Obituary: Jim “The Bird” Bridwell (1944-2018)
Remembering the great innovator and prolific-first ascensionist
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The legendary Yosemite climber Jim “The Bird” Bridwell died in Palm Springs, California, today. He will be remembered for his contributions to not only Valley climbing—some 100 first-ascent free climbs plus A5 big wall routes on Half Dome and El Capitan—but also cutting-edge alpine routes from Alaska to Patagonia. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, and son, Layton.
He was one of the great innovators of the modern climbing era, bringing a tech-savvy meticulousness coupled with a go-for-it attitude to his many first ascents.
Born July 29, 1944, in San Antonio, Texas, Bridwell was the son of Donald Bridwell, an airline pilot who was downed while serving in WWII. Bridwell’s mother, Miriam, was a housewife. The two divorced and remarried—the same day that Jim and Peggy wed in 1974.
Bridwell was a link to the Golden Age of climbing, having befriended the late Royal Robbins as a youth, before setting off for the next four decades on a first-ascent spree. He was Top Dog in Yosemite Valley in the 1970s, taking aid climbing to the next level with first ascents on El Capitan. These included the hardest routes in the world at the time: first the Pacific Ocean Wall, and then later Sea of Dreams with its notorious A5 Hook or Book pitch—the first “if you fall, you die” rope length on the famed big wall. In 1975, he, John Long, and Billy Westbay became the first to climb the Nose in a day.
“[Bridwell was] a bridge from the Golden Age climbers, and he could see where the sport was going,” says Yosemite Climbing Association founder Ken Yager. “Early on, he took the speed-is-safety mentality from the mountains and put it on El Cap, which is why he did the first one-day ascent. He always stayed at the forefront and was always with amazing teams that pushed the limits.”
Bridwell and Steve Brewer ticked the first complete ascent of the Compressor Route, making the third ascent of Cerro Torre, in 1979. During the descent, he broke his ribs when a sling he was anchoring with failed, causing a huge fall. Bridwell described the accident in the American Alpine Journal:
“Suddenly the panic light in my head flashed red. The sling had ripped apart, but I didn’t know it yet. I accelerated earthward at an alarming speed. Terminal velocity, no pun intended. ‘This is it,’ I thought, ‘the last act.’ Just like Toni Egger. My mind shifted into hyper-gear and became subtly disconnected, assuming the viewpoint of spectator. My thoughts were as clear and distinct as a computer read-out. What had happened? What was going to happen? Would I live to see my unborn child? Where is the end of the rope? Would I go all the way to the ground? I could hear myself screaming. ‘Shut up,’ I told myself. ‘Screaming doesn’t do any good.’”
Two years later, he completed the FA of the East Face of the Moose’s Tooth with the late Mugs Stump. During the descent—having traveled without a bolt kit—they had to rappel off a single small nut.
Bridwell wrote of that committing moment: “After descending half the rope, I gave thanks to the merciful one. For, wonder of wonders, the ropes reached a snow-covered ramp. The chilling grip of death relaxed and a calming peace soothed my quaking soul.”
As for his nickname, the Bird, Bridwell was a bird watcher and admired falcons. His first climbs in San Jose, California, were to help retrieve and replace eggs high up in trees.
In an interview for the book SuperTopo: Yosemite Big Walls, Bridwell spoke of his early climbing days:
“I did my first climb in Yosemite on my 18th birthday in 1962 with the late Galen Rowell on Higher Cathedral Spire. I had to borrow shoes from a busboy over at the [Yosemite] Lodge. I had these work boots. I was starting college just as the summer ended. I could only afford [college] for two years due to a scholarship for track [as a high jumper]. I took my test to be a pilot at the Alameda Naval Base. When I came through the gates, I heard that Lee Harvey Oswald was killed. I knew something was rotten in Denmark, so I became a draft dodger and moved to Yosemite.”
Bridwell had many adventures around the globe, and was known for this hard-driving, hard-partying approach, which, as he aged, perhaps contributed to his failing health. Layton Bridwell, Jim’s son, wrote on a GoFundMe campaign in January 2018 that his father had complications from hepatitis C. “My mom suspects he could have contracted that from any number of his adventures, but more likely than not it came from the tattoo he received from headhunters during his cross-navigation of Borneo back in the ’80s when I was a kid.”
His crossing of Borneo, four decades of cutting-edge ascents, plus hard living were not easy on the man known for huffing down unfiltered Camel cigarettes, drinking to excess, using hallucinogens, and receiving his share of hard knocks in the mountains.
While climbing in the French Alps in the 1980s, he took a rock to the face—smashing out his front row of teeth. In 2008, a rappel accident put him in a freefall to the ground; the impact split the back of his head, requiring 60 stitches. “Jim said his climbing career ended when he rapped off the end of his rope at City of Rocks,” longtime friend Todd Gordon says. “He said that was it for him. It was an omen…. A few knocks, but not really that many considering the stuff he did.”
Bridwell spent his last few days surrounded by friends and family, passing peacefully on February 16, 2018, at 10:53 a.m.
Friends and Climbing Partners Remember Bridwell
This longtime Yosemite resident, 1970s-era Stonemaster, and photographer thought of Bridwell as a father figure.
“We met in 1971 or ‘72, I was 16. I graduated from high school a few years early. All my friends were older than me, and they had cars and they were climbers. The day I was supposed to graduate, I was already in a car heading to Yosemite. Once there, I got out of the car and I ran into John Long, whom I’d already known for a few years. I followed John into this tent in SAR site, and there in this spacious circus-looking tent was Bridwell. We shook hands and we went climbing shortly after.
“We went up on the Right Side of the Folly [aka The Good Book] and I couldn’t lead this wet pitch that’s 5.10d. I was getting frustrated and Jim called me down and said, ‘You know, Dean, the thing with life and friends, is it’s all about the person. I don’t care how hard someone climbs. I care about how they are as a person.’
“I think he eventually led that pitch and I followed, but that doesn’t matter. I do remember that at that time, I only had friends who were climbers. I think that was a vain thing I was doing at that age, and ever since then I took Bridwell’s advice. Now I look at who people are as a person—not how they are as climbers—and that’s who my friends are. Here is this Godfather of climbing telling me what he did; he didn’t care about how hard I climbed. It was about friends.”
In 1981, Bridwell took the then-teenaged free climbing phenom Mayfield under his wing. The pair authored new big wall routes on El Cap and Half Dome.
“We climbed the first ascent of Zenyatta Mendatta on El Cap and the Big Chill on Half Dome, and we guided the West Ridge of Moose’s Tooth. We attempted the first ascent of Bears Tooth, via the Beast Pillar. That was his last great alpine climb.
“Zenyatta—I had just turned 18. It was crazy. I lived in a trailer park in Tahoe City, California, near Bridwell. I befriended him before I was 18 because I hung out in [Yosemite’s] Camp 4 and was like a Stonemaster’s kid brother.
“Jim was this really amazing mentor. He knew I had free skill but not aid skill, though I’d done Zodiac. And he asked me to do this FA of Zenyatta. Another team had done the first six pitches but bailed, and no one had touched it for a few years. We went up there around New Year’s, and he had me do the first new pitch with his new team.
“While up there, I took this big fall and ripped out all these pieces while trying to tiptoe around loose stuff. After the fall, he taught me how to take my hammer and knock hard to get that loose rock out. He also showed me how to properly place copperheads. I had never placed heads before that. I ended up leading some really hard ground up there.
“Whenever you climbed with him, you knew he was the best climber in the world doing his thing. He was safe, solid, and he was the captain of the ship on a big wall. If you didn’t do it by the book, he fixed it to make it right. I still do that as a guide and as a wall climber. He was the standard for total excellence.”
Kohl—author of a laundry list of hard-as-nails Yosemite big walls— describes the time he and Bridwell started up the first ascent of the A5 Half Dome route Shadows.
“I remember he led pitch 5, which traverses right, and he made it not look too bad. I go to clean it, and all these RURPS and the other little pieces started falling out. I asked how he got these really marginal placements to stick, and he said on sketchy placements you have to hover, like a helicopter, to ease onto it, even if that means doing some half-free move to take the weight of the piece. His advice helped me be more confident on marginal gear placements while doing hard aid.
“The most interesting thing he taught me was to hover, and the way he explained it is more as a state of mind.”
Gomez was at Bridwell’s bedside during his final days, and recalls Bridwell’s dedication to his family, noting that Jim and Peggy celebrated their forty-fourth anniversary on February 14, two days before his death.
“He was hugely dedicated to Layton. During our many road trips, I overheard him on his phone say, ‘Son, I love you. Take care of Momma!’”