During the historic Yosemite flood of 1997, when warm rains flushed snow from the Tuolumne High Country sending water cascading across the Valley floor, park employees Scott and Laurie Stowe took shelter in their 10 X 12-foot white canvas Search and Rescue cabin behind Camp 4. It had no running water or electricity, but it did have a small fireplace to keep them warm. Within a week the Valley was evacuated due to the high water.
Eight months later, and with Laurie expecting her first child, the couple moved out of the cabin and bought a home in Yosemite’s gateway community Groveland, where they would raise Whitney and her younger sister Lundy.
Her parents have a long history in the park: Before retiring in 2019 after 20 years, Laurie was the wilderness programs manager in the Yosemite Village Wilderness Center. And for a quarter-century, Scott guided rock climbing in the Park — often taking clients up El Cap — and he was also on the Search and Rescue team.
During the 90s while Whitney was growing up, Scott and his best friend Steve Gerberding often partnered with Dave Bengston to make the “The Dream Team,” where the trio broke El Cap speed ascents. Tom Evans of the El Cap Report calls Stowe and Gerberding “our greatest legends.”
Scott has done 40 El Cap routes via 80 ascents, including the first ascent of Reticent Wall (A5), in 1995, which he did with Laurie and climbing guide Steve Gerberding. The 21-pitch route is one of the Big Stone’s most difficult aid lines and is featured in the Masters of Stone film series. The demanding line caps with the route’s 175-foot crux, “The Natural,” which comprises of difficult, thin nailing and delicate hook moves with massive fall potential. “It’s the most technically difficult thing I’ve ever done,” said professional climber Mark Synnott after he did an early ascent.
For two decades Whitney’s parents commuted from Groveland to Yosemite, bringing their children with them. When she was a baby, Whitney’s parents often took her to the popular climber hangout Degnan’s Deli. Under Yosemite Falls, she took her first steps on a brown picnic table while spotted by the late Dean Potter. Her parent’s climbing friends became like family to her, including their pets. When Potter left town, the Stowes watched over his dog Fletcher.
“After having me, my parents continued climbing multi-pitch routes all the time together,” she says. “They dirt bagged it with a kid, basically. When they were busy, they’d cut my sister and me loose to explore. Lundy and I would hang out by the Merced River, go hiking, and scramble around in the boulders.”
Scott built a home climbing wall in the garage, which Whitney began playing on when she was three years old. “I never knew why they added tape to mark the routes, so I always peeled the tape off,” she says with a laugh. When she got older, the Stowes took their kids up long, moderate routes in the Valley and Tuolumne, where they stressed the quality of the experience over the difficulty.
She hiked Half Dome on her seventh birthday, and when she was 14 she spent 38 days hiking the John Muir Trail with her sister.
To Whitney, “climbing was a family activity and a way to enjoy the place you’re at with the people you’re with. There was never pressure to climb hard, and my dad instilled in us how to be safe.” Under her parent’s guidance, Whitney learned how to lead climb confidently in Yosemite, where she took the sharp end on the 5.9 classics the Regular Route on Fairview Dome and West Crack on Daff Dome.
In 2015, when Whitney was 17, she climbed El Cap’s Zodiac over three days with her dad, her sister Lundy, 15, and Steve Gerberding. “Sometimes Lundy and I jugged the fixed lines side-by-side,” she says. “We were just up there hanging out in space and having fun.”
One year after Zodiac, her father suffered a stroke. At the time he was home alone on a 400-acre ranch outside Groveland where he worked as a caretaker. Whitney called to check in on him and knew something was wrong when he was slurring his speech. She rushed him to the hospital, where she was told he had had a cerebral hemorrhage. For six weeks he recovered in the hospital. The climbing community came together and helped raise money for his expenses, donating $15,000 to his GoFundMe page. On the crowdsourcing page, Scott’s longtime friend Jason Torlano wrote, “Scott is in high esteem amongst the community for being a loving father, a dedicated friend, as well as an accomplished big wall climber.”
As her father recovered, Whitney put her own climbing on the sidelines. Over the next few years, she left Yosemite and attended college on three different occasions, only to return home each time. Spending days in a classroom made her restless; she wanted to be in Yosemite. “When you grow up with an example of people embodying this beautiful lifestyle that connects to Yosemite, it shows you a way of being,” she says.
“After that, I took a few years off from climbing. It was too close,” says Whitney.” When you almost lose that person and this is the one thing you always share with them, it’s a little different. With my dad as a guide, he would take me up everything and showed me systems. When I started climbing again, I decided to be more independent and get more involved.”
Whitney spent three seasons working as a cashier at the Ansel Adams Gallery next door to her mother’s work at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center. For two seasons, she worked at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. But when Covid-19 shut down the Park services, Whitney found herself out of work. This past summer, while dining at the Priest Station Cafe in Groveland, she inquired about a job and was hired on the spot by owner Steve Anker. Steve is Conrad Anker’s younger brother and he’d known Whitney for years. He knew she’d be a great fit as a server.
Also working at Priest Station this past season was alpinist and free solo climber Matt Cornell. For six years he has split his time between Bozeman, Montana, and California, climbing ice in the winter and rock in summer. Soon the two started a relationship and became consistent climbing partners. She began pushing her limits on the long 5.10s route in Yosemite. She also started sport climbing at the crags outside of Groveland at The Grotto and Table Mountain, where she got on her first 5.11 sport routes.
Today, four years after his stroke, her father’s condition has improved 95 percent. “He was really lucky, he was fortunate not to have any paralysis,” says Whitney, adding that the only lingering effects from his stroke are mild loss of balance. At age 58, he continues to climb, now with his friends taking the sharp end.
With her dad not being able to lead pitches, Whitney took it upon herself to acquire the skills needed to take him up routes, to pay it forward.
In the summer of 2020, Whitney climbed the Big Stone for her second time with her father and Gerberding by the radically steep line Virginia. Despite his struggles with balance, “my dad is super solid with systems and the logistics and knowing how to be up there for an extended amount of time,” Whitney says. Gerberding led all the pitches on the route, with Scott cleaning. This time, instead of just jugging a free line like she’d done on Zodiac, Whitney tasked herself with hauling the team’s gear.
This past summer Whitney and Matt frequented Yosemite, where they ran laps on the 30-foot hand-and-finger crack Short Circuit, rated 5.11+. As the cool Merced flowed nearby, they climbed until their hands cramped. Though too difficult for Whitney to do clean, she kept at it, making it higher each time as she worked out the moves. The two climbed all over Yosemite Valley and the Tuolumne High Country, where they dashed up the 700-foot 5.10 crack line Third Pillar of Dana. They also did the 1,000-foot aid route The Prow on Washington Column in a day with photographer Max Buschini.
“Before this year, I’d rarely visited a gym or had gone sport climbing,” she says, adding that the dynamic movement required on steep routes feels foreign to her. “Most climbing I do is trad, where your hips are squared off and you’re on your feet. And I’m used to placing gear wherever I want — that’s where my base is.”
To cap the season, Matt and Whitney aimed for an ascent of the ultra-classic North Face of Rostrum, a 700 foot 5.11, comprised of endless finger and hand cracks. But as autumn turned to winter, Matt made his annual pilgrimage back to Bozeman to climb ice. Before he left, Matt assured me she had the skills to climb the line. “She knows how to make it up a route, doing whatever it takes,” he said.
This past week Whitney and I attempted the Rostrum, making it two-thirds up the route before retreating due to time. To slow the spread of Covid-19, Yosemite is closed between 5 pm and 8 am, making it challenging to complete long routes in the time alloted. Over the five pitches we succeeded on, she moved smoothly and confidently and when she couldn’t do a crux move, she’d resort to pulling on cams to keep going. At times she weighted the rope, but mostly she completed the pitches clean.
Back at the car and munching on soup and chocolate, Whitney couldn’t wipe the grin off her face. Though she called the route “burly,” I could tell it’d become her goal. It became all she could talk about.
“I can’t wait to go back!,” she said.