A sea of granite, stunning in color and sheer bulk, reaches out in singing clarity from my airy overlook. Marshaling up a flared crack, three-quarters up the 14-pitch climb called the Royal Arches, I catch my breath, peering past my shoes, across a Yosemite Valley glowing gray and orange in spring sunshine. Although the exposure is enormous and the perspective below a bit distorted, the churning rapids of the Merced River fills the air with the sound of spring runoff charging down from the high country.

Located prominently along the northeast side of Yosemite Valley above the Ahwahnee Hotel, this popular climb is a lengthy but moderate route. Its granite face drips with bomber handholds and the firmest footing. With well-protected anchors, it provides a universal positivity, a zero-to-hero feeling without fear of amputation, hanging bivouacs, or yo-yoing up fixed ropes.

Royal Arches is just one of over 250 designated climbing routes in Yosemite Valley. At 4,000-foot elevation, the valley floor remains the most unique aspect of the 1,200-square mile Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley contains enough world-class cliffs to sate any climber’s appetite. Its walls, smoothed and polished by the retreating movement of glaciers from another epoch reign supreme over an area one mile wide, seven miles long and over 3,000 feet deep. Arguably no other area in the world offers such a concentration of clean, steep and enormous array of rock faces. At 2,900 vertical feet, the buttress El Capitan, the valley floor’s centerpiece is so immense and colossal, that it almost defies the power of comprehension.


In springtime, long before the annual gridlock and clutter of summer, the valley floor clamshells open into blossoming dogwoods, otherworldly waterfalls and bright green corridors of meadow and river. In absence of the throngs of visitors (20,000 people will visit Yosemite on a daily basis in August) the valley floor’s essential fabric, inward music and incomparable granite walls retreat into more of the great wilderness that made John Muir, Yosemite’s first known rock climber, describe it as ‘the grandest, most divine of all earthly dwelling places.’

‘One of the best ways to kick off a climbing season is to hit Yosemite in the spring,’ explains Lake Tahoe’s Dave Nettle, an internationally recognized climber who has climbed 16 different routes on Yosemite’s El Capitan. ‘When I drive to the Valley in spring and see the falls bursting with runoff, the dogwoods in bloom and the green of the meadows with snow still draped over Clouds Rest I know another climbing season has started. Climbing on a spring day with a touch of leftover winter chill is pleasant.’

As tempting as the big walls are, and with Tioga Pass and Tuolumne still closed, many climbers wait until the settled weather of fall to set off on any of the big multi-day vertical voyages Yosemite boasts. Typically, Half Dome in the spring with its ice-cold north exposure, higher altitude and drippy wet face can be a grim, cold, wet and arduous outing in spring.

‘I get my big wall fix by focusing on the long, free one-day pushes like the Rostrum North Face, Higher Cathedral Rock, and Serenity Crack to Sons of Yesterday near the Royal Arches,’ says Nettle, 52, who has also summited Alaska’s Denali twice as well as Mount Hunter, the Moose’s Tooth and the Cirque in the Unclimables of Canada’s Northwest Territory. ‘Linking up a bunch of pitches early in the season is a great way to get the mind and body up and running for the big projects of summer.’
Other springtime rituals for veteran Yosemite climbers include one- and two-pitch crack climbs such as the ‘Cookie Cliff,’ the ‘Outer Limits,’ the ‘Manure Pile’ and the exposed and pumpy ‘Wheat Thin.’

‘Yosemite just comes alive in the spring,’ says Dave Bengston, 48, who has climbed El Capitan 48 times and logged over 1,000 hours on Yosemite rock. ‘All the plants and animals are moving into the growing season. Although there can be still a bit of water on the north facing cliffs, there’s such a wealth of wonderful dependable rock and spectacular spots to climb throughout the valley.’

Bengston is director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS). Founded in 1969 and run by the Yosemite Concession Services Corporation, the mountain climbing school offers one- to multi-day climbing courses out of Camp Curry and Tuolumne Meadows.

For the basic rock climbing class the first couple of hours are spent going over the fundamentals, while the rest of the day is devoted to bouldering and rappelling at Swan Slab, one of the many climbing sites used by YMS in the Valley area.

‘Although there are aspects of climbing that are unforgiving, if you know how to do it well, and learn proper techniques, it’s a reasonably safe sport and one that doesn’t just have to be just for young people,’ explains Bengston whose school hosts over 4,000 students from May to September. ‘Students are involved right from the beginning. We have them do everything for themselves, including tying their own ropes. Safety is stressed. The actual climbing that we do is the fun part.’

Besides the school’s  ‘Go Climb A Rock’ beginner course, other classes taught include crack climbing, anchoring, leading multi-pitch climbs, self-rescue and aid climbing. Classes meet daily and run a full day. Other curriculums include big wall climbing, ice climbing and high country travel. Guided climbs, guided hikes, backcountry trips and private lessons are also available.

‘July and August are peak days where reservations are essential, particularly on weekends’ says Bengston. ‘This time of year the crowds are low and things aren’t as hurried. It’s a wonderful time to visit Yosemite and go climb a rock.’

For more information and reservations concerning the Yosemite Mountaineering School call 209-372-8344 or visit yosemitemountaineering.com. Advanced reservations for car camping are necessary from late spring to mid-fall. Call toll-free at 800-436-7275. Reservations also may be made in person at the campground Reservations Office in Curry Village.


  • Robert Frohlich

    Former writer

    1955 – 2010

    “If Lake Tahoe ain’t heaven, then heaven can wait.”
    ~ Fro fighting for his life

    “The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon. The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning, and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges, and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.

    “There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying. Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with a caption for people too dense like me to know a vision when they see one. How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.”

    ~ “Seeking Mojo at Glacier Point,” published in Moonshine Ink, March 8, 2010

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