This past week, like millions around the world, I spent hours following Tommy and Kevin's free ascent of the Dawn Wall in the media. The buzz surrounding the ascent was remarkable to watch unfold in real time. Both climbers were on Twitter posting messages and photos from the wall during their ascent. These were soon picked up by traditional media outlets and it wasn't long before TV and mainstream media including, the New York Times, ABC, NBC, the Guardian and others set up operations in El Cap meadows. There was even streaming video. It was great to watch such a worthy rock climbing ascent unfolding live and to know that the climb captivated and inspired both climbers and non-climbers around the world.
Back in 1988 I spent a month and a half documenting Todd Skinner and Paul Piana's free ascent of the Salathe, the first route to be freed on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, I was the only media on the wall covering their ascent. There was no
media in the meadows covering the ascent, no iPhone or social media (since they didn't exist at the time), there was me and friends on the valley floor watching the climbers progress and giving them a nightly radio call with a weather report. Initially the first reports about the successful free ascent was word of
mouth among climbers in Yosemite Valley and it eventually spread to the news media via phone calls.
Photos of the successful ascent were much slower in getting into the media because that's how it was back in 1988. I was shooting with film cameras and the pictures took weeks or months to reach the press and be seen by the public and those accounts were mostly published in the climbing media (Climbing Magazine #110 Oct. 1988). That's when the news of the ascent really hit the public.
There were some stories that were never really reported in the media. One event took place the day after Todd and Paul's ascent. After completing the Free Salathe a hauling accident nearly killed them, sending all their ropes, gear and haul bags to the valley floor. Todd and Paul suffered nasty injuries, but they managed to self-rescue and get back to the Valley floor.
They went to the Yosemite clinic where Paul was diagnosed with a shattered bone in his leg and Todd broken ribs and internal injuries. It gets worse, they were packing their gear in Camp 4 when Park rangers found them and said they were to be cited for several violations. One was for over staying the 14 day limit in the park and another was for throwing their haul bags off El Cap that initiated a rescue response from Yosemite Search and Rescue (a tourist reported seeing bodies falling from the wall). Todd told the rangers the story about how he and Paul had survived a terrible accident and managed to rescue themselves-only when he showed them their injuries did the rangers relent. The rangers told the climbers if they left the park immediately all the violations would be forgiven. Todd and Paul, having just opened a new ear of free climbing, were unceremoniously kicked out of Yosemite Valley by park authorities. They could not have be happier.