History of the Cragmont Climbing Club

The Early History of the Cragmont Climbing Club from Camp 4

by Steve Roper (reprinted with permission)

First Ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire

During the winter of 1931-32 Jules Eichorn began experimenting with ropes on three small Berkeley practice rocks with law student Dick Leonard, lawyer Bestor Robinson, and a handful of others. On March 13, 1932, the small band formed the Cragmont Climbing Club, named after one of the Berkeley rocks. In November this informal club merged with the Sierra Club's new Rock Climbing Section, always referred to as simply the RCS. Some climbers weren't happy with this merge, feeling there should be a special category called "Cragmont Climbers" for the CCC founders who hadn't joined the Sierra Club. But cliques were unacceptable to the new RCS leaders, so the idea was abandoned.

Since safety was uppermost in everyone's mind, the RCS climbers, now numbering fifty-two, spent much or 1932 and 1933 learning to belay and rappel properly. They quickly discovered that the European shoulder belay--or its variant, the under-the-armpits belay--wasn't for them: it was a crude and even dangerous technique. So they invented the hip belay, in which the rope was placed around the lower waist, thus affording a more stable center of gravity. The belayers also experimented with letting the rope slip slightly around the waist when bringing a falling leader to a stop. This "dynamic" belay eased the strain on the two humans and the rope itself, the weak link in the equipment chain. Over and over again, for hours at a time, the neophytes jumped off overhangs to be caught by ropes tended by well anchored and well padded belayers. It was fun--and it was instructive.

Those California mountaineers who had seen Yosemite Valley knew that its cliffs were orders of magnitude above lowly Cragmont Rock. Leonard, by 1933 the prime mover of the group (one could, without much argument, call him the father of California rock climbing), insisted that no one was going to climb in Yosemite until he or she had mastered the proper techniques. That this took a few years may seem strange, but these folks were either serious students or young professionals; neither group had the time or money, especially at the height of the Depression, to go climbing often. In fact, they thought it a good season if they went to the local rocks eight times a year and to the High Sierra once.

At the start of Labor Day weekend in 1933, seven vehicles independently puttered up the winding roads of the Sierra foothills, encountering other cars only occasionally, even thought it was a Friday night. The caravan, containing the most overtrained rockclimbers in America, was at last approaching the granite of Yosemite Valley. No one had ever done a roped climb in this place--and seventeen people now hoped to change this.

The gorge they entered was by no means as pristine as it had been when members of the Mariposa Battalion rode into it in 1851. Those soldiers, pursuing Indians who had been harassing white settlers in the foothills below, discovered a paradise, one not to last long. The whites quickly moved in bringing "civilization" with them. Stage roads appeared gradually; so did rustic hotels. Then in 1913, automobiles were allowed into the Valley--and the stampede began.

But the Valley was still relatively unspoiled in September 1933; a few lodges stood near the Merced River or serene side creeks, blending beautifully into the forest. A small store sold cans of beans and not much else. Rangers didn't carry guns, and they actually waved to you as they passed. The Yosemite "jail"--a room in the post office--saw perhaps three drunks a year. The trails were paths, not paved thoroughfares.

The drive from the Bay Area took six hours or so, and the climbers who left late Friday didn't get much sleep that night. Around midnight they finally pulled into Camp 9, one of about six Valley campgrounds. Located directly beneath the mighty curves of the Royal Arches, this pleasant forested site, known familiarly as the Organization Campground, was to be home to virtually every Sierra Club rock-climbing outing during the 1930s.

September 2, 1933, marks the true beginning of serious roped Valley climbing. On this Saturday most members of the RCS spread out into the nearby mountains or into easy gully climbs; even though they had received rigid training, these climbers remained scramblers at heart, interested in rope climbing management mainly to get them out of trouble when needed.

Four determined men, however, set out to attempt the Valley's first roped climb. Leonard, Eichorn, and Robinson teamed up with chemist Hervey Voge for an attempt on the jutting prow called the Washington Column, located across the Valley from the Half Dome massif. (The formation, named around 1865, supposedly resembles our first president from some angles; the likeness escapes me entirely.) Why the Column instead of some other cliff? The answer: trees. Many of the Valley's cliffs were treeless and steep, and therefore terrifying. The Column, steep though it was, blossomed with trees. This meant safe belay stance and ready-made rappel points if things went bad.

Having spent the morning on a reconnaissance of the Valley, the foursome didn't rope up until midafternoon. But soon they were climbing efficiently up the broken, slightly decomposed rock, in three hours reaching what became known as Lunch Ledge. This inconspicuous spot, some 1,000 feet above the talus, lay only halfway up the Column. The hour was late and the climbing looked hard above--too hard to rush and too steep to do safely. In fact, safety was uppermost in everyone's mind, especially Eichorn's, for just four days earlier he had buried, on a remote High Sierra spire, the shattered body of mountaineer Walter Starr, Jr., who had fallen while solo climbing.

Down they rappelled on their hemp ropes, using the newly acquired Dülfer method, a German technique that required wrapping the rope around the body. This "body rappel" could be painful if proper padding wasn't used, but if all went well, it was exhilarating. "Possibly the greatest sport in rock-climbing," wrote Leonard about a later descent, "is the thrill of roping down in long bounds through space, of dropping almost freely with something of the acceleration of gravity, then stopping smoothly under full control."

On Monday the same quartet climbed back to Lunch Ledge, intent on finishing the route. They managed to get only fifty feet higher before a steep, decomposed chimney stopped them, so down they went once again, this time to pile into their cars and start the long drive home: the holiday weekend was over. Incomplete though the Lunch Ledge climb was, it was a huge step upward from Cragmont Rock.

If you gaze up at Washington Column today, you will be hard-pressed to locate Lunch Ledge, a nondescript platform. The first time I did the route, in 1957, I was sorely disappointed. "But where's the ledge?" I asked my experienced companion as he began setting up the rappel. "You're standing on it, dumbo," he said.

As a cheeky sixteen-year-old, I thought little of the significance of this first Yosemite climb; I was out for difficulty and summits and glory. Later, when I had read more about the old-timers, I would sometimes climb to the ledge alone and try to imagine what they had felt as they climbed with their half-inch hemp ropes and their crepe-rubber-soled tennis shoes. Thinking about doing a body rappel on five-sixteenth-inch hemp, I could almost feel its bristly texture sawing my body in half.

Lunch Ledge was simply an exploratory climb, a flexing of the muscles. Bigger challenges lay everywhere, and the RCS members well knew it. "When are you people going to climb the Cathedral Spires?" asked everyone who heard of the new RCS activities. Named in 1862, the two Cathedral Spires rise boldly out of the forested talus on the south side of the Valley, opposite El Capitan. Easily the biggest free-standing formations in California, they impressed all who viewed them, tourists and climbers alike. Both shafts look impregnable--and therefore challenging--but the climbers of the thirties naturally wanted to reach the higher and more impressive one first. Its downhill side, the 1,000-foot-high northwest face visible from the Valley floor, was obviously "impossible," and twenty-six years would go by before anyone even attempted it. But the uphill side of the Higher Cathedral Spire, where it merged into the steep slope, was but 400 feet high. Was there a route on this hidden south face?

On the Sunday of the historic Labor Day trip of 1933, Eichorn, Robinson, and Leonard had hiked up to the southern base of the Higher Spire (climbers have always referred to the two pinnacles as simply the Higher Spire and the Lower Spire, omitting "Cathedral"). Leonard wrote about his first impression: "After four hours of ineffectual climbing on the southwest face, and three hours more upon the southeast and east faces, we were turned away by the sheer difficulty of the climbing." It's no wonder they failed: their "pitons" on this reconnaissance were ten-inch-long nails!

On November 5, armed with pitons and carabiners obtained by mail from Sporthaus Schuster, a large sporting-goods store in Munich, the trio returned to the southern face and managed to climb two pitches before darkness forced a retreat. "By means of pitons as a direct aid," Leonard wrote, "we were able to overcome two holdless, vertical, ten-foot pitches." This attempt is historic, for it signified the first use of artificial aid in Yosemite--and one of the first times in the country. The technique of driving piton into the rock in order to grab them, or to stand on them, or to attach slings to them--in other words, to use them to gain elevation--was common in the Alps. Underhill, trained in Europe, might have been expected to embrace this technique, but he was unyielding on the use of artificial aid: "Every pitch," he wrote, "must be surmounted by one's own unaided abilities." The pioneer Yosemite climbers respect Underhill, of course, but confronting firsthand the smoothness and sheerness of the Valley's cliffs, they realized they would not get far unless they used, occasionally at least, some form of "artificial" techniques. The trick, as they saw it, was to use as little direct aid as possible: the game was climbing, after all, not engineering. This adventurous attitude was to be emulated by most of the better climbers in the years to come.

The three men took their Higher Spire project so seriously that during the winter of 1933-34 they examined photographs of the pinnacle with a microscope and a protractor, trying to determine the lowest-angled terrain--still some seventy-five degrees in most places. After ordering more pitons from Sporthaus Schuster (they now possessed fifty-five), the trio was set to go as soon as the snow melted.

Higher Cathedral Spire

The Valley's first climbing spectators accompanied Leonard, Eichorn, and Robinson to the base of the Higher Spire on April 15, 1934, and present were two high-powered ones: Farquhar, by now the president of the Sierra Club, and Bert Harwell, the park's chief naturalist, on hand to witness history. In a few hours the trio had reached their previous high point, a ledge at the base of a steep orange trough later known as the Rotten Chimney. Here, Eichorn and Leonard alternated pounding in the crude spikes, hanging on to them to inch upward. Where the crack ended, Leonard made a clever traverse out to the left to reach easier ground. Finally, as the sun turned the Valley golden, the men nailed a last pitch to the spacious summit and planted an American flag--surly the only time such a practice ever took place in Yosemite.

The Lower Spire, just down the talus slope from its neighbor, was almost as imposing, though not as perfectly shaped. On November 4, 1933, Leonard, Eichorn, and Robinson had tried the pinnacle, failing halfway up when faced with sheer wall. Flushed by their success on the Higher Spire, however, the same trio managed to make the Lower Spire, after one more failure, on August 25, 1934. Overall, the climb was easier than its bigger neighbor, but one pitch presented special difficulties. From a huge platform halfway up the spire, a fairly blank eighty-five-degree wall barred progress. Using a shoulder stand and aid pitons, and changing the lead six times, the team finally approached a fantastic piece of granite, the Flake. Leonard described it as "a very thin sheet of granite, thirty feet high and twenty feet broad, standing out about ten inches from the main cliff. At the outer edge it is not more than a quarter of an inch thick." To reach this formation, the leader had to first lasso a sharp projection on it, then climb hand over hand, and finally swing a leg over the projection. The difficulties, however, were hardly over. Traditional lieback technique was out of the question because of the Flake's fragility, so a new procedure came into play: Leonard, by now the leader, used his piton hammer to knock "a series of nicks" on the knife edge. These manmade footholds allowed him to move upward about twenty feet without placing much outward strain on the Flake, and soon Leonard waved to his companions from the top of the pitch. The trio reached the top a few hours later.

The three men thought nothing of altering the rock to suit their needs. "Safety first" was their motto, and one can hardly blame them for not wishing to pull strait out on the monstrous blade of granite. They simply regarded manufacturing holds as necessary. Luckily, this technique was not to be emulated (with rare exceptions) for many decades, when altering the rock became highly controversial.

By and large, the two Cathedral Spire climbs of 1934 set a marvelous standard for future climbers. An ethic had unconsciously evolved, one that seems to me to speak volumes about the character of the three climbers involved. Train hard for a climb and know what you're getting into. Be bold--but practice proper safety measures. Don't be afraid to turn back. Most of all, don't subdue the rock with technology: use sophisticated gear--but use it wisely. Except for the hold-cutting on the Lower Spire, these three men did a splendid job. They are the first modern-day climbing heroes of Yosemite.