Rome is Burning

Written By Scott Guinn

Yosemite National Park is the Mecca of modern rock climbing. It continues to be the ultimate stage for some of the world’s hardest climbs, including most recently, 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.

There is a very famous, cliché even, photo of Yosemite Valley that depicts El Capitan’s western face shadowing over a sun-swept valley with a 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. Its 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. 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. I knew exactly which road pullout to take in order to catch the best photo. From the eastern entrance of the park, it is a remarkably long distance until you actually arrive at “the Valley.” I rolled down my windows to taste the sweet mountain air, ignoring the biting cold. Instantly I could taste the sweet piney air. Curiously though, I noticed it was laced with 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.

I have always been a dreamer – inspired by catalog clippings, North Face campaigns, and romantic notions of surviving life at the absolute limit. I would be the first to admit that my dreams have sometimes overshadowed my abilities. For years I dreamt 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 college intramurals. The truth is that I love dreaming almost more than I love doing.

In high school, I distinctly remember a magazine clipping that I had posted on the wall beside my bed. In it, famous American climber Chris Sharma dangles ropeless, high over the water in Mallorca, as a gorgeous orange sun sets behind him. It was this image that inspired me to start rock climbing.

As I drove across the country and barreled down that mountainside, I often thought of that image 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 and historic setting.

After what seemed like an eternity, the famous corner was upon me. I could feel its presence. It felt as if a whole new world lies in glorious, granite reality just beyond the bend. As I rounded the corner the brilliant sun unleashed its fury across my windshield. Momentarily blinded, I struggled to make out the pullout to my right and abruptly brought my van to a stop. I snatched my camera and threw open the door. Immediately I was met with the harsh scented air. But now I could place the smell. Walking to the edge 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 Redwood forest. The air was thick with smoke. I could hardly make out the ground below and the granite walls were nowhere to be found. Half Dome, in all its glory, was only a distant memory.

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, but in some cases, they are much more than that. Images can inspire the 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, but the ultimate goal is still an achievement.

The illusion of complete destruction, which I faced on that day in Yosemite, gave me a glimpse into the harsh and desolate future of generations to come. If we don’t act urgently the beautiful places and opportunities we take for granted will slowly begin to disappear. And unfortunately, we’re unlikely to notice as they slip away. 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!

Future generations may never have the opportunity to scale massive granite walls or wander through magical redwood forests. They may only read about places like Yosemite in history books or, perhaps the darkest image of all, visit a Yosemite Museum which shows mere images of a once godly cathedral.


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