Valley Uprising: A Peek into the World of Rock Climbing in Yosemite

Modern rock climbers ascended upon Yosemite National Park in California during the 1950s. The history is filled with facts, climber lore and legends, as well as the evolution of the sport of rock climbing. Valley Uprising: Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution follows a 60 year timeline through a compilation of interviews, old video footage, and animated photographs.

The documentary, which was released in 2014, basically breaks down the history by generations. Perhaps the most interesting segment is the 1950s through 1970s, which was considred to be the era of the Stone Masters. A few key players went out to Yosemite to climb the mighty rock faces such as Half Dome and El Capitan, including Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard. This is not to say that they were the first climbers in the area, but through the lens of the filmmakers, we learn that they participated in the the beginning of what rock climbing is today. The film hones in on contradicting view points of climbers from each generation – the purists who stuck to their set rules and a form of climbing that is respectful to the park, other participants, and to the mountains VS the more wild and spontaneous climbers who lived to break rules and records.

We’re also introduced to the dirtbag way of life. The term dirtbag is often used in outdoor communities referring to the spontaneous and frugal ways of those who choose to live simpler, though sometimes less secure lives, in order to pursue the recreational activities that they love. (It sounds very textbook when you word it that way, but it’s an overall explanation.) The dirtbags that came to Yosemite hunkered down at Camp 4, a walk-in only campsite near Yosemite Falls. Many shenanigans took place in the camp, so much so that an ongoing feud erupted between climbers and forest rangers, one which still persists to this day.

Rock climbing evolved over the decades, as did the tools of the trade. The climbers of the 1950s-70s took part in aide climbing, using equipment to hold body weight while scaling rock walls. Next was free climbing with fingers and toes gripping into the rock with only a safety line tethering one to the wall. Upper body strength became a must in order to pull ones weight up on a climb. After enough people gained interest in free climbing, others began free soloing – the art of scaling rock face without a safety line.

The community never considered their practice to be a career, but advertisers and the sporting industry made it an option during the 1980s. The media also promoted sport climbing as an extreme sport. Holes were pre-drilled, bolts were inserted, and new climbers appeared on the scene who went for climbs involving less risks. Just as climbers fought over the rules in the 70s, once again a rift occurred within the community as purists debated with newbies.

In today’s world, Stone Monkeys (the modern version of the Stone Masters) also have taken up slack lining, balancing upon a line of one-inch webbing between two walls, far above the ground. It is tightrope walking among the mountains. They’ve also brought base jumping to the Park which is illegal. It’s exactly what you would think. The goal is to climb the rock faces or hike to the top and then jump off into the great abyss with a parachute or squirrel suit.

What I took away from this film is that there is a rock climbing culture and community out there that is diverse and has evolved over decades, just as is the case with many fields of interest. Over time people have been remembered and have inspired others to move forward. The rock climbing community has changed with time as it’s members have felt pressures among themselves, Yosemite National Park, and our society as a whole. Perhaps the film only offers up the viewpoints and stories from the participants, so it is a little biased. Just the same, it is a creative film that recorded pieces of history in a little world that many people have never witnessed. It’s a tiny time capsule of one of the many outdoor communities.


*Valley Uprising can currently be found on Netflix. 

Learn more about the film through Sender Films

Main image: Merced River Yosemite Valley
Found via, taken 2013-03-29


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