Documenting the Most Sublime Climbs in California

For their new book, a pair of adventurers explored the country’s best bluffs and boulders, chronicling a full year on the circuit

Photography by FRANCOIS LEBEAU


As the in-house pianist at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, Jesse Lynch had a lot of free time on his hands. Beckoned by the valley’s mystical granite slabs one day in 2006, Lynch — along with his roommate, big wall expert Erik Sloane — slowly hoisted his way up a 5.8 crack at Swan Slab. He was instantly hooked.


“[Climbing] is a platform through which we transcend barriers of insecurity, fear and doubt. It is a discrete world of tantalizing puzzles, a slow and persistent reliance on creative execution,” Lynch writes. “It is addicting and it is goddamned fun.”

Twelve years later, Lynch, now a professional musician based in Brooklyn when he’s off the wall, is a seasoned climber and a member of a close-knit tribe of individuals who make annual pilgrimages to peaks across the world, who live off granola and out of vans and tents, and gather around campfires to share stories of their shared passion. After meeting photographer François Lebeau at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, the pair decided to chronicle a full year on the circuit.


“The proportions of Yosemite Valley shock the nervous system and stagger the mind”


In Climbing Rock: Vertical Explorations Across North America (Rizzoli New York, $50), there are badass action shots of distinguished climbers scaling some world-class rocks, but there are also images of the quiet moments, the cracked and callused hands and the awe-inspiring vistas from a portaledge. “Its pages comprise grime, sweat, stench, blood, fear, exhilaration and camaraderie … presenting not only the stark nature of the walls, but also uniquely capturing the humanity of the people who journey upward,” Lynch writes. It also comes at a time when worldwide interest in climbing has reached a fever pitch, thanks in part to Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo, which features Alex Honnold’s unfathomable free climb of El Cap in less than four hours, and the fact that rock climbing is set to make its Olympic debut (a move rejected by many purists) in the 2020 Tokyo Games.


The book’s start is set in spring with glorious ascents in the American West, where Lynch’s climbing journey first began. As Lynch writes, “The proportions of [Yosemite] Valley shock the nervous system and stagger the mind. … Pulling wild free moves a few thousand feet off the deck, it’s hard to believe these walls weren’t designed for climbing.”

Summer winds through the peaks of the High Sierras and the varied slabs of Lake Tahoe, with its rewarding views of the water and forests, then crosses the border to British Columbia. Fall is open season for most areas in the climbing world, and one of the few opportunities for the “monkeys to roam eastward” and scale New England slabs before the winter cold sets in. Some will then take up ice climbing or focus on indoor training, while others take time off to make money. But in California, the season continues in Joshua Tree National Park — “one of the premier old-school trad [climbing] destinations in the country” — then on to Bishop in Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra for lower-elevation bouldering. At the end of a long day of problem-solving here, there is reprieve: “Evenings often involve soaking in one of the many nearby natural hot springs, massaging taxed forearms in sulfuric waters while marveling at the snowcapped panorama of the High Sierra,” Lynch writes.


But perhaps nothing epitomizes the best of the west quite like the picturesque boulders and sport crags on the San Francisco coast, at beaches like Mickey’s and Stinson. Here, climbers alternate between chilly dips in the Pacific Ocean and taxing terrain. Lynch offers a cautionary heads-up: “As word to the uninitiated, sections of these beaches are designated ‘clothing optional,’ and au naturel ascents are not out of the question.”


Feature image: TENAYA LAKE, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK | The sloping ridgeline of Northwest Buttress above the sandy beaches of this alpine lake features 1,400 feet of 5.5 trad climbing on perfect white granite. Here, GABE MATSON turns on “night mode” while ascending one of the higher pitches.


This story originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 Men’s Edition of C Magazine.

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