Sharing Yosemite, Then and Now

By James Lucas

James establishing a 900 foot new free route in Yosemite. Photo by Mikey Schaefer

“You can’t capture this on an iPad or a flatscreen or even an oil painting. You’ve got to come and breathe it in yourself,” President Obama said in Cooks Meadow in Yosemite on Saturday. I nudged Nina Williams, a friend and fellow climber who had accompanied me to the President’s remarks, and smiled.

“You have to be there,” I had told her, just a few months prior. We were just outside of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, huddled over a low-burning fire. Nina, a young Colorado climber, had traveled there to climb the sandstone cracks and expand her resume from climbing indoors to exploring real rock — but what she really wanted to know about was Yosemite. I recalled my 15 years of Yosemite climbing for her — of sleeping beneath ropes on the side of the Cathedral Walls, of free climbing El Capitan in a day, of the magic of the National Park. As the campfire flames grew, I could see the fire crackling in Nina’s eyes. She wanted to be there.

Two weeks ago, Nina and I ran to Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne, scrambling up the route originally taken by Yosemite naturalist John Muir. We climbed near Bridalveil Falls, hearing the water crash down beside us. We ascended high above Ahwahnee Meadow. We worked on the rope skills and the mental focus needed to climb larger objectives. And then, when Nina was ready, we climbed on El Capitan.

As we climbed, ravens circled in El Cap’s thermals, letting the warm air lift them higher. While Nina grabbed slivers of granite, I watched the black bird land on a nearby ledge, the one with our packs. A moment later, the bird dropped off the wall, chasing a chocolate coconut bar — my lunch. 2,500 feet of granite swept below us and another six hundred feet of climbing loomed above. It would be a hungry night. Seeing the majesty of El Capitan involved more work than just downloading a picture on an iPad or seeing an oil painting.

Scaling El Capitan in a single day. Photo by Jeff Johnson.

“This is beautiful,” Nina said as we descended. She stopped once, or twice, or a million times to watch the sunset run up the Northwest Face of Half Dome. My pangs of hunger dissipated a little. I had seen this view sixty times but this was the first time I’d been able to truly share it. Centuries before us, in 1890, John Muir had done something similar — showing President Theodore Roosevelt through the pristine valleys and forests of Yosemite. Then, Muir’s tour impressed Roosevelt and helped cement Yosemite’s National Park status.

Today, sharing the park’s grandeur remains vital to its maintenance.

“It’s a park that captures the wonder of the world, that changes you by being here,” said President Obama. A day after our El Capitan adventure, Yosemite Falls thundered behind the President. Obama spoke of the need to protect these sacred spaces as the world faces increasing climate change. He stressed the importance of maintaining our National Parks because, as I’d shown Nina, as Muir had shown Roosevelt, and as Obama had seen during his visit, “It’s a place where we connect with each other and connect to something bigger than ourselves.”

James Lucas works as an editor at Climbing Magazine in Boulder Colorado but escaped his cubicle for four weeks in Yosemite this spring. He plans to call in sick to climb more on El Capitan in the fall.