A big silver tour bus pulls into a parking lot in Yosemite Valley and idles next to a green and purple tour bus that sits beside a bright fuchsia tour bus. Ten feet away, a fourth bus--this one red, white and blue with the word "Rejoice!" splashed across its side--disgorges a few dozen Japanese tourists carrying tiny, prepackaged bento boxes. The lot is crawling with people. Not a promising start to a great outdoors adventure.
It's a crystal-clear Saturday afternoon in late September, and I'm here for a weeklong foray into rock-climbing culture. At least 650,000 people in this country participate in the sport; many of them are "trad," or "traditional" climbers, who prefer the house-size boulders or big walls of nature to the pre-bolted surfaces found in climbing gyms. This is climbing for purists, and its birthplace is Yosemite National Park, which remains a mecca for the thousands who flock here every year.
Autumn is hard-core season, when Yosemite plays host to the climbing world's international elite. They arrive each September, driving beat-up vans and SUVs, and stay for a month or two before moving on to the warmer climes of Joshua Tree or Thailand, or to the ice zones of Pakistan or Canada's Baffin Island. Most of them come to Yosemite to climb El Capitan, the 3,000-foot monolith that looms over the valley, as well as to "put in their time," a prerequisite for achieving respect within the climbing community and attracting the attention of potential sponsors.
All of which means there's not a campsite to be found. Fortunately, an encounter with Bullwinkle--a.k.a. Dean Fidelman, a wizened 45-year-old climber--brings a solution and salvation. He stares at my fancy dome tent, then at me. And laughs. "You won't need the tent," he says. "There are plenty of places to bivvy."
"Camp. If you're going to hang with us, you're going to have to learn the language."
"Bivvy," I'm told, comes from the word "bivouac," which means a "temporary campsite." It's a synonym for "booty camping," "booty" being anything found that wasn't yours to begin with--a camera, climbing gear, a sweater or two. Bivvying is all about throwing your sleeping bag in a meadow, on a slab of rock, a cave, your car, anywhere that isn't an actual campsite.
Bullwinkle has been bivvying in the valley for 27 years, along with a few dozen other climbers--some top pros; others quasi-homeless rock rats. They make up a subset of the rarefied climbing elite known as "soul climbers." Their credo: Yosemite, heart and soul of the climbing world, should be free. In every way. To this end, they climb and hang out. And they don't function the way most of us do, preferring instead to live off the land, which they call groveling. They shun the noise and the dust of the low-rent campground at the far western edge of the valley known as Camp 4 (not to mention its nightly $3 fee). Instead they bivvy in the woods, "living" (i.e. parking their cars) across the road from Camp 4 in the Yosemite Lodge parking lot. Grovelers scrounge condiments from the deli and coffee from the cafeteria, forage for food by swooping in on abandoned lunch and dinner trays, and scam the occasional free shower by befriending National Park Service employees. To be one of the miscellaneous Gods of Rock is to live untethered from most of the worldly comforts that postmillennial society has to offer. To be one of the Gods of Rock is to live on a budget of about $4 a day.
#1: Understanding geography is the key to navigation.
#2: Geography is also the key to avoiding the park rangers (rangers like flat; they don't like rocky).
#3: Always bivvy in places that require a nasty hike (see Rule #2).
It's Saturday night and Bullwinkle, my spirit guide, has been AWOL for six hours. Behind Camp 4, where I've gone to look for him, I meet a scruffy-looking guy in a wool hat and several layers of clothing. He looks at me suspiciously as I introduce myself, then shrugs and goes back to rifling through a rusty bear box. Bullwinkle, he tells me, is probably at The Party. "It's kind of a rave," he says. "On El Cap." Which is a bit like saying, "There's a party on Mt. Olympus."
"On El Cap?"