Chris came out to Yosemite every chance he got, spending the summer before his junior year living in the Valley. Word rippled through the climbing world: A kid is climbing El Cap every week. Back then they called him Mac the Kid, a nickname that has faded not because of his age but because of what he's achieved. "He's still a lot younger than the other big players, but with all he's done, he's not seen as a kid," says climber Galen Rowell, 61. "His climbs have been his union card into an elite group."
Last year Rowell and Conrad Anker—who in 1999 discovered George Mallory's body on Everest—followed McNamara in a climb up the West Buttress. "Near the peak Chris's rope had a loop in it and he fell 15 feet," Rowell says. "He wasn't fazed at all."
The event that did shake McNamara occurred in the fall of 1997. He had just entered Princeton, the school from which his father graduated (and which Morgan now attends). Chris lasted 16 days. "All I thought about the whole time was how I could get back to El Cap," says McNamara. "Then I decided to go. I had a real passion. How many people find their true passion in life?"
He got into his car and drove, stopping only once to rest before he pulled up to his parents' home in Mill Valley, Calif., and shouted, "I'm free!" Says Chris, "I should have been less exuberant. My dad wasn't too psyched that I'd dropped out of Princeton."
Steve, who owns the alternative news-weekly Pacific Sun, feared his son would "spend his life scrambling up rocks" like the climbing bums who prowl the paths at Yosemite. Chris does spend much of his life scrambling up rocks, but he also returned to school—he's working on a degree in geography at Berkeley. He has also helped transform the climbing community.
A few years ago, unhappy with the topographical route maps available for Yosemite, McNamara began drawing his own. He published them in a book, Yosemite Big Walls, that maps out 31 routes on El Capitan. McNamara recounts ascent history and offers clearly rendered strategies for each climb. "You can tell it comes from the heart," says Florine. "If I'm doing a route on El Cap that I haven't done, I turn to Chris's book."
Chris made an even greater impact after he became unhappy with the old, rusting bolts on many El Capitan routes. In 1997, at age 18, he founded the nonprofit American Safe Climbing Association. Beginning with an overhaul of hundreds of bolts on El Cap, the ASCA has replaced 2,300 bolts at various climbing sites across the U.S. McNamara's wherewithal has been greeted with gratitude, and no small amount of awe, by climbers of every age.
McNamara, in fact, has become something of an elder to his older peers. He continues to update the route maps on his website, www.SuperTopo.com. Last week in the Valley a climber named Coiler approached him in a parking lot outside Camp 4, known as Grovelers' Row. "Dude," Coiler said, "I put up three new pitches on the Grape Race. It was proud."
Together, Coiler and Chris drew the new pitches on a map. A Spanish climber named Pep swung by to ask Chris's advice on an ascent of the Mescalito route, and another climber who'd just come down from 10 days on the wall talked about the relief he'd felt at seeing new bolts gleaming in the sun. "I was like, Cool, Chris has been here," he said.
Last spring McNamara met Sarah Felchlin on a boulder in Marin County. Five months later they climbed The Nose and spent the night halfway up on El Cap tower. ("That was her first time," says McNamara approvingly, "and she was just the right amount of scared.") They live together in Bishop, Calif., a small climbing mecca on the Eastern Sierra about 2� hours from Yosemite. McNamara has been bouldering and refining his free-climbing skills, and one day last week he leaned against the base of El Cap, pondering what he'd do next. "I don't have a plan," he said. "I suppose I'd love to get really good at free climbing and do routes here. Free-climbing the Salath�? What could be better than that?"