By Kai Lightner
Photos by Connie and Kai Lightner and Flatlander Films
Ever since I began climbing, I’ve always been told that Yosemite National Park was a “must visit” destination. Although I had heard these words numerous times, I’d always associated Yosemite with big wall climbing, something I was always frightened to try until recently. A few months ago, I traveled to Stone Mountain National Park in North Carolina and did my first traditional, multi-pitch climb. A complete write up of that adventure will be featured in the upcoming edition of Alpinist Magazine. Although I've traveled and climbed at many National Parks around the US, my first multi-pitch experience opened my eyes to a world of possibilities and adventures.
A few weeks ago, I was home one Tuesday evening - counting the days until I could return to climbing after 2+ months of down time from an injury - when I received an unexpected phone call from Diane at adidas Outdoor. She wanted to know if I could travel to Yosemite the upcoming weekend to attend President Obama’s press conference, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of our National Park Service. I had been extended an invitation from The White House to attend the event where the President would be speaking about preserving our national parks and increasing accessibility for outdoor recreation. I stumbled over my words, excited to attend the event a few days later.
Many thoughts and memories raced through my mind waiting for my trip to the valley. Outdoor preservation, increasing diversity in outdoor activities, and the fact that the invitation was from the Obama administration, were all very personal to me. A vivid childhood memory involving the President came to mind....
In 2008, my mom and I attended two presidential campaign rallies and I shook hands with Presidential Candidate Barack Obama. A few months later, my mom allowed me to stay up late on election night to learn about the electoral college system. Then only eight years old, I didn’t understand anything that was going on, except that everyone else was excited. I sat on the couch with her, with a notebook and pen, tallying up the number of points for the candidates based upon who won the election in each state. I understood that each state was worth a certain number of points, and whoever first got to 270 points would be the next president. It was close to midnight when I wrote down my last number and told my mom, “Mr. Obama just won the game.” It was 15-20 minutes before the news channel made the announcement. My mom looked down at my notebook, verified that my tally was correct, then started crying. I was totally confused. I thought the news would make her happy. When I asked her about it she replied, “I am happy. I’m crying because I no longer have to feel like I am lying to you when I tell you that you that as an African American man, with hard work and discipline, you can do anything that you want..” That moment sparked hundreds of questions, led me to reading a lot of books, and has served as a source of inspiration ever since.
It was momentous to pack for travel to Yosemite, to see President Obama (eight years later), and hear him discuss issues that are important to me.
When I first arrived to the main gate at Yosemite, it was a 45-minute drive through the park to get to the valley's most notable climbing areas. Towards the end of the trek, you pass through an underground tunnel, and when you emerge you are surrounded by trees and massive mountains of granite. I had never seen so much rock in my life - it was almost overwhelming. I quickly became overcome with excitement.
I was in Yosemite, our nation’s first national park, surrounded by majestic skyscraping mountains, eagerly waiting to attend President Obama’s press conference the next day.
The next morning we had to leave the cabin by 7am in order to get to the parking lot on time, where attendees were scheduled to meet. The atmosphere was electric. Everyone was friendly, excited and eager to hear the President. After waiting to be screened, we all boarded buses and were shuttled to the event site. The location was in front of picturesque Yosemite Falls and Lost Arrow Spire, with 100+ guests in attendance. Luckily I arrived early enough to get a second row seat, right in front of the President’s podium.
An hour later, once everyone was in place, President Obama’s motorcade arrived. He exited his vehicle, with a bright smile and waving to a captive audience.
The President talked about his first trip visiting a national park at age 11 and the impact that the experience had on his life. His outdoor adventures as a youth led him to do as much as he could to preserve and protect our outdoor reserves. He was proud to say that his administration has protected 265 million acres of land and water - more than any previous administration. President Obama further discussed his desire to make outdoor experiences more accessible for children that are not accustom to outdoor recreation or who can’t afford it. Once the President’s speech ended, he greeted the small crowd, shook our hands, and was whisked away to spend the day hiking and climbing with his family.
As a climber, having President Obama endorse and commit to outdoor preservation is a huge step in ensuring that activities like mine can be shared and enjoyed for future generations. The issue of accessibility is crucial to many of my friends back at home. Unfortunately, few kids from inner city areas - who often live far away from national parks - participate in outdoor recreation. Programs targeted at increasing youth engagement outside could potentially change this trend. Having one of my most influential role models spearhead this initiative was icing on the cake. Although this was the second time I had shook the President’s hand, unlike when I was eight, this time I was completely engaged and understood the gravity of the events.
Even after the President left, I was still in awe. Instead of catching the bus back to the parking lot, James Lucas and my adidas teammate, Nina Williams, gave me a hiking tour of Yosemite so that I could continue enjoying the beauty and historic significance of the valley. They showed me the epic Dawn Wall, on El Capitan, and several other iconic routes. We eventually walked back to Camp 4 to view some iconic boulder problems. I didn’t realize that Yosemite had bouldering areas, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be climbing, I played around on a V4 slab problem and quickly realized that I would have to come back and project that climb at a later time.
Shortly after, legendary climber Doug Robinson met me at Camp 4 and gave me a history lesson about how the site was the only campsite in the nation to be designated as a historical landmark. He also explained the selfless contributions of Tom Frost who helped to preserve the campsite.
As I prepared to leave Yosemite, I reflected back on a memorable weekend. I realized that while training hard for competitions and conquering difficult climbs outside, it’s easy to get caught up in the results as opposed to enjoying the personal journey. When I was actively training, I became so used to my climbing routine that I often overlooked how lucky I was to be a part of such an amazing sport and awesome community. The past three months have been the longest period I’ve been away from climbing since I began at 6 years old. Having this time away from the sport, although painful mentally and physically, has reminded me that climbing is more than a sport for me. It’s a community, a lifestyle, and a passion that excites me like nothing else. My trip to Yosemite reminded me of everything that I love about climbing. After my return to climbing, my first goal is to plan a return trip to Yosemite, once I am up to par, and tackle some of the iconic lines. I am excited to dust off my climbing shoes and begin the next leg of my journey!