It is not every day that someone’s “person” contacts me, and when a voice on the phone asked if I could take a call from Tony Scott, I at first did not know who he was.
A director, she said. His films included Top Gun, The Crimson Tide and others. “He’s pretty famous,” she added, and trust me that she was being helpful and not snide.
Tony Scott came on, a Brit calling from LA, friendly and upbeat. He was a climber, he told me. He had grown up in Northumberland, England, and learned at many British climbing venues.
He'd tracked me down at my day job. At the time I was president of the American Alpine Club, and as soon as I'd taken the position, two hot potatoes landed in my lap. The first was to join a lawsuit (which ultimately meant leading it, with Tom Frost) to save the sacred space of Camp 4 in Yosemite from severe encroachment by the Park Service, reconfiguring the park footprint after widespread flooding. Then the U.S. Forest Service banned use of bolts for climbing on any wilderness lands in its jurisdiction, indicating that all such faced removal. This came out of the blue, with no period for public input. I had been writing protests, citing use of bolts for safety, belays and rap stations, retreats and rescues.
Scott was ticked. He’d climbed at Suicide and Tahquitz, two grand, historic and now earmarked areas in Southern California that offer both trad and face climbs, the latter often entirely on (often wide-spaced) bolts.
“What," he asked, "can I do to help?”
We chatted, of course, as climbers around the world do around commonality. I mentioned having lived and climbed a year in Scotland and half a year in North Wales, instructing at the Plas y Brenin British National Mountaineering Centre. That naturally led to mutual reveries over the historic venue of Llanberis Pass, dramatic and harshly beautiful, with sweeping scree leading up to steep gray crag faces and some of the best climbs in the world.
“I once soloed Cenotaph Corner,” he said.
“You soloed the Corner?” That floored me.
I knew that climb, perhaps the most famous in Britain, a perfect 120-foot open book, E1 5c (5.10). It was the grandest and most obvious line in the whole Pass. I’d been pointed up it once, as an emergent young leader, by a hard-charging friend. I fell again and again at the top.
“Use the peg!” Matthew shouted after the first whipper. A fixed pin guarded the last moves, and plenty have stood on it.
A British film crew and a lime-green clad, heroic Ron Fawcett (being filmed on his FA of Lord of the Flies) happened to be at the crag, the great Dinas Cromlech, that day. After my second or third big fall, the whole BBC film crew yelled, “Use the fucking peg!”
A year later, having gained more experience, I returned. I was climbing the grade regularly by then, and was powerfully motivated, and still barely scraped to the top. I was surprised by how hard those finishing moves were.
I said to Scott, “The hardest moves are at the top!”
“Well, yes,” he said, pleased to share that comprehension with someone, laughing. “They are.”
Of course I asked about it and we talked more, and eventually he paused and said, “It’s really nice to talk to another climber.”
That was it, really. He gave me his contact info, and I followed up by suggesting that as a start, he join the AAC. Joining any advocacy group expands its numbers and clout. This was in the late 1990s, and the Forest Service issue was to be, over time, mitigated in negotiated rulemaking by a coalition of climbing groups including the AAC, Access Fund and others.
I heard from Tony once more, later, when he was filming in Mexico, and through a staff person asked for an issue of a climbing magazine with info about the climbing there. I sent it.
I’d already seen some of his films when I first heard from him, and over the years made a point of going to others, from Spy Game to The Taking of Pelham 123 and Man on Fire.
It wasn’t much, but a short exchange can feel like a connection, and that is why I felt gutshot and my eyes filled with tears when I opened my computer Sunday night to see that Tony Scott had jumped to his death off a bridge. He was 68, had a family, had directed 17 feature films.
He “love[d] rock climbing and rugby,” an online bio says. He always wore a faded red baseball cap.
Scott survived soloing Cenotaph Corner, but jumped off the 185-foot Vincent Thomas Bridge, Los Angeles Harbor. At midday, knowing what he was doing. He was a gutsy man. He loved the same things we all do. Space, and sharing the high outdoors, and focus.
Photos: (Top) Iconic shot of Rusty Baillie on Cenotaph Corner, 5.10, in the 1970s. Photo by John Cleare, who also notes: "I had no idea Tony Scott was a climber. And a pretty good one at that. Not everybody is prepared to solo the Corner, even today. In my day not everybody could climb it, even on a tight rope."
(Scenic) The airy sweep of Llanberis Pass, with Dinas Cromlech right of center and Cenotaph Corner in its center. Photo by Camilla Hylleberg.