The Iron Age of Yosemite
Rock climber, adventurer and author John Long on the men who invented extreme sports
By Will Theisen
John Long has a great voice for an old rock climber — one that sounds like it was carved out of granite.
His prose is pretty solid, too.
Long, 62, has traveled the world as a surfer, skier, river runner, spelunker and explorer, but his first love was climbing. In 1975 he was among the first to ascend the 3,000-foot rock face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan in under one day, and then he did it again the following year in just five hours.
But Long’s standing as one of the more influential adventurers in the world comes not only from accomplishing such feats, but from writing such stories in a way that captures the popular imagination.
His latest book is “Yosemite in the Fifties,” a Patagonia-published collaboration with designer Tom Adler and photographer Dean Fidelman that in words and pictures tells the story of the first climbers to conquer Yosemite’s rugged beauty.
The climbers of that era, which the book refers to as Yosemite’s Iron Age, pioneered tools and techniques that paved the way for today’s extreme sports.
Long, a Venice local, compares the first ascent of El Capitan in 1958 to the moon landing 11 years later — and on the level of sheer physical determination, that may be a bit of an understatement.
“They weren’t just raising the bar for climbing and mountaineering and adventure sports. Those were victories of the human spirit for all mankind,” he says.
Despite the dangers, there’s a lot of smiling and laughing in these photos. What’s behind that?
I think it’s worthwhile to differentiate between real adventure and stunts. Adventure sports grew out of these guys, right? They knew there was a cutting edge on this thing. And so despite having little publicity or recognition, no sponsorship, few magazine covers or that kind of thing, they nevertheless were living these giant lives. El Capitan, if you ever see it, makes Yankee Stadium look like a doghouse. So some of those smiles and that laughter was just a spontaneous expression of knowing they were in the middle of something huge.
When you think about their feats and your own, do you ever think “we must have been crazy”?
You can’t be crazy and do those things, because they’re too exacting. They’re not thrill seekers and they’re not daredevils; they’re far from that. It’s just the opposite of buzz junkies going half-cocked. That’s that Red Bull, Mountain Dew ad, “go for it” kind of thing. This was way, way more calculated.
There’s a piece of text in the book that’s basically just a list of stuff that might have been in their packs. Why was that included?
These guys are dying, and there’s a need to get the historical record right. And part of that includes knowing what they had with them. The stock, the inventory that they hauled up these walls. From a human-interest perspective, people will find it curious to look through that load of crap that they hauled along!
There are pictures in the book of guys like Warren Harding. The hair, the clothes, the bag … even the tools look fashionable.
Yeah, yeah …
How important was it to look good while doing some of this stuff?
There was a lot of diversity in that world. One of the guys who was somewhat dapper was Harding. Good-looking guy. He was like James Dean, up on a cliff. Without the moping. He went out of his way to be an iconoclast and a “bad boy”; so yeah, it was fundamentally part of the guy’s character.
I think it had nothing to do with the climbing at all. It was just a sideshow. He was famous for being indefatigable and fearless, and just … dogged. His capacity for suffering was phenomenal. You have a pretty interesting juxtaposition between somebody who was somewhat of a dandy and at the same time was just nails-tough.
Where would these guys have been if they weren’t on the side of a mountain?
Well, half of them probably would have been in jail. [Laughs.] And the other half, God knows, probably big-wave surfing, because that was happening concurrently. Most of the guys in this book were Californians and had a lot of good climbing areas where hey could develop techniques, particularly Tahquitz Rock in Idyllwild. But I’m sure if they had been in Hawaii they would have been big-wave surfing.
What was different about this time period? Why did it happen then?
You gotta remember, Yosemite was the crown jewel of the entire National Park Service. And the formations there — like Half Dome, El Capitan and Leaning Tower — they’re some of the most iconic natural features in the world. Ansel Adams has burned those into our collective memories on a billion postcards and calendars. It was in the ‘40s and ‘50s when the Ansel Adams stuff became public property, so to speak. He was connected to the Sierra Club, and a lot of the climbers came out of the Sierra Club.
That’s what was on their minds?
Oh yeah, it had been held in front of their faces for two decades. Everyone knew what El Capitan was. El Capitan — forget the climbers; just as a structure, a formation, it’s so mind-boggling. Nobody can drive by without pulling over, getting out and looking at it. It’s three quarters of a mile high. Dead vertical. Blinding white and orange granite. And it just rears right out of the ground like a skyscraper.
What makes writing about rock climbing different from other kinds of writing?
That world lends itself inherently to stories because every climb naturally has a beginning, middle and end. And there’s just about all the Homeric qualities that people search for, and often artificially insert into a story: There’s a goal, and there’s giant struggle, and there’s fear, and a huge amount of risk, and commitment. Heroics and cowardice. And it all plays out on such a spectacular stage. You’d have to really bungle it not to get something out of that.
I’d imagine many these stories started out like the picture on the book’s back cover, with Dick Irwin sitting on the side of a highway and the mountains in the distance?
Yeah, he was trying to hitchhike there!
That was common?
They were going to do whatever they needed to do to get to the promised land, including sitting there all day waiting for somebody to pick ‘em up. That’s the gravity that that place had.
What’s ironic is young dirtbags like that … the faces of those rocks were some of the most exclusive real estate on Earth, and there were only a handful of people that could ever get there, no matter what. You couldn’t buy your way onto it, you couldn’t beg. Nobody else could do it for you. You couldn’t talk your way up. The irony is that exclusive real estate was open to young, penniless dreamers. And no one else.
Hear John Long and Dean Fidelman discuss “Yosemite in the Fifties” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, at Patagonia Santa Monica, 1344 4th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 395-6895 or visit patagonia.com.