Terra Galleria Photography

Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite

8 Comments

Back to the beginning of the year 1993, I knew almost nothing about the U.S. national parks. However, I knew that Yosemite was home to a 3,000 feet high cliff called El Capitan, the tallest in North America.

Although El Capitan was my reason for moving to California, finding a partner for the climb proved to be challenging because as a newcomer, I hadn’t yet inserted myself into the local climbing community. Besides, the type of climbing involved was also new to me, and nobody would trust an outsider, and especially a European, without “big wall” experience. Just like America has many more wilderness areas than Europe, America’s cliffs are in general wilder too. In places such as Yosemite, climbers need to be more self-reliant, putting in place and removing their own protection, a practice called “trad (traditional) climbing”, as opposed to “sport climbing” prevalent in France, where permanent safety equipment such as bolts are already in place.

The normal sequence is to prove yourself on several shorter big walls and then Half-Dome, before attempting El Capitan, the big one. However, I learned the tricks from a book, was able to recruit my partner Frank from France, and in April 1994, after a one-day warm-up on Washington Column, we tackled the Nose of El Capitan in four days. I discovered there a vertical wilderness a new scale, just like during my Denali climb, I had discovered mountains at a scale new to me.

Yosemite is the birthplace of this big wall climbing. Two characteristics distinguish this form of rock climbing from others. First, the verticality and difficulty of the route requires the use of “aid climbing” for all but most elite climbers. This means that instead of using gear only for protection against the consequences of a fall (as in “free climbing” where you grab only the rock), you use that gear as a means of progression – in other words, you pull and step on gear because the natural holds in the rock are not enough for you. Since you carry so much gear and have to place it too, it entails a slow progression. Second, the route difficulty, combined with its length normally requires more than a single day to complete the climb. This, in turn, means that you need to be hauling everything you need to live on the wall. Supplies, hardware, and shelter can add up to hundreds of pounds. Most notably, you use folding platforms called “portaledges” for sleeping. They are pretty comfortable, but better not roll in your sleep.

In aid climbing, it is not unusual to spend one or even several hours on a single pitch (the vertical extent of a length of rope). Time flies for the lead climber, but not so for the belayer, who is sitting at the same spot all that time. Besides daydreaming, I had plenty of time to watch how shadows changed as the sun moved across the landscape in the course of the day, and how the light changed the appearance of the rocks and meadows below. As much as I loved the exposure and the position big wall climbing got me too, I was beginning to yearn to move more freely into the land.

It is quite difficult to photograph climbing well if you are not a climber yourself. One of the keys is to be at the same level as the climber or above, not below, where non-climbers are usually stationed. But it is also quite difficult to photograph your own climb, as you lack the mobility to find different angles, and often are actually too close to the action. And so, in 1999, my last outing to El Capitan was at the request of a sponsored climber from Italy who needed a record of his ascent of the Reticent route, which then the most difficult big-wall route on El Capitan. I backpacked to the top of El Capitan from the Tioga Pass Road, set up several ropes and rappeled down to complete the task. I was there as a photographer rather than as a climber.

Credit: Robert Nicod

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at my lectures and gallery openings is “What is your favorite National Park ?”. Based on their merits alone, it would be difficult to say, because they are so different. However, for sentimental reasons, I reply “Yosemite” without hesitation. What makes it special to me is that it was the first National Park I had heard of and visited, and the time I have spent there on repeated visits, many of them spent on big walls.

8 Comments

  1. Michael Jensen says:

    I’ve wondered why I have not seen photos of you climbing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison or photos of the park from the walls of BLCA? Perhaps time is the issue?

    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks for the question, Michael. From a logistical point of view, the Black Canyon is a long way from the SF Bay Area, and the routes are quite difficult to access, so time was a bit of an issue. But I think it is principally that an area that you access from the top has not the same appeal for a mountaineer. It is unclear if you are going to get more impressive views from the walls than you do from the overlooks. And also I’ve always gravitated towards areas with a storied climbing history, like the Mont Blanc range and Yosemite.

  2. Russ Bishop says:

    Great write-up and images, QT! It’s interesting that I knew of you as a climber before I knew you as a photographer. I’ve been climbing in the Valley and Tuolumne for 40+ years, and always admired your trip reports.

  3. Joe Eulberg says:

    Great photos to provide a sense of experience on the face. Galen Rowell has been a long-time favorite of this kid of work, but I still like Treasured Lands the best.

  4. For sentimental reasons, Yosemite is often my answer too. 🙂

    I didn’t know you climbed!

  5. Rhonda NEal says:

    QT You are scaring me. That looks extremely dangerous. Please be careful when taking your beautiful pictures!

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