4-BIDDING HEIGHTS HISTORIC CAMPGROUND AT YOSEMITE SPAWNED ROCK-CLIMBING REVOLUTION.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK - As a new climbing season starts at Yosemite Valley, colorful tents have sprung up at the walk-in campground known as Sunnyside. Rock climbers call it by its original name: Camp 4 - a simple dirt paradise for those who first explored Yosemite's vertical granite world.
Equipment and techniques invented or refined here revolutionized the sport of climbing after World War II.
But as in the Joni Mitchell song, for a while it looked like the establishment was going to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
After the floods of 1997, the National Park Service proposed closing the campground near the base of Yosemite Falls to create employee housing and parking.
Climbers around the world protested. They initiated a process, completed this year, to save Camp 4 by having it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Along the way the National Park Service reversed itself and supported the climbers' efforts.
``What makes this dusty little campground so historic and unique is its freewheeling, dynamic spirit and the people drawn to it over the decades,'' said Linda McMillan, vice president of the American Alpine Club. ``Camp 4's spirit epitomizes the spirit of the American West - restless, unconventional, inventive and filled with hope.''
The campground is ringed with large, salt-and-pepper granite rocks that climbers use for ``bouldering.'' Climbers do boulder problems to practice climbing the way chess players work out moves in chess problems. Foam crash pads and spotters protect falling climbers on the boulders.
But it is the sheer granite cliffs of Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan soaring thousands of feet above Yosemite Valley's floor that have challenged, inspired and occasionally killed Camp 4's rock climbers.
A Swiss-born blacksmith named John Salathe made the first American big-wall multiday climb in Yosemite in 1947.
According to climbers' lore, Salathe forged pitons out of metal from the axle of a Model-A Ford that were strong enough for Yosemite's dense granite. With a partner, Salathe climbed 1,200 feet to Lost Arrow Spire and then scaled the smooth 200-foot rock spike that had terrified previous climbers. The five-day climb initiated Yosemite's golden age of climbing.
Soon, other now-famous climbers, including Warren Harding, Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard - founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company based in Ventura - challenged Yosemite's cliffs.
By the 1960s, rock climbing was a way to tune in to nature and drop out, attracting students from Berkeley and Stanford as well as other adventurous rock rats. Many spent summers at Camp 4, scrounging food left by tourists and living on a few dollars while they pioneered new routes up Yosemite's towering cliffs.
Yosemite's big-wall routes were initially climbed using direct-aid techniques, ascending using ropes and gear as well as natural holds. Climbers based at Camp 4 developed a style of climbing that used a minimum of permanent bolts drilled into the rock, relying more on temporary pitons hammered into cracks in the granite.
Next came an emphasis on climbing free, using only natural rock holds to ascend. Ropes anchored to the rock were only for protection in case of a fall. Pitons, which scarred the rock, gave way to metal nuts and spring- loaded cams that provided temporary protection and could be removed without marring the rock.
``Camp 4 was known to climbers worldwide by about 1975,'' said Steve Roper, author of a history of climbing in Yosemite simply titled ``Camp 4.'' ``A foreign climber would come into the park and simply ask, `Where is Camp 4?' He or she would get there and immediately fit in.''
A stroll through the now-preserved Camp 4 shows climbers from all over are still drawn to Yosemite's granite. Many accents and languages can be heard as climbers set out their gear for a climb, cook meals and gaze up at Yosemite's granite walls in wonder and anticipation.
IF YOU CLIMB
The Yosemite Mountaineering School offers basic through advanced climbing classes and even guides the huge vertical faces of El Capitan and Half Dome. During spring and fall, all climbing classes and guided climbs are in Yosemite Valley but are also available in the cooler high country of Tuolumne Meadows in the hot summer.
Call the Yosemite Mountaineering School at (209) 372-8344 for reservations, schedules, meeting times, equipment and supplies needed for all climbing programs or visit www.yosemitepark.com/html/mountain.html.
3 photos, box
(1 -- 3) From Camp 4, climbers set out after World War II to tackle Yosemite's cliffs and ended up revolutionizing their sport. At left, Yosemite's rock climbers use a chalk-like substance to help grip smooth granite walls.
Bill Becher/Special to the Daily News
IF YOU CLIMB (see text)