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Glen Denny Remembers Valley Walls in the 1960s

Royal Robbins on the North America Wall.

[Photo] Glen Denny

Valley Walls: A Memoir of Climbing and Living in Yosemite by Glen Denny. Published by Yosemite Conservancy, May 2016. 210 pages. Paperback. $18.95.

During the 1960s, Glen Denny, a young college dropout and budding photographer, was part of the famous crew of riff-raff climbers who spent their days in Yosemite Valley, honing skills on short, fierce jam cracks, repeating big-wall routes on El Capitan and Washington Column, bouldering around Camp 4 on problems like the Wine Traverse, hanging out around a blazing fire in Yosemite Lodge and scarfing down leftovers from tourists at the cafeteria.

In addition to climbing with legends such as Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Layton Kor, Denny documented their lifestyle with a notebook and a camera that he could wear while climbing. Denny was inspired by the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams. After seeing Adams’ prints in Best’s Studio (now the Ansel Adams Gallery), he endeavored to recreate some of the iconic shots. “That was my education in the fundamentals of lighting and composition,” he said in a recent interview with Alpinist.

This past month, the Yosemite Conservancy released Denny’s new book Valley Walls: A Memoir of Climbing and Living in Yosemite. The memoir richly describes the 1960s era of Yosemite big walls, crack climbs, and Camp 4 culture in twenty-one essays that serve to complement Denny’s photo book, Yosemite in the Sixties (2007), an evocative set of black-and-white images from the era. The stories in Valley Walls include an early epic on Royal Arches; learning to climb under Warren Harding’s tutelage; confronting winter weather in Camp 4; completing the first ascent of the Dihedral Wall on El Cap with Ed Cooper and Jim Baldwin; giving Robbins a soft catch on a fall during an attempt on the North America Wall; recovering the body of a fallen youth; and making the third ascent of The Nose with Layton Kor and Steve Roper.

Denny’s tales humanize the climbing icons of the 1960s, portraying them as individuals with goals, dreams, disappointments, triumphs, deaths and sadness. It’s a book to tote along on climbing trips, to read while resting in roadside pullouts at Indian Creek or snuggled in a mummy bag in Camp 4.

Of his motivations, Denny said, “I wanted to write Valley Walls because I didn’t want the experience to disappear. It was as simple as that. I first attempted it in the 1960s. It wasn’t good enough, so I turned to photography with better results. I tried again in the 1980s, made substantial progress, but lost confidence in it. Climbing was more fun than writing, but the book was always on my mind.”

Warren Harding on the West Face of Leaning Tower.

[Photo] Glen Denny

Stewart M. Green talks with Glen Denny about the evolution of climbing

Green: You made a lot of iconic photographs of Yosemite climbing and its characters in the 1960s. What was your purpose in photographing climbers? Were you intending to record the Valley lifestyle or were you just taking photos for your own pleasure?

Denny: I first started taking photographs on trout-fishing trips in the Sierra Nevada with my father when I was a teenager. These were snapshots that showed where we went and what we did. I did the same thing in my first years of climbing. But when I saw the first published photos by Henry Kendall and Tom Frost, I realized that climbing photography could be a serious medium of self-expression.

I combed the libraries for photo books. My favorite photographers became Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I also studied The Family of Man, based on Edward Steichen’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. For me, it was a one-volume encyclopedia of everything photography could do. Later on I discovered Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, and Andre Kertesz.

During the ’60s, climbing was the most important thing in my life, and I didn’t want the experience to disappear. I tried to capture it in writings, but the results weren’t good enough, so I concentrated on doing it by photography, with better success.

As the Valley climbing scene evolved, I realized that important history was happening, so I tried to capture the social life in Camp 4 as well as the climbing action on the walls.

Glen Denny

[Photo] Peggy Denny

Green: You were friends and climbing partners with many Yosemite climbers in the 1960s. Which climbers had the most influence on you during that era and who were the best characters in the Valley?

Denny: Yosemite climbers were an exceptional group of people who, for some reason, wanted to climb rocks. In the 1950s and ’60s, that was a very unusual thing to do. Some people could understand the desire to climb things like the Grand Teton or Mt. Everest, but why climb a Yosemite cliff when there was a trail to the top? What was the point of all that unnecessary risk and labor?

Some of the denizens were college dropouts who lived in Camp 4 for months at a time. Others thrived in college and climbed on weekends and school vacations. Some of them even became college professors.

Typical examples were Steve Roper, who was highly intelligent but dropped out after less than a year of college, and Frank Sacherer, who had a PhD in nuclear physics at UC Berkeley. Roper was a loquacious extrovert. Sacherer was a tight, silent introvert, but they teamed up to set a speed record on the Steck-Salathe Route on Sentinel Rock, breaking the record set by Royal Robbins. This put Robbins, who had dropped out of high school, into a competitive fury.

Green: How many climbers were usually living in Camp 4 in the ’60s? And how many were weekend climbers?

Denny: In the early ’60s, I would say about a dozen. Weekend climbers? Of the serious ones, about the same number. They were all Californians, except for Layton Kor and Mike Borghoff, and a few occasional visitors.

Large numbers of out-of-state and some European climbers started appearing in the late ’60s, after Roper’s Yosemite guidebook in 1964 gained wide circulation. There were also a large number of less-serious “recreational” climbers, who were seen as a different group.

Green: You write about your first real rock climb, done with Warren Harding. What did you learn from Harding on those first leads? How did his mentorship shape your climbing career?

Denny: Chapter 1 of Valley Walls, “Learning to Climb,” describes my initial experience with Harding. He was the first expert climber I met, and he made a lasting impression. His energy and humor were nonstop. He seemed to be a wild man, living like a Hell’s Angel. I never understood how he could drink so much wine and last for so many days on a big wall.

After he showed me the fundamentals of technical climbing, we went on to bigger routes, some of which I’ve described in Valley Walls. I did the first ascents of several big walls with him. We got to some wild places, but at the same time he was always a careful climber, showing me how to control the risk of death.

A scene in Camp 4 during the 1960s.

[Photo] Glen Denny

Throughout those adventures, he was always tough, but generous at the same time. In desperate situations, he would volunteer to take the next lead. On a bivy ledge, he would never eat the last food or drink the last water. These qualities made him a great companion.

Green: After the close of the ’60s, did you continue climbing or did you basically retire from the sport? What was your career and work after your Valley days and where did you live?

Denny: After the ’60s, I continued climbing for decades, but no longer on the big walls. I worked as a freelance photographer and cinematographer, taught photography and filmmaking, and worked at wineries in the Napa Valley, helping produce high-quality wine that was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the cheap jug wine we drank in Camp 4!

I worked for many years at the Stanford University Library, helping select books for the collection. My boss was a climber, and we especially enjoyed expanding the collection of mountaineering books. I lived mainly in Berkeley, Palo Alto, and San Francisco.

Besides producing my own books and helping other people produce theirs, in recent years I’ve had a number of photo exhibitions. I’ve given slide shows, based on the photos in Yosemite in the Sixties, across the U.S., in Europe, and in Japan.

[To read more about Glen Denny and see more his photography, visit his website and check out his book Glen Denny: Yosemite in the Sixties–Ed.]