Above: Mark Chapman during an attempt on a new route called The Owl Roof, a climb that has touched off an ethical debate among leading Yosemite climbers. This problem was a much sought-prize in the early part of 1973 and repelled some strong attempts. It was eventually climbed by Tom Higgins who, having discovered that a chockstone and sling had been placed from a rope during a prior attempt, wrote a critical letter to 'Mountain' denouncing this and other 'doctored' routes. Photos: Ed Boyles


(originally appeared in Mountain #31, 1973)

Climbers in Yosemite Valley, until recently engrossed in the complexities of aid-climbing on the big walls, are now concentrating on short free climbs, and working hard to limit the use of pitons. Here Jim Bridwell, a leading figure in this free-climbing renaissance, reports on the new mood that grips the valley.

The general concept of climbing in Yosemite is centred on the mystique of Big Walls. However, the glorious sweeping plains of sunlit granite that capture the imagination of the primary climbing urge have lost their lustrous aura. Advancements in equipment and, more precisely, in knowledge have stripped the mystery shrouding the 'Big Walls', laying bare the boring and laborious logistics and the stifling repetition and tedium of placing one gadget after another into begruding cracks. In more recent years an ever-growing vanguard of imaginative and progressive young climbers has been fostering a fast-moving renaissance of Yosemite free-climbing. Refined techniques, strength training, equipment improvements and purification of ethics have led to amazing new routes. Yesterday's aid climb is today's standard free climb. The pressure of the ever-evolving spirit within has started to be felt and is now expressing itself in the idealism of imaginative new routes, in the beauty of control of mind, and the precision of movement which is required for the execution of these route.

Originally, free-climbing in Yosemite was not as important as aid-climbing technology, for the major walls were unclimbed. The evolution of climbing marched onward to the first prize and, once the walls were mastered, the goal moved on toward refinement. Free-climbing was primarily a display of virtuousity. A master of free-climbing was not held captive by the ball and chain of mechanical reliance. The urge was to excel and consequently free-climbing began to evolve.

What could be more exhilarating than climbing steep rock uninhibited by aid gadgetry? Bouldering developed as a separate pastime with its own unique challenges. Some climbers stopped climbing and took up bouldering exclusively, while others used it to develop techniques for harder free-climbing. Short, hard free climbs began to be made and names such as Chuck Pratt, Frank Sacherer, Mark Powell, Bob Kamps, Dave Rearick, and Royal Robbins soon moved into the limelight. Climbs like Crack of Doom and Split Pinnacle Lieback had as much prestige as The Nose or Half Dome ... interest started to grow. Another, not so distinct, generation began to appear. 1964 started a new era, with Frank Sacherer and Chuck Pratt leading the way. Routes previously done with aid went free. One route after another fell to the bold imagination of Sacherer and Pratt. Ethics started to change, ideas and attitudes underwent reconsideration. More and more possibilities were opened. After the ascent of Dihardral, with its uncanny reaches round blind corners and its fingertip liebacks, the word 'impossible' was used cautiously. A bold style evolved, where aid slings and an extra rope were left in the camp. This involved an attitude of commitment which increased the determination of the attempt. A few younger climbers began to emerge after serving an apprenticeship with the masters of the art. Their energy was added and the brew thickened. Tom Higgins and Chris Fredricks were among the young energy. They brought a few touches of their own to the free-climbing boom. Higgins, a protege' of Bob Kamps, quickly became a genius with tiny holds. Along with Kamps, he put up several tense climbs on Glacier Point Apron, as well as eliminating the aid on the Powell/Reed route on Middle Cathedral Rock.

At about this time physical training poked its magical head into the Yosemite Scene. Frank Sacherer and Eric Beck started it by circuit training in Berkeley and climbing at weekends. With this system they turned out two masterpieces: the West Face of Sentinel (in one day, and without Jumars), and the Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock - all free. On the latter they knocked out eighty aid pins by intricate route-finding and masterful climbing. This demonstrated the usefulness of strength training and opened doors into the future. At this point Sacherer left the climbing scene and bequeathed the raising of the standard to the younger breed of fast developing disciples. This achievement, along with Chuck Pratt's, marked the era between 1963 and 1965. Chuck's poise, natural ability and control, along with Frank's brilliance, daring and vision, earmarked climbing styles for those who followed.

Big walls were still foremost on the agenda for the majority of climbers; such routes as the Sacherer Cracker, Left Side of the Slack, Bridalveil East, Right Side of the Hourglass and the strenuous, poorly protected Twilight Zone were left neglected while the young gained confidence.

From 1966 to 1968 the free-climbing symphony had a few movements added to it. Chris Fredrick's fierce route English Breakfast Crack, repelled several attempts, while Lloyd Price added the Vendetta, with its bold, unprotected off-width problem on the second pitch. Pat Ament, a sensitive young climber from Boulder, made an appearance and started some waves in the free-climbing sea. His contributions included the Left Side of the Remnant and the Centre of the Slack - all free - as well as the freeing of Limbo Ledge. These were certainly demonstrations of expertise.

In 1968 Frank Sacherer's premonition that the Stove Legs on the Nose of El Capitan would go free was realized by Jim Bridwell and Jim Stanton. The Legs section is now done as a climb in itself. This bit of the Nose is today one of the most sustained free climbs in the country. The vertical lines of the cracks make it a most exhilarating route to look at, as well as to climb. Every sort of problem is encountered, from finger cracks to off-widths, with lie backs and chimneys and a pendulum now and then for spice. The Legs are a true challenge, even for the best free climbers.

1969 saw few new hard free routes, but many of the existing hard problems were repeated. Beginning in 1970 the big boom of volcanic free-climbing erupted in the Valley. Several young stars started to shine: Mark Klemens, Barry Bates, Peter Haan, Jim Bridwell and Mead Hargis were among those shining most brightly. Mark Klemens returned to the Valley after a two year lay-off and like a lightning bolt became the main motivating force of the year. The fact that he began completely out of shape didn't seem to affect his smooth, controlled style. As an opener, he pioneered Absolutely Free, a respectable route with 5.10 fist and off-width jamming. New routes were his 'bag', and he sacked New Dimensions as his next prize. The climb is very sustained and consistently thin, a real test of finger strength and technique. In the same season, Klemens mounted two more virgin crack systems on Absolutely Free, plus routes such as Gripper, Independence Pinnacle, and Henley Quits. All of these were aesthetic as well as difficult. Barry Bates was also developing quickly in 1970. After three years, his route on the Centre of Independence will still send a thrill even through those experienced at thin hand cracks.

At this stage the hydra of ethics and style began to show its many heads. Fine points normally overlooked assumed importance. The scruples of a first ascent have always been met either with criticism or praise, and unwritten laws have gradually been formulated over the years. But suddenly everything shifted into high gear. The resulting pressure has been increasingly felt. Good new routes were, and are, coveted and consequently kept secret from the waiting ambitions of eager climbers.

From 1971 to 1972 some appalling new routes were conceived. These initiated a new precedence in attitudes, techniques and equipment. The eye saw lines that were only possible after certain specialised strengths had been developed. A programme of progressively more difficult and specialised climbs was devised to prepare for a specific route. Esoteric exercises as well as unique boulder-ballet problems now elaborated the training tables of the climbing athlete. Using this system, many fine routes were composed on sight. Some of the great problems of the past two years epitomize the best in Yosemite climbing.

New Dimensions, originally done free by Barry Bates and Steve Wunsch, was the first of these routes. Persistently difficult and strenuous climbing leads to the final 5.11 finger-tip crack up a leaning corner.

The Left Side of the Hourglass, a work of genius by Peter Haan, remains one of the most respected leads of the day. One thinks of the potential fifty-foot fall while leading the overhanging, 5.10 off-width crack after the undercling. This single lead, with its 5.10 hand crack to 5.10 undercling to a 5.10 off-width, all without resting spots, makes the overall rating 5.11, and earmarks the accelerative pitch - in imagination.

Cream is a fine demonstration of off-width art. The route was improvised on sight, at the first attempt, by Mark Klemens. Mark is known for his masterful control in off-width cracks. The climb is strenuous and hard to protect. The feeling of security fleets from reach on this lead, and you know why when the rope hangs out eight feet at the bottom!

Several of the leads on Basket Case would constitute a crux on most routes. At present the route stands as the most difficult off-width problem in the country. Twenty-foot runouts on four-inch 5.11 cracks, and a 5.10, one-and-a-quarter-inch crack on the lower pitch accent the variety of this climb. The first free ascent was done by Mark Klemens and Jim Bridwell.

The 1973 season is continuing the acceleration of the standards. At present styles and ethics have become homogenized into spartan austerities. The new ideals have left certain free-climbing ethics passe'. All-nut ascents, and 'flashing' a route (climbing on first try) are more desirable than using pitons and sieging a pitch yo-yo style. Today, few climbs (big walls excepted) are done initially as aid climbs. New ethics now regard top-roping, or placing protection on rappels, as highly undesirable. Unfortunately these styles and ethics form the basis of insidious competition which can prove quite abrasive to the psyche of the climbing community. Is it art or insanity? Will the Law of Diminishing Returns bring a halt to the present progress? How much working-out and how many self-inflicted morals is a section of stone worth? Or does the answer lie deeper, within the very soul of a man? Will the new disciples tend to purify the lust for perfection of the whole being? Maybe the competitive ego will be replaced with an open-minded appreciation of form; ethics may fuse with aesthetics, making practice rather than personality paramount.

The form is defined, the refinements infinite. The seeds are already sprouting in many devoted practitioners of the art. When art becomes a way of life, with religious significance to the individual, that art gains a useful position in the cosmic scene. Aleister Crowley, with his bold spiritualism, may have been a mutant prototype of a coming generation of climbers. Speculations are many and varied, but the future definitely holds exciting possibilities. The unusual situation presented by Yosemite has developed a unique life. The concentrated, difficult climbing and the easy-living environment are conducive to long periods of stay in the Valley. All this has given rise to an attitude of mind that believes nothing is impossible, and has made Yosemite a climber's Utopia: the Mecca of rock-climbing in America and maybe the world.

The Future

Yosemite is the home of most equipment advances in America and, for that matter, the world. Throughout the valley's history there has been a steady and rapid development of climbing regalia, from Salathe's hard steel piton to the present polycentric nut and the even more subtle nuances of chalk and tincture of benzoin. The farsighted and creative activists in Yosemite have constantly been seeking the paraphernalia manifesto. Ethics and aesthetics are an important feature of this development, and vice versa. As new vistas are opened, changes will inevitably occur. Moral decisions will have to be made about certain technological innovations, such as chalk and resin. I am not arguing either course, but if some development makes one route easier to climb, it will make another route possible, and for that route use of the innovation may be obligatory. That in turn may make a two-sided coin: a nuisance to climbers and a boon for manufacturers. As far as the consumption of products is concerned, decreation will be the responsibility of the whole climbing community.

Ethics are also due for alterations. Top-roping will probably be used not only for physical conditioning and confidence building, where bouldering will not suffice, but also as a prerequisite in the case of dangerous unprotected leads by the climbing avant-garde. We may frown at these ideas, but they are likely to become selectively assimilated as part of the future norm.

Difficult face-climbing routes are now being done with the aid of a cliff-hanger in a shallow 'quick' bolt holde, which facilitates placement of a regulation anchor. Eventually, aluminium allow dowels may be used as protection, which would preclude the need for cliff-hanger and protection procedures. Siege tactics are being used and will continue to be used on new free routes. As ever more improbable rock is attempted, these practices may become more prevalent.

The decisions to be made in this respect will be the responsibility of the new generation. These decisions will direct the future of the art and determine whether or not it is to remain an art.

1973 Postscript

Activity reached a crescendo last spring, with feverish interest being shown in the obvious but still neglected plum routes. The new routes varied from all free grade 5's to 40-50ft. severe problems. A generous list of relatively new names was associated with these first ascents. Stoner's Highway, an all-free grade 5 on Middle Cathedral Rock, climbed late this spring by Ed Barry, Peter Barton, Kevin Norall [sic] and John Long, may well qualify as the most sustained free climb in Yosemite and possibly the whole country. Six of the eight pitches are 5.10, which puts the climb high on any zealot's list.

Nearly half-a-dozen high quality grade 4's were added to the ever growing list of new climbs. These included Wild Thing (5.10, A1, two pendulums) by Ian Wade and Ray Jardine, Hot Line (5.10, A1) by Mark Chapman and Jim Bridwell, Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9 or 5.10) by Roger Breedlove, Dale Bard, Ed Barry and Jim Bridwell, Straight Error by Jim Bridwell and Mark Chapman, and Mental Block (5.10) by Dale Bard and Jim Bridwell. The controversial 5.11 rating acquired substantial additions from several well-established names, and two of the most formidable leads in American climbing met their match this year: Butterballs, a 3/4"-1" crack in a vertical wall, was finally mastered by Henry Barber; and the Owl Roof, a 13ft. hand-and-fist crack in a horizontal ceiling, was soloed, with jumars for belay, by Tom Higgins. This last achievement stands as a monument to the enlarging spectrum of free-climbing possibilities.

The season's contributions were blighted by the absence of Rik Reider, one of the most talented climbers to come along in many years. Rik proved to have amazing confidence and calm on the long run-outs in 1972. Routes like Chain Reaction and A Mother's Lament stand in mute testimony to his ability. It's to be hoped that the backbone of Yosemite's climbers will be of this sort of metal.


Yosemite Valley: California. A briefing on the recent popularity of extreme free-climbing in the Valley.

[middle photos - Arch Rock and Elephant Rock]
Above: Arch Rock, a small cliff at the entrance of the valley, boasting six fierce climbs.
Arch Rock. Routes: 1. Entrance Exam,; 2. The English Breakfast Crack; 3. Midterm; 4. Leaning Meanie; 5. The Gripper; 6. New Dimensions.
Right: One of the most impressive initial valley cliffs is the 900ft. Elephant Rock buttressed in front by a pillar called The Worst Error. Two recent routes show up clearly on this pillar: Hot Line follows the central crack system and Straight Error takes the distinctive vertical crack on the right. Elephant Rock is also noted for its stupendous off-width crack climbs - Cracks of Doom and Despair. Photos: Ken Wilson

[final photos - 3 part sequence on Outer Limits]
Above and cover: Outer Limits is another of the Cookie Area's fine routes. The left photo shows Chris Vandiver starting the route, and the others depict Australian climber Rick White climbing up to, and traversing, the final difficulties. Photos: Jim Stuart and Henry Barber.

  Face Climbs Chimneys Liebacks Thin Cracks Hand and Fist Off-Width Cracks
5.10A Fallen Arches
Maxines Wall
Angels Approach
North Buttress, Middle Cath.
Lichen Nightmare
Pulpit Rock (from notch)
East Buttress, Lower Cath.
Rixon's West Face (2)
Hot Line (5) Twilight Zone (3)
La Escuela (3)
Rixon's East (1)
Stone Groove
Swan Slab (2)
New Dimensions (2 and 3)
Sacherer Cracker
Siberian S.S.
East Corner of Higher Spire
Ramp of Deception
Central Pillar Direct, Middle Cath. (2,6)
Henley Quits
Absolutely Free, right side.
Secret Storm
Penny Nickle Arete
Reed Pinnacle, left side
Girl Next Door
Crack of Despair
Crack of Doom
The Cookie, left side
Peter Pan, right side (1)
5.10B Pulpit, Orey/Jones route
Limbo Ledge (1)
Punch Bowl
East Buttress, Middle Cath.
Henley Quits (2)
Central Pillar Direct, Middle Cath. (8)
Lost Arrow Chimney
Wheat Thin
Basket Case (4)
Koko Ledge
Outer Limits (1)
Easy Streaks
Rixon's West (1 variation)
Bare Necessities
New Dimensions (1)
Peter Pan, right side (2)
Book of Job
Ind. Pinnacle, Independent Route (2)
Quickie Quizzes
Rixon's West Face (5)
This and That (2)
Henley Quits, left side
Vendetta (2)
Hourglass, right side
Edge of Night
Slack, left side
Pulpit Pooper
Narrow Escape
Tower of Geek
Kat Pinnacle
Ind. Pin., Ind. Route (3)
5.10C A Mother's Lament
Slab Happy Dihardral
Chain Reaction
Paradise Lost, Middle Cath.
D.N.B., Middle Cath.
  Waverley Wafer
Powell/Reed, Middle Cath.
Outer Limits (2)
Lunatic Fringe
Hardly Pinnacle
High Quality
Slack Center
English Breakfast Crack
Sacherer/Fredericks, Middle Cath.
Limbo Ledge (2)
Hot Line (1 and 2)
Mental Block
Meat Grinder
Bridalveil East, Midget Chimney
Straight Error (2)
This and That (1)
Forbidden Pinnacle
Hourglass, left side
Chopper Flake
Jam Session
5.10D Swan Slab (1)
Hot Line (6)
  Split Pinnacle
High Pressure
Vanishing Point
Serenity Crack
Olga's Trick
Five and Dime
Ind. Pinnacle, Center route (3)
Leaning Meanie
Final Exam
Mental Block (2 and 3)
Twilight Zone
Steppin' Out
Fall Out
5.11 Calf
  La Escuela (1 and 2)
Hour Glass, Left Side (undercling)
New Directions [sic]
Abstract Corner
Short Cake
Gold Rush
Owl Roof
Basket Case

Figures in brackets indicate specific pictures [sic].
End of original article


The above table of 5.10A, B, C, and D ratings was the first attempt to subdivide the wide range of 5.10 routes. Most of these routes have retained their original letter grades in 1999. Others have moved around, and some route names do not appear in the current guidebook.

I attempted to reproduce the original article verbatim, including some minor errors. I left out the photos, because my copy was poor. No permission was granted to reproduce this article. It should be reprinted someday, and is available here for historical reference in the meantime. Here is a link to one of the original sources:

Bridwell also discussed the 5.10A, B, C, and D grades in an article in Ascent, "The Innocent, the Ignorant, and the Insecure." Mountain magazine went out of business a few years ago. It may have since been resurrected.
Please send any comments or corrections to Clint Cummins: clint@leland.stanford.edu .