It was 2010 when I first visited Yosemite with a chalk bag and climbing shoes. I had explored the park a dozen times before, but never through the eyes of a climber. This new perspective redefined my valley experience – suddenly, every hunk of granite was beaming with potential, and many were slick with rubber and chalk caked on from decades of legendary ascents.
I remember the first time I walked into Camp 4. It was my fourth day in Yosemite, but I had avoided Camp 4, frankly because I was absolutely intimidated by the history, the prestige, the undaunted stature of this iconic nook in the national park. It was magnificent. Not much unlike the rest of the valley, but the air in this particular meadow was heavy with ambition and grandeur left by the countless climbers who came before me. I was humbled by the history of this place.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Midnight Lightning. It was one of those “when I grow up, I want to _____” moments. I was new to climbing, and in my eyes, sending a V8 was the ultimate goal. This boulder, with its beckoning lightning bolt icon, was it. Long before I was a dirtbag climber living in a van, I was a little girl endlessly inspired by the promise of Midnight Lightning.
This morning, I read that some self-righteous dude, James Lucas, decided that the magic of the chalked lightning bolt had been tainted with tourism. Thus, he felt it appropriate to erase the bolt from the boulder (in the cover of darkness), and proceeded to brag about his deed in a desperate attempt for more blog hits.
I am infuriated. I loathe excessive tick marks on problems, I cringe at the sight of graffiti, and nothing irks me more than having to pick up trash from other climbers – I am by no means a crusader for climbers leaving unnatural marks in nature. But the lightning bolt on Midnight Lightning is hardly an eyesore in the middle of Camp 4.
The bolt is symbolic. It challenges climbers to become stronger, to climb harder, to elevate themselves to a level that would qualify them as a worthy conqueror of the legendary boulder problem it marks. Much like the rusty old car sitting on the trail to New Joe’s in Joe’s Valley has transformed from car crash remnants to a landmark, the bolt on Midnight Lightning is a piece of history that should be preserved. It was drawn on in 1978, and after enduring 35 years of Yosemite’s ever-evolving climbing culture, it has earned its place as a landmark.
To remove the bolt on Midnight Lightning erases the history of that climb for so many generations of climbers that will come forth to Yosemite. We like to gripe about the newcomers, and how they don’t understand or respect the history of climbing – but how can we expect them to be inspired to learn if we erase the crucial evidence of our past?
When I first saw that lightning bolt in the middle of Camp 4, I was intrigued. The moment I returned to connectivity, I hopped online and read about the history of Camp 4 and that chalky icon. It expanded into an education experience that spanned far beyond that little lightning bolt symbol. I learned about Yvon Chouinard selling homemade gear out of his trunk in the parking lot, I became enthralled by Lynn Hill, and I went from being someone who climbs to a true climber, interested in my community, the culture, and the history. All because of that chalked bolt on Midnight Lightning. I wonder how many other climbers felt the same inspiration that I did, how many climbers went home and read about the history of Yosemite climbing after seeing that bolt.
Even though he’s apparently a pretty alright guy, what James Lucas did to Midnight Lightning is everything that is wrong in the clash between the “old” and “new” generations of climbing. Every seasoned climber is guilty of a salty attitude towards the “new kids,” but there is a sharp divide between those who want the growing community to become educated (about climbing history, outdoor etiquette, the works), and those jaded folks who decide that climbing is just “too cool” now, degrading epic symbols of climbing’s culture into “another tourist attraction.” That bolt shouldn’t have been erased; it should have a plaque beneath it regaling visitors in the history behind it.
A commenter on Lucas’s post put it best: “The history of that boulder is too big to be marred by someone like you.” Within a few days, someone redrew the bolt, and the importance of that chalky icon was restored.
One day, I’m going to send Midnight Lightning – and after I do, I’ll trace my fingers along the chalky lines of its symbolic bolt and reflect on the strong, determined, sometimes-barefoot climbers who came before me.