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Ten Questions with Chris McNamara

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You are quite the busy man. What are you doing these days?Learning a couple of new things: how to BASE jump from skis and how to ride crotch rockets on the California coast. I’m making a short movie about BASE jumping, with a focus on flying close to stuff in a wingsuit. And I’m finishing two bouldering guides for Supertopo, one for Yosemite and the other for the Bay Area. Basically, I’m working hard while trying to be as childish and irresponsible as possible.

That’s right — I saw a video of you BASE jumping off the Eiger, right? That looks dangerous!The Eiger is pretty safe, at least to fly off of. On one jump I flew within 50 feet of the north face and got a pretty good look. Climbing that is what looks dangerous! After six Eiger jumps I went to the more spicy exits in France. A really technical wingsuit jump is like free soloing: if you can totally relax and convince yourself you’ve got it, then everything flows perfectly. If you tense up or have doubts, you put yourself at risk. One cliff was only 600 feet of a sheer drop to a long 30 degree slope. You need perfect body position on the exit and a really good flight to outfly all the terrain. My friend Yuri nailed it and got the biggest BASE jump in the world: 2,000 meters or about 6,500 feet. I was just a little too tense. I bobbled the exit (thankfully not too bad!) and ended up landing in a forested canyon. I bushwhacked for a few hours and found a farmer who gave me a ride back to where I should have landed.

What have you been doing, as far as climbing? Any traveling?Traveled a ton for BASE jumping: Malaysia, nine countries in Europe and all over the western US. But I just stuck to Zion, Yosemite, Tahoe, and Slovenia for climbing. I did the Nose a handful of times last year. There’s nothing better than doing that route in a day with just one rope, 10 cams, and a few Butterfingers. You get to travel over so much amazing terrain when you have almost no gear with you to get in the way of the actual climbing. Last year Ammon McNeely got me really psyched on one-day Zion walls. Most of those climbs only took two to four hours, so we could hang in the coffee shop, get on the wall around noon, and be drinking beer by 5 p.m. … that’s the life. However, there was also a 28-hour sufferfest in there. And I’ve got to say that these days I mostly like big walls that can be climbed in daylight. I can’t suffer like I used to. I generally like to climb or jump in places where I can start the day at a café and end the day at a bar. I’m obviously getting light.

You mentioned Ammon McNeely … who else is doing some really out there climbing in the Valley?It will be hard to top what did Tommy Caldwell did last year, free climbing two El Cap routes in 24 hours. That guy is on fire. Dean Potter is always doing something cool and bold. Matt Wilder and Randy Puro found a bunch of stunning, hard boulder problems last year and showed just how untapped Valley bouldering is. Peter Croft has been putting up the hardest alpine rock routes yet done in the High Sierra. His new lines on the Incredible Hulk are some of the coolest rock climbs I have seen: exposed face and crack pitches above 11,000 feet on crisp white and gold Sierra granite.

What hasn’t been done in Yosemite that would be interesting?Free climbing the triple cracks on The Shield headwall. Free soloing the Leaning Tower with a BASE rig. Climbing four El Cap routes in a day. Shhhh … don’t tell anyone.

What’s it like running a business surrounding climbing, like Supertopo?It’s always been great and especially now, because so many climbing legends are posting on the Supertopo climbing forum. So many stories, photos, and slander that would normally just be shared among a few friends are inspiring — and sometimes irking — a much bigger community.

Running a climbing business is great if you run it like a climber. No office, no management, just a laptop, Internet connection, and couch to crash on (or the back of my Subaru). I see so many climbers start businesses and then spend all their time in the office. They are forgetting the important lessons they learned from climbing, namely: Run your company like a dirtbag and keep expenses low. Then you don’t have to make much money and you get to keep your freedom and travel non-stop.

When did you do your first big wall? What age? Where?My first big wall was in 1994 when I was 15. I did the West Face of El Capitan with Mark Melvin. Mark forgot his climbing shoes and we didn’t bring jumars. Luckily, we have the same size foot. So Mark (who led the whole thing) either had to zip the shoes to me down our second rope or he’d let me have the shoes and he’d climb barefoot. We also ran out of water halfway up. It was a typically hot summer day. It was epic. It was great.

What inspired you to do it? Was it because you were around the scene?I first went to Yosemite when I was 14 years old. El Cap was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. I had thought it would be years before I got the chance to climb it. Then I got lucky. After I’d been climbing for less than a year (mostly in the gym), one day Mark just suggested we climb it. I was pretty underqualified but maybe he was having a hard time finding a partner that weekend. At any rate, after that experience, the next year I moved to the Valley for the summer, lived out of my car, bummed leftover pizza, and became a big-wall addict.

What’s the most interesting aspect of our sport?The constant discovery. I can be addicted to big walls for a while, then get burned out and start putting up new trad lines in Tahoe. Then that gets old and I just want to solo easy High Sierra peaks. Then I’ll find an area with hundreds of new boulder problems to put up. Then I’ll get psyched on big walls all over again. There are always ways to find new adventures.

Now I am finding that many great BASE jumping exits have not been done just because they require basic climbing skills. Most BASE jumpers are skydivers, not climbers. Last year I bagged a new mega-classic 2,500 foot jump. It was right next to the road, but nobody had done it because it required a short section of 5.8 to get to the exit.

What is the ultimate climb and BASE jump?The ultimate is climbing a big wall to an 8,000-plus-foot wingsuit jump (and your partner takes down all your climbing gear, of course). There are at least three jumps like this that I hope to bag this year. Hopefully I’ll have some really cool video and stories soon.

Here’s one: