It's not often that rock climbing is featured in the national media, let alone that it is correctly portrayed for a general audience, but the May 2011 issue of National Geographic offers the article Yosemite. Daring. Defiant. Free. by Mark Jenkins as its cover story.
In typical National Geographic fashion, they do the story right with lots of dramatic color photographs, including a three-page spread of Alex Honnold free-soloing the Regular Northwest Face route of Half Dome, and quotes from Yosemite climbing stars like Honnold, Ueli Steck, Dean Potter, Tommy Caldwell, Lynn Hill, John Long, and Ron Kauk.
The article also features a huge spread on El Capitan, the biggest hunk of granite in Yosemite Valley and the centerpiece of so many climbing dreams. A timeline of significant El Cap Milestones runs across the bottom of the three-page spread and it's here that my only major criticism of the article is found.
For the year 1972, the one-line of copy reads: "Five routes are created in one season, including Cosmos, the first established by a single climber." The line sounds innocent enough but it doesn't give the name of that single climber and that not only irks me but also bothers that climber--Jimmie Dunn.
Jimmie and I have been best friends and climbing partners since 1969. I was in Yosemite Valley during the spring of 1972 with Jimmie, Billy Westbay, and Douglas Snively on his first couple attempts to climb Cosmos. He first tried it with Billy but came down after some locals were rankled by their attempt and shouted up that they "were going to break your fingers if you get to the top," while others chanted "Fall, fall, fall." He then tried it with Douglas, who took a fall and broke three fingers.
After returning to Colorado, Jimmie became obsessed with that route so he quit college, packed his haul bags, and headed back to the Valley in his $115 Chevy Impala car. He tried the route with Canadian climber Gordie Smaille, who became unnerved after taking a couple falls, and retreated. Jimmie decided that the only way he was going to climb this new route on El Cap was alone.
Jimmie spent nine days aiding up El Cap, nailing pitons and drilling bolts. All his drill bits broke early in the ascent, leaving him with stubby bits which he hand-sharpened so he could drill half-inch-deep holes for ¼-inch bolts. Halfway up, Jimmie realized he was way over his head and began apologizing to El Cap for under-estimating it.
Dunn's solo ascent of Cosmos was the last great problem of the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing. A solo ascent of a new route on El Capitan was the last major climbing achievement that remained to close out that Golden Age and marked the dawn of the clean climbing and free climbing age.
The Cosmos was also, Jimmie says, "The best climb I've ever done, and they don't even give me credit for it! It was not an easy climb to do. I did it just with determination. I told myself before I went up that I didn't care if I died up there, I wasn't going to come down."
Jimmie's Cosmos climb was a significant El Cap ascent and it is only right that National Geographic should have included his name among their pantheon of visionary Yosemite climbers on the El Cap Timeline. It would, after all, entailed only adding three more words. But now you know the rest of the story. Well done Jimmie...and here's too more great climbs!
Photographs: (Top) Alex Honnold on Half Dome on National Geo's May cover. (Bottom) Jimmie Dunn revisits the Cosmos on his second ascent of the route with John Middendorf. Photograph © Jimmie Dunn Collection.