Hazardous Ascents: El Capitan and Climbing
Ansel Adams Original Photographs
A person lucky enough to contemplate Ansel Adams’ “El Capitan, Sunrise” (1956) might see many things. They might see the indifferent mountain standing watch over the valley below. They might see the brilliant contrast between the cool, dusky shadows of Yosemite Valley and the dazzling gash of sunlight reflected off El Capitan’s broad face. They will surely see an iconic and enduring image of the American West, one that has come to represent the untamed wilderness of Yosemite, looming large in our national imagination. But a dedicated climber sees something else entirely: a challenge.
For experienced mountain climbers, Yosemite is the center of the universe. And while the death-defyingly sheer granite cliff faces of the Yosemite Valley tend to get the most attention, climbers come from around the world to test their mettle against Yosemite’s other climbs too: the sustained crack climbs of the Merced River Valley, the knob and slab ascents of Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite’s status as a site of pilgrimage for dedicated climbers is as true today as it was during Adams’ life; in 2017, climber Alex Honnold captured the world’s imagination by becoming the first person to “free solo” El Capitan—that is, to climb it alone, without a rope.
For his own part, Ansel Adams was an avid climber. He had to be. In order to capture the grandeur and scale of the American West, he had no alternative but to seek out America’s most stunning vistas. Adams knew—perhaps better than any other photographer—that sometimes the only way to capture the grandeur of a landscape is to look down on it. And there’s only one way to the top of a mountain: up.
Perhaps no image typifies this ethic better than Adams’ “The Sentinel, Yosemite Valley” (c. 1923), which looks down on the Yosemite Valley below, with Sentinel Rock standing at attention in the foreground. Not pictured, of course, is the arduous journey up the mountain—with gear in tow—required to capture this magnificent image.
In his autobiography, Adams writes, “For our more hazardous mountain ascents [geologist and lifelong friend Francis Holman] and I tied ourselves together with a fifteen-foot length of window sash cord about an eighth of an inch in diameter. We climbed without thought of a belay. Had one of us fallen, the other would either have been pulled along or cut in two by the cord.” A similar method can be seen in Adams’ “Climbing Blacksmith Peak, Sawtooth Ridge, Sierra Nevada, California” (1934), in which two climbers can be seen scrambling along with nothing but a lone rope between them. In an interview with Backpacker, Adams said of his early climbing days, “it’s a miracle I’m alive.”
As climbing techniques became more sophisticated, sheer cliff faces like El Capitan, or Zion National Park’s Great White Throne (photographed by Adams in 1942) suddenly became climbable. El Capitan was conquered in 1958, Great White Throne in 1967.
But Adams himself had a complicated relationship with the dramatic changes to the sport of climbing, some of which conflicted with his beliefs in environmental preservation. As he writes in his autobiography, “…the sheer faces of El Capitan and Half Dome were scaled by techniques of engineering that I find difficult to accept. A mountain can be climbed with delight and otherwise perilous slopes can be ascended with the use of ropes. I abhor the drilling of expansion-bolt holes in the pristine flanks of El Capitan and Half Dome; it is a desecration.” Looking at the sheer face of El Capitan in “El Capitan, Sunrise,” or in 1927’s “El Capitan,” it’s easy to see why Adams felt that way. In both images, the cliff’s wide, smooth face looks more like the work of a master sculptor than like the product of glacial erosion. As one of Yosemite’s most influential conservationists, preserving the cliff face in its natural state was—to Adams—even more important than scaling it.
One of the most famous quotes associated with climbing comes from explorer and mountaineer George Mallory. In 1923—just four years before Adams would make his Parmelian Print series—Mallory was asked why, after his first two attempts had failed, he would want to try to climb Mount Everest again. “Because it’s there,” he replied.
Perhaps conquering a mountain means summiting it. Perhaps it means capturing its essence in a photograph. Regardless, it is because of the work of conservationists like Ansel Adams that the gorgeous cliffs and peaks of Yosemite will continue to be “there” for generations to come.
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Last Updated on April 26, 2022