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Experiencing Yosemite: The President and The Captain

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Barack Obama Yosemite National Park Valley Rock Climbing
President Obama speaks in front of Yosemite Falls. Photo: James Lucas

After waiting in a line below Yosemite Falls for a moment with the Commander in Chief I had only one thought, Barack Obama has soft hands.

“Get out of my bag bird!” I shouted, two days earlier. For years, I’d seen the raven flying around the Southwest Face of El Capitan. Notorious for his mischief, the raven once opened a haulbag, pulled out a climber’s wallet, and tossed a few hundred dollars into the Monster Offwidth on the Salathe Wall. I’d avoided him for nearly a hundred days climbing on El Cap over a decade and a half. Now the raven had targeted me. He had stolen my food from the summit earlier this trip and he was preying on my Probars again. While Nina Williams toproped the Move pitch, the crux of Golden Gate (VI 5.13a), the raven dove onto the ledge where we had left our day packs. A minute later, the black bird flew off with my lunch.

After jumaring to the ledge, I found empty bar wrappers. Since I was too late to defend my dinner, I checked my email. Four months ago, Climbing hired me as an associate editor. In my sixteen weeks on the job, I’d spent four of them “on assignment” in Yosemite, my home for the past fifteen years. The position came at an opportune time. A broken transmission in my minivan maxed out my credit card and crushed my paltry savings. I’d rolled into the Boulder office homeless, broke, and hungry. In exchange for mid-climb email checks, I now had a place in Boulder, was a little less broke, but still hungry because of the avian thief.

In two days, the President would speak on outdoor recreation. While I suspected I was the greater expert on the subject, writing about his visit would justify my trip to the Valley. Plus, Obama needed to hear about the horrible raven problem plaguing working class climbers. I just needed my press credentials approved.

Nina Willaims El Capitan Yosemite Valley Rock Climbing
Nina Williams follows the author on El Cap’s West Face (5.11c). Photo: James Lucas

Nina and I had driven from Boulder to the Valley to check out the crux pitches on Golden Gate. In exchange for the big wall belays, I gave Nina a tour of Yosemite. We rode bikes to El Cap meadow, swam in the Merced, and explored the high Sierra. Though Nina had been to Yosemite before, this was the first time she had climbed on many of the formations. My summers sleeping in a cave under the Sentinel, hiking to the top of El Cap, and around the Valley, allowed us to take short cuts through the throngs of tourists and pluck the best routes. As we walked down the East Ledges, watching the sun set on Half Dome, my phone pinged with a formal invitation to see the President speak.

“It’s a park that captures the wonder of the world, that changes you by being here,” President Obama said in Cooks Meadow last Saturday. In honor of the 100-year anniversary of the National Park service, Obama addressed a small crowd of park rangers and locals. Though Obama has preserved 265 million acres, he still emphasized the need to protect the National Parks as the world faces increasing climate change. In 1890, Yosemite naturalist, John Muir showed President Theodore Roosevelt through the pristine valleys and forests. Muir’s tour impressed Roosevelt and helped cement Yosemite Valley as a National Park. Obama’s visit brought television and print media to Yosemite, adding exposure to the area and a call for Americans to visit our nation’s public outdoor destinations.

Two days after Obama spoke, the White House contacted me to write a short piece about my love of Yosemite. Honored to have gone from dirtbag to White House writer, I drew parallels between Muir showing Roosevelt the park, myself guiding Nina, and Obama’s visit. Conserving the park meant sharing it, I wrote. I read a comment on my blog post that made me realize that sharing the park meant more than just writing about it.

“Yosemite has been on my bucket list for a long while. At 89, I am finally resigned to not making it,” wrote Patricia Oritz. “ But I still enjoy any photography or stories, including President Obama’s.”

JAmes Lucas Yosemite National Park rock Climbing Separate Reality
The author climbs the classic Yosemite roof crack, Separate Reality (5.12a). Photo: Nina Williams

In the past 16 weeks, I moved from a life as a dirtbag climber, cleaning trashcans in Yosemite Village for money, to office work and White House writing. The transition allowed me to share my experiences with a larger audience. Patricia’s comment reminded me that not everyone has the luxury to experience Yosemite in the way Nina and I did. We toured the park, but we also saw the ravens float through the thermals on El Cap, listened to them caw loudly, and fell victim to their scavenging. Their theft provided an intimate interaction with wildlife, one that requires an escape from the roadside vistas. It takes effort to experience the park as a wild place. The opportunity to write about climbing has allowed me to share some of those experiences. But even the most eloquent words can’t convey the soul of Yosemite.

“You can’t capture this on an iPad or a flatscreen or even an oil painting,” President Obama said as Yosemite Falls crashed behind him. Though his soft hands had never crimped the ear hold on the Move pitch, carried a heavy bag on the long descent down the East Ledges, raced up fixed lines to save a few bars from ravens, or experienced the thousands of adventures I’d had in the Valley, the President understood the essential part of the Yosemite experience, something that despite her age, Patricia still needed. He continued, “You’ve got to come and breathe it in yourself.”

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