The Diving Board
by Robert Langham
We were at 6,800 feet pushing through head-high oak tangles on the back shoulder of Half Dome when a pack-hungbranch slapped me in the face and knocked a lens out of my glasses. It was twilight and a light rain was bringing the ceilingdown. We had been climbing hard for 12 hours; we were exhausted and beginning to think we were lost. I sat down in theleaf litter, waited for my mind to calm and considered the distraction of set goals.
Chris Johnson collapsed an arm's length away. He and I are old friends, having met in Yosemite in 1973 as students at the Ansel Adams Workshop. We returned as assistants 1974 through 1977 and stayed in touch from then until now. Chris teaches at California College of Arts and Crafts and is known for his empathy and listening skills as well as his teaching and image making. He could come up here any time he wanted. This is my first return trip in 22 years.
We came up LeConte Gully, Ansel's route, under the north face of Grizzly Peak, up from Happy Isles, up out of Camp Curry to climb to the Diving Board. The Board is a hanging cornice on the west edge of Half Dome. It is the spot where Ansel took his remarkable picture, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. From my desk in Texas or on a topo map by fingertip, it seems a doable day climb. But an hour ago we abandoned our second straight attempt, this time only 500 vertical feet and a quarter mile short. Now we are just trying to save our skins and get down to the main trail behind Liberty Cap without adding to the laundry list of mistakes we're trailing through the brush.
Half Dome is famous for its shape. It is the Yosemite Park logo. It is one of the most identifiable and celebrated peaks inthe world. The Matterhorn, Trango Tower and Everest are less known. But viewed from the Diving Board the famous sculptural face is unrecognizable. A black and foreboding cliff. Overhanging. From the valley with binoculars you can see it andperhaps climbers on the northwest face. It hangs there, knife-edge clean, beckoning, above the Porcelin wall. It is off" the beaten path. Tourists climb the cables up the back side. Hardly anyone goes to the Diving Board.
I wanted to make the 4,000 foot climb to Ansel's perch, to walk out to the immortal slanting pine to see what happens between the monolith and me. Maybe music, maybe poetry, maybe nothing. Maybe a photograph. Now Chris and I are stuck in the brush and failing light. Our last view of Half Dome was the hulk of the dome disappearing into the swirling mist.
One of the first books I read on photography was Nancy Newhall's The Eloquent Light. It's a stagy overblown caricature of a book, one-half of a planned biography of Ansel who was portrayed in a heroic and Olympian manner. It is a period piece. The publishing date, 1963, before the assassination of Kennedy, before Vietnam, before our collective loss of innocence brings it into clarity. Monolith was plastered on the dust jacket.
At the opening cocktail party of the 1973 workshop behind Best's Studio in Yosemite Village, Newhall balanced her drink in one hand and held her cigarette in the other while autographing my copy. She was drunk and refused to speak English to me or anyone else, preferring French. She addressed only Beaumont who listened stoically. From the drift of what filtered through my high school francais she didn't think much of workshops, me or the other students. I sat in the vapor of her breath, clutching my copy of Eloquent, not knowing a cocktail from a cockatiel and praying that somebody had covered all open flames. "Ill sont imbecils, sont provincials." She tapped the ash off her cigarette and it landed on the toe of my hiking boot, glowing. I chewed the ice from my Coke, afraid that if I asked for more, I'd get it. The Newhalls had been friends with the Adams for decades. She and Beaumont had written the history of the medium. She had known Steigltiz and Steichen.She edited Weston's Daybooks. She had a private parking slot at MoMA. She was a year away from a tragic and premature death. I was just some kid from Texas with a smoldering boot.
I've still got my copy with her and Adams signatures scrawled inside the cover. An appraiser looked at it once, questioning me. "This is Newhall's signature?"
"It could be in French," I allowed.
The second half never got written.
When I decided to introduce my 12-year old daughter to the West, Yosemite was the first place, and the Diving Board the first climb I put on the list.
It turns out that you can step twice in the same river but you only get wetter. If we had made it up to the Board, in light and on schedule, I had a comparable camera, film, lens and filters to find Ansel's viewpoint at about the same time of day. He reports his pack as topping out at 40 pounds. I weighed mine at the coffee shop: 40 pounds. I might stand in his tripod holes.
In his autobiography and Examples he talks about the making of Monolith opening him up to transcending realism and moving into emotional equivalency.
In short, making the photo you feel. Regardless of what one thinks of Adams or his work you have to grant him that. He got connected.
And connection, for lack of a better English word, is the whole fight. It's the "it" of getting it. When a photographer gets connected to his subject matter, the images pulse and crackle with energy. If he doesn't get connected, isn't simpatico, can't feel, doesn't see, nothing else can make up for it. Specifically in photography if you are thinking about the sexiness of the technology, the fresh air of the act, or (mostly) another person's image, you're lost. It is part of the problem humans face now that we have evolved slightly beyond our ecological niche and acquired our vaulted consciousness, (which caused more trouble than it is worth.) How do you really see what you are looking at? Anything that distracts from the resonance between the subject and artist instantly bleeds the process flat. Anyone can shoot a new and revelatory picture of Half Dome — if they can see Half Dome. If they look up at the monolith through the filter of Ansel's picture, the game is over.
I hate photographers as much as Nancy, though my French is not as good. There are too many of them. They plagiarize one another shamelessly. They stampede. They flock. They have technology but not craft. Or lots of craft and no soul. If their work is good, it is distracting; if it is bad, it is disgusting. They pour into the most common of artistic traps and set up housekeeping. Due to the media's reliance on subject, its practitioners fall prey to a common fault: they mistake replication for connection. I can haul Ansel's camera to Half Dome, set up the same shot at the same time of day and makeMonolith. Though identical, his is art and mine's not. Ansel is connected to his subject matter, Monolith, while I am connected only to Ansel's image. He is creating while I am copying. And the audience knows: The viewers connection to my art can't be greater than my own connection to subject matter. It is the most common failing of photographers. (Many hoofprints lead in but few lead out ,..) Nancy Newhall is right. Ills sont imbecils.
And now I have other fish to fry, like getting two tourists down to Lost Lake flat and on the main trail before the rain really socks in and every bit of light is gone. We have one healthy flashlight and a bottle of snowmelt. The valley is seven hours away and our people there expect us now. We are in light clothing. We have no matches, neither of us smoking or entertaining a reasonable drug habit. Like any modern imbecile I'm unable to perform the most basic human technological feat. I can't make a fire any sooner than I could gnaw a Bic pin out of a root. Nancy is right and I wish I had her lighter. All I have is lots of unshot filmholders, a credit card or two and a topo map. I think Chris has designer pemmican, vegan road-patch brownies and some sunflower seeds. Dinner will probably conjure up ursus, judging from the scat scattered all over theroute. I'm thinking high 305 tonight. Every time the mist shifts I take a bearing on Mt. Broderick and set my headings. I may be able to navigate the dark by the thunder of Nevada Falls.
I coaxed Chris up the slabs and through the tangles of LeConte gully to the saddle between Half Dome and Grizzly Peak baby step-by-baby step. The route went quickly past sketchy to solid class V and we flashed past the point of retreat. The only way off was up.
Chris, as marathon tough and smart as he is, is out of his element on the rock faces. He's got what climbers call bad feet. They won't stick, won't edge and the exposure, having 2,000 feet of air at the small of his back, has put The Fear squarely in front of his Buddhist persona. I'm respectful of such a moment; God knows there's a hefty list of situations that would send me into catatonia, but I do my duty and keep pointing up, up. After about his fifth slip, I observe that his death cry, kind of a gargling wheeze, was unsuitable for one of his age and character. "Try Allah Akbar," I suggested. "It's a crowd pleaser. Or maybe just Mu. Some folks say, 'Off rope!' or 'Hold my calls!'" We both laugh. Fear is as big a sculptor as glacial ice. It's best to let it work. Chris is doing heavy lifting. I'm just holding the rope. After retreating from our high point yesterday I went to the Mountain Shop in Curry Village to pick up slings, rope, camalots and some Black Diamond carabiners. Inside the entrance in a welter of snapshots from various climbs was a copy of Ansel's Monolith, slanting tree and all, in color, through a 35mm with a slightly wider lens. I didn't take it as an omen pro or con. I just ran my thumb over it and thought, "We'll see." Now we are seeing.
How in the world Ansel, Virginia, Ced-ric Wright and the others got up is beyond me. They were daredevils. Virginia carrieda i6mm movie camera. The film, on video at the Adams Center in Carmel, shows the group climbing and playing in the snow. We had spent the day getting to the saddle and finally crawled out on top into the eye-popping, jaw-dropping scenerythe Sierra is known for at about the time we should have been dumping our packs on the bunks at Camp Curry. I climbedGrizzly Peak with my camera and set up over the embarrassing view. Ansel's party climbed here, and he said in his autobiography that he regretted leaving his camera below. In Smith County, Texas, we have landscape. This seems like Photoshop tourist scenery with waterfalls pouring out of the clouds, vertically sculptured glacier granite, and trees from a century or two back. In a world of Kodak picture points it is hard to calm down enough to look around at what's there.
Yesterday our group rolled the rented van up to the tunnel overlook during the afternoon shower. I set up the 5x7 under a plastic bag in case the light broke. I was prepared to shoot the faint hint of Bridal-veil Fall in the fog when all of a suddenthe mist tore apart and we were looking through battlefield smoke up the valley. Chris fed me film holders while I meter-ed and ran the shutter. A gift. When it was over all we could do was stack equipment and shake our heads over dinner. At the Ansel Adams Gallery we walked around slightly spooked. "They don't know who we are," Chris commented. Twenty years ago we were wide-eyed assistants and students eager for answers. Time has poured so much of my own blood over my head that answers are no longer the answer. The gallery and valley had changed little in 20 years except now the sign on the gate saying "staff only" didn't mean us.
And for the present moment I am just some tourist. Late on the mountain and in for a rough night. Nancy's imbecile. In a minute I'll break the problem at hand down into baby steps and start going through them. First I'll get the flashlight. Then I'll find the lens. Then I'll use a credit card corner on the screw, slip out of this thicket and lead us down to a flat place onthe slope, hopefully with a thick layer of duff and a fir tree overhead. Then we'll eat, if we make it that far, and sleep on thetopo map with my darkcloth for cover. In spite of our jam no one is injured and we have all our gear. I'll keep baby-stepping and pay attention. The Diving Board will be another day, perhaps.
On July 14,1998 Chris Johnson and Robert Langham will shoulder their packs and walk out of Happy Isles for anotherattempt at the Diving Board. •
Robert Langham is a photographer from Tyler, Texas. He is the only person ever to turn down an offer to be Ansel Adams' personal assistant, but that's another story.