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04-04-2019 / 11:00

Reclimbing the Classics: Midnight Lightning

39 years ago, a lightning flash triggered a mighty roll of thunder on the international climbing scene, the reverberations of which can still be felt today. In May 1978, Ron Kauk opened "Midnight Lightning" (7B+), the most famous boulder in the world, in the middle of Camp 4 in Yosemite.

Text: Steffen Kern
Photographs: Rainer Eder

At the top the most famous big wall, below the most famous climbing camp ground and, in its centre, the most famous boulder on the planet: El Capitan, Camp 4, Midnight Lightning. Without this triumvirate, the Yosemite Valley would not be the most famous climbing area in the world! However, it was by no means easy for a boulder to rise to legendary status here in the homeland of iconic bigwalls such as Nose and Salathé. If you pick up your crash pad instead of a haul bag in Camp 4, it is possible that you may hear a few mocking comments from some of the „big walls heroes". However, they will be instantly silenced when you place your mat at the foot of the huge and impressive Columbia boulder in the middle of Camp 4, where a lightning flash drawn in chalk has decorated the gray granite for almost 40 years. A cluster of onlookers will quickly form, and more Midnight Lightning hopefuls will place their crash pads alongside yours.

"Many fail right at the initial dyno to a poor undercling."

29-year-old David Sjöquist, a member of the Mammut Pro team America, climbed Midnight Lightning for the first time a few years ago. "It was my first trip to Yosemite and my friends were looking forward to showing me the classics in Camp 4. I had naturally heard a lot about Midnight Lightning and was feeling pretty excited at the prospect of finally being able to attempt this famous boulder. After setting up our pads, we managed to climb it one after the other. This is one of the climbing days I think back to most often." Since then, David has traveled regularly to Yosemite to boulder and has now climbed Midnight Lightning a dozen times.

However, many fail right at the initial dyno to a poor undercling. After that, it's left to a ledge, from where another move takes you to the double hold in the form of a jagged lightning flash. If the momentum is absorbed and the left hand coordinated along with the right, a move to the lip takes you to the small roof at a height of around five meters. The crux then awaits you. Anyone who doesn’t find the perfect body position on this extremely demanding and shaky mantle or hesitates will not manage to push themselves far enough over the slippery foothold to reach the saving jug on the slab. All that then remains is the hope that attentive spotters will ensure a reasonably soft landing on the crash pad.

There were no crash pads back in 1978, but there were plenty of climbing obsessed hippies, expressing their rebellion against society out on the rocks in Yosemite. Clouds of marijuana wafted above the tents in Camp 4. This was the golden era of free climbing in the Valley. "We came in the mid-70s and were inspired by Royal Robbins, by Yvon Chouinard and whoever, but there was some movement, there was something to do next. We were just riding the wave that was created in the 70s. It was one move on this wave to free Astroman, then you came down on another one to do the moves on what would become Midnight Lightning, and then you went on a FA on El Capitan," recalls Ron Kauk. He and John Bachar were the driving forces behind this movement.

John "Yabo" Yablonski was not one of the exceptional experts, he was known more for his drug consumption and for his hair-raising free solos at his personal limit. One day in February 1978, high on LSD, he told Bachar and Kauk about a new problem that he believed he had discovered. They went together to the Columbia boulder, where Yablonski pointed enthusiastically up to the alleged holds. Kauk and Bachar burst out laughing. "You're fuckin' nuts. You're so out of it."

"The crowd looked on in silent disbelief. They had just become witnesses to a first ascent that was to revolutionize bouldering in America."

Nevertheless, they attempted the first moves. To their surprise, Bachar and Kauk made rapid progress and soon came to the lip of the roof. But that was as far as they made it before making a flying descent to the hard granite slab, generally surrounded by onlookers, under the boulder. "That's when we really started committing to spotting," recalls Kauk with a smile. "I never came off the lip out of control. We were cranking up at the lip and jumped down, cranking up, jump down … Not recklessly abandoned."

More than two months after the first attempts, one day in May 1978, Kauk once again reached the lip of the roof. The assembled onlookers expected to see him jump once again. However, this time he pushed on up higher than ever before and reached the jug with his right hand. The crowd looked on in silent disbelief. They had just become witnesses to a first ascent that was to revolutionize bouldering in America. The lightning-shaped hold and the climbers' soundtrack provided the inspiration for the name: Midnight Lightning, after a song by Jimi Hendrix. Originally rated as just 5.12c – or 7b+ according to the French route scale – Midnight Lightning is now regarded as a difficult V8 (Fb 7B+).