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Guinn’s Travels: Photos Aren’t Enough

Nyacker Scott Guinn Logs His Travels Across America Via Van

by Scott Guinn
Yosemite National Park is the Mecca of modern rock climbing. Being notoriously difficult to ‘put into words,’ what follows will most likely be no more than another feeble attempt. Yosemite is the Wrigley Field of rock climbing. History, lore, and legend were carved by the dominating white granite walls. But Yosemite is much more than a relic of the past. It continues to be the ultimate stage for some of the world’s hardest climbs, including, most recently, the setting for Tommy Caldwell’s gravity defying ascent of the Dawn Wall (a new, essentially featureless route up El Cap) and Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling solo of Freerider (also a route on El Cap, this time climbed without a rope). Even for the uninitiated, Yosemite is as historic as it is iconic. Half Dome is the most recognized peak in North America, and possibly the world. El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and other Valley Giants are featured in nearly every American atlas or guidebook. Millions of tourists flock to the National Park every year for merely a snapshot. To put it simply, Yosemite is the center of the rock climbing universe, and, as such, it was number one on my places to visit on my Great American Road Trip.

There is a very famous (some may say, cliché) photo of Yosemite Valley that depicts El Capitan’s western face shadowing over a sun swept valley with a picturesque, often glowing Half Dome lurking in the distance. The iconic image is always beautiful, despite the countless versions of it you may have seen on Instagram. It’s pervasiveness is inevitable considering that nearly everybody who arrives in the Valley has the opportunity to take a similar photo. The winding road that brings you into the Valley from the west loops around the side of a mountain, opening up to reveal this spectacular vista. One could probably snap an award-winning photo without even leaving their vehicle. Every night as the sun begins to set and the dusty air settles between the walls, the northwest face of Half Dome begins to glow. At first it is hardly noticeable, a subtle orange tint. But as the sun slips behind the horizon, the colors intensify until the peak turns a fiery, burning red that is only extinguished by darkness.
Despite having never been there, I was well informed of this view. In fact, it had been described to me in quite some detail. I knew exactly which road pullout to take in order to catch the best photo and I even knew the curve preceding the pullout in which to emotionally prepare for it. But as night began to fall on the evening of my arrival, I was disheartened at the fact that I would not arrive in time to catch the beautiful sunset. I opted to pull over just outside the park on a remote dirt turnout and wait until morning. I would only be a Valley virgin once, after all.
I shivered through the night, barely sleeping, no doubt due to a combination of the freezing temperatures and my giddy excitement to finally be arriving in Yosemite. Nearly an hour before dawn I scrambled back into the driver’s seat and took off over the mountain pass. It was still dark, and the winding forest road did little to quell my nervous energy. I stopped at the entrance to eagerly display my park pass, but the rangers had not yet arrived. I snatched a map–more as a souvenir than a necessity–and continued onward, delicately balancing my excitement with my concern for rolling the van on the steep descending road. From the eastern entrance of the park, it is a remarkably long distance until you actually arrive at Yosemite Valley. I rolled down my windows to taste the sweet mountain air, ignoring the biting cold. Instantly I could taste the distinct flavor of pine that I had expected of the redwood forest, but it was overshadowed by something else, something I couldn’t quite place. I felt a tinge in the back of my throat but thought little of it as I drove onwards. My weak headlights were aided by the predawn luminescence that the heart senses far before the eyes can make use of it. As I tumbled downward, getting ever closer to the long-awaited corner, I glanced at my watch. Was I too early? No, I still had several miles to go. I had timed it perfectly.
I have always been a dreamer–inspired by catalog clippings, North Face advertisements, 60 Minutes specials, and romantic notions of surviving life at the absolute limit. I would be the first to admit that my dreams have often overshadowed my abilities. For years I dreamed of racing around the world on a sailboat, only to discover on my first offshore stint that I get wicked seasick. As a child I often fantasized catching the game winning touchdown to secure the comeback Super Bowl victory. In reality, my football career began and ended with intramural flag football in college. As an undergraduate I majored in English, largely because it allowed me to get lost in the classic literature that I would be longing to read anyways. The truth is that I love dreaming almost more than I love doing. (Almost!) And in this sense, rock climbing was no different.
Throughout high school I can remember two distinct photographs posted on a bulletin board in my room. Both cutouts from magazine advertisements. One is a sunset silhouette of famous American climber Chris Sharma as he dangles ropeless and completely inverted on a magnificent arch that stretches high over the water in Mallorca, Spain. This is the image that inspired me to start rock climbing. On the other photo, there are four successive shots of a small sailboat called a Laser growing increasingly out of control as it surfs down the face of a massive ocean wave eventually capsizing in a blaze of glory. Overlaid across the four images in bold text it reads, “If you’re going to take a sick day, make it a really SICK day.” In my mother’s backyard right now is not just one, but two Laser sailboats.

Scott Guinn climbing

As I drove across the country and barreled down that mountainside, I often thought of these images and many other iconic climbing shots that I had seen. Particularly, I thought of the various Valley climbs, including Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s nighttime push on the Dawn Wall and Lynn Hill’s legendary free ascent of the Nose. I felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time in such a majestic setting among the heroes and legends of climbing’s recent past. Before I ever entered the Valley, it made perfect sense to me why they called it God’s Cathedral. I just figured the apostrophe was misplaced.
After what seemed like an eternity, the famous corner was upon me. I could see it coming, recognizing the landmarks that indicated the approaching curve was the curve. But I could also feel its presence. It felt as if a whole world, which was up to this point in my life merely a fantasy, lie in glorious, granite reality just beyond the bend. I slowed as I approached the sweeping left turn. It was just before 7a, and as I rounded the corner the brilliant sun unleashed its fury across my windshield. Momentarily blinded, I struggled to make out the paved pullout to my right and abruptly brought my van to a stop. Throwing it in park but without turning the key, I snatched my camera from the passenger seat and threw open the door. Immediately I was met again with the harsh scented air. But now I could place the smell. Walking to the stone retaining wall which marked the end of the pullout, I gazed over the cliff’s edge. What stood before me, emblazoned by the harsh morning rays, was nothing but an empty frame.
Camera resting idly by my side, it took several moments for me to come to terms with what was happening. The smell that filled my lungs was that of burning forest. The air was thick with smoke. The majestic valley that ought to shine in all its glory before me, was completely enveloped by it. I could hardly make out the Valley floor below and the Valley walls were nowhere to be found. Half Dome, in all it’s glory, was only a distant memory.
Disappointed and disheartened, I slipped back into my van. On the dashboard to my right was the road atlas that had guided me across the country. The oversized glossy cover page reflected the sunlight and caught my eye. The unmistakable image of El Capitan glared back at me, illuminated by a dusty morning sun.

* * *

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, but in some cases they are worth much more than that. Images have always inspired my most heartfelt passions. But there is a noteworthy difference between inspiration and accomplishment. To be inspired by an image is to feel an empowering internal motivation to get out and do something. It feels good to be inspired, yes, and scientists suggest that that good feeling is due to a secretion of the same chemical that is secreted when you actually accomplish the task. (Similarly, this is why we often enjoy writing to-do lists, even when we don’t complete the tasks on them.) Certainly, images can inspire us, but the ultimate goal is still achievement. Just as I was inspired by Chris Sharma’s silhouette, I also hope one day to find myself dangling ropeless over water on a fantastic arch in Mallorca. And it is in these moments, when I take the time to realize them, that the most profound sense of joy and satisfaction is realized. It is for this reason that frostbitten alpinists rejoice atop frigid wind-swept peaks rather than merely huddling comfortably by the fireplace as they leaf through photos of past mountaineers who have already conquered the very same summit.
While this story is largely about the inability to capture an image of a beautiful landscape, in this case due to the obstruction presented by the devastating wildfires in the Northwest, what I hope to convey is the deeper implication of what these wildfires may mean for future generations. Climate change is real and it’s happening all around us. If we don’t act urgently, the beautiful places and opportunities we take for granted will slowly begin to disappear. We will always be able to look at images of these fantastic places, but if we do not work to protect them, one day that may be all that we can do. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to notice as they slowly slip away, because that is human nature. We’ll adapt to smoky air just as we’ll adapt to rising sea levels. Natural disasters, which were once a rare and unsettling occurrence, will become a common, unfortunate ‘reality of life’ (in fact, they already are!). What I hope we never have to face is such rapid degradation of our environment that we can’t believe our own eyes.
The illusion of complete destruction, which I faced on that day in Yosemite, I believe gave me a short glimpse into the harsh and desolate future of generations to come. Generations who may never have the opportunity to scale massive granite walls or wander through magical redwood forests. Those generations may only read about places like Yosemite in history books, or perhaps the darkest image of all, visit a Yosemite Museum which shows photos of a once godly cathedral.

Scott Guinn is a Nyack High School and College of William & Mary graduate. He is currently travelling across the country in his van. You can read about his travels on his blog, In Search of Lost Time 

See also: Guinn’s Travels Wk 1: Someday in the Mountains

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