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Profile: The Yosemite Stone Monkeys

In trying to define one of Yosemite’s most storied subcultures, two documentarians find that it’s signature characteristics are held close to the vest.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of our print edition. 

We were deep into research and filming for a documentary that will eventually air on PBS. We decided to call the film “El Cap Report,” so named for a popular blog of the same name that the central character, Tom Evans, maintains. In talking to Tom, we found something really interesting, a chance to look around inside a wild subculture, or in this especially unique case, a subculture within a subculture—Yosemite’s Stone Monkeys.

Finding these little sects can be a defining moment for both a film being made as well as for the filmmaker personally. It’s one of the reasons we make documentaries to begin with. To stay inside our own little world may well be safer, but it can also be limiting as well as downright boring. To push the boundaries of what it means to be alive is not as safe, for sure, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun. Getting to know some Stone Monkeys helped remind us of this. It also became a defining moment for our film, “El Cap Report.”

Tom Evans was our gateway into the Monkey lifestyle, but he’d be the first to say that he’s not a Stone Monkey—or Rock Monkey, as a few prefer—or our favorite: Stoned Monkey. But through him, we met Cedar Wright who hauled us over to the El Cap Meadow to introduce us to Aaron Jones. We didn’t know it then, but Cedar and Aaron were part of a very informal, loose, and somewhat selective group of people who lived the Monkey lifestyle.

Defining “Monkey” is tricky, given there are no clearly delineated rules in Monkey-land. Rules themselves would be counter to the nature of Monkey-ness. Later, during an interview, we asked Aaron to define “Monkey” and the lifestyle. He didn’t want to even try. Then, he became downright frustrated when we started asking him things like, “Well, is so-and-so a Monkey?” Who was he to determine what the Monkey lifestyle was, or who was a “member” he said. Aaron was, of course, being quite true to Monkey nature. He wouldn’t be caught in the trap of spelling out a lifestyle that defies both societal standards and easy definition.

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Climber Aaron Jones giving a monkey call from atop El Cap. Photo: Mary Grandelis and Dave Davis

Given all this, Aaron, and eventually Lori Butz, Corbin Usinger, Richie Copeland, Hugo Langel van Ervan, Nicola Martinez, Allisyn Beisner-Martinez, Ivo Ninov, Dean Fidelman, Ammon McNeely and a host of others allowed us that look inside to observe, in part at least, what it means to be living the dream as a Rock Monkey.

This lead to several climbing, high-lining, slacking, and “office” outings over several years that produced over a hundred hours of footage. Ironically perhaps, the word “Monkey” is never mentioned in the finished film. How could we possibly try to interpret or pigeon-hole something that they themselves had trouble defining? Instead, we let what we believe to be the essence of the Monkey lifestyle permeate the film and help guide it.

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Nick Martinez and Allisyn Beisner-Martinez after a honeymoon climb on the Muir Wall. Photo: Nick Martinez and Allisyn Beisner-Martinez

Ammon McNeely is one Monkey who plays a large role in the film. We’ve often said that he gives the film its heart and soul. His wild nature, openness, generosity and even his moodiness had such an impact on us and on the film that we’re comfortable in our belief that the Monkeys are well represented in our work.

Guys like Ammon help set the standards of Monkey behavior. By their actions, they demonstrate some of the values of the Monkeys: freedom; hard climbing; periodic if not continuous dirtbagging; blatant disregard for conventional values; perhaps even a completely different outlook of what it means to be alive. And now that Rock Monkey has morphed into Flying Monkey, some adding in the willingness to fling yourself off of high places.

Nick Martinez and Allisyn Beisner-Martinez’s wedding in Yosemite Valley is in the film and so is their honeymoon climb of the Muir Wall. These two allowed us to represent the Monkey lifestyle well without actually and directly discussing it. “Show it, don’t tell it” worked for us here because showing it is so much easier than discussing it. To us, reality TV pales in comparison to the very real, intimate, honest and often touching footage of Nick and Al. Whether it’s hanging out on their portaledge or shaking some gear, their footage demonstrates Monkey-life better than a million words.

Having said all that, we’ve created a scene of outtakes from our film that attempts to discuss Monkey lifestyle more directly than the film itself does. But because of the terms of our film permit with the National Park Service, we’ve had to exclude a couple of the scenes that we shot that would be even more revealing of the lifestyle. For example, during an interview with an infamous Monkey at Taft Point overlooking El Capitan, the guy begins the interview by smoking a bowl defiantly, a scene that we explicitly can’t show without violating the constraints of that permit.

Yet drugs are an undeniable part of the Monkey culture, set in stone with route names on El Cap: Magic Mushroom, Tangerine Trip, and Mescalito. Our guy at Taft Point told us stories of the Stonemaster, predecessors to the Monkies, from back in the day; such a rich history with a clear connection to today. But we didn’t want to land our Monkey at Taft Point in jail. That’d be too confining for a Yosemite Stone Monkey.

Dave Davis and his partner Mary Grandelis filmed the documentary “El Cap Report.”