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Q+A: Glen Denny

Ahead of his anticipated talk at our Spitalfields store on 13 September, we caught up with photographer and climbing legend, Glen Denny.

What… is your slide-show lecture all about?

It’s based on my award-winning book, Yosemite in the Sixties, and consists of black and white digital slides depicting the days when I scaled the big walls of Yosemite Valley with many of the climbing icons of the era (Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard et al). Camera in hand, I attempted to capture both the gritty reality and sunny optimism of those years on film; an intimate insider’s view of campground life – the personalities and parties, the aspirations and preparations, the loves and dreams of all us climbers.

Why… pit yourself against nature in such a perilous way?

As Graham Greene said, “When one is young, one trifles with death.” The great game was being as bold as possible without getting killed. It was a reaction to the U.S. culture of the fifties. Our parents had accomplished a lot, but they produced a suburban lifestyle that we thought was boring. Climbing offered the opposite: the unknown, risk, hardship. No more mowing the lawn. No need for a car. Get rid of all that unnecessary stuff! Society thought we were living like hobos. We thought we were more like the Beats – we liked music, poetry, and painting, but our art form was drawing bold lines up sheer cliffs with our bodies. You felt like you were doing the impossible. It was inspiring to be in such magnificent places, it seemed pure and otherworldly. You threw everything into it and gained nothing but a feeling of satisfaction. For me the greatest pleasure in climbing was feeling perfectly adapted to living in an impossible place of pure, austere beauty. Many books have been written about the “Why” of climbing. I’ve thought about this for 50 years. Maybe the best answer is that it makes the beer taste so good!

Just why were those days in Yosemite such an important, “Golden Age,” for climbing?

Because, for the first time, the steepest, smoothest cliffs in Yosemite were climbed, walls that seemed the definition of impossibility. These routes raised the level of the art and eventually made Yosemite climbing famous around the world.

How… did it feel to be a community amid the mountains?

In the spirit of the social changes of the sixties, we dropped out of the mainstream of work and society and took up residence in “Camp 4”. The lifestyle looked very relaxed because climbers needed physical and mental relief from the stress of climbing. You were there to climb the rocks, but it was a scary business. The challenges of the great walls seemed to be staring down at you, disturbing your sleep. After a big climb, you needed food and wine, fun and love. You needed to unwind. But after a few days, you’d start thinking about the next climb, and the tension would start building up again. Living in Camp 4 could be bacchanalian, but when climbing our behaviour was as precise and controlled as a surgeon’s in the operating room. So there was nice alternation of tension and release, suffering and fun. And the fun was so much better when you had really earned it.

Some folk have said that in those days you guys were fairly poorly equipped in formal terms but made up for it all in pure guts. Is this a fair assessment?

Yes. Compared to the equipment and training of today, climbing back then seems primitive. Pitons were heavy, and it took a lot of strength and time to hammer in and take out. When there was no ledge, we spent the night dangling in slings or in homemade hammocks. There was no specialised physical training the way there is now. Cigarette smoking was common. There was no special diet. On long climbs, you couldn’t carry enough food and water because it weighed too much. You got weak from lack of food because you were too thirsty to swallow it. Climbing the big walls was an act of radical asceticism.

How has the world of climbing changed since then – for better or worse?

In Yosemite it’s both better and worse. Climbers’ physical and technical skills have vastly improved – amazing things are done now. But at the same time, climbing in Yosemite has, perhaps, lost the sense we had of pioneering, of exploring untouched walls. Now, climbing has become more popular than anyone from the “Golden Age” could have imagined. You have to stand in line for the great climbs. The heroic routes from the Golden Age are done every day – the mystique seems to be gone.

Where… did you take your best/favourite shot?

I can’t pick a single best shot but here’s how I took one of my favourites: In the late winter, a big, warm rainstorm hit Yosemite, melting the snow pack. The Valley flooded and was closed for several days. I wanted to get a photo of Yosemite Falls in its engorged state. After walking to the base of the falls through heavy mist and rain, I decided to climb the talus, up and left, to get above the cloud of spume at the bottom of the falls and take a photo from there. The driving spume was so powerful that I couldn’t stand. I had to crawl up the talus on hands and knees, blasted with sheets of ice water, until I was above the mist. I took the photo with shaking, frozen hands and then crawled back down. Looking at the photo later (see image, right), I decided it was worth all that misery.

Those images from the 1960s were only published in Yosemite as recently as 2007, but surely the experience of those days influenced your future life and work in between?

Yes, it has. After experiences like that, you’re not afraid of very much. Very little in life can test you as severely as a big wall. And few experiences are as exhilarating as reaching the top of one. These things can shape the rest of your life.

When… did you realise you’d documented a “Golden Age” of climbing?

At first I started taking snapshots like anyone would take on a vacation – pictures that said, “Look where we were.” Once I got serious about climbing, I wanted to take photos that would convey the depth of the experience. Finally, as the scene developed, I realised a special, odd, kind of history was happening each day, and every night the quicksilver of our experience slipped through the cracks in the tabletops and disappeared into the grimy dust below. I wanted to record it. I wanted to capture moments that kept our experience from disappearing. I started talking less and seeing more, images that would show viewers what it was like and why we were there.

That being said, then, how do you perceive Yosemite to be used – as a photography book, climbing book, a travelogue or a philosophy?

All of the above. I tried to put everything into it. I failed, of course, but it was fun trying.

 

Glen is holding his talk at our Spitalfield’s branch, 13 September, 7pm. Click here to purchase a ticket or enquire at any of our stores

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