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Remembering a Legend: Scott Cosgrove

Recalling one of America's best rock climbers

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Scott Cosgrove Castle Rock
Scott Cosgrove on “Oswald Cheese Direct” (V4 R) at the Klinghoffer Boulders, Castle Rock State Park. Photo: Bruce Morris

“It was always my dream to push the limits of climbing, and I achieved it for a short time. It came, because I had the ability…but also the hardcore training it took,” Scott Cosgrove wrote in a ClimbSkiBoulder interview. “I did it because it made me happy. It was all about being happy.”

On February 24 Scott Cosgrove, one of the best climbers of his generation, died at the age of 52 while hiking near his home in Calabasas, California. Less than two years prior, Cosgrove fell 30+ feet in an airplane hangar while performing rigging work. Cosgrove fell out of a Condor Crane hoist, straight onto a concrete floor. He had been on a slow but steady recovery and had recently returned to climbing.

Cosgrove’s career revolved around movie production. He worked as a stunt coordinator and rigger in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Expendables 2, Wolverine, for the NFL, for Toyota commercials, and for a number of other large scale productions. In the 77th Academy Awards, he won an Oscar for his work as part of a rigging team. He was also an AMGA guide with eleven guided ascents of El Capitan and international guiding trips to Patagonia, the Himalaya, Canada, and Alaska.

Cosgrove, who grew up in Belmont, California, began climbing at the age of 12. When he was 14, he started climbing full time, spending summers in Yosemite and his free time in the boulders at Castle Rock, a sandstone bouldering area near the San Francisco Bay, where he established many of the problems. “During the 80s Scott was a bouldering force up at Castle Rock,” said Castle Rock Bouldering author Bruce Morris. Cosgrove helped develop the Klinghoffer Boulders which had “High balls that still make people shudder and break out the TR!”

Scott Cosgrove Climbing Magazine Cover
Scott Cosgrove climbs The Cutting Edge (5.13d) in Joshua Tree, California on the June/July 1989 cover of Climbing.

In Yosemite, Cosgrove mastered the bouldering circuit, making the fifth ascent of Midnight Lightning and running a circuit around Camp 4 that included some of the hardest test pieces of the time, including Elegant Gypsy (V7) and Blue Suede Shoes (V5). Though his exploits went well beyond the boulders.

“Climbing with Cosgrove was awesome,” said Kurt Smith, who met Cosgrove shortly after they both finished high school in 1982. The teenagers made the third ascent of the run-out Space Babble (5.11a) and the second ascent of the Smith Crawford (5.12c), both on Middle Cathedral Rock.

Climber Scott Cosgrove Bouldering
Cosgrove hikes Blue Suede Shoes in Camp 4. Photo: Bruce Morris

“We were both confident but scared. Route finding was difficult. The belays were sketchy. It was a really bold, amazing adventure,” said Smith. “After adventures like that your bond for your partner grows.”

In 1987, Cosgrove climbed another dangerous, technical route making the first ascent of the severely run out Southern Belle (5.13a) on the South Face of Half Dome with Dave Schulz. Only 30 bolts protect the 14 pitch route. “It was the scariest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever done.” Cosgrove said. “If it had more bolts, it’d be one of the most popular routes anywhere. It’s as good as anything in Yosemite.”

Cosgrove on one of his 7 consecutive laps on Midnight Lightning in Oct 1984
Cosgrove on one of his 7 consecutive laps on Midnight Lightning in Oct 1984. Photo: Bruce Morris

In the late eighties and into the 90s, Cosgrove, while living in Palm Springs, established some of the hardest rock climbs in America. In Joshua Tree, Cosgrove put up G-String (5.13d), The Cutting Edge (5.13d), Integrity (5.14a), and his test-piece on the Little Hunk, New Deal (5.14a).

“It took me somewhere like 18 days to do it, I think. I had never climb a 14a and the grade did not exist in California.” Cosgrove said of New Deal. “At the time I really didn’t know what 13d or 14a was, just that it was damn hard for me and I had to give it a number.” The route was later confirmed to be 5.14, making Cosgrove the first American to establish a route at the grade.

New Deal was bolted on rappel and caused some controversy. “Bachar actually chopped the line and declined the fist fight I offered over the event,” said Cosgrove. “He later apologized and gave me nine bolts back. We remain friends despite our ethical differences.”

In 1994, Cosgrove met Smith again for another controversial ascent. Kurt had been eying the Muir Wall as a free route and proposed a ground up adventure.

“We wanted to honor our heritage and our mentors,” said Smith. “We wanted to do it in the same style as TM Herbert and Yvon Chouinard.”

Scott Cosgrove Climbing Magazine Cover
Scott works the Muir Wall free variation on the  May 1998 cover of Climbing.

Over two months, Cosgrove and Smith spent 54 days and 21 nights on the Muir Wall of El Capitan. They freed up to 5.13b on the wall and came 30 feet short of establishing the third free route on the formation, climbing the route ground up. The pair replaced a number of anchor bolts and placed a few bolts on their free variation The Shaft (5.12d). At the summit, they were ticketed for the use of a power drill in the wilderness.  The controversial drilling mired the ascent. Still, the pair helped paved the way for difficult free climbing on El Capitan.  

Cosgrove contributed over 400 first ascents, including the above mentioned routes, the first free ascent of The Grand Wall (5.13a) on the Squamish Chief and the 24-pitch Yukon Tears (5.12c) on Mount Proboscis. In 2004, Steve Gerberding, Al “Aldude” Swanson, and Cosgrove made the first single day ascent of an A5 route on El Capitan, climbing Dark Star in twenty-one hours. Cosgrove also climbed the Central Tower of Paine in Patagonia. His diverse climbing resume displays a mastery of the sport. 

He will be remembered as a legend of climbing.