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Yosemite Park Becomes 'Center of Universe' for Climbers - 2003-07-08

For more than a century, visitors have flocked to central California's Yosemite National Park, to marvel at the natural beauty of the waterfalls, the wildlife and the stunning mountains has long attracted crowds of tourists. But in recent years a different kind of wildlife on the mountain cliffs has become an increasingly popular attraction for park visitors.

Standing on the valley floor in Yosemite National Park, with a constant stream of traffic driving by, Loraine Aiken is getting a sore neck. The homemaker from San Francisco has been staring almost straight up for the past half-hour.

"I'm standing on the edge of the meadow, looking up at El Capitan and trying to find people climbing it," she said.

El Capitan is the largest cliff in the park. It's more than a kilometer tall and nearly five kilometers long. Most climbers need three or four days to make it all the way to the top… hauling their food, water and sleeping bags with them. The climbers Ms. Aiken is watching are nearly finished, and it isn't easy to spot them on the massive cliff.

"It's a sheer granite face, and every once in a while you see a little spot of white or a little tiny speck, smaller than a pinhead of color," described Ms. Aiken. "And if you follow that up with your binoculars, you actually see a person attached to it."

Ms. Aiken isn't the only one looking for those pinheads of color. Every day, all summer long, the meadow below El Capitan is crowded with people who've pulled over in their cars to admire the sheer beauty of the massive wall of rock. Some spend an afternoon and may never see the tiny specks on the cliff. Others take out binoculars and even telescopes to spend the day watching the slow progress the climbers make as they work their way up the vertical face. Even the visitors who don't stop get a chance to learn about the rock climbers as they ride by in one of the large tour busses that snake their way through the valley.

Rock climbers have been drawn to Yosemite for more than 50 years. But with the explosive growth in the sport over the past decade, there's been a surge in the number of climbers on El Capitan. For the past three years, Park Ranger Lincoln Else has specialized as a climbing ranger. It's his job to help climbers and answer questions from those who enjoy the vertical part of the park. But Mr. Else spends much of his time on the horizontal valley floor with non-climbers as well.

"I also do evening programs or do interpretive programs to explain what rock climbing is, how we do it, the history of rock climbing," he said. "Yosemite is rich with climbing history. A lot of the climbing techniques that now get used around the world were first developed here. Some of the equipment, the protection, as well as just the actual climbing techniques."

When he's not climbing or making a presentation, Mr. Else is answering questions in the meadow below El Capitan, just as other park rangers may wander the trails answering questions about various plants or birds. He says at first most people watch the climbers in disbelief. Many of them ask the basic questions, how do they get the ropes on the cliff? Where do they sleep? He says what he enjoys most is trying to explain to visitors that rock-climbing isn't as dangerous as it looks, and it can offer a whole new view of the park.

"What's wonderful is to maybe see their perspective change from maybe seeing climbing as a daredevil sport with crazy people doing dangerous things," said Mr. Else. "Instead, to understanding why someone might want to do this, and appreciating the fact that El Capitan is beautiful from the meadow down below it, but El Cap meadow is even more beautiful from up on the cliff."

"Nothing else in the world is like El Capitan," said Thomas Huber, one of the climbers who has seen that view from above many times. Mr. Huber is from southern Germany, in the heart of the Alps. He's a professional rock climber, so he's used to being watched. But usually people only see him on TV or read about him in a magazine. He and his brother have climbed many of the world's mountains from Europe to the Himalayas. But Mr. Huber says Yosemite is unique.

"I think there is no campground, or no valley in the whole entire world, where so many climbers from all over the world come together," he explained. "Yosemite Valley is maybe the center of the climbing universe."

The center of the universe for climbers, and perhaps the best place in the world for the rest of us to sit back, enjoy a picnic, and watch those who enjoy hanging from sheer granite cliffs.