At seven miles long and one mile wide, Yosemite Valley is roughly the size of Manhattan, and its influence, at least in the rock-climbing world, is similarly outsize. Its iconic granite faces — El Capitan, Cathedral, and Half Dome — have hosted just about every major development in the sport for the past 50 years. "It's like mecca," says 29-year-old climber Alex Honnold, who in 2012 accomplished the unprecedented feat of free-soloing (climbing without ropes) the park's three highest faces in one day. "There's just so much that inspires you to do bigger and harder things."
The new documentary Valley Uprising recounts the area's remarkable history, from pioneers like Royal Robbins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard to today's supernatural athletes, like Honnold. The film also captures the enduring spirit of America's counterculture: The early climbing scene was simply an outpost for San Francisco beatniks, after all. "We tried to reflect what was going on in America," says Nick Rosen, who co-directed the film with his Sender Films partner Peter Mortimer.
The park's tallest cliff, 3,000-foot El Capitan, is where the best climbers made their marks. Warren Harding, a brandy-swilling local, took 18 months to achieve the first ascent, in 1958. In 1975, Jim Bridwell — typically stoned and sporting a Fu Manchu — discarded the hoisting equipment of previous generations in favor of free-climbing, using ropes only for protection, and conquered El Cap in a day. Twenty years later, Dean Potter not only summits in a matter of hours, but does it after climbing Half Dome that morning.
Nearly all these achievements grew out of life in Camp 4, the closest campground to the cliffs. For decades climbers flocked to the site, supplementing their diet with complimentary butter and crackers from the park cafeteria. "We camped together, we trained together, we climbed together," Dale Bard, a Yosemite fixture in the 1970s, says in the film. "We were a tribe." In 1977, when the most elite climbers in Camp 4 called themselves the Stonemasters, a Colombian drug plane carrying dozens of bushels of weed crashed into nearby Lake Merced. Climbers got to the scene first and made a fortune. As one Stonemaster in the film puts it: "We were basically the kings of utopia."
Park rangers thought otherwise. In 1970, a clash broke out between the rangers and Vietnam protesters, and the park later instituted a one-week camping limit. The climbers retreated to makeshift illegal camps at the base of the cliffs, changing utopia for good.
Valley Uprising chronicles the loss of a lifestyle but, in a gripping final scene capturing an illegal climb/BASE jump, also shows that history is still being created high above the valley floor. "It's the best climbing in the world," says Honnold. "You can just look up at the big rock faces and they speak for themselves."
Jim Bridwell, top left, pioneers free-climbing in Yosemite in the 1970s. (Courtesy Werner Braun / Sender Films)
Rocking out on El Cap in the 1970s (Courtesy Bob Gaines / Sender Films)