Throwback Thursday: Early Climbing Counterculture in the Yosemite Valley

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains,” says Bilbo in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “and then find somewhere I can rest. In peace and quiet … ”And I might add, for myself primarily, to partake in a good toke — or two or three. Not from a pipe piled high with the Hobbits’ Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby, but from my Dopen 2.0, filled with a smooth, free-flowing sativa winding its way down into my lungs. Throw in a swig or two from a jug of Gallo Paisano Wine, a big old dog huffing and puffing at my side, and I’m suddenly free of all the BS mankind throws at me. Yes, I want to escape from the bane of civilization in whatever way I can. That’s how I felt in the ‘60s and how I feel today. Wanted to get out from under all of it and onto the road to find my way along the way. And back then I did, and still do. Mountains, I need mountains. Bilbo lives.

Climbing Out of the ‘50s

The first new wave of climbers to descend on Yosemite arrived in the late ‘50s, ascended its storied walls throughout the ‘60s, then into the ‘70s. They embraced the counterculture. In fact, they werethe counterculture, escaping from authority and all the rules and regulations society imposed on them and the rest of us. These outlaws of the rock tuned in, turned on and dropped out, ending up in Yosemite Valley at Camp 4, rejecting all that society stood for. Question authority.

Camp 4

Camp 4 was their home away from home for many years, changing only when new climbers with new values came to join them and take up residence. It was one of the farthest campsites away from the tourists, situated in the rear of the campground near a rock wall and boulders where the climbers could practice and party. The wild parties, fired by weed, acid and booze, alienated the climbers from the pampered tourists, who were housed comfortably in their cocooned motorhomes with all the amenities of home: refrigerators, stoves, queen beds and TVs. The tourists, of course, complained about the loud music and mad hijinks to who else? The authorities. All this back-and-forth fueled an ongoing fight over the years throughout the ‘60s — between the tourists, climbers and the U.S. Park Service.

Throwback Thursday: Early Climbing Counterculture in the Yosemite Valley

The Crazies

I’ve climbed many mountains in my time, burning up the gentler grades and occasionally glued to a steeper pitch with ropes. I’ve never been on one of the big walls of Yosemite, though, much less stoned 3,000 feet up suspended by ropes, staring down into the vertical abyss. Yes, there were those that drank and smoked (and were stoned and drunk most of the time) while putting up some of the most successful routes American climbing had ever seen. Before the crazies arrived, there were other less crazed individuals that migrated from the cities in the early ‘60s and planted themselves in the valley to put up radical climbs that had never been seen or done before. I knew some of the crazies, though, and even though I was crazy back then, too, I would never follow them up those crooked paths into the far reaches of the sky. Stoned.

Stay Stoned, My Friend

I preferred to stay planted on the ground in front of a roaring bonfire, drinking and smoking or staying home and drinking and smoking, never setting foot on one of those towering walls that seemed to abnegate the sunlight. I preferred watching them take off and climb, wiped out of their minds. How they could do this, I didn’t know. I’d only been stoned hiking to the top of 14,000-foot peaks. Not vertical walls. Stay stoned, my friends. With two feet on the ground.

Royal Robbins vs. Warren Harding

Royal Robbins was one of the first to come to the valley. Although he wasn’t much of a party animal, like so many others who accompanied him, he was an integral part of the counterculture, dropping out and staying in Yosemite in the early ‘60s. He pioneered clean climbing, one without drilling bolts to clip your rope into unless you absolutely needed to. Robbins was a rival to Warren Harding, a surveyor nicknamed “Batso” who climbed with abandon, lived for days on the sides of rock walls with abandon, drank with abandon and smoked with abandon. Harding was the first to scale the 3,000-foot wall called The Nose on El Capitan. But it was the way in which he climbed that irked most of the other climbers, especially Robbins. Harding attacked the wall in siege fashion with fixed ropes that one could climb back up and down on like a freeway and thus renew the route the next day, until slowly, over time, you got to the top. It took Harding and his companions two years to complete the route. Harding thumbed his nose at authority along the way, guzzling wine and smoking bongs 2,000 feet up on the wall. Later, Robbins, to prove his adversary wrong, climbed the Nose, which took him a week. Without fixed ropes.

Throwback Thursday: Early Climbing Counterculture in the Yosemite Valley

Jim Bridwell and the Stonemasters

Then came Jim Bridwell and his band of hardmen and hardwomen stoners. They called themselves The Stonemasters and, as Lynn Hill, one of their prominent members, said in the film “Valley Uprising,” The Stonemasters should have been called  the “stoned masters.” That’s when things got crazy. Not only the way Bridwell partied, but climbed, usually stoned or on acid, saying that he climbed on the edge of being stoned and totally out of his mind. He and his band of merry climbers put up routes Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, another pioneer (and founder of the clothing company Patagonia) could only dream about. Was it the pot? Might have been.

Between Sanity and Darkness

To climb or not to climb? To smoke or not to smoke while climbing? Do the two go together? For some they do, and they say it makes them climb better, keeps them on the knife’s edge. For others like me, no. I didn’t have the stomach to climb stoned. I’d lose my marbles and watch them bounce off the rocks all the way down the cliff face. It would be too hair-raising, as some of the participants have said when they followed their fearless leader, Bridwell, up into the lofty heights, as he tripped on acid, dangling on the edge of sanity and darkness. There is only one exit if you fall three thousand feet.

Talking to the Ents

I want to be in the mountains, sitting on a rock with a dog beside me, both of us overlooking a peaceful valley, me having a good, long hit from my Dopen 2.0 and filling my lungs with a glow that travels up to my head and beyond. The dog, he’ll get some good clean fresh air. I’ll lean back against a tree, preferably into the branches of an Ent,and have a conversation with him about the untoward wiles and ways of the world, the beauties of the forest and solitude, happy to be away from it all with the dog and the tree and my imagination sailing in the breezes. That’s what I want, what I desire. Hyggein the great outdoors. The crazies hung out with my younger self, a self that today, although still young at heart, has paled into a wan evening sunset, with my crazier self looking down at me from the fading light beyond the mountaintop. The road goes ever on. Bilbo lives.

Throwback Thursday: Early Climbing Counterculture in the Yosemite Valley

Up Next: The Climbers and the Great Pot Heist

Related Articles