In the 60-year history of modern Yosemite rock climbing, the sport’s all-time greatest cultural hero was Jim Bridwell, who died of complications from hepatitis C on February 16 at age 73.
The Valley has had other heroes, to be sure. Clean-cut Royal Robbins, who died late last year, created the enduring image of the climber as earnest moral seeker. Thepowerfully athletic Lynn Hill, who became the first person to free-climb El Capitan in 1993—meaning she used ropes only for safety, and made all upward progress with hands and feet on rock—filled the climbing world with pride that great female climbers could be every bit as good and sometimes better than the best men. But in the same way that Jimi Hendrix remains the model for every rock-n-roll guitarist, Jim Bridwell, with his excellent mustache and deep presence, towers above all the others as the ultimate embodiment of climber cool.
Bridwell was born in 1944 in San Antonio, Texas. His father was a pilot in World War II and later flew for commercial airlines, while his mother was a sometimes artist. Bridwell first climbed in Yosemite in 1965, when the sport’s culture was gelling around the campground known as Camp 4, and when titans of the sport like Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, and Warren Harding were making first ascents of the Valley’s most prominent walls. By the early 1970s, Bridwell had become the undisputed leader of the next generation.
In 1975, with John Long and Billy Westbay, Bridwell made the first one-day ascent of El Capitan, via the Nose route, which still takes most climbers three or four days.Their achievement still echoes through the international obsession with speed records on big climbs all over the world—the current record on the Nose has been whittled down to a blazing 2:19. Bridwell also ushered in a new era in aid climbing, in which upward progress is made by fixing gear into the rock, attaching stirrups to that gear, and then standing in those stirrups to place the next piece of gear.
Peter Mayfield, director of the Gateway Mountain Center near Lake Tahoe, and a longtime climbing partner of Bridwell’s, points out that the generation before Bridwell did first ascents on the great cliffs by tackling “big features, lines of least resistance” where prominent cracks allowed climbers to hammer in pitons secure enough to hold falls. When climbers of that earlier generation reached long sections too smooth for secure piton placements, they often drilled holes to place permanent safety bolts. Bridwell, in order to break new ground for his own first ascents, found new ways up vast smooth sections where stable piton placements were scarce or non-existent, and mostly without drilling the safety bolts that eliminate danger and adventure.
“He really pioneered the climbing of the smaller not-even-features, little ripples and incipient seams,” says Mayfield.
Bridwell became the first great master of extreme aid-climbing tools like copperheads, little lumps of soft copper swaged onto wire loops. Bridwell and his partners became adept at placing those lumps of copper against faint indentations in the rock and then striking them with a hammer to mash that soft metal against the cliff. The climber would then clip stirrups to the wire loop hanging off that mashed metal, stand in those stirrups—very gingerly, so as not to rip the copperhead off the wall—and then bash another, and another, sometimes for a hundred feet or more without placing a single piece of gear that could hold even a short fall.
Bridwell’s greatest first ascents, including the routes Zenyatta Mondatta and Sea of Dreams, both on El Capitan, included such long stretches of extreme aid climbing that even a small mistake, like a brief loss of balance that caused a jerk on the rope, could tear out whatever copperhead he was hanging from and send him on a 200-foot fall ripping out every copperhead along the way. In some cases, those falls had the potential for grievous impact with rock features below.
Bridwell made important first ascents elsewhere, too, like on Cerro Torre in Patagonia and the east face of the Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska, but his enduring role as cultural hero derived as much from Bridwell’s personal style and the sheer force of his personality. The single most iconic photograph in Yosemite climbing history captures Bridwell and his younger partners, John Long and Billy Westbay, after that first one-day ascent of El Capitan’s Nose Route in 1975, and it resonates as much for the climbing accomplishment as for attitude. Wearing wild paisley shirts and bell-bottomed pants, smoking cigarettes and posing with rebellious insouciance, Bridwell and his partners created an utterly new image of the rock climber as biker-hippy-hardass, letting their freak flags fly while doing stuff harder and more terrifying than anything done before. Rumors of LSD trips during rest days in the middle of big first ascents added a very 1970s sense of extreme seeking, as did Bridwell’s route names: Sea of Dreams, of course, but also Aquarian Wall, Dark Star, and the Dance of the Woo-Li Masters, named for the 1979 bestselling book about quantum physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
Bridwell never managed to convert his accomplishments or his image into lucrative sponsorships or business opportunities as many of his contemporaries did, and this was a well-known source of frustration in his life. But he always remained a natural leader and great mentor, deeply admired by the many younger climbers he encouraged. Mayfield, who was 18 when he joined Bridwell on Zenyatta Mondatta, recalls taking a 40-foot fall on that route only to have Bridwell say, “You know, I see you up there pussyfooting around trying to be delicate, and that’s not the way to climb this stuff. You got to take that hammer and bash the shit out of that diorite until the loose outer rock comes down and you get to the solid stuff underneath.”
“I said, ‘Okay, let me at it,” Mayfield recalls. “I went right back up there and swung my hammer hard and he was right.”
Despite Bridwell’s hard-and-wild appearance, Mayfield insists that he was a flawlessly safe climber, and that his temperament was mostly “sweet and soulful.”
In the late 1980s, European-style sport climbing first came into vogue. It emphasized minimizing danger in order to maximize the potential for extreme gymnastic difficulty on tiny handholds and footholds. As part of this new wave, climbers putting up new routes often hung from ropes to pre-drill protection bolts before attempting their ascents. This was a grave violation of traditional Yosemite climbing ethics, which dictated placing protection gear only from the ground up. One famous Bridwell protégé, John Bachar, was so disgusted that he chopped bolts placed by another great young climber, Mark Chapman. In retaliation, Chapman cold-cocked Bachar and sent him to the hospital.
According to Mayfield, Bridwell said to those involved, “On your dying day you are not going to give a shit about how hard you climbed. You’re only going to care about who you connected with and how many people you helped along the way.”
In his own final hours, surrounded by family, Bridwell surely remembered that he’d connected with and helped far more than most.
Ostensibly a tale of two surfers chasing perfect waves, The Endless Summer is better understood as the original outdoor-sports lifestyle fantasy, the Dead Sea scrolls upon which our entire climbing/surfing/skiing road-trip religion was founded. With Brown narrating in a sun-saturated and cracker-jack American patter, the film opens with a montage/primer on the sport of surfing, just to let viewers know how much fun those crazy kids are having on the coast. Then it follows clean-cut longboarders Mike Hynson and Robert August around the world to Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Australia, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii.
Brown was a fledgling surf filmmaker when he made The Endless Summer for $50,000. He initially screened the film, in 1964, the same way everybody screened surf films in those days, driving up and down the west coast booking auditoriums and church halls, selling tickets, playing records, and narrating live. All by himself. After two years of that, Brown was so convinced The Endless Summer could sell to a broader audience—and so frustrated with movie distributors telling him it couldn’t play inland—that he rented the Sunset Theater in Wichita, Kansas, for two weeks. The place sold out, so Brown pulled the same trick at a theater in New York City and landed himself a theatrical distribution deal. Newsweek soon called The Endless Summer one of the ten best films of 1966, Time magazine called Brown the "Bergman of the boards,” and the film grossed $30 million worldwide.
As Matt Warshaw writes in The History of Surfing, the actual wave-riding in The Endless Summer was badly outdated almost as soon as middle-American audiences saw it. Surfboards had gotten much shorter in the intervening three years, and surfers were already making the switch from old-school longboard technique to modern slashing-and-carving. Same for the personal style of the surfers themselves, whose buzzed hair and propensity to wear suits and ties on airplanes looked downright square as early as 1967. So it’s a testament to the power of Brown’s vision that The Endless Summer still became a one-film culture industry, a touchstone for every outdoor-sports travel documentary from the legendary 1968 Mountain of Storms, in which North-Face founder Doug Tompkins and Patagonia-founder Yvon Chouinard drove a VW bus to South America surfing and skiing and climbing along the way, to the spellbinding new Given, about Aamion and Daize Goodwin’s global surf travels with their beautiful kids.
Bruce Brown was born on December 1, 1937, in San Francisco. He lived in Oakland until age nine, then moved with his family to Long Beach. He started surfing at eleven and saw early surf movies at the local Elk’s Club. He joined the Navy out of high school, served on a submarine, and shot his first hobby film with an 8mm camera while stationed in Honolulu in 1955. After he was discharged, Brown came back to California and went to Long Beach City College, but dropped out to work as a lifeguard.
The first big surfing boom, touched off by the bestselling book and Hollywood movie Gidget, was just getting rolling when Brown landed a job at Dale Velzy’s surf shop in Manhattan Beach, California. Velzy saw Brown’s home surf movies and started screening them for paying customers, charging 25 cents admission. Soon, they’d negotiated a deal for Velzy to bankroll Brown on a trip back to Hawaii, with funding for a proper movie camera, 50 rolls of film, six plane tickets, and Brown’s living expenses. The result was Brown’s first feature-length documentary, Slippery When Wet. Four more followed, at a pace of one per year: Surf Crazy (1959), Barefoot Adventure (1960), Surfing Hollow Days (1961), and Waterlogged (1962).
“When Bruce made The Endless Summer, in 1963,” says Warshaw, “it looked like some obscure guy stepped up to the plate and hit a homer, but the truth is he’d been doing rough drafts for years. In all those earlier movies, you can see him working out camera angles and that patter and voice.”
After the runaway success of The Endless Summer, Brown partnered with Steve McQueen to make a documentary about his other big love, off-road motorcycle-racing. The resulting documentary, On Any Sunday (1971), was nominated for a 1972 Academy Award. Brown spent most of the next two decades riding motorcycles, fishing commercially with his own swordfish boat, surfing, and racing rally cars with his wife, Pat. In 1994, Brown came out of semi-retirement to make The Endless Summer 2 with his son, Dana, whose Step Into Liquid (2003) was the fifth-highest grossing sports documentary ever. The Endless Summer 2 never matched the culture-changing power of the original but it was an awfully good time—both to watch and to film. Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, one of the surfer stars of that film, recalls painful days and creative arguments between Brown and his director of photography. “But every morning,” says Weaver, “there was a smile and a cigarette and a cup of coffee and off we went.”
Brown was also loyal to those he cared about. Weaver, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, saw him a dozen times a year in the last decade of Brown’s life. “He’s halfway between my house and where my mom lives in Newport, so we had a standing deal where I’d stop in and make dinner on the way south, and sleep over, and he’d make dinner on the way north,” says Weaver. Brown lived in a canyon off the Coast Highway near Santa Barbara. Weaver recalls the phone ringing one evening, and Brown looking out the window at a car stopped in the middle of the highway with lights blinking. It was a friend, dropping a bag of live lobsters for Brown on the median strip; Weaver had to dash through traffic to collect.
Near the end of Brown’s life, in a joint interview with Dana, Brown talked about his surfing buddies from the 1950s, how John Severson launched Surfer magazine, Hobie Alter made surfboards and boogie boards, and Brown himself took to making movies. “We just tried to figure out something to do to stay at the beach,” said Brown.
By that measure—and almost every other measure imaginable—Brown’s life was a soaring success. Not only did he live near the water, he kept surfing well into his early 70s. “Bruce liked going with me,” says Weaver, “because after every wave he rode, I’d catch a wave myself and paddle over and find him and let him grab my ankle leash. Then I’d tow him back out for another. Bruce really lived his life in the best possible fantasy world he could’ve had. I don’t think he would’ve changed a thing.”
Many years ago, when Matt Warshaw was busily creating his Encyclopedia of Surfing, the sport’s greatest online resource, I introduced him to a friend by saying that Warshaw knew more about surfing than anybody else alive. Warshaw, a former pro surfer and one-time editor of Surfer magazine, looked sickened as if he knew I was telling the truth but worried it might indicate mental illness on his part. My friend noticed and asked why.
Warshaw, who had just spent about six months in a darkened room developing integrated computer databases of surfing video clips and photos and magazine articles, said, “Put it this way. Can you name the winners and runners-up of every single Duke Kahanamoku Invitational between 1965 and 1984?” Warshaw paused and then, as if confessing something tragic, said, “Well, I can.”
Warshaw’s insanity, of course, turned out to be every other surfer’s blessing. The online Encyclopedia of Surfing launched in September 2013 as an innovative and crazily-rich warren of surf-culture rabbit holes. Drop by the home page anytime the mood strikes and you’ll find a randomized assortment of photo tiles linking to pithy articles and videos—like, for example, the entry for The Endless Summer, the most important surf movie ever. “A brilliant documentary, perfectly expressing the surfing spirit,” says a New Yorker review, quoted by Warshaw right next to a delightful video clip from the film’s opening sequence.
Search for young superstar Courtney Conlogue and you can watch her shred beautiful blue walls of water and then read that she “surfs with a dedication to hardcore rail turns, … relying on her powerful build to whip her board into deep carving maneuvers.” In fact, every great surfer ever, male or female, resides somewhere within Warshaw’s web pages, many in the interview section called “Above the Roar”—like pro surfer Corky Carroll, who confesses winningly, “I had to sell the Porsche. Which was fine. It’s a dumb car for a surfer, when you think about it.”
In this age of scattershot attention spans, with infinite online ephemera sucking our minds in infinite directions—and with most sport-specific websites figuring we want instant updates on all the latest everything—Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing remains a calming oasis for everybody who loves watery waves enough to frolic in well-curated thoughts and visions of them. One thing the Encyclopedia of Surfing has never been, however, is a money machine—mostly because Warshaw loves it too much to clutter up his site with ads, so the whole thing is a registered non-profit.
In fact, if Warshaw can’t raise $30,000 by the end of December he’ll have to shutter the whole project. I have to confess that I have skin in the game. Warshaw is an old buddy and I know how much this project means to him; the man puts his heart into it every day, and he keeps up a surf-focused Twitter feed that my life would be impoverished without. I donated, and I hope you will too, so Warshaw can keep paying for site upkeep and hosting, and maybe someday pay himself a whopping $25,000 a year for full-time work. That way, we can all keep riding Warshaw’s thought waves between trips to the beach.
You don’t have to covet 80-meter climbing ropes or be a gramobsessed through-hiker to understand what makes Eastside Sports in Bishop, California, the greatest mountain shop in America. All you need to know is that the place, open since 1977 and known as Wilson’s (for the former owner), long ago transcended gear-store status to become one of the great community centers and devotional sites for alpine purists and dirtbags. Packed to the ceiling with more obscure and hyper-specialized toys than anyone could use in a lifetime, and staffed by weathered veterans who spend their days off trail-running barefoot and establishing new climbing routes, Wilson’s reassures road-weary adventurers that they have come home.
Nestled between Mount Whitney and Yosemite National Park, just shy of the Nevada state line, Wilson’s occupies a nondescript glass storefront on a small-town-America Main Street between Raymond’s Deli and Valley Florist. A short list of nearby playgrounds includes the Pacific Crest Trail, the John Muir Trail, too many cold and swimmable lakes to count, lift-served skiing and mountain biking at Mammoth Mountain, bolted sport climbing at the Owens River Gorge and half a dozen other nearby crags, natural hot springs on federal grazing land, and the Buttermilks bouldering area, where frequently there are enough Sprinters and Vanagons in the parking lot to make it feel like a #vanlife meetup.
At Wilson’s, you’ll find the bouldering crowd on benches in the back, hunting for shoes that cup their heel bones just right to stick the crux heel hook on their V8 project in the Milks. Dusty and wiry PCT types push open the glass front doors with a look of purpose in their eyes, hungry for that rare titanium cookware or pair of wool socks that shop owner Chris Iversen, who browses through-hiker chat rooms for hints to whatever gear is currently hot, almost certainly has stocked.
In those long-gone days before Amazon and big-box stores eviscerated brick and mortar retail, mountain shops like Wilson’s—where you could outfit yourself for everything from a month in the backcountry to a five-day ascent of El Capitan—dotted the American West. Wilson’s isn’t the sole survivor; Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colorado, comes to mind. But no remaining shop anywhere plays a role this clutch in a mountain town so world-class that cognoscenti routinely set aside entire afternoons just to spend time inside.
The first time I took my daughter climbing in Yosemite, I thought I knew what I wanted to teach her.
My own dad taught me to climb in the valley 28 years earlier, and climbing was pretty much all I thought about between the ages of 19 and 24. I wasn’t bad, either—not remotely elite, but respectable. And sure, I quit for a couple of decades, got married and had two kids and put on 20 pounds, but those pounds were half muscle, and a guy doesn’t forget the skills he learned in his formative years. So when Hannah, my eldest, turned 12 in 2015, joined a local San Francisco climbing team, and pressured me to take her to Yosemite, I figured my 47-year-old body would slip back into my 24-year-old self like into a faded pair of Levi’s and start my kid down the road to Yosemite happiness.
I still had all my gear, so I dug it out of the basement and snapped the gates on 30-year-old carabiners just to remember the feeling. I tried on a pair of climbing shoes last worn in the prior millennium, and I bought a new rope, to be on the safe side. Hannah already knew all my climbing stories, but I rehashed them anyway during the four-hour drive from our home to Yosemite—sleeping in Camp Four with Grandpa, meeting young climbers from around the world, living on spaghetti-and-ketchup burritos. Like the good kid that she is, Hannah let me tell her all over again that old-school crack climbing is very different from the sport climbing she does indoors, and that just because she climbed 5.12 in the gym doesn’t mean squat in Yosemite. She indulged me in a rehash of the classic apprenticeship I’d followed, too, how we didn’t have climbing gyms in the old days, so the only way to get better was to follow an experienced leader through a sequence of short, easy climbs, learning along the way all the rules and theories behind the safety systems. As you became more confident and proved yourself, you started trading leads with a partner on routes that took most of the day. Then you tackled a classic progression of overnight big-wall climbs: first the south face of Washington Column, then the Northwest Face of Half Dome, then the Nose on El Capitan, the ultimate Yosemite rite of passage. Hannah even knew about a superbly beautiful route called Astroman that I’d always dreamed about in the old days but never got good enough to do. On that first drive to Yosemite Valley with Hannah, I said I could see rebooting my old Astroman fantasy and going on a multiyear training quest.
Our warm-up route, a short and easy number called Jamcrack, went great. Fifty feet off the ground on our second route, an ultra-classic 500-footer called Nutcracker, I got my first reality check. I must have done Nutcracker a dozen times in my former life, so I knew every move. Still, my fingers felt surprisingly weak and sweaty, and my body felt curiously (or not so curiously) stiff. I could have sworn the cliff itself had got steeper, too, but Hannah was so calm and so far from challenged that I figured I was imagining things. Higher still, during a particularly awkward move, I felt my lower back twitch the way it does when it’s going to seize up. I managed to stop that from happening with a series of weird breathing and pelvic-wiggle tricks I’d learned over the years, but then, 400 feet off the ground, I got to Nutcracker’s famous crux. The cliff really does get steeper there, the holds get smaller, and you have to make a delicate move to slap at a big jug above.
I looked down at my beautiful kid 50 feet below and realized that if I fell, I would smack hard against the wall above her. That thought stirred up memories of two friends who’d died climbing decades earlier—one on El Cap, in a long drop to the ground, and the other on a different Yosemite cliff, when he’d happened to hit his head during a relatively short fall. I looked back up Nutcracker and noticed a dark cloud slipping into view overhead, and remembered also the Japanese pair who froze to death in a storm near the top of El Capitan’s Nose route in 1984. If it rained hard, I thought, Hannah and I would need to retreat fast.
I looked down again and realized that if I did fall and smack the cliff above my daughter, I would almost certainly break an arm or a leg, and that if we did have to retreat in the rain, I’d need to build rappel anchors for us all the way down the cliff, and that if I really did shatter an arm or a leg or get a serious head injury, then Hannah would have no clue what to do and I might be so disabled that I’d never work again and my wife would have to support the entire family, and even if that did not happen but I still had to build all those rappel anchors in the freezing rain, I would be absolutely screwed because I forgot to bring a spare rope, which meant that it would take hours and hours to get down and we would both become hypothermic and maybe just outright die, a thought that filled my panicked brain with the irresistible and obvious question: What the hell am I doing?
By the time we got home to San Francisco, I concluded that Astroman was a delusional pipe dream and my real job was to make Hannah into the safest kid climber of all time. I started by purchasing a book called Climbing Anchors, by Bob Gaines and John Long, a Yosemite legend who made the first ascent of Astroman and, incidentally, fell 30 feet at a climbing gym in 2012, shattering his leg. I made Hannah read two chapters with me every night for a week, and she was a good sport—even when I administered verbal exams at bedtime. Next, I did the same with Climbing Self-Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations, by Molly Loomis and Andy Tyson, for which I also rigged ropes and gear between a staircase and the rafters in our living room, with a 70-pound punching bag standing in for a badly injured and unconscious climber (read: me) dangling from one end of the rope, so that Hannah could practice getting herself (and me) out of trouble.
Then I went out for beers with a surfing buddy who happens to be a shrink and confessed that I was still terrified about the potential consequences of getting my kid into this sport, but that Hannah was so hooked there was no changing course and it was only a matter of time before she drove off to Yosemite with dumbass teenager friends who’d get her into all kinds of trouble.
“I get it,” he said. “You want Hannah to know enough about the safety systems that she can be up on some climb when you’re not around, with some cute dirtbag climber dude who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and make that judgment for herself. So she can be like, ‘Look, you’re really cute, and we can totally hang out in your van, but we’re never climbing together again.’ ”
I could have done without the van image, but the basic picture was on point.
“What if you outsourced some of the teaching?” my surf-shrink buddy said. “Get some other people to do it for you, to relieve some of the pressure?”
That sounded so fabulous that I called yet another family friend, Peter Mayfield, who used to be the chief guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Mayfield now directs the Gateway Mountain Center, which puts on climbing camps near Lake Tahoe, with the help of yet another family friend, a world-class big-wall climber, professional guide, and platinum-blond dirtbag with a heart of gold named Steve Schneider. I asked Mayfield if he might be able to squeeze Hannah in for his next camp session and get Schneider to teach her everything there is to know about safety systems, while maybe going easy on his usual cavalcade of harmless but dirty jokes. Mayfield agreed.
For my final consult, I turned to my wife, Liz. (On most matters, I consult Liz first; climbing is different.) With Liz, I couldn’t help spewing a more vulnerable truth—as in, “I’m not half the man I used to be. My 24-year-old self could have led Hannah up fabulous routes that she would have loved, but my middle-aged ass gets scared shitless and will need years of reentry—whole weeks of climbing easy stuff outdoors with adult men as partners—just to get back a shred of my old mojo.”
“Why don’t you hire a guide?” she said.
I wasn’t sure that I’d heard her correctly. “Did you say hire a guide?”
“Yes, a professional.”
“What do you mean, for what?”
“For what would I hire a guide?”
“To climb with, dummy! You’re telling me you want to climb, you’re telling me it’s too scary, you’re telling me Hannah needs to do harder stuff than you can lead, and you’re telling me you can’t catch up without doing more climbing. So hire a guide.”
“Honey, I could have been a guide myself at one point. Almost, anyway. I don’t need a guide.”
She sighed, and then her eyes got that loving, compassionate look. She said, “I know you could have been a guide, sweetie. I do. You would have been a great guide. All I’m saying is that maybe in October, when we go up to Yosemite for your parents’ 50th anniversary, we could call up the Yosemite Mountaineering School and get somebody to lead you and Hannah up something big and fun.”
Liz is almost always right, so I called a friend and former guide named Ken Yager, who worked for the Yosemite Mountaineering School for 12 years. I told Yager I had a weird question and that my wife was pressuring me to give a great birthday present to Hannah, and Hannah was so psyched on climbing that Liz thought maybe Hannah would have fun climbing with a guide—not that I needed guiding myself, understand—but hey, I’d probably tag along just because I liked the idea of picking up some guiding techniques for my own use. So, anyway, could Yager maybe recommend a guide?
Yager, I should point out, in addition to being an old-school Yosemite hardass, is a father himself and what you might call a Soul Man. He has heart, in other words. So he told me that all my bullshit made perfect sense and gently suggested a guy named Nate Kerr who had a daughter Hannah’s age.
Hannah and I met Kerr early one morning in October 2015, below Yosemite Falls. I told him that I’d done a lot of climbing in the old days and used to be super good and was just getting back into it, and that I’d led Hannah up some solid 5.7’s and 5.8’s a few months ago and thought she was probably ready for 5.9, so maybe he could take the lead and let me tag along just for laughs. Kerr, who was a great guy, accepted my rap and did just that. I had fun, but somewhere deep inside… I don’t know. Everything felt terrible.
Afterward, with a couple of hours left before dark, Kerr invited us to join his wife and daughter at a little cliff called the Cookie—to climb as friends, not as clients and guide. That sounded terrific, so we drove to the Cookie and scrambled up a dirt slope through trees to the base of a 5.10d crack called Catchy that I’d led back in the day. I told Kerr that I was at least a year away from being able to repeat Catchy but Hannah ought to have a go just to see how hard a serious valley crack can be. Hannah pulled on her shoes and harness, tied into the rope, and, while I stood ready to offer pointers, floated up it like it was a ladder. Never once did she ask for my advice.
Later that fall, Hannah hurt her finger. Of course she did. She was so psyched on climbing that she trained three times a week with her indoor team, for three hours at a stretch, plus extra sessions with me and her friends. By mid-October, she’d blown a key tendon and her entire indoor climbing season was effectively shot. The fun and bragging rights of Hannah’s Yosemite triumphs carried her for a little while, but her climbing world soon shrank to the simple, miserable fact that she was not getting better on plastic and other kids were beating her. Then, in May 2016, at the USA Climbing Regional Championships in Sacramento, Hannah climbed her first route well but fell low on her next two. She fought back tears the whole drive home.
Suddenly, I decided that my real job as my daughter’s primary climbing teacher—now that we’d made progress on the safety thing—was teaching the crucial life skill of extracting happiness from long, easy climbs. I pictured an entire summer in which my daughter and I would hike deep into the backcountry and cruise up alpine routes so beautiful they made hard Yosemite cracks look like a sideshow and indoor climbing like a weird Habitrail for people who hate nature.
Hannah took the bait, and we drove to the higher-altitude part of Yosemite to start with a route called Tenaya Peak—1,400 feet of easy but classic granite, serious business for a girl who’d never climbed a route even half that tall. If I led each pitch and belayed her up from below, it might take as long as eight hours. So we got up at 3:30 A.M. and packed for the worst: rain jackets and pants, thermal tops and bottoms, fleece tops, hats, and gloves—all in case we got caught on that big face in one of those fierce thunderstorms that can turn sunny Yosemite cliffs into frigid waterfalls. I also packed an extra rope, enough food to survive an entire night out, and three liters of water for each of us.
To reach the route, we had to scramble up 500 feet of loose slope and scrub forest to the lower slabs of Tenaya’s immense north buttress. Then, as we dropped our packs to rope up and start, Hannah looked up at that giant granite face and said, “Shouldn’t we simul-climb this?”
She was referring to an advanced technique in which both climbers move upward simultaneously, with a rope connecting them. The leader places gear, the follower removes it, and the whole operation goes way faster. The stakes are much higher, because any slip by the follower can yank the leader right off the wall, and you never have a proper full-strength anchor.
I said, “Kiddo, I did simul-climb a lot with my friends back in the day, but it’s way more dangerous, and it really only makes sense where there is no chance of anybody falling.”
“Dad,” she said. “Isn’t this like 5.5? And mostly 5.3? I mean, super easy?”
Three hours later we stood on the summit in a cloudless sky having not consumed a single bite of food or a single drop of our six liters of water. We had just simul-climbed 1,400 feet, in other words, while I carried a 40-pound pack of stuff we didn’t need.
Last winter, shortly before Christmas, Steve Schneider called. He told me that he’d been impressed at his climbing camp by Hannah’s competence with ropes and gear. She’d asked for instruction in big-wall techniques, Schneider said, like direct-aid climbing, in which gear is used not just for safety but also to make upward progress. Schneider wondered if we might enjoy following him up Washington Column, Hannah’s first big wall.
I told Liz, who then told Hannah, without consulting me, that it could be a Christmas present. (I forgive her, I swear.) Hannah flipped with excitement and I tried to seem happy. I even told myself I was happy and that I would have fun. Schneider is a terrific guy, after all, and it would be an honor to climb with him. But I soon realized that I was miserable. I kept that misery to myself, until, a few months later, while Liz was at the gym, I started firing text messages to her about how my father taught me to climb in a methodical progression from easier routes through steadily harder ones over many years. It was slow and I was no wunderkind, but every rung of that ladder felt precious precisely because I’d earned it and owned it. Every big climb I ever did—Washington Column included—I did as an equal partner of a team, either with Dad or a friend, for which that climb was an awesome but appropriate step forward. Hannah and I were not yet ready for Washington Column, but if we kept plugging away at our current rate of progression—if we kept following the Path of the Yosemite Climber, as I understood it—we could be ready within a season. If we skipped all those intermediate steps and went up on Washington Column with Schneider, we would be grabbing a brass ring that wasn’t rightfully ours yet. None of this was Schneider’s fault—his offer had been kind and generous—but if Hannah came home afterward and said, “Yeah, I did a big wall,” she would be, in my view, the privileged kid who doesn’t realize that Daddy just gifted her an accomplishment. And anyway, she was only 14! Why skip steps? Why not savor the whole journey and acquire that deep knowledge and experience?
Liz didn’t respond to any of this. I accosted her when she got home.
I said, “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Not really,” she said.
“You think maybe it would be totally fine to give Hannah the Christmas present we promised and make her ecstatically happy by letting her climb Washington Column with Steve Schneider.”
Unsatisfied, I called my father. “Dad,” I said, “I need to talk.”
I laid it all out for him.
He said, “Son, I’m so with you I have tears in my eyes.”
The next day, I broke it to Hannah: “Sweetie, I don’t want to do Washington Column this year.”
Her eyes widened and she said, “Can I just do it with Steve, without you?”
“Look, my dad totally agreed. He agreed so much that he cried. Please understand that it’s not because climbing doesn’t matter to us; it’s because climbing is like religion for us and we have our own way of going about it. We have values, and those values are about earning and owning every step of the journey, and we gotta stick to our values.”
Hannah exhaled slowly and nodded the way she nods when she knows that her dad has gone insane and there’s no point arguing.
For the next week, Hannah could barely look at me. I began to wonder if I was just having an ego problem, maybe recoiling against a vision of myself as a follower instead of a leader.
One day, as I dropped Hannah off at climbing practice, she said, “How soon do you think we could do the Column together, just you and me?”
“Next season,” I said.
“Can that be our plan?”
I felt a surge of joy and said, “That would totally make me happier than anything else in the whole entire world, and maybe we could have a training plan and tick off all the preparation routes together and start getting all the gear in place, huh?”
Hannah nodded in a way that said, That’s what I thought. Then she gave me a small smile and got out of the car, and I was left to wonder what my response had confirmed in Hannah’s mind. I watched her disappear into the gym, where she and her teammates run laps on routes harder than anything I have ever climbed. Then it hit me. All that stuff about progression and earning each step was absolutely genuine, but so was the final lesson that Hannah read in my eyes before I could even admit it to myself: that I would love it if she could refrain from leaving me behind, at least for another few years.
Daniel Duane is the author of three memoirs, two novels, and a book about climbing in Yosemite.
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