Black Crows Skiers’ Journey to American Vacationlands

The adventures of two black crows skiers in Yosemite.
Yosemite, Camp IV and El Capitan are names that resonate off a 900m granite wall in the heart of California. The myth of liberty still exists so long as you leave the ground and head for the heights, forgetting about all those eyes staring up at your butt.


Ever since I seriously took up rock climbing over a decade ago, I’d daydreamed and fantasized about roaming the rugged American West, testing myself on some of the world’s most famous cliffs. Such a journey could be the ultimate expression of freedom and individualism in my mind. When I discovered to my delight that my girlfriend Johanna shared this dream, the decision to go together last autumn was made instantly.

Tom Grant & Johanna Stålnacke

Johanna began her climbing career in sport climbing but quickly turned her attention to bigger routes. In 2009 she made the pilgrimage to Yosemite where she taught herself the fundamentals of big wall climbing, sometimes even practising solo. ‘Yosemite had been lingering on my mind ever since 2009. Back then I was a big wall rookie without the skills needed to touch the big mama El Cap. I knew I had to come back and give it a shot at some point. It is undoubtedly a mountain wall that just stays your mind, and the thrilling stories about past adventures there had for years teased my temptation to return to the valley.”
Upon arrival in San Francisco we shopped for 6 weeks’ worth of supplies and camping gear at Target, a true American institution and icon of mass consumerism. After a tediously long drive, we arrived late afternoon in Yosemite Valley. The sheer quantity of granite blew me away. When you first lay eyes on El Capitan, superlatives don’t do justice to the beauty and enormity of the wall. Our ambition was to climb this wall by whatever means we could.
Antsy from the prolonged driving, we began our trip by simul-climbing a classic 5.8 in the dark in order to quieten our minds. Afterwards, making straight for Camp 4, we were for the first time confronted with the idiosyncrasies and stringent regulations that govern Yosemite National Park. The only cheap and convenient place to camp in Yosemite is Camp 4, but during peak season places are massively outstripped by demand.

Tom Grant & Johanna Stålnacke

We had to line up outside the kiosk all night in the hope of being granted a vacant spot in the morning. Night time temperatures hovered barely above freezing in October so Johanna and I nestled into our sleeping bags and settled down for the night. Except that bivying is strictly prohibited and we were soon rudely awakened by armed park rangers clad in body armour who whilst shining their torches in our eyes they told us to sit up and stay awake or that we would be expelled from the Park. Consequently, one of us kept a vigilant watch throughout the night and we finally got a campsite.

To climb El Cap, we realised we were going to have to commit to going big wall style. This meant hauling water, food and bivy gear for three days and would necessitate employing both aid and free climbing techniques. Johanna had climbed a handful of big walls before, whereas I was as green as can be at this style of climbing. The process of learning to efficiently haul and aid was filled with moments of frustration and confusion, with Johanna patiently passing on her experience to me. I come from an alpine climbing background, and the painstaking effort required to aid and haul is a far cry from climbing a big alpine wall in a day’s push. In the Valley, one must not only contend with strict regulations, but also crowds. Hordes upon hordes of bussed in middle class Americans from suburbia lend the place a certain ‘Disneyland’ quality. But more obstructively, team upon team of other novice big wall climbers can congest the popular routes.

Tom Grant & Johanna Stålnacke

Nonetheless, the day came when we were ready to take on El Cap, and despite the crowds, we chose “The Nose” as our line. Perhaps the most iconic rock climb in the world, the frequency at which it’s attempted is offset by the high failure rate of teams on it. Big wall veteran and famous El Cap photographer Tom Evans told us that less than a fourth of teams who attempt the route succeed on it, usually bailing on the lower third of the route.
Starting with headlights in the early hours of the morning we attacked the lower sections of the route and found a good rhythm making fast progress up immaculate splitter cracks. The stress produced by the proceeding days of logistical organization and uncertainty quickly dissipated as Johanna and I relished each pitch of incredible climbing. With multiple teams close behind us, it was with great relief we pulled ourselves onto the first bivi ledge. Keeping ourselves attached to an anchor at all times, we settled down for the night.

Nils Ohlendorf

There are many small peculiarities about living on a vertical rock face for three days. For example, all human waste must be carried upwards with each party. This involves defecating into a small plastic bag, sealing that bag into a jerry rigged ‘poop tube’, and re-attaching it under the main haul bag. This process breaks down any remaining barriers of dignity or intimacy between climbing partners as we found out when one of us developed a bad gut. Sometimes the call of nature may come at a time when gaping tourists undoubtedly have their binoculars pointed upwards at you…
On the morning of day two, I found myself being lowered out by Johanna in order to attempt to sprint across a blank section of wall in a huge pendulum motion. This pitch is known as the ‘King Swing’ and is unlike anything either of us had done before. Running full stride across the wall, bouncing several metres with each step while faintly hearing a cheering crowd half a vertical kilometre below, is something we will never forget.
We soon found ourselves held up by teams ahead and our slowing progress was compounded by a route finding error and as we got benighted my head torch bounced of my helmet and fell to the valley floor. Resigned to climbing through the night with a tiny backup LED light in order to reach the next bivi ledge known as Camp 5, Johanna and I laboured on through stunning pitches until reaching it at first light. As the climbers huddled there for the night began to move on, we caught a short nap before pushing onwards.

Tom Grant & Johanna Stålnacke

With only a third of the route left we knew we were going to top out, but a storm was rapidly approaching ahead of forecast. Johanna set off on her block and did an excellent job dispatching some tough sections and the iconic ‘Changing Corners’ pitch. I took the final block of leading and pulled through the final overhanging pitch in a full thunderstorm. Our sense of alarm grew when Johanna started getting zapped by an electrical charge on the wet rock. After pushing ourselves to climb the final sections as fast as we could, the physical and mental drain of the last few days begun to catch up with us. There was little relief in reaching the top, as we were both soaked to the bone, freezing cold and into our second night without sleep. Johanna and I searched for the path down, but missed it in the dark. The lush and otherworldly ambiance of the redwood forest we were in added to the dreamlike quality of our experience and a mildly hallucinogenic state of sleep deprivation provided the only respite for the physical misery of being so cold and wet.
Locating the route down in the light of day we began our descent back to Camp 4. Exhaustion getting the better of us, we found a dry meadow and crawled into our one remaining dry sleeping bag and dozed for several hours before continuing the rest of the way back to camp.

Nils Ohlendorf

The next day we packed and left for the Utah desert. Its unplugged rawness and vastness, lack of regulations and rules would provide a welcome antidote to the Yosemite Valley. It was therefore with no love lost that we left the Valley, but not before stopping to crane our necks upwards and to gaze in wonderment at El Cap. We had ticked off a dream line.
Kiss and drive.

Translation : JAG

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