Cleaning Up Climbing History. The Truth Behind 13 Pivotal Ascents and Events

Climbing legend Jim Erickson pulls the curtain back to reveal what really happened ... or didn't happen.

Climbing history is replete with certain events that everyone knows to be “true” yet that upon closer inspection reveal a more complex narrative. Some of these “facts” are debatable, some are downright inaccurate, and many have interesting pre-histories or side stories. My hope is that the following anecdotes, spanning nearly 150 years of our sport, will offer deeper insight into a few famous moments in climbing.

Many of these vignettes come from being personally involved with the stories or knowing the people who were involved, over the last 60 years. As sources, I’ve also consulted memoirs, biographies, guidebooks, and climbing-history books, not to mention the “infallible” internet. I do not claim to be the final arbiter on these events, so hopefully others will research some of these stories even more assiduously.

David Breashears on an early repeat attempt on the crux of Psycho (5.12+), Eldorado Canyon—a pitch that had two FFAs, via two different variants established by two different climbers. Photo: Dudley Chelton

Cancel Culture: Should Mummery Crack Be Renamed?

In 1881, the English climbing pioneer Albert Mummery made the first ascent of the famous spire of the Aiguille Grepon in the French Alps with his two Swiss guides, Alexander Burgener and Benedikt Venetz. A major milestone, their route consisted of about 10 pitches of moderate rock with a steep 40-foot fist and offwidth crack, Le Fissure Mummery (Mummery Crack), near the top. At 5.7 or 5.8—and unprotected at the time—it may have been the hardest rock pitch in the world, although the men probably used a shoulder stand at the start. Most climbers assumed that Mummery led the crack, since it was named for him. But it turns out that Venetz did the majority of the route-finding and leading, and first led Le Fissure Mummery. It was common practice at the time to hire a guide to lead the climb, while the rich client often received the credit, not unlike today on Mount Everest.

Mummery was no poseur, however. A few days later, the three returned to the route to traverse to a slightly higher summit. This time, Mummery led the crack. During this period, he and his guides put up many new routes, including the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn and Devil’s Ridge on Täschhorn. A few years later, he became one of the first climbers to lead first ascents in the Alps without local guides, a radical concept in that day. He was also the first Western climber to attempt an 8,000-meter peak, Nanga Parbat, in 1895, where, sadly, he was killed in an avalanche. Mummery’s most famous (or infamous) quote is: “Every mountain appears doomed to pass through The Three Stages: an inaccessible peak, the hardest climb in the Alps, an easy day for a lady.”

The Grepon itself was famously first climbed by a female, Lily Bristow, in 1893 with Mummery and W. C. Slingsby, and Bristow also took photos (one wonders how heavy and bulky the camera was). In 1929, Miriam O’Brien Underhill and Alice Damesme made the first “manless” ascent, prompting this unapologetically sexist quote by the French climber Etienne Bruhl: “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.”

Who Really Invented the Rappel?

Although the German climber Hans Dülfer came up with his most useful body rappel—the Dülfersitz—around 1910, he was not the first person to use a doubled rope for descent. After about 1850, and probably before that, alpinists would sometimes loop a rope over a rock horn or around a tree and descend hand-over-hand. They would then pull the rope (or flip it off the horn) to retrieve it. On longer, low-angle slabs or shorter, vertical walls, some used the arm-wrap body rappel, with the rope running sideways across the upper back and then wrapped 360 degrees around both arms for friction, controlled by the downhill hand. Edward Whymper, on an early attempt on the Matterhorn in 1864, used these techniques.

The first known person to use rope friction under a leg or over a shoulder in some way was the French mountaineer Jean Charlet in 1876, on an early attempt on the Petit Dru in Chamonix. There are a number of ways to wrap a rope around a body; it was just that Dülfer created the best one: down between the legs, around one leg, up across the chest and over the opposite shoulder, and then down the back to the brake hand. It was called the Dülfersitz because the rappeller was “sitting” in a loop of rope with one leg.

By the 1930s, climbers fashioned a seat harness from a sling, clipped in a carabiner, and ran the rope over one shoulder. This eliminated rope friction (and possible rope burns) under the leg. By the 1960s, the carabiner brake-bar method, using three pairs of doubled oval carabiners to create a sharp bend in the rope, eliminated all body friction, except for control grip in the braking hand.

Your Local Area Was Not the Crucible of Modern Rock Climbing—It’s the Elbsandstein Gebirge

Climbers the world over like to think their local area was responsible for important developments in equipment and difficulty. But many key advances in roped free climbing trace back to the Elbsandstein Gebirge in Germany, with its long history of short, technically difficult and dangerous rock climbs on soft sandstone starting around 1848. In fact, it may be true that all major advances of pure technical difficulty in free climbing from 1906 until 1958 (when Don Whillans soloed the 30-foot crack Goliath in the UK, c. 5.11a) happened at the Elbsandstein. The world’s 5.8+ was led there in 1906 by Oliver Perry-Smith, the first 5.9 in 1910, and the first 5.10b/c in 1918 by Emmanuel Strubich. These pitches were led ground-up, often barefoot, and using natural-fiber ropes (hemp, sisal) that likely would have broken in a leader fall greater than a few feet. At the time, all certainly would have been “chop routes” (death routes), and many remain so today.

The Elbsandstein local Hans Rost put up probably the hardest, and one of the most dangerous, pitches in the world in 1922, with the 90-foot, slightly overhanging Rostkante on the Hauptwiesenstein. Using a side-rope attached to a nearby tree to protect the first 20 feet, having no carabiners, climbing barefoot, and with a hemp rope around his waist, Rost started up the pumpy wall, past unprotected 5.10 moves, to a tiny stance at 40 feet where he laboriously drilled a large iron ring. He then untied and threaded the rope, and brought up his partner. More strenuous 5.10 led 30 feet to a better stance, where Rost placed a second ring. A final long runout led to the top—the route was basically three short, completely unprotected pitches, with factor-two fall potential off each ring. Today, Rost’s climb is rated VIIIb (5.10d X), and it appears that 30 years passed before a harder pitch of free climbing—Talseite on Schwager (5.11a X even using three shoulder-stands, a little harder today without them)—was led there.

Alice Kerr midway up the open book of Cenotaph Corner (5.10b), Dinas Cromlech, Wales. Although the late Joe Brown made the route’s first ascent, using two pins for aid, its FFA remains unknown due to the convoluted ethics of the era. Photo: Mike Hutton

The First Bolt-Chopping War (Was Not in Yosemite Valley!)

The most famous cases of bolt removal happened in the 1950s and ‘60s in Yosemite. The convention was this: If an existing bolt could be bypassed via hard aid with pitons or hooks, or by bold or difficult free climbing, then the bolt could, theoretically, be removed by the climber who didn’t need it. Many climbers disagreed with this ethic, resulting in battles between the choppers and the re-installers, with the scarred rock being the loser.

For instance, Royal Robbins and Tom Frost, on an early repeat of the East Face of Washington Column, bypassed some of Warren Harding’s bolts by using aid pitons and chopped a few. In Colorado, the first 30 feet of Country Club Crack, originally done with a shoulder stand and one aid bolt, had bolts added and then chopped until it was free-climbed by Pat Ament in 1967. The most famous battle, of course, took place on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan after Harding and Dean Caldwell climbed it in November 1970, drilling many holes for bolts and Bat Hooks. The next year, Royal Robbins and Don Lauria went up, not to do the second ascent but to erase the route. However, after chopping the first couple pitches and seeing the difficulty of the aid climbing, they continued climbing, repeating the rest of the route and leaving it intact.

Surprisingly, these early Yosemite bolt wars had a precedent—the Elbsandstein, Germany, in 1936. In order to protect the area’s soft sandstone for later climbers (perhaps the world’s first instance of clean climbing), in 1910 a series of rules were codified: All routes had to go to a pinnacle summit, no aid, no chipping, no pitons, no shoes. Large metal rings were drilled on lead, but only by the first-ascent party, for anchoring at belay stances. Each route was allowed only three metal rings maximum.

By the mid-1930s, there were already a few hundred routes, and one of the “Last Great Problems” was the North Face of Schrammtorwächter. Willy Häntzschel led this 60-foot pitch with four other support climbers, in a few places using shoulder-stands (which were legal) but placing five rings! Apparently, fellow-local Hans Rost was so outraged (à la Royal Robbins on Harding’s Dawn Wall) that he removed two of the rings. With only three rings, this VIIIb (5.10d) was now much scarier, and so remained unrepeated for nearly 20 years. This led to a compromise in the rules so that now up to six rings could be set on longer first ascents.

Cenotaph Corner and the Mystery of the First Free Ascent

The UK’s most famous rock climb, Cenotaph Corner at Dinas Cromlech on Llanberris Pass, North Wales, was first led in the early 1950s by Britain’s then most famous climber, Joe Brown. British climbers had long felt that pitons for aid, or even protection, were “cheating” (pitons had been commonly used on the Continent since about 1910), and that to be “sporting” new routes had to be led from the bottom up, usually without protection. By the 1930s, leaders started to put loops of thin rope around natural chockstones and attach a carabiner. Later, they picked up small, rounded pebbles and put them in their pockets, to artificially insert into a crack before slinging them.

The young tigers of the 1950s, eyeing steeper, blanker, and longer first ascents, bent the rules on their dangerous, cutting-edge leads. Brown unilaterally decided that he would allow himself an absolute limit of two pitons per climb in addition to the threaded pebbles. If more pins seemed necessary, he would retreat. So, in 1952, under wet conditions, he led Cenotaph Corner, threading tiny slings around pebbles and finally, at the top of the 120-foot pitch, using two pitons for aid. When dry, the corner is roughly 5.10b, and Brown could have easily come back under dry conditions and led it totally free instead of at 5.9 A0. For many years, leaders who repeated the route pulled on the pitons, respecting the Master, so to this day no one knows who freed Cenotaph first.

Many other UK routes had similar stories. If the FA party had placed a single fixed piton, it was meant to be used as aid, or at least a rest, even if the move by the piton was 5.7 and you had just done 60 feet of 5.10 X to get there! Thus first free ascents (FFAs) like Cenotaph’s usually went unrecorded, unless a route was almost entirely aided (a “peg route”) and then climbed free.

Ray Jardine, inventor of the Friend, plying his device on Phoenix (5.13a), Yosemite. Photo: Courtesy Wild Country

Foops: America’s First Free-Climbing “Project”?

In 1967, Rich Goldstone led, after only one fall, the first free ascent of Coexistence (5.10d today, but likely harder), the Gunk’s then hardest route. That autumn, the Gunks newcomer John Stannard upped area standards by making the first free ascent of the area’s mega-classic Foops (5.11c). A 60-foot pitch that was mostly well-protected by fixed pitons, Foops climbs out a nine-foot ceiling on fingertip holds and had been considered “impossible” as a free climb. Stannard, with stunning vision and great perseverance, spent a couple weekends driving up from Maryland and attempting, ground-up, the massive roof.

Basically campusing (the upside-down, overhead heel-hook, employed if not invented by Kevin Bein on the first free ascent of the Trapps route Birdie Party [5.10] in 1966, was not yet widely known), Stannard took several short falls, trying to reach what appeared to be a good hold at the lip. When he finally succeeded, he likely produced the hardest roof climb in the world—and perhaps Foops should be considered America’s first free-climbing “project.” Despite several attempts, it was not repeated for six years. Foops is height dependent—though it’s considered 5.11c, climbers shorter than six feet will find it even more difficult.

Why Clean Climbing’s Evolution Had Some Minor Smudges

Although rock climbers in Britain had been “clean climbing”—without pitons—since the late 1800s, Royal Robbins is correctly credited with introducing the artificial chockstone (nut) to Americans in spring 1967 with his article “Nuts to You” in Summit magazine. After climbing in the UK with Joe Brown, Don Whillans, and others, Robbins saw that nuts could provide an additional tool for Americans to supplement their use of pitons. He even put up, in 1966, the first route in the United States without any pitons, Nutcracker Suite, a 5.8 in Yosemite. This prompted a friend, the Yosemite legend Chuck Pratt, to immediately do another new 5.9 climb close by—CS Concerto—using all pitons and no nuts, and with CS being an epithet we’re better off not printing on these pages.

By mail-ordering to England for a small collection of Peck and Troll nuts, several of us 1960s climbers acquired a small collection, and some did “all-nut” ascents on familiar climbs, or at least racked a handful of nuts next to our pitons to try to be cool like Royal. However, no leading climber in America in the 1960s stopped carrying pitons and a hammer altogether. The main reason then for using nuts was to provide protection or aid in shallow cracks where pitons worked poorly; it had almost nothing to do with saving cracks from damage—there were so few climbers in the ‘60s that piton scars were barely noticeable. (Environmental sustainability was pretty much an unknown issue for most Americans until the first Earth Day, in April 1970; some Americans still threw trash out of car windows, and the word “ecology” was virtually unknown.) Around 1970, an explosion of new climbers changed things at the cliffs.

In 1971, John Stannard, by then the Gunks’ leading climber, really started America’s “Clean Climbing” movement by doing at least two things: Firstly, recognizing that the placement and removal of hardened steel pitons was seriously abusing the Gunks quartzite, he started a logbook of “First All-Nut Ascents” in the local climbing store, Rock and Snow. Secondly, he created the first rock-climbing conservation newsletter, the Eastern Trade, which documented Gunks climbing news and updated climbers on all environmental and access issues, including damning pictures of piton abuse. His photo of Yosemite’s pin-scarred Serenity Crack in the first issue, October 1971, was the catalyst that convinced me and my partner Duncan Ferguson to immediately sell our pitons and use nuts (and any fixed pitons and bolts) exclusively.

A few months later, in early spring 1972, the Chouinard Equipment catalog came out, with a testimonial from Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost asking climbers to cut back on piton use and also with the inspiring treatise “The Whole Natural Art of Protection” by Doug Robinson, coining the term Clean Climbing. Only a handful of climbers followed us in 1972 (the brand-new Steve Roper Yosemite guidebook posited that nuts could be used in only about 20 percent of placements in the Valley), but by summer 1973 perhaps half of America’s free climbers had converted.

Aid climbers were, unfortunately, much slower to change. In 1973, Chouinard and Bruce Carson repeated the Nose without hammers, and then Doug Robinson, Dennis Hennek, and Galen Rowell also did so on the Northwest Face of Half Dome, with pictures in National Geographic. Although wall climbers started using some nuts, and then cams, to supplement their pitons over the years, most of the big-wall FAs and repeats still placed and removed many pitons, causing even more damage and widening cracks. The wider, pin-scarred cracks helped—in some cases dramatically—later generations to “free” the old aid routes, from the Naked Edge and Genesis to the Salathé Wall, the Nose, and beyond.

The Nose in a Day—Some Alternative Facts

In 1958, Warren Harding and his partners pioneered the world’s largest big-wall aid climb, the Nose of El Capitan, placing all 125 bolts by hand. Repeat ascents, obviously, went much more quickly. In 1961, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Joe Fitschen took seven days, and in 1963, the speedsters Layton Kor, Steve Roper, and Glen Denny did the third ascent in 3.5 days. By 1970, the Nose had been climbed about 15 or 20 times, and the fastest time was about 2.5 days of climbing time (while hauling food, water, and bivy gear).

With improving wall techniques, some of the “Valley People” began to speculate about an ascent in fewer than 24 hours. By 1973, two climbers—Yosemite’s Jim Bridwell and Colorado’s Ray Jardine—were independently perfecting their speed techniques with the Nose in mind. Bridwell was Yosemite’s most prominent aid climber then, and Jardine was also one of the best, but Jardine had Very Special Secret Weapons: cams. However, a whim of nature would soon alter the course of history.

The weather in Yosemite is most stable in September and October, and 1974 was no exception; we had day after day of bluebird skies.
I was in the Valley for my first extended stay, and one beautiful day in October, Camp 4 was abuzz with excitement. The word was that Jardine (with Kris Walker and Lou Dawson) was attempting the Nose in a day (NIAD). They started early with a minimum of gear (and, we now know, using cams—see p.29), and we saw them at the Great Roof about noon, 2,000 feet up and well on pace. But then, unexpectedly, clouds poured into the Valley, bringing a massive, two-hour rainstorm. The climbers bivouacked, unequipped, at Camp 5. The next day, after the rock had dried, they made it to the top in 20 hours of total climbing time, easily a new speed record—but not quite in a calendar day.

The following June—1975—Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay famously did the Nose (without cams) in a calendar day, in 17.5 hours. For a while in 1974 and ‘75, in order to protect the first five pitches from more piton damage, Valley climbers left fixed ropes up to Sickle Ledge (since almost half of the aspirant Nose parties at the time retreated there anyway, overwhelmed), and many climbers used the ropes to get a jump-start. Bridwell felt that using the ropes on a one-day ascent would open him to criticism. So, to save time in the darkness the next morning, he had some other climbers go up the evening prior and fix a dozen or so nuts at crucial spots en route to Sickle.

The world record for gaining 1,000 meters of elevation by running uphill is 29:42. Based on speed records of those rope-ascending experts, cavers, I estimate 2,900 feet of rope could be jumared in 35 minutes. These numbers give us an idea of how far under two hours the Nose speed record could go—if jumaring were to be considered a legitimate tactic!

Mark Norden on pitch two of the Naked Edge (5.11b), Eldorado Canyon, in 1975—well into the clean-climbing era. Three years later, the route would see its first free solo, by Jim Collins. Photo: Dudley Chelton

Psycho and Its Two First Free Ascents

In January 1974, Art Higbee and I succeeded in free climbing (5.11a R/X then, before a bolt was placed) 60 feet up to a stance below the 12-foot roof on Layton Kor’s Psycho (FA: 1962) on the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. This roof was larger than anything that had been freed in Colorado, but it did have, right next to its three aid bolts, a promising four-foot-long flake with buckets. Unfortunately, the buckets ended halfway in minute crimps. A completely separate line, about five feet to the right using a huge undercling hold, held promise as well.

Both options were way beyond our onsight abilities, so we retreated without even trying. At that time, Art and I (and later David Breashears) considered falling or grabbing gear, even in preparation, to be aid, and we expended significant effort trying to lead all our first ascents by onsighting alone. Obviously, we were not always successful.

That fall, John Bragg and Steve Wunsch, each having recently put up one of the hardest redpoints in the world (the Gunks’ Kansas City [5.12] and Super Crack [5.12+], respectively), decided to work Psycho. They were totally into projecting routes. Over the next year they went up several times, trying the line on the left. In June 1975, after a couple dozen short falls, using a heel-hook on a sharp point on the flake, Wunsch succeeded via several short lunges on tiny crimps. Even though the pair did not finish the easier top pitches, it was certainly the hardest free pitch in Colorado, and possibly the world. But Wunsch’s line, at least 5.12+, was destined never to be repeated.

A few weeks later, the brilliant Breashears, carefully climbing up and down the big flake in an attempt to onsight the second free ascent, noticed that it was creaking. He stepped back down to the stance below the roof, and then went back up and realized the flake was about to break. Carefully, he brought it back to the ground in three or four pieces, hoping to somehow put the flake back up, but soon realized it was hopeless. The first half of Wunsch’s line out the roof had changed from 5.8 to probably unclimbable.

Four years later, Colorado’s then-leading free climber, Jim Collins, started working the right-hand line from the undercling. After a couple of days, he freed the new variant and finished the route, probably at a grade as hard, or a bit harder, than Wunsch’s line. Many people who free-climb Psycho today think they are repeating Wunsch’s line, but in reality they are doing the Collins line.

The Complicated History of the Cam

Ray Jardine is famous for inventing Friends for climbing, yet he was not the first person to make a camming device for use in parallel-sided cracks. The Russian climber Sergei Abalakov in 1962 created a very basic cam device, similar to a Tricam, for belay anchors. In 1967, Greg Lowe made a Crack Jumar, using a cam principle with a spring to hold it in place. In 1972 (after Jardine signed a noncompete agreement), Lowe showed Jardine his latest cam designs.

Meanwhile, Lowe continued to improve his design—he recognized the need for a constant-intercept angle (in a certain angle range) and two opposing cams. Lowe Alpine Systems applied for a patent in 1973 and marketed the Cam Nut and the Split Cam, but these did not sell well because they walked out of cracks. Jardine spent the next five years secretly improving Lowe’s design. He used two pairs of opposing cams, and he exhaustively tested his prototypes on the fissures of Yosemite—including that 1974 attempt at the Nose in a day (see p.28)to make the design user-friendly for a lead climber. In 1978, partnering with Wild Country in the UK, Jardine started selling his Friends.

The Forgotten First Free Solo of the Naked Edge

The late, great British climber Derek Hersey is remembered for his buoyant personality and amazing free solos in the 1980s, perhaps the most famous of which was the Naked Edge, a five-pitch climb with three pitches of 5.11a/b, which he did at least twice. But, despite the Hersey lore and aura, he was not the first person to free-solo it—it was in fact Jim Collins in 1978. Collins was emotionally upset about some personal matters, so he went to Eldorado Canyon on the spur of the moment and, although wearing a harness and carrying a sling and one carabiner “just in case,” free-soloed the whole climb. Collins had done the route before, five times, but it was not well-rehearsed. On two of those five roped ascents, Collins had fallen off.

Sibylle Hechtel (left) and Bev Johnson (right) atop El Capitan after their first all-female ascent of the monolith, via the Triple DIrect (VI 5.7 A2), in 1973. Photo: Sibylle Hechtel

5.12+ Offwidth First Ascent: The Murky History of Yosemite’s Owl Roof

Yosemite’s hardest offwidth of the 1970s, the two-pitch Owl Roof, has a cryptic history. A 5.9 slab pitch leads to a 12-foot ceiling split by a fist and offwidth crack. It was discovered around 1972. Peter Haan and Tom Higgins tried, then Jim Bridwell and Mark Chapman tried, and then others, all without success. Thinking that this might be the next level of Valley free climbing, Bridwell and Chapman returned and near the lip placed a chockstone, carefully chosen to match the surrounding wall, to use as a hold. While pre-placing chockstones for protection was not unheard of (see Cenotaph Corner, p.27), this was a new direction for free-climbing ethics.

The roof, however, still proved too difficult. Unaware of this, in 1973 Tom Higgins went up, lead-soloing with jumars for protection. He was shocked to see a chockstone with a sling and carabiner near the lip. Higgins led out to the chock, clipped in, and then fell off, dropping his glasses to the slab below. Lowering to get his glasses, he jugged back up to the chock and, after a few tries, using the chockstone for a handhold and then a micro-crimp, executed the difficult standup move at the lip. Thinking he had merely repeated someone’s route, Higgins did not make any claims. Bridwell found out, though, and praised it as the hardest free pitch in the Valley, though everyone in Camp 4 knew that the chockstone was an artificial handhold.

In 1977, Dale Bard and Ron Kauk were brave enough to remove the chockstone, and to try to free Owl Roof in its original state. They started working the route traditionally, lowering to the ledge each time they fell. Soon, Ray Jardine and John Lakey started working it also, but in a very radical way: they would hang on Friends to work the moves, and slowly eliminate the aid rests to eventually do the whole crux free—what today we call hangdogging. All four apparently led the route free in May 1977—it’s just not clear who was first. Bard and Kauk agree that Bard succeeded before Kauk, but they both expressed some doubt that the other pair had made a totally clean lead. Jardine said they did, and told me that Lakey succeeded two days before he did. The roof is rated 5.12c/d (at least) and has turned back many an excellent offwidth climber.

The Paradox of Early Big-Wall Free Climbs

Multi-day free climbs were first done boldly, with very few protection pitons, in the Dolomites and French Alps in the late 1920s and ‘30s, although some used aid pitons here and there over their 12 to 30 pitches of free climbing. Imagine today doing a cutting-edge, 30-pitch first ascent with nothing on your rack but 15 single-use pitons for protection and belays, and a few carabiners and runners. Do the math. In America, the big-wall first-free ascents, generally better protected with reusable pitons, were done in the 1950s and ‘60s in Yosemite—and by 1973, a few Valley climbers started using a controversial concept.       

Instead of all climbers freeing every pitch, one leading and the rest following, a “team free” ascent allowed each pitch to be led free (sometimes brilliantly) by one or another member of the team, but then the others would jug the pitch to clean it. This tactic saved energy, since each leader only had to do one half (or fewer) of the pitches free while the backup team could haul enough food, water, and gear to allow time to work the crux pitches. However, when “successful,” it created a paradox: The route was now a free climb, yet no single person had continuously climbed it free from bottom to top.

Similarly, if you managed to run a quarter-mile lap in 59 seconds on four days in a row, could you then claim a sub-four-minute mile? I doubt it. But times change, and, I suppose, the free-climbing conventions espoused by the community change as well.

Alex Honnold on pitch 16 of Passage to Freedom (VI 5.13d), El Capitan; Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were clear about their style on the route—on pitch 26 (5.13d), with its two distinct cruxes, both freed the pitch in two sections, above and below a no-hands stance. As with all big-wall free ascents, clarity regarding style is paramount. Photo: Austin Siadak

Women Were Part of Yosemite’s Golden Age, Too

In the last hundred years, from Miriam O’Brien Underhill to Bonnie Prudden to Lynn Hill to Margo Hayes, America has had a long line of outstanding women climbers. Beverly Johnson was, perhaps, the most adventuresome of the 1970s climbers. A fixture of Camp 4 starting in the late ‘60s, she led and followed cutting-edge crack climbs, swung leads on old and new El Cap aid routes, rescued stranded hikers and climbers with YOSAR, and fought forest fires, all in her twenties.

In 1973, she became the first woman to redpoint 5.11a (the Valley’s New Dimensions). That same year, with the longtime Yosemite legend Sibylle Hechtel, she made the first all-female ascent of El Cap, via the Triple Direct. Five days later, she did a new route on El Cap, Grape Race, with Charlie Porter. Two years later, again with Hechtel, she climbed the Salathé Wall, a longer route with harder aid and harder free climbing than Triple Direct. In 1978, Johnson made the first female ascent of Dihedral Wall alone in 10 days, becoming the first woman to solo El Cap. To keep focused on that climb, at a pace of only about 250 feet per day, she thought, “If you are going to eat a whole elephant, you do it one bite at a time.”

In 1980, Johnson married the outdoor filmmaker Mike Hoover and discovered new challenges worldwide. Johnson was the first person to traverse the Straits of Magellan alone in an open kayak. She skied across Greenland, and also windsurfed across the Bering Strait. Though totally focused on pursuing her goals, Johnson was also usually relaxed, grounded, upbeat, and smiling. Tragically, she died in 1994, along with three others, in a helicopter crash that Hoover just barely survived.

Jim Erickson is a rock climber from the early Triassic Climbing Period, still living in Boulder, Colorado. He was on parties that first free-climbed the Steck-Salathé, Naked Edge, and the Northwest Face of Half Dome. The Colorado rock climb Cassandra was, perhaps, the first 5.11 free solo, and he onsighted many shorter first ascents using ropes. Erickson “invented” the G, PG, R, X grading system, the quickdraw, the backstep, and the chocolate-banana milkshake.