Ken Yager. Photo Credit: Steve Baumgardner
An Interview with Ken Yager
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Ken. We greatly appreciate your time and it is a great honor for us.
Editor: You are greatly respected and honored in the climbing community and have inspired many climbers. How old were you when you developed an interest in climbing?
Ken Yager: 1 was 12. My grandmother took me to Aix en Provence, France and put me in a French public school during sixth grade. We would take trips on the weekends and during a visit to Calais we took a boat ride to La Calanques. I remember seeing climbers all over the rocks. I thought this is cool, I want to do this. When I got back home in the summer of 1971, a physics professor took my father climbing and I begged to be taken along. I loved it immediately and started to climb with a group of professors from UC Davis. I read every book and climbing magazine I could find while waiting for the next weekend climbing trip.
1971 was a time of transition for me. A year or two later I started hanging out at Alpine Products, the local mountain shop. I met Gene Drake who was working there and I continuously asked him questions about climbing. Gene had written the Climber's Guide to Lovers Leap. He was very patient with me and started taking me to the Leap and I was able to climb harder routes than I had ever done before. I also learned a lot from other climbers, and I was lucky I ran into the right people. I became so obsessed with climbing that I cut school every Monday and Friday for two years before I got caught. When I couldn't climb rock I would climb buildings which was considered strange back then. I was chased by the police many times and was caught three times. They had a look of disbelief when I tried to explain what I was doing.
Editor: What was your first experience of Yosemite like?
Ken Yager: Amazing! My first trip to Yosemite was in 1972. We camped in Upper Pines Campground and did some climbing on the Glacier Point Apron. I was enthralled. This had to be the most beautiful place in the world.On our way home I asked my parents to stop the car in El Cap Meadow and wait for me. I ran up to the base of El Cap and touched the rock while looking up. Right then and there at 13 years old I decided I wanted to move to Yosemite and climb El Capitan.
Editor: What is that special quality about that draws so many here, either to climb or see Yosemite as tourists? Is there something spiritual about Yosemite?
Ken Yager: Yes, it has a hold on you, especially El Capitan for me. Yosemite has many different moods and personalities. Each season has its own distinct characteristics. It is spiritual and as the light changes, the natural beauty of Yosemite is drawn out. There are many different formations here and each is highlighted during different times of the day. It can take a lifetime to really explore all the natural wonders of Yosemite.
It is a big Park. We get about 4 million tourists a year and you can see the awe in their eyes as they look around in wonder. My favorite season is the Fall when the sun sets straight down the Valley. There is a crispness in the air and the lighting brings out the Fall colors in brief moments as certain things are highlighted in the shadows.
Editor: Which areas in Yosemite were you most drawn to when climbing and why?
Ken Yager: I’d have to say El Cap; I moved to Yosemite in December of 1976 at 17 years old. My father dropped me off in Camp 4 with all my gear and I moved in. Within 3 weeks I tried to climb the Nose of El Capitan. After two and a half days on the wall we realized we were in over our heads and retreated, barely making it down safely.
I started doing Grade V (overnight) climbs to prepare for another attempt on El Cap. I did the South Face of the Column, the Prow and Leaning Tower. After those climbs I did the Triple Direct Route on El Cap during the Summer of 1977. I went on to do 3 more El Cap routes that year including early ascents of Tangerine Trip and the Zodiac. I love all kinds of rock climbing, bouldering, short climbs, and long climbs. I worked at Mammoth for 6 winters and was fortunate to discover many different rock climbing areas with my friends. During that time I developed a real liking for FA's. During that time I had a cat named Pouncer that lived in my truck with me in the Summers. She would go on backpacking and climbing trips, she pretty much followed me everywhere.
I moved back to Yosemite permanently in 1985 and started doing FA's in the Valley and in the Tuolumne area. I find them the most rewarding because there are no ratings involved and I tend to climb at a higher level. I have done over 300 FA's. None are particularly difficult or popular but I enjoyed climbing them. During the search for new climbs I explored many different areas and have found some very cool places. It is amazing that despite 4 million visitors a year you can do a short hike and have a place to yourself.
Editor: Who are your climbing icons that either taught you or inspired you in your career?
Ken Yager: There are so many. Richard Leonard, Jules Eichorn, David Brower, Allen Steck, John Salathe, Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, Charlie Porter, Jim Bridwell and many others. On my 16th birthday, I got my driver’s license and went climbing at Lover's Leap the next day. While I was leaving I picked up a hitchhiker and it was a scary looking guy.
I was regretting it and wishing I had listened to my parents about the dangers of picking up hitchhikers. He introduced himself and it was Warren Harding. My attitude changed immediately. I gave him a ride to his Mom's house in Sacramento and had dinner with them. We became friends and did some climbing together.
Editor: Who are your climbing contemporaries that you enjoyed climbing with?
Ken Yager: There are a lot of them and all of them I learned from. I’d say Gene Drake during my early years as he taught me to climb safely and calmly. Climbing with Warren Harding was always interesting. Others would include John Bachar, Walt Shipley, Dave Schultz, Rick Cashner, Errett Allen, Grant Hiskes, Scott Stowe, Cade Lloyd, Mike Corbett, Steve Bosque…
Editor: Where in the world (and locally) would you like to climb?
Ken Yager: Here, I’d have to say Yosemite, Tahoe, East Side of the Sierras as they are vast and close to home. I have been raising kids for the last 25 years and have had neither time or the finances to travel much. In the states I would like to climb in the Red River Gorge, the Gunks and the Southwest. Abroad, I’d like to visit Thailand, Sardinia, Corsica, Cuba and Vietnam.
Thanks for chatting with us and we hope to do a follow up interview with you in the future, Ken.
Interview conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Editor of the Facebook Page: 'An Interview With'.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
All images © of the photographer, used with Ken's permission.
On the Cover: Ken Yager
Cover Date: November 11th, 2014