For decades, El Capitan has been the most iconic rock climbing wall in the United States, if not the world. From the first ascent by Warren Harding and others in 1958 to the Dawn Wall climb by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in January, 3,000-foot El Capitan has been the vertical domain of climbing pioneers.
Everyone else mostly watches from below.
Starting Wednesday, Google Maps, increasingly taking its Street View technology off-road, is offering a different vantage point. In the same way that Street View allows web users to lurch down a city block one click at a time, pausing to look in all directions, viewers can now pull themselves up El Capitan.
Along the route, and at more than 20 other spots across the broad face of El Capitan, armchair climbers can look around in all directions — down to the floor of Yosemite Valley, up the blank face to the top of the cliff, at the broad view of Yosemite National Park’s other granite monoliths and up close at the pebbled grain and cracks of El Capitan itself.
Rather than attaching the panoramic camera to a car and taking 360-degree photographs every few feet, and then stitching the photos together as seamlessly as possible, as Street View has done to help map and photograph much of the developed world, the equipment was carried up El Capitan by climbers.
The Street View program manager Deanna Yick and the project manager Sandy Russell solicited the help of three of the world’s best: Caldwell, Lynn Hill and Alex Honnold.
In 1993, Hill became the first to free climb the Nose route, using ropes only to break falls, not to pull herself up the face. Honnold is famous for his free solo (no rope) climbs around the world, and his speed ascents up many of El Capitan’s roughly 100 climbing routes.
It was Russell’s idea to apply Street View to El Capitan, which is a three- or four-hour drive from Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. As it continues to use Street View to photograph and map many millions of miles of the Earth’s roads, the company is increasingly using the equipment away from populated areas. It has, for example, attached cameras to two rafts floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
“This is the first time taking our technology onto a vertical wall,” Yick said.
The El Capitan project had two components. In the 23 panoramas at various spots on El Capitan, the camera was attached to the wall with a tripod. When scrolling and spinning through the 360-degree photographs online, Caldwell, Hill and Honnold can be seen at various points on the wall.
The second component is a climb up the Nose route, where the sheer face of El Capitan folds slightly, creating a prow that has become one of climbing’s best-known ascents.
For that, Honnold carried the camera equipment on his back — a modified rig weighing less than 10 pounds that featured six small cameras, pointed in different directions, hovering just over his head. The cameras, on timers, fired every few feet.
Stitched together, the still photographs provide panoramic views at each stopping point, plus the ability to crawl up and down the rock face — virtually speaking, at least. It is probably as close as most people will get.