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|July 10-17, 2008
• That's adventure racing
by Sam Mcmanis
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Climber fuels push for a museum dedicated to
YosemiteValley’s climbing legacy
by Marek Warszawski
In the 1970s, Ken Yager was a typical Yosemite climbing bum. He had long hair, dressed in raggedy clothes and avoided the park’s camping limits by living in a cave near Curry Village.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Yager says of his two years as a cave-dweller. “Housecleaning’s easy.”
Today, the 49-year-old is doing all he can to make rock climbing more respectable. Yager is the driving force behind a nonprofit organization pushing to build a permanent museum celebrating Yosemite Valley’s integral role in the sport’s development.
Climbing may have been born in the French Alps, but Yosemite is where it came of age. To ascend the Valley’s sheer granite walls, some of which rise more than 3,000 feet, tenacious young American climbers in the 1950s and ’60s developed tools and techniques that were later exported to mountain ranges throughout the world.
And they did it with an environmental sensibility passed down from John Muir — whose 1869 un-roped ascent of Cathedral Peak, a weathered, sculpted horn above Tuolumne Meadows, kicked off Yosemite’s climbing era — to big-wall pioneer Royal Robbins, who often risked his own safety to avoid defacing the rock.
Until recently, however, no enduring record existed of this rich history. And park visitors who stood by the dozens in El Capitan Meadow craning their necks toward the sky and watching tiny dots inch their way upward had little or no appreciation for what they were seeing.
That’s when Yager entered the picture.
An accomplished climber who has scaled El Capitan more than 50 times, Yager and buddy Mike Corbett in 1991 came up with the idea to start collecting climbing artifacts that otherwise would’ve been lost to the dustbin of history.
Yager’s collection now totals nearly 10,000 items, about 3,000 of which have been catalogued. The most important pieces, along with some owned by the National Park Service, are on display at the Yosemite Museum.
The 1,800-square foot exhibit, titled Granite Frontiers: A Century of Yosemite Climbing, is open daily through Oct. 27.
“Climbing is an important part of Yosemite’s history, and it can’t hurt to keep that history alive,” Yager said. “Even non-climbers are intrigued by this stuff. It helps them understand what’s going on up there.”
In one display case lies a metal spike that Scottish carpenter George Anderson used to nail his way up Half Dome in 1875, just five years after California’s top geologist proclaimed the summit “never will be trodden by human foot.”
Another contains two large pitons built from the legs of a cast-iron stove and used to protect 2-inch-wide cracks during the 1958 first ascent of El Capitan’s Nose route. Known in climbing circles as the Stoveleg pitons, Yager called them “the most famous pitons in
the world. I know of one other one, and I’ll probably get that one, too.”
There is a 1933 roster of the Sierra Club’s Rock Climbing Section, the group that introduced roped climbing to Yosemite. There is the postage-stamped piton called a RURP that somehow held Robbins’ weight during a fall on his 10-day solo climb of El Capitan’s Muir Wall in 1968. There are the climbing shoes worn by Lynn Hill in 1993 when she became the first person to free climb (when only hands, feet and other body parts are used for upward progress) the Nose.
The exhibit also includes video presentations, both historical and modern, and photographic displays. An interactive granite wall allows visitors to wedge wired nuts and camming devices into cracks of varying widths, just like a real climber.
Yager’s efforts are applauded by Yosemite’s climbing pioneers, some of whom believe the park service has long regarded their sport as little more than a nuisance.
“It should be fairly obvious to anybody that telling this story is a major interpretive effort that the park should be doing,” said Tom Frost, one of Yosemite’s groundbreaking climbers in the 1950s and early ’60s. “But prior to Ken Yager, they weren’t doing it. In fact, they didn’t even understand it themselves.
“What Ken is doing is paving the way,” Frost added. “He’s just as great as any of the Yosemite climbing pioneers that he’s chosen to show in his exhibit.”
In 2003, Yager founded the nonprofit Yosemite Climbing Association with the goal of establishing a permanent museum in the Valley. Although early proposals “weren’t very well received” by the park service, Yager said that the initial resistance has started to thaw.
“We didn’t ever think (the museum) was going to happen,” he said. “But little by little, we started to gain their confidence.”
When park officials began drafting a master plan for the Valley, Yager urged climbers to write letters supporting a climbing museum in the final draft. He said more than 1,000 did.
The campaign, along with efforts from climbing groups, helped convince the park service that a museum should be included in the park’s future. However, all Valley construction has been halted by ongoing litigation, and the future of the museum remains in limbo.
“The lawsuit kind of put everything on hold,” Yager said.
Kevin Cann, the park’s deputy superintendent, called climbing “a big part” of Yosemite’s history and said a permanent museum is “very much on the table, and I think warmly so.”
Yager won’t rest until that happens. The married father of three earns his living as a quality-control inspector for a general contractor and does not draw a salary from his work with the YCA, which also organizes an annual trash cleanup effort every September called the Yosemite Facelift.
“I just want to see the museum get done,” said Yager, who works the equivalent of two full-time jobs. “Then I can relax.”
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