Peter Haan

The Left Side of the Hourglass: recollecting the first free ascent.

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Peter Haan in Tuolumne several days before the historic ascent

 

 

The Left Side of the Hourglass: recollecting the first free ascent.

 

©Peter Haan

June, 2006

Much earlier version published in Adventure Journal  spring, 2000

 

 

It was the summer of 1971 a year after the National Guard had seized Yosemite Valley briefly during the Stoneman Meadow Fourth of July riots.  The Guardsmen had stood menacingly at the park entrance with their deadly rifles for a couple of days, while the innocent paradise which they presumed themselves to be guarding behind them, eternally and indifferently towered on.

 

For a decade already, the country had been gripped simultaneously by an historic  battle for civil rights and a terrible war in Southeast Asia.  These struggles permeated everything.  I had been out of college since 1970 climbing a tremendous amount at most every opportunity except for wintering in Santa Cruz for my other passion, the big surf.  I had escaped the draft via a hernia that    remains to this day incipient.  Without knowing my diversion would be so easy, I had been preparing to defend a conscientious objector’s position; if need be, lighting out for Canada.  And then suddenly I was free, and took to the mountains.

The Salathe Wall Solo

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The Salathe Wall Solo

By Peter Haan

Reprinted from: American Alpine Club Journal, 1972

 

With so much history and poppycock tales about the Salathe Wall, a solo of it might seem outrageous and desperate.  But it wasn't that way at all.  Climbing stories and the climbing imagination in their new hyperactivity and peculiar neediness brusquely race past the humble realities of rest places, large ledges, good protection and fun climbing, or in the "professional" or hard man arena, past climbing itself.  When this modern trend, these fantasies, and gossip are contained in a little Yosemite Valley campground, covetousness and absurd slickness develop; an opaque fog gathers while the mud begins to form.  It is no one's fault, this mud, but yours or mine if we sling it. So who, in 1972, can tell the way back or out to the clear and simple privacy of one's own climbing and love for the granite experience?  Personal hardness or cynical pressure cannot render crystalline and geologic an indefinite smog of feckless rumor and struggle.  The Valley climber is both the victor and victim of his brothers and an international theater of acclaim.  A small bay of confusion and carefully silent jealousy often form behind him, as he becomes a part of that international theater and the first ascents prayer wheel.  To pay attention to this reaction is to give it currency, and to open oneself to it, a grave injustice to one's passion. So we have to ignore everything but what is up there: one is always more skilled than almost anyone else wants one to be.  Push off from all the articles, guides, ratings, reputations, fads, teachers, and even friends; in good sense do what ever you will.  Thus my ascents or yours, as well as this article, are actually no one's business, especially since it seems inevitable that integrity and inspiration become identified nowadays in cheap dramatic terms with any problems (real o fabricated) to which my climbing or yours might be imagined by others as a kind of answer.

The Birth of Wheat Thin

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The Birth of Wheat Thin

 

After a fairly big season, summer wearing on, Bridwell and I went up to the Meadows to climb with Robbins and Jeff Dozier for the day.  RR had just arrived for a quick trip with Jeff and his idea for an outing with the four of us, was Rawl Drive on Lembert Dome, now rated 5.10aR/X. Appropriately the only real pitch followed a line of widely spaced bolts up the handsome west face of Lembert, after negotiating a rib lower down after the first belay.  With RR leading off over the horizon in fabulous blue skies, and Jeff then also disappearing, Bridwell and I, being the youngsters of the group and certainly the self-styled bad boys, were left alone briefly to hone our skills of abject ridicule.  You see, by this point, August 1971, we both knew RR and Jeff were just grand old men and had had to give up their reins to us squirts who certainly would know how to finally kick the horse in the flanks.

 

The First El Capitan Rescue 1970

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The First El Capitan Rescue 1970

 

Summers in Yosemite can be wonderful.  In the shade of huge pines and firs while under sheltering cliffs during sweet afternoons, millions have enjoyed playing in the meadows and the river as time seemed to soften and lose its demanding edge.  Incredible scenic hikes lead off in every direction. Families spend appointed weeks every year here for generations and with the thousands of points of interest, go away fulfilled, relaxed and well-fed, decade after decade.

The First Bad Weather El Cap Rescue, 1970

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The First Bad Weather El Cap Rescue, 1970

 

In late October, Yosemite usually gets its first serious two-day storm bringing hints of ice, snow, and the dangerous changes of the approaching season. 

 

I was about to leave Yosemite for the season, and had started to figure out how to do a couple of months in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz without my Valley.  It was 1970.

 

But I was still there, and with over twenty of my friends and colleagues a really large operation was being organized for the first big rescue on El Cap that involved bad weather.  Schmitz, Bridwell, myself, Klemens and just about everyone else who was still in Camp, were suddenly on Federal staff. A party of two men on the West Buttress was being watched closely.  They had sustained some bad freezing weather below the Grand Traverse, weren’t adequately protected and had gotten dangerously wet.  And it appeared that they weren’t really progressing.  Eventually, they started to call out, and it became clear that they had decided they needed help, although it obviously was something they did not want to face. 

HISTORIC ROOT FOUND ON WASHINGTON COLUMN

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HISTORIC ROOT FOUND ON WASHINGTON COLUMN

 

For a few decades the Direct Route on Washington Column received frequent ascents, and was originally a significant milestone in Yosemite climbing, dating from 1940.  Only 5.7 and 11 pitches, it had nonetheless certain legendary chimney pitches such as the Reigelhuth, Fat Man, Charley Brown, and Great Chimneys, as well as a subtle, intimidating and airy friction step that got you access to one of the cruxes.  By the late sixties it had become a trade route and was usually included in spring training, sometimes unroped.  It was harder and steeper than the Arches and could be used as a link to North Dome routes above.  These Dome routes are currently some of the Valley’s finer and popular routes.  The Column route had lots of trees, ledges at all belays, and some route finding challenges, kind of an adventure climb from way back.  This route still exists, can be climbed in the original manner, although there are a few bolts and pins on it now and I imagine that months and months go by with it seeing no one on it.  You either descend North Dome Gully or hike down the Y. Falls trail.

FOURTH ASCENT OF THE WEST FACE OF EL CAPITAN 1971

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FOURTH ASCENT OF THE WEST FACE OF EL CAPITAN 1971

 

Charlie Jackson came to the Valley in 1971.  He was a strong, short, good-looking teenage climber from Stamford and a good family.  CJ wasn’t like many of the other Camp habitués; he was an organized, extremely determined, really clean and well-spoken East Coaster.  But he was also very sturdy and physical, and no nerd. Many liked him; he wanted to get a lot done on his trip alone out to Yosemite, and one of the real focuses he had was to somehow climb a route on El Cap even though this would be without benefit of much background or experience and while he was quite young.  He clearly was adventure-oriented and probably saw also in climbing a way of becoming a man of quality even though at this time he already had a highly defined sense of self and good judgement. In fact we shared a number of personal characteristics.  Many young guys had a roughly similar desire, but couldn’t network or develop the possibilities into a plan so either after years of somewhat hapless camping they finally would get up something or just eventually disappear.  CJ was on the alert to these perilous scraggly California types though and would not descend to the dirtbag druggy society many in camp wriggled in self-destructively.  In fact he was a bit amazed by them.

Driving Miss Bridwell

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BUILDING CLIMBING IN BERKELEY SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES

 

Building climbing in Berkeley was this kind of secret science.  It almost always had to be at night.  You were never sure who else was doing it, but you knew there were other worthless characters slithering around too, because their climbing shoes left definite black tracks all over and chalk marks appeared as well.  Sometimes some of the decrepit concrete castings would come off also.  Building climbing did no harm, we told ourselves, and we stood on tradition thinking that “The Night Climbers of Cambridge” was our justification and bible, even though none of us had a copy, nor had ever read it.  But we knew Al Steck and all of his group had, so we kept on going.  Nothing stands in the way of belief, obviously.  And the awesome vigor of young climbers hopefully on their way up.

 

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