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Camp4 Is an Iconic Part of Climbing History

Climbers work on the “Midnight Lightning” boulder problem near Camp 4. Photo: Recreation.gov//Yosemite National Park


The Inertia

On the north side of Yosemite Valley, at the base of one of the world’s most iconic rock formations, El Capitan, is a renegade campground known for its colorful tents and innovative athletes that thrive outside the mainstream. It’s a place that’s become iconic in climbing history.

The Ahwahneechee Native Americans named Half Dome the “Face of a Young Woman Stained with Tears,” due to colonies of lichens that have formed the dark, weeping-like stripes along drainage tracks on the face of Half Dome. Legendary photographer Ansel Adams captured its stark beauty. But climbers have continued to test themselves there and expand the limits of human achievement – and Camp 4 is at the heart of it all.

Aside from being in the center of Yosemite Valley, one may think that Camp 4 is quite…well…average. But this patch of dirt is rich with significance. Nowadays, when driving or hiking over to Camp 4, there is an overwhelming sense of admiration and excitement that pulses through the campground. Climbers fill the camp, chalking their hands for bouldering on routes like Midnight Lightning, prepping their gear for bigger climbs, and laughing as they flop onto crash pads.

In 2003, Camp 4 was officially listed on the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places for “its significant association with the growth and development of rock climbing in the Yosemite Valley during the ‘golden years’ of pioneer mountaineering.” This came after a contentious battle between climbers and the National Park Service, which insisted on calling the camp “Sunnyside.”

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The NSP and the Curry Company, Yosemite’s only concessionaire, wanted the dirtbag climbers out of the valley to make way for Winnebago hookups and larger, more commercial camp settings. But a group of climbers fought for saving the place. And in 1999, did just that. As climbing writer Doug Robinson wrote, “Camp 4 is the physical and spiritual home of the Yosemite climbers.” And so it became an icon.

In the way that schools say legends walked the halls, one can attest that in Yosemite, legends have climbed these walls.

Camp 4 Is an Iconic Part of Climbing History

Tent city in Camp 4, where legacies are solidified. Photo: Recreation.gov//Yosemite National Park

It all started, so they say, back in the 1950s “Golden Age” of climbing, defined by rivals Royal Robbins and Warren Harding in their 14-year duel to eclipse one another. With nylon ladders and thin boots, climbing in the mid twentieth century looked a lot different than it does today. It was a sport that didn’t fully exist yet, which means “proper” gear didn’t either. Rather than tighten up a harness, one would tie a piece of webbing around themselves and hope that it stayed together while wedging metal pitons into cracks on a wall of rock.

Down in Camp 4, the dirtbag dream life was truly underway: a-climb-all-day and drink-all-night antithesis of a postwar middle-class America that was optimizing a comfortable, albeit monotonous existence in the suburbs. While Robbins and Harding undoubtedly motivated the climbing revolution, the two could not have been more different. A scholarly and intuitive Robbins sat beneath a tree reading poetry and writing in his notebook, thoughtfully mapping out routes and personal ethics to follow while climbing. To Robbins, climbing was as much a spiritual practice as it was physical, and he believed that “Getting to the top is nothing. How you do it is everything.”

Almost entirely at his opposite was the party-hard Harding, who climbed with rigor, lawlessness, delinquency, and lots of alcohol. Harding saw Robbins’ warrior-poet set of rules as restrictive to the bold freedom that he loved about climbing, and he did most anything that he could in order to reach the top.

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Over the years, the two men pushed back and forth on their rivalry, outshining the other with each achievement. The face of Half Dome, the face of El Cap, the nose of El Cap, The Dawn Wall and so on. While their techniques and perspectives varied immensely, these two uncontested greats of their time paved the way for the climbing world that ensued. All while using the now-famous Camp 4 as their base.

Camp4 Is an Iconic Part of Climbing History

The reason Camp 4 exists in the first place, El Cap. Photo: Avery Schuyler Nunn

More climbers flocked to the valley and more innovative gear was produced. In the trunk of one climber’s car outside of Camp 4, backyard-made pitons and carabiners came to lay the foundation for the future of climbing. The climber, who at the time was happily living off of cans of cat food, was Yvon Chouniard.

The next age in climbing throughout the 1970s and 1980s was that of the ‘Stone Masters,’ led by Camp 4 climbers like Jim Bridwell, who bounded into the valley with heaps of LSD and vastly new levels of athleticism.

Lynn Hill, who started as a teenager keeping up with the boys and climbing under the wing of Bridwell , set new standards for both women in climbing and climbing culture itself by making the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in 1993.

Which brings us to the latest generation of Camp 4 climbers, referred to as the ‘Stone (or, more, playfully, Stoned) Monkeys.’ Climbers like Tommy Caldwell, the late Dean Potter, Chris Sharma, Michaela Kiersch, Aaron Jones, Alex Puccio, Alex Honnold and more continue to expand the limits of climbing through tougher routes, bigger walls and even free solos (thank you Mr. Honnold). With every attempt and ascent bringing us closer to those human limits. Yes, Camp 4 is a place rich with history. And as much a part of Yosemite as the endless walls of granite.

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