Working in Yosemite Valley

They might not have titles but Yosemite workers are like ambassadors for the valley. They are the people who, to a large extent, will determine whether park visitors have an enjoyable experience. Whether it's guiding a climb on the vast granite walls, taking a family on a horseback ride, narrating a midnight tour of the valley, or serving a meal in the Ahwahnee dining room, Yosemite employees give a human face to the beauty of the valley. They are the ones who answer the endless questions with grace and good humor, are knowledgeable about the valley's history, know the best hiking trails, and convey to visitors the wonder that is Yosemite Valley.

Dinah Oppenheim Guide/Packer

Yosemite guide and packer Dinah Oppenheim spent 17 years in the Ahwahnee kitchen before she decided to climb aboard a horse and lead visitors on tours around the park. "You make more money as a cook but I wouldn't trade my life for a minute. The main thing I like is the contact with the public. It's such a treat to provide these people with a unique and special experience they will take with them for the rest of their lives. I know it always opens my eyes.

"I get a little jaded being in Yosemite for so long. But when guests are oohing and aahing over the waterfalls, rocks, trees, animals in their natural setting, and the clip clop of horses' hooves, it makes me realize how grateful I am to be here, and reminds me why I came in the first place. Their enthusiasm reminds me that this is truly paradise."

A packer's day is a long one. Oppenheim's day starts at 7 a.m.and is not done until 5:30 p.m. "What makes this job work for me are my co-workers. At the stables everyone is on the same team and works together to get everything done. It's real positive, like a family. Most of these people live here, eat together, play together, and of course work together."

The job can be stressful, however. "You have to be very mindful because one little thing can cause a disaster. Kids who have not had much experience with horses are challenging. It can be difficult to convince them they can make a mule do what they want it to do. Sometimes they just don't believe you. The guests are different too. You meet all kinds. Some want to know all about you, some will tell you their life story, and others just want peace and quiet. Guides have to watch the trail constantly and make sure it's safe. We are also the spokespersons for the company, the horses, and for the outdoors."

Mike Corbett Climbing Specialist

Curry Village climbing specialist Mike Corbett has been scaling the face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley for the past 24 years, but nothing prepared him for his latest feat, assisting 81 year old Gerry Block up the face of the mountain to become the oldest climber to reach the summit. Block approached Corbett at the Curry Village Mountain Shop about helping him scale the very difficult precipice. "Gerry has been a climber for 61 years. I have known him for the past 15 and respect his climbing skills. So when he asked me to assist him I jumped at the chance. He already held the record at 68 years old as the oldest to climb El Capitan, and he wanted to break that one."

But Block didn't tell Corbett about his various physical ailments. Block suffers from a heart condition, arthritis, bad shoulders and knees, and was taking blood thinning medications at the time.

"It's an extremely difficult climb. A seven day climb turned into eleven days, and I lost fifteen pounds helping him and pulling up supplies. His doctors had advised him not to make the climb. If he had cut himself, or broken a bone, he could have died. Luckily, nothing like that happened. He didn't tell me any of this before the climb because he was afraid I would have turned him down. You know, I'm glad he didn't tell me, it would have been an extra worry. But I still would have done it. I have a lot of confidence in him. He is not a fragile man, even at his age.

"In fact, Gerry's health seemed to improve as we climbed. His wife had died in November and he had been feeling blue about that. This climb really lifted his spirits."

Climbing is a passion for Corbett. He has climbed El Capitan 53 times. "It's the toughest climb in Yosemite, and one of the most difficult in the world. Thank goodness the weather is good here, so you are not fighting the elements, and climbers can pick the best time of year to do it. It's definitely been a big part of my life. I love the thrill of rock climbing, the incredible views, and great friends you make. You need other people to climb with, so climbing becomes a real social activity. You trust your life to these people, so you make close friends."

After climbing El Capitan so many times, Corbett knows every nook and cranny of the mountain. "Though by now I feel pretty relaxed going up, the more I climb the more excited I get going up. Reaching the summit is still the best feeling in the world. It's still a thrill."

Gerry Block's climb was sponsored by a grant from Yosemite Concessions Services.

Caitlin Torres Tour Guide

When she took her current job, tour guide Caitlin Torres followed in her mother's footsteps. In fact it is the third job in Yosemite Valley she has filled that her mother performed when she was her daughter's age. But, says Torres, tour guiding is certainly the most fun, and the moonlight tours are the best. Six nights a month, Torres leads a tram full of visitors on the 26 mile, two hour open air tour of the park. "There is something special seeing the park by the light of the moon. It's so beautiful."

Three tours a day Torres talks about pioneer history, Native American history, and general information about the park. Her vocal chords get a 7 hour daily workout. While there are certain things she must include in her tour, the talk is primarily what she makes of it. "I stress backpacking, keeping the park clean, and the importance of not feeding the animals. I tell them to remember two words while here--minimum impact. This means do no harm to the environment while you are here.

"We see a lot of animals. One night we saw a coyote with a fresh kill in his mouth. Last week we saw a bear. It's a great job. You get to work with people and be outside. But it is hard on your vocal chords. I drink a singers tea concoction to help my throat.

"My mom told me a joke she used to tell on her tours. She used to say, 'you can always tell the dog wood tree by its bark'. But I don't use it, it's too stupid. But when we are driving toward the Ahwahnee I tell them how beautiful it is, and how it's well known for its dining. Then I point it out and it's the run down dormitory where employees live. It's a single story building that was supposed to be torn down in the '60s. My little bit of Yosemite humor."

Whether you are a first time visitor to the park or have been here before you will learn something new from Torres's tour. "I am full of information about Yosemite and am constantly reading and studying up to make my tours as interesting and exciting as possible. Be sure to take a ride when you are here."

Debra Rockwood Waitri

When Ahwahnee dining room waitri Debra Rockwood first arrived in Yosemite she, like many long-term Yosemite workers, thought it was a nice, short-term summer job. Twenty years later she is still there. "You get to love the valley and the people who work here. Yosemite attracts a very talented, unusual group of people," says Rockwood. "Above all else there is the outdoors. The pay is good and so are the benefits. So you stay, and even start up a family."

The union has been a positive force in the valley for the past 22 years, bringing stability and decent working conditions to workers who might otherwise not have fared so well. "The union has created a working atmosphere where people want to stay and have families. You get decent benefits and a pension, which I, going on forty, am starting to think about."

The union also brings people together during hardships, which Rockford knows about first hand. When her house burned down in a fire the union was there to help.

"I am real grateful. The support we received helped us get through some difficult times. In fact, the whole community has been great."

Rockwood recently finished two terms as chapter president, has participated in union negotiations, and has served as steward and executive board member. She has attended the Summer Institute for Union Women and the SEIU Women's Conference. "My union involvement has been a growing experience for me, expanded my horizons, and allowed me to get out into the world a little more. When you work and live here year around, It's easy to get caught up in this granite womb."

Issue 5-3, July 1999

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