Once upon a time, hardcore climbers scaled sheer granite wearing chunky knits and corduroys, with only a cheese & pickle sandwich for company. These days it’s all carbon fibre, freeze dried protein shakes and Strava – a far cry from the romantic, grainy scenes recorded by Glen Denny during the early 1960s, for his seminal photography book, ‘Yosemite’.

A rare photo with Glen Denny in front of the camera. This time atop the Dihedral Wall on El Capitan after its first ascent
A rare photo with Glen Denny in front of the camera.

It was 2007 when I first flicked through those glorious pages. As someone familiar with the accoutrements of an ‘outdoorsy’ life thanks to having a dad who rambled across country without a compass and cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats just for kicks, these candid images of kitted-out blokes drinking tea from tin mugs felt strangely familiar. The ventile anoraks. Scuffed walking boots. 5-day-old-stubble. It could have been Raymond Cloudsdale returning from another weekend on the Pennines. But no – this was different. The Glen Denny campfires were against the backdrop of something far more mystical and undeniably monumental. His climbers were snapped beneath the peaks and awe-inspiring slabs of Yosemite, California’s most treasured National Park.

Glen Denny Yosemite in the Sixties - Adsum
Cover of Yosemite in the Sixties by Glen Denny.

As a climber myself, his candid images of topless bearded blokes counting carabiners before attempting the Half Dome ticked all the boxes. So much so, that I flew there from London a year later and found myself sobbing at the first glimpse of El Capitan. I normally cry on the last day of a holiday, not the first, but I’d never felt so genuinely moved by geology in my whole life. As I stood (alone) in a daisy-filled meadow beneath it, I felt like an ant – suddenly miniscule, ridiculous and very far from home. Dumbfounded by the world’s biggest wall, the sight of that sheer granite rockface top-trumped any Kubrick monolith. Its ancient, knowing power resonated through my bones, urging me to push myself harder than ever before and reap the rewards.

Camp 4
Camp 4, Group Dinner

From a clothing perspective, Denny documented a forgotten, simpler time when beanie hats, rolled-up chinos and muted coloured canvas tents weren’t lifestyle choices. Back then, this stuff was worn with a sense of true purpose, practicality and authenticity – and of course, because that’s all that was available for dudes like them. Technical gear was still in its infancy, but they didn’t let that deter them from reaching the summit.

Bear Suit hit by car - Adsum
LEFT: Mike Convington for whom Joni Mitchell wrote "Michael from Mountains", 1969. RIGHT: Layton Kor was famous for his intense energy, 1965.

I spent a few weeks there in a micro-sized rented hut with a lockable metal trunk outside to store food and toiletries in. I assumed the rangers were taking the piss when they told us we’d hear bears sniffing around at night – and judging by the state of the hired Audi’s sunroof on day 9, they weren’t joking. Under normal circumstances, drama like that would’ve spoiled the odyssey, but not in Yosemite.

glen denny
North face of Sentinel Rock, from the KD route. 1963.

These days you can get fresh pizza and free Wi-Fi, which shouldn’t stop you from making the worthwhile pilgrimage (if you haven’t already). And for inner city-types who don’t fancy getting ravaged by mosquitos or gripping on for dear life on the slippery crag-edge of a majestic waterfall, just treat yourself to a copy of the book instead. Inside, outside, whatever floats your boat – it’s nature, remember. It never gets boring. Buy it. You won’t regret it.

Words: Leanne Cloudsdale is a writer, lecturer and creative consultant.