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Words By
Judith Spancken

I am writing this piece from a little town in Germany, far away from the golden meadows of Yosemite Valley. Outside my window the world looks dreary in the winter drizzle. I am finding it hard to focus on the work I am supposed to do. Images of the valley keep filling my mind and every single detail of my recent trip is etched into my memory.

I only have to close my eyes to teleport myself back to the granite ocean of El Cap. The grassy meadows bathed in the golden late afternoon light. The vivid colours and smells are all around me and the warm sunshine bathes my skin. I feel my muscles strain with the effort of trying to squirm my way up yet another off-width. The people I was fortunate to share my time with surround me once more…

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Climbing of course I do simply because I love it. Climbing I do because moving on rock has felt like a necessity to me ever since first discovering climbing… like discovering the rhythm of life for the first time. So climbing is what makes me travel to all those places near and far… well known and unknown. Climbing is the initial instigator. But really, what matters to me most is the sharing of time on and off the vertical with the people I meet along the way.

This recent trip to Yosemite was yet another reminder of why I live the climbing lifestyle. Why sleeping in a tent or a van for weeks on end has more appeal to me than owning a fancy apartment. Why I choose to work less and have less money but travel and climb more.

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In our, to me, gone crazy world of new technology, fast cars, growing cities, gadgets and media bombardment, it is the simplicity of the everyday climbing life that produces true contentment for me.

No matter what people say about the crowds, Yosemite truly is inspiring. It easily captured me and has created a longing in me to return to the valley as soon as possible. Steeped in climbing history and of breath-taking beauty, Yosemite is truly magical. Many times I pondered how it must have felt for the first people entering this valley so long ago when it was untouched by roads, cars and crowds.

yosemite-2 Right: Photo credit - Chris Gay.

This trip wasn’t my first. Back in 2004 Leanne and myself fought, squirmed, squeezed and laughed our way up some of the valley classics, bewildered by how different the climbing was to our home stomping ground in the Welsh hills.

Some 12 years later, my crack climbing ability seems to have only marginally improved and I again found myself fighting, squirming, squeezing and smiling my way up the valley classics.

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I had wanted to come back for a long time but it took me 12 years to finally do so. The pull was getting too strong and I finally purchase my ticket to San Francisco. This time I arrived alone with no objectives and plans other than to be, to climb and with a wish in the back of my mind to get to play on El Cap. I mean, I have to confess that despite my many years on rock, despite expeditions and new routing in Greenland, I had never climbed in big wall style. I had never completed an aid route nor slept on a wall or portaledge and I still found 10a off-width impossible… wasn’t it about time?

I initially found myself amused by the intense attention the great El Capitan seemed to receive every day and how all talk seems to circle around its grand walls. Who does what, how fast and how often. Giant telescopes are trained on its walls for most of the day so that not even a poo can be taken in private by the climbers.

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Anyone climbing on El Cap for the first time will soon understand its draw, its magic and fascination. Never had I encountered so many quality pitches of immaculate rock one after another. I was strangely torn between wanting to learn how to climb it fast so as to experience the joy of continuous flow but also wanting to go slow, to spend as many days as possible on its walls, to have the time and leisure to observe the constant change of shadow and light on the surrounding walls and the valley floor. It is that slow pace, living in the vertical for days on end that allows the beauty of subtle changes to really reach deep and settle within the observer.

In that sense, two contrasting desires started taking shape in me during my stay in the valley. To learn more about intricate aid climbing, and to maybe one day tackle the slower, longer aid routes and to learn how to free climb more efficiently on this rock so as to feel the flow and to move fast without the need to carry much gear.

Whether either of those desires comes true remains to be seen and today Yosemite is facing its challenges with ever increasing numbers of tourists, cars and climbers. I happened to turn up just as the annual Yosemite Facelift kicked off. Created to clear the park of rubbish before the winter snow arrives, to educate people, to raise awareness and to promote sensible behaviour in the park it was a great way to find my feet upon arrival, to meet people and feel like I was giving something back to the valley.

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Being involved as a volunteer and actively looking for rubbish and abandoned gear during a day on the top of El Cap made me realise in dismay how little some of us climbers seem to care….

During the week hundreds of volunteers collected close to 6000 lbs of rubbish as well as getting involved with seeding, planting, trail building and all sorts of restoration projects.

Hopefully events like the Yosemite face lift can help to continue to raise and strengthen awareness amongst climbers and other users of National Parks. Thanks again to all you wonderful people I met and who invited me into your lives during that week and all my other weeks in the valley.

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Thanks Camden for introducing me to the art of aid climbing on Leaning Tower and for doing my first El Cap route, the Triple Direct, with me.

Thanks Chris for a fun day out on the Galactic Hitchhiker and sorry for taking an unintentional detour on pitch 10.

Thanks Nico for insisting on the Alien Roof finish on the Rostrum and Eric for leading some of the challenging overhanging cracks for me.

Thanks Erin for spending a whole day with me trying to figure out how to refine off-width techniques and Barry for showing me that yes... chimneys do ‘sometimes’ look more intimidating than they actually are…

All photography courtesy of Jude Spancken.

Jude started climbing when she came to the UK as a student on an exchange year from her native Germany. These days she splits her time between Chamonix and North Wales, but travels extensively throughout the year. Although Jude loves all forms of climbing, her true passion still lies on the rock.

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