Summer break is a time of awkward transitions for many college students. Go home, escape from parents in the basement, work for minimum wage, get an internship, or keep those credits rolling by attending summer classes. Gnarly athlete and photographer Eric Bissell wasn’t into any of those options, so he found a much better gig. He moved to Yosemite National Park every summer to work as a climbing ranger. He got paid to climb El Capitan, albeit in a polyester parks uniform, every summer for four years. A few years out of college, he moved to Yosemite permanently to work for the Park Service, only hanging up his uniform in 2018.
Eric’s current life is a culmination of many paths, a confluence of lives he has lived: a young, nerdy rock climber engrossed in the history of the sport, a college student studying sculpture, a climbing ranger at Yosemite, a professional photographer, and lover of grocery shopping.
Climbing has been woven into Eric’s life since he was young, taking trips with his brother and father to Yosemite. It has been a constant thread. The park itself has also been a major component in Eric’s life.
“It felt so special to spend a large amount of time there,” he said. “Yosemite is special when someone visits. But living in the park allowed me to explore places I’d never visit if I had an agenda.”
Eric’s time living and working in the park is pretty much every rock climber’s dream. He’s certainly not one to argue with how epic this experience was and he’s forever grateful for the climbing community he was and still is a part of, thanks to the park. Not only did he climb epic routes, he photographed epic climbers on those routes. It was a combination of passions – climbing, the park, and his community – forming a symbiotic relationship. “Every photo is a collaboration between the person in front and the person behind the lens,” he said. “They are impossible to separate. My community became, in large part, the people I met in Yosemite, and I’ve carried that community forward into life in the greater Sierra.” Among these was meeting his life partner Jane.
For eight seasons, Eric served free coffee at Camp 4, a notoriously popular campground many climbers visit while in the park. It’s also considered historically significant to modern climbing, where climbing legends like Warren Harding, Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard lived. Eric watched thousands of climbers come and go from Camp 4 during this time, making him hyper conscious of how exponential our individual impact is on one particular place.
“It made me feel really aware of our actions multiplied across a community,” Eric said. “Nothing we do as climbers in its current popularity can be seen as an individual act. We have to consider the impact of our actions and decisions taking place at the community scale.”
While living and working in Yosemite was incredible, Eric began to recognize that overexposure can have a numbing effect. “I learned that I start to get numb a little bit, visually numb to a place,” Eric said. “I kind of wanted Yosemite to be that special place for me again.”
After so many years in the park, Eric left to work on other endeavours. “That was such an important experience and I probably won’t top it in life. But that’s not necessarily a reason to stay,” he said.
While life in Yosemite was incredible, it often felt disconnected from reality. “What I missed in Yosemite was just kind of a little bit more of a connection to the real world,” he said. Leaving the familiarity of the Park Service meant leaning into one of Eric’s other talents: photography.
Eric’s passion for photography started when he was a kid. Watching nature documentaries inside led him outside to his backyard where he’d search for deer or an occasional bobcat, recreating what he had seen on TV.
But Eric always preferred to build things and studied sculpture in college. However, his post-college accommodations in Yosemite didn’t offer space for an art studio to build or sculpt. So Eric went back to photography. “I picked up a camera again and it kind of became like, ‘Oh wait, I can continue to do creative things in a much smaller package,’” he said.
Eric took his first digital camera on a trip to Venezuela, where he filmed and climbed a 20-pitch route on Acopán Tepui with three friends. The footage he brought home became the Black Diamond film Time is the Master. Being able to share his experiences with others is one of the reasons Eric continues to pick up his camera. “I knew there would be things that I would perhaps only see once in my life, and I wanted to be able to bring some of those memories home to share,” he said. “Most of my family and many of my close friends don’t get to experience the places I go climbing, and photography is a way to share that experience.”
Not long after his adventure in Venezuela, he went on a trip to Kenya and sold his images to Patagonia, which landed on the center spread of the fall catalogue.
Those two experiences helped Eric recognize what his life outside of the Park Service could be: travel, plus take epic adventures, plus making images.
Making money off of wilderness by turning it into a commercial entity is a conversation Eric hopes to have with the images he presents. Having worked in Yosemite’s climbing scene, he was often faced with what commercialization of a wild space looks and feels like.
While having a mission statement as a photographer sounds idyllic, Eric’s mission is more fluid. “I think my mission is to continue to push the conversation toward doing things with the best ethics possible and to spur difficult conversations about what our impacts as individuals look like multiplied across the scale of the climbing community. How do we grow this community in a way that’s sustainable and inclusive?”
The years spent in Yosemite also put an emphasis on humility for Eric. “Seeing the humility of some people that have quietly (aka off social media) accomplished amazing things in the [Yosemite] Valley, and seeing simultaneously how easily influenced we are as a community, makes me very watchful of my relationship to climbing.” Eric said. “Do it for the right reasons, and remember that there were others before you and will be others after you. How to tell that in photography can be a catch 22 but keeps me painfully interested.”
Eric has constructed a life that weaves his passions together. Climbing has always been a major thread, and so has Yosemite and creating art. Occasionally, one of those has left the forefront for a time, but eventually it finds its way back. Building upon years spent in Yosemite, Eric has found a way to continue his engagement with the community about climbing and wilderness. His path to get here wasn’t typed out in black ink on white paper. It was a colorful drawing with a few scribbles and items scratched off. While life in black and white may feel secure, color is pretty rad.