The Sierra Nevada, John Muir’s Range of Light, is a chain of granite magnificence that draws climbers all year round. As legendary American climber Peter Croft quips in one of his guidebooks, the small window that is the Sierra climbing season opens every year around January 1, and closes roughly around December 31.
At the heart of the Sierra lies the Centre of the Universe, Yosemite Valley, where everything has been graced by some form of steroidal touch to intensify its splendour.
The waterfalls are not just waterfalls, but surging, suicidal torrents that hurl themselves violently from clifftops. The sequoias and pines are not merely trees, but giant, intricately textured trunks – some even release a heavenly odour of sweet toffee – that create a blanket of calm canopy and a shady refuge on the valley floor.
And the stone. Oh, the stone! It rises vertiginously straight out of the valley and soars, impossibly, unutterably, skywards. You will sit, mesmerised, in the El Cap meadow and gaze at the daunting and beautiful 900m-high face of El Capitan. You will see – in the flesh – and understand why so many climbers are reduced to inarticulate mumbles of reverence at the altar of Half Dome. You will shake your head in disbelief that you ever ventured up those hallowed walls, finding solidarity in the howls of fellow stone monkeys, serenity in the sublime isolation high above the millions who are sardined in traffic, and strength in the face of the uncertainty and challenges with which the Big Stone constantly tests you: those micro-cams that pop and send you mercilessly into a flurry of arms and legs, sailing 50 feet down the Salathe headwall; the determination needed to venture up into the wet, cold, windy night to fix two more pitches, because we’re behind schedule; the infinite, unnerving exposure, and the cold, stiff mornings on unnervingly narrow sleeping ledges. Then there is the warm and gentle euphoria of gracing the upper rim with your sore, torn, bare hands. The Big Stone delivers an intensity of experience that climbers revere and constantly seek.
Yet Yosemite is so much more. A dirtbag’s paradise of leftover pizza, free showers and camping – note: if a ranger asks you if you have a reservation for this site, the answer should always be a resounding ‘yes!’ – and the luxuries of free morning hot chocolate and coffee at one of the most sought-after locations that your dirtbag friends will never pay to stay at.
Even the small stone is gorgeously succulent and leaves you with enduring, fond memories. The inspiring sight of a climber crying out ‘fight for it! fight for it!’ on the epic crux of Astroman, on Washington Column, which used to be the hardest free climbing route in the world. Or another climber battling her way up the uncomfortably, body-squeezing slot on Beggars Buttress, on Fifi Buttress. Or the panic-inducing, long and protectionless slab sections of Galactic Hitchhiker, one of the longest routes in the valley that tops out at Glacier Point.
And, when the heat becomes all-consuming, when you can no longer sleep because, let’s face it, you’re a terrible liar and if another ranger asks you about reservations, you’re going to be about as convincing as the hand in the cookie jar, there are wondrous knobs – knobs! – and soaring, crinkly ridgelines in and around Tuolomne Meadows, the high country above Yosemite, where the skies seem a touch bluer, the domes a tad more perfectly rounded, and the wind a purer form of chilly. Soon you will be skipping along the top of Matthes Crest, comprised of wild formations akin to a vertical stack of cards next to sharp, exposed drop-offs. Or throwing hand over delightful hand along the crack that traverses On The Lamb. Or falling – again – from the mysterious moves that protect the steep dihedral crux of Silver Bullet, at the intimidating walls of Tioga Cliff.
The roadside access to many of Tuolomne’s jewels will become a distant memory as you hike past the turnoff to The Incredible Hulk, and instead go all the way to Barney Lake, together with unfathomably heavy backpacks. The walk in to the snow-filled basin at the base of this majestic, white stone is, however, worth it. The wind swept southwest faces barely bothered us on the gloriously sustained and technical corner systems of Sunspot Dihedral, and only huffed and puffed with bluster on the upper pitches of the exposed and steep Positive Vibrations, billed as the best route in the Sierras – and for good reason.
Yet these amazing places are only a fraction of this Range of Light. The Pallisades. The proud buttress of Mt Goode. The yellow-lichen scars and fighter jet planes, screaming through the sound barrier, in The Needles. The utter exhaustion that each of the nine 13,000ft peaks of the Evolution Traverse imposes on your body, one by one, over endless hours.
Oh, Sierra, how magnificent thou art! It’s like, almost, as if some supreme being, some creator, some divinity, had to be responsible for such beauty. Yes, that makes much more sense than, say, the geological pressures over millions of years of incomprehensible force, and subsequent millennia at the mercy of the sculptor hands of Mother Erosion.
Yes, they are majestic. They are beautiful. There is something communicative in their beauty, something cellular, like the mountains are ringing, or shouting something at you, or trying to beckon you in some sense …
But I prefer this John Muir quote:
“The Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen.”