Revealing Routes on El Cap

Yosemite's Rock Chief

It's hardly surprising that the first white men to enter California's Yosemite Valley, in 1851, found their tongues tied. Enormous, sheer, white cliffs flanked the canyon, and impossibly high waterfalls plunged into the idyllic forest below. What to say, aside from the usual platitudes? Twenty years later, J. H. Beadle, a travel writer, also struggled as he attempted to portray the scene:"No description has ever been written. None can be written on this earth. A man must die and learn the language of angels before he can describe Yosemite."

Tourists and climbers alike are immediately struck by the enormous granite monolith that guards the portal of the canyon. The 1851 group, knowing that local Indians called it the Rock Chief, gave it an equally apt name, El Capitan, Spanish for "The Captain." Only tourists use its full Spanish name now: climbers have two other names, El Cap and the Captain.

About 900 meters (3,000 feet) high and 1,600 meters (one mile) wide, the huge cliff is said to be the largest chunk of exposed granite on earth. Since the rock is incredibly solid and Yosemite's weather is often superb, climbers from all over the world flock to this splendid formation to test their mettle.

Steve Roper is the author of the classic Fifty Classic Climbs of NorthAmerica (with Allen Steck) and Camp 4: Recollections of a YosemiteRockclimber. The longtime editor of Ascent, he has written many other booksand has had his work appear in Summit, Backpacker, Rock & Ice, and many other magazines. Steve's articles on Zion, Yosemite's high country, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Mount Conness Loop have been featured on GORP.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 6 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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