Steve Roper: Genesis | Ascent
Steve Roper reflects on coming of age in Yosemite, discovering the power of writing, the birth of Ascent, and more.
In October 2008 I witnessed a miraculous event. Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama stormed up the Nose of El Capitan in slightly more than two and a half hours, trumping a year-old record by minutes. When not focusing my binoculars on them, I spied climbers on four other routes. A slow party had just begun the Nose, undoubtedly astonished and perhaps a bit pissed to see Hans and Yuji fly by like phantoms. Portaledges glared from two other routes. Two women faced the Cyclops’ Eye, high on the North America Wall.
As I shivered in my lawn chair in the meadow below, pondering my long climbing life, I thought of the famed Yosemite hardman Warren Harding. He was first to climb the Nose, in 1958, and he and I had been friends since then, with on going disagreements about style and ethics. In his popular 1976 book Downward Bound he suggested that one day I was to be relegated to playing chess at the “Old Climbers’ Rest Home.” Now the time had almost come. A balding old man wrapped in a blanket sat in a lawn chair, staring upward.
But the memories roiled through my head. When I first roped up back in 1954, El Cap was to be unclaimed for four more years. The first time that two parties were simultaneously on the Captain was 1966. The first all-female ascent took place in 1973. The first one-day ascent of the Nose came two years later. Times had certainly changed. But I smiled recalling that Layton Kor, Glen Denny and I had once held the Nose speed record for three full years. Our time: three and a half days! I wondered how this could be. Was I once a climber?
Where would I be without the Sierra Club? Would I have become a drudge living in a dull place? In a sense, I owe the club my life. During the 1950s virtually every California climber learned the ropes from this organization, which in those days was a mountain-oriented fraternity, with hiking and climbing being high-priority activities.
My dad was a research chemist, and his boss was a gangly fellow named Hervey Voge. Hervey had been on the first-ever roped Yosemite route, in 1933, and in 1954 had just edited the first climbing guidebook to the High Sierra, published by the Sierra Club. My father, laid up after a hernia operation, had volunteered to do the index, and I had tarried by his bedside, entranced by those exotic sheets called galley proofs. Voge suggested that we should attend one of the club’s scheduled practice climbs in Berkeley, which sported three tiny crags.
I was 13, a perfect age to learn the ropes. Old enough to belay properly, old enough to be limber and fairly strong, yet young enough to absorb wisdom from my elders without being a rebellious pain in the ass.
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In what now seems like a ludicrously long time, two full years went by as my taskmasters trained me. Belay, rappel, belay, rappel. Tie a bowline behind my back. Do it again. Tie a reef knot blindfolded. Reason: you might be doing all this in the dark. Use the correct signals. Reason: you could be misinterpreted if they are not standardized. Repeat everything again. Had I been a few years older, I would have told these gentlemen, including the soon-to-be celebrated conservationist David Brower, to fuck off. As it was, it became a game, far more attractive than junior-high sports.
So it is to these Sierra Club trainers that I, once again, owe my life, this time almost literally. Had I started climbing later, without this apprenticeship, I surely would have run to the cliffs too soon. Given my impetuous nature, I could well have died before ever taking a legal drink.
The next phase of my climbing life began in 1958, when I upgraded to manhood. I was 17! I had been dragged up minor Yosemite cliffs, excited and scared and ready to go forward. High school was almost over and college loomed. But just then I met two men who have greatly influenced my life. I encountered Krehe Ritter, a grad student at Berkeley, at the local rocks. Though hardly a beatnik, he lived an unorthodox life in a “pad” in the hills. Several other climber-students lived in this tiny cottage, eating yogurt (rare back then) and showing off on the pull-up bars installed in doorjambs. I was often invited for lunch or dinner. Wine and conversation flowed, and I quickly became a yogurt-eating anarchist and an authority-hater. To hell with Eisenhower and his ilk, we all agreed. When my pop first met Krehe they had an immediate political argument, and he shouted, “You don’t know what you are talking about!” I took Krehe’s side, my first public act of defiance.
Krehe was a fine climber, smooth and safe, but the next person to be invited to lunch at Krehe’s soon became world-famous. Chuck Pratt was a disillusioned physics student at Cal, and when we first saw him climbing flawlessly at a Sierra Club gathering, Krehe and I looked at each other and said, “Wow!” In July 1958 the three of us went to Yosemite Valley for several weeks, and this visit soars high among my million memories. Just about the only ones in Camp 4, we climbed many standard routes and even put up a few new ones. Krehe and I became apprehensive when climbing alone, but whenever Pratt was along we relaxed. A superb, calm climber, slow but sure, he made cracks look easy. They weren’t.
In the late 1950s I was at loose ends. I lasted six months at college in Oregon, studying engineering, hoping one day to build gossamer bridges. But I lacked elementary drawing skills, and my professors suggested that the bridges should be best left to others. Meanwhile, two distractions dominated my thoughts. A girlfriend back in Berkeley beckoned, and I had friends soon headed for springtime weekends in the Valley. Calculus in April 1959 proved too much for my racing brain, so with 50 bucks I hitchhiked to Yosemite, not telling my parents that their only son was now a bum. A climbing bum.
I enjoyed my first bivouac a few months later, on a tiny ledge on Yosemite Point Buttress. This was fun, at least when dawn broke and we had only 200 feet to crawl over the rim. A few weeks later, however, the next two bivouacs sucked. A quiet Southern California climber named Bob Kamps sweet-talked Pratt and me into an attempt on the huge and dank north face of Middle Cathedral Rock. I was out of my element on this venture, with the exposure and the rotten rock. On our second day Pratt made a memorable lead up a slimy, grainy, flared chimney. Royal Robbins, gaining the second ascent a few months later, wrote later that this was “certainly one of the most remarkable leads in the history of American mountain climbing.” During our two bivouacs we suffered immensely from the cold, for this was in the days before modern comforts. We simply paused on convenient perches at sunset, grabbed our down jackets, and gobbled sardines and candy.
I soon realized I didn’t have the skills or the ambition to become a top climber. Often scared, I sometimes perplexed my companions by suggesting retreat after only a few pitches. I mastered the art of setting up quick and bombproof rappel stations. Occasionally I became brave. Two climbs that I treasure were the first solo ascents of the Royal Arches and the Lost Arrow Spire, the former done mostly ropeless in less than an hour, and the second with a self-belay system that I only realized was flawed when hiking down the dusty trail.
Krehe Ritter dropped out of serious rock acrobatics following the bloody climbing death of a close friend, and Pratt soon linked up with the superstars. So by 1960 I was on my own, climbing fast and well with numerous partners. It was a fine year, and during six weeks in the spring I did 29 different routes. Many of these we did in record time, and several were second or third ascents of difficult routes. For a few months I thought I was among the top climbers on the planet. Robbins was away in the army. Harding had no grandiose plans. Pratt and Chouinard and Tom Frost and others weren’t around. In the Valley, in May, I was King for a Month. By June I was humbled; the super climbers had returned.
A few years passed. I climbed for about seven months a year, mostly in California. How did I live during this time? I got occasional handouts from my parents, God
knows why, but I was lucky also to have a sponsor of sorts, my lifelong friend Allen Steck, then the manager of the Ski Hut, a Berkeley fixture since the late 1930s. He was the most accomplished American climber of the 1950s, with sterling rock routes to his credit, as well as alpine adventures on Makalu and Waddington. We had become friends on the Berkeley rocks by 1960, and he agreed that I could serve gainful employment at the Ski Hut during winters for an unlimited time. Each November 15 I began hoarding my meager paychecks and every April 15 clutched my stash and headed to the Valley.
I can barely remember the day-to-day existence of those times but certainly remember the good people I met, and the ones who made it into the 21st century are friends to this day. But I vividly recall those dawns when two scared climbers silently roped up, not wanting to admit embarking on a possible death route. We prayed for storms, earthquakes, asteroids. As we began climbing, however, our experience paid off. One pitch at a time. All goes well, we go on. Facing a cloud or a fearful mood, we can retreat with some semblance of honor, lie about the reasons back in Camp 4, and wait for tomorrow. Our friends saw through these reasons, of course, but kept tight-lipped as part of the honor code. After all, they were next to head out at dawn.
Most of us loved books and were entranced with the European authors who had not only done astonishing climbs but had written about them eloquently. My love of this genre indirectly caused my only major climbing accident.
One day can change a life. Before December 17, 1961, I had hoped to become a noteworthy alpine climber. I was 20, and for several years I’d absorbed the writings of Hermann Buhl and Gaston Rébuffat. I had learned about rock, and now it was time for ice, then to visit the Alps. A storm had left Yosemite frigid and icy, and not far below Half Dome’s monster face lay a 600-foot-high sheet of white tilted at 50 degrees. Frank Sacherer and I crunched up the lower part of this slope as if we were born to it, our crampons biting firmly into the hard-packed inch-deep snow. But 500 feet up the snow gradually disappeared and a thin glaze of ice stretched upward. Suddenly our crampons scraped rock. Near the top of the slab, with the promise of easy slopes just above, one of my crampons skittered on granite and I instantly lost my balance. Down I went like a rocket, my ice axe utterly worthless. Sparks flew as I achieved Mach 1. Now, one might think that a rope should come into play at this point and form the end of this story. Well, we didn’t have one, and in any case there was nothing to anchor to. I tumbled nearly 600 feet, falling over a short cliff at the bottom and landing on a debris-covered ledge. After I woke up, Frank, who had carefully downclimbed the whole slope, heart in throat, helped me stagger down to the Valley floor. There I pissed what looked like tomato juice (a broken rib had caressed a kidney), so I rushed to the nearby clinic. The doc freed me 13 days later. My physical injuries healed in a month, but that was the end of my ice-climbing career. Sacherer, braver and more stubborn than I, kept climbing ice and died high on the Grandes Jorasses 17 years later.
If 1960 was a wonderful year, then 1963 could be named “The Breakthrough Year.” Most of us second-tier climbers had been fearful of the big walls. But now I retrieved the lessons of my early days with the Sierra Club. Be patient, learn, practice, then head for the walls over-prepared. That forceful Colorado climber Layton Kor and I managed the first ascent of the West Buttress of El Capitan in mid-May; then a few weeks later he and I, along with the magical aid climber Glen Denny, made the third ascent of the Nose. Fit and almost too experienced, we even found them routine climbs.
Not only did I manage a few big walls in 1963, I embarked on a project that led to a lifelong vocation. I became a writer, though I had delved into this genre a bit earlier, when the only A+ of my life had been an eighth-grade essay with the clever title “Mountaineering.”
Keeping notes of my Yosemite climbs was automatic, given my meticulous nature, and, asked about routes by newcomers at the Valley coffee shop, I among others would draw crude diagrams on napkins. I wish I had kept some of these, for they were the forerunners of today’s beautiful topos. As early as 1960 Yvon Chouinard had suggested the need for a Valley-only guide- book, and in late 1962 I began two-fingering the typewriter and churned out descriptions of a multitude of routes. I interrogated first-ascenders, combed the journals, and occasionally faked it (later I became infamous for phrases like “proceed up and right for 700 feet”). To my surprise, the Sierra Club accepted a raw manuscript that had route descriptions but lacked the trappings of an actual book. David Brower, chief of publications, prodded me into creating an introduction and organizing the mess into chapters, then injected his own sublime editing and design. Tom Frost and Glen Denny contributed riveting photos, all of which yielded a handsome book in July 1964. But where did I see my first copy? At Fort Benning, Georgia. I had been drafted.
Two years in Georgia and Vietnam went by quickly, and when I returned in 1966 Camp 4 had metamorphosed into a climbing village, with maybe 30 full-time inhabitants instead of 10. Marijuana and LSD had nearly replaced the cheap red wine of yesteryear, and I reluctantly joined the crowd, smoking and ingesting pills.
Nevertheless, in May I began yet another auspicious year. Jeff Foott and I made the first one-day ascent of the face of Half Dome, Pratt and I the first one-day ascent of the well-named Leaning Tower. Then, at the end of the month, came the topper, when Allen Steck, Dick Long and I made the third ascent of the Salathé Wall.
We not only had a calm time over five and a half days, we made an amateur film of the climb, now preserved on DVD. More important, we did not include a bolt kit among our enormous loads. This was the first non-Royal Robbins ascent of the Salathé, and I had argued that we should do the climb as had the master. RR and his buddies had placed only 13 bolts. We placed none, obviously, though we sometimes wished to. On the fifth ascent a bolt was placed; now there are hundreds. Times change.
By this time I had been married a few years to Sharon Linder, a former waitress at Yosemite Lodge, but this union fell apart soon after I returned from Vietnam. In late 1966 I met yet another wonderful person, Jani Niece. My life changed forever. No longer was climbing so important. I was only 25, but during the next few years Jani and I wandered for weeks through then-unknown Baja, skittered down the barely known slot canyons off the Escalante River, traveled extensively in Europe (cheap then), and spent hours birdwatching in Tuolumne Meadows. A view of a western tanager is hardly like climbing a big wall, but at some point in a climber’s life, a fabulous bird, or a cardón cactus, or the cathedral at Chartres can become just about as impressive as a cliff.
More and more I shunned the big walls because of the singleminded commitment they took. A few recent deaths had also sobered me. My close friend Jim Baldwin had rappelled off the end of his rope. My friend Jim Madsen had rappelled off the end of his rope. Chris Fredericks told me a horror story about when his rope was almost severed. I wanted to live. Was I smart? Or was I a coward? I certainly had lost ambition.
My new life began around 1967. For the last 40-odd years I have been a climbing writer more than a climber. True, I did many Yosemite ascents after 1967, plus an early climb of the fearsome north face of Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies, and routes in the Dolomites and the peaks of Turkey. Lately, I’ve had a mini-career at Joshua Tree, where I’ve racked up 350 routes since 1986. But writing and traveling had become more important.
One night late in 1966, at a gathering at Allen Steck’s house, a group of us lamented the demise of the famed back-of-the-book mountaineering notes in the Sierra Club Bulletin. This esteemed journal had turned exclusively to conservation issues, as well they should in those troubled times. What to do? Other venues? The American Alpine Journal was based on the East Coast and concentrated mostly on Alaskan and Himalayan climbs. We Western climbers felt we had no outlet to tell our tales. Only one magazine in the United States covered local climbing, and this was Summit, basically a casual hiking publication. Steck suggested that we start a mountaineering-only magazine, focusing on literary quality and high-quality photos. Some of us sneered at this far-out idea. Yet that night Ascent was born, with the first issue appearing in July 1967. Published by the Sierra Club, with enthusiastic support from honchos such as David Brower and Will Siri, the 48-page magazine won instant praise.
During the next few years, when Ascent appeared annually, we sought good writing, edited lightly, designed the layout ourselves, and oversaw the printing runs at an esteemed local shop. Most of the articles we chose were timely, but perhaps also timeless. When I peruse them years later, what emerges is the authors’ awareness and thoughtfulness about climbing. These writers stuck with the verities of our odd sport: the fear, the exhilaration, the solitude; and they seemed to have a sure feeling that the essence of climbing wouldn’t change.
We were fortunate to nurture writers such as David Roberts, Galen Rowell and Doug Robinson. Later, in 1993, Roberts wrote that “the early numbers of Ascent, one realizes with mild astonishment today, contained a fair proportion of the articles and illustrations that have come to be canonic, even legendary, in the genre….[The editors’] care and craft have made Ascent what it is: not only the finest mountaineering journal of the last quarter-century, but the most influential. As we pause to salute its phenomenon in 1993, let us reassure Steck and Roper that all their toil and sweat and hangovers were worth it.”
It’s strange today to think of how we carried out our editing responsibilities. We solicited articles, but many submissions arrived unannounced, by mail. This was snail mail, not e-mail! We’d eventually get to a submission, then, having all read it, have a meeting at Steck’s house. Suggestions, then a vote, and then came the awkward question: who among us would have to deal with the writer, sometimes one not attuned to logic, or grammar, or style. This goes on today at every editorial level, of course, but many months, not days, would go by as second- and third-drafts flowed through the postal system to be welcomed or not by both writer and editor. Then we had to acquire photographs, slides mainly, and transfer them to black and white.
How well I remember those wild after-dinner editing sessions at Steck’s splendid Berkeley house. The red wine flowed, of course, and the various editors (Chuck Pratt, Joe Fitschen, Lito Tejada-Flores and Glen Denny, among others) raved for hours, and not always about editing. There was the “Night of the Dirty Word Discussion.” Royal Robbins had submitted a brilliant article called “Tis-Sa-Ack,” and included in it was the phrase, perfectly in context, “Fuck you!” For 30 minutes we argued, some claiming our Sierra Club sponsors or our readership might be offended. Then, from another room, came the firm voice of Steck’s wife, Cyla. “Go ahead and do it; everyone uses it, especially you guys.”
For all this work did we get paid by the Sierra Club? Of course not, except for a token amount, never more than a hundred dollars each per issue—mainly used to score our “editing wine.” Did the Sierra Club ever make a penny? Of course not. Did we pay our contributors? Of course not, except for a token honorarium, at first as low as $25. Did any of us really care? Of course not. We were having fun, and writers loved to appear in Ascent. It was a marvelous time, and it lasted 32 years. We got casual about adhering to an annual schedule and after 1973 published sporadically. All told, 14 issues exist (thin magazines at first, then thick, softcover books later).
Why did we stop in 1999? The glossy climbing magazines paid a lot more than we could, for one thing, and we simply couldn’t attract the best writers. Photos all looked the same, and the prose we received didn’t seem to have the spark it once did. Steck and I became jaded in our waning years.
Though I’m a bit saddened to pass the torch even after all these years, it gives me great pleasure to contribute now to the resurgent Ascent, a rebirth of a once-grand tradition. I wish this venture success.
Around 1971 I received a modest inheritance from my father, who had died far too young. This freed me to travel and to concentrate more on words. I wrote a totally new version of the Yosemite guide, and a few years later came out with a climbers’ guide to the High Sierra. By this time I had backpacked extensively in the range, had climbed some 85 named peaks, and had read extensively about the history of exploration and climbing in the Range of Light.
Meanwhile, divorced once again, I had met my soulmate, Kathy. A history professor, not a climber, she, like Jani, further opened my eyes to the outside world. For 39 years we have roamed the earth, hiking, birding, hanging out on seashores and in jungles and getting buffeted by dust storms and hail. She has always encouraged my writing, mainly to stop me moping around in our Oakland cottage.
One project we took part in together became a well-received book. Having wearied of trampled High Sierra trails, I invented a 195-mile-long route that stayed close to timberline, avoiding trails whenever possible. In 1980 Kathy and I embarked on a 20-day backpack to explore half of this route, and this trip remains one of the best ever. We also did many other segments together, marveling at the terrain, arguing about where and whether to go on nasty talus. A book resulted, called, in its second edition, The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country.
People had been pestering me for years to write about the old days in Yosemite, and I finally got to this in the early 1990s. The result, Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, is both a history of Valley climbing from 1933 to 1972 and also a personal account of those astonishing years when I was around. I called this period—basically the 1960s—the Golden Age of Valley climbing, and no one seems to have disputed this. Big walls fell one by one to America’s best climbers, and I was privileged to be there and even more so to be around to write about it.
Has climbing changed much in the past 50 years? I get asked that question sometimes by non-climbers and am almost speechless. It’s like asking if typewriters and wall phones still serve a function today. Climbing has changed radically, of course. Something that’s not changed too much, however, is the constant talk about ethics and style. I first heard such discussions in 1957 as I stood at the base of the El Cap Nose, gazing up at Warren Harding’s fixed ropes that snaked upward 800 feet to his high point. “That’s cheating,” someone said. I last heard such discussions a few months ago in the gym, when someone used the same words when we talked about climbers using paragliders to descend from the summits of high Himalayan peaks.
I’m delighted to have seen the extremes of Yosemite climbing. In the Old Climbers’ Rest Home, coming up all too soon, I will probably not be taken seriously when I tell my fellow senile old men and women that the El Cap Nose once took many days and now has been accomplished in several hours. Both scenarios sound crazy. But I was there.
This article by Steve Roper appeared in Ascent 2011.
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