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Tom Higgins, 1944-2018, Purist to the End

Bold first ascentionist was known for hard routes and thoughtful writing

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Tom Higgins was one of America’s most unusual and thoughtful climbers, a purist for decades.  He lived a climbing ethic that others could only imagine.

Tom died at home in Oakland, California, March 21 at age 73. Longtime climbing partner of Bob Kamps, he was also a partner and contemporary of Pat Ament, Vern Clevenger and Chris Vandiver, among many other leading climbers. He was known for establishing hard and runout climbs, all bolted on lead, at Tahquitz, in Tuolumne and elsewhere, and also for technical difficulty, such as in his first free ascent of the Left Ski Track, Joshua Tree, an early 5.11.

Tom was a transportation expert, co-founder and owner of the transportation consulting company K.T. Analytics, and a terrific climber in the period just post the so-named Golden Years of Yosemite and California climbing in the 1960s.

Higgins high and runout on Nerve Wrack Point, Lamb Dome, Tuolumne. Photo by Pat Ament.

As climbs grew harder and harder during that time, to a point five grades beyond the original 5.9, many new methods might be incorporated, but Tom always felt climbers had to play by a style of ethics. Others might not be clear on what they even thought, but he always felt there was only one true way. He was not so much competitive as he was sure and graceful.

His best-known piece of writing is surely the polemic “Tricksters and Traditionalists,” in which he popularized the phrase “traditional climbing” and advocated for it versus contemporary styles. The piece was featured in the original Ascent, edited by Steve Roper and Allen Steck and published by Sierra Club books, and later republished in the “Best of” 25th anniversary edition. In the essay Tom wrote:

“‘Tricksters’ are bending and altering the traditional rules of the climbing game. In the traditional style, climbers do not alter the rock in order to free climb it. Nor do they preview routes on rappel, or fix protection on aid or on rappel with the intention of immediately trying to free climb. Aid climbing is done to get to the top, not to set up a route for free-climb attempts. Likewise, in traditional style the climber might fall a few times trying a free climb, but he or she doesn’t rest on the protection between attempts. The traditionalist knows there is a time and place to give up.”

Among other writings are “In Thanks” and “Nerve Wrack Point” in the classic compendium Games Climbers Play, edited by Ken Wilson, of the famous Mountain magazine in the UK. Tom also wrote fiction, including “In Due Time: A Play in Three Acts,” in Ordeal By Piton, Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing, compiled by Steve Roper, and “Swaramandal” in Climber’s Choice, edited by Pat Ament. Tom maintained the website of climbing images and writings, including fiction, histories and observations about style.

Among his best-known routes are, with Kamps, the first free ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, also the FFA of Serenity Crack (with Chris Jones) and other Valley FAs, many of which are recorded in Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber by Steve Roper. Famed Tuolumne routes include Lucky Streaks with Kamps, Nerve Wrack Point with Pat Ament, The Vision, Fairest of All, Curve Like Her, Thy Will Be Done and Piece de Resistance.

Early in their climbing careers, Bob Kamps and Tom Higgins formed one of America’s best climbing duos, bold and unique. Tom was Kamps’ mentor to Bob’s final day (Kamps died in 2005). Tom was satirical while Kamps always had less to say. In writing or speaking, Tom fashioned his points carefully and expressed himself peacefully.

As he grew older, Higgins saw more and more climbers take the tack opposite from his. Gym climbing throughout the world and extraordinary climbers on most extreme routes created more attention to climbing and difficulties never seen before, by means that might include taking many years for a climb. To him, only the traditional ethic remained. He did not eschew “tricksters” but he felt the style of the climb should be recognized as part of an accomplishment.

Late in life Tom was in terrible pain, with two years abed. He finally gave up climbing, even after his back got a lot better and he walked again. Before that time, however, he enjoyed decades of routes, friends and amazing excitement. He was funnier than most everybody, with a terrific smile and flashing teeth.

Tom found his challenges deeper later in life. While his climbing finally ended, his mind was keen, though at times he had been on strong medications.  In time his spirit dimmed.  Higgins took his life and died at home.

Steve Roper, in an author biography in Ordeal by Piton, recalled Higgins’ deep and honest convictions as expressed in his first venture into print, a letter to the editor of Summit in July 1963: “It seems to me,” Higgins wrote, “that the value of climbing lies in the striving for ideals.”

Tom Higgins is survived by his wife of 45 years, Nancy Dyar; their daughter, Dr. Alanna Higgins Joyce, and her husband, Timothy; and two grandchildren, Charles and Thomas.

See San Francisco Chronicle obituary here.

—Peter Haan