This story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of our print edition.
We had just arrived in Yosemite Valley while working on a documentary about our buddy Mike Kozuko’s quest to solo a big wall (elcapreportthefilm.com), and we had asked him to be himself and do what he usually does—we just wanted to tag along.
Since checking in with Tom was the first thing that Mike would normally do, it was what we did. And it was the right thing to do.
Tom has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 100 or so climbing routes on El Capitan. He intimately knows the features and the pitches. He knows the alternates and the variations. He knows the trade routes (the easier, more popular lines) from the hard-core routes that only the toughest, most seasoned climbers would tackle. He knows the history, the backstories, the controversial climbs and controversial climbers alike, and he knows pretty much all of the serious, well-known climbers who still make the pilgrimage to the Valley every year. He knows all this in part because of his blog: the El Cap Report.
Every day during El Cap’s two climbing seasons—spring and fall—Tom spends his time watching and photographing the big wall climbers on El Cap’s East and West faces from his vantage point on the bridge or from El Cap Meadow. At the end of the day, he selects the best photos, writes summaries of the climbers’ progress—or lack thereof, and then posts it all to his site. He’s been posting online since 2007, but he’s been taking pictures of El Cap climbers since the mid-1990s when a Glen Denny photo caught his eye. It was then that he started practicing photography, particularly telephoto style, seriously. He switched from film to digital photography in 2005 at the suggestion of another well-known climber/photographer/friend of his, Dean Fidelman and this made it possible for him to start posting his pictures online.
Our first day with Tom did not disappoint. We had barely set foot on the bridge when Cedar Wright came by to chat with Tom and see who was doing what on the Captain. We recognized Cedar from a climbing film we had seen, and Tom made the introduction. Within the hour we also met, either directly through Tom or because of him, a shopping list of top international climbers: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Ivo Ninov, David Hahn, Thomas and Alex Huber (see a video clip: Meet El Cap Report's Tom Evans). It was a lot like getting a backstage pass at your favorite rock concert and then meeting all the guys in the band. These big-name climbers welcomed us, in no small part because of our new association with Tom.
Tom, in our experience, is a straight-shooter kind of guy. He tells it like he sees it, often mixing in sarcasm and humor. He’s tough on the guys who can take it, but he’s considerate of the feelings of those who can’t.
He attributes a lot of his ways to a turning-point event in his life. After high school, he wanted, in his own words, to “go to a party school.” But he had no money to enroll. Tom’s father gave him the option to go to Virginia Military Institute instead, offering to pay the tuition. Tom went, and he’s glad he did. He feels this training gave him the discipline and logic necessary to develop the skills of a big wall climber at a time when it was more a trial-and-error kind of effort.
In the mid-1960s, Tom was in the Army and doing some climbing at places like Seneca Rocks in West Virginia. There he met a guy who told him about Yosemite and big wall climbing. On leave in 1967, he made his first trip out West to climb in the Valley. Having seen El Capitan, he became determined to return and tackle the Nose. To put this in context for younger climbers, this was back when there were only a handful of routes on El Cap and only a couple of handfuls of ascents. The Nose had been conquered less than a decade earlier, and it had taken 47 days for a team of climbers to make it to the top. Tom wasn’t exactly a pioneer, but he was certainly an early settler. Climbing techniques and gear were still in the early stages of development, and Tom pounded in a lot of pitons back in the day.
Tom took a practical approach to climbing the Nose. The day he got out of the Army in 1969, he drove straight to Yosemite to spend six weeks climbing smaller walls to build his technique, knowledge, skills, and strength. Finally in 1971, he teamed up with Paul Sibley to make his first ascent of El Cap via the Nose route. It was a classically epic six-day ascent for the pair, storms and all.
After an unsuccessful attempt on Dihedral Wall in 1972, Tom’s personal life kept him at a distance from Yosemite for several years. But by the mid-1980s, he had moved to California and could spend more time in the Valley. His last El Cap success was Zodiac in ’95 at the age of 51. He tried several more times after that, but by then his main interest had turned to photography and documenting and eventually reporting on El Cap climbs on his blog. As Tom himself likes to say, El Cap Report currently justifies his standing in the climbing community. Judging from all the people we’ve talked to over the years we’ve been working on our film, climbers feel the same. They respect Tom and what he does, all agreeing that he provides a valuable service. And Tom’s base on the bridge is one of the handful of places that climbers regularly gather to talk shop, compare notes and beta, and then brag and tell stories about their big adventures on one of the most famous and beloved big walls in the world.
Climbing gear, techniques, attitudes, and abilities—pretty much everything has changed since Tom first climbed the Captain all those years ago. While his initial intention was to do a climbing photography book, as new technologies came along, his goals evolved into what enabled him to launch the unique El Cap Report. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, and lovers of rock climbers around the world check Tom’s report when someone they care about is up on the wall. Tom has threatened to shut down the Report for different reasons at various times, and has even done so once or twice. But to his followers, he’s there, solid as rock, consistently reporting each day’s efforts for all the world to follow along. He has a name for climbers who are stuck at a desk job somewhere—cubicle pukes. Not unlike us, these are the folks who wish they were there, climbing El Cap. And when they finally do, they’ll check in with Tom at the bridge first—if they know what’s good for them.
Dave Davis and his partner Mary Grandelis filmed the documentary “El Cap Report.” Find more at elcapreportthefilm.com.