Gobrightly: Remembering Brad Gobright (1988–2019)

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On November 27, the climbing world lost one of its brightest—and most understated—members, the talented, hyper-driven Brad Gobright, who passed away in a rappelling accident in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. Known for his pared-down lifestyle and singular focus on rock climbing, Gobright had become a household name in recent years for his audacious free solos, in-a-day free blasts up El Capitan VI 5.13s, and ascents of tough, heady single-pitch routes up to 5.14. The California native was 31 at the time of his passing.

Brad Gobright (1988–2019)

Brad Gobright (1988–2019)

“For the amount of time that I’ve been climbing, I think I’m the worst climber in the world,” Brad Gobright said to Mason Earle around 2015. The pair were working on El Capitan’s Heart Route (VI 5.13c). Gobright had hauled up a copy of Stephen King’s enormous novel It, giving Earle his dog-eared copy of Pet Sematary for on-the-ledge reading. Gobright’s comment had as much reality in it as any of his beloved Stephen King novels. On that route, Earle watched Gobright climb exceptionally well, dancing up El Capitan’s sheer flanks. “By the time we were sending the Heart Route was when he was taking off,” Earle said. “He was on fire. That’s when I knew…his train isn’t slowing down. It’s just getting started.”

Born in June 1988 to Pam and Jim Gobright, Brad Gobright grew up in Orange County, California, along with his sister Jill, three years his junior. His parents, who are avid hikers, brought the family to Lone Pine Lake in the Sierra Nevada when Brad was 4, cementing his love for the outdoors. Young Gobright was always physical, climbing up the goalposts on his local soccer team at age 5. When Brad was 7, his parents took him to an REI where he climbed up the wall. At age 8, Brad summited Mount Whitney with his father. “He was the youngest kid to sign the book at the top that year,” Pam says. “When he came down, he was like a changed kid. From then on, it wasn’t about being at school for him. It was about being outdoors and getting to the mountains. So his dad gave him that.”

Gobright soon started frequenting the Rockcreation climbing gym in Los Angeles, and over the next few years attended climbing competitions in Colorado and Virginia with his father. When Gobright was 8, Justin Bastien took him, accompanied by Pam, to Mount Woodson outside San Diego to crack climb. Gobright loved climbing and became obsessed with it. Despite his ability to tackle difficult climbs or maybe because of his obsession with them, Gobright struggled with school. When he finished high school in Orange, California, he enrolled in community college, but after a miserable semester realized school wasn’t for him.

“I think you need to go to Yosemite and try to get work there for the summer,” Pam told her son. “You should spend a summer away from us, finding your way.” His mom helped him fill out a job application for the national park, and Gobright took a job as a housekeeper at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel for two six-month seasons, climbing routes like Royal Arches in his uniform before and after work. “The joke is that he just never really came back,” Pam says. He returned home for six months, saying that he was going to return to school, but he never did. “He just never turned back,” Pam says of his obsession with climbing. “That was his life.”

Gobright—like any true dirtbag—also struggled with work. While cleaning one of the luxury rooms at the Ahwahnee where chocolate-covered strawberries were left out for guests, Gobright, with his notorious sweet tooth, pilfered a berry. A few minutes later, his boss entered the room to see why he was taking so long. Seeing the sheepish Gobright with chocolate on his mouth and a berry missing, she exclaimed, “Bradley…NOOOOO! You did this!” Maybe it was the grim job, the spartan housing at the Lost Arrow Cabins, or the fact that Gobright spent every moment—even his lunch break—climbing, but his tenure as a housekeeper was short. The same went for his job as a busboy at the St. Julien hotel in Boulder, Colorado, and his gig as an elf, hanging Christmas lights with Jesse Huey and Hayden Kennedy in Boulder. Gobright loved climbing too much to maintain a steady job.

In recent years, Gobright had found more stable work at the Sender One gym in LA, spending summers helping with a kids’ climbing course. “I’m getting paid to go to camp and afterward there’s nothing better to do than jump on the hangboard and train,” Gobright wrote in a July 2018 Instagram post. “I never thought I would have so much fun playing/coaching/messing with kids!” It seemed like a good position for him, as he could work seasonally, train, and have fun. In more recent years, he’d taken an AMGA course and started to guide a little, and was starting to find stability as a professional climber sponsored by Gramicci, Evolv, Friction Labs, Blue Water Ropes, Metolius—and a diet of scrounged food. His roles in Reel Rock 12’s Safety Third and Reel Rock 14’s The Nose Speed Record solidified his ability to be a full-time pro. Gobright anticipated working for a Netflix series this summer, doing a video on speed soloing Las Vegas’ 1,600-foot Epinephrine (5.9), on which he and Alex Honnold had been trading speed records.

* * *

Early in his climbing career, during the summers, Gobright went to the “hippie climbing camp” of Squamish, British Columbia, where he ran timed laps on Calculus Crack (5.7), free soloed routes like Crime of the Century (5.11c) at Smoke Bluffs, and set the speed record on the 1,000-foot Grand Wall (5.11a A0). In summer 2009, he spent only $60 on food and other necessities by navigating his way through the local free-food options with his friend Kevin Mohler, with whom he climbed the Grand Wall around 20 times, including a two-hour ascent. One summer day, he and Mohler woke early and climbed the 11-pitch Freeway (5.11c). On the summit at noon, they realized that if they made it to the homeless shelter in town within an hour, they could get a free lunch. They raced down from the Chief, rappelling 700 feet of fixed lines on Warriors on the Wasteland, hopped in Gobright’s Civic, and tore into town. After having a couple of bologna sandwiches, they waited for the free dinner. Five hours later, with two meals in their bellies and a bit of light left, the pair ran a lap up the Grand Wall. “It was an intense and really chill day,” says Mohler. “It was really cool.”

Gobright was also known for his antic sense of humor. Mohler recalls a few pranks Gobright played on him over the years. Once, hunting between the Squamish forest’s ferns, Gobright found a few black slugs. When Mohler wasn’t paying attention, Gobright filled Mohler’s pockets with the slugs. “Fuck you, man!” Mohler shouted, tackling Gobright to the ground upon shoving his hand in his pocket only to encounter the slimy creatures. (“He [was] a better rock climber than me, but I’m a better wrestler,” Mohler says.) The pranks didn’t stop there. In 2015, at Jailhouse outside Yosemite, Gobright pulled a similar prank when he found a dead fish. While Mohler was around the corner, Gobright stuffed it into Mohler’s backpack, covering it with a rope. When Mohler found the fish at the crag, he started chasing Gobright around the talus, waving the dead fish at him as Gobright giggled uncontrollably.

Gobright picked up his predilection for pranks from his father. When Gobright was 4, Jim poured lighter fluid on some charcoal for the grill. When Jim lit the coals, a huge flame burst out and Jim dropped to the ground, pretending to be dead. The young Gobright waddled over to his dad and attempted to give him mouth-to-mouth. This early prank taught Gobright to be a joker. As he “matured,” he grew to love internet memes and picked up an ability to see the comedy in everyday life.

Bawk. Bawk. Ba-kaw!” Gobright would often call from the bushes in Yosemite. He would then hop out to the trail, asking befuddled tourists if they’d heard the rare Yosemite chickens. Other times, he would walk by climbers around Moab, loudly complaining about how sandy the desert was. For three years, he dated the climber Taleen Kennedy, whom he had met when she worked at the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria. One day, the pair went to the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona. They parked their car on the side of the highway, next to a blasted-out roadcut—and a short walk from the actual climbing. “This is it!” he told Kennedy, pointing up at the chossy wall. For 15 minutes, while she racked up and flaked the rope, Gobright talked about how the horrid wall was actually the VRG and that the climbing became “easier when you get up there.” It wasn’t until Kennedy had her shoes on that he said, “I’m kidding. The crag’s up the hill.”

These antics didn’t always work out in Gobright’s favor. In August 2016, when he went to send The Shadow (5.13) on the Squamish Chief, he hid half the rack in his partner Bronson Hovnanian’s backpack, loading his partner’s pack down. “Unfortunately, he didn’t take that pack and I didn’t realize it until we were at the base of the climb so I had to lead the route with only half the rack!” Gobright wrote in an Instagram post. “He had to lead it on like three nuts and a couple small cams,” recalls Hovnanian. “It was funnier than shit. And scary belaying him.” These were typical antics for Gobright, who was known for selling his Yosemite Lodge parking spot for $20 to tourists, getting busted for stealing cookies at the Lodge Cafeteria, and sitting for hours, waiting for the free cookies served at the Ahwahnee.

* * *

Whether he was in Yosemite, Indian Creek, Joshua Tree, or Squamish, Gobright mobbed around in a Honda Civic, which smelled like climbing shoes. “He had three Honda Civics,” his father, Jim says. “But two of them were stolen.”

“His senior year in high school, he lost the same car twice,” says Pam. “He wasn’t good at keeping it locked and parked.”

Once, when he was coming out of a movie theater in Southern California, Gobright saw his car turn on 100 feet away. “That’s odd,” Gobright thought as the car moved toward him. A few seconds later, he realized he was watching his car get stolen. “Most people would be irate, but Brad had such a funny way of talking about unfortunate situations,” says his friend Colin Simon. “No matter how many times he would say, ‘Colin, this isn’t funny, my fucking car got stolen,’ I couldn’t stop laughing, and I knew it wasn’t really that big of a deal to him.”

Gobright hanging out on top of the second-to-last pitch of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan.

Gobright hanging out on top of the second-to-last pitch of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan.

Recently, Gobright had been living out of a 2005 Honda Civic, its glovebox stuffed with expired vehicle registrations and the body of the car full of tattered Gramicci clothes, tons of climbing gear, and then a bit of food—mostly a can of coconut butter that he used for cooking. The car was so full his parents joked that they didn’t think they could get him a Christmas present because there wasn’t room. “He still had a flip phone,” his father says of the arduous task of cleaning out Gobright’s car after his passing and finding random things inside.

“He just didn’t care about stuff,” Pam says. “He didn’t want anything.”

“Except new climbing gear,” Jim adds.

In the summers, his YOSAR friends let him sleep at the site or he stayed in the soft pine needles of the woods behind Camp 4. “He’s living in the boulders fully scrappy, and it’s cold,” Honnold says of meeting Gorbight for missions at 4 a.m., when the Valley floor was cold and misty. “He’d stagger out of the woods and go climbing. It’s pretty rugged really. He never talked about it or complained. He was just there at his car at the time he says, ready to climb.”

“Brad was tough but understatedly so,” continues Honnold, who climbed with Gobright on El Cap and in Las Vegas, where Gobright wintered. In February 2017, the pair left their car on a 34-degree day, hiked in to Red Rock Canyon’s Rainbow Wall, and attempted Rainbow Country, a 1,000-foot 5.12d. When the cold weather thwarted them on the crux, seventh pitch, they rappelled the route and instead decided to Mini Traxion on fixed lines on the 10-pitch Dreefee (5.13d). On the descent off Dreefee, Gobright slipped on 5.2 terrain and broke his ankle. To get off the formation, he down-soloed fourth-class terrain, crab-walking and elevating his ankle. From there, the climbers had two and a quarter miles back to the car. “It was, like, four hours of backpacking Brad,” says Honnold, who carried all 150 pounds of his partner piggyback-style, using his iPhone as a light. “It was literally heavy.” When the pair reached the flat section of the descent, Jonathan Siegrist and Shaina Savoy arrived with headlamps and food and water. When they dropped Gobright off at his Honda Civic, he did a few tentative loops in his car and determined he was OK to drive, only going to the hospital the following morning.

This was not, however, Gobright’s first climbing accident: In 2001 he broke four bones in his left foot, falling off the topout of Midnight Lightning. (“I drove him to the hospital for that one,” Mohler recalls. “He left a human-shaped stain of dirt on the hospital sheets.”) In 2012, he broke his ankle bouldering in Squamish. And in January 2016, while filming Safety Third with Cedar Wright, Gobright ripped his gear while leading Viceroy (5.14a R) in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, and fell 20 feet to the ground. He broke his left ankle and a few vertebrae. Shortly thereafter, I watched Gobright—in a back brace—hangboard and campus at Movement Climbing and Fitness in Boulder. “He never really complained,” Honnold says, “Brad was unconcerned by hardship.”

From 2013 to 2016, Brad lived seasonally in Boulder, Colorado, climbing extensively in Eldorado where he free-soloed the 460-foot Naked Edge (5.11b), Vertigo (5.11b), the Doub-Griffith (5.11c), and Hairstyles and Attitude (5.12b/c). He climbed obsessively, sending hard routes like Musta Been High (5.13c R) but forgetting to bring shorts to wear under his kneepads, and thus redpointing the climb in his underwear. He would often sneak into the dormitory cafeterias at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to eat as much as he could for free. The demanding climbing he was doing required a lot of food. It was also in Boulder that Gobright began setting speed records, climbing the Naked Edge around 20 times with Scott Bennett until they whittled their time down to 24 minutes, 57 seconds bridge-to-bridge in October 2014. They would do a warm-up lap in around 45 minutes then head down to the car and wait for cooler evening temps to do a faster lap. Each time, Gobright wanted to shave a cam off the rack or cut the rope shorter so they could simul-climb closer together and potentially move faster.

In 2013, Gobright and Bennett free-climbed Sheer Lunacy (IV 5.12), Moonlight Buttress (IV 5.12+), Monkey Finger (IV 5.12), and Shune’s Buttress (IV 5.11+) in Zion National Park in just 19 hours. “Watching him go up that dihedral,” Bennett says of belaying Gobright on the crux 5.12+ corner pitches of Moonlight, “he didn’t stop. There were only a couple points where the rope would go through a piece, but for the most part the rope was just waving. This is how you would imagine a robot climbing—just unstoppable.” In June 2016, the pair climbed Zodiac, the Nose, and Lurking Fear on El Capitan in 23 hours, 10 minutes.

Gobright loved linkups, as they allowed him to climb more. At the exact moment he turned 30, in June 2018, Gobright was 100 feet runout on at night on the Boot Flake (5.10c) of the Nose of El Capitan completing the Triple: climbing the Nose, the South Face of Mount Watkins, and the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome in a day with Jim Reynolds. “It was really fun climbing with Brad because I could climb things that I couldn’t climb with anyone else,” says Reynolds, who climbed El Capitan around 20 times with Gobright. In 2017, Gobright and Reynolds set a Nose speed record of 2:19:44. “I could also trust Brad in the sense that he never let go,” Reynolds says. “The partnership we had allowed both of us to imagine great things and be able to go for them.” It is a sentiment shared by many of Gobright’s partners. “He’s one of the few people that does the stuff I like to do,” Honnold says of Gobright’s speed climbing. In late October, Gobright texted Honnold, “If you’re ever taking a semi rest day and you want some cardio, you should see how fast you can climb Royal Arches. I’m gonna shoot for sub-20 next time. I want to compare myself with someone.” Honnold lamented the loss of a climbing peer, a colleague.

“There’s no one else playing that game,” Honnold says.

* * *

Gobright began climbing harder in recent years, putting more emphasis on being more calculated and safer. Returning to Indian Creek in March 2018 after a four-year hiatus, he sent Carbondale Shortbus (5.14-), which has a notoriously difficult beginning protected by thin gear. “I climbed it with a preplaced cam instead of placing it on lead with a crashpad. I found I couldn’t reach the placement from this kneebar and I would have had to solo the first 20 feet,” Gobright wrote in a March 2018 Instagram post. “I can’t risk breaking my back again.” He also began to focus more on El Capitan free climbing. Though he had come close to sending Light Hearted (VI 5.13b), an easier variation to the free Heart Route that Gobright had worked on extensively with Earle, who made the first free ascent, and he had freed the Freerider (VI 5.13a), he came into his own in the past few years. In 2017, he free climbed the Salathé Wall (VI 5.13) in a day. In June 2018, Gobright freed El Corazon (VI 5.13c) in 19 hours. Then, in spring 2019, he made one-day free ascents of three monster El Cap routes: Pineapple Express (VI 5.13c) with Honnold; Muir Wall via The Shaft (VI 5.13b/c) with Maison Dechamps jumaring; and Golden Gate (VI 5.13a) with Dechamps jumaring again. Gobright had arrived in Yosemite a round-faced boy with a predilection for donuts and had developed into a thoughtful and funny man—and a fearsomely accomplished free climber.

On November 27, 2019, Gobright died in a rappelling accident on the 1,500-foot El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d) in El Portrero Chico, Mexico, where he had gone to do some guiding work and climbing for a short trip.

The world is a darker and far less entertaining place for Brad Gobright’s absence. He will be well remembered for his humor, his strength as a friend and partner, and how openly he shared his light and bottomless passion for climbing with all who met him. If there is one thing we can do like Brad, it is to go brightly.

A funeral will be held for Gobright on January 25 at 2pm at St John’s Lutheran Church in Orange California. This spring, Taleen Kennedy and friends will be hiking donuts and beers to the tree above the Nose on El Capitan to remember Gobright and to spread his ashes.