Steve Dieckhoff started climbing in the late 1960s when climbing meant you tied in at the base and went up. This simplistic, purist’s approach burned in him like the sun itself and never dimmed even up to his passing, of lymphoma, on March 15. He was 56.
Dieckhoff’s passion for climbing is rarely equaled—his skill with ink and paint just as rare. You probably recognize the illustrations he supplied for the Letters section of this magazine for the past five years. He lampooned climbing rascals such as hangdoggers, rap bolters and chippers, whom he laughingly gave the collective moniker “Lowest Common Denominators,” or LCDs. You may have disagreed with him, but you could always count on his work for a hearty chuckle. One of my favorites was a crag stencil he imagined as useful to sport climbers: Just place the stencil over the crag, drill through the “Xs” and, voila, another sport park is born. Nothing, it seems, is funnier than the truth, and Dieckhoff, who learned to draw and paint from his mother, didn’t shy from cutting to the quick.
Dieckhoff’s scathing, sometimes brutal humor and strict adherence to the traditional ethos chafed some folks, and spats ensued with other Boulder climbers over grid bolting in Boulder Canyon and development in his beloved Eldorado. But Dieckhoff was never mean-spirited or shortsighted. He appreciated sport climbing, saw the point and worked within the system to challenge its methods. For example, in 1992 he submitted an application to the park bolting committee to remove bolts from what he considered a squeeze job near the Naked Edge on Eldo’s Redgarden Wall. His application was denied.
Normally, write-ups such as this would include a summary of climbing achievement, highlighting routes and ascents. With Dieckhoff that is difficult, since whenever asked for a laundry list of his noteworthy climbs, he simply replied, “Socks and shorts.”
Dieckhoff, however, was no slouch. He was a talented and accomplished climber who loved runout trad lines and especially free soloing, once writing that when you are “hundreds of feet off the ground, the margin for error is as thin as an EKG line.”
In the early 1980s Dieckhoff experienced precisely how thin while soloing the left edge of Yosemite’s Middle Cathedral Rock. Shod in running shoes, and with a bottle of wine in his pack for a later rendezvous in a high meadow with his girlfriend, Dieckhoff fell on a 5.7 section 450 feet off the deck. He plunged through the air 70 feet, miraculously landing on a sloping ledge the size of a pizza. To his amazement, he was uninjured. To his disappointment, the bottle of wine was broken.
Dieckhoff found humor in everything, even cancer, telling me that the doctors were intentionally weakening him with radiation—“in order to render me compliant!”—for his upcoming bone-marrow transplant. In the hospital, he recounted the time a nurse came to his bedside and told him to “Be positive.” Encouraged, he used her words as a mantra to endure the grueling treatments … only to learn later that the nurse had actually been reading his blood type off his chart.
Although the treatment was ultimately futile against the cancer, Dieckhoff remained creative and alive, churning out art right to the end. His last piece, on (what else?) sport climbers’ rights to alter the rock, was published just days after his passing. We will miss him. I’m sure he could see humor even in that.