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John Bolte, American Climber, Dies on Cerro Chaltén

The 26-year-old from Santa Cruz was on the final rappel, after a successful ascent of the mountain, when rockfall struck him.

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John Bolte, an American rock climber, was killed by rockfall while descending Patagonia’s Cerro Chaltén (Fitz Roy) on February 23. He and Adam Martos, a fellow Santa Cruz local, had finished a successful two-day ascent of Afanassieff (5.10 30˚; 5,000 feet) on Chaltén’s northwest ridge and spent a clear night bivvied on the summit.

(Photo: Michael Baba)

In the morning the pair chose to rappel the Franco-Argentina, the typical line of descent for many who climb Afanassieff. Bolte’s close friend who traveled to El Chaltén with him, Tyler Karow, told Climbing that the climbers descended until they reached a prominent col between Cerro Chaltén and Aguja Poincenot (named La Silla) and made the conservative choice to wait out the hottest part of the afternoon there before continuing. Below them lay a notoriously loose gully of rock and snow, and though four parties made the eight rappels without incident while Bolte and Martos waited, they felt confident in their decision. 

Early evening came with shade and the pair continued their descent. On the final rappel to the glacier, their double rope rigged in place, they heard an unmistakable rumble and leaned in hard to the wall. They were both struck by rockfall and Bolte was killed instantly. 

Somehow uninjured, Martos left the rope fixed and quickly rappelled to the glacier alone as more rocks dislodged. He met three climbers at the Paso Superior camp who hiked back with him to El Chaltén.

In the days following the accident, Karow expressed how appreciative he was of Rolando Garibotti, an El Chaltén local and well-respected alpinist. “The day after the accident he walked into our house at 8 a.m. and spent the whole day hanging out,” Karow said. “We’d never met him before.” 

John Bolte and Adam Martos on the summit of Cerro Chaltén. (Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Karow)

John Bolte, or simply “Bolte,” as his friends called him, “was a total goofball… in the most amazing way. You could never take him seriously,” Karow said. He was introduced to the sport by his father, Mike Bolte, a longtime climber who moved to Santa Cruz in 1990, five years before his son was born. Alongside his sister Kitty, “they started climbing at the Pacific Edge climbing gym when they were very young,” Mike told Climbing in an email. “They both competed in the Youth Climbing League [but] John did not stand out at all in those early days and was sort of interested, but not that interested.”

John’s first outdoor climb was with his dad on Yosemite’s Swan Slab in 2008 and he soon graduated to multi pitches throughout Tuolumne. One time, “at the second belay [of Errett by Bit,] John looked up at the knobby wall above and said ‘Dad, if we don’t go down right now, I’m calling Child Protective Services when we get home.’ It was an empty threat and he started to get more and more interested in outdoor climbing and, probably because he was learning from an old timer [like] me, he developed a bit of a throwback trad-climbing approach.”

John Bolte racks up for The Great Circle in 2010. (Photo: Michael Bolte)

John was leading 5.10 by 15, going on several family climbing trips each year, and began training for climbing in the gym. His favorite drill was to campus the 70-foot lead cave, up and down, with weights hanging from his harness. By 17 he grew interested in big wall climbing with his friend David Whiting and they ticked The Leaning Tower, Half Dome, and Zodiac. “I thought that they would get up to the base of the Regular Route on Half Dome and say ‘Hmm, maybe we aren’t ready for this yet,’ or be intimidated partway up the Zodiac and come down, but they just cruised up every object in great time and having a blast,” Mike said. “[They] jumped on the NA Wall, climbed the Salathé, [then] Lurking Fear in a push, NIAD, and some of the harder walls: Tempest (A4) and Native Son (A3+). He did these last two with Brandon Adams and they were very fast ascents.

“One Sunday afternoon I got a text from John: ‘Just led the BY, back in Santa Cruz tonight!’ I wrote back: ‘Hold it, you mean the Bachar-Yerian??’ I realized then that John had reached a pretty rarely-achieved level of physical and mental excellence.” John was very low-key about his climbs—he loved the climbing and had no interest in recognition, Mike said. Indeed, without Mike’s proud-dad “bragging” in online forums and at the crag, many climbers would have had no clue about John’s ascent.

“We had so many wonderful times in the Sierra camping and climbing with family and friends. Those memories are so precious,” Mike said. “John’s passion for climbing and the wilderness became a defining part of his life.”

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“Climbing was never hard with John, even if we had no idea what we were doing,” David Whiting told Climbing. “Our ‘style’ was laughter and fun. If you could make the other person laugh while they were bouldering to make them fall, or better yet, top out while laughing your ass off, that to us was better style. Slinging a pine cone stuck in a crack as “protection” to make the follower laugh was better style.

“Between climbing, working construction together, burrito consumption, and just hanging out, there are too many stories…. The bond that is formed with your first real climbing partners is so strong. And I don’t think I really knew it at the time. We just became intertwined in each other’s lives, and changed each other forever. After losing John, a friend of ours told me that people who don’t have brothers, find brothers. And I know that’s what John and I found in each other.”

John opening a can of beans or soup with a beak and a hammer. (Photo: David Whiting)

Tyler Karow was first introduced to Bolte while climbing at Shuteye Ridge, in the Western Sierra. Bolte’s stoke for life, climbing, and traveling was quickly apparent and they made plans to climb in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge the following year. Karow dislocated his shoulder, stunting that trip, but the pair kept in touch and made plans to go on the ultimate granite-climber’s pilgrimage one day: to Patagonia. “It was always his dream to come [here],” Karow said.

One of Karow’s favorite memories with Bolte was an alpine climbing trip to the High Sierra early on in their friendship. “He was the badass, I was the newer climber,” Karow said. They planned on doing a link up which included an ascent of Mt. Conness, and Karow asked if a 4 a.m. wake up would be early enough. Bolte balked at the early hour: “I don’t do alpine starts—I just like to go fast,” he said at the time.

Karow was introduced to “Calpinism” on that trip, a term coined by Bolte and loved by many. “It’s alpinism for California climbers,” Karow explained. “Sunny skies, climbing fast, not suffering, and in sun hoodies at 12,000 feet.” Bolte exuded a certain confidence in his climbing, of relying on skill and stoke instead of a heavy pack, and he led Karow up his first alpine ice climb up North Peak that day, linking it into a solo of the North Ridge of Mt. Conness, arriving back at the car with daylight to spare—despite their leisurely start.

Ice climber in California.
John Bolte leads out on North Peak. (Photo: Tyler Karow)

Watch a video of Karow and Bolte making the first repeat of Big Time (5.12, 10 pitches) in Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP

Bolte’s reputation spanned international borders, too; he was a sought-after resource for remote big walls in British Columbia. Josh Schuh, a Canadian rock and ice climber, and Colin Landeck, a friend of Bolte’s from California, head hunted him for a 4,500-foot first ascent in the Powell River backcountry after they were stumped the previous year without the requisite skills or stoke. “While ascending difficult pitches, Colin would often proclaim, ‘we NEED John Bolte!’” Schuh wrote to Climbing. “John was one of those guys who could keep the stoke, energy, and laughter high after several days of being slow-cooked by the sun on a big wall, or freezing on an ice climb in the Canadian Rockies, but also was deeply thoughtful, asked meaningful questions, and really listened when you spoke.

“One of my favorite memories I have of John took place in the Coast Range of B.C. Colin Landeck, Bolte, and myself decided it was time to attempt a new route on an unrepeated big-wall in the area. After days of waiting out endless rain, battling hellacious brush and devils club, and several long slogs of hauling gear and water to the base of the wall, we found ourselves buzzing with energy for the mission before us. Bolte was psyched on a new prototype octopod portaledge he’d just got and insisted that it was big enough for the three of us to bivy on, despite its small size when in the bag. While setting the ledge up on the first night, Colin and I quickly realized Bolte had sandbagged us and it was nowhere near big enough. [He] found this hilarious.

“Bolte was an absolute gem of a human, and I feel honored to have had some incredible trips and experiences alongside him. I’ll miss his goofy jokes, laughing at his ridiculous mullet, but also his thoughtfulness, integrity, and outlook on life. I’m saddened that we won’t share another alpine sunrise together or sit around a fire. You will be sorely missed brother.”