The reverence, history, and cultural importance of the bolt on Midnight Lightning in Yosemite

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.

Eager climbers scour the message board on the side of the Camp 4 ranger kiosk in Yosemite National Park.

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.

John Bachar on "Midnight Lightning" in 1982. (Image via Mountain Project.)

John Bachar on “Midnight Lightning” in 1982. (Image via Mountain Project.)

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.

Five reasons to visit a National Park this weekend

America’s National Parks system is one of the greatest institutions ever created by our country – if you ask me, at least. These sacred slices of our nation’s finest ecosystems and delicate environments are critical to American’s ability to access and enjoy the untouched outdoors.

Any day offers a great excuse to visit a nearby National Park, but certain dates hold a particular perk for patrons – which I’ll dive straight into with the first of my top five reasons to visit a National Park:

1. IT’S FREE!

That’s right – admission fees into National Parks around the country are waived during certain times of the year to provide access for those who may not otherwise be able to make it to the parks. That includes everywhere from to Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountains to the Everglades and Kings Canyon, so no matter which outdoor haven is closest to your hometown, you’ll be able to partake in the free fun.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a proud National Parks annual pass holder since March 2011, but I can still appreciate the gift of complimentary park admission – I can only imagine how expensive my summer road trip would have been if I had paid entrance fees at every park I visited!

2. Fresh air for your lungs.

If you’re confined within city limits during the workweek like me, you likely reach the weekend with a raging thirst to leave the concrete jungle for some natural surroundings. Making a trip to a National Park offers a fantastic way to escape city life for a while. Spend the day trading in traffic lights and steel skyscrapers for towering trees and exhilarating landscapes. You’ll return home with a renewed vigor, and a newfound itch to make a hasty return trip to your National Park of choice.

3. Watching for wildlife.

National Parks are one of the best places to get in touch with your wild side. Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher, or simply want to spend an afternoon chasing chipmunks after climbing in the Rocky Mountains, America’s National Parks are home to some of the most magnificent creatures on earth. Not to favor fauna over flora, I must also highly recommend that you spend some time getting to know the unique plant-life that thrives in the various terrains at the parks across the nation. Tiny leaves and silky flowers are one of the main reasons a macro-lens is at the top of my must-have list.

4. Bountiful recreation and activities.

While my preferred park activities revolve around climbing, hiking, and photography, there is a bounty of possibilities for active park visitors. Hop aboard a guided tour to better acquaint yourself with a new park, set out on a rafting excursion, or plan a scenic picnic – the options are endless. I always love to stop by park visitor centers to scope out maps and chat with rangers about their favorite things to do and see in the area.

5. Experiencing something new.

Every time I visit a National Park, I am treated to a new and wonderful experience – even if I’ve visited the same spot a dozen times before. Nature is constantly changing, adapting, blooming, and presenting us with gracious chances to appreciate the natural world around us. Some of my favorite moments at National Parks include spending a night at the legendary Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park, watching my crew attempt to summit the Grand Teton in Wyoming, and going on a photographic hunt for alligators in the Everglades.

With so much to be discovered and absorbed right in your own backyard, there’s no excuse not to pay a visit to a National Park this weekend. Free admission fees, recreational activities for every visitor’s lifestyle, and a bevy of outdoor beauty is beckoning for you to come play. Not sure which park to visit? Check out a complete list of all the parks and monuments offering complimentary – and be sure to check out additional dates for 2012 free National Park days.

Want more? Check out these articles about my experiences at National Parks across the country:

– Read about my visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore during a trip to Pensacola, Florida
– Explore my favorite sights and scenes from Yosemite National Park, and check out my favorite all-time climb, Beached Whale (V5) near the Ahwahnee Lodge.
– Discover the vibrant desert hues I photographed during my hike through Arches National Park.

Road Trip America – Boy Meets Rock, Niko and El Capitan

One of the gargantuan icons of Yosemite National Park, El Capitan is a towering hunk of granite glory that is coveted by climbers around the world. As we passed by the giant on our way into the valley each morning, Niko gawked at El Cap with an open mouth and glistening eyes – it’s his ultimate dream to climb the beast. Personally, a 3-day climb up a 3,000 foot face of granite does not sound like the recipe for making me a happy camper, but it’s impossible not to respect the daredevils who ascend El Capitan.

On our way out of the park one day, Niko and I stopped near El Capitan to get a closer look at his dream. As we trekked along the trail that led towards the base of the monolith, we came upon an older couple who were peering up the giant wall through binoculars — it could only mean one thing: climbers. Barely able to make out the tiny specks with my naked eye, I used my camera zoom to focus in on the two figures perched high above the tree line. Check out the photo above: those red and gray dots to the right of the tree are two climbers on their way up El Cap’s tormenting face. Wow.

Niko convinced me to veer off the beaten path and journey through the thickets down a rugged little trail frequented by climbers. It led us past fallen trees and scurrying quails before introducing us to the granite monolith that Niko had always dreamed of touching.

We were fortunate enough to have made this pitstop while a group of men were beginning their adventure up The Nose, the infamous route that Alex Honnold soloed in less than six hours. (Check out an awesome video of Honnold on The Nose here!)

For mortal climbers, it typically takes around three days to complete the ascent of The Nose. That means roughing out the valley’s spontaneous afternoon storms while dangling thousands of feet in the air, sleeping on portaledges, and hauling up days’ worth of food and water during your climb. Crazy, right?

El Capitan is a truly impressive rock formation renown for its classic fame throughout the climbing community and beyond. Any trip to Yosemite National Park would be incomplete without a making a stop to take in the glory of this beautiful granite giant.

Road Trip America – The Ahwahnee Boulders in Yosemite National Park

The bouldering in Yosemite Valley is scattered throughout a handful of areas, all of which bring different gradings. Camp Four was intense, with our entire crew getting shut down on a V0 – and these are boys that climb up to V9s. The Housekeeping boulders were moderately graded, with a few that seemed slightly underrated, but the best area for agreeable route ratings was easily the Ahwahnee Boulder crag.

The climbing sat across the street from the ritzy Ahwahnee Lodge, where fancy folk sought expensive lodging in a rustic, yet clearly high-class setting. I went to the bathroom in the lodge once, and almost laughed out loud from the perplexed looks shot my way as I paraded my dirty, smelly, sweaty self past throngs of middle-aged people totting decorative walking sticks and wearing pristine North Face jackets.

Ahwahnee Boulders held my favorite route of the trip: Beached Whale, a flowing V5 climb with a vicious top out. It was my main focus during our time spent at Yosemite, and I could kick myself for not sending the route when I had the chance. On our last day in the park, I hopped on the route and miraculously made it all the way to the finish, with half of my body beached on top of the boulder. I wasted two entire minutes trying to flop myself over the ledge of the boulder before my arms gave out and I had to wave a white flag.

Beached Whale was interesting not only for the quality climb, but also for its funky location. The boulder sat tucked away in a breezy corridor, where the temperature instantly dropped about ten degrees. The air was cooled by an enormous waterfall that slid down a rock face far off in the distance.

The other climbs in the area were fun and had beautiful lines. Niko found his favorite V3 of all time, which I feebly attempted to climb – as you’ll see in the first picture below. Juan also had a mighty fine time on one of the boulders (middle photo below), and of course, I threw in a couple’s shot just because it’s such a rarity to get Niko to cooperate for one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Turkey Hill Heirloom Tomato Festival! As always, stay tuned for more climbing, eating, adventuring and morning fresh fun.

Road Trip America – Welcome to YOSEMITE, baby.

Every climber shares a united dream: climbing at Yosemite National Park in California. After ditching Moab a few days early due to relentless rain, our crew shifted gears and headed out to the land of El Capitain — with a new addition in tow, our new British buddy Paul, who traveled with us from the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Utah throughout our entire time spent in Yosemite.

We were a few weeks shy of the seasonal opening of the Tioga Pass, so we were forced to scoot north, then west before entering the park. From the moment you pass through the Ranger’s Entrance Station into the great land of Yosemite, there is a deep, undeniable connection to everything around you. The gushing Merced River, the curled baby fern blossoms, the snarky blue Stellar’s Jays that tended to cock their heads in apparent disapproval of everything we did.

Not a bad first impression, eh? As eager as we all were to get our hands on some Yosemite granite, we couldn’t help but pull off at a scenic overlook to admire the stunning valley. Check out iconic landmarks El Capitan and Half Dome off in the distance. Believe it or not, that group shot was entirely candid – Paul’s hand on hip and all. On our way back to the car I made friends with a little mammal buddy, who kindly posed for a few shots.

Whether you’re a climber, hiker, photographer, or simply enjoy the natural wonders that our country has to offer (and has graciously protected thanks to fellows like John Muir), Yosemite National Park is truly a destination that you absolutely must visit within your lifetime. My parents took me on a few weekend trips to the park while we lived in San Jose, California, and I regret not taking full advantage of my blessed situation. I could have been climbing these sweet spots a decade ago, instead my twelve year-old self complained all weekend about how I would have rather been hanging out with friends – ugh.

This trip, I vowed to make up for lost time and took full advantage of the park. We hiked, climbed, ate, conversed and explored our way through the valley for a week. All the important stops were made: splashing around Yosemite Falls, climbing and sleeping at Camp Four, spotting bears in meadows, traversing no-trespassing areas in Curry Village, spotting Half Dome, hiking to the base of El Capitan, bouldering in front of the Awhwanee Lodge – and everything was documented for your viewing pleasure.

I must have taken about a million shots of the waterfalls, but can you blame me? From hundreds of vantage points throughout the park, the falls kept peeking out from the treeline, just waiting to be photographed. I’ll share more when I give you a full post about wading through the frigid streams fed by the falls, but for now enjoy two photos from Curry Village. The first is of a dogwood blossom, which quickly became one of my favorite trees. The white ‘petals’ are actually modified leaves, which house the true tiny yellow flowers in the center. The second photo is just two ladybugs doin’ the dirty – couldn’t help myself.

There you have it: an introduction to Yosemite National Park. Didn’t get your fix of granite, creatures, climbing and nature? Fear not, this entire week will be filled with tales and photos from our time at Yosemite. Enjoy!

Road Trip America – Climbing ‘Beached Whale’ V5 at Ahwahnee Boulders in Yosemite National Park

Behold, my future conquest. This mediocre-quality photo is my mental commitment to sending what will soon be my first V5 ascent. The route is Beached Whale, a beautiful overhung problem sitting across from the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

I’m posting this photo in an effort to create some sort of hype that will push me not to give up on the climb.

For those of you who speak beta, here’s the route breakdown: you start hands crossed on two slopers (one has a slight finger-tearing crimp), and a high right heel with your left flagged under. You then bump out left to a decent ledge, match and throw up a higher heel, then bump out left again to a better ledge where you match again. After a little funky footwork that leaves you with a heel up on the lower ledge, you bump out over that middle prow to a solid ledge on the other side, and trust your heel while you match your hands. Now for the tricky part: bump up right to the prow, and cut your feet to throw a heel up on the left side of the ledge. Then it’s a hardcore mantle upwards to complete the top out.

After two days spent working the problem, I’m a mere top out short of sending Beached Whale. The granite rock has been destroying my palms and fingertips, so today is a much needed rest day. Tomorrow this V5 will be mine. Send strong vibes and words of encouragement – I’m seriously going to need it to complete that scary top out. The problem starts on a little rocky area, then the landing drops down under the roof, leaving me terrified about falling.

I can do this, right? How glorious would it be to send my first V5 out in Yosemite? I can’t pass up an opportunity like this. I will top out – and there will be video.