Walking around the valley floor on my first day of being a climber steward, a guy in a black Prius speeds up to the cross walk and tears around the corner.
He never slowed or even looked at me as I crossed the crosswalk, I was inches from his bumper as he sped through.
City driving and no city in sight.
As I turn a corner I catch a glimpse of Half Dome. The flat face staring down at all of us. Blue sky perfectly outlined behind the grey dome. I wonder if there are people on top of it, I wonder if they are looking down at me.
Walking has a way of shaking thoughts loose, and as I stroll through the roundabout, I start to reflect on what it means to be a Climber Steward.
Climbing is the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me a deep connection to nature, to myself, to others. It gave me a purpose.
For the last two years I ran around like one of the lost boys from Peter Pan. I climbed, I didn’t sleep. I ate beans and rice and ketchup. I lived on cliff bars and whatever produce I could find in the dumpsters. I didn’t shower. I used baby wipes and rarely did laundry.
And I chased the summits.
Climbing hit me like a drug. The gear placements, the mental challenge, the physical toll, the connection to nature, the views from the top, the partnerships you develop… It brought me in to myself like nothing ever had.
As one of the four Climber Stewards in Yosemite National Park it will be my job to patrol the walls and to talk to the visitors about rock climbing and what it means to be a climber. I think about this as I make it to the climbing office and wait for 10am to roll by. At 10 I’ll meet one of the climbing rangers and the rest of my team for the next 6 weeks.
Standing at the top of a mountain or a tower or even just a cliff is the closest thing most of us will ever get to a birds eye view. When you can see everything below you, you gain a deeper appreciation of how it all works together. The tops of green pine trees swaying in the breeze look just like the seaweed pulsing with the ocean waves. I can hold the leaves of the maple trees up to the light and see the veins, so much like my own.
This love of nature, this powerful urge to soak the beauty of a place through my pores and make it a part of me, is something I didn’t have before rock climbing.
After all that rock climbing had done to take care of me, I thought it might be time to return the favor.
The minutes tick by and I think about the term ‘Climber Steward.’
To be a steward of climbing, to take care of and preserve a sport is a strange concept. The sport is alive and well and does not need caring for. What needs tending to is the natural spaces this sport inhabits. To be a climbing steward in Yosemite is to protect the rocks, the trails, the vegetation, and the trees.
10am rolls by, I meet my co-stewards and one of the climbing rangers. We sit in rolling office chairs in front of an old wooden desk. One of the climbing rangers hands each of us a packet of official looking papers, and we start to go over it together. We are surrounded by well loved ropes, tattered haul bags, and boxes upon boxes of carabiners. Everything looks functional and used. I’m not sure what it is about rock climbers, but we hate waste. Every climber I know has patched pants, second hand clothes, and t-shirts that anyone else would have thrown away long ago.
Maybe it’s the cost of rock climbing that keeps us in check about overspending, maybe it’s the mentality of ‘take only what you need’ for a climb, maybe it’s just that exposure to nature makes you less likely to throw things away. Whatever it is, rock climbers hold on to the things that they love.
As Climber Stewards, can we connect with park visitors and help them achieve that ‘waste not want not’ mentality that seems to come naturally to rock climbers?
Our introduction to the program is over. We pack up our bags and head down to the bridge to help with our first ‘Ask A Climber’ session. As we set up, people start walking over almost immediately. You can see they’re eager to glimpse the climbers, those daredevils on ropes high above the trees.
During the program people gasp while looking through the telescope, they cross their arms and shake their heads in disbelief. Some of them obviously write us off as crazy, and for some reason this bothers me.
‘We’re not crazy.’ I try to say, ‘Can’t you see? This could be you one day. This could be us out there. Anyone can climb, anyone can feel that exhilaration and love for this place.’
It isn’t crazy to love the outdoors. It isn’t insane to find beauty in the motion of rock climbing and to fall in love with the challenge of big walls. I try to convince people that this is an expression of love, not of insanity that they are seeing.
Some people obviously don’t understand me. One woman looks at me with crossed arms, mouth turned down in an almost comically sever frown.
“So.” She says to get my attention. “They climb up and then how do they get down.” It is a statement, not a question. She appraises me skeptically.
“Well, they hike off the side and then rappel down the back.”
“How long does it take.”
“Oh about 3 to 5 days on average, but the speed record is 1 hour and 58 minutes!”
She raises her eyebrows and scoffs. I can’t tell if she’s impressed or upset.
I’m smiling aggressively, as if by sheer force of will I can get this woman to like me.
“Do you do this.”
“I haven’t yet but I’m planning on it!”
She nods curtly and turns away to whisper something to her husband.
I feel weirdly attacked but don’t have time to dwell on it, someone else wants to ask me ‘how they get the ropes up there.’
As the day goes on, a man in a flat brimmed baseball cap, large diamond earring, several gold rings and brand new timberlands strolls up besides me. He must be at least 6’3” and asks me a question with a thick southern accent.
“Do you rock climb?” He wants to know.
“Yeah.” I smile genuinely, “It’s a lot of fun.”
“Oh my gosh.” He sighs and looks up at El Cap. For a moment we both stand there, silently looking up.
“I would give anything to do this.” He tells me.
We chat for a few minutes. He’s from Kentucky and works in a town with a population of 500. He had two weeks off so he flew to LA, rented a car and is driving up and down the coast visiting all the National Parks he can.
He is in awe of rock climbers. His honesty and earnest yearning for the rock climbing lifestyle is refreshing. Like a dip in the Merced on a hot day, I feel myself relaxing and awakening at the same time. He doesn’t badger me with questions, he just wants to know what it’s like. He wants to quit his job and move out west and learn to rock climb.
I tell him he could get a job in Yosemite in 10 minutes if he wanted to. To him, the idea seems to good to be true and I can tell he doesn’t really believe me. We keep chatting for a few minutes, and of all the people I talk to that day, he stares at El Cap the longest. I leave to help someone else with the scopes, and for the next hour he sits in the Meaddow, holding his hand to his mouth, staring at El Cap.
I lose sight of him for a moment, and then he’s gone. I wonder if, and hope, that he gets back out to Yosemite soon.
4:30 rolls around and we start packing up. The other stewards and I are getting to know each other and we ride together in one van to make it back to camp. There’s only one passenger seat so I sit in the back of a white E350 on top of a spare tire, holding a guitar on my lap and stare out the window through the handmade curtains.
Rock climbing has always been rebellious. In the 50’s and 60’s we denied ourselves the modern comforts of a white picket fence and a washing machine, in the 70’s and 80’s we rebelled against the system in the defiant act of ‘having a good time’, today we continue to defy gravity and traditional comforts to pursue mountain tops and commune with nature.
But I think it needs to be more than that now. In an age where most peoples only contact with nature is through the screens on their phones, it is a rebellious act to bring people outside and help them connect with nature. In a time where our government can only see land as what it could be for profit, it is defiant to preserve these natural spaces. Rock climbing is brave, and beautiful, and fun, and connecting people to that should be a core value of all climbers.
We pull in to our campsite which will be our home for the next 6 weeks. I turn on my propane stove and boil water for tea. The day is coming to an end and I’m gratefully tired from the long hours of interacting with people. I stretch out my arms and yawn.
To be a climber steward, or to be a steward of climbing, is to be a protector and a promoter of our natural world. Maybe if we as rock climbers can all act as stewards, we can keep enjoying the beauty and challenge of this lifestyle for decades to come.
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