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The Wright Stuff: Ride the Lightning

Cedar Wright Rock Climbing Car Silver Lightning
Photo: Courtesy

No car, no gnar—it’s a fact. John Salathe, the true OG of Yosemite big wall history, famously arrived in the Valley in an old Ford Model T. Then he forged his first pitons from the axle stock of that same car. And no one stormed the Valley in more motorized style then the Legendary Warren “Batso” Harding. He established more than 30 first ascents in Yosemite but was better known “for driving fancy sports cars, often having a good-looking woman on his arm, and drinking red wine from gallon jugs,” according to the LA Times. What a badass!

Cars, trucks, and vans have been the unsung silent partners in the progression of our sport. We love our cars. We name them, live in them, and for better or worse, are utterly dependent on them to explore crags and send the gnar.

Fast-forward to the modern age of car-dependent climbing, and we have the newly minted badass Alex Honnold pushing limits and blowing minds while living a slovenly existence in his Ford Econoline van. A veritable modern-day Warren Harding—minus the fancy cars, hot girls, wine, and basically everything that makes climbing cool.

My point is that we are so married to our cars that “climber rig” is a term in our community and how we travel in these rigs defines us. Road trips are a rite of passage for climbers. This has roots in the early history of climbing. Perhaps the most famous climbing road trip of all time went down in 1968 when Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Dick Dorworth, and Lito Tejada-Flores drove a Volkswagen van from California to Argentina to make the first ascent of the California Route on Patagonia’s fearsome Fitz Roy. Today, most climbers, from dedicated dirtbags to dabbling weekend warriors, dream of a road trip half as badass.

When I first arrived in Yosemite, I made my grand entrance in “The Blue Stallion,” a beat-up, leaky clunker of a 1987 Mazda 4×4 with more than 200,000 miles on it. I drove it as little as possible to prevent stranding it at the crag, only putting on select miles for the seasonal drive to Joshua Tree and back. I envied the more well-off climbers with their pimped-out vans and the girlfriends that accompanied them, but I was more concerned with prolonging my permanent climbing vacation than creature comforts. Life back then was a delicate existence, hinging completely on a terminally ill truck. If the sickly vehicle broke down, my entire dirtbag dream would crumble, a prospect that gave me nightmares.

A few years into my dirtbag “career,” that sad and inevitable moment slapped me in the face. The Blue Stallion let out one last fumy gasp on a dirt road that shall remain unnamed, because, irresponsible knucklehead that I was, I stripped the plates and abandoned it. I had reached the four-alarm dirtbag state of emergency. I needed a rig, and I needed it fast. Conventional logic might have led me to step off the road for a bit and save up for a nice ride, but I needed to keep climbing. I begged, borrowed, and scraped together $500 to buy a slightly rusted 1989 Toyota Camry. When you go down the list of classic climber cars, the Camry is glaringly absent, but “Silver Lightning” became my reliable soldier for more than 10 years. While I slept in tents, caves, and for a while the SAR site behind Camp 4, Silver Lightning was for all practical purposes my true home. For a couple of years, I even had a roommate: my good friend and climbing partner at the time, Renan Ozturk. He was one of the few people even dirtbaggier than me and didn’t own a car, so he moved into mine.

Renan was an awesome climbing partner but a horrible roommate. Once he accidentally spilled an entire gallon of milk in the backseat. The rancid smell haunted me for years. To this day, I cringe at the smell of cheese. On another occasion, he forgot an empty sardine can in my car, and a crafty Yosemite bear ripped the passenger door completely off. Undeterred, the next day Renan and I road-tripped sans door through a snowy night to Utah, blasting the heater and wearing expedition down jackets while spindrift buffeted our faces. We suffered marginal frost nip, but survived. Actually, it’s one of my top five alpine achievements.

The next season in Yosemite the opportunity to upgrade came. An eccentric 60-year-old dude named Richard arrived in a Toyota Dolphin, basically a compact RV that gets decent gas mileage. Richard, the world’s only tennis bum, wanted to off load the Dolphin and return to Hawaii, where he lived in a ditch next to the tennis court and offered yuppies lessons in exchange for food. Richard offered to sell me the rig, but I had no money.

After some haggling, I traded Richard a sleeping bag and a ride to the airport for his Dolphin. A screaming deal, I thought, until I found the rat infestation. Then the mechanic doing the smog inspection told me it would be a thousand dollars to get it up to speed. I cut my losses, trading the Dolphin for a bag of weed from a colorful local named Denise, a mullet-wearing, hardened mother figure for Valley dirtbags. I pulled the Dolphin onto her property just outside the park and beached it there. A few weeks later, the neighbors found the dilapidated RV to be such an eyesore that they fire-bombed it. Denise was bummed, but a trade is a trade, and I’d already smoked all the weed.

Apparently luxurious van life just wasn’t meant for me. Silver Lightning was to be my sole form of transport through my tenure as a dirtbag and into my more established years as a homeowner and husband. I reached a point where Silver Lightning was a mark of pride for me, as well as a bit of an anti-materialistic statement and shout-out to my roots. When Silver Lightning finally died, it was deeply traumatic. I had so many of my stories wrapped up in her. She was more than a car; she was a companion. In some ways a car is like a dog. You bond with it, but it’s not going to live as long as you, so eventually you have to let it go—and it can be painful.

While living in a sedan made me an anomaly, the next generation was bound to come around. My good friend James Lucas, now an editor at this esteemed publication, was one of the few who had the dubious honor of picking up said torch, and his Saturn was arguably shittier than my Camry. He once asked me, “Do you know what it’s like to have sex in a Saturn?” “No,” I responded. “Me either!” he quipped. Yes, it’s harder to get laid living in a car without a real bed, but vans make you soft and require less ingenuity with the ladies.

Over my 15 years with Silver, climbing rigs have evolved. Fewer full-time dirtbags meant drastically improved rigs. Patched-together Volkswagen buses and clunky utility vans were replaced by luxurious and expensive Sprinters, which would become one of the most popular climber vans of all time, and for good reason. There are a lot of New York City apartments that aren’t as spacious as a nicely built-out Sprinter. Recently a Sprinter owner served me freshly baked cookies after a day of climbing in Rifle, Colorado.

However, the Sprinter is now being usurped by other brands. Hayden Kennedy went with the Dodge ProMaster because it’s cheaper, more square, and therefore easier to equip. Honnold followed suit. Many climbers are going for the Sprinter-esque Ford Transit. Joey Kinder just purchased the newly released Sprinter 4×4, perhaps the most baller climber’s rig ever. That bastard traded in his infamous maroon Astrovan for a car that costs as much as a mortgage! One of the more impressive rigs I’ve ever seen was a 4×4 Sportsmobile owned by the legendary inventor of the
V scale, John “Verm” Sherman. Verm had satellite television and a fridge so he could drink cold beer and watch sports at the crag.

Of course, vans aren’t for everyone. With a topper or camper shell, the Toyota Tacoma is the epitome of a climber’s car for four-wheel-drive approaches. An informal poll on my Facebook page showed that plenty of climbers swear by the Subaru, with the Outback and Forester getting praise for the ability to fold down the backseat and sleep in them.

In many ways a climber’s car reflects their personality. Some folks keep their rigs immaculate and organized. Others live in a constant state of chaos, like the junk show that was Silver Lightning. Somewhere in my trunk was everything I needed, the only trick was finding it. Once I stumbled upon a year-old petrified turkey avocado sandwich, and on another occasion, I racked up in El Cap Meadow for an in-a-day ascent, only to leave all the doors wide open.

A couple of years after Silver Lightning’s passing, I found my new companion in a blue Dodge Grand Caravan that my wife lovingly named “Big Blue.” With a comfy mattress in the back, Big Blue perfectly suits my current lifestyle. She’s soccer mom fast, making her efficient for weekend road trips with my wife, and a few times a year, I take Big Blue for an extended road trip.

We as climbers need cars, but the elephant in the room is that we should probably all drive less. I look forward to a time when I can get in my self-driving electric van and take a nap while road-tripping to Yosemite with a very low carbon footprint. But we’re not there yet.

The evils of emissions aside, we just can’t help but love our cars. For climbers a car is more than an engine and four wheels. It’s a ticket to our dreams, a path to that epic project or far-off crag. Much like a horse in the wild West, our cars are our trusty steeds, just as important as the carabiners and cams on our racks.  

Cedar Wright is a contributing editor for Climbing. He’s a professional climber, filmmaker, and world-class goofball who resides in Boulder, Colorado.