by Hank Leukart
March 30, 2010

Learning to levitate

Taking a Yosemite climbing class with a 19-year-old, rock climbing heckler.

Corey climbing Swan Slab

Corey climbing Swan Slab


OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — Standing in front of Camp 4’s immense Columbia Boulder with its famously difficult Midnight Lighting climbing route, I watch a group of twenty-something climbers attempt to tackle the boulder. A fascinated crowd gives advice and support to them as they try to reach the top of the rock. But, one after another, each climber places a foot on the granite face, tries to maneuver himself to the top, and then falls onto his foam mat placed below. It occurs to me that this is a surprisingly masochistic activity, intentionally trying to scale a nearly impossible-to-climb rock, only to fall again and again.

Then, I realize that if I’m truly going to become a resident of Yosemite National Park, integrated into the climbing culture of Camp 4, I too need to become a masochist.

Early the next morning, I’m standing outside Yosemite Mountain Sports, with a rented climbing harness and shoes, next to Corey, a 19 year old athletic girl with long hair down to her waist. Jo, the 50 year old, blond instructor for our Crack Climbing class, doesn’t stop talking from the moment we meet her. She’s a little spacey, but she is clearly a climbing expert. I’m hoping she isn’t going to ask us about our experience level, because one look at Corey’s muscular calves lets me know that this 19 year old girl is about to make me look about as masculine as, well, a 19 year old girl. Then, of course, Jo asks us about our experience level. I’m not surprised when Corey reveals that she goes to a climbing gym three times per week and also climbs outdoors frequently. In barely a whisper, without making eye contact with either of them, I sheepishly explain that I have been to three climbing classes, total, in the last six months. Jo tells me not to worry, because she’s planning a fun day of climbing without forcing us to try anything too hard.

While I’m driving Corey in my car to Swan Slab, a granite rock face adjacent to Camp 4, she tells me that she’s afraid that Jo isn’t hard core enough and that we won’t get to climb anything challenging. I tell her that I’m sure we can ask Jo to push us harder if the climbing is too easy, but I’m secretly trying to figure out how I’m going to defend myself in case this ultra-fit girl tries to beat me up.

My first sight of Swan Slab doesn’t set my mind at ease. At the climbing gym, foot and hand holds are color-coded and obvious. Swan Slab, on the other hand, looks like a smooth, sheer slab of granite with no holds of any kind. After I attach my climbing harness, Corey sees me hesitate.

“Come on! Be a man!” she yells at me as she holds my safety rope.

“Trust your feet,” Jo urges as I stare at the rock. “Just stand up on it.”

“Stop being a pussy,” Corey taunts. I turn around and give her a dirty look. She just smiles. I turn back toward the rock and push the tip of my climbing shoe into the granite.

Then, I stand up on the Slab. I’m amazed that Jo is right. Surprisingly, my feet aren’t slipping much as I make my way up.

“We’re falling asleep here!” Corey heckles from below.

The next thing I know, I’ve climbed a 90 foot rock face with almost no hand or foot holds, simply by trusting that my feet will be able to stick to the rock. Looking down at Jo and Corey far below, I realize that the key to climbing is simply believing that the climb is possible.

I repel back to the ground. Then, as I hold her safety rope, Corey does the same climb twice as elegantly in half the time.

“What’s taking you so long?!” I yell to her. “Haven’t you climbed before?”

“I just made you look like a bitch,” she retorts as she repels down.

When she returns to the ground, she sticks her tongue out at me. Then, she offers me some homemade beef jerky that her mom made for her. As I chew the salty snack, Corey smiles at me mockingly as she attaches her harness for an even more difficult climb. I realize that I’ve just made my sixth Yosemite friend.

After our class ends, a blond, 20 year old California surfer-looking guy named Flip starts free climbing one of Swan Slab’s more difficult routes, without a rope and safety equipment. Corey watches him, drooling. I watch him, amazed. His climbing style is the New York City Ballet, Corey’s is the Newark Ballet, and mine is the Toddler Daycare Ballet.

Flip’s eyes shine when he tells us that he’s also staying at Camp 4, and he’s been climbing since age 12. He tells us that he works in construction during the week and climbs on the weekends, all so he can be outside almost all day, every day. For a moment, I yearn to be him, a person who has dedicated as much of his life as possible to the outdoors.

That night, while Corey goes to a family birthday dinner, Flip and I go to the Yosemite Theater to see Balance, a documentary film featuring renowned rock climber Ron Kauk tackling difficult routes in the Park. We feel a special affinity with Ron, because he too spent a long time as a young man living at Camp 4, perfecting his climbing technique. But if Flip’s climbing style is the New York City Ballet, Ron Kauk’s style is the famous St. Petersburg Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet, populated entirely with 40 copies of outstanding dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Flip and I watch the film in awe as Ron appears to levitate effortlessly to the top of Yosemite’s hardest climbs.

I wonder if I too can learn to levitate. But I know that learning to climb as well as Ron Kauk will undoubtedly take me the rest of my life. I picture myself living in Camp 4 perpetually, climbing outside every day, with Corey constantly ridiculing me from below. I realize suddenly that I have already been living in Yosemite for a week, and I start to wonder whether I will ever leave.

Hank climbing Swan Slab

Hank climbing Swan Slab

Corey climbing Swan Slab

Corey climbing Swan Slab

Hank climbing Swan Slab

Hank climbing Swan Slab

Corey climbing Swan Slab

Corey climbing Swan Slab

How to Take a Rock Climbing Class in Yosemite

  • A Yosemite Mountaineering School is located in Curry Village in Yosemite Valley. Another is located in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. The School offers classes and expert guides who can teach you anything you want to learn about rock climbing.
  • Climbing lessons are offered every day starting at 8:30 A.M, April through October. Climbers can simply show up at the school in the morning to join a class, though reservations are strongly recommended. Classes are less expensive depending on the number of enrolled students, so reserving a space in advance increases your chance that others will want to join, reducing your cost. Call (209) 372-8344 to make a reservation.
  • Classes are designed to be taken sequentially, and classes are offered for beginning, intermediate, and expert climbers.
  • If you don’t have climbing equipment, Yosemite Mountaineering School will rent you what you need, though, if you plan on climbing frequently, it’s more cost effective to buy equipment (it isn’t very expensive). You’ll want to start with at least a climbing harness and climbing shoes.
  • Yosemite Mountaineering School also takes climbers on guided climbs and offers private lessons.

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