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Rock climbers are a breed apart. Scaling the faces of sheer cliffs--sometimes thousands of feet high--enthusiasts are hooked on the beauty, the exhilaration and the challenge.


YOSEMITE VALLEY — Three rock rats fresh from a cold campground commune with their coffee in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria, drawing warmth as lizards do from the morning sun.

They peer at a map and point to the Nose, the Zodiac and the Shield--paths up the face of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot-high granite wall that is a marker for climbers worldwide--debating the alternatives the way Angelenos choose among exits on the San Diego Freeway.

Elsewhere in Yosemite Valley on this spring morning, climbers hang from rock walls. Some cling to the sheer face of noble El Cap, having just passed the chilly night during an ascent that typically takes three to seven days.

A very few make it "over the top" of this legendary rock in a day or less. Canadian climber Peter Croft, 38, and his partner, American Hans Florine, 32, hold the record, climbing it in just under 4 1/2 hours in 1992. Others have died on the wall when equipment failure or the Sierra's fickle weather caught them unprepared.

"You see the rock and you go. It is there, and you do it," is the way Werner Braun describes his three-decade-long passion. Braun, 48, has lived year-round in this valley since 1979, where he works for the search and rescue team.

"People get attracted to climbing for an infinite number of reasons," explains the wiry man, who earned the label "Astroman" with his rapid-fire assaults up 1,900-foot Washington Column. "Climbing is kind of a crazy sport."

Day climber or big-wall enthusiast, participants say they take to it to test themselves and meet people. They talk about the exhilaration, the escape, the beauty of being close to the rock, the incredible views, the poetry of motion tasked to solving a physical and mental problem.

Golf, too, takes all day, but climbing requires a different kind of devotion. Men dominate the sport. Women, though, are among its top performers and are more and more common among recreational climbers.

Climbing is in a boom now with explosive growth in the last five years. Mark Bowling, who runs the climbing school in Joshua Tree National Park, largely credits the rock gym craze of recent years.

Regardless, the sport still has a secret-handshake quality. It is not something you pick up at the schoolyard, follow on TV or learn on a sunny Sunday at the park with Dad. And while more people are drawn to it, there are only a few who put climbing first. Everything else--love, work, even shelter--runs a sad second. You can find them, and others less driven, at climbing spots around the country but the mecca remains Yosemite.


The sun is just beginning to light the southeast face of El Capitan. The Salathe Wall, the one around the corner, is still in cold shadow. Tiny traces of mist rise from the rock in a few places. A peregrine falcon cries way over head.

Up before dawn, Mike Davis, 35, of Lake Tahoe and climbing partner Todd Burks, 27, of Mammoth Lakes are trying to get eyeball to eyeball with the falcon. Already hundreds of feet up the southwest facing wall, the duo plans to top out in two days on a route called Triple Direct.

For Davis, a registered nurse, climbing is the primary love. More than a few relationships have foundered on these shoals.

"At first, you meet a woman and they think it is a great romantic thing to climb mountains and rocks," he said. "And then, when they find out it is something to compete with, it wears on the relationship quite a bit."

Davis caught the bug in Tahoe, lived in Yosemite for a few years and has completely dedicated his life to the sport. He went straight to climbing and skiing out of high school--putting off college until 30. "Going to college and becoming a nurse was a way to sustain climbing," he said, explaining that living out of a truck or tent had gotten old.

Climbing, he said, is "a gut check" and "a terror magnet" where the "rewards are the biggest there are." He has been to the top of El Capitan 12 times and said that it often isn't even fun.

"But when you pull yourself over the top of a wall, then making your car insurance payment seems so small," he said, seated earlier next to his car, which bulges with $5,000 worth of climbing gear. "It gets existence down to a few basic things. [During a big-wall climb,] the greatest thing in the world will be a glass of water."

Burks, who has worked as a Spanish and ceramics teacher and as a cook, has the climbing jones. "I plan my life and my work so I can support my climbing habit," he said. "That's why I teach in the winter and work in the resorts."

He has been up El Cap twice. Like many other big-wall climbers, his approach is single-minded. This dedication is "an extension of the work ethic" learned from his family while growing up in the Silicon Valley, he explained.

"But it is focused in a different manner," he said as he prepared burritos out of the back of Davis' car. "I just don't get the same charge or passion from work. I am getting better [at climbing] and my goals are getting greater."

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