• Mayan Smith-Gobat: What I've Learned
  • Josh Lowell: What I've Learned
  • Steve Hong: What I've Learned
  • Steve House: What I've Learned
  • Daniel Woods: What I've Learned
  • Steph Davis: What I've Learned
  • Nick Duttle: What I've Learned
  • Thomas Huber: What I've Learned
  • Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka
  • Alex Megos: The Hatchling
  • Ryan Vachon: Top Ice Climber and Climate Scientist
  • John Long: What I've Learned
  • Topropers Unite!
  • Steep Learning Curve: Alex Honnold On His Early Free-Soloing Days
  • Andy Kirkpatrick - Words Like Morphine
  • Margo Hayes and the Power of the Mind
  • Snapshot: Michaela Kiersch - The Chicago Hustle
  • Out of Nowhere - Nathaniel Coleman Jumps Onto the Podium
  • Jeff Lowe: What I've Learned
  • The Cheater - Learning to Climb for Myself, the Hard Way
  • John Bachar: What I've Learned
  • Art of the First Ascent: The Bold Climbs of Marcus Garcia
  • The Professional: Hilaree O'Neill
  • The Inventor: Alan Douglas
  • The Advocate: Nicholas Rothenbush
  • The Guide: Kris Erickson
  • The Craftsman: Jimmy Chin
  • Curious Case: Brette Harrington Breaks New Ground
  • Stefano Ghisolfi - One of The World's Best Makes Time For Fun
  • Kai Lightner Reflects on Competitions, Bouldering and the Future
  • The Locomotive: Roy McMurtrey – 87 and Still Climbing
  • No Expectations: Joe Kinder Sends 6 5.14c's in Spain
  • Spotlight: Megan Mascarenas - The Logician
  • Alpine Warriors - History of Alpinists in Yugoslavia
  • Q&A: The Willpower of Mar Álvarez
  • Q&A: Ethan Pringle on Thor's Hammer (5.15a)
  • A Youth Wasted Climbing
  • Bouldering Bub - Isaac Caldiero
  • Spotlight: Alexander Ruchkin - Russian Locomotive
  • Alex Johnson - The Pro Life and Growing Up as a Climber
  • Rock Climbing Saved My Life: A Veteran’s Struggle with PTSD
  • The Beatnik of the Alps: A tale of FA's, Rescues, Love, and Suicide
  • Kev Shields – High Solace: Demons, Depression and Solo Climbing
  • Dean Potter On Laws, Modern America and Soloing Delicate Arch
  • Climbers We Lost in 2014
  • Spotlight: The Double Life of Chris Webb Parsons
  • What I've Learned: Sonnie Trotter
  • What I've Learned: Mark Udall
  • Heinz Mariacher: What I've Learned
  • The Sasha DiGiulian Profile
  • Chris Sharma: What I've Learned
  • The Seeker: Said Belhaj
  • Tommy Caldwell: What I've Learned
  • Reinhold Messner: What I've Learned
  • Sonnie Trotter's Favorite 5.10: Exasperator (5.10c)
  • Unbroken: The Alex Johnson Profile
  • Listening for the Echo: The Klem Loskot Profile
  • Climbers We Lost in 2013
  • Kilian Jornet Breaks Speed Record on Mont Blanc
  • Layton Kor Dies
  • Climbers We Lost in 2012
  • Life on Hold: The Ian Powell Story
  • Rope Jumping with Dan Osman
  • The Centurian: Ricardo Cassin
  • Mike Foley: Never Enough
  • Naomi Guy: What I've Learned
  • Hayden Kennedy: Superballistic
  • Dave Macleod: What I've Learned
  • Q&A: V15 Maestro Nacho Sanchez Unleashed
  • Francesca Metcalf: Meant to Compete
  • Maurice Herzog Dies
  • Mason Earle: Crack Ropegun
  • Kurt Albert: Free Wheel
  • Mayan Smith-Gobat: Climber for all Seasons
  • Nik Berry: Obsessive Crusher
  • TNB: Tony Scott, Climber, Movie Maker, Lived and Died Large
  • Charlie Fowler - American Alpinist
  • Jimmie Dunn
  • The Upstart - Colin Haley
  • Who's Next?
  • Tom Patey: The Tiger of Yesterday
  • Todd Skinner: The Renegade
  • The Stonemasters Climb at Pirates Cove
  • Patxi Usobiaga: The Bionic Man
  • Michael Reardon
  • Max Turgeon and Louis-Philippe Ménard: Alpinists and Ice Climbers
  • Kurt Albert: The Climber Who Invented Redpointing
  • Josh Wharton: The Alpinist
  • John Rosholt: Climber and Gambler Disappears in Las Vegas
  • John Bachar's Last Interview
  • John Bachar Remembers Michael Reardon
  • John Bachar Remembered by Duane Raleigh
  • John Bachar by Henry Barber
  • John Bachar by Doug Robinson
  • John Bachar and the Bachar-Yerian First Ascent
  • Colin Kirkus: Climbing's Greatest Unknown
  • Alex Puccio
  • The Prophet
  • The Guy Whose Nuts Revolutionized Climbing: R.P.
  • Randy Leavitt
  • Galen Rowell: The Vertical World
  • Brian Kim Spotlight
  • Rob Raker
  • Ueli Steck - The Swiss Machine
  • Kemple and Lindner Almost Free El Nino
  • Crack Attack
  • Climbing World Mourns Todd Skinner
  • Ammon McKneely
  • A Tour of Magic and Mystery
  • Tanja Grmovsek
  • Rob Miller
  • Climber Hugh Herr Honored by Esquire Magazine
  • Climber Eric Brand Dies
  • Chuck Fryberger, Climber and Filmmaker
  • Chris Schulte Profile
  • Beth Rodden: What I've Learned
  • Joe Kinder
  • Hazel Findlay
  • To the BASE Layer
  • Pete Ward
  • Mad Max
  • Chris Boskoff
  • Bradford Washburn
  • Revenge of the Nerd
  • Chris Lindner
  • Tim Clifford: Escaping the Quantum Hole
  • Renan Ozturk
  • One-Track Mind
  • Traveling Light
  • Colette McInerney
  • The Banner Years
  • Pakistan: The Big and Free
  • Kris Hampton
  • Jules Cho
  • Extreme Eleven and Beyond
  • Bob Bates, 96, Takes His Final Journey
  • Jody Hansen
  • Home Girl
  • An Encounter with Fred
  • The Average Hero Sir Edmund Hillary, 88
  • More Than One Trick
  • Dave Graham
  • Red River Sugar Mama
  • Phillip Schaal
  • An Advanced Beginner
  • The Last Samurai:
  • Sonnie in Scotland
  • Offwidth Hombre
  • Moonlight Solo-Nata
  • Jasmin Caton
  • Crag Clown
  • Unlikely Candidate
  • Lone Star
  • The Calculator: Alex Kordick
  • Rise of the Machines
  • Dave Waggoner 1955-2009
  • Blood Spider
  • The Audacious Legacy of Tomaz Humar
  • The Original Desert Rat: Kyle Copeland | 51
  • J-Star
  • Italian Legend: Lino Lacedelli | 83
  • Committed: Matt McCormick
  • Cold Justice Paul Cormier
  • The Suffer King
  • The Need for Speed
  • Nick Martino Gives All
  • G-Money
  • Climbing Out of Academic Trouble
  • Charles Houston, 96
  • Bobby Model, 36
  • "Open Bivy" Willy
  • The Genius - Jeff Lowe
  • The Gamer
  • Shock Rock
  • Ryan Triplett | 31
  • John Bachar and the Cosmic Surfboard
  • Hand Crafted
  • Return of the Verm
  • Amped
  • Regime Change
  • Man vs. Snake
  • Living Legend
  • Layton Kor honored by AAC
  • Cold Justice
  • Cowboy Anguish
  • The Rock Jester
  • Mixed Rehab
  • Laura Fletcher
  • Bill Stall
  • Benjamin Strohmeier
  • Joe Six-Pack
  • Freedom Path
  • Manboy
  • Up and Down
  • The Duelist
  • A for Achiever
  • Paul A. Duval
  • Kelly S. Bell
  • Close But No Cigar
  • Video Spotlight
    Rooftown Vol. 2 - Featuring the Bouldering Exploits of Matt Gentile
    Rooftown Vol. 2 - Featuring the Bouldering Exploits of Matt Gentile
    Whipper of the Month
    Weekend Whipper: Chris Sharma's 100-foot Pont d’Arc Deep Water Solo
    Weekend Whipper: Chris Sharma's 100-foot Pont d’Arc Deep Water Solo

    John Long: What I've Learned


    John Long. Writing

    How do you write lightning and a nocturne onto the same page? That’s all a matter of style, which is all that matters. I can’t tell you how to do it—nobody can—but I’ve learned a few things in my 35-year career.

    Structure, voicing, characterization and so forth take ages to master, but these are important only if you get some clarity on style. A person gives off a certain sense of being, a visceral feel. In prose writing that aura is called style. It’s slippery, largely intuitive and includes tone, attitude, temper and half-remembered feelings that stick in your throat. And that’s what you have to somehow hack out onto the page.

    A writer working strictly from the mind might have polished form, but might never have style. You know when style works or is lacking, but it’s damn hard to define. Music criticism gets us close.

    Consider vibrato, pulsating the pitch above and below a given note, a lot or a little, fast or slow. The aim is to add expression (style) to vocal or instrumental music. Vibrato is so common and seemingly so natural that many consider it the mark of a relaxed and mature style. Yet trumpeter Miles Davis, arguably the greatest stylist in the history of bop and post-bop (Cool) jazz, used to play with little to no vibrato.

    Another trumpet prodigy, and a former mountain-biking partner, told me that “Taps,” the solemn U.S. Military melody used for flag ceremonies, funerals and “lights out,” is almost impossible to play because you’re obliged to play it straight. No vibrato.

    Why does losing the vibrato make “Taps” so difficult and Miles Davis’ playing so iconic? Simple, said my friend. Vibrato covers the inability or guts to play each note straight up, without the mustard and hot sauce typically used to mask one’s lack of emotional commitment to the music. Vibrato is melodic sap, a method of goosing surface passions. To play without vibrato, you must have perfect pitch. And every writer is a torch singer working an audience of ghosts.

    About those torch singers. Most critics feel the truest gauge of a singer’s voice is to stick her with a stripped-down ensemble, just a piano, bass and drums. This lack of accompaniment accentuates vocal gifts and devotion, or exposes a frightened poser.

    In literature, vibrato might be a showy word choice, info dumping, brainy references, noodling, commentary or wisecracks. For years I used all of these devices, and it took no commitment at all. But to ever embody the resonance of “Taps,” or Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, you have to present with that stripped-down ensemble. You have to step up to the mic naked and let rip a riff, played plainly, sans bellowing and doodads and self-absorption. Whatever style you have, that is how you find it. And once you find it, just as they do in poker, you have to write “all-in.” Not easy.


    Learn to Write with John Long



    When I first headed for Yosemite, I was 17 years old and had no idea who I was. Then I met Jim Bridwell, de facto lord of Camp 4. From our first route together, I saw how measured “The Bird” was per the whole climbing process. It took a while, but slowly I stopped muscling through things and started noticing life, in all of its dark and dazzling facets. So ran the process of learning to take myself seriously, of appreciating what the hell I was doing, even as the pitches flew past.

    Wall climbing helped shake me awake. I’d tie off taut on a tapering ledge. The sun would set as conversations fizzled, both my feet dangling in the silent night. Finally I’d run out of smokes and would find myself forcibly present, marooned half a mile up a rock face. I couldn’t change channels or even change my mind. When I finally surrendered to the granite bench, the parched throat and the whole shimmering clusterfuck, I’d synch up with my life and for the moment experience freedom while being literally tied to a stake. Later, I’d go way out of my way to make the first and second one-day ascents of El Capitan.

    But what I most took away from climbing was not velocity, but the capacity to decelerate into my skin and into my life.



    My life is paradoxical, full of discord and not-knowing. But there are also moments on the bed in the lamplight, and you want to show up for these because that’s where the paradoxes resolve themselves, where for the time it takes a tear to dry, we taste the open-hearted freedom. And it’s often just a look, two palms flushed together, all the simplest things.

    I’m thinking about one time in the Valley, at the tent cabins over in Curry Village. I must have been a sophomore or junior in college. For going on four years, I spent all 90 days of summer break climbing and carousing in Yosemite. I no longer swallowed life whole, just wolfed it down unconsciously, tasting little. But my relations with girls were still Neanderthal—either wham-bam, or erotic wrestling matches lasting so long the poor, beleaguered wahine begged for mercy, getting none. That night in Curry Village everything finally and mercifully changed.

    I pushed away to the edge of the bed and admired my then girlfriend, “Roxanne.” Just this once I wanted to savor the whole shebang. Looking at her—21, tanned, fit, spectacularly naked, perfect in the lamplight— I wondered how much more I could expect from life, and I said so. What a line, said Roxy, and I asked, To get what? I already had the girl. And what might better even look like, if it wasn’t Roxanne all over again, tomorrow night? If she knew, she wasn’t telling. We just hung there in midair. Roxanne was eerily silent.

    It likely was her first experience of being totally seen—a relief, she finally said, but terrifying. For the moment, we didn’t want anything else at all. But to answer her question, no, I didn’t know who I was seeing, what was happening on that bed, in that tent cabin, in Yosemite Valley. So I said, You better show me.

    She placed both palms flat on my chest—there was strong medicine in her hands. Then she leaned her face over mine. Have you ever tasted a tear? She kissed me and said she could only love for a few hours at a time. But what a few hours. Then she laid her head on my chest and we traveled. That might sound mawkish, but the encounter itself was stripped down, like torch singers in that empty bar, singing a melody so fragile it was barely there. These are the moments that make a life. That much I know for sure.



    I grew up with a vastly screwy experience of family. Adopted at two days old from a podunk community clinic in Indio, California—then the low desert asshole of Southern California—I was thrown into a cauldron full of people who looked, acted, thought and felt nothing like me whatsoever. Dad was a doctor, Mom was a scholar. Both sisters were brainiacs. I threw rocks at cars and loved to fight Mexicans, who gave me my nickname, Largo, which is my adopted name, Long, in Español. My family was an amalgam, custom-made in America, combining German-Jewish and dustbowl Okie. Years later, when my adoption papers were unsealed, I discovered I was seven-eighths Irish and one-eighth Comanche (easy on firewater, Tonto). Anyhow, I couldn’t have felt more different and disconnected had I washed ashore on a palm frond.

    The first true relative I ever saw was my older daughter, Marianne del Valle, 10 minutes after she was born in the Clínica Maternidad Santa Rosa in Maracay, Venezuela. From the moment Marianne squinted out at me, life was never the same. Finally, I belonged. I had sought and found kinship in the climbing community, but blood is different, preverbal and radically robust.

    Like the time I was returning to Venezuela and got waylaid in customs over some document, and from the other side Marianne, then 5, dashed under the rope and past customs, through the special thresholds, tripping various alarms and flashing lights, ran up and death locked my legs. The soldiers just laughed. Marianne (nicknamed Grillo, or cricket, for her boundless energy) refused to go to sleep unless I lay down in the bed beside her. Every night I’d tell her to shut her damn trap and get to sawing that firewood and every night we’d spend an hour talking the most extravagant shit in Spanglish and laughing and arguing about everything.

    One time Marianne was pissing me off, can’t remember why, and I let my energy get big and I growled out a few words. Bearing down (I outweighed her by 175 pounds), I watched her recoil and her eyes fill with tears. I felt like dying. I grew up around physical violence and I saw all the accrued fear of those years in a face where I usually saw God. That’s when I understood that aggression, if not channeled constructively, will destroy the greatest things. And aggression is always a fallback position against stepping up to the mic naked and open-hearted and telling the unvarnished truth.

    Marianne is almost finished with med school now. She was a foreign-exchange student in Germany and is fluent in Spanish, English and German.

    Best of all, she’s not afraid of life.



    I recall the early days in Yosemite and doing body recoveries, and how we never could talk to death. Words bounced off the prettiest corpse and the bag of bones as well. We saw plenty of both. Death has its own itinerary, listens to nobody and leaves no one behind.

    I was on Half Dome with two girls, bivying on Big Sandy Ledge, when I first realized the absurdity of worrying about death. I spent the first hour worrying about how to get the girls out of their knickers. I apologize to the universe for having such thoughts, but I did. They just popped into my mind like grouse flushed from the hedgerow. The girls didn’t suffer these thoughts, at all, so my mind shifted to the next subject over, death, and all those eons before I was born, and how I never gave a shit about missing them all. So if I didn’t care about existing before I was born, why fret the afterwards?


    All In

    My life seamlessly blends flux with permanence and the unborn. I feel boundless every time I get outdoors and into the wilderness, or jump up onto a rock monolith, which is time in mineral form. I sense the immeasurable every time I pause and note the person on the bed beside me, and on the other end of our rope. I see something surpassing in the faces of daughters and strangers in need, and in the open eyes peering back from the mirror. My brain is only an evolved, evaluating mechanism and filing cabinet, but my soul can step up to the mic or the cliffside and experience the jumbo love that makes life shimmering and doable. Mysteriously, I can strike “a balanced concord with other voices,” which is the reason for the 10,000 forms as opposed to just the One.

    But to achieve that balanced concord, I have to play it all-in, because I am, and sans vibrato, because I can.


    This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 193 (April 2011).

    Reader's Commentary:

    Don't want to use Facebook, but still want to comment? We have you covered:

    Add Your Comments to this article: