Rock Legends

Greg Child

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Not long ago, the American climbing landscape and our collective climbing psyche were blank canvases awaiting artists. Imagine a time without guidebooks, when all routes were first ascents, when hemp ropes and cleated boots were de rigueur. Gear be damned, the pioneers of the modern era hit the heights with grit and determination.And when necessity sparked the need, people like surfer-mountaineer Yvon Chouinard fired up the forge and pounded out a new piton, or molded hexagons of aluminum to slip into cracks and leave no scars. Few cut such a swaggering figure as Warren Harding, a sports-car–driving, wine-swilling rebel who in 1958 masterminded El Capitan’s first ascent via its plummest line, The Nose. On his heels came a sage, righteous rival, Royal Robbins, who along with Doug Robinson and Chuck Pratt refined big-wall climbing from an art into a science. And then there’s our most enduring climbing bum, Fred Beckey, a walking database of America’s last untrod summits with a thousand firsts to his credit. Photographer Jim Herrington has already traveled 8,000 miles to pay homage to these greats, and his gallery of portraits is still a work in progress. Yet to be photographed is Harding. And mathematician John Gill, who free-climbed the North Overhang of South Dakota’s finger-searing Thimble. And Layton “The Great ‘un” Kor. And that one-man free-climbing revolution, “Hot” Henry Barber. And John Roskelley, whose Spokane-bred cowboy endurance earned him oxygen-free firsts on K2, Nanda Devi, Cholatse, and others. Decades before the era of the sponsored ascensionist, these men proved that their passion could be a life instead of a hobby. There’s a saying in the mountains: At either end of the social spectrum lies a leisure class. Here, then, a small sampling of climbing’s upper class.

Kim Schmitz
Schmitz hasn’t had an operation in five years—a record in itself. The Portland, Oregon, native arrived in Yosemite Valley in 1966 at the age of 19 and began knocking off speed climbs up El Capitan, including several new routes on the monolith. He then headed to the Himalayas, completing first ascents on the main summit of the Great Trango Tower and other Pakistani peaks. But in 1980, 20,000 feet up China’s 24,790-foot Gongga Shan, Schmitz and three others were caught in an avalanche that broke Schmitz’s back and killed cameraman Jonathan Wright. Just three years later, in August 1983, he fell 70 feet off the Tetons’ Symmetry Spire, sustaining severe back and leg injuries. Now 54, Schmitz has undergone nearly 40 operations, all the while guiding for Jackson, Wyoming’s Exum Mountain Guides despite two fused ankles, a hard-won victory over an addiction to painkillers, and hospital-administered injections every few months to relieve pain from nerve damage. Photographed in his base-camp tent at the Lower Saddle, just south of the Grand Teton, August 1999.

Yvon Chouinard
In 1959, on Kat Pinnacle in Yosemite, Chouinard developed a new kind of piton to handle the climb’s crux, a hairline crack. The new piece of hardware, which he dubbed a Realized Ultimate Reality Piton (RURP), was key to the advancement of climbing in Yosemite Valley—and to a nascent equipment business that would become a global empire. Between first ascents of El Cap’s North America Wall, Muir Wall, and others, Chouinard began selling hand-forged chrome-moly pitons from the back of his car. He published his first one-page catalog in 1964, and in 1970 he and Tom Frost started the Great Pacific Iron Works—which would later become Patagonia Inc. and Chouinard Equipment (now Black Diamond)—from a shed in Ventura, California. The father of American ice climbing, 61-year-old Chouinard still lives near Ventura, where he surfs, climbs, runs Patagonia, and kayaks with his buddy Royal Robbins. Photographed in his original Ventura blacksmith shop, July 2000.

Tom Kimbrough
Twenty-seven-year-old Chattanooga native Kimbrough got out of the army in 1965 and headed straight for Yosemite. His first climb was with Chuck Pratt. “It was up an aid crack,” says Kimbrough, who had done some of the first climbs in southeastern Tennessee’s Sandstone Belt. “I banged my way up it with pitons and looked down at Chuck. He yelled up, ‘I think I’ll free-climb it,’ and just cruised right on up the route.” Kimbrough, who turns 63 this month, improved significantly over the years, putting up first ascents with Pratt and, until a year or so ago, leading 5.12 pitches. The senior climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park and a backcountry avalanche forecaster in Utah’s Wasatch Range, he is married to Barb Eastman, who in 1977 was part of the first all-woman team to ascend The Nose on El Capitan. Photographed with his old ice ax, hemp rope, and chapeau at Jenny Lake Ranger Station, Grand Teton National Park, August 1999.

Royal Robbins
Along with Warren Harding, Robbins is one of the twin towers of Yosemite’s Golden Age. He started climbing at Tahquitz Rock, east of Los Angeles, when he was 15. By 16, he had left school to climb full-time; by 17 he had ushered in the 5.9 difficulty rating on Tahquitz’s Open Book. By age 18, in 1953, he was in Yosemite. There, Robbins became a major developer of techniques for big walls such as El Capitan and Half Dome, invented the Yosemite Decimal System, still in use for grading climb difficulty, and helped set a standard of ethics for clean climbing, without pitons or fixed ropes. Robbins was beat up El Cap by Harding, but by the spring of 1968, when he soloed the second ascent of the Muir Wall, he had made either the first or second ascents of all of El Cap’s major faces, as well as the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome. Now 65, he lives in Modesto, California, where he and his wife, Liz, run the Royal Robbins outdoor clothing company they founded in 1970. Photographed at home, February 2000.

Glen Dawson
When Dawson was 16, in 1928, he and his father, future Sierra Club president Ernest Dawson, climbed the Matterhorn. Three summers later he hooked up with Jules Eichorn, then a 19-year-old studying piano with Ansel Adams in San Francisco, and in August 1931 the pair, along with climbing legend Norman Clyde and Harvard mathematician Robert Underhill, completed with first ascent of the East Face of Mount Whitney. In 1937, Dawson added a new route up the mountain’s East Buttress and that same year put up the Mechanics Route on Tahquitz Rock—though he’s best remembered for his handiwork on Whitney. After serving at Colorado’s Camp Hale and in Italy as a rock-climbing and skiing instructor for the Tenth Mountain Division during World War II, Dawson rarely climbed again in America. Retired from 40 years of managing Dawson’s, the Los Angeles bookstore his father opened in 1905, the 88-year-old eminence lives in Pasadena with his wife of 60 years, Mary Helen. Photographed in his backyard, September 1998.

Chuck Pratt
Generally regarded as the best free-climber of the late fifties and early sixties, Pratt cracked the 5.10 difficulty rating in Yosemite in 1961 on Elephant Rock’s Crack of Doom. And, with Royal Robbins, he racked up more than his share of record-book entries: first ascents of El Cap’s North America Wall and Salathé Wall and second ascents of El Cap’s Nose and West Buttress. Pratt emerged as the Valley’s preeminent crackhead, so to speak, putting up short and incredibly difficult crack climbs like the Cookie and the Cleft. Now 61, Pratt has been an Exum guide for 29 years. He spends summers in the Tetons and heads to Thailand each winter. Photographed outside his Tetons cabin, August 1999.

Doug Robinson
In October 1969, Robinson and Yvon Chouinard found themselves staring at Polemonium Peak’s V-Notch, an unclimbed ice chute leading to the summit. There Chouinard tested the use of a modified hammer with a small-toothed pick that has become standard ice-climbing equipment today. A year later, the two were the first to climb the V-Notch in full ice conditions. If Chouinard perfected ice climbing, Robinson led the clean-climbing revolution: With climber and photographer Galen Rowell, he completed the historic first clean ascent of Half Dome in 1973, making the cover of National Geographic, and his essay in Chouinard Equipment’s first catalog, “The Whole Natural Art of Protection,” became the movement’s manifesto. The first president of the American Mountain Guides Association, Robinson, now 55, lives with his family in Aptos, California, where he is chief guide and co-owner of the guide service Moving Over Stone. Photographed on a first ascent of Backside of Beyond on Temple Crag in the Sierra Nevada, October 1998.

Fred Beckey
Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1923, Beckey emigrated with his family when he was three and since then has probably recorded more first ascents—literally hundreds—than any American, living or dead. Starting in 1940 with his brother, Helmy, on the Cascades’ Forbidden Peak, Beckey began putting up new routes: Mount Waddington in British Columbia, 1942; Devil’s Thumb in Alaska’s Boundary Range, 1946; the 4,000-foot North Face of British Columbia’s Mount Edith Cavell, with Yvon Chouinard, in the winter of 1961; 26 North American first ascents in 1963 alone; and his most famous feat, a triple ascent of Alaska’s Mounts McKinley, Deborah, and Hunter in 1954. Always scheming, always secretive, and famous for arranging climbs and partners from remote phone booths, Seattle-based Beckey is headed to China and Irian Jaya this fall. More than that, he’s not saying. Photographed on his way out of Jackson, Wyoming, to climb the CMC route on Mount Moran, August 1999.

David Brower
As executive director of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth, Brower, now 88, became a household name outside the world of climbing, yet with more than 70 first ascents to his name, his has long been a name insiders speak with reverence. Brower dominated the Yosemite scene in the 1930s, putting up 16 first ascents—including Cathedral Chimney, Yosemite Point Couloir, and Circular Staircase on Sentinel Rock—a number not bested until 1957. In 1939, known for his prowess as a friction climber, he participated in the first ascent of New Mexico’s Shiprock; later, as an environmentalist, he would lament the rock damage caused by the expansion bolts and pitons used on the climb. After his World War II service in the Tenth Mountain Division, Brower dedicated himself to an ever more vehement brand of green activism. Photographed at his house in the hills outside Berkeley, California, July 2000.

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