quailed. "Perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has and never will be trodden by human feet," he wrote.

"Five years later," the show dryly notes, "Half Dome was climbed."

That was George Anderson's ascent, when he drilled eyebolts up the smooth side of the monolith, standing on each successive rod to place the next and then fixing lines to the summit so that others could follow.

Anderson's use of equipment to ascend a rock face makes him the first "aid climber." "Free climbers," by contrast, use equipment only to catch a fall but do the actual climbing with their hands and feet -- and sometimes elbows and knees. These contrasting approaches were re-enacted by the two climbers who most pushed the modern boundaries of the sport in the Valley in the 1960s: Warren Harding, who made the first visionary aid climb of El Cap, and Royal Robbins, Harding's free-climbing rival, whose gecko-like prowess on the rock continues to inspire.

Both styles require skill and courage. But once again it's Muir who encapsulated the transforming essence of the experience, especially during his first ascent of Mount Ritter in 1872. Half-way up the crumbling mountain, Muir became gripped with fear.

"I was brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down," he wrote. "My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. . . . But the terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life burst forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self -- the ghost of by-gone experiences, instinct, or Guardian Angel -- call it what you will -- came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete."

It's those moments -- when you do something you think you can't possibly do -- that make climbing what it is.

Mr. Ybarra is the Journal's extreme sports correspondent.