40 Years of American Rock
1970, picture it: a cherry-red Mustang guns it up the back roads out of a podunk Hudson Valley college town, burning rubber past farmhouses and orchards and around tree-lined hairpins toward a notch in ridge-top cliffs. The driver is sporting James Dean sunglasses, passenger’s blonde ponytail flying free, and the radio’s cranking out Diana Ross’s current number-one hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Yeah, baby. Over the crest and down toward Minnewaska, past a lost city of stone hidden somewhere out there in the trees, where the serious, bespectacled John Stannard clings to an overhanging finger crack until his grip gives out, a few feet higher than last time.
Change scene: Halfway across the country and close to the sky, Bill Forrest inches his way up the last pitch on the first solo ascent of the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park, poised in his hand-tied webbing slings, fingering a cabled Foxhead from his rack and nestling it in a burnished granite crack next to a bloom of alpine phlox. All he can hear is that damned Jackson Five song stuck in his head.
And farther west, high on an even bigger wall, the South Face of Half Dome, Warren Harding and Galen Rowell bed down in their Bat Tents, a bit giddy from too much Sierra summer sun, but certain now that they won’t face a repeat of their hypothermic rescue epic two years earlier. After succeeding on Half Dome, Harding descends and immediately recruits Dean Caldwell for another big climb; this pair will spend the rest of the climbing season, in a single push, on the Wall of Early Morning Light, making national headlines.
In 1970, the year the first issue of Climbing hit the counters of a handful of mountain shops, American rock was on a roll. It was a volatile time. Nixon had just signed a ban on TV cigarette ads and another measure giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Four anti-war protesters were shot at Kent State, Janis Joplin OD’ed on heroin, and the comic strip Doonesbury debuted, as did Earth Day and All My Children. The Beatles broke up, the Dead released American Beauty, and the Blue Flame set a new land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats that would stand for 13 years.
More to the point, while the big walls were just as fashionable as they had been in the 1960s, Stannard was still persisting on the Gunks climb that would become Persistent (5.11c), pioneering the “epic project” concept for half-pitch free climbs that has helped turn molehills into mountains ever since. At the same time, the teenaged “Hot Henry” Barber was new on the scene, soon to raise free-climbing standards in areas as far flung as Yosemite, New Hampshire, the Adirondacks, North Carolina, Australia, and Africa. And the next year, things really got rolling when a dramatic five-pitch line called The Naked Edge went free at 5.11, almost immediately transmogrifying into a mythical creature that ascended out of Eldorado Canyon and into climbers’ dreams.
Charlie Porter, Jim Bridwell, and others would soon set to work on climber’s nightmares. Like many fine nightmares, these would begin as beautiful dreams, in this case, achingly beautiful panels of flawless Yosemite granite, framed in sky. Oooh, but then the dream turns dark: it’s a quest for “A5.”
Supplementing the old-school hooks and RURPs was Bill Forrest’s new nut-gonebad, the copperhead. When mashed instead of slotted, these tiny pieces could lure the aid leader far, far out onto sketchy seams. Blank sections were overcome with bodyweight rivets instead of bolts. Some routes, like Jimmy Dunn’s Cosmos and Charlie Porter’s Zodiac went up solo. On the team efforts, belayers were not always forced to suffer in slings, but now could heckle from homemade portaledges, yelling up encouragements — maybe a few appropriate lines from a Doors or a Cream song — through clouds of smoke. There was no end to the madness: The Shield in ’72, the Tangerine Trip and Mescalito in ’73, the Pacific Ocean Wall in ’75.
Later in the 1970s, the rising free-climbing standards took to the heights, and numerous big routes were discovered that involved sustained 5.10 and 5.11 pitches, often in true big-wall or alpine settings. The east face of Washington Column became Astroman, free-climb of the century, 1975. Goss and Logan’s FFA of the Diamond, same year. Keeler Needle and Mount Conness, the Northwest Face of Half Dome (Jim Erickson and Art Higbee aided a short section near the summit, returning later to free a 5.11+ slab variation, but the all-free ascent was done later by Leonard Coyne), and the Cruise, 1976. Canada’s extremely remote, 18-pitch Lotus Flower Tower (see Gallery, p.39) was freed by a bunch of Gunks climbers at 5.10+ or 5.11 — how proud was that?
On the smaller rocks and in the bars, we started to use the grade 5.12. Climbers had attained that level of difficulty earlier (John Gill’s 1961 Thimble route, for example), in obscure moments of inspiration, but mostly in bouldering-like settings and without really recognizing what they’d done. Now the grade hit print. The first big claims came from the Valley: Fish Crack (Barber, 1975), Crimson Cringe, Hangdog Flyer (Ray Jardine, 1976). Beautiful, athletic, unrelenting granite cracks.
Bouldering, too, was coming into its own. Gill’s incredible achievements of the 1960s, and his eloquent, even spiritual advocacy of small-rock gymnastics, inspired modern feats on rocks big and small. The blocs were gaining legitimacy, yet many of today’s popular areas had never been touched. The real boom was still in the future, and the state of the art was captured by one evocative 1978 ascent in Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4: Midnight Lightning.
At the face-climbing areas, too, numerous 5.12s went up. With a few exceptions, these more technical climbs grew increasingly scary and serious, and the tiny new Australian RPs often only made matters worse. Then, at the end of the ‘70s, one of the great pioneers of Valley 5.12, Jardine, put his secret weapons on the market, magical insta-protection devices that he oh-so-appropriately called “Friends.”
Cams were ridiculously controversial at the time, by the way. Polemics raged in the pages of Climbing. In those back-to-nature days of “clean climbing” and knotted-webbing swami belts, many climbers chafed at the idea of adding spring-loaded gadgetry to their small quiver of “simple tools.” But we adapted.
And we continued to adapt. We definitely had no trouble accepting sticky rubber, when Fires, the predecessor of today’s high-performance rock shoes, came out of Spain in 1982. Suddenly, three-quarters of the country’s most difficult free climbs lost a letter grade or more in difficulty. By silent agreement, we let the old ratings stand.
Flight school continued. Post-WWII nylon ropes had put the coffin nail to the adage, “the leader must not fall,” and Royal Robbins had already pioneered the concept of taking a few whippers for the cause. John Stannard refined the process until it resembled small-rock siege climbing, and Tony Yaniro (and later, Todd Skinner) figured, while you’re hanging there, you might as well work the damned moves! To the purists’ chagrin, cams and hangdogging both prevailed, and for the same reason: they made free climbing easier so we could climb harder. Wait, does that make sense?
The high-water mark of this era was Yaniro’s Grand Illusion, a huge and appalling dihedral/roof crack at Sugarloaf, California. At solid 5.13 and no glorified boulder problem, it was the undisputed hardest, burliest free climb in the world in 1979. Another 1979 highlight: the first FFA of an El Cap Grade VI, the West Face, by Jardine, at 5.11c.
Consider for a moment those rough-and-tumble days when 5.12 or harder pretty much meant one thing: torquing body parts into fissures specifically chosen to be flared, featureless, and the wrong size. Climbing 5.12 today is challenging, but on the right kind of stone, even serious recreational climbers can find it quite pleasant. But American rock like the overhanging jug-hauls of the Red or the bullet faces of Owens River Gorge were almost entirely unknown in the early 1980s. Before rap-bolting, 5.12 hurt.
This was not to last. We all send harder now, with less fear and pain and blood. Headpointing, highballing, and the Indian Creek Revival can still give restless youth a taste of the cage-fight, but for the rest of us, there’s the option of non-contact karate. Let’s call that progress.
Pain and fear subsided, replaced by an obsession with ratings. Eldo and Gunks climbers clamored for a new system that would include “mental” difficulties, so that a “5.11 X” climb like David Breashears’ Perilous Journey would garner the same recognition as a 5.12 crack … but no one could agree how this would work. By default, we kept rating routes by their pure gymnastic difficulty, rather than their overall demands as rock-climbing challenges. This made it much safer to chase numbers. (Until E grades, that is, but American rock was free from that sinister spell.)
Let the record show, however, that sport climbing was not soft, slack, or sloppy. In fact, it started out very seriously. It was nationalistic to a degree that climbing hadn’t seen since the early assaults in the Himalaya. It produced tendonitis and pulley injuries. It caused eating disorders.
Throughout the 1970s, Yosemite was king of the world in difficult rock, but in 1980, France got its first 5.13, and soon a new generation of Frenchmen including Patrick Berhault and J.P. Bouvier introduced the 8a (5.13b) grade to the Continent. This was a blow, and not the last. Back in the day, American climbers coined the term “French free” because every time you’d see a French climber, they’d be yarding madly on gear as if some Alpine storm was hot on their tail — which for them, in fact, was the whole point of any cragging exercise.
When the French got a taste for gymnastic free climbing, American dominance was toast. (The Brits had had harder free climbs for decades, but their rating system was so cryptic and their crags so scruffy and short that they were easily ignored… until Jonny Woodward and Jerry Moffat showed up Stateside.
American rock was no longer at the center of the universe, and the old guard acted as if they had been told the earth revolves around the sun. Then the new generation flipped the bird to the traddies and threw themselves into the fray.
Anyone who had visited Europe realized that bolted terrain was the way to go and wanted a piece of that action. And how cool were those tights? Ugly monikers such as “rap-bolter” and “hangdog” were out. “Beta” — a term coined by the late Jack Mileski — was in.
The old-school crags of the US were far too conflicted to lead the revolution. Yosemite? War zone. Eldo? Ditto. But out in the Pacific Northwest, another crag had been quietly moving into the future.
When Yaniro sent Grand Illusion (5.13b) in 1979, the hardest climb at Oregon’s Smith Rock was 5.11b. That year, a free-thinking climber named Alan Watts moved to town, repeated the hardest routes at the sleepy little trad area, and moved on to freeing whatever aid routes remained. Scary seams got old fast, and the fragile volcanic tuff definitely put the whammy on the prospects of ground-up new routing. But the steep, blank faces of Smith were an offer Watts couldn’t refuse: enter “the Godfather of American sport climbing.”
At first, Watts knew nothing of what was going on in Europe. He felt, however, almost completely free from local peer pressure, unlike younger climbers at more established areas. In a perfect storm of necessity and rebellion, Watts made his own rules for the next generation of Smith’s free climbs. Against all odds, these rules would become the norm for a majority of America’s short new rock routes for the rest of the century.
Watts’ first true sport route (Watts Tots, done two weeks earlier, featured a pin and fixed nut) was a geometrically fascinating overhanging arete feature. In real life, it’s disappointingly short, but most climbers would never actually see it. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when the climber is wearing neon lycra; though “only” 5.12c, Chain Reaction became the most photographed route of the 1980s and did more to spread the love than all the spray from either shore of the Atlantic.
Recall that Watts was also an accomplished trad climber and no stranger to cracks. In 1985, he freed a thin crack on the East Face of Smith Rock’s Monkey Face, pushing American standards for the fi rst time since 1979, to 5.13d. Watts also cleaned and bolted the next generation of Smith testpieces. In the years to come, visiting French climber Jean Baptiste “Jibé” Tribout would send two of these to produce the hardest sport pitches in the country, To Bolt or Not to Be (1986, America’s first 5.14), and Just Do It (1992, 5.14c).
The mid 1980s was an incredibly contentious time. As trad and sport vied for turf and prestige, it produced terrible bitterness and division in the climbing community. There were countless editorials and climbers’ meetings. There was bolt chopping. There were fistfights.
In the Valley, escape from Chief Tenaya’s Curse could only be found on the big walls, and the decade produced a huge surge in standards there. Peter Croft teamed up with John Bachar in 1986 for a one-day link-up of the Nose on El Cap with the Northwest Face of Half Dome, inaugurating a new game of Grade VI enchainments that continues to escalate today. The next year, Croft stepped into a realm that no one could quite wrap their head around when he did back-to-back free solos of Astroman and the Rostrum, which at that time were still two of the Valley’s longest and hardest free climbs. In 1988, the Wyoming team Todd Skinner and Paul Piana mixed every trick in the sport-climber’s book with every bit of cowboy grit they could glean from their Louis L’Amour novels to pull off an epic, landmark first free ascent of the Salathé (VI 4.13b) The West Face had gone in ’79, but now, the granddaddy of American big walls was really open.
1990: Against a backdrop of sandstone towers, a Toyota pickup is parked askew, tailgate open with a cascade of cams spilling onto a tarp thrown down in the dirt. Two scruffy climbers rack up and tape their hands, skin and clothes stained ochre, the B52′s on the tape player rocking out with “Love Shack.” North Sixshooter today, the cracks of Indian Creek tomorrow. Dirtbagging was sweet, and more people were doing it. In fact, the sport was in the middle of a decade-long period of exponential growth never before and never since seen.
Lynn Hill was home from the European comp circuit, having kicked serious ass at the World Cup. She then handed off to Robyn Erbesfield, who would do the same, compensating somewhat for American men’s inability to prevail on plastic (Jim Karn being a notable exception, taking third overall in 1991).
Hill was coming back to her trad roots, with a specific project in mind, which she pulled off in September 1993: the Nose of El Cap, where the best men, from all over the world, had tried and failed. Hill sent the two cruxes, the Great Roof, one of the Captain’s most spectacular pitches, and “Houdini” corners, the Valley’s blankest 5.14 (which she called 5.13b). Then she linked it all in a continuous four-day push. Not content, she came back the next year and sent in a day. If there had ever been any doubt, Hill settled once and for all her status as absolute supreme mother goddess of American rock.
Hill was in her early 30s when she reset the bar for big-wall free climbing, and it was as if in the process she birthed some spiritual force that manifested itself in the new generation. Or maybe it had more to do with the new incubator that since its origins in the late 1980s had become a way of climbing life in urban areas across the country: the indoor rock gym. Whatever the reason, a crop of youngsters appeared who would rock American rock like it had never been rocked before.
In the next couple of years, Katie Brown, Beth Rodden, Dave Hume, Tommy Caldwell (the elder statesman of the crew), and Chris Sharma all made their first headlines, average age about 15. On his first major road trip (who was driving?), Sharma found himself willing and able to send Boone Speed’s superproject at the Virgin River Gorge, Necessary Evil (5.14c), probably the hardest pitch in the country at the time and the first evidence of a meteoric talent that still burns. In fact, across the range of difficulty a whole youth culture blossomed in the late 1990s, much of it revolving around bouldering, a completely new sport after another 1990s innovation: crashpads.
And that brings us to the dawn of the New Millenium, which is already starting to seem like a long time ago. What’s new? Well, Subarus outnumber Toyota pickups at the crags, and you’re more likely to hear hip-hop than reggae. Blue jeans are coming back, as is off-width climbing (are these two related?). What would Harding have said, up at one of the Dawn Wall bivis after a hard day of bathooking and a few swigs of Christian Brothers, if he had looked over to the west and got a wine-induced premonition of Dean Potter soloing, rope coiled, up Pancake Flake, or to the east, of Alex Huber free climbing through the Great Circle in his leather pants?
And the future? We might as well end with a shout-out to Sharma’s Jumbo Love, a super-overhanging 250-foot pitch of 5.15 limestone. It’s a good place to be, way back there and up above the desert on the Third Tier of Clark Mountain. Nice view. Free camping. More overhanging limestone, yet unclimbed.