To Live Beneath Half Dome
What would it be like to live in America's most enchanting valley?
"I guess I’ve always had a little monkey in me," Jason Price says. On the way to camp, Jason sees some people climbing and he convinces his dad to pull over. "I conned him into letting me ask if I could climb, and they let me tie into a swami belt and I managed to shimmy up on a 5’7, it was like a hard jungle gym "
Thirty years later, Jason lives in the Yosemite Valley, for all practical purposes the center of the climber's world, and by some measures the world's most beautiful space. I met Jason briefly in the valley, and I then I told my wife, "I want to know what life is like for people who live there." A week later, I call Jason and ask him how it all happened.
He says, "I was going to school full time, taking summer sessions and going to school year round. I was burned out. I was pursuing three different majors, but I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I took leisure management, which is like studying to manage health spas. Geology had really interested me, and then I was also studying microbiology."
Facing the option of a master's degree, Jason decided to bail and take a summer off, to climb for a while in Yosemite, to think about what he wanted to do. Time passed, and, "Then I worked at Walmart for three years and had been coming out to climb and fiddle around. By my third year at Walmart, my friend Mark said, why don't you just apply at the Ahwahnee?"
The Ahwahnee is a giant and unusually beautiful hotel in the Yosemite Valley. It was built in 1927 in an exotic blend of frontiersmen, Middle-Eastern and Native American decor.
He says, "They tell me, I can come in, take a piss test and if I make it, i'm hired. I called my boss at Walmart and gave my notice. I tied up some loose ends, found a place for my dogs to live and soon enough I was here."
Jason is one of those people who wants to share everything with anybody about living in Yosemite and climbing the great walls of the Valley. He shares stories with parents and children alike. Of his move, he says, "It was one of the scariest things I ever did and the best thing I ever did for myself. It seems like whenever I took a risk the benefits were gigantic. There is this book called Road Trip Nation. It's just amazing what that book says."
Road Trip Nation is all about telling everybody off who tells you to be a lawyer or a doctor. The book follows two young men on a trip across the country, making a living their own way.
I ask Jason if he's become numbed to the beauty of the valley.
He laughs at this. "Every time I go home to Fresno, the city life drives me nuts. I just hate it, and every time I come back from Oakhurst, you come through the tunnel and you get your first views of El Cap and Half Dome. There are times I come around that bend and there is weather and light I've never seen before. The lighting in the Valley, it's just...different. How green everything is. I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world."
About the climbers in the Valley, Jason says, "There is a collective consciousness to the group. Its like a fraternity of climbers, you don’t need to be the best in the world, but its just an aura. In the climbing world the best are considered like Gods. Legendary Climber Ron Kauk has an aura and I remember the gaga effect when I met him. Like all those climbers, he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and he is genuinely interested in what you’ve been up to that day."
I tell him about how the surfing community in Los Angeles is known to sometimes act violently towards each other. I told him about having my tires slashed for surfing on someone else's territory.
To this he says, "In Yosemite, you can leave your gear and everything will be there when you get back down. The climbing community is very trustworthy. We look like dirtbags and monkeys but climbers are trustworthy, are intelligent and have a good head on their shoulders."
Jason climbs five days a week. Just a few weeks ago, he ascended El Capitan, the classic climbing face, in twenty-two hours. Technically, that makes him one of the top climbers in the world. Generally, climbers will sleep overnight on the the cliff face for four to six days before making the top.
I ask him how he manages to stay alert for that long. "You know," he says, "You're constantly moving, always doing something. At one point, I pulled up on the ledge and I’m sitting there for a few seconds catching my breath, and my climbing partner says, "What are you doing! I didn’t clip you into the powerpoint so you can sit there and rest!"
One of the first things you notice about the Yosemite Valley is the hundreds of people just staring up at El Capitan. All summer and through much of the other seasons, there is a constant train of telescopes and binoculars and finger-pointers. At the same time, the Yosemite Valley has gained a reputation for a plague of tourists. When the park rangers met this obstacle with further regulations and mandatory bus shuttles, it sent huge shockwaves around the outdoors community. So I ask Jason, "What do you think of the tourists?"
" One of the things I try to remember when I think of the tourists is that if it wasn't for them, I wouldn’t work here. Even I found it confusing that I didn’t know where things were when I first got to the Valley. And I understand that people are always gawking when they come to the Valley. Everybody removes there brain because they are dumfounded by the beauty of the place. That may be bad, but it isn't so bad. It's because they love Yosemite."
Jason lives in a small housing unit near the Awhahnee, with a roommate. He pays seventeen dollars a week in rent. The drama of life in the valley seems to be the relationship between the valley workers and the rangers. He says, "If you’re not legally drunk, the rangers can arrest you. They'll get you if you even go out to run to the bathroom."
He continues, "A while back, a German couple was just over the (alcohol) limit, and she was under the limit, and they arrested him and put her in jail just for her own safety. We joke about how the Yosemite Valley is a police state. But on the other hand, if you mind your own business and don’t do stupid things, life is pretty easy here."
Once, Jason got a stomach flu. "I was sick and I managed to step outside and puke, so I leaned up against a tree,and one of the housing people caught me! It's like a small army, those people in charge of housing. They're always out there making sure you are not being an idiot."
I ask him about the social life. He says, "You know, I have a couple really cool friends, a lot of girlfriends, you have all types up here. You have girls that come out to party and drink, you have your climber people who come out to live a creative life. Believe it or not there are people who live in the valley that don’t even get out and hike, and then there are people who have this playground and they don’t even go out and walk on a flat trail."
"What does your family think about your lifestyle?"
He says, "
It's hard to say, they are extremely happy for me. I don’t think they understand what it is that I do. I know that my parents know that is a passion for me, but I couldn’t imagine my life without climbing. It’s a way of life. I don’t watch my weight because I never have to worry about getting fat. Climbing is a great sport, it gives me self confidence. With a positive attitude you can do anything. The mental ability to be up there and at least try. Sometimes I say I can't do it... I can't do it...and I’m in a huge hand jam, and then your like I did it, I did it!"
He talks about the people he knows back in Oklahoma, where he grew up. "A lot of them are not very physically fit. There is a lot of emphymesia. Some of it is time, but I know a lot of it is our idiot box with a hundred channels."
He continues, "I called the cable company and I asked to have the movie channels turned off. The cable lady said “are you sure you want to do this?' And then she paused and asked, 'WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?' I said, 'Lots of things, read a book, go for a run, and then I gave her a list of the things I was going to do! I don't think she understood."