ROYAL ROBBINS, the great Yosemite climber of the 1950s and ’60s, once called rock climbing “a game in which we play at acquiring the courage necessary to a beautiful life.” I’ve always loved that line. My own father learned to climb in Yosemite in the 1970s, from a guy a little younger than Robbins who also saw the sport as a secular spiritual pursuit.
That pursuit–let’s call it the Old Way of the Yosemite Climber–had strict rules, mostly around safety. To this day, climbers generally ascend in teams of two joined by a rope, with each end of that rope tied to one of the two climbers. The lead climber goes first, scaling upward while trailing rope behind. The second climber waits and watches, feeding rope upward through a braking device. Every five feet or so, the lead climber attaches a piece of metal hardware to the cliff, then clips a carabiner to that hardware and runs the rope through it.
This way, if the leader slips and falls, the second can use the brake to halt the upward flow of rope. The leader will then fall only twice the distance, to the last/highest piece of hardware.
Once the leader runs out of rope, she builds what’s called a belay anchor, a cluster of hardware so secure that both climbers could hang their full body weight on it without fear. The leader then calls down to the second that it’s ok to follow. As the second moves upward, retracing the leader’s path, the leader takes in rope by pulling it up through another braking device. Because the leader can keep the rope taut from above, a falling second is unlikely to plummet more than a foot or two. Once the second reaches the leader at the belay anchor, the leader either starts upward again, or the team calls it quits and rappels to the ground.
Because both climbers’ lives depend upon safe management of these rope and hardware systems, Rule Number One in the Old Way was absolute commitment to their mastery–especially for anyone with aspirations of leading.
Other rules had to do with style. As in, what style of ascent merited respect. Climbs were only to be attempted from the ground up, in one continuous push. The approach so common in today’s climbing gyms, where you hang a rope from above so as to climb always as a second, while attempting moves well beyond your ability and repeatedly falling, was considered deeply uncool on Yosemite’s walls.
In the Old Way, leaders in particular were to avoid falling at all costs. Falling wasn’t such a big deal for a second climber, but a leader could easily fall 20 feet or more before the second stopped them. That could cause injury, and even a sprained ankle could turn a leader into a serious liability for the second, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, before the professionalization of search and rescue and ready availability of helicopters. So there was a moral opprobrium against leader falls–a feeling that ropes and hardware should be treated only as the safety net of last resort, backstop against catastrophe. If you had to rely on that backstop, it meant you’d probably overestimated your ability and put yourself and others in danger.
By the late 1980s, when my father finally took me along, the Yosemite Way also included a Path–a distinct sequence of climbing routes to be followed in order, for the practice and perfection of the Way. This sequence started with the easiest climbs in the Valley and progressed through ever-harder routes–as the pilgrim gained skill, strength, confidence and resourcefulness–on the inexorable march toward Half Dome and El Capitan.
I grew up with the Old Way, and grew up on the Path. But I got a deeper sense of their meanings after my oldest daughter, Hannah, asked me to take her climbing in Yosemite.
I was 19 years old on that first Yosemite trip with Dad, and I remember looking around at infinite granite walls and shattered buttresses, thinking it all looked impossible. My father taught me to see subfeatures: vertical cracks in a cliff that allowed a climber to scurry upward; chimney-like chasms big enough to worm inside; right-facing corners that soared hundreds of feet to big overhangs.
Every one of these features had apparently been climbed and designated as part of a specific route–each with its own name, history, and difficulty rating on the so-called Yosemite decimal scale. That scale ran from 5.1 to 5.14 and beyond. The initial 5 was an artifact of a still-earlier system and denoted only that the route was, indeed, technical rock climbing of the kind in which an unroped fall would be fatal. The number after the decimal denoted the actual physical difficulty of the hardest climbing moves on the route; initially meant to run only from 1 to 10, the scale had become open-ended once climbers did routes that were undeniably harder than 5.10.
My father’s version of the Path of the Yosemite Climber began with a short 5.1 climb at Swan Slab, a collection of tree-shaded boulders and low granite cliffs across the road from Yosemite Lodge. In those days before climbing gyms, Swan Slab was the classic climbers’ classroom, the place where generations of beginners learned the basics. So that was my first experience with the sport: tying into a rope, feeding out slack while my father moved above, and then, when he said it was time, following.
Days or weeks after–I can’t remember exactly how long–he led me up a 5.6 climb called The Grack, on Glacier Point Apron. (It was common to progress quickly through the lower grades, ever more slowly as the terrain became more extreme.) The Grack ascended about 500 feet up a 2,000-foot low-angle cliff. When it was over, we had to rappel–slide down ropes to the ground–a process that struck me as exceptionally dangerous, given that our entire lives depended on our ropes for the duration of the rappel.
After The Grack came other 5.6 climbs, then a first 5.7, and so on. The idea was to log whole days and miles at whatever difficulty one found challenging but manageable, so that you could always handle the ropes and hardware appropriately, and not fall. Only when a given difficulty felt easy did one move up to the next.
My father also taught me to lead–made sure I learned the systems. When he was satisfied that I could keep myself and even friends safe in the vertical world, he set me free to climb with other partners. Over the next few years, that freedom allowed me to have utterly wild adventures with other guys in their 20s. Following the Path into the realm of the Yosemite 5.11, up Half Dome and eventually El Cap, I got to lead a life less ordinary, dream of grand endeavors and have faith that I could pull them off.
Then, after a while, life took me in other directions: marriage, mortgage, kids. I hadn’t climbed in over a decade when my first born, Hannah, age nine, joined a youth climbing team at a San Francisco gym. Four days a week, she trained for hours on indoor walls steeper than anything I’d ever climbed. By 13, having long marinated in her father’s and grandfather’s blather about Yosemite, she begged to be taken there. Hannah could climb 5.12 in the gym by that point, and could easily have followed my early-20s self up the hardest routes I’d ever done.I sorely wished I could be that guy for her, and take her up routes that would’ve blown her mind. But I was 20 years older, 15 years out of practice, and 30 pounds heavier.
Truth was, I needed to start the Path of the Yosemite Climber at square one, just to rebuild my own strength and confidence.
That meant going all the way back to Swan Slab, tying a new rope between my daughter and myself. The next day, over on the vast low angle face of Glacier Point Apron, it meant making a big production out of leading her–a 5.12 gym climber, remember–up the 5.6 Grack. She’s a good sport, so she put up with this for a couple of years. But I could tell it was driving her nuts. So much easy climbing, so many lectures about safety and the Old Ways.
I think it was also embarrassing back at the climbing gym, where she’d have to see friends and confess to climbing routes with painfully low difficulty grades. None of those friends climbed in Yosemite, so they had no clue how different it was to be out on a sea of genuine granite, without color-coded hand-holds and a rope pre-hung from above. But I felt stuck: I was still years away from being able to lead anything that Hannah would find challenging, and she was getting better a lot faster than I was.
Fortunately, Hannah saw the solution: she could learn to lead for herself. At first, I was reluctant. Hannah was only 15 years old. Leading is a solemn responsibility that demands good executive function. But I knew also that Hannah had a great mind for systems, and was an extremely competent and responsible person with a precocious gift for making good decisions under pressure. Her 5.12 gym-climbing ability also meant that her likelihood of ever falling on a Yosemite 5.6–or even 5.10, for that matter–was nearly nil. So I decided to trust her, and teach her, and follow her lead up all those Yosemite climbs. My proudest moments as her father all involved watching that kid up in the sky, taking calculated risks with great physical bravery, even as she ran safety systems like a pro.
At this point, I’m going to respect Hannah’s privacy by not describing the great adventures that she’s had in the years since. All I will say is that they have involved much more than climbing, and have absolutely displayed the courage necessary to a beautiful life.
Daniel Duane has been climbing in Yosemite for more than 30 years and is the author of three books about the park. "The Yosemite Way" was originally published in Lighting Out: A Golden Year in Yosemite and The West and appears in the Wildsam Yosemite guide. Daniel lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughters but makes it up to the granite kingdom as much as he can.