The Complete Pat Ament Interview
When Climbing asked the legendary Colorado climber Pat Ament to help us with a Perspective piece, he gave us such deep, thoughtful, well-reasoned answers that we decided to post this interview with him in its entirety. Ament (patament.com) also provided us with these shots of him, past and present.
Q: Date of Birth?
A: September 3, 1946
Q: Where do you live?
A: Fruita, Colorado
A: Writer, artist, musician, photographer
Q: What kind of person are you? (stubborn? funny? sad? anxious? witty? charismatic? angry?)
A: I am deeply touched by the world, suffer melancholy on one level while on another the elation of artistic sensitivity and passion. I have endless energy for the various artistic endeavors I pursue, a kind of Renaissance man, as people call me. I am keen and caring with family and friends but have little hope for the world in general. At times much of humanity seems to be, as comedian George Carlin describes it, “a species gone bad.”
I am subject to many emotions at once. I might feel greatly joyful about how a certain creative project is going while at that instant also feel sad about Tibetans being persecuted or Iraqis dying in droves or our soldiers or other calamities throughout the world as a result of stupidity, greed, and wickedness in high places. I tend to carry the troubles of the world on my shoulders. I am perpetually struck by the fact that life is so swift, that we speed through so quickly, while at the same time grateful I have had so many incredible experiences to make it rich. I have always had remarkable friends.
They say I’m hard to read. Sometimes anguish may take on the appearance of calm or joviality, whereas when I am happy I may take on the demeanor of a rogue. Those of most worth will, I trust, know me intuitively and appreciate at least something about who I am, however my life manifests itself at the moment.
If I could pin down a feeling or type of behavior that seems more me than any other, it might be deep creative reflection combined with a love for life in all its diversity and trickery.
Q: When did it all begin?
A: I doubt it began with this world, but here we find ourselves. I was swept up in the wonder of life from its beginning. When I was twelve, living in a magical country setting of northwest Denver, my family felt a mysterious compulsion to move to Boulder. It was my destiny to be a climber, or so the romantic in me believes. If, as Bob Dylan once said, there are spirits that govern this world, I would have been just the one to be presented the incredible riches, beauty, and possibilities of the mountains and climbing.
It was natural that the mad creativity with which I was blessed should, at some early point along the journey, turn upward along a path toward rock. My wonder and creativity then exploded in a powerful new dimension, although I never have stopped investigating other paths as well and finding promise in anything that comes along.
Q: What has been your life’s work so far?
A: My wife tells me I seek to find beauty and art in everything I do. As an artist, I care about the process of that discovery and am engaged almost always in some form of creativity.
Perhaps it makes me a true artist, in the sense that I have always been dedicated to the process more than the end.
In terms of writing, I have never believed I was merely a “climbing writer,” as my writing always has had a broader and truer literary aspect. The topic of climbing has been convenient, as a bread-and-butter vehicle. Having a certain renown in climbing, I had a ready audience. But because of my passion and ever-developing inventiveness in writing, I did make writing a life work.
Several of my books have been called landmark achievements, such as “Swaramandal,” which Tom Higgins and others felt might have been the most creative work to come from climbing at the time. “Master of Rock” is said to have been a revolutionary book, opening the way for the new generations, showing them what the thresholds were, in terms of not only achievement in climbing but also how to live life with humility and integrity. I suppose I was trying to teach myself those things also. Michael Chessler says no American guidebook had more impact than my “High Over Boulder,” which led the way in terms of including stories, history, humor, and philosophy to otherwise potentially technical and stale writing. Jim Perrin wrote in a column that my book “Direct Lines” was the best writing since Patey’s “One Man’s Mountains.” My article “The Black Canyon With Kor” shook up the world, to use words of Mohammed Ali, causing people to weep with laughter or hate me for portraying their hero Kor in a comical light. I believe my book “How To Be A Master Climber in 10 Easy Lessons” has touched people, because they’ve written me and said so. One of the country’s great poets, Reg Saner, says something to the effect that no book in climbing was more imaginative than my “Climbing Everest,” especially since I did not climb Everest or ever did any serious mountaineering of which to speak. I believe I was the only one who could have written my history of free climbing in America, “Wizards of Rock,” My latest book, “Everything That Matters,” has some of the best writing I’ve done, but whether the climbing world is the measure of the art time will tell. I suspect only a few would open those pages and realize how special they are. It seems writing was a life work, when I consider that I had some twenty or more articles in assorted anthologies of best writings and over a hundred articles published, yet strangely my best writing is poetry. I’ve written many hundreds of poems and also many hundreds of songs.
Writing indeed has been a life work, but so have other pursuits, such a karate, art, photography, and trying to learn how to be a better person each day, struggling in this mortal realm to master myself as it has seemed necessary to master various arts.
My work the last twelve years has been to be the best husband and father I can be.
Q: What’s more important: respect or money? Why?
A: Money and respect ultimately do not take one too far. They aren’t accurate measures of a person’s worth. If Van Gogh had based his sense of worth as a human being or as an artist on how others felt or how much money he made, he might have cut off an ear or something.
If I were to choose between the two words, respect and money, I would choose respect, but it would have to be respect from those for whom I have respect. If people are the measure of the art, and the measure of people, as opposed to those who walk through the art museum and never see any of the pictures, respect will mean something.
No matter who might respect me, if I do not respect myself I cannot receive respect from others. I will look at them with contempt.
Q: What’s one thing you would absolutely tell your daughter (future or present)?
A: I want my daughters to know I love them and how beautiful and valuable they are, although I realize they may never fully appreciate anything I say until years after I am gone. I hope they are able to hold to some true message I leave them. I believe they will know I cared eternally for them, that they meant more than anything, and whatever they do creatively, or in life, will meet my approval, from this side of the veil or the other. However immature or amateur their creativity might be, I want them to know how beautiful it is to me and how beautiful they are.
When I was a kid and saw Kor, Robbins, and Rearick, I wanted to be in the circle of their beauty but was too young to know I was already. As my daughters seem to have inherited some of the creative drive and torment of which I have been blessed and cursed, and both being extremely sensitive, impacted deeply by the world, I hope they learn what people say or don’t say is not the end of the world. I hope they listen to other energies than simply people, such as a color of sky, a slant of light, a sweep of stars. Perhaps they will remember me when a whiff of railroad smoke comes to them from the nearby freight line. I hope they can find my spirit in or near them and let themselves be carried away to my love at any time and always.
We climbers should be more generous spirited toward each other and see each other as family, instead of acquaintances or rivals. We all are someone’s sons and daughters trying to learn. With so much grandeur to which we are exposed as climbers, we should better love and forgive each other and appreciate everyone who is trying to give any part of his or her heart to the world. I want my daughters to see the beauty and the art but also the beauty in people.
Q: What’s one thing you would absolutely tell your son (future or present)?
A: I have an adopted son, Cody, and he is from another sector of the galaxy. We have learned from one another and have clashed at times, being extremely different. We have loved the same woman, his mother and my wife, a bad triangle. What I would want him to remember, if all else is forgotten, is that he is of great worth in my eyes. My father failed to communicate such a thing to me, and it hurt me deeply and still does have its evil effect on me. Much of my climbing life, to ascend rock was, on some level, a labor to be loved, to find the love in friends I desired from my father.
Q: What is the most important trait in a person?
A: The most important trait in any person is that which he or she brings indisputably, as a gift, to the world, the prominent, defining quality that sets that person apart. If such a trait is combined with integrity and generosity, the individual is not likely to fail.
Each of us, I believe, has magical, original qualities, though the world tries to suppress such things, out of an insistence that we conform and become like everyone else. In my case, I came rushing into the world with a huge degree of energy and love, and with all the moral genius that tends to govern the young, yet was extraordinarily impacted by hurtful remarks, jealousy, and various false brethren I was shocked to discover existed among what I initially imagined to be a camaraderie of good, honest spirits. I was inexperienced, naïve, and out of fear of not being accepted began to produce sides of myself for the world that weren’t me. Some viewed me as a prodigy of sort, a genius in small order, while others appeared to terribly resent that I should achieve so high a profile at a young age. This latter group never allowed themselves to be the measure of who I was or might become. Through the years, I began to realize the quality I most wanted to have and continue to try to have. I speak of being the measure of those around me, being able to appreciate others for what they have to offer or might one day have to offer.
As I once heard, it is a spiritual gift to be able to recognize the talents of others. A bit of an icon at a young age, I suppose it was natural that I would be judged, scandalized, lied about, and belittled, and on the receiving end of rumormongering and deceitful manipulation, that fellow members of my climbing family should try to reduce the value of my contributions or felt threatened by things I achieved. Studying the lives of the great poets and artists, it has become clear that people are threatened by any type of genius, even if it’s on a modest level, such as my own, that talent casts some aspersion on their own level of talent. It need not. There were masters at portraying me in a bad light, yet right alongside the very opposite, where people admired me and were honest enough to recognize me and who even give me more than I deserved, in hope I might live up to it. That’s what I mean when I say “generous.” They also forgive me when I acted badly or showed that I hadn’t yet grown up.
I want to have the trait of touching others in good ways, to regain that full energy and love of youth, before it was corrupted.
Q: What was the most significant moment in your life?
A: Probably the most significant moment was to be born into this life with goodly parents, and then it was every day I woke up after that and realized my love of life, nature, and people. I could not have enjoyed any experience in life so far, were it not for the gratitude my mother especially instilled in me. When I was about six years old, she read English poetry to me as bedtime stories. I still see that light brigade charging…
Q: How did that moment change you?
A: I think my mother had secret foreknowledge that I was to be a poet and writer, and she set about building the foundations. Every hour with her was a manner of grace that changed my life for the better.
In life generally, every moment changes one. Each climb makes a person, by the next increment, a new species of man (or woman). One trusts some small change, at least, takes place, with the right attitude. At one time I had a sense the more climbs I did the better person I would become. Finally I began to refine that and to know it isn’t the ascent so much as the state of awareness and the quality of love and appreciation during, after, and before the ascent. The numbers are not where it’s at, but the feeling. It’s the same with poetry. It’s not that you had a poem published that matters so much as the involvement with language, the intriguing journey of creating it.
Q: What are those kids doing on your lawn?
A: The young always have been attracted to my world. I love to play, by nature, and a kid at heart, very immature and childlike even in old age. Kids sense that kindred energy. I have been a pied piper of the young for many years, in rock climbing and in chess and other areas, in large part because kids recognize a friend in me. They sense I understand them and that we are going to have fun, but also that they are going to learn. Kids admire creativity, and I have lots.
Q: What would your best friend say is your worst personality trait?
A: Impatience. I have difficulty waiting for anything. Yet life is tailored in such a way as to force us to face our weaknesses. We are presented with opportunities daily to exercise what we have in short supply. If one is impatient, he will have to wait for hours alongside track for a freight train. He will have to wait for years for the right woman to materialize, though he will have impatiently engaged in relationship after relationship in search of such perfection. When I was young, I did not know how to patiently trust my own achievements or let them speak for themselves. I felt the world needed help knowing. Yes, they did. But had they made the discovery in their own time it would have meant more to them, and I would have meant more to them, than by acting as my own agent, which was the case in younger years at times, a result of immaturity and impatience.
Q: Do you believe in rules and standards?
A: Yes I believe in rules and standards. We must abide by certain societal values, norms, mores, etc., to avoid chaos, yet it was Christ who continually taught the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter. He always was breaking some or other law, such as the Sabbath, and his great comment was, man was not made for the Sabbath, rather the Sabbath was made for man. That’s true about everything. Rock climbing, for example, has its ethical issues. We have to get beyond the outward rules, though. We must not abide by them mindlessly and allow them to be a source of bitter judgment toward others. The rules are only of value, are only instructive, when we keep them in perspective, realize their importance as to our safety, or to fair play, and understand the difference between the letter and spirit. There were climbers in my heyday that would destroy you if they thought you violated some or other tiny rule of the game. The rule to them was more important than the person.
Q: What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done?
A: I believe probably everyone has dark moments, where we failed in integrity or possibly for an instant became evil incarnate. I am terrified that there are moments of that kind in my past. I suffer from them, but I have come to know why such things happen. I never much knew why I did certain things. I was unable to put into subjection emotion, fear, and the like. Delicate, and perhaps more artistic, individuals go to dark places easier, at certain difficult points in life.
There are things that exist in what Yeats called “the age-long memoried self” and that, as he said, “shape the elaborate shell of the mollusk and the child in the womb” and that teach the birds to make their nest, and he says genius of any sort is a crisis that joins that buried self for certain moments to our trivial daily mind. Of course Yeats believed in “personifying spirits” that he called gatekeepers, who would throw Villon into the hands of harlots. Through their dramatic power these personifying spirits bring our souls to crisis, according to Yeats, to “Mask and Image,” as he said, caring not a straw whether we be Juliet going to our wedding, or Cleopatra to our death, for in the eyes of those spirits nothing has weight but passion. In that sense, I agree that passion keeps us alive and honest. When we go dark, we have lost the passion for some reason.
Instinctively the artist-type will bring him or herself, even unconsciously, to the greatest obstacles he or she may confront, just short of reaching total despair. The line is as delicate as that certain person himself, and to cross into despair is when something shameful is done.
As a young climber, I suppose the most shameful thing I did was play into the criticism and take on its darkness, rather than stay focused on the joy and light of the climbing before me. When I was standing before the beauty of the rock and glancing at the clouds or pines and could smell the air, I marveled that I should be so blessed. I admired every friend. Despair was seriously outmatched at those times, and passion was in the lead.
Q: What’s another moment in your life that changed you?
A: In 1967 a friend had a terrible psychedelic experience in which I was partly responsible and in which I was caught up. I was so sorry, and in pain, and tormented by it all I utterly ended my desire to progress ever again as a climber. I was only at the tender age of turning 20. Anything I did in climbing after that was no more than a reflection of what I already was, and to this day I wonder how much farther I certainly would have progressed had that nightmare not happened. I imagine I would have climbed El Cap thirty more times, gone much farther in bouldering, and become a far better free climber.
Q: Who’s the most important person in your life? Why?
A: My wife is the most important person in my life. She has the best perspectives on life, is the highest quality person, and is the kindest of anyone I know.
Q: Is it important to have a plan?
A: It is important to have a plan, every day, as long as you know you will revise and adjust it and have the liberty of dispensing with it altogether when a better idea shows itself suddenly. True creativity is such that you cannot start off deciding to write a poem or a piece of music and then go about forcing it to happen. You will never succeed at anything of value, with that approach. You let the poem, the piece of music, tell you what it needs.
The poet Yeats said he drew much of his best work from the “Spiritus Mundi,” or a bank of images that float out in some ethereal world of the spirits, and that much of his best work was “given” to him, of a sort, simply appearing to him, almost as an apparition. My life goes this way. Songs more or less appear, as though given to me, and my best work always has occurred in my mind, or soul, before I could write it. Life itself begins to appear in imagination, and we live it, or we live some form of it. We must let life tell us what it needs, rather than impose our petty egos on every situation.
Q: Who’s a climber you have respect for? Why?
A: No one has excelled Peter Croft, in terms of beauty of spirit, humility, and greatness. Among the older guard, more and more I respect Dave Rearick. Of all my great mentors, and I have had some of the greatest climbers as my partners and inspirations, Dave strikes me as the most humble. He has never spoken ill of anyone, to my knowledge, in an attempt to build himself up. He has never failed to acknowledge the achievements of others. He never has exaggerated his own achievements. He simply is even and honest. Yet his writing, such as his essays about climbing the Diamond, or his small treatise on Split Pinnacle Lieback, and other pieces, are clean and brilliant the more I look at them. His writing simply is good, the way his heart is.
Q: Who’s your best climbing partner? How did you find this out?
A: Many climbing partners meant a lot to me. I suppose the “best” could as easily be Van Freeman, because he is a person who made me laugh. He laughed at our comedy and simply was to be trusted. He felt like a kindred adventurer. We lived in Yosemite for a couple weeks on fried potatoes and Lowry Seasoning Pepper, climbing and walking my slack chain. He wasn’t a strong climber but jon sheer guts followed me up any 5.10 off-width I was hair-brained enough to lead.
Q: Where is our sport heading?
A: Sad to say, our “sport” has been heading nowhere for a long time. That we have higher and higher grades has nothing to do with progress or anything in particular. That’s an evolution. We build on the achievements of those who go before, because we, as a species, are insecure and feel to compare ourselves to others and improve on others, or think we improve, which in much part is delusion. Comparisons are how we make ourselves feel of worth, lacking the maturity to determine our own worth. That so many view climbing as “a sport” shows me they are less focused on the deeper mysteries, the values of beauty, tenderness, and friendship, the incredible communication it is possible for us to have with nature, in all its variety. When we compete, we try to defeat someone else and to elevate ourselves. That’s the most mundane of reasons to climb.
There is nothing wrong with elevating ourselves, if others are elevated along with us. There is nothing wrong with climbing the hardest routes we are inspired to climb. But to be caught up in competition draws us more often than not away from the artistic and beautiful sides of things, and focus away from the individual. Somewhat stupidly we stand in someone else’s light, in order to be brighter or duller, by comparison, when in fact the great artists have only their own light and are beyond compare.
You would never think of commenting about whether Rembrandt was better than Da Vinci, or which one painted it the fastest. We will be going somewhere of worth when we begin to realize there can be as much art in 5.5 as 5.14, and as much adventure at age 12 as at age 25, that each individual can be loved for his or her own contribution, whatever form such a contribution takes. We should be focused on what we see, the clouds, the colors, what we feel, the touch and texture of stone, what we sense and smell, the lovely aromas of rock and air, the ingenuity and thought required to take whatever next step we take, at whatever level of ability, and how we merge with all that natural power and loveliness of stone and sky and clouds. We will become the love such experience inspires.
As long as our foremost care is the level of difficulty at which others or we climb, we train our energies along inferior lines. We are engaged in just another unmemorable sport. If we have all the good stuff and then also climb well, more power to us, as long as we do not look down on others for their inability to follow on our same holds.
Q: Why do you climb?
A: I climb because it was a gift that came to me out of the magic and mystery of the world. I found it full of adventure and beauty. It was utterly compelling to my soul. The deepest impressions upon me were the friendships I began to make, and the integrity of the people, although as I have said I went through a disillusionment when some people proved mean-spirited, jealous, or cruel. That was the competition raising its ugly head, and I allowed myself to be caught up in it a few years, but thank heaven another gift came along, of seeing what the greater values were. I climb for those, which existed at the first, when I was a beginner, as they exist now, as an over-the-hill.
Q: How are you like your mother?
A: My mother and I were thick as thieves. She understood my heart, and I understood hers. Nothing I did ever changed her view of me as a person of value. She always believed I was extraordinary. Likewise I always have seen her as the best person in the world. She passed away but remains in my heart every day. She was a gentle, loving person, and I believe I am the same way. Whenever I’ve been otherwise, it was because someone hurt me. I weakened and became angry, lashing back. Kindness exists at the root of who I am, as my true friends know. I’m sure my mother and I came from the same sector of the galaxy.
Q: How are you like your father?
A: My father has always been multi-faceted, having a keen and cutting sense of humor and at times stern and cynical, even sinister. He has always been acutely aware, except in areas I most wish he had been. He was a great man in ways, with genius level mechanical ability, for example. He held all the bowling records in Boulder for a few years. He is a master fisherman. He didn’t go to college but one day easily beat me in a vocabulary test in a magazine. Exuding confidence, deep down he has been, I think, strangely insecure and bothered by his relationships in the world. Yet he could be humble in ways, a paradox. I have some of his insecurities in part because he rarely, if ever, told me he loved me and did not believe in praise, unless the person he praised was nowhere near. I wanted his acceptance more than anything and never got it. I think every other climber or person, in a way, became a surrogate father image, where I might find acceptance. Likewise when I am not liked by someone or am criticized or unrecognized, it is like gouging that deeper wound, an exaggerated hurt that, in earlier years, caused angry verbal retaliations.
Q: Do you have a moral obligation to rescue a stranded climber?
A: Yes I feel a moral obligation to rescue a stranded climber. I feel a sense of brotherhood with any fellow human, and why should I not help if I am capable or in the vicinity? I have gone to the rescue of many people throughout my climbing career and always would if needed. I’ve gone sometimes when the climbers were unaware they needed help, and several times just in the nick of time did I get there. I have swarmed up rock unroped quite a number of times to save someone, or kids, splayed out and about to fall.
Q: When is it okay to risk your partner’s life?
Q: Why get up in the morning?
A: Because life is ready to unfold its wild variety and blessings, and who knows what great miracle, what new friend, what idea, is at the door? Each day is precious, not to be wasted.
Q: What’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen?
A: It always has grieved me when a person, perhaps especially a young person, loses his or her life. I’ve had to rescue people who did not survive a fall. With better instruction or a more careful attitude, had they not been caught up in the no-guts-no-glory mentality, had they realized how precious their lives were, had they better understood the dangers, had someone loved them enough to set an example of mastery and artistry, and shown them how, and that it’s ok, to protect even the easiest of climbs, where at any time a hold can break off suddenly and unexpectedly, they might have gone on to enjoy beautiful lives. When they died, so did all their potential progeny to infinity, an incomprehensible thing.
I stopped being a hero, in terms of bold and dangerous leads, about when I heard of the little girl above Boulder who stepped onto the first hold, slipped, bumped her head, and died on the spot of a cerebral hemorrhage. I remember Ed Webster’s dear friend Lauren, and how they unroped on the easy rock at the top. Somehow she fell, maybe pulled off a hold, and died. I remember Diana Hunter, who unroped on the easy rock at the top of a big wall in Rocky Mountain National Park. She slipped, pulled off a hold, and fell hundreds of feet. People have scoffed at me at times for staying roped on easy ground. I do it because too many people have been lost to that grim specter of the freak accident. Life is for the saving.
Q: What would your best friend say is your strongest personality trait?
A: Above all, I believe, I have a good heart. But friends might also say my dedication and determination are my strongest suits. Someone could argue it is my sense of the art, beauty, and mystery in things. All are related. I work hard at whatever I’m focused on.
Q: What’s your favorite: bouldering, sport climbing, traditional climbing, ice climbing, gym climbing, or alpine climbing? Why?
A: I have been a rock climber of all sorts, a disciple of Gill’s, a partner to Robbins, Kor, Pratt, Higgins, Kamps, Barber, Bachar, and others. I was doing big walls in Colorado and Yosemite in the golden era. Overall, I suppose I have loved most the short, moderately difficult climb. Some have thought of me as a crack climber, because of difficult cracks I’ve done. Others know me to be a good face climber. My most difficult boulder problems have been delicate face climbs. In later years I have given most of my attention to short climbs, even to repeating those easier climbs that were frightening adventures for me as a youth. When Bonatti and I shared the spotlight at the British National Mountaineering Conference, we hit it off right away. I think he sensed I had done all those climbs with him, in imagination, when I was a young boy.
Q: When was/is climbing’s greatest moment?
A: I feel I was part of the best time in the history of American climbing, the 1960s. It also was a time when the best music ever was created, at least lyrically, and in the folk or folk-rock vein. Everything in those years was a revelation, pure discovery. I was surrounded by the likes of Kor, Robbins, Pratt, and Gill. I have memories of starlight seen from rattling freight trains through desert, to or from Yosemite. I have memories of looking up and seeing Eldorado, its walls mostly virgin. I see Higgins tiptoeing on Tuolumne knobs, laughing. Everything done in subsequent decades, I think, has been to build upon those fantastical beginnings. Nothing will excel the spirits we felt at that time.
Q: How can we improve our sport?
A: We can improve our sport by moving beyond the concept of sport and viewing climbing more as art, where everyone is valued as an individual.
Q: What makes you cry?
A: So much is lost in time, and one has only memory to keep it alive. Sometimes I think of a certain friend, or a climb, or sunset, or the laughter I had, say, with Kamps when he and I bouldered past dark one night on Flagstaff. There are countless images such as that, and they occur sometimes unexpectedly. I have to fight back a few tears. I am chronically nostalgic.
Q: What’s the funniest damned thing you’ve ever heard?
A: I don’t know if it would be the funniest thing I ever heard, or I could say what the funniest thing is I ever heard, but one afternoon while I was playing speed chess at the university student union, with a crowd gathered around to watch, a fellow showed up. He saw my climbing shoes, which were sitting on the table, and started talking about climbing. Suddenly he blurted, “I’ve seen Ament climb, he’s not that good.” A few people standing there were spitting out their Pepsi.
On my honeymoon eleven years ago I visited the rim of the Black Canyon. A lady ranger was standing there, and I asked, “Do the rangers still keep a guide of the climbs?” She turned and snarled at me, “Don’t even think about going down there and climbing. It would be too dangerous.” If she only knew the half of it.
Q: Do you wake up cranky or excited?
A: I wake up sore. My body remains under a great deal of physical duress. I haven’t been exactly on top of my game health wise, and every morning is a rough business, getting the blood flowing and pain out of my legs and back. I’m excited, though, always that I haven’t gone away in the middle of the night.
Q: Describe the perfect bivouac?
A: I’ve had a lot of great bivouacs, but one I won’t forget was on the Diamond in August 1964. Bob Boucher and I both could lie down, though end-to-end, on a ledge about a foot and a half wide. It was grassy, and thus soft. Lying on our backs, we could gaze at the stars above the wall. At our left elbows was a vertical drop of about 1500 feet. I was so happy to be there, at the impressionable age of seventeen. When the sun came up its warmth and brilliant light spilled instantly into the high air and onto the Diamond’s sheer, gorgeous yellow granite before anywhere else. We felt blessed, in a higher place than the whole rest of the world.
Q: Describe the worst bivouac?
A: I took Rodger Raubach up the Diagonal, on Longs Peak. It was the 1000-foot route’s fourth ascent. Raubach talked a big climb but didn’t actually do too much climbing. One day I called his bluff and invited him go with me. To my surprise he agreed, but he was slow. The wall was wet and cold, so it took more time than when I did the route before with Larry Dalke. Raubach and I made it to Broadway at dark. We couldn’t cross the snow slope on Broadway. Dumbly, we had no light or ice gear and so sat right there on a small ledge. We had one sweater and a lightweight windbreaker. For food, we had two cherry lifesavers. We wrapped ourselves up in the rope the best we could, to shield us from the wind. It blew all night. It was frigid, and we suffered mightily. We expended all the energy we had in our bodies. It was difficult to get down the next morning, as exhausted and cold as we were. What a view of the gorgeous Diamond, though, rising directly overhead. Later, in the town of Lyons, Rodger had to leave his camera for gas.
Q: What’s your sign? Do you believe in this astrology stuff?
A: Virgo is my sign. If I have nothing else to think about, I may read my horoscope just to see how wrong they’ve gotten it again.
There might be something to our relationship with this vast universe in which we find ourselves born, and there might be something to how small we are in view of the universe, or where fate has positioned us, and such things might well affect us, but how we are affected is too complicated and mysterious to put into words, as do those who seek the financial benefits of pretending to have special insight.
Q: What lives under your bed?
A: Every bad dream I’ve ever had is there, under my bed, waiting to haunt me again. I sleep lightly and keep watch.
Q: Who’s hiding in the closet?
A: When I’m not watching, my coats come out and dance about the house. I have the sense that everything has some form of life. The world is far too scientific. It was Carl Jung who said it was detrimental to our mental health to be too sterile and factual, too grimly realistic about the world.
Q: Biggest epic ever?
A: One that comes to mind was my adventure with Kor in the Black Canyon. He had taken a freak leader fall on the Bastille Crack, sailing past me, the rope burning my palms to cinders. Because I loved climbing so much, instead of spending the needed month to heal, I let the madman talk me into trying a huge new wall in the Black Canyon. I could not hold my piton hammer without agony, was leaving pitons and saying I got them, couldn’t haul the pack, had trouble touching the rock to pull on handholds, was dying for lack of water, and that wasn’t the half of it. The whole epic is told in my first significant article, in Mountain Magazine.
Q: Have you ever had a climbing partner die on you?
A: Fortunately I have never had a climber die on me, other than to gas out or psyche out, or be unable to make another upward move. Fortunately a little rest and refreshment has resurrected a few, and we try again another day. I have rescued bodies of people who were in some terrible accident. A fellow human might be viewed as partner in this world.
Q: Where was your favorite sunset viewed from a cliff?
A: I still see the yellow vertical rock of the Yellow Spur, or the clean, orange-green-gray-yellow sandstone of Super Slab, those climbs in Eldorado, turn slowly brighter and then darker as the sun disappears. I used to walk up the canyon just to see that happen again. For the forty years I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I often took note of the late sun illuminating the yellow rock of the northwest side of the Third Flatiron, and the west side of the First Flatiron. The Third especially was a realm of sandstone that utterly captured my imagination all through my youth. I knew climbers had ascended that rock, yet it seemed formidable and almost impossible to my young eyes. It still thrills me to look at that steep rock.
I remember a lovely sunset across the Cathedral Rocks, in June 1967, when I was on the last couple hundred feet of El Capitan. Normally those Cathedrals are huge rocks you see towering above you as you drive into Yosemite. We were gazing down and across at their summits, as the light changed through several degrees of yellow and orange. We were the only people on El Capitan that evening. Those days are sacred.
Q: Cowboy coffee – yeah or nay?
A: I have never tried Cowboy coffee.
Q: Wag bags – yeah or nay?
A: I do not know what a wag bag is.
Q: Tricycle or unicycle?
A: I loved my tricycle when I was maybe three years old.
Q: Footwork, power, or tenacity – what makes for a good climber?
A: A little bit of everything makes for a versatile climber. Footwork, balance, strength, creativity, tenacity, judgment, and a calm mind combine, but (more often than not) technique over strength.
Q: If you could be in on any FA, anywhere, in history, which team would you join and on which route? Why?
A: Royal said I was to be the fourth man for the first ascent of the North America Wall of El Cap, if Chouinard didn’t show. I was sad when Yvon did show. I went down to Fresno and caught a freight train back to Colorado. There were no mantels on El Cap as fierce as onto a moving flatcar with a heavy pack, legs swinging near the wheels… I’ve always wondered, though, how much fun that El Cap climb would have been.
I would have liked to climb with Joe Brown and Don Whillans in Wales in their heyday. I believe I would have fit in with them. Whillans liked me, though I never got to meet Joe.
Q: How hairy is hairy?
A: When I was young, I had no hair on my body except on my head. Some envied that. As I get older, I find my eyebrows grow wildly. I must trim them weekly. As for climbing, anything that gets me to that exhilaration point might be called hairy. I don’t let myself do anything too dangerous anymore.
Q: How heinous is heinous?
A: I guess heinous is only heinous if it truly is heinous. But our use of the language tends to be a bit heinous.
Q: Is the beer bottle half empty or half full?
A: I don’t drink anymore and haven’t for years, but I would say, from a philosophical point of view, that we all are blessed in some relative way, and thus always the bottle is half full, or so one should see it.
Q: Is climbing your spirituality, or is it part of your spirituality?
A: Climbing, like karate, is a tool. And it is a gift. It is a way of perfecting ourselves. Karate, by definition, is the perfection of the self through the perfection of an art. Climbing serves that same purpose for those of us who give to it many years. Thus climbing is vital to any spirituality one might pursue. I once heard a man professing religion say it was a sin to climb, because it was to risk the sacred gift of life God gave us. Another person, in my eyes far more spiritual, told me it would be a sin not to climb, for climbing was, in his eyes, God-given.
Photo courtesy of Pat Ament/patament.com
Q: What was your hairiest rappel?
A: With Charlie Fowler I climbed the Left Wall of Cenotaph Corner in 1984. It rained most of the day, and the rock was wet and slimy. Everything was more difficult than normal. At the top, we rappelled down the actual corner. I went first. The wet rope became heavy and gnarled down near the bottom. I could do nothing to untangle it. I was very skilled at solving such problems, but this one was very bad. I was near the end of the two ropes. And while I couldn’t find any type of perch on the slippery rock to stabilize myself so as to work at the knotted mess, it was such a knot that it could also easily pop loose suddenly, in which case I might well have gone right off the end of the rope and a few hundred feet down the gritstone massif. It felt like a miracle when I figured it out at last, at the point my hands were almost too exhausted to hold onto the rope a minute longer.
Q: How big of a storm have you weathered?
A: I’ve been on a flatcar in a snowstorm, coming home from Yosemite, and that was a fierce blizzard and bitterly cold. I’ve been stormed off Longs many times. I should have made the first ascent of half a dozen routes on the Diamond, but for some wicked storm coming strong and hard and freezing our hands and not leaving, as does the normal afternoon storm. Dalke and I, at age 14 and 15, were caught in a bad, sudden snowstorm right at the top of the Yellow Spur, in Eldorado. Snowflakes the size of baseballs were hitting us in the face, and wind blew the ropes straight up above us when we tried to throw them down the wall to rappel. I’ve never endured anything like the storms mountaineers suffer in the Himalayas.
Q: That trad gear – does it hold falls?
A: Yes trad gear holds falls and probably better than some of the fixed bolts that erode after a time. I have always trusted my natural gear, though I rarely fell. I have caught many people who did fall on such gear, though. If placed correctly it is perfect for what it’s supposed to do.
Q: What is the oldest pair of rock shoes you have sitting in the back of your closet? Why do you keep them?
A: At times as a starving artist, you do what you must. In a moment of absolute poverty one day I sold all my climbing shoes to some store that recycles sports equipment. The gods must have been watching, because the next day or so Luisa Iovane and Heinz Mariacher sent me from Italy a pair of their new Sportiva prototypes. I guess I had paid enough dues in life, had karma sufficient, that I was worthy of a pair of climbing shoes.
Q: Ever climb with rock shoes and socks?
A: No, I have always worn clothes also.
Q: Hexes or cams?
A: My friend Tom Frost designed hexes when he was the designer for Chouinard, so they have to involve some kind of brilliant conception. Cams work well too, but I prefer hexes to the smaller cams. Hexes are very aesthetic. Of course I love any type of “Friend,” if that fits into the category of cam. Friends are wonderful. I once knew a fellow named Cam, and I liked him.
Q: Best climbing book you’ve ever read?
A: I suppose “Starlight and Storm,” by Rebuffat, suffices as one of the highest examples of fine, enduring writing.
Q: Best quote from another climber?
A: In the mid 1960s I received a letter from Layton Kor, from Yosemite. At the end of his somewhat frenzied report of various climbs and scary runouts, and death cracks, etc., he offered the fatherly advice, “Be sure to use lots of protective pitons. Climbers lead a hard and lonely life, and it only takes one fall to end everything.”