The Ahwahnee (Yosemite)

Chapter X: The Awhahnee

The Twilight Zone looms above, and I must avert my eyes. The Cookie Cliff has always been held in high regard as a band of granite that tests the aspiring climber. Internationally famous climbs like Outer Limits and The Twilight zone command the respect and admiration of men and women from around the globe. Somewhere in the trees, a Canyon Wren – a bird – whistles in descending crescendo, and the Merced River (or whatever the Miwok once called it) is audible through the forest. 

“You’ve done the Twilight Zone?” I ask a mysterious woman, who nonchalantly smiles as if confused.

“Yeah. I mean, it’s easier than Generator Crack!” Eliza Swanson has yet to identify herself. She sits, with her elbows over her knees, seemingly uninterested in time itself. In my mind, this strange woman is a True Yosemite Climber.

The Twilight Zone is a difficult wide crack – or “off-width” – that was first climbed by a man named Chuck Pratt. To the general public, Pratt is a name that may never ring a bell. However, any Rock Climber with an overbearing sense of history should recognize Chuck Pratt as a God. 

At the time of Pratt’s initial climb of The Twilight Zone, he famously said a phrase that haunts me to this day. 

The worst thing that could happen if you fell at the crux, would be that you survive.

The crux – as Pratt described it – is the most difficult section of the route. Regardless of any other inch, the hardest moves define the grade of the climb. At a difficulty of 5.10+, The Twilight Zone was one of the earliest routes of its difficulty in Yosemite Valley (or, as the Miwok once said, The Ahwahnee – or – The Gaping Maw). To me, there is no surprise that many of the earliest 5.10’s in Yosemite were off-widths.

When Pratt initially declared those foreboding words, he was referring to a large, sharp fin of granite that protrudes upwards from the base of crux – or hardest – pitch. Should he have failed to climb that crack, he would have peeled out, and buckled in half over the inverted guillotine below. Nowadays, modern climbers do not face such a danger, as the advent of large camming devices precludes its original danger. In other words, Chuck Pratt’s only protection at the time was a futile selection of pitons that simply would not have saved his life (or at least the future mobility of his legs after a fall).

“My dad used to climb a lot around here, when he was a Park Ranger.” I tell this strange woman, frantically projecting my insecurities. I have always longed to consider myself as connected to this place. Under my own philosophies, one does not simply walk into Yosemite and apply their own wants.

“What was your dad’s name?” She asks.

“Rick Faulkenstein.” I reply, curious to see if she knows.

“Oh,” She says with an admonishing smile, “I know Rick Faulkenstein.”

“You do?” I ask desperately.

“Tell him Eliza Swanson says hi.” She chuckles.

“Dad, do you remember a woman named Eliza Swanson?” I ask dad over the phone.

Rick Faulkenstein explodes over the microphone, “That woman was so beautiful, I had to avert my fucking eyes.”

Strange coincidences begin to haunt my mind. Perhaps this Swanson character was more than just a chance encounter for me. At the very least, perhaps Swanson was simply encouraging me to throw away all sense of doubt, and just go-fucking-climb The Twighlight Zone.

Swanson’s statement about its difficulty obsesses me. To her, The Twilight Zone poses no greater stress than its famous cousin, Generator Crack. At a rating of 5.10c, Generator is – according to most guidebooks – less difficult than Twilight. To Swanson, however, the difficulty is obviously relative and – if I can do several laps on Generator without undue stress – I should be able to climb it.

The underlying problem is respect. Something about The Twilight Zone, and Chuck Pratt’s ghost prevents me from accepting an ability to climb it. The legends, the myths, and the ethos all blend together in my mind to carve out a void in my soul that is greater than that of the Gaping Maw of Yosemite itself. Ultimately, I am but a worm.

My parents met in Yosemite. Rick Faulkenstein was a bike-attendant at Curry Village when he met my mother, Diane Rosebloom. Rosebloom, at the time, was managing the nearby cafeteria. Truly – and as far as good looks go – Rosebloom was far beyond Faulkenstein’s league. However, Rick had something that is lacking amongst most people I’ve ever met: True Intensity. 

One way or another, I was born. Unfortunately, I was born in a different range of mountains that simply has never called to me yet – even to this day. The Colorado Rockies are a different beast, and my mind can only conjure a single thought in regards to their name. Apathy.

Even as a small child, I never thought El Capitan (Totonkanula, to the Miwok) looked so big. Now, that’s not to say it isn’t. Nay, I completely understand the pure scale of the great Captain of the Ahwahnee. My problem was that I have known El Capitan since I was but a small child. My parents returned to Yosemite when I was three years old. At that time, nothing was big and nothing was small. Things just were, and my mind required juxtaposition to create a sense of scale as we drove those twenty horrid minutes every Sunday to the valley chapel.

Instead, I always thought Half Dome was cooler. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It just was.

Even now that I have engrossed myself in a Yosemite Obsession of sorts, I struggle to see El Capitan as “big.” Still, I fully recognize that it is, and that the chance of dying somewhere on its commanding precipices is significantly higher than sitting in The Meadow, but when Brett Seshain and I drove up for our first Big Wall together – my first big wall ever – El Capitan simply called to me as nothing more than a big-ass-rock that challenged me to try.

As my self-induced connection to Yosemite grew, I continued to involve myself in whatever little way I could. Most often, that would result in me compulsively pouring through the annals of Supertopo.com and it’s Climber’s Forum. There, I found that legends from all different generations happened to grace the pathetic “we” with their knowledge, their stories, and history.

History is what drives me back, everytime. Bridal Veil Falls is haunted; the spirit of Pohono dares me to stare as I crawl my way up the Leaning Tower. Half Dome screams eternal at Washington’s Column – a penalty for Tis-sa-ack and her husband’s quarles – both of which I have now climbed.

When I wander throughout The Ahwahnee now – and as I gauze at the monoliths overhead to derive some sense of their personality – my white skin does not feel so heavy as it does on Kauai. The Hawaiians are a justifiably angry people – peaceful at most times – who do not tolerate the continued disrespect that the mainlanders afford them. However, something about That Valley – and its legends along with my own history there – compels me to say something bizarre, and with absolute humility.

I am a child of The Ahwahnee.

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