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Yosemite will get its first permanent rock climbing exhibit. It’s a ‘long time coming’

Original El Capitan climber talks about the historic feat

It was 1958 when George Whitmore joined a team led by pioneering rock climber Warren Harding. The climbers were the first to scale Yosemite Valley's monolithic El Capitan.
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It was 1958 when George Whitmore joined a team led by pioneering rock climber Warren Harding. The climbers were the first to scale Yosemite Valley's monolithic El Capitan.

Ken Yager has been collecting artifacts since the early 1990s used by rock climbers in Yosemite National Park in hopes the park would someday get a permanent rock climbing exhibit.

More than 25 years later, the National Park Service has promised to make Yager’s dream a reality.

A letter of intent was signed for Yosemite’s first permanent rock climbing exhibit, to be housed in the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Yager hopes it will open by Memorial Day 2020. Fundraising has started and design firms will be interviewed next week.

The exhibit will showcase the history of rock climbing in Yosemite, which started in the 1800s and includes famed conservationist John Muir. Rock climbs completed in Yosemite have been key in developing climbing as a sport. The world’s best climbers continue to flock to the park to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

The exhibit will also be interactive. Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, wants visitors to be able to hop on a portaledge – a hanging tent used by climbers who spend multiple days on big wall climbs – and try placing climbing equipment into a crack.

Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said the exhibit is a “long time coming.”

“We are very excited to partner with the Yosemite Climbing Association,” Gediman said, “and to tell this important and integral part of Yosemite’s history. … Rock climbing has always been popular here in Yosemite, and over the past several years its popularity has not only increased, but the appeal has really increased. People are always asking about rock climbing routes and famous climbers.”

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Yager said the documentary “Free Solo” – about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without protection from ropes and climbing gear – winning an Oscar earlier this year helped put rock climbing in the mainstream.

“Suddenly it’s a lot different,” Yager said, “and climbing will be in the Olympics. It’s a whole new ball game now. That’s why it’s more than ready for a climbing exhibit in the park.”

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Curious onlookers gather in El Capitan Meadow in Yosemite National Park to see the progress of climbers Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan earlier in January 2015. Craig Kohlruss ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Yosemite Conservancy and the American Alpine Club are fundraising for the exhibit. There’s at least $200,000 from donors for the project, but around half a million is needed to “do it right,” said Frank Dean, conservancy president.

Some climbing equipment collected include hammers and ropes used by John Salathé, considered the “grandfather” of big wall climbing in Yosemite, Yager said, and the climbing shoes Lynn Hill wore when she became the first person to free climb The Nose route on El Capitan in 1993.

Yager previously organized a well-received, temporary rock climbing exhibit in the Yosemite Museum called “Granite Frontiers.”

“It was amazing how many people that weren’t climbers who would go in there and read everything,” Yager said. “People were spending hours in there.”

Yosemite Climb
Climbers Tommy Caldwell, left, and Kevin Jorgeson, right, speak during a press conference in Yosemite Valley near the base of El Capitan Thursday morning, Jan. 15, 2015 in Yosemite National Park. Eric Paul Zamora ezamora@fresnobee.com

The climbing artifacts were later shown in the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and by the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

Yager said the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, near the Yosemite Museum, was chosen for the new exhibit because there wasn’t space for it in the museum year-round due to other rotating exhibits.

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George Whitmore, 85, one of the three men on the first team to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, is seen on a hike to Taft Point with El Capitan in the background across Yosemite Valley on May 26, 2016. . ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Yager also helped start Yosemite’s Ask a Climber program so visitors could get more information about climbing. Additionally, he’s the founder and organizer of Yosemite Facelift, a massive annual volunteer cleanup in the park hosted by the Yosemite Climbing Association. The association is fundraising for those efforts and others. It will open a storefront in June in Mariposa, at 5180 Highway 140, where more climbing artifacts will be displayed.

An exhibit featuring the history of Yosemite rock climbing, featuring some items collected by Yager, is also on display through September at the Mariposa Museum, 5119 Jessie St., Mariposa.

The American Alpine Club will induct Yager into its Hall of Mountaineering Excellence during a June celebration in Colorado. He started rock climbing at age 12.

“As a kid I pushed it a little bit maybe, and I think it was because I grew up thinking I was going to go to Vietnam, that I was going to get drafted and not be able to shoot anyone,” Yager said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to live past 18. … Climbing was my whole life and I felt like it kept me out of trouble. … I feel like climbing kind of saved my life in some ways and I want to give something back to climbing.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.
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