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Yosemite’s Wild Days (in Pictures)

The following photos provide a glimpse into the evolution of Yosemite's climbing scene, including pioneers like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, as well as present-day badasses like Alex Honnold.

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Royal Robbins (1964)

North America Wall (A2 5.8)

Royal Robbins on the FA of the North America Wall
(Photo: Glen Denny)

Perhaps the most recognizable feature of the granite behemoth that is El Capitan is the gigantic diorite streak running right up the middle of the southeast face. It’s shaped like the North American continent and is this route’s namesake. Although this birthmark is visually striking, the brittle black rock it contains and the lack of a clear, natural line kept climbers focused on the more aesthetic and relatively easier southwest face. It wasn’t until October 1963 that Royal Robbins and Glen Denny began hunting around on the wall and eventually aided up to about 600 feet. In fall 1964, a foursome including Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard, and Tom Frost laid siege to the wall. After 10 days of storms, broken holds, tricky traverses, dwindling food supplies, and terrifying exposure, the team claimed the first ascent of this 2,400-foot, 28-pitch monster route. Robbins summed it up in describing one of the pitches just below the Igloo, a cave 300 feet below the top: “One of the hardest leads of my experience, it was just another pitch on this wall.”

Read this: “The First Ascent of the North America Wall” by Royal Robbins

Chuck Pratt (1968)

Vernal Falls

Chuck Pratt training balance by standing one footed on a fence and juggling
(Photo: Glen Denny)

With a relatively recent surge in slacklining, balance has become a common skill for climbers to practice on rest days, but 40 years ago it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Chuck Pratt is credited as the first Valley climber to train for balance, and here, he simultaneously tests his coordination by juggling. Pratt was a Yosemite legend, with dozens of notable first ascents on formations like Fairview Dome in Tuolumne, Washington Column, the Salathé and North America Wall on El Capitan, the South Face of Mt. Watkins, and Arch Rock. Friend and partner Royal Robbins described him in a trip report about the first ascent of North America Wall: “Chuck’s fantastic native talents and unassuming demeanor make him the finest of climbing companions, while his infinite patience and sense of humor make him an excellent teacher and guide.”

Gary Colliver and Chris Jones (1969)

Old school Yosemite Climbers looking at a hand-drawn topographical map of the Salathe Wall, preparing for an ascent
(Photo: Glen Denny)

Before guidebooks and apps, hand-drawn topos, like this one used to plan an ascent of the Salathé Wall, were passed from climber to climber until they fell apart.

Warren Harding (1970)

Dawn Wall

Warren Harding (aka Batso) laying siege to the Dawn Wall's first ascent
(Photo: Glen Denny)

Warren Harding, nicknamed Batso for his ability to spend endless nights on the wall until the route was completed, as well as his boisterous personality, finishes the last pitch on the first ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan after 28 days. Harding bagged first ascents all over the Valley, including the Nose on El Cap, the North Face of the Rostrum, and the Direct Route of Lost Arrow Spire.

Read this: The Life of Warren “Batso” Harding by Burr Snider

Bill Westbay (1977)

Zodiac (A5 5.7, though the grade was later changed to A2 after rockfall made sections easier.)

Bill Westbay eating a meal on a portaledge while climbing the Zodiac, in Yosemite
(Photo: George Meyers)

Bill Westbay enjoys the comfort of a Navy surplus cot, the use of which started a trend of big wall climbers sleeping on flat, collapsible beds. These were the inspiration behind the current big waller’s bed, the portaledge.

Dave Diegelman (1979)

Separate Reality (5.11d

Dave Diegalman on Seperate Reality in Yosemite in 1979
(Photo: Photo: George Meyers)

This 50-foot crack climb just off Highway 120 was first put up by the legendary Ron Kauk in 1978, and it quickly became world-famous thanks to the wildly exposed and near-horizontal roof that comprises the second half of the route. Originally given the grade of 5.12a, it was downgraded to 5.11d after a block broke off the lip, exposing a larger hold. Eight years after it was put up, the bold and super-strong German climber Wolfgang Güllich nabbed the first free solo after rehearsing it on a rope several times that same day. Other notable free soloists of the route include Alex Honnold, Dean Potter, and Heinz Zak, who did it in 2005, 19 years after photographing Güllich’s ropeless send. A quick hike from the car and a short rappel will get you down to the slabby staging area, but the moves over the lip put the climber out over some serious exposure. Here, Dave Diegelman uses jams and pre-placed gear while Bill Price belays.

John Bachar

Outer Limits (5.10c)

the legendary John Bachar climbing in Yosemite
(Photo: George Meyers)

California-climber poster boy John Bachar heads up the second pitch of Outer Limits, a masterpiece first climbed in 1971 by Jim Bridwell and Jim Orey. With a perfect hand-sized crack and flaky holds on the edges, this route is one of the most popular and best-loved climbs in the Valley. Belayed here by fellow Stonemaster Gib Lewis, Bachar later soloed this route in the 1980s. Around that same time, Bachar posted what would become an infamous note in Yosemite, offering $10,000 to any person who could follow him climbing for one full day. His reputation for dangerous routes and bold free solos preceded him—no one took the offer.

Read this: “Only Blasphemy” by John Long (about the time that Long tried to keep up with Bachar in J-Tree, and nearly died doing it.)

Werner Braun (Late 1970s)

Reed’s Pinnacle Direct (5.10a)

Werner Braun free soloing with boom box in Yosemite in 1979
(Photo: Bob Gaines)

About 25 years before the iPod, Werner Braun rocks out while soloing Reed’s Pinnacle Direct, a popular ropeless ascent for the certified Yosemite hardman. Braun is known as being one of the longest-standing members of the esteemed Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), having served for more than 40 years. He’s also known for unofficially having more ascents than anyone else of the popular and difficult Astroman, a 1,000-foot 5.11c on Washington Column. He also attempted to free climb The Nose in the early 1980s with Ron Kauk and Bev Johnson. (Pretty awesome vintage video about that attempt here.)

Werner Braun, Jim Pettigrew, Ron Kauk, and John Bachar 

Four Yosemite icons goofing off in the 1970s
(Photo: Paul Sibley)

Four of Yosemite’s notorious pranksters goof off in the Valley.

Read this: Cedar Wright on “What the film Valley Uprising missed.”

Warren Harding and Bob Swift

Lost Arrow Chimney (5.10)

Royal Robbins and partner climbing the Lost Arrow Spire
(Photo: Glen Denny)