Imagine being in a stunningly beautiful and ultra-classic climbing area at the most perfect time of year, camping in a secluded campground, climbing four-star routes with 50 of the most rad people you’ll ever meet from across the globe, chilling by a fire every night with a cold PBR in hand, and three ridiculously delicious meals a day served piping hot right in front of you. (As one person said insightfully, “the only climbing trip you’ll ever gain weight on.”) Sounds nice, huh? That’s the essence of the American Alpine Club’s International Climbers Meet (americanalpineclub.org), an event held every year in Yosemite to foster relations between the AAC and international Alpine Clubs. I’ve been back now for about two weeks, surviving off the high of my experiences there and letting my mind wander back to that amazing adventure. Now that real life has started to cloud over my Valley daydreams, I wanted to write a quick recap to have hard evidence that it did, in fact, actually happen.
When I heard about this event back in early spring of this year, I was tripping over myself to figure out how I could get there. There was an application process that had minimal climbing requirements: Can you follow 5.8 trad? Yes. But then there was a psych requirement: Why do you want to attend ICM? Hm…where do I start? Full disclosure: I told the lovely folks at AAC that I wanted to cover the event for the mag, and the relatively free publicity was too much to say no. I have no shame in using whatever pathetic influence I have to do what I want. So long story short, I was in! The first few months after getting the go ahead were pure bliss; I would be going to Yosemite (my first time!) and climbing with people from all around the world, including some Valley locals who I had mad respect for. Joy abounded.
Then as my departure date (October 7) crept closer, the doubts came flooding in. Would I be strong enough to keep up, especially with crack climbing—of which I have little to no experience? Will people like me? Will I even like the climbing in the Valley? As a self-proclaimed climber, I feel like it’s imperative to at least like—if not love—the Valley. I started to wonder if I belonged there and how everything would be. Plus a back injury about 10 days before the event had me laid up and not climbing at all (I couldn’t even carry my own bags into the airport), so there was that to add to the anxiety milkshake that was my subconscious. I was excited, but that excitement was shadowed by fear—not really the emotions I was going for as I was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
I left Denver unsteady and dragging my feet, but I arrived at my next stop—Las Vegas—a bit bolder because, hey, at least I was on my way. No turning back now. Once I got to my gate, I scanned the faces (and clothing and overall demeanor) of my fellow passengers to look for other ICM goers, someone to get friendly with before arriving. It’s always nice to have a buddy, but alas, there was no one. The AAC crew greeted me in the Fresno airport, the legendary John Bragg and illustrious Carol Kotchek, both of the AAC, were going to shuttle us to the Valley and get us settled. They were also two of our dozen host climbers, people whose sole responsibility was to take the participants climbing. The host climbers were locals, guides, and just people who know the area well. This is the absolute beauty of ICM: Everything is set up for you. You don’t have to worry about renting a car, reserving a campsite, packing and planning food, or even knowing anything about the climbing in Yosemite. I didn’t even bring a guidebook. AAC takes care of everything. Buy a plane ticket, show up with your gear, and get ready to have some fun
We arrived at Yellow Pines Campground a few hours later—another bonus of being part of ICM. Yellow Pines is a huge group campsite that’s smack dab in the middle of the action—it sits directly in the shadow of the Sentinel. It’s usually reserved for volunteer groups (Boy Scouts and such) who must work a full day for every night they stay there; that would mean half the normal amount of climbing. Thankfully, AAC has built such a strong relationship with the National Park Service that they allow ICM to only work one day for the whole week we get to stay there. Pretty sweet.
As more people arrived, the feeling of camaraderie swelled with each passing moment. Every single person (and there were more than 50 of us!) was smiling and giddy with excitement over being in such a beautiful and historic place with some of the best climbing in the world. My tensions were eased almost immediately. Cultures began to meld; we had people from South Africa, Denmark, the U.K., Israel, Canada, Brazil, Sweden, Russia, and several other countries, but we were all there for the same reason. Introductions were made, hands were shaken, and plans were made to crag the next day under the supervision of a host climber. It was a way for us to go out climbing as a group, get to know each other, and make plans for future objectives.
We awoke the next morning to hot coffee and a delicious breakfast of egg, cheese, and ham croissants. Every group was heading out to crags like Church Bowl and Pat and Jack Pinnacle to get used to the rock. The first day was easy, low commitment, and fun, leading and toproping some easy single-pitch climbs and just chatting about what our hopes were for the next week. We cragged till dark then headed back to camp to eat dinner and wrap up the day. Dinner was, of course, completely delicious, and we ended the night by the fire, regaling each other with tales of the day and jokes. I remember my last thought as I fell asleep, “I get five more full days of this…?!”
I won’t go into pain-staking details about every route that was climbed or who did what, instead, I’ll relay some of the absolute highlights of the week.
Nightly awards from Carol, including Most Annoying Photographer (our own Andrew Burr!), Best Morning Hair (John Bragg), Rodent Award (Jenn Flemming-for taking 10 minutes to chew through a 10-year-old welded cordelette at an anchor because she didn’t have a knife), U.S. Capitalist Award (Brazilian Andrey Romaniuk-for selling his gear in his home country because it’s much more expensive there and buying an entirely new rack in the States, with plans to sell it, too, when he gets home)
An offwidth clinic from the one and only Rob Pizem at the base of El Cap. Need I say more?
Routes like Nutcracker (5.8), Snake Dike (5.7 R) on Half Dome, Commitment (5.9), Munginella (5.6), Bishops Terrace (5.8), Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9), Royal Arches (5.10b or 5.6 A0), Serenity and Sons (5.10c), East Buttress (5.10b) of El Cap, and After Six (5.7), just to name a few.
A crew of six (three parties of two) climbed the 16-pitch Royal Arches, decided not to do the 10-pitch rappel because of high winds, and descended the class 4, sketchy, and steep North Dome Gully—in the dark and with climbing shoes. They reached the road around 5 a.m.
One of our service projects involved picking up litter, so there were some great finds by all, but Mark of South Dakota took the prize by finding two full joints (Unsmokable. Trust me, I checked.), a used condom, and what he as a new dad labeled a “poopy diaper.”
An anchor and multipitch efficiency clinic from Exum Guide Jeff Witt and a self-rescue clinic by the director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School, Dave Bengston.
Hans Florine slideshow to a packed house about the history of the Nose and El Cap—the unwashed climber stank from all the bums in Camp 4 was overwhelming but very…authentic.
Last night bonfire and party where everyone recapped their adventures from the week and people made plans for future meet-ups. Many a PBR were consumed and many a logs were burned.
Being in Yosemite.
It was inspiring to see each and every person pushing their limits, whether it was on 5.7 or 5.10. Plus I have about 50 new climbing partners from all corners of the globe. Everyone left with the same parting words: “Come to [insert country or state here] and climb with me!” I can’t even remember the anxiety I felt before the trip, and when I think about it, I feel silly. It was a mind-blowing first experience in the Valley, and although I’m still a horrible crack climber, it got me super psyched to go back and flail some more. So even though I didn’t come out of there a crack master, the event was a huge success, thanks to the positive attitudes and energy of the participants, the generosity of NPS and the host climbers, and above all, the tireless efforts of event organizer Carol Kotchek and the AAC. So to all you guys, I give the Kick-Ass Awesomeness Award, which comes with a 30-rack of PBR. You gotta come to Colorado to pick it up, but I promise I will take you climbing.