On/Off the Wall: Climbing Networks in Yosemite

Roughly between the ages of twelve and fifteen—when I had gained enough confidence to climb outside, but before the innumerable obligations of high school set in—my dad took me on several weekend trips to Yosemite National Park. We’d load up the car with our ropes, harnesses, and carabiners on Friday night and leave early the next morning. Driving directly east from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, down the I-580, and then finally merging onto 120 in Manteca, the city quickly gave way to the farmland of the Central Valley and its bountiful fruit stands. We always stopped for fresh strawberries or apricots.

Buildings became sparser, curves in the road tighter, and the trees thicker; my ears popped as we slowly gained elevation in our grey station wagon. But just as the last hints of urbanization began to fade away—highway barriers receding into a double yellow line, and then nothing at all—we abruptly hit the park. Approaching the entrance to Yosemite, a veritable border complete with an array of kiosks, signage, and reflective bollards, my dad stopped the car, rolled down the window, and paid our fee to the ranger. As we pulled away his phone picked up a signal and he had to take a call for work—I was first bored and then pissed that I had to listen to his nonsense business jargon instead of go climbing.

This moment, when we passed through the gates of the park, embodies an unmistakably metropolitan ethos of connectivity and infrastructure. Using this as the jumping off point for my panoramic exploration of the city, I have interpreted Yosemite Valley as an urban oasis within the terrain of California’s Eastern Sierras. As climbers, my dad and I always scoffed at the tour buses ambling through the valley whose passengers would never even get out of their air-conditioned box. However, instead of pegging sightseeing as the reason for the park’s sub-natural qualities, I have instead chosen to examine the sport of rock climbing as the urban catalyst. Climbers, many of whom vehemently reject any semblance of urbanity and pride themselves on being “dirtbags” living out of their trucks, have induced an unparalleled and irreversible colonization of Yosemite’s massive granite walls. The infrastructure required by climbers—subdivided camping spaces, highly technical safety gear, and detailed documentation of routes up the wall, to name a few examples—is peppered across the valley floor and up its steep sides. My project seeks to visualize this technological network, drawing attention to the propagating effects of something as small as a climbing rope or carabiner across an entire region.

Created for ARCH/URBN 200b: Scales of Design (Spring 2020).
Digital collage, map.