Jeff Schoen

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The first time I saw Jeff Schoen, I mistook him for a tough guy. He looked like he could be a street fighter or Soprano type. Burly and dark, he looked almost angry under his pirate’s mane of curly black hair. When he spoke, my initial impression evaporated – he had a disarmingly gentle voice, and a way of speaking that was as confusing and fascinating as it was unique.

It was summer, maybe 1991, at the City of Rocks, and damn hot. He had a kooky contraption with him, an electronic gizmo the size of a small suitcase that supposedly zapped the sweat glands in your hands so you could get a better grip on the rock. I said to myself, “Here is a brother who understands the curse of sweaty hands”.

If it weren’t for those sweaty hands, who knows how far Jeff would have gone with his climbing? On good days, when the wind blew and the air was dry, Jeff would cruise up into the 5.13 range, entertaining all within earshot with a running dialogue of his mind’s inner workings. In his mellow California drawl, he’d say stuff like, “Oh, well, this is probably where it gets hard. I guess someone could try to get a knee-bar here … a kneepad would be nice … but it’s probably OK … oh, well … yeah … that’s a little too painful … yeah, it was a mistake, definitely a mistake … I think I left my pad in the car … I guess there’s nothing to do but keep going. Oh, look - here’s a pinch. … ”

Jeff made many worthy first ascents on Sierra granite, classics like Lighten Up (five pitches, 5.12b) in Yosemite, andMocha Velvet Stout (three pitches, 5.12d) and Wildcat Buttress (seven pitches, 5.12c) in Tuolumne. While these climbs are undeniably great, they remain obscure, partly because they are so hard, and partly because Jeff was so soft spoken about their quality.

Jeff was cocky and humble rolled into one. At his wedding (to fellow climber Deb Wolfe – the love of his life), he wore a sheepish look while sporting a puffy pirate shirt under his tux – he could pull that sort of thing off since he was handsome as a movie star. His cars, usually beat-up old Toyota Supras, always had tricked-out suspensions and the most expensive racing slicks, and he alternated between driving like a grandma and a trained racer (which he was).

On May 3, Jeff lost his life after a truck struck him near his home in Berkeley, California. He was 47 years old.

One of Jeff’s greatest and most endearing qualities was how he lifted others onto pedestals, touting their virtues. He did it all the time. On the flip side, Jeff was often very hard on himself; friends would note his bountiful intelligence and compassion, but he would argue the contrary.

Sadly, I have the last word here, and this is a simple fact:

You measure a man by how much he is missed.

And by that yardstick, Jeff, you were a giant.