America’s rock climbing culture began at Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park. The 57-site camp under a granite cliff in Yosemite Valley has spawned several first El Capitan ascents and innovations in equipment and technique. Climbers have made it their home. Camp 4 was my first visit in early May. One evening, while waiting for the shower, I chatted with longtime climber Zach Dreher. Over the past two or three years, Dreher has spent “three to four months collectively, maybe six” at camp. Dreher stays free at Camp 4 as part of “dirtbagging,” a tradition in which a person lives as frugally as possible to spend as much time as possible enjoying a sport, in this case rock climbing. Chongo Chuck, Yosemite’s most famous climber, was caught and kicked out by rangers in 2005. How long would Dreher stay this time around? Dreher said it all depends on the weather and money. “If the weather is good and I can stay all season I would do about two months as I have been here for about a month and plan to stay another month unless there is flooding again. .”
The Dirtbags violate Yosemite’s camping laws (30 nights per calendar year, 14 nights between May 1 and September 15, and only seven nights in Yosemite Valley). Reasons not to pay: Recreation.gov is being sued for allegedly exploiting the national park system, and it’s hard to do it right. Dreher said a “decent number of climbers” avoid the expense. “It’s pretty easy to do if you know how to do it,” he added, although he requested anonymity to explain his methods. Camp 4 is still relaxed. For nearly 70 years, pioneer climbers have met here in Yosemite Valley, just steps from the trailhead. From 1947 to 1970, the campground was used for training, planning climbs and testing equipment. The camp’s close-knit community has influenced climbing history so much that the National Register of Historic Places certified it in 2003. “To this day, it’s the place in Yosemite Valley where climbers from world converge to plan climbs, meet others, and begin their climbs on the granite walls of Yosemite Valley,” said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.
The campground is known as “the neglected one,” according to Yosemite Climbing Association president and founder Ken Yager, a former dustbag. Yager recalls that early bathrooms were often filthy, had broken mirrors, and flooded. Yager said park rangers and unpaid climbers often fight. As Mickayla Fobbs was packing her bags the next morning, I asked her about her experience. She said she had enjoyed climbing the day before near camp and elsewhere in the area. She loved how peaceful the camp was and “it seems like everyone is in the same frame of mind.” She also liked that the hustle and bustle of the night before forced her to approach strangers, which would normally be uncomfortable. She said the complex process led her to meet people.