In many ways, climbing is a peaceful substitute for war, the natural state and heritage of evolving man. Peace is the social yardstick to measure civilization’s advancement, and although peace is productive and positive, it can be boring. During our stone-age days we climbed to escape danger. Paradoxically, now that we are at the top of the food chain, we climb to expose ourselves to danger, filling one of our basic emotional needs and one critical component missing from modern civilization—real excitement.
I was a child of war, born soon after D-Day in 1944, which is remarkable since my father, a B17 captain, had been shot down over occupied France in 1943. The last to jump from the burning bomber, he decided to delay pulling his ripcord until he was level with the flak towers that shot down his plane. He did this not because he wanted to be on the leading edge of skydiving, but to avoid being cut in half by German gunners—the fate of his fellow crew members who had deployed their parachutes early and made themselves easy targets.
My father opened his chute less than 200 feet from the ground, giving him less than a second before impact. He hit so hard he broke his lower back and paralyzed his legs. My dad wasn’t crazy—he was the only one of 10 from the B17 to survive. After burying his parachute, he crawled in the dark to the light of a nearby farmhouse.
It took him two months to make his way back to England, where he was put in traction for six weeks. I was born at the end of July, 1944. Giving birth to me killed my mother—she was pronounced dead for three minutes before being resuscitated. As I grew up, my mother related her experience on the other side, and now you could never convince me that there is no God.
After the war, my family was constantly on the move. By the time I was eight, I had been to 32 of the then 48 states. I’d also been to nine countries, and lived in three. The effect on me was a feeling of uncertainty; the result was a quest for adventure. My mother, father, older sister and I lived in a 32-foot trailer, and I was never in one place long enough to make a friend. But I knew of nothing else and assumed this way of life was just the way it was.
When I was very young my mother spent an hour before bed teaching, reading to me the Iliad and the Odyssey, the legends of King Arthur, Camelot, Sir Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail by Sir Galahad. These tales of dedicated service, chivalry and courage help form an honorable character with noble values. Unknowingly, your identity is based on the interaction with your mother and father, the cultural mores and the general world environment you are exposed to.
My mother was naturally curious, and this I inherited. My diabolical curiosity left a wake of disassembled clocks, frogs swimming in the sink, and tarantulas in jars, and, ultimately, led to climbing. I started climbing in the early 1960s on the sandstone outcrops of the San Francisco Peninsula. Free climbing was my first pursuit, but an article in National Geographic about Layton Kor climbing the Titan got me interested in aid climbing, which was and still is the key to the big walls. Back then, and probably to some degree still today, getting all the esoteric gear for this specialized endeavor was problematic. Some equipment I could make but most eclipsed my capacity, and would have to be purchased. I saved my lunch money, shoveled out chicken coops, picked walnuts and worked part time for a gunsmith. The conservative values of saving, strong work ethics and persistence were contributions from my father. He would say, “If you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it.”
As a footnote for the economic wizards, in 1963 the minimum hourly wage was $1.25, which would buy seven gallons of gas or seven packs of cigarettes, or 10 pounds of grapes. At present in California the minimum wage is $8.50, but one hour’s work buys only two gallons of gas or 1¾ packs of cigarettes or three to five pounds of grapes.
In the 1960s, the general appearance of climbers was often the thrift-store look: completely practical and cheap. Pants were under a dollar, and were the type worn by painters, bakers or sailors, white being the preferred color because it was cooler in the blistering Valley sun. Dress shirts tapped your pocketbook 40 to 45 cents, and the look attracted some very dysfunctional human types. Although most of the Yosemite regulars were from Cal. State Berkeley, none were political-science majors.
My first successful climb in Yosemite was the Higher Cathedral Spire with Galen Rowell. He overheard me talking about a recent ill-fated attempt I had made, and asked if I wanted to do it the next day, my 18th birthday . Of course I eagerly said yes. We would meet at 7 a.m.
In the morning I had to roust him out of his tent and assure him of my sincerity to do the climb since he seemed quite surprised to see me show up. Galen drove a Chevy Nomad he had souped up. Apparently, he ran an auto shop in Albany and that helped pay for college.
We charged up the Spire’s gulley and despite a slow start arrived at the base at 9:30 a.m. Earlier, I had heard Galen’s horror story of a previous partner following the first pitch. Now, as Galen led off, I was in the same place to repeat the experience of Galen’s white-knuckled friend. Moving from the security of a huge ledge to the insecurity of a thousand feet of air below my kletterschuhes gave me the excitement I had wanted. It was Galen who sent me down the path of a lifetime of climbing. In fact, I would soon return and lead some of my high-school track friends up the Higher Spire and the Lower, and attempt the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock.
During my last year of high school, my track coach got me interested in sports psychology and arranged for me to be hypnotized in order to, hopefully, become a better competitor, but I was one of those people who couldn’t be seduced to turn over their will to another. It would be left to me; I was, after all, responsible for my own life.
1963 was also pivotal for me because it was then that I took my test for acceptance into the pilot training program for the Navy or the Marines. As I passed through the gates of the Alameda Naval Base, the radio announced that Jack Ruby had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Five hours later I had finished the battery of aptitude tests, but I was still seeking answers—to more important questions. Instead of joining the military, I applied to the university in San Jose, and was accepted on a sports scholarship. My declared major was psychology with a math minor.
While the degradation of social evolution dictated my material situation, it did not detour my intellectual or spiritual growth.
But book learning is one thing and I needed some damn secret knowledge. San Jose just happened to be headquarters for the Rosicrucians so I joined. I soon learned varied mind skills and mental practices built on esoteric truths of the ancient past, not revealed to the average man. Rosicrucian doctrine also provided insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.
That winter, the first ascent of the Dihedral Wall made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The news had added interest for me because I knew two of the three climbers, Glen Denny and Jim Baldwin. Their ascent marked the third route on El Capitan, joining the Nose and the Salathé Wall. It was my first year in college, which begrudgingly required much of my time. Between my studies and being on the track and field team, I had far too little time for climbing. I did manage to assemble a small group of the willing, people eager for the adventures that would act as austere test laboratories to drive the engines of character development. We focused our activities a little closer to home in a small state monument known as the Pinnacles. What we didn’t realize was that the Pinnacles had an unwritten rule that required all climbing to reach a summit. But, even if I had known, I would have broken the rule without reverence—“Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it,” said Albert Einstein.
Once again accompanied by some of my track friends, I made a couple of trips to Yosemite during the winter, one being on Christmas, the other Easter, when, after reading too much Hermann Buhl, we climbed the Pharaoh’s Beard in a snow storm. When the weather improved, we climbed the right side of Little John Pinnacle at the base of El Capitan under a deluge of falling ice, which slid from the summit slabs in giant windowpane sheets that would flip and tumble.
In the summer of 1964 I had the great opportunity to climb with Frank Sacherer, the father of the modern free-climbing ethos. Frank had started a campaign to eliminate aid from as many Yosemite routes as he could, which made him a real oddity, especially for people like Kor. Once, on the West Face of Rixon’s I followed a pitch all free that Kor had nailed on lead. But I took too long and when I arrived at the belay, Kor, who was all about speed and being practical, quizzed me about this.
“You didn’t climb that free?” he asked.
I admitted that I had.
“Why, you little asshole,” he said.
Sacherer, however, was willing to die doing things differently. Together we did the first free ascent of Ahab (5.10b) at the base of El Cap, and for the time, that was about as difficult as climbing got, and hard to appreciate today with nuts, cams, chalk and rockshoes, none of which existed back then. As Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Sacherer was the rare individual who possessed both in abundance.
That same year Sacherer also freed Reed’s Pinnacle Direct, Sacherer Cracker, the East Buttress of El Cap, the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral, Lost Arrow Chimney and a host of other cutting-edge routes. Impressive, especially when you consider that Sacherer was mostly a weekend warrior and rated his hardest routes 5.9. His real passion was physics, in which he had a Ph.D. In 1970, he worked for CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Physics in Geneva, Switzerland, and his efforts paved the way for a Nobel Prize, but he and his partner died in 1978 in a storm after an ascent of The Shroud on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Alps.
When I want to pursue a new endeavor, I gravitate toward successful people. Besides climbing with Sacherer, I sought out Layton Kor, Chuck Pratt, Glen Denny, Eric Beck, Joe McKeown, John Evans and others. These pioneers were my mentors—all were near geniuses, ordered, disciplined, productive, hard workers, highly imaginative with strong moral values and a belief in a higher intelligent power or deity. I figured if I learned a little directly, time and osmosis would cover the rest. I think I chose well.
Why do I climb? Why does anyone climb? After an El Cap rescue that was front-page news for the San Francisco Chronicle, a young female journalist arrived in Yosemite to do a follow-up article for the newspaper serving her area. Of course, her first question was, “Why do you do this insanity?”
I thought over how to phrase a true but pithy reply, and not be an asshole, then said, “It’s better than war—you don’t have to kill anyone you don’t know, and I couldn’t afford Formula 1 racing.” I waited a moment and added, “I think that could be—the grace of God.”
Most people still don’t understand why we climb. I will say that everything you do is a choice, every thought you think is a choice. I’ve led a very different life, one fueled by adventure and a dose of psychedelics. I can pretty much guarantee you and I don’t think the same. I can only present my personal experiences from over 50 years of climbing, but these may help you to better understand yourself and why you do what you do.
If it’s understood that we live on an evolutionary plane of time and space and that the goal of evolution is perfection, then there must be an evolutionary process to reach that goal. Mortal creatures evolve until they no longer adapt to fill the needs of evolution, then they become extinct. It is a case of form following function, which can be seen in the evolution of climbing. Climbing as we know it evolved in Europe because the new leisure class born of the industrial revolution needed something exciting to augment their quest for knowledge. The first ascent of the Matterhorn marked the beginning, and once all the mountains were climbed, people began rock climbing, and ice climbing and then bouldering. Without these evolutions the sport would have died. Equipment has likewise evolved, although pitons continue to exist because they are still necessary.
How, what and the type of climbing we choose is directly influenced by family co-ordination and indirectly by genetics. The mental and physical inequality of humans ensures that social classes will appear. The belief that all men are created equal would be quickly dispelled if you were to climb with Alex Huber.
Putting up routes builds character. Lionel Terray said, “To pick the roses along the borders of the impossible requires great moral strength.”
You can argue that first ascents are selfish. When you are the first one to make all the decisions and set the standard, no one after you will ever be in the same situation or have the same experience. Success on a new route requires wise personnel choices, detailed and meticulous planning, knowledge of weather, geography, geology and the cosmic realities of solar cycles. Big climbs, and especially those that require multiple skills in an alpine setting, are always the most demanding and the most rewarding. It doesn’t matter what you think you know, what can you do with what you know? Do something, even if it’s wrong; then you know not to do it again. If you can’t think intelligently, trial and error eventually succeed, if you live long enough. I’m nearly 70 now and have experienced diversity from the tropical jungles to the arctic ice pack, from wild boars to polar bears. I have learned that there is a fine line between boldness and stupidity, and between prudence and cowardice. Do you get it?
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 220 (August 2014).
Jim Bridwell was the founder of YOSAR and the author of such Yosemite classics as Sea of Dreams, Butterfingers and Dance of the Woo-Li Masters. He died on February 14, 2018 from hepaticis C-related complications. He was 73.
To aid Bridwell’s family with the outstanding medical expenses, please visit here.