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Climbing in the Valley: A Conversation with Ron Kauk

You have been a part of the Valley climbing community for over 30 years. What things have remained constant amongst the climbers?

It’s the challenge that exists in a place like this with these rocks that are so amazing to climb – like El Capitan, Half Dome or any of the other cliffs. They demand that you get in there and challenge yourself with how you protect with natural gear. I think there has been a constant kind of respect overall, if you are climbing in Yosemite, to live up to your ability to do these climbs.

You’ve done many first ascents in the Valley. How different is a first ascent for you compared to any other climb?

You know, I feel so fortunate to have come here in the early ’70s, because the guys before us had set us up with what they had done, for us to build on it and take it to the next step. And that next step meant that there were routes like Astroman and the Rostrum and Tales of Power and Midnight Lightning and just a whole list of climbs. So the beauty of those first ascents, in my own memory, was knowing you are the first guy who gets to stick his hand in that endurance corner on Astroman and start jamming up it. I remember thinking, “Can I do it on the first try?” and I remember getting up in that layback pretty pumped and having the hex nuts as my only protection and just making it. And one of the older guys, Jim Donini, told us that maybe if that pitch would go free, the whole route would go free. That’s why Bachar and I ran up there to find out. So it was about doing the first ascent, but there was all this excitement just to see what was possible. What was it about those times? It was so free. It was just reaching for the next hold, simple as that, no idea that this would be Astroman. That is amazing to me now to think that we were the first ones maybe to reach up and grab that bolt hold and hang on it on Midnight Lightning. But one of the things that probably remains consistent when you think about a boulder problem like that is that certain exhilaration to grab that hold, and maybe it feels like you are hanging onto a sense of history, the magic of a place, and the stories of a place. So that might be the one consistent thread that keeps us stoked. When we did North America Wall, I was thinking about Tom Frost and Chouinard, Chuck Pratt and Royal Robbins, and the pictures I saw. I was like, wow, I’m right where they were.

What message would you share with climbers now?

I think climbing’s an opportunity to get a better sense of self, who you are, and to be healthy. It’s obvious in our society that we’ve been too materialistic, maybe at times too competitive. I realize how much climbing has given me and that maybe I can use it to be a better person. I’d say take climbing as an opportunity to make a connection to reality as nature dictates it. I think our biggest teacher of reality is the natural world.

About the Author
As a teenager in Yosemite during the halcyon years of the 1970s, Ron Kauk marched point for the legendary Stonemasters, and helped establish world rock climbing standards well into the 1990s. From bouldering to big walls, modern climbers follow in Ron’s footsteps. Drawing from Native American traditions and the philosophies of deep ecology, Ron’s films and lectures guide viewers into Yosemite Valley and the fragile magic of the natural world.