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Valley Uprising + An Interview with my Dad

A few weeks ago, Andrew and I were able to attend the Reel Rock Premiere of the movie Valley Uprising. As you know, my Dad is an avid rock climber and I grew up camping, hiking and climbing with my family. Some of my fondest childhood memories are family camping trips in Yosemite Valley. I've heard my Dad and his buddies tell countless climbing stories, and always enjoyed hearing them reminisce on old climbing trips or laying out gear and planning their routes for the following days' climb.

I was fascinated by my Dad's climbing and mountaineering from a very early age. I'm sure a large part of that is because we were surrounded by it growing up. It's given me such a love for spending time outdoors. Although I only go rock climbing once or twice a year, Andrew and I go camping and hiking quite frequently. The mountains are definitely home to me.

In the past couple years, Andrew has also started to really enjoy climbing. He's been going a few times a year with my Dad since our first trip to Tuolumne Meadows together in 2012. He even has his own gear now, so we're hoping to start going to the climbing gym here in the city. So clearly, we were both pretty pumped to see Valley Uprising, and learn more about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley.

The event was sponsored by ClifBar and held at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, which was a great location. There was a reception before the premiere of the film with booths from The North Face, Sports Basement, The Sierra Club, ClifBar, The Access Fund and a Glen Denny photography exhibit! Andrew and I had gone to a Glen Denny slide show presentation in Tuolumne Meadows this past July, and loved listening to him talk about climbing in the 1960's and 1970's. It was sort of a preview for the movie, and part of the reason we were so excited to see Valley Uprising.

After walking around the reception, everyone filed into the theater for the main event. Since it was the premiere, Alex Honnold was there as well as the film makers and Glen Denny. They did a brief introduction, then started the show.

Andrew and I really loved the film. I think hearing Glen Denny's presentation earlier in the year, gave us a different perspective then we would have had otherwise. We thought it seemed that the film played up a bit of the tension between Robbins and Harding. Where Denny made it seem like the competition was a little more friendly. But I really loved the old footage and stories, and seeing the beautiful landscape of Yosemite Valley. One of our favorite aspects of the film was learning about the different stages the sport has gone through since the beginning: Aid Climbing, Free Climbing, Speed Climbing, Free Solo Climbing. Since my Dad has always done free climbing, I was familiar with that, and I knew some about free solo climbing because of Alex Honnold (crazy - I can't breathe watching those videos)! But I didn't remember the big speed climbing movement, or realize that aid climbing was how they used to do all the big wall climbs. I also really liked learning more about Lynn Hill. It was pretty amazing there was a female climber who was as good, if not better than the men climbing at that time. Her strength and physique was so impressive!

But instead of giving you a re-cap of the movie and telling you everything I liked about it, I have something way more fun planned! My Dad was climbing in Yosemite Valley during this exciting time, so I thought it would be fun to interview him, and get his account of the "Valley Uprising." I hope you enjoy it! I made some comments in purple, but mostly I was typing as fast as I could to get down everything he said!

Interview with Bart O'Brien (my Dad!) about Valley Uprising and Climbing in Yosemite Valley

Do you agree more with Robbins' philosophy on climbing, or with Harding?
With Robbins' philosophy. But, I think the film characterized Harding unfairly. Like he was a drunk that climbed for his own view of climbing “however you could get to the top.” He was sensitive to climbing and tuned in to doing things the right way, but quick to pull out a bolt if it was safer and helped him move up. To Robbins, it was more important HOW you got to the top rather than IF you got to top.

Why did you start climbing?
I have struggled with that question. When I read about it in magazines like National Geographic, I was drawn to it and thought it would be SO neat to be able to do that. I was a reader as a kid, and was aware of it through magazines. Then I hiked up Mt. Tamalpias with a friend when I was in the 8th grade and met a couple rock climbers. They told us what books to read and where to get climbing gear.

What was it like being on top of El Capitan the day Harding reached the summit?
It was a great experience. First of all, there were 25 journalists there with TV cameras. Every major TV Station in country sent a cameraman, plus 35-40 other people like myself. So it was the atmosphere, a beautiful natural area, but something newsworthy and important happening. It was also my first hike in Yosemite, so just to be in Yosemite and see Half Dome and Cathedral Rock was aw inspiring. I remember laying on my belly at the edge looking down 3000 feet thinking it was unbelievable that people would climb that and not be terrified of the vertical heights. It was so far off the ground. Middle Cathedral Rock (almost 2,000 feet high) looks like a foot stool when you're on top of El Cap. We hiked up the Yosemite Falls trail and along the rim, I was with Kent Harris the Dad of one of my high school friends. It was about an 8 mile hike. (He was 19 at the time).

Caldwell - Harding - My Dad's friend, Kent - My Dad
What is your favorite climb in Yosemite Valley?
Great question. I would probably pick Royal Arches. It's the cliff above The Ahwahnee Hotel. I've done the climb 10-15 times and it’s just long, easy climb with great views. And a variety of climbing: chimney, cracks, slabs, face and good holds. It's a way to do a climb on north dome, and just a fun way to spend the day.

What was your first climb in Yosemite Valley?
It was a short climb at base of El Cap – Delectable Pinnacle.

What was my first climb in Yosemite Valley? How old was I?
Feb 1991 “Guides Route” by Yosemite Falls. (Apparently I had ski/snow “moon” boots on).  

My sister and I, hanging out with Dad while he got his climbing gear organized. 

Tell me about your first big wall climb. Was it Half Dome?
Yes, my 1st successful big wall was Half Dome. I did the climb with Knic Seto, who was my main climbing partner in the mid 1970s A couple times we went up and spent the night on other climbs, but didn't finish. It boils down to that we were scared, but we made up excuses like we ran out of water or someone fell on lead. I was 26 years old and we spent parts of 3 days to reach the top. We hiked up to the base, then went 300 feet up and came back down and slept on ground. The following day we went halfway up and slept on a ledge; we reached the summit the next day and slept on the summit that night. (My Mom hiked up and met them on the top of Half Dome).

I wrote an article about that climb in the American Alpine Journal, which has been mentioned in two other books. It inspired people to go clean up litter about a year later because I wrote about there being so much garbage. Although, when I read it now, I sort of laugh at myself, but I'm also proud of it.

Was there a specific moment when you knew climbing would always be a part of your life? When the passion/obsession really clicked?
That happened when I was a junior in college climbing with Paul. I can really remember being in Yosemite climbing on Glacier Point Apron. I  had never done anything before in my life that, while you were doing it, captured your FULL attention. Both physical and mental.  All you could think about for a full 6 hours was the rock climb, not a paper due in history, etc. And I thought, this is for me, I love this.

What was it like staying in Camp 4?
The film depicts it as squalid, with people living in caves and beer cans everywhere. That wasn't my Camp 4 experience. You used to be able to drive in, the road was about 40% paved and the rest dirt with random spots scattered around for camping. People would drag tables, there were tents all over and people who I wanted to be like. Climbers, out having these adventures that I thought sounded really cool. (In the back ground my mom said "He used to want to live there” but he never made it).

Camp 4 Photos - Glen Denny 
Did you ever feel the desire to push the envelope with climbing?
I guess that would be a yes. But it always felt like pushing the limit within my ability level. A young male thinks that he's indestructible. I look back and thinks wow, I was gutty. We would go hike, look at a wall that had never been climbed and just start up. Back then, it was so different. There were just a handful of people going into the Sierra looking for things to climb. No gyms to introduce people to climbs in mass numbers like there is today. In those days, guide books read like: “walk up to east face of Temple Crag, find the 3rd rib to left and start up." It was adventurous and unknown at that time.

What is your favorite part of rock climbing? Why do you do it?
I love that it combines both physical and mental discipline. You have to be in good shape physically and mentally to lead routes. To take risks and go up without protection. I always liked those challenges. Also because it has been the source of the most satisfying friendships in my life. We've traveled the world to climb together, it's been a wonderful aspect of my life.

What was it like when Free Climbing started?
Aid climbing was how you got up a big wall. I wanted to climb the Lost Arrow after seeing Glen Denny's photo. So I learned aid climbing for that. But mostly I wanted to be a free climber, and be the best I could be. I always found it felt much more secure relying on the rock, my strength and ability to find holds rather than hanging from nylon. I did quite a bit of aid climbing for big walls, but it wasn’t what attracted me to the sport.

Harding aid climbing - Glen Denny 

How did you feel about the speed climbing movement?
They downplayed in film how extremely dangerous it is. Basically they both tie into a rope and move as fast as they possibly can with the front person clipping in every 50 feet or so. There is a high degree of risk in that. At times, both climbers could be totally unprotected. I was never attracted to it. Dave (his climbing friend) and I always climbed fairly quickly, above average. But that was a result of how efferent we were because we know each other well and can move well on routes together. Plus, by the time it came into it’s own, I was in 40's and had a family.  

How do you feel about free solo climbing? Did you ever want to try that?
(Mom says two thumbs down) - I think it is incredibly risky. One thing that drew me to climbing as using the gear. To me it’s all a part of it, that was a plus. I love playing with all my gear, it's fun. With free solo climbing I think, what if you get stung by a bee? There is just no margin for error. Psychologically I'm not cut out for it. There is too much what if…even when I  was young and liked to push the envelope, that wasn't for me. I did a lot of un-roped and risky climbs. But even something like South Crack, that I've climbed 100 times, I wouldn't free solo. I have a family and it wasn't worth the risk.  

Yvon Chouinard organizing climbing gear - Glen Denny 

Can you share one climbing memory with us? Your favorite day climbing in the Valley or simply just an experience that stands out in your memory?
Hard to say, there are SO many climbing memories in Yosemite. One of the most memorable days, was in 1984 when I did a route on Sentinal Rock called Salathe Steck (named for John Salafay) – it was considered the hardest free climb in the world in the 1950s. It is amazingly physical and long. We went fast and light, carrying only water and a candy bar. It took us 8 or 9 hours, and we got done in time to have dinner at the Mountain Room Broiler afterwards. I climbed it with Rod Johnson, a great friend and memory. We trained for the climb, so it was very satisfying.  Steck one of best climbers, spent five days on 1st accent, so it was a really rewarding and memorable experience.

We saw Glen Denny in Tuolumne Meadows this summer, and you shared that one of his pictures inspired you to really love climbing. Can you talk a bit about that?
The picture is of the Lost Arrow Spire, two climbers on pinnacle at dusk. After I met the people on Mt. Tamalpias and they told us about the climbing store in Berkeley, we hitchhiked there. That picture was a poster on the wall in that store. I remember standing there, looking at it thinking it would be so amazing to do that. Early on, my desire to be good enough to do the Lost Arrow was because of that picture. I was 21 when I climbed it. I went back about 10 years later to climb it again, and as we walked up to it the 2nd time, Slater (family friend) said I don’t know if I can do that. And I didn't know how I had done it either.

The Lost Arrow 1962 - Glen Denny

Who was the most inspiring climber in the Valley for you during the 60's when you really started to pick up the sport?
That's a tossup between Robbins and Harding. Both were really impressive with what they accomplished. Harding seemed more accessible because I had met him when he reached the summit of El Cap. I was a goofy guy that would just say "Hi, I’m Bart O'Brien, I met you when you summited El Cap." And he was always really nice and gracious. I always looked up to him.

Did you ever have the opportunity to climb with any of the "greats" like Robbins or Harding?
I got to know Robbins over the last 15 years. I met him a time or two back in the 70s and 80s but got to know him later when I found out he was a Rotarian and invited him to Auburn to do presentations. I've gone climbing with him and to his cabin in Pine Crest. (My Dad said he wasn't exactly sure why, but in Robbins' first book, he thanks my Dad in the intro. Which I think is pretty awesome).

In the movie, you really get the sense that these climbers really considered Yosemite their home. And that they spent the majority of their time there. Did you ever feel like that? How often were you there climbing?
Yosemite felt like a very special place to me; depending on what I was doing or where I lived, I would go once or twice a month in college and grad school. Once I was teaching, it was harder to go as often. It was always a special place for me, but never felt like home. Tuolumne Meadows feels more like home now. With teaching and having a family, I had time in summer to go to the Sierra; you don’t go to the Valley in the summer, you go to Tuolumne. Now, I'll maybe even go a year without going to the Valley. I was always drawn to climbing as recreation, but I wanted an education and to marry your mom and have a family.


It was so much fun sitting down to talk to my Dad about the movie, and learn more about his thoughts on climbing in Yosemite Valley during that time. In addition to the interview questions, we talked a bit more about the movie. We both agreed it would be interesting to talk with Glen Denny about the characterization in the film. Since he was there, photographing and climbing with them, he knew them all quite well and would have insight to the portrayal of Robbins and Harding. 

When my Dad and I were talking, he told me about a first accent he did in 1976 called Charlotte's Web, on Charlotte Dome in the back country. The first route was done by Galen Rowell and Fred Becky, and then another group did a third route and named it EB White after the author of Charlotte's Web. He was saying this summer he ran into a group of climbers in a parking lot who had just done the climb. They were asking my Dad a few questions about it, and one of them said "you seem to know a lot about this climb" so he finally told him he had done the first accent, and they knew who he was and had just read something he'd written about the climb the day before! I thought that was pretty cool :) 

Overall, my Dad said he really enjoyed the movie. He said that it was weird to think he lived all that. And that he knows most of those people, and knew the stories. The movie made him think a lot, if that was a life he would have chosen. But he loves that he was able to explore and climb all over. Seeing many different areas of the world and climbing in Europe, Canada, Nepal and more. He said he doesn't regret any of the climbing choices he's made (like not climbing El Capitan). He felt like he really found a true balance. He's learned if you are too singular focused, your life will be enriched in one way, but you will miss out in others. He loves having the balance of family, career, and climbing as recreation. 

I hope you enjoyed what my Dad had to say about climbing as much as I did! I learned a lot about him, and always love hearing his stories. It's pretty amazing that he was there climbing right along with the "greats." I'm proud to say that my Dad has done such amazing rock climbs, and had those wonderful experiences. He has been such a wonderful role model and he's given me a love for nature and exploration, which I'm so thankful for! 

I hope you all enjoyed this post. And a high five for those of you still reading, I know this was a long one.

Climb On! 

** Black & White Photos are Glen Denny **
** El Capitan photos from 1970 - Bart O'Brien **
** All other photos are mine **

Also linking up with the girls for the Let's Be Friends Blog Hop! 

1 comment:

  1. Your dad is a total bad ass. That is so cool! I love his stance on balance. I have seen way too many people become obsessed with one interest and it takes over their lives. They miss out on so many other important aspects in life.


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