Over two nights at the end of March, James Lucas scrubbed the chalk lightning bolt that has for 35 years marked the world-famous Yosemite boulder problem Midnight Lightning (before and after, above). The V8 problem in Camp 4 was first climbed by Ron Kauk in 1978, after he and John Bachar had worked on the moves for weeks, and Bachar had drawn the bolt in chalk.
Bachar wrote in 2007 that he and Kauk “thought there was about as much chance of doing it as there was the chance that a lightning bolt could strike at midnight (like in the Hendrix song ‘Midnight Lightning’).” Kauk worked on it for two months before he got the first ascent, and Bachar got the second. In 1978, it was the world’s hardest boulder problem, and over the years, it became one of the world’s most famous problems, a testpiece for visiting climbers. Some re-traced the bolt in chalk after sending the problem.
The reaction to Lucas’s removal of the lightning bolt has become something of a phenomenon since he wrote about it on his blog, Life of a Walking Monkey, on April 26, and started a thread on SuperTopo.com’s forum titled “Yosemite Bolt Wars” to publicize the blog.
Comments on Lucas’s blog have ranged from profane disapproval and threats of violence to modest applause for his actions and accusations that he did it as some sort of a publicity stunt. The public reaction is not surprising — the term “bolt wars” was first coined describing the passionate (and sometimes violent) disputes during the 1980s and 1990s about protection bolts on routes and the style in which they were placed. In 1988, Mark Chapman was famously arrested for punching John Bachar after Bachar had chopped bolts Chapman and Ron Kauk had placed on rappel on a route he had planned to develop ground-up. In January 2012, after Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s removed 100-some bolts from Cerro Torre’s controversial Compressor Route, they were met by a “lynch mob” in El Chalten.
Lucas is a longtime Valley climber and has put up hard first ascents and first free ascents in Yosemite, and he has written for Alpinist, Climbing and Rock & Ice in addition to his blog. He’s also known for surviving a 100-foot ground fall while free soloing North Overhang on Joshua Tree’s Intersection Rock in 2004, spending 81 days in the hospital recovering, and going back to climb, and later free solo, the same route.
Lucas’s blog didn’t explicitly say why he decided to spend several hours over two nights scrubbing away the drawing, but he later said, “Beyond the excessive chalk from people redrawing the bolt and the dirty white streaks from winter hail storms, I erased the bolt wondering if climbing needed these trademarks, if climbers could see past the lightning bolt, see the rest of the boulder, the people who established the problem and the history of it all. I knew the bolt would come back. I was surprised by the negative comments of the climbing community.”
In a response to comments on SuperTopo, Lucas wrote:
“People focused more on this bit of chalk than the climb or the people who embodied the spirit of it. For the week and a half the bolt was gone, I saw the line that Ron and John fought for, the cool start that Jerry established, and the crimpy face that Ron did.”
The French and the Swiss often paint the names of climbing routes directly on the rock, something that’s frowned upon in American climbing areas. Tick marks — smears of chalk marking holds or spots for hand jams — are frowned upon in many areas. The lightning bolt is likely one of the longest-standing pieces of non-permanent rock art in any national park — not just a chalk mark from a climber, but not quite a petroglyph. Park staff had never removed it, giving it sort of a historical pass. It has washed off a few times in the past due to floods and other weather events, and other people have washed it off (without publicizing it), but has always been re-drawn.
John Bachar died in 2009 after a fall while free soloing near his home in Mammoth Lakes, California, and Ron Kauk continues to live and climb in Yosemite. Reached by Rock & Ice for a comment, Kauk said Lucas’s removing of the drawing was “curious” and that when he spoke with Lucas about it, “He didn’t make a lot of sense.”
A few days after Lucas removed the lightning bolt, another climber re-drew it in the same spot on the Columbia Boulder.