Photographing Yosemite Climbers Over The Decades With Dean Fidelman

Corbin Usinger highlining at Taft Point
Dean Fidelman

Artist and photographer Dean Fidelman once described himself and his friends – Yosemite’s climbing elite – as wild animals. Athletes that are perhaps less refined in the societal sense, less domesticated than most others – quick to react, slow to forgive, and always passionate about what they want.

They climb hard, that’s what they do. This no-apology attitude rang true the other day when Fidelman stepped through the front door of my little blue house while yelling up a storm.

It was unclear what he was upset about, but once he settled down, that’s when the stories flowed. He talked about the rock climbers from the 1970s called the Stone Masters – “The California Crew That Brought Sex, Drugs, and Free Jazz to Rock Climbing” reads a headline in GQ Style from 2016. He also talked about the crew that preceded them, those before his time, the Golden Age climbers of the ’50s. Then he talked about the crew that came most recently, the Stone Monkeys of the late ’90s and early 2000s.

California's top climbers from the 1970s

He was warming up for later. That night he was presenting at the Mariposa Museum as part of the Yosemite climbing speaker series.

As an award winning photographer and author of five books on Yosemite climbing, Fidelman’s a living, breathing part of history in this area. He calls himself the last Stone Monkey, as he’s the last member of that tribe who still resides in the park.

He’s rough around the edges, sure, and at 63 years old he still smokes filterless cigarettes and rants without a verbal filter. But at the same time he possesses the highest number of historic Yosemite climbing shots of anyone alive.

His most recent project is the biography of his best friend, the late Dean Potter.

A few hours after he showed up at my home, we drove to town and he presented in front of a small, but engaged, audience. Colter Johnson filmed the whole thing as part of the film he’s making on Fidelman called “The Rapture of Soloing on Acid,” which is about Fidelman and the Stone Masters in the 1970s running around the Joshua Tree desert under the guidance of visuals and inspiration from the rocks.

That night at the museum, Fidelman showed the following images and much more. His deep, raspy voice and steady cadence captivated the audience as he went from one image and one story to the next.

John Bachar, Stonemaster

Portrait of John Bachar

Before there was Alex Honnold there was the late, great John Bachar. Yes, there were many other soloists in between, including Derek Hersey (1956-1993) and Michael Reardon (1965 to 2007) but – for clarity – Bachar was the most famous free soloist from the 1970s through the 90s. (Peter Croft is also a famous soloist.) Bachar amassed thousands of pitches via free solo over the decades. He trained both his body and his mind to Olympic levels. Though he attended UCLA to study theoretical math, the other Stone Masters persuaded him hard to drop out of school and climb with them. So he did, and for decades he performed at the highest caliber on the rock. He climbed his final route at age 52 (in 2009), a line outside of his home in Mammoth Lakes, California. But something happened, and he fell.

The Stone Monkeys, El Cap Road

El Cap Road

To the diehard climbers, this shot of the Stone Monkeys (left to right) showing Matt Wilder, Dean Potter, Ivo Ninov, and Ammon McNeely, is as iconic as the Beatles album it’s modeled after. This shot was used in a commercial for Five Ten shoes. Matt is the boulderer and big-wall free climber (and former Rubik’s Cube street performer). Today he’s also a husband, father, and machine-learning consultant who holds a PhD. He’s also competed in American Ninja Warrior where his handle is Dr. Climb.

The late Dean Potter is the aerialist who still holds the Guinness Record for the longest wingsuit BASE flight, where in August 2009 he floated without deploying his parachute for almost 3 minutes, covering 3.4 miles when he leapt off the Eiger.

Ivo and Ammon partnered up for many El Cap speed climbing records. If Ammon looks familiar, it’s because a video of him breaking his leg off in a BASE jump gone wrong went viral in 2013.


Corbin Usinger at Taft Point

Yosemite is a highliners dream. Up there, far above the Valley floor, it’s like skywalking. Here the exposure is measured in thousands of feet. In this shot Corbin Usinger – who is also a solid climber – finds his balance on a line at Taft Point located across from El Capitan.


Dirtbags in Camp 4

I thought dirtbag was a negative term until the Tuolumne Meadows (above Yosemite Valley) climbing ranger informed me that, when it came to climbers, dirtbag meant those that roll-out their sleeping bags in the dirt. She said it’s an endearing term.

Seen here is Dean Fidelman in the red jacket during his first year in Yosemite Valley in the early 1970s. This is how the climbers’ campground, Camp 4, looked back then – a lawless place of dirtbags who were also some best climbers in the country. Dean is standing next to the late John Yablonski, the fiercely strong, bold climber who had many close calls on the rock. He was also one of the first modern free soloists, which to him, often meant shaky “oh-my-gawd” moments. He took his own life many years later.

Dirtbags still reside in Yosemite, but these days you’ll see more Sprinter vans on the side of the road, then you’ll see homeless-looking climbers bopping about.

By most accounts, Dean is homeless. He has a community. He has what he needs – but a brick and mortar roof over his head, he does not. But that’s how he makes it work, by following the seasons, living life on his terms. It’s that freedom, and his decades on the rock and behind the lens that allows him to do his trade. He does it his way.

His biography on Dean Potter will be going up on Kickstarter on July 17.

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