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A Lifetime in the Valley with Charlie

By Jenna Herzog

F ive young climbers trace Charlie’s footsteps through the Valley. The sandy, woefully-eroded trail disappears as the single-file procession follows the 50-something sage into the shade of the

pine forest. Hiking up steeper and steeper terrain, as the granite pebbles turn to stones and the stones turn to boulders, we approach the solid rock formation that birthed them all: El Capitan.

Charlie is taking us here for what he calls our “initiation”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so…big,” Dom says, stretching his neck back to take in the sight of the 3,000-foot tall sea of granite, staring back down at him, stoic and unmoving. The largest granite monolith in the world. The tallest peak in Yosemite. The Captain.

Gazing up the length of El Cap’s Dawn Wall—a rock face once thought to be impossible to climb—you can imagine Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell huddling up in their sleeping bags, sharing a can of sardines and rationing their wine and brandy while resisting park rescue on day 20 of their historic 1970 climb. Seven days later, cameras flashed and reporters swarmed as the two climbers stumbled over the summit, bagging the first ascent. Caldwell wouldn’t regret his decision to accompany Harding—a liquor-crazed construction worker who

lived with his mother his whole life—on his absurd vision to climb this nearly sheer rock face. Forty-four years later, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen accomplished the first free climb of the same domineering face. You can imagine Jorgensen shredding his fingers on the sharp granite during 10 days of suffering through attempt after attempt of the crux move on the grueling 15th pitch. After finally pushing forward to catch up to Caldwell, the two visionaries went on to complete what has been called the hardest free climb in the world.

Now, Dom, Nick, Addison, Carson, and I stand frozen at the base of the same rock, about to leave our small mark on the wall. We’ve all rock climbed before—Dom for 10 years, Nick for six, Addison for two, Carson a handful of times, and myself for half a year—but none of us have learned the art of traditional, or trad, climbing. All of our climbing experiences have been on short boulders with crash pads for safety, or on single-pitch sport routes with permanent bolts for securing our ropes. We know nothing of how to scale big walls by placing our own gear in the cracks of the rock for protection.

What we do know is that Charlie, the mysterious rock vagabond who we’ve chatted with a few times back at the local Bay Area crags, has promised to make this weekend’s trip to Yosemite, or Yosem as he calls it, well worth our while. We know what we’re setting out to do is not nearly as historic as Harding’s or Jorgensen’s efforts, but to us it feels just as intimidating.

We look to our fearless leader, Mr. Tree, for direction.

C harlie Tree seems an unlikely mentor with his collection of home-made, airbrushed T-shirts and the occasional puff-puff from the joint that emerges from his shorts pocket from time to time. My friends and I don’t seem to care that Charlie is pot-smoking hippie with a rather unorthodox take on climbing,

I don’t seem to care that Charlie is pot-smoking hippie with a rather unorthodox take on

At the base of El Cap

drifting around the crags the same way he drifts through life. It doesn’t seem to matter to Charlie that he is about

as old as all of our dads, and has been scaling cliffs in Yosem for longer than any of us have been alive.

A few months after meeting him, my friends and I took Charlie up on his offer to join him in Yosem with the

promise of exploring some of the best climbs in granite-lover’s paradise. We dropped our college lives for a three-day weekend and entered Charlie’s world: a world of five-star climbs, illegal camping in the Valley, and his fantastical stories of the past.

Charlie’s showing us the old-school approach to the sport: get yourself dragged into it and learn on the fly while you’re up on the rock. In an age where most people get their first taste of climbing by grabbing colorful plastic handholds screwed into artificial walls at the gym, the rock still hosts real adventure for those who want it. Inside the gym, there’s a sense of security and control. Outside, you put your trust in the friends and unlikely guides that show you the way, and put value in exploring the capabilities of man in nature.

Not many people climb like this nowadays: climbing for the adventure, for the fun hiding in the unknown. Climbing for the thrill, not the number taped on the wall. Climbing is about discovery, about being pulled to new places, new rocks, and opening your mind to new challenges. Teachers, mentors, coaches, friends—call them what you want—but at the end of the day no one is gonna climb the rock for you. Real rock climbing means going out on a limb; it’s about commitment to the unknown.

On the surface, what we did sounds crazy. Stupid. Strange. But to us, it was normal. When a near-stranger with a full rack of gear and decades of experience invites you on an adventure to climb in one of the world’s best granite playgrounds, you say yes. This is a story about saying yes.

playgrounds, you say yes. This is a story about saying yes. Untangling the goodies. C harlie

Untangling the goodies.

C harlie unstraps his ancient Teva sandals—even the duct tape he put to keep the rubber soles in one piece has worn away—and

squeezes into his moccasin climbing shoes. He opens his faded, tattered backpack, which he recalls purchasing five or six lifetimes ago, and untangles his collection of cams, nuts, quickdraws, and carabiners. He arranges his assortment of nylon and steel goodies into neat piles in the dirt.

“You’d think I’d have this dialed and know what I don’t need to take up here. Don’t need a bunch of stuff,” Charlie mumbles mostly to himself. “I’m getting old, I don’t like carrying extra weight.”

He tells us in his slow drawl that he found the bulk of his trad climbing equipment on routes left behind by climbers who gave up on dislodging them from the cracks. He makes his final gear selection and hooks them onto the loops of his seasoned harness, jangling against one another as he shuffles up to the base of the climb.

“So, which one of you is the best belayer?”

Dom steps up to the plate, swiftly looping the other end of Charlie’s rope through his belay device and resting his hand on the loose end, ready to squeeze and pull down in case Charlie falls.

Five pairs of eyes follow Charlie’s every move as he scales up the beginning chimney section of the route. All is silent, aside from sound of Charlie’s cams and quickdraws clattering together. Charlie explains that he has lead this climb, a ten-pitch route called Free Blast, over 50 times. Wedging himself up the chimney, he calls down to us to offer instruction on what to do when our turns come. We wonder if he’s talking to himself or narrating for our benefit.

In less than eight minutes, Charlie cruises his way up the entire 160-foot, 5.10c-graded climb without so much

as a slip, moving hand over hand and foot over foot up the crack at a steady pace. The whole way up he narrates his moves. He knows this route like the back of his scratched up hands.

C harles Milligan, or Charlie Tree as he prefers to be called, tells us that he was born 20 lifetimes ago in San Diego, California. He estimates that he has been jamming his hands into cracks and scrambling up boulders for 28 years, which means that he has spent about nine or 10 of his lifetimes as a climber. In his opinion, this is “too long, but not long enough.”

The bodhisattva in the dragon T-shirt has little to say about his past lifetimes as a youth, but it’s all relative since he vows that he could live to be 100, but he will never grow up.

After a stint with the U.S. Air Force—thanks to his mother’s strong encouragement after busting him for smoking pot in high school—ex- airman Milligan made his way back to California.

That was when he found rock climbing.

“What kinda got me started actually was coming up here. I came to Yosemite before I climbed and I came to Camp 4. I saw all the climbers and I started talking to ‘em. Asking ‘em questions. I was working in the Bay and somehow I found [Castle Rock]. I don’t think anybody told me, I think I just found it. And then I went up there and I bought some shoes and I started kinda bouldering, just shoes and a chalk bag.”

Drive up the winding Skyline Boulevard into the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, hike in on the breezy .2 mile trail from the parking lot of Castle Rock State Park, and you’ll find a collection of sandstone boulders amid the mangrove forest. The honeycomb caves and diverse features of the Castle Rock crags have inspired local climbers to make this collection of rocks the most developed climbing spot in the Bay Area. This is Charlie’s domain.

Addison and I first met Charlie there amongst the boulders in October. At first glance he looked a bit homeless. Since then, the only time my friends and I haven’t bumped into Charlie at Castle Rock was the one time I called him in advance to meet up.

He’s buddies with just about everyone that has claimed a first ascent in the area, written a climbing guidebook, or been photographed for a guidebook of Castle. He will make buddies with anybody he comes across that he wants to climb with, and may or may not remember them the next time he sees them. Charlie himself has made some appearances in various editions of Castle Rock guidebooks, and even has a route sport named after him, Charlie’s Angel, to which he gives the raving review “that it sucks”. But for Charlie—and any rock climber for that matter—nothing beats the granite walls of Yosemite. In the rock climbing world, Yosem is paramount. The Center of the Universe. The Mecca.

Just under 200 miles from the Bay Area, Charlie has made the Valley his second home over the course of his climbing years.

“I met people at Castle and then we’d start coming to Yosemite and doing routes. We were getting on routes we had no business even being on. Just super hard, like, death climbs.”

Fueled by his granite compulsion, Charlie has spent weeks to months at a time camping out in the Valley— despite park regulations that limit visitors to seven camping days per year. Coming into the Valley as a climber, the infamous Camp 4 is the place to be. Nestled between Yosemite Falls and the base of El Capitan, and located just a short walk from the Yosemite Lodge, Camp 4 has gained notoriety as the spot for rock jocks since the

Lodge, Camp 4 has gained notoriety as the spot for rock jocks since the Mr. Tree

Mr. Tree

Lodge, Camp 4 has gained notoriety as the spot for rock jocks since the Mr. Tree

Charlie & Dom climbing at Castle Rock

1950s. For decades this camp was the breeding grounds for an anti-establishment, counter-culture, booze- guzzling, weed-puffing crowd of rock addicts where climbers practiced on the nearby boulders and rested before and after big wall climbs.

Nowadays Camp 4 is abuzz with a misfit crowd of everyone from first-time campers to seasoned rock climbers. Charlie only recommends staying there if you like the ever-present campfire smoke that make the whole place smell like hotdogs, noisy parties that go on late into the night, and loud snoring from your neighbors. Not to mention the pesky registration process or filling out your name and vehicle information, and the springtime park service policing that Charlie likens to a Gestapo state.

About 15 years after discovering his passion for rock climbing, Charlie purchased five acres of land for $39,000 in Mariposa, 30 miles southwest of Yosemite National Park, for the main purpose of having easy access to the granite walls of the Valley. He splits his time roughly half and half between the home he’s made for himself in Mariposa and his rental place in the Saratoga hills.

Charlie has picked a common money-making job for old-school climbers: tree trimming. Working as a self- employed arborist pays the bills, keeps him in shape for climbing, and allows him the flexibility to escape to Mariposa for weeks or months at a time. His wife, a Brazilian woman named D, mostly stays in the Bay Area working as a babysitter and occasionally joins Charlie in Mariposa on weekends.

In his third decade as a climber, Charlie complains that wives, old age, and busy lives have kept many of his contemporaries away from the rock in recent years. But not Charlie. He’s confident that he will die climbing, at least he hopes. His one request is that he doesn’t hit anything on the way down during his final plunge from El Capitan, because he prefers to enjoy the fall.

“You know a lot of times, I’ll go up there without a partner and, you know, I’ll just find somebody to climb with. If I’m lucky I’ll have somebody to climb with already, but I go up there a lot and I don’t have partners. And I’ll just kinda look around and try to find somebody. You know, I’m not gonna climb with just anybody.”

Trekking around in the Valley with Charlie, it’s easy to see why he has met so many climbers: he talks to everybody with a rope or a crash pad who crosses his path.

“But you know, I’ll meet people and they’re just usually climbing in some kinda really easy area, and I’m like, ‘hey, you wanna go check out something cool?’ And I’ll take ‘em over to some classics, like five-star climbs. And I don’t know how many times I’ve done that. So many times. You know, of all those people, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the best climb of their life. It’s fun, you know. Like better than Disneyland.”

Charlie doesn’t climb with wankers, which he defines as people who don’t know what they’re doing. The kind of people who climb outside with Planet Granite belay certifications on their harness and don’t know how to rappel. He explains that he has saved the lives of countless wankers by pointing out to them the errors of their ways.

W e must not be wankers, since Mr. Tree decided to invite us to come kick it with him in Yosem. He threw out the idea the first day Addison and I met him, and then again the second time that Nick, Dom,

Addison and I crossed paths with him at Castle Rock. He told us he would be hanging out for his birthday at his Mariposa property over President’s Day weekend, and that we could join him. This time we said yes.

At that point, what I knew of Charlie was that he didn’t own a cell phone, he used to live out of a trailer, and that his rental place in Saratoga lacked Internet connection.

Finally out of the Friday afternoon traffic, we speed up and down the rolling hills of 152-East, speculating what Charlie’s property will be like.

“What if it’s actually a manor with perfectly tailored lawns?”

“I was kind of imagining more of a shack in the middle of nowhere.”

Driving down the bumpy dirt road and out of cell service range, we stumble upon Charlie’s abode a few hours after dark. He welcomes us to park anywhere, and explains that since buying the land he has been on a solo mission to eradicate his property of poison oak, run water and electricity to the place, and build a two-story house.

The first floor of his Mariposa home has all the amenities: a washer and dryer, a bitching stereo system, shelves stocked with canned fruit, potatoes, and cooking oil, a George Foreman grill, a pull-out futon with a plain white sheet, and a sweet drum set. The second floor holds all his construction, tree trimming, and climbing equipment, plus a makeshift easel for air brushing his T-shirt designs.

Sitting on the stone seats in Charlie’s yard, we polish off our beers as he finishes another Styrofoam cup of red wine. We kick back around the campfire that he keeps pumping with firewood and stories until 12:30 a.m. before we eventually crawl into our tents to get some sleep for the next day.

“Yeah, it’s cool to get some company up here. I come up here and a lot of times I’m just up here myself,” Charlie laughs.

We all look up at the stars and notice how many more we can see here than in the Bay Area.

“You guys are gonna love tomorrow, lemme tell ya. Yeah, you guys will be stoked. I’m gonna be stoked.”

I nitiation day. I’m at the crux, and I think stoked is the word. My toes are screaming, scrunched over each other and burning up in the hot black rubber of my climbing shoes, my foot jammed into

a crack as wide as a stick of butter. I reach my left arm above my head and slide my fingers into the crack, growing thinner as it snakes up the rock. Deep breath.

The unseasonably warm sun radiates off the granite, making my hands sweat. Deep shadows from the afternoon sun cut across the streaks of tan and varying shades of gray that run down the length of El Capitan.

shades of gray that run down the length of El Capitan. On The Captain, at the

On The Captain, at the crux.

The streaks of color look like they were left by people dropping full cans of paint from the top of the granite behemoth, allowing the colors to fall in long, straight lines all the way down the 3,000-foot face. The angle of El Cap’s Nose meeting the remaining vertical face of granite creates a dizzying optical illusion, making the wall look like its stretching down towards me, rather than me climbing up it. At this moment, I’m glad I turned down Charlie’s offer to take a hit from his joint before roping in for the climb, because this sea of rock is playing enough tricks on me as it is.

Since I’ve never crack climbed before, I’m putting all my trust in the friction of the rock and Charlie’s instructions to hand jam in order to keep moving up the wall. Make the move. I smear my right foot against the sticky granite, untuck my left foot from its cozy spot in the crack, bend my arms to 90 degrees, and pull myself up the rock, inserting my left foot once again into the safety of the crack. I didn’t fall. Cheers to friction and hand jams.

“Wow I’m actually shocked. I can’t believe she’s doing that part. Good job!” Charlie shouts up to me from 110 feet below.

“Yeah, stay in that left crack with your feet but you can put your hand in the right one. Yeah, there you go, but keep your feet in that little gully and walk up it, sort of.”

I follow Charlie’s advice as if it were etched in the stone.

Fifty feet later, I step onto the ledge and stare at the bolt anchors, slightly in disbelief at my arrival to the end of the pitch. I turn around and peer out over the Valley. The glacier-carved walls curve down into the peaceful El Cap meadows. The tops of the pine trees dot the landscape on either side. I see my friends’ faces as they tilt they heads up and squint into the sun beaming behind me. Laying down on a rock with his hands perched behind his head, Charlie smiles his broad grin, the image of El Cap reflecting off his bright yellow sunglasses.

Dom, Nick, Addison, and Carson all take their turns on the Captain, finishing the route that Charlie lead for us.

“Yeah, coming into the Valley looking to climb you wouldn’t have been climbing that. That was a five-star,” Charlie tells us back at our cars along the road in El Cap meadows. “If you weren’t with a local you’d probably be over at Swan Slab with all the wankers.”

B y Sunday all the climbers in the Valley have greasy hair. Day 2 in Yosem and Charlie is taking us to a crack where we will

really learn to hand jam, the most important technique for trad climbing. After all, he did promise that we would be “all cracked out” and maybe even “crack addicts” by the end of the weekend, bloody knuckles and all.

Our procession follows Charlie across the bridge at the foot of Yosemite Falls and off the paved tourist path onto a faint trail that after a short, steep hike takes us to the base of our next climb: Jam Crack. Charlie leans against a tree and begins the ritual of organizing his gear and telling us how many times he’s climbed this particular route.

He rises to his feet and strides over to the granite face. Without hesitation he sticks his tan, muscular forearm into the crack. He’s climbed this route over 100 times, maybe even 200, he explains.

“He’s got some serious old man strength,” Nick notes as Charlie cruises up the crack.

Dom marvels that throughout his 10 years as a competitive sport climber and boulderer, he had never met anyone like Charlie; someone who “really spends his life climbing”.

“It’s always been a fantasy, to be able to just stop everything and climb,” Dom says with an air of whimsy. “But, I don’t know, it’s always just felt so impractical, and that it is a fantasy, that I couldn’t actually do that.”

“Why is it such a fantasy?” I ask.

After a long pause, Dom replies, “I don’t know.”

About to ascend Jam Crack for his 201st time, Charlie has awarded Dom the honor of belaying him once again. But this time Dom’s belay is as pointless as any.

As Charlie sashays his way up the crack, his collection of cams and nuts jingle from his harness, and stay there. He’s 60 feet above the ground, and he hasn’t placed any safety yet. Charlie finishes the first pitch and tops out onto the ledge of this 5.7-rated climb—not terribly hard, but mistakes can still happen—with the rope trailing behind him, attached to nothing but Dom’s harness down at the base of the slab.

“I really wish he wouldn’t do this,” Dom turns to me, concern on his face. “This makes me really nervous.” He looks more terrified than nervous.

“Well, he has been doing this for years,” Nick responds.

than nervous. “Well, he has been doing this for years,” Nick responds. J a m C

Jam Crack #201

“I just don’t wanna be responsible if something happens.”

“I mean, he would be doing this anyway, right?” I offer. “It makes no difference if we’re here or not.”

Charlie starts on the second pitch and finally places a nut in the crack and clips his rope into a quickdraw after the first few feet. He seamlessly reaches the bolt anchor at the end of the 80-foot, 5.9-graded pitch and secures himself to get in position to belay Dom up the route.

This is the fifth route this weekend that Dom has followed directly after Charlie.

“He’s taken an interest in you, Dom,” Nick jokes as Dom switches from his sneakers into his climbing shoes.

The rest of us joke about him becoming Charlie’s new apprentice, and the absurd but somehow all-too-real possibility of Mr. Tree asking Dom to come and stay with him in the Valley and climb all day. Dom laughs along, then sizes up the nearly-perfect vertical crack in the rock before wedging his hands in.

“What would your parents say?” I ask.

Dom pauses and gazes thoughtfully at the granite face in front of him. “My parents’ opinion wouldn’t be what would stop me.”

A ll cracked out, we stroll back to our cars in the Camp 4 parking lot. Under the glow of the light from the open trunk of my Jeep, Charlie and his gang gather one last time.

With the weekend winding down, Charlie is headed back to his place in Mariposa and the five of us are rallying for another night at the secret, unofficial camping spot at the base of El Cap that Charlie showed us the night before.

Charlie goes around the circle, ceremoniously shaking the hands of each of his President’s Day weekend crew. We all thank him one by one for his hospitality at his property, showing us the ins and outs of the Valley, and most importantly for the amazing routes he took us on over the course of the two days.

routes he took us on over the course of the two days. T r e k

Trekking through the Valley.

“Well you guys are all spoiled now,” Charlie says. “It’s like, it will never be the same.”

“Not without Charlie!” Carson chides.

“You guys don’t neeed me. Well, now you do. But now you can see what you kinda can work your way up to be doing.”

Finally, he turns to Dom.

“And, yeah, we’ll climb together too. I mean, I’d like to climb with you. Even, maybe, go do some climbing some time.”

His gaze wanders up towards El Capitan, nothing but a black shadow in the night sky aside from the random flicker from the headlamps of the few climbers preparing for their night on the wall. We all know full well that he means for Dom to join him on the big walls of the Valley.

“Yeah, for sure,” Dom agrees.

“Well, whatever, see you guys at Castle or keep in touch,” Charlie says. “You got my number. And maybe another time you guys can come up and hang out and we’ll do it again, or something. If nothing else, I’ll see you at Castle eventually.”

And he walks away to his truck, giving a final honk good-bye as he pulls out of the parking lot.

SIDEBAR: Glossary of Climbing Terms

First Ascent: The first successful completion of a new route, in any type of climbing (bouldering, traditional, mountaineering, etc.)

Free Climb: Climbers use only their hands, feet, and the natural features of the rock to make their ascent; climbers are harnessed to a rope to prevent deadly falls

Crux: The most difficult move or sequence on a climbing route

Pitch: One ropes-length of climbing

Traditional Climbing: The original style of rock climbing that involves adventure climbing to create your own route. Traditional, or trad, climbing often involves using cracks or other weaknesses in the rock where climbers place removable protection, primarily with camming devices and nuts, to secure their rope into as they ascend.

Sport Climbing: A type of climbing where climbers use a quickdraw to clip their rope into fixed bolts that are permanently secured in the rock. In this style of climbing, routes are set by the first ascender by drilling bolts into rock faces that would otherwise be unclimbable without jeopardizing safety.

Bouldering: A type of climbing that involves relatively short routes on large boulders, focusing on strength and technique and using crash pads on the ground for safety instead of ropes. Originally started as a way to train for longer climbs.

Crag: A rock area with climbing routes, such as a collection of boulders of a cliff face.

Rack: The set of equipment carried on the climber’s harness, which including all of their safety gear (quickdraws, slings, cams, etc.).

Cam (Camalot, Camming Device): A removable, spring-loaded device used for placing protection in crack systems in the rock. Used by traditional climbers in order to safely attach their rope to places in the route as they ascend.

Nut: A removable metal wedge placed into crack systems in the rock for protection. Used by traditional climbers similarly to a cam, nuts allow climbers to safely ascend by clipping in their rope at various spots up the rock.

Quickdraw: A length of nylon connected to a carabiner on each end. Used for safety, climbers hook one carabiner into bolts or traditional climbing equipment and secure their rope into the other carabiner.

Carabiner: Metal rings with spring-loaded gates, used as connectors.

Belay: To protect your climbing partner by passing the rope through a friction enhancing belay device, using your brake hand on the rope to arrest a fall.

Yosemite Decimal System: Used to rating the difficult of walks, hikes, and climbs—with Class 5 ratings designated for rock climbing that recommends rope for safety. Class 5 is subdivided with decimals (5.4, 5.10, 5.11), indicating increased difficulty. These ratings are further dived by letters a-d, in which a 5.10d is more challenging than a 5.10a.

Bolt: A point of protection permanently drilled into the rock. Used primarily in sport climbing for setting safety, and typically found at the top of pitches for sport and sometimes traditional routes for securing anchors from which to top-rope, rappel, or lower.