Free Soloist, Stonemaster, Ground-up Visionary
[ 1957—2009 ]
Here’s how it began. My dad was a member of the Sierra Club and we would go backpacking. In my early teens I read The White Spider and Annapurna. I remember hearing stories about these super humans hanging on the side of El Cap. It was all mysterious and intriguing because the stone was foreboding and not where humans went. Who are these weird people?
At 19 I thought I would be a math professor but I quit college to climb. I was throwing away a huge possibility for my life by leaving college but I realized that I was one of the best. When I climbed with other really good climbers, I thought, “Shit, I can do the hardest stuff.” I promised myself I’d put everything into being the best ever. And if it didn’t happen, at least I would have given it all I had.
To me climbing offered an escape and a way to rise above everyday life.
I never really had any definite goals for climbing. I approached it like a dancer works on dancing. Just become a better dancer. I used to free solo five 5.12 routes in a day. I can’t do that now. No matter what level I am at, I enjoy the challenge of getting a bit better than I was the day before. Flow, make the moves smoother.
When John Long said, “Let’s go do Double Cross” [5.7 in Joshua Tree], I walked to my car and he was walking to the rock. Long said, “Oh, no, we’re not using ropes. If you toproped it 100 times, how many times would you fall?” “Uh, none.” That one question changed my life. After I soloed Double Cross, there was just this weird twitch inside of me. Then one evening a bunch of us were sitting in Hidden Valley Campground and someone said, “Fuck! Look, there’s Tobin [Sorenson] soloing North Overhang!” Everyone’s jaws dropped. 5.11 was pretty much the limit for roped climbing, and soloing 5.9 was unheard of. But I thought if Tobin could do it, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal.
First ascents of Tuolumne face routes were more interesting. You can pretty much see where a crack will go, but on a face you might get shut down or have to weave all over. I thought the Bachar-Yerian would stay in the black streak, but then it primarily stayed left.
Climbers have an intense connection to the stone and all for different reasons. John Gill analyzed moves and made each one perfect. Guys like Reinhold Messner and Hermann Buhl were driven, and their ascents put it all together. Their fortitude, their devotion: All that effort was incredible.
Henry Barber had the ability to take a look around at what was going on and take it a step further. He would feed off the limits of other climbers and learn the current paradigm there and then change it, expand it.
Peter Croft is the best crack climber I have ever seen. He was in his own league as a soloist. Croft is not a roll-the-dice kind of guy.
Dean Potter is a roll-the-dice kind of guy.
All rap-bolted routes are invisible topropes. I would never rap bolt. I never have and don’t see the point. If you do a first ascent, the whole fun is in the strategy of how to protect it, dealing with the danger—it requires you to pull out all the tricks you have ever learned.
Style is important. How you climb something makes a statement about yourself. A ground-up onsight is the ultimate test, the real deal, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Shitty gear, gnarly falls—it’s intense as hell to watch. The rest of climbing is essentially invisible toproping and gymnastics.
The Bachar-Yerian is a standout experience for me. It is located on one of the most forbidding walls in Tuolumne. This is the kind of granite you can’t muscle through. If you don’t resonate with 5.11 slab shit, then you are outta there.
I never called the Bachar-Yerian a free climb. I always called it 5.11 A1. The wall was so steep I couldn’t just stand on knobs with both hands free and place a bolt, so I would tie off a knob and hang from hooks—like they did in Dresden. I didn’t want a bolt ladder, so I penalized myself by running it out.
When I onsight-soloed Moratorium [5.11b, four pitches] in Yosemite I wasn’t scared, but I didn’t feel super in control at the crux either. It was pretty hard. At the top I didn’t feel good about it, like the rock let me get away with something. If you do soloing right, there is no fear, you never freak out.
If I weren’t a climber, I’d be a musician. Playing music feels like flying. The feelings are similar to what you get climbing and you can do it when you’re old. RI