Friday, April 26, 2013

Yosemite Bolt Wars

White powder flew from the granite. I brushed more, cleaning the rock.  Soon, a third of the drawing disappeared.  I stepped back and stared at the remaining chalk. A few minutes later, Midnight Lightning’s bolt vanished.

In 1978, Ron Kauk jumped to a jagged edge on the Columbia Boulder, in the middle of Camp 4.  He matched, swung his feet through and threw his body into a committing mantel, high above a slab.  When Kauk pressed out the granite, he made the first ascent of Midnight Lightning.   Fellow Yosemite climber and Kauk’s contemporary, John Bachar made the second ascent.  The two had been vying for the coveted ascent of the line.
John Bachar climbing Midnight Lightning- the bolt  lacks the bursts

“I drew the original bolt on Midnight Lightning....,” said John Bachar.  “It was Yabo who actually "found" Midnight Lightning. He was sitting in front of it one day and came over to me and Ron Kauk and said he found a new boulder problem. He said it would go...we laughed and said it was impossible….we thought there was about as much chance of doing it as there was the chance that a lightning bolt could strike at midnight (like in the Hendrix song 'Midnight Lightning") - so I drew a bolt on it in chalk....That's it - pretty stupid huh?”

When a hold broke, Bachar made the third ascent. Sometime later, Kauk reinforced the lightning bolt hold in the middle of the problem.  The problem saw its first female ascent by Lynn Hill.  At one point Scot Cosgrove climbed the problem twelve times in a row.  Skip Guerin climbed the problem barefoot and prior to Lynn’s ascent, the problem was down-climbed.  Dave Schultz climbed the problem at midnight.  Yabo made the tenth ascent.

Boulders regularly climb the problem and every climber in Camp 4 paws the first few holds. giving the starting holds classic Yosemite boot polish.  Through it all, the chalk outline remains despite “lightning striking at midnight” on hundreds of occasions. 
The bolt stays even in the deepest snow storms.
Erasing the bolt took two different trips.  The first night, I removed the majority of the chalk.  To help rinse my brush, I stole a water bottle from a climber bivied underneath the problem. 
“Erasing the bolt?” he asked from his sleeping bag.  I nodded.
“Cool,” he responded and went back to sleep. 
The Lightning Bolt before it was erased
The morning after first brushing the hold, a smear of chalk marred Columbia. Thirty years of the lightning bolt outlined proved difficult to remove.  The next evening I returned with a finer brush and a little spray bottle of water. I spent another few hours cleaning the formation.  The next morning, Columbia boulder resembled every other rock in Yosemite. 
The empty space lasted a week and half before someone redrew the lightning bolt. I don’t know who put it back.  It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Ron Kauk.  It wasn’t John Bachar coming from his grave.
Nik Berry on an unknown problem in Camp 4

“It was probably some Euro,” said Dean Fidelman, one of the original Stonemasters and one of the few who still hangs in Yosemite.  “They want the picture.”

Over thirty years, with every passing ascent, the lightning bolt became less of a testament to a remarkable ascent, of lightning striking at midnight.  The chalk transformed into a trademark, another tourist attraction for passing climbers. The magic left the bolt years ago. 

The new bolt remains slightly duller than the last incarnation.  How long will it remain that way?  Does climbing need these trademarks?