[This story first appeared in Alpinist 66, which is now available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 66 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
NOVEMBER 14, 2018: The crash and din of water smashing into rock echoed down the valley in a low thrum. Mist scattered in the wind, chilling the breeze. To the east, Lonnie Kauk hung on the granite, the first joints of his middle and index fingers snug in a narrow crack.
A direct descendant of the Indigenous people of the Ahwahnee (the Miwok and Paiute people known as the Ahwahneechee), Lonnie grew up in Yosemite Valley as his mother, Lucy Parker, and her ancestors had for generations. Almost in prayer, Lonnie whispered to the rock: “Please keep me safe. Keep me safe. Let me through. Let me through.” Below, water stirred in an amber pool. With his left hand on the rock, Lonnie reached his other arm back into the cool breeze that swirled below the storied cliff.
For Lonnie, these walls are both home and heritage. In 1996 Lonnie’s father, Ron Kauk, completed the first ascent of Magic Line, the thin seam in the granite near the falls of Yan-o-pah (Little Cloud). Over 150 years ago, Lafayette Bunnell renamed it Vernal Fall. Bunnell was a member of the Mariposa Battalion that rode into the Yosemite Valley in 1851. “The invaders marked their way with blood and ashes,” historian Benjamin Madley writes, often burning villages and food stores. “The Ahwahanees would face death and starvation at Fresno Reservation, the treaty they signed never ratified by the US Senate,” Madley notes. Those who were not shot or captured hid in the hills. Eventually some returned to the valley. In 1864 Yosemite became a state park, and some Indigenous people took work at concessions and hotels, hoping to protect their right to remain in their ancestral homeland. Today, seven Native American communities hold historic ties to the land.
In this oral history, friends and family join Lonnie Kauk to help narrate his journey to pay tribute to his ancestors–from his maternal Yosemite ancestors to his father’s legacy of rock climbing in the Valley.
LONNIE’S GRANDFATHER, Ralph Parker, grew up in Yosemite Valley, where his grandmother, Lucy Telles, demonstrated basket weaving at the museum. As a young boy, Ralph was sent to the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Stewart Indian School, a boarding school in Carson City, Nevada, where he met his future wife.
Julia Parker, Lonnie’s grandmother: Starting in eighth grade, I went to the Stewart Indian School, where they told you, “Don’t be Indian.” When I graduated I had no home, because I was an orphan. My friends told me I should come to Yosemite for work, and so I did.
I was so overwhelmed with this beautiful place that I woke up early every day and stood in the valley, and all I could do was turn around in a big circle. I felt like this valley was protecting me, keeping all the bad things out and all the good things in.
Ralph and Julia married in 1948 and lived in the Valley’s Wahhoga Village. Over a decade before, the Park Service had relocated the remaining Indigenous residents from their old village to the new site of fifteen government-built cabins, all smaller than 450 square feet. The Park Service began charging rent and only permitted Indigenous people to remain if their family members worked in the Valley–part of a plan, as Mark David Spence writes in Dispossessing the Wilderness, to “give park officials unprecedented control of Yosemite’s Native community and, over time, achieve the full removal of Indians from the park.”
Ralph began working for the Park Service road crew, while Julia worked in housekeeping.
Julia Parker: We all had to sort of fight for our work. In the Valley they didn’t want the Indian women working in offices, so they always put us in the laundry and said, “You can be a good maid.” They tried to keep the Indian people down.
In 1953 Yosemite officials again amended the residency rules, only allowing people to live in the Valley if they held permanent, full-time positions with the Park Service.
That same year, Julia gave birth to a daughter, Lucy. With Ralph’s new position as road foreman, he and Julia were able to continue to raise their family in the Valley. After Lucy Telles passed away in 1955, a ranger approached Julia about working as a cultural interpreter. Julia learned to weave and began to demonstrate basketmaking at the Yosemite Museum.
Lucy Parker, Lonnie’s mother: I was brought up in one of the last Indian villages there in the park. It was a very quiet place. There were several houses there; we didn’t have any indoor plumbing, but we had electricity.
Every day during the school year, we walked a couple of miles to get to the classrooms by Yosemite Falls. The path took us through Camp 4. Tourists and rock climbers would camp out there for months. Sometimes they would wander over and look around at our village.
On summer mornings, my mother and aunt cooked breakfast over the fire outside. One time, one of the climbers must’ve been hungry because they took a pot of beans that was cooking out there. My parents were people that liked to go outside and do things like hike and ski. It’s been in our blood; we were always people that lived outside. I loved being in the snow and the cold, and I started racing with the Yosemite ski team. My mother met a lot of people because she demonstrated basketry in the museum. Once a couple came through and asked if she could make a basket for the King of Norway. So she made a basket for him, and within a couple of weeks, four pairs of top-of-the line skis appeared in our locker.
Julia Parker: It sounds kind of funny, but I traded a basket for skis for my boys and girls.
Over the years, as some of the Valley’s Indigenous employees retired, the Park Service delivered eviction notices to their families, destroying their cabins soon after. In 1969 all of the remaining Indigenous residents were relocated to general park employee housing, and the Park Service set fire to the last Wahhoga Village homes as part of a firefighters’ “training exercise.”
Lucy Parker: We were one of the last families living in those little cabins. One day the park staff gave us the order that the people living there had to move to these modern homes near Yosemite Falls. And we had to go along with it, because of the fear that if you say something against the government you might get fired. So we moved into the modern house, next door to people we didn’t know, and that was pretty much the end of the Indian village.
When I was older, I remember going to the Yosemite Valley Lodge. A lot of the climbers from Camp 4 went to the lounge at night to hang out and talk. I was shy, but my sister knew a lot of people. It was there in 1975 that I met Ron Kauk.
Ron Kauk had first traveled to Yosemite a few years earlier. As a young teenager, Ron felt “mesmerized by believing that this place will take care of me, teach me to be happy and free. Like casting out a kind of dream into those woods,” he wrote in Spirit of the Rock. Soon after, he joined a climbing clinic at Tuolumne Meadows, where he became entranced with the alpine rock. “At this point my life was finished,” he told Climbing Magazine in 1995, “I was a climber.”
Back in high school, Ron dedicated every spare moment to training. “My only focus became how I could get back to Yosemite,” he said. “I spent hours every day climbing the school walls. I did 100 finger pull-ups every day.” In 1974 Ron spent the summer at Camp 4, climbing as much as he could. That autumn, Ron forewent his senior year to be in Yosemite full time.
Lucy Parker: Ron and I got together, and I got into climbing with him. I mostly did toprope climbing; it was just for fun. We also did a lot of running, up Yosemite Falls Trail and on Half Dome. I loved to train and run the loop around the Valley floor.
By 1975 the free-climbing revolution was spreading, and climbers looked to ascend routes without relying on gear to move upward. That year, Ron Kauk, John Bachar and John Long completed the first free ascent of the East Face of Washington Column, renaming it Astroman. “People had done 100-foot climbs with that level of difficulty,” Peter Croft observed in Outside Online, “but stacking that level of difficulty on a long multipitch–with that much air below their heels–was unheard of. It instantly became the most famous free climb in the world.”
Ron continued to look for challenging routes, including single-pitch lines that would test his dynamic strength and technique.
Lucy Parker: One day we were just outside the Valley at Cascade Falls, hiking around through these big boulders. I just happened to look down and saw what looked like a cave. There was something in there, like a mat. We went down to look and found part of a burden basket–a cone-shaped basket for gathering food items like acorns and pine nuts–that had been left in that cave. It felt like a place where somebody had been hiding; maybe when the militia came and the Indians were hiding out during the 1800s. The basket had started deteriorating through the years, but we pulled it out and took it to the museum.
The cave was just below Separate Reality, a climb that finishes with a twenty-foot roof crack. The overhang was so steep that Ron initially tried dropping slings through the crack on the roof above to protect the climb. After making its first ascent in 1978, Ron named the climb after A Separate Reality, a book by Carlos Castaneda about the energy of the universe. The text, Ron explained, had become “a kind of handbook to help guide some of us back to the magic and mystery of life…. In a time when we don’t even stop to ask why, the most important thing is to climb, to search,” he reflected. That same year, Lucy Parker gave birth to their first child, Yuodde Kauk. Three years later, Lonnie was born.
Julia Parker: Grandmother Lucy [Telles] always wanted us to put the babies in the traditional Indian basket or cradleboard.
Yuodde Kauk: A cradleboard is made out of willow and buckskin leather. As a baby, you get tied into it, almost like you’re in a little cocoon. You get the eyes, ears and mouth working, developing and honing certain senses.
Julia Parker: But every child has to have their own basket because they’re each a different person. Little boys get a design on top of the basket with straight lines, so they can grow up strong and make straight arrows.
Lonnie Kauk: I remember my grandma was always weaving her ancient baskets and singing songs to put us to bed at night. One favorite story was about Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La, the inchworm who climbed what’s known today as El Capitan. When the Mariposa Battalion drove Chief Tenaya out of Yosemite, they renamed a lot of the natural features. [A sidebar that includes the story of Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La as told by Julia Parker can be found here.–Ed.]
In the decade following the demolition of Wahhoga Village, Julia Parker and other leaders in the Indigenous community of the Yosemite and Mariposa area organized as the American Indian Council of Mariposa County (AICMC), also known as the Southern Sierra Miwuk (alternatively spelled “Miwok,” meaning “the people”). In 1982 the group petitioned the Department of the Interior, Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs for federal recognition. The group succeeded in their request to secure a site on which to build a traditional roundhouse in Yosemite, though the Park Service was initially unable to help fund the project.
Julia Parker: When the kids were young, I’d come out of the house to look for the boys. “Yuodde! Lonnie!” I’d call. And I’d see Lonnie, way up on top of a tree, one of these big pine trees, and I’d yell up there, “Get down, get down!” But he always liked to climb around things.
Lucy Parker: Lonnie learned to love the sports that our family did.
Lonnie Kauk: By the time I was two years old, I was on little mini-skis. When I was older, I joined the ski team.
Lucy Parker: He got into ski racing and did very well. My dad took him all over to compete. Grandpa skied, Mom skied. He had it in his blood.
Yuodde Kauk: When you’re born into this stuff, you realize that some things that others appreciate for leisure activities have become some of the most valuable things to you: the rocks, the snow. Yosemite has four seasons that teach you a lot.
Lonnie Kauk: We loved skiing so much. But in the summer, we hiked around a lot. I remember when I was a kid, my mom would always bring us to Tenaya Lake. We’d ride there in her jeep, listening to music. My cousin Troy Johnson was a big aid climber in Yosemite. I remember that he would leave the house in a white T-shirt to go climb on El Capitan. After five days, he would come back and the shirt looked like it was coated in aluminum, dirty as heck. It seemed so adventurous.
Yuodde Kauk: When Lonnie and I were really young, maybe five and eight, Ron sometimes took us out climbing on the boulders at Camp 4. We had our own climbing shoes and chalk bags. We were always playing around, nothing serious. That was when Dad’s career really was taking off, and he might be gone up to six months at a time.
The possibility of making a living as a climber had just started to emerge. Ron began appearing on television: once in a car commercial and later in a special episode of Wide World of Sports, where he free climbed Lost Arrow Spire during a live broadcast.
For over ten years, Ron had declined magazine interviews. “I didn’t concern myself with it because it was secondary,” he told Climbing. “It isn’t what climbing is really about.” But by 1986 Ron had seen some changes to what he considered fundamental aspects of the experience. “I should have been more involved in communicating with other climbers years ago,” he said at the time. “I didn’t see the impact it would have…. I’d feel good if I could help [younger climbers] set some goals and develop an understanding for what they might be seeking through climbing.”
Ron’s career was taking off in other ways. By 1986 he had competed in the television show Survival of the Fittest three times. In the early era of organized competitive climbing, Ron won the 1986 Stonemaster’s bouldering competition at Mt. Woodson. In spite of his growing celebrity, he told Climbing, money remained tight. The commercial and television spots, he explained, “[don’t] go very far when you have three kids and car payments.”
On days when Ron was at his home outside of Yosemite, he might be found training in his backyard.
Lonnie Kauk: I often went to visit my dad at his house. He had a big, overhanging climbing wall in the backyard, and I’d regularly see other famous Yosemite climbers hanging out there. One day, I met Lynn Hill at the wall.
Lynn Hill: Between 1990 and 1992, I was living in France and traveling around. I would visit Yosemite for the beauty and friendship, and for a little bit of climbing. I was passing through, and so I went to Ron’s house to say hello.
Lonnie Kauk: I went over to attempt my first climb. The wall arched back by forty-five degrees, and there were these really small holds. I tried to do a couple moves, but obviously I fell right away.
Lynn Hill: At the time, I didn’t imagine that Lonnie would become a professional climber, but I think that he inherited the love of climbing, that passion, from Ron. And he probably has steel fingers like his dad, because he’s a really strong climber.
The year 1990 marked the centennial of Yosemite National Park. That summer, Julia and Lucy Parker helped the AICMC organize the first annual Traditional Walk, which traced the ancient paths of the Mono Lake Paiute, the Miwok and the Ahwahneechee of the Yosemite.
Lucy Parker: The walk follows the trading route that the Yosemite tribe used to get to the Mono Lake side. My mother and one of her cousins said, “We ought to wake this trail up.” So we did. The first walk started on the eastern side and went to Yosemite. Twenty-five people were a part of it, including Lonnie and Yuodde. Next year, we reversed the route.
Lonnie Kauk: The walk begins with a steep switchback up to Mono Pass, and then on toward Tuolumne Meadows. You always make sure that you burn the sage to honor the spirits and keep the bad things away. We would all camp right next to a creek, where there’s a rock we called Grandma’s Rock because it had holes for grinding acorns.
From Tuolumne Meadows we walk to Tenaya Lake, where we spend the night. The path slowly starts to descend to Snow Creek, and then into the Valley by the old Native village.
I remember walking down there as one of the elders sang. My thoughts drifted to what the Valley was like before white people came.
Lucy Parker: There’s an old Indian camp at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne where the tribes would come from all four directions to trade with each other. And there are these writings down there, these pictographs all over this rock wall. Some of them are really high up. I remember the first time I saw them, I thought, How the heck? But I realized, they would’ve had to scale the wall. Our people were climbers, too.
In 1993 the climbing film Masters of Stone II came out featuring some impressive climbers of the day: Dan Osman, Hidetaka Suzuki, Dan McQuade and Ron Kauk.
Yuodde Kauk: I remember as a kid punching my dad in the stomach, and it was like hitting a rock. Dang man, he’s a rock! It was like touching granite.
Lonnie Kauk: We knew our dad was an awesome climber, but until we saw Masters of Stone, I guess we just didn’t really know. So we watched one of those videos where he was doing a boulder problem, and the camera had this really good shot of his fingers on the smallest holds. I thought, Whoa, man! How is he doing that?
Yuodde Kauk: By seeing Dad in Masters of Stone, we realized that you didn’t have to do the everyday job, but you could rise up to do something else. That was the example that I got from watching him; not just, Oh, he’s a great climber, but it was something more–the possibilities of life.
Lonnie Kauk: Eventually we started to think, Jeez, maybe that’s what we should do. But us kids were ski racing already; we wanted to be like the skier guys. So we’d go out and try to imitate them.
In 1989 Lonnie’s grandfather retired from the Park Service. As a result, his family no longer qualified to reside in the staffing quarters, and the family was required to move out of the Yosemite Valley.
Lonnie Kauk: I didn’t want to live in Mariposa. I just wanted to be in Yosemite. I wanted to be home. So I took the bus from Mariposa to attend eighth grade at the Yosemite school. I liked to skateboard, and I dressed a certain way. On the first day of school, a teacher came up to me and asked me to step outside. I thought maybe he was going to introduce himself. Then all of a sudden, he told me, “We don’t take gangs here.”
I was like, Uh, excuse me, sir? I grew up here. My grandma works in the Native Museum right there. She’s over there right now. But he said, “You don’t understand. We don’t take gangs here.” At once, I felt an injection of fear, that I was just an outcast, forbidden.
We decided it would be better if I went to school in Mariposa, but essentially, the same thing happened. By my sophomore year, I was homeschooled.
Lucy Parker: At that time snowboarding was getting popular, but you know, if you were on the ski team, you had to be a skier. Soon enough, Lonnie left the ski team.
Lonnie Kauk: I just wanted to snowboard every day. One time, I was riding a groomer and I looked down at my front foot. The nose of the board told me, You’re going to hit big jumps one day. Eventually I moved over to Mammoth and got pretty good at snowboarding. I was already hitting jumps, and I went out almost every day, doing a million laps.
Around the same time, Lonnie began climbing at Owens River Gorge, a steep, blocky canyon of volcanic tuff outside of Bishop, California.
Lonnie Kauk: It was my first taste of what sport climbing was really like. My girlfriend led everything until I started to get enough confidence to try. I’ll never forget being down there. I queued up, got all the quick draws on, tied my knot. But I felt some weird sensation. I realized, Oh, your dad was doing this when you weren’t even born, and now here you are. I worked my way up through progressively harder and harder grades.
Eventually I reached a place where I thought, OK, I’ve got to try Midnight Lightning.
Situated in the middle of Camp 4, Midnight Lightning may be the most famous boulder problem in the US. The iconic face of the Columbia Boulder rears back at a thirty-degree angle for twelve feet before turning to a moss-laden slab the brackish color of storm clouds. Pale streaks of grey stream down the overhanging face to where the signature lighting bolt appears scrawled in chalk. John Yablonski had envisioned a path up the face. Later, as John Bachar recounted to Pete Takeda for Climbing,”[Ron and I] basically worked on the problem every other day for nearly a year.” “Somehow, I went over it first,” Ron said in the short film series The Classics. “It was just the next thing to do.”
Lynn Hill: The first ascent of Midnight Lightning was part of that time that marked the push to free climb the hardest things that we could imagine. Midnight Lightning is free climbing in its purest form; at the time, it was visionary. People just didn’t do stuff like that.
Lonnie Kauk: I gravitated toward Midnight Lightning as a kind of spiritual thing. I just knew that it was the key to a door. I asked my older brother to go and try the problem with me. I didn’t tell Dad I was working on it. At first, even grabbing the initial side pull seemed really hard. I joked to my brother, “Can you just push me up?” Eventually I made it to the first dynamic move below the roof.
Then one day I made it to the lip of the roof, to the mantel move. I couldn’t believe it. The thought that I might actually do it stoked some confidence, and I asked my dad if he would come to the boulder with me. Initially, it was just me and him. I tried and fell three times.
But then my mom came walking up.
Lucy Parker: I remember seeing Lonnie trying the boulder, and Ron was there, too. Lonnie had been trying hard and working on it for so long.
Lonnie Kauk: With my mom there, I thought about all those years she had walked by the boulders at Camp 4 on the way to school, and now, here we all are. I think she might’ve known what more I was really striving toward. I decided to give the problem another go. Once again, I reached the mantel and swung my foot out–I might have been closing my eyes. Then I just reached my right hand up and grabbed the finish hold.
Lucy Parker: All of a sudden, he just did it! It was a really good feeling to see that. We were happy, and he was super happy.
Lonnie Kauk: My dad climbed up to the top via the descent tree, and I remember him saying, “Man, that was pretty good.”
Yuodde Kauk: For Lonnie, I think, it was definitely a moment of realizing that it makes sense to be climbing. This is what we were born into; this mountain culture, following the footsteps of your own family. It’s got to feel good to track the movements. I always think of that, too, from a Native standpoint, like when you’re tracking an animal. Sometimes climbing is a lot like that. You see these holds and you’re getting to follow the path of someone who went there before.
In Spirit of the Rock, Ron reflected on the role that tradition and history had played in his climbing: “Now I realize why we thought we could climb [Astroman]: it’s really all about the ones who came before, who inspired us to prepare ourselves–to develop the physical strength and technique to enter the unknown with confidence and take care of ourselves in this environment. Once again, nature tells the story. Everything is ultimately interdependent. One life form counting on the other so that we can move in a positive direction with all our relations.”
MAY 25, 2002: Climbers from all over the country gathered in Bishop at Roger Derryberry’s Mill Creek Station to honor the late Warren Harding.
Lonnie Kauk: At the memorial, my sister introduced me to John Bachar. When we met, he said, “Oh, hey, man. I remember when you were a little guy.” I asked if he would want to go out climbing with me. “Climbing?” he asked. He looked at me all funny at first, then said, “All right.”
On his arrival in Yosemite in the early 1970s, John Bachar dedicated himself to becoming an exemplary climber. He was known for his athleticism and determination, and spent hours training in Camp 4. Bachar soon became recognized for his free-solo climbs in the Valley and beyond. “By 1976,” John Long wrote in Alpinist 28, “he’d soloed scores of routes that only a handful of climbers had managed with a rope…. The practice seemed so sketchy and the experience so ungraspable that many dubbed him a daredevil…. Only those close to him understood that behind the bluster and physical genius played the greatest show on earth: man against himself…. Up on the steep he faced, in the sharpest possible relief, the peaks and vales and shadows of his mind.”
Lonnie Kauk: I called Bachar later and we went out and roped up at Tuolumne. He liked to talk about climbing with my dad.
At the same time, I was going out by myself quite a bit to Clark Canyon, a short sport climbing area. A lot of the routes are more like high-ball bouldering problems. At first, I didn’t tell Bachar that I was soloing. Eventually I started soloing longer routes, including one that was 180 feet tall. I told Bachar about the long route I had done. He said he’d never climbed it without a rope and asked if I would be into soloing the route again. That way, I could go first and tell him how to follow.
So we went along: right hand there, left foot there. When we topped out, I felt completely connected to climbing with him.
“It’s funny how some of the best climbing days in your life just go along like a normal day with no major epics. No one falls, nobody gets hurt…. But when you really think about them years later, they can seem magical,” Bachar wrote in Alpinist 19.
Lonnie Kauk: Once in Clark Canyon, I was soloing a short climb as Bachar watched from above. All of a sudden he had this weird look on his face. I asked, “What’s up?” He told me, “When you popped over, your eyebrows did something. It just reminded me of when your dad and I climbed together like this.”
Though Ron and Bachar had trained and climbed together in the 1970s and early 1980s, their friendship had suffered a falling out. In a 1986 interview for Climbing, John Sherman asked Ron his opinion about free soloing. Ron responded, “If you get hurt solo climbing, I think you’d have to ask yourself [if the glory is worth the risks]. If you’re doing your best to protect yourself, you might not question it, but if you were doing something hare-brained, I’m not sure you would. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.”
Lonnie Kauk: I wanted to learn how to place gear, so I bugged my dad to teach me. We went up the Regular Route on Fairview Dome. It was kind of like when I was a little kid going bouldering with him. Maybe a week later, Bachar asked me if I wanted to solo Fairview Dome with him. Soon enough, there we were, without ropes.
When my dad learned that I was free soloing, he got really upset; he was worried I was going to fall. I tried to explain, I am very responsible about what I’m doing. These rocks are like people. You’ve got to talk to them. You’ve got to ask them to keep you safe.
In 2008 Lonnie ascended another Ron Kauk classic, Peace, with fellow climber Katie Lambert. Located in Tuolumne Meadows, the route follows 250 feet of steep slab on the Medlicott Dome, where a black streak dashes up the wall. On hot afternoons, the granite seems to glow like embers.
Katie Lambert: Peace was such an iconic route for my generation of climbers. I grew up with a photo of Ron on this route at my gym back in Louisiana. The striking line inspired my imagination of what could be possible. It was in many ways the impetus for me to move to Yosemite.
Ron was instrumental in helping us with the logistics of this route. It was an amazing experience to climb the line with the help of the legend himself and his son. Dreams have a funny way of becoming reality when you put yourself in the position for them to happen.
Lonnie Kauk: The year I sent Peace, I also became a pro snowboarder. At the same time, I still wanted to climb. I was on a two-way path, I think. My connection to climbing was deeper. Snow melts every year, but the rock has been there forever.
I flew to Canada and Australia for snowboarding competitions and to shoot films. After the season was over, I called Bachar to meet up. But our plans didn’t materialize. Then at the end of June, I was climbing with a friend in the gorge, and I saw Bachar across the way.
I yelled over to him, “Yeah, what’s up?” Across the river, Bachar was smiling. I could tell he was really happy. He started to hike out, and at every switchback, he looked back at us. I would shout, “Yeah!” Then he would smile all big, all happy. Again at the next switchback, “Yeah, yeah!” And so on, the whole way down. That was the last time I saw him.
On July 5, 2009 Bachar was free soloing on the Dike Wall near his home in Mammoth Lakes when he fell. He was fifty-two years old.
Lonnie Kauk: I got a call from a friend who works as a paramedic. He said, “Hey, I just got news that somebody fell climbing. I was just thinking about you. Obviously you’re fine.” But he asked, “Do you know anybody else that was around the Lake George area?” I tried to call around, but no one answered. Finally my friend called me back. “I’ve got horrible news,” he said. “It was Bachar.”
At his memorial, all I wanted to do was just tell him, “Hey, thank you so much. You helped me so much with this dream, with climbing and snowboarding.”
We realize that every day is a gift. To become who we are and share what we do is a gift. To help one another is a gift.
In 2010, after the petition sat on the waiting list for twelve years, the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Office began evaluating the Southern Sierra Miwuk request for federal recognition as a tribe. In their review, the department requested additional documentation. The decision was delayed again.
Lonnie Kauk: Being a Native Indigenous person, you come from oppressed people. If I were white, my climbing and snowboarding achievements would be easier to accept. My brother said it before. He’s like, Look at you. Long black hair, dark skinned dude. They’re not necessarily going to accept you right away. For me, it doesn’t matter. I am with the creator. I am with the spirits.
We’ve got to stick to our roots. We’ve got to stick to where we come from. With climbing, that’s all I’ve been doing this whole time, representing both sides of the family. Honoring my dad’s past. That’s why I share my climbs on social media and with the magazines. Something came to me and said, You’ve got to do it, so the people will see. When they see me climbing a rock, it’s not just me. It’s everybody. It’s the whole family. It’s the ancestors.
On a late autumn day in 2011, Lonnie Kauk climbed Crossroads at Reed’s Pinnacle, repeating yet another of his father’s difficult Yosemite climbs. When Ron completed the line in 1994, Climbing reported that the line was “likely the hardest pitch in Yosemite Valley.” One move was described as a “bizarre and technical high step onto a smear from an iron-cross position.” Ron told the magazine that he’d “never done a move like it.”
Lonnie Kauk: The spirits know your intention. Everything travels as energy. So when you approach with a certain intention, a climb or a certain place, the spirit, the rock, they know. Once you experience that, all those new feelings come into you. Then, you’re flying.
When my dad belayed me on the send of Crossroads, I remember feeling pumped out of my mind. Then I got into another state of mind, where I just wasn’t pumped anymore. After the thirty-foot arete, I grabbed the large jug, and that was it. I stood there, hands free, and thought, OK, Here it comes. The end. But I didn’t want to clip the anchor. I grabbed the rope real slow and said, “Thank you, thank you,” to the rock.
In July 2015 the Bureau of Indian Affairs updated their ruling process for determining US federal recognition of Native nations. “For decades,” the report summarized, “the current process has been criticized as ‘broken’ and in need of reform. Specifically, the process has been criticized as too slow (a petition can take decades to be decided), expensive, burdensome, inefficient, intrusive, less than transparent and unpredictable.” But even with the promises of a hastier process, it would be years before the Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) offered the Southern Sierra Miwuk a preliminary finding.
WATER SPLASHES AND DANCES splashes and dances, breaking into mist that travels upward and disperses down the valley. To the right, a slender crack arcs through the granite, thin as a wisp–a “magic line,” or so Ron termed the nearly 100-foot route near Yan-o-pah falls.
“When the rock is teacher and the humble student must live up to the lesson,” Ron wrote in Spirit of the Rock, “this was one of those challenges. Shedding layers to find your own core, a place where only truth lives. I must have spent about a year, on and off, trying to cross this magic line. This is the most beautiful place on earth. Watching the maple tree grow leaves and then lose them all. The waterfall changes from raging to being frozen still. Try and try I did to cross over the wall between myself and this climb. Learning to accept the process was the key.” Ron had climbed the route in 1996 on pre-placed gear, including, in one spot, a slider and wired stopper equalized together.
Twenty years later, Lonnie began attempting the route.
Lonnie Kauk: When you start a climb, you don’t want your mood to have any negativity in it whatsoever. This is why we go climbing, because it’s joyful. It makes us feel good.
At Magic Line, initially I tried to lead it on fixed gear but it was just too hard, so I started rope soloing the route on toprope. Slowly I got better at it, though I still couldn’t do the crux. I got to a place where it seemed like I couldn’t even move.
Magic Line, Ron said, had been a teacher for him: “The beauty of this special lesson was learning to let go, freeing my mind and simply allowing my heart to find the love for the move and lead me to the core of my own truth.”
Lonnie Kauk: Then one day I was sitting by myself at the base of Magic Line and I looked up. I swear something starts telling me, “This is how you do it. Right foot there. Left foot there. Left hand there. Stand up. Put your foot on that small crystal.” So I climbed up below the crux and started following the directions. Right foot, left foot, left hand, now push your thumb. Stand up. Left foot, smear; right foot there. Suddenly, I had made it through the crux.
Then I went back and I told my dad, Hey, I did the crux; I need a toprope belay. The first time he came with me, I did OK. I kept going back, and soon I could make it three-quarters of the way without falling. By that time, it was December. Dad and I returned at the end of the month. I thought, I’m either going to fall or I’m going to get through it. I tried four times and fell. On my fifth go, I made it to the crux and clipped the second-to-last piece of gear. The whole time, almost in a kind of prayer, I kept thinking, Please keep me safe. Keep me safe. Let me through. Let me through. I climbed all the way to the anchor jug. I was like, Oh my God. We did it. When I came down, Dad was all stoked. He gave me a hug.
In Spirit of the Rock, Ron reflected on his experience climbing in Yosemite: “This place has given me so much education about moving in the moment without judgment or expectation, just trying to feel my way with the joy to move and relax. Good energy flows through my mind and body.”
Lonnie Kauk: After the climb, I posted something about it on social media. Then all these people started commenting on the fixed gear, saying it was bad style. I thought, Hey, I was just honoring my dad and what he did. Fixed gear or not, this is about connection. It’s about the story.
But then I saw a video of myself on a short section where I had climbed up to a pre-placed cam. It looked unnatural, like the gear was just waiting for me. I realized, OK, the story isn’t done. I’ll go back next season.
By next November, I toproped it clean while placing gear on mock-lead. I was thinking, If I lead this climb clean, that’s it. The circle is going to be complete.
Again Dad came out to belay me. The whole time I was just talking to the spirits. I was just talking to everything that watches over us. Talking to the rocks, keep me safe. Keep me safe. Please, please, thank you. Thank you, please, please, thank you. The whole way. I thought of walking the traditional hike, singing our songs, going to the sweat lodge and saying prayers. It felt like that.
I got two-thirds of the way up the route when my foot started to slip, and then my left hand came off the rock and I fell. Around me, the oak leaves that had been orange and gold were now gone from the trees.
I kept returning, going up and down, up and down. I’d hike up there and stand by the waterfall. Even when I fell, I’d feel fulfilled. I’d think, I’m doing the right thing, what I was born to be doing.
Watching Lonnie work on the route, photographer Jim Thornburg recalled bouldering with Ron decades before.
Jim Thornburg: Whenever Ron would show [Lynn Hill and me] a hard problem, Lynn would warn me that you had to watch out for Ron’s little “hops,” where he would make these tiny-hold, super-smooth dynamic weight shifts from one foot to the other–it was so hard to find the balance to mimic him! Ron was the master of that kind of movement.
Lonnie can do it just as well. It’s as if the Kauk family discovered a balance-based third dimension where they kind of hover between footholds. It’s really something to behold.
Lonnie Kauk: By early November 2018 I was able to do it with one fall. I had fallen up there so many times, at the last piece of gear. It seemed like there was something up there, flying around and kicking me off the last move. Whatever it was, it had some kind of negative energy. I’ve got to clean this up, I thought, Burn the sage and talk with the spirits that live inside that crack and ask them, talk to them. Let them know my intentions and why I’m going to do this. Why I would want it in a magazine or out on a video for people to see. It’s because I represent them, the ancestors–on both my dad’s side and my mom’s side.
On November 14, I returned and first did the climb on toprope. My belayer lowered me to the crux, where I took out the sage and burned it in the crack. I said, All right spirits, let me through. You know why I’m here. You know why I’m going to do it. It’s for all of us, not just for me. It’s the whole tribe, like we were taught. If one of us makes it, we all make it. If one of us falls, we all fall.
Then I just started climbing. I felt just like a machine, gear, boom, clip. I got up there to the big rest to shake out. I thought, All right spirits, I’m just going to climb. Let me through. Very calmly, I got my right foot up, got my right hand on an impossibly small hold. I felt strength flowing through me. At the finish hold, I looked back down the canyon and saw the trail, the stone steps, the people enjoying the waterfall. I felt this wonderful, deep relationship with this place. It let my dad start the climb. I got to finish it. He got to name it. It’s a wonderful name. My eyes were watering; it just felt like the greatest gift I could ever experience.
Two days later, the OFA handed down the proposed finding: “The Department proposes to decline to acknowledge Petitioner #82 [the Southern Sierra Miwuk] as an Indian tribe,” stating the evidence the group submitted was “insufficient to demonstrate” that “[a] predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.” In an April 2019 press release, the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation chairman William Leonard responded: “Despite tremendous adversity, our ancestors persevered and maintained a tribal community and a tribal government…. The proposed finding that we are not a distinct Indian community is outrageous, and we will overcome this too. We are still here, and we still exist as a distinct Indian tribal community.” The tribe plans to submit additional evidence before the final ruling.
Lonnie Kauk: The blood that runs through me and goes up those climbs and does that is from the people. The federal government needs to recognize us as a tribe.
Last summer Yosemite National Park gave permission for the Southern Sierra Miwuk and other Indigenous people with ancestral ties to the Valley to resume restoring a part of the old Wahhoga Village near Camp 4, where Lonnie’s grandparents Julia and Ralph Parker lived and where Lucy grew up. The group plans to rebuild a sweat lodge, acorn granaries, bark enclaves and other traditional-style homes. Though no Indigenous people will live there, the village will serve as a social and communal space within the heart of their ancestral homeland.
Lonnie Kauk: We all have a purpose; everything has a purpose. The animals, they know their purpose. We can only live so long, but do we really know our purpose? Our soul’s purpose? For me, it’s to carry on hiking through these hills like our ancestors did, to climb the rocks like our ancestors did. To carry on and go as high and as far as we can in the most respectful manner.
For us, we’ve got to represent the family. We’ve got to represent the ancestors. We’ve got to share these things, and our thankfulness for it all.
Julia Parker: Every time I go to the Valley, tears still come out of my eyes. This is such a beautiful place that the Native people found and lived in for over six thousand years. They took care of the Valley, and the whole time, the Valley was taking care of them.
[This story first appeared in Alpinist 66, which is now available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 66 for all the goodness!–Ed.]