This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 239 (January 2017).
On a Thursday morning in late July, Brad Gobright, 27, sat in a booth toward the back of a rundown McDonald’s in Squamish, B.C. Hunched over his coffee, he was discussing Cobra Crack (5.14b) with his girlfriend, Taleen Kennedy, and a photographer, Jeff Lewis.
“I don’t really want to take photos on it. I’m kinda outta shape,” Gobright said, chin down, glancing around at the other tables. His blue eyes never lingered on anything. Gobright is 5 feet 7 inches, but his broad shoulders and decisiveness made him seem taller. His approach shoes were worn through at the heels, and the stubble was getting long on his cheeks. The paper mug between his hands was a week old; he came here every morning and asked for a free refill. Gobright looked down into his cup. “I couldn’t send that climb right now, so posing would be weird,” he said, then paused and took a sip. “How about I solo some stuff for you guys at the Smoke Bluffs this evening instead? I do it most nights.”
Gobright is lousy with dates. He can remember a crux sequence from five years ago, but not when or in which season he sent the route. Here is what’s confirmed: He has been climbing almost non-stop since age 6. He dropped out of community college in Orange County, California, in 2009, and picked up odd jobs to finance a seemingly endless tour through North America. Nearly eight years later, he’s still on the road.
Trad, big walls and speed ascents are his specialties. Just outside of Boulder, he simul-climbed Eldorado Canyon’s 460-foot Naked Edge (5.11b), bridge-to-bridge, in just under 25 minutes, and redpointed every 5.12 and 5.13—10 routes—on Eldo’s Rincon Wall in six hours. In Yosemite, he free climbed El Cap’s 37-pitch Freerider (5.12d) in a day, and speed climbed the Nose in four-and-a-half hours.
His friend, climbing partner and fellow trad adept Mason Earle says, “I think people are starting to realize that in the world of Yosemite trad climbing, Brad is one of the important characters of our generation.” In June 2015, Earle earned the first free ascent of the 3,000-foot Heart Route (5.13b V10) on El Capitan with Gobright, who freed all but the five-foot dyno on pitch six, clearly a height-dependent crux.
But it’s Gobright’s free solos that pushed his name into the cognoscenti’s campfire conversations around the country. He soloed the 1,600-foot Epinephrine (5.9) in Red Rocks in just under 59 minutes; chucked an after-work lap up the 2,000-foot Inti Wantana (5.10c), also near Las Vegas; soloed the three-pitch Nabisco Wall (5.11c) in Yosemite; and climbed The Rostrum (5.11c) ropeless on Halloween in 2011—“There was a costume party going on up there when I finished,” he said.
Somehow, in spite of Gobright’s diverse credentials and almost a decade’s worth of friendships with photographers and professional athletes, most of the climbing community has no idea he exists. Gobright never hustled for endorsements, and until recently companies hadn’t approached him.
“I never considered sponsorship a possibility,” he said. “I always worked for four months, climbed for eight, and started over.”
Then, in November 2015, Outside magazine wrote about Gobright’s ropeless ascent of Hairstyles and Attitudes (5.12c), a deviously thin pitch perched 300 feet up the Bastille wall in Eldo. The article pronounced him “the next great free soloist.” The current “great free soloist” is Alex Honnold, whom Gobright calls “the best ever … Honnold is bold. My hardest day is like his average.”
Gobright signed his first sponsorship contract a few days after that story came out, but the new notoriety seemed to tug on him like gravity. Three weeks later, while climbing for a film, he decked from 20 feet in Boulder Canyon when his first piece failed on Viceroy (5.14 R).
Now that his body is healed, the question in the mind of many who read the article is whether Gobright can make the jump from semi-pro to the next level as a climber and soloist. A more interesting topic is whether he wants to.
Gobright’s cup was empty again. Under the table his foot jackhammered onto the sticky gray tile. He was in British Columbia to relax with Kennedy before driving to Yosemite for a stretch of autumn projects.
“I think Taleen and I are going to climb The Great Game after this,” Gobright said, looking around the table. “We’ll meet up with you guys this afternoon.”
Kennedy turned toward him. “Maybe you guys should shoot photos first?” she asked.
Kennedy is a talented graphic artist who had “never been on a hike until three years ago.” Instead of following her post-college plan—medical school—she left Los Angeles to climb in Yosemite. In the fall of 2013, she met Gobright in the park cafeteria. They’ve been climbing and traveling ever since.
Morning light is the safest bet for photographing most of the routes at Squamish. Lewis, the photographer, was in town only five days.
“Nah, it’ll be O.K.,” Gobright said, putting his arm around her. “We need some time together before I leave for the trade show”—the Outdoor Retailer convention—“in a few days.”
Squamish is a summer stop on the “dirtbag circuit,” a collection of stellar North American crags that draw flocks of itinerant climbers like migrating birds. Gobright first came here in 2011 and has spent four summers near the Chief, the black-streaked 1,368-foot granite dome that looms over the forest. On his last stint, in 2013, he ate meals at the local homeless shelter. This season, thanks to his sponsorship, he’d graduated to making his own avocado-and-tomato sandwiches.
Several hours after McDonald’s, Gobright and Kennedy pulled into the Smoke Bluffs lot in his white 1994 Honda Civic hatchback. He started walking, slightly ahead of Kennedy, Lewis and me, shoulders hunched, gripping his pack’s arm straps. This is his usual style—the fastest on an approach, the fastest on a climb and alone with his thoughts on both.
When I asked whether he was tired from the four-pitch 5.10 The Great Game, which he and Kennedy had just done, he muttered, “Nah, not really,” his eyes flicking to his feet. “I was pretty tired after the Grand Wall, though I’ve never sweated so much in my life.”
The day before, he’d speed-climbed the 1,000-foot face in 43 minutes with Pete Whittaker, a 25-year-old trad star from Sheffield, England.
If Honnold is “No Big Deal,” Gobright is more like “Let’s Change the Subject”—he didn’t mention he had free climbed the nine-pitch Grand Wall (5.13b) several times until I pried it out of him, two months after we hiked past it.
He reached Partners in Crime (5.11a), a thin 100-foot crack with a crux bulge 30 feet up. Gobright started climbing, on a rope, placing his first cam just below the hump. He towed a static line to fix for Lewis, so he could photograph Gobright on another lap. Kennedy sat at the base, flipping through Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.
“Cedar Wright asked if I’m nervous when Brad solos,” she said. “I’m not. Brad’s careful. He’ll back off if the weather isn’t right, if he has a bad feeling, if he’s not 100 percent.”
Gobright finished Partners and rapped, kicking off the face.“Totally wore the wrong shoes,” he said to no one in particular. “The toe is a little blown-out on one of these.”
Back on the ground, he whistled the chorus to “Paint It Black.” I asked how the holds felt on his way up. “Kinda oozy,” he said.
He sat and rested for several minutes, then stood, walked to the cliff and started to solo.
Gobright climbed quickly to the crux, moving faster than he had with a rope. His footwork was precise until just below the bulge. He slowed, and his smeared right foot trembled against the granite.
Kennedy walked away quietly.
I stood alone in the dirt, well below Gobright, gripped by an adrenaline surge that pushed my heartbeat into my ears and turned the day cold. Was he about to deck? He’d soloed this route regularly, so why was his foot quaking? Had my presence made him reckless? Was this all in my head?
Gobright topped out three minutes later, and the sound switched back on. Kennedy returned, and I asked her if she had left because of nerves.
“Oh, no, not at all,” she said. “I’ve just seen him solo so many times.”
We headed back toward the cars, stopping so Gobright could try Zombie Roof (5.12d) on the way. Almost to the parking lot, we passed a 30-foot tall 80-degree slab with a finger rail arcing up it.
When we had walked by the slab hours before, Gobright had fallen behind, scoping the rail. “Hold up,” he had said, dropping his pack and starting up the face in his battered approach shoes. “I’ve been wanting to check this out.” Kennedy had sat on a rock, shook her head and said: “This is why I always bring a book to the crag.”
Brad Gobright was born in Orange County, California, but he never fit the SoCal stereotype. His mother, Pamela Gobright, a planning consultant for outdoor-adventure sports companies, and father, Jim, a landscape architect and building contractor, registered him for a litany of team sports, but he never took to organized athletics.
“I enrolled Brad in soccer when he was 5, but he just climbed the goalposts instead of following the ball,” Pamela said through the phone from California.
The outdoorsy family was always a bit different—the Gobrights were the first in the neighborhood to install solar panels on their roof, and Jim’s car runs on grease. Brad’s younger sister, Jill, 26, has traveled through more than 45 countries.
“We raised our kids to be fearless,” said Pamela.
Brad’s first climb was on a little wall in an REI store when he was 6. “He loved it so much that we got a membership at the gym,” said his mother. His parents belayed him each week, and Brad became popular among the regulars.
Two years later, his father took him up Mount Whitney.
“I thought he was too young,” his mother said. “But when they came back, Brad was so proud of himself.”
Climbing, Brad discovered, gave him the confidence he never found at school. “I’ve always had pretty severe ADD,” he said. “Tutors, summer school, extra classes … It was extremely stressful.”
When Brad was in fourth grade, his parents let him climb outdoors with a crew of 20-somethings from the gym. At home, he replayed his Masters of Stone videos, watching John Bachar’s and Peter Croft’s big-wall ascents. On a family trip to Yosemite, Brad recognized the legendary free soloist Dan Osman at the foot of El Capitan and introduced himself. Afterward, he talked about the encounter endlessly.
When he was in high school, Brad explored Joshua Tree, Yosemite and the High Sierra.
“A friend and I did Whitney in a day,” he said. “We forgot gear, there was a lightning storm halfway through, and we got lost. Honestly, it all increased my stoke.”
Around that time, Gobright began free soloing in Joshua Tree. “I kinda grew up with soloing,” he said. “After watching John Bachar and Dan Osman, I thought it just seemed like the thing to do.”
And it was efficient. “Instead of climbing three routes with a friend, I could do 15 by myself.”
After those early laps in the desert, Gobright projected harder routes. “I like looking at a climb and thinking, ‘Oh, I could never solo that,’ then memorizing it [on a rope] to the point of muscle memory,” he said. “The moment I finally step off the ground without a rope feels amazing.”
Regardless of a route’s grade, he says, fear isn’t on his mind once he commits. “On any serious solo I have the route so wired I don’t think about beta,” he said. “I think about TV shows and random stuff. I’m aware, but it’s lighthearted.”
In Alone on the Wall, Alex Honnold describes his mind as “empty,” and says he is “not really thinking” during his solos.
I asked Gobright the inevitable question posed to soloists, whether he thinks about death.
“Well, I dunno,” he replied. “Maybe I’ll be resurrected as an ant. I don’t think about dying much. If I dozed off on the highway at 90 miles per hour I’d probably die, too. Climbing without a rope sounds extreme, and it is, but there’s a lot of stuff people do that’s dangerous.”
I started to see that Gobright’s tongue-in-cheek responses were more a reflection of his discomfort with fame, than his being recklessness or posturing. Soloing has become something he’s renowned for, but he quietly practiced for a decade before anyone wrote about him. Consolidating a life philosophy on the spot is the work of beauty queens and politicians. Gobright just speaks honestly—his flippancy might be his way of avoiding an answer too abstract and personal to articulate.
In 2007, Gobright tried community college, but he felt rudderless and often cut class to climb. “I was studying for an unknown job that I probably wouldn’t even be good at,” he said.
He missed Yosemite and the confidence he felt when the Valley floor dropped away. So, summer after freshman year, Gobright drove east. He cleaned rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel to get by, and stayed in Yosemite until winter. After half a semester in early 2009, he dropped out of school for good.
“I wanted to live in the moment,” he said. “Maybe I’ll regret it in a decade, but I’m doing what I love right now.”
Each year when the temperature dropped, Gobright bussed tables. Sometimes he strung Christmas lights in Boulder or worked odd jobs. One winter he unpacked pallets in the basement of a Las Vegas casino. In the warm seasons, he rotated between Red Rock, Indian Creek, Squamish, Eldorado Canyon and Yosemite. He became a fixture of the traveling-dirtbag scene, and his endurance and athleticism earned him the respect of rawhide-tough lifers. But until recently he wasn’t much of a technician.
“He was so fucking strong, but his footwork was so bad,” said Honnold. “Now he’s really gotten better. Brad has a good head for trad, which is what makes him such a good soloist.”
Whenever he was in Yosemite, Gobright slept in the boulders above Camp 4, swiped half-eaten food from the cafeteria and sold his parking spot to desperate tourists. His hustles freed him to climb every day, and his technique improved.
“Brad has come a long way,” said Earle. “It’s inspiring to watch him progress.”
In the summer of 2015, Gobright was bussing tables in Boulder, Colorado, and living with seven other climbers when he got an unexpected call from Cedar Wright, who wanted Gobright to star in a short film. After Gobright had spent six and a half years of hustles and scrounging, the movie could be his gateway to sponsorships. The angle was his soloing.
“It was perfect timing,” Gobright said. “I had these two solos in mind that had never been done before.”
Hairstyles and Attitudes (5.12c) is situated midway up the 700-foot Bastille in Eldorado Canyon, near Boulder. Gobright had rope-soloed it more than 50 times, but had aborted his previous free-solo attempt, in early October 2014, because of nerves, down climbing to safety. Later that month, he and Wright met in the canyon to shoot the reel. Halfway to the top, with 350 feet of air beneath his shoes, Gobright suddenly pitched backward, then righted himself. He doesn’t remember that moment, but admits his hands got sweaty when he saw the footage.
“I saw the video,” said Honnold. “It looks pretty hard and gnarly.”
The film and subsequent article in Outside earned Gobright a sponsorship and a salary, but he worried about being branded a daredevil.
Preparing for a solo requires dedication, and Gobright seems to have limitless tenacity—but he can be overzealous. “Brad’s greatest strength is being persistent,” said Earle. “I’d say a weakness of his is impatience.”
“He’s one of the better trad and big-wall climbers in the country,” said Honnold. “The thing about Brad is that he kinda reminds me of Cedar Wright—zany characters and really good climbers, but sometimes they botch it.”
In the spring of 2015, Honnold and Gobright linked Freeblast (5.11) into the upper 16 pitches of the Heart Route (5.13b) on El Cap in 15 hours. Gobright led the first 5.13 pitch, which traverses out of the Heart feature. When Honnold followed the traverse, he arrived at the belay to find Gobright belaying off a single bolt. Despite knowing the route well—it had been his and Earle’s project for four years—Gobright had in his excitement forgotten that the anchor required a #2 cam, which he had placed earlier on the pitch.
Then, in January 2016, riding high from Hairstyles and Attitudes, his toughest free solo ever, Gobright decided to take a run at Viceroy, a poorly protected 5.14 in Boulder Canyon.
Gobright had been working Viceroy for a few weeks—he had stuck each move about 10 times, but hadn’t linked them. Wright’s crew came out to film, hopeful for a send. Twenty feet up, Gobright slipped off the low crux, ripped a cam and decked.
“Yeah, maybe Cedar’s film played a role in Viceroy, but I was really go, go, go that season,” said Gobright. “It all caught up to me on that route. I pushed it a little too fast and paid the price. Calculating risk isn’t something I’m perfect at, but I’m getting better. It takes time.”
Before the accident, Gobright expected to spend the upcoming summer in Yosemite. Stretched out in a Colorado hospital bed with two cracked vertebrae and a fractured ankle, he found that his mission became just getting back on the rock at all.
“Let me tell you, he was laser-focused on getting healthy,” said his mother. Within two months, Gobright was climbing outside.
Only six months after the accident, Gobright was back in Yosemite to attempt a “Triple Crown”: three El Cap routes in a day. A few days before the attempt, his partner, Dave Allfrey, injured one of his fingers in a climbing fall. Gobright was in luck—his friend Scott Bennett was in Yosemite.
“We kind of just threw it together,” said Gobright. “We climbed Zodiac two days before, and it took us over seven hours. We didn’t have time to climb the other two together, so we just went for the link.”
On June 16, he and Bennett aided and free-climbed through Zodiac, the Nose and Lurking Fear in 23 hours and 10 minutes, earning the third-ever El Cap Triple Crown.
It was just after 1:00 p.m. when Gobright topped out the Triple. He hauled himself over the edge of El Capitan, sat down and took in the Valley beneath him. After a few minutes, he called Kennedy and told her the news. It was Gobright’s 27th birthday, but there were no flying corks or celebratory tokes that night, just a campfire with friends, then sleep.
Gobright’s bones reknitted after his fall, but “I haven’t really healed mentally,” he said.
In Squamish this past July, he took a 30-foot whip on The Shadow (5.13a), plunging onto his cam and slamming into the granite corner. Afterward, he admitted that since Viceroy, he sometimes gets spooked leading past gear. That psychological scar could have split open during the Triple when a cam popped as he jugged across a traverse on Zodiac, but Gobright’s experience and technique allowed him to manage his fear. He sent The Shadow a few weeks after falling on it.
Battling anxiety in Squamish, however, may be easier than withstanding the expectations of becoming well-known in climbing, and Gobright seems aware of the pressures he’ll face as his profile rises.
“My Gramicci contract is up in a year and a half,” he said, “and I’d like to sign for an additional two years. So, yeah, there’s a bit of pressure right now.” But, he added, he wasn’t going to repeat the mistake of taking on a climb like Viceroy before he’s ready.
“I’m careful about throwing myself at projects now,” he said. As for soloing, “I don’t feel any expectations about being known as a soloist. If I feel like soloing, I will, but I’m not going to force myself.”
I asked him if he dreams of Instagram celebrity. “Hell no, that would defeat my purpose,” Gobright said. “Right now I’m free to climb all the time.”
I thought of Gobright soloing Partners in Crime and tried to reconcile his words with that climb. I suspected he went ropeless that evening because he wanted to live up to his assigned reputation, but he never offered to solo again during our five days together in Squamish. The climb seemed impromptu and the conditions shy of perfect. I felt chills, though maybe for Gobright, that well-rehearsed lap up a short 5.11a was as easy as walking a familiar trail in worn boots.
Seth Heller is a frequent contributor to Rock and Ice.