Climber Glen Denny reflects on Yosemite’s golden era

James Dziezynski | Boulder Weekly

Staring at one of Glen Denny’s iconic black-and-white photographs from the Yosemite Valley, it takes a while to spot the nearly microscopic climbers hidden in the details.

Upon closer inspection, the young men scaling the sheer rock look less like gnarly alpinists and more like a trio of misplaced house painters.

Another photo highlights a collection of suspect gear: old ropes that seem more appropriate as clotheslines, battered pitons, thick-soled workman’s boots and no harnesses to speak of. The serenity and clarity of Denny’s photos contrasts sharply with the 1,000-foot drops and perilous anchors that define Yosemite’s world-famous climbing walls. What these climbers lacked in gear, nutrition and hygiene, they made up for with pure guts, putting up some of the most daring ascents in the history of climbing.

In hindsight, the 1960s were a golden era for rock climbing. American climbers were drastically and permanently altering European climbing traditions. Not only were they perfecting new techniques and gear, they brought into being a new climbing lifestyle. Poverty was worn like a badge of honor. The lack of material goods often translated to a surplus of freedom, and the focus of that freedom was Yosemite’s big walls. It was within this context climber Eric Beck uttered his legendary quote, “At either end of the social spectrum there is a leisure class.”

Denny was there as he and his peers revolutionized the sport. As a young college student with an understated desire to ascend rock, he came to the valley completely inexperienced and self-taught. By the time Yosemite was out of his system, he had taken part in several world-class first ascents and, just as importantly, captured history with his camera. It’s not just  his photos of the climbs, which are taken with a keen eye and the dramatic focus that have made Denny’s images so memorable. It’s the faces of the young men, many of whom would lose their lives to the passion of vertical ascent. Toothy smiles, unshaven faces and grungy hair contrast with determined eyes, bulging forearms and youthful enthusiasm. There is something primal and vibrant in the photos, as if the immortality afforded by the snapshots were coursing through the living blood of the men, even though the reality was that their courage often ended with fatal results.

Denny, now in his early 70s, gave a lecture and slideshow of his most famous Yosemite photos on May 2 at the Patagonia Store in Boulder. Soft-spoken and humble, Denny’s presentation at times seemed at odds with the death-defying, sphincter-clenching scenes played out in his photographs. Reflecting on a three-day ascent up El Capitan that involved horrendous storms, freezing bivouacs on razor-thin ledges and skin-peelingly hard rock, Denny casually comments, “It was a good climb, and we had fun. We were ready to be done when we got to the top.”

There is no arrogance in Denny’s simplicity, rather an uncommon assessment of the motivation for the task at hand. Bragging rights were shared within the insulated community living at the fabled “Camp 4,” Yosemite’s only free campground, where most of the climbers set up their temporary homes. Beyond the scope of climbers, there wasn’t much to boast about — and most people wouldn’t understand anyway.

As the slideshow nears the end, Denny shows a sequence of portraits. Many of the faces are climbing’s hall of fame forefathers: Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, Jim Bridwell, Galen Rowell, Warren Harding and Yvon Chouinard. Others are less renowned. A frightening number of them went on to perish in climbing accidents within a five-year span after Yosemite’s Denny ally case cinematographer.

Yosemite’s glory days. A few of them, Denny included, survived and eventually moved on to other things, in his case working as a photographer and cinematographer.

Denny’s photographs highlight daring ascents on pristine rock but also inadvertently capture the spirit of a time when climbing outgrew its old-world roots and took on a new, dynamic role both as a sport and a lifestyle.

These days, Yosemite’s hallmark routes are crawling with legions of climbers. Advancement in gear technology has rendered an ascent as daring as “The Nose” on El Capitan a mere notch on the belt rather than a feather in the cap. Likewise, climbing has evolved from a niche activity reserved for the bold and brazen to a staple of children’s playground walls.

Denny’s modesty and appreciation for Yosemite’s halcyon days serve as one of the last vestiges of a lost era, but also as a reminder that those who follow their passions may find something greater than the adventure they seek; they discover a fleeting glimpse of something like enlightment and a momentary dose of immortality.