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Stonemaster John Long Comes Clean on Alcoholism

Climbing has long celebrated hard drinking and drugs. Many climbers become lifelong alcoholics and addicts and their families, friends and climbing partners bear the high price. One of climbing's most iconic figures fell into the pit, but pulled himself out and now has an important lesson every climber should read.

John Long is a regular contributor for Climbing, having penned the classics “Pumping Sandstone” and “Pumping Granite” in the late 1970s. “The Only Blasphemy” is one of the editors’ favorite stories by Long, and is just one of over 3,000 features you can access with an Outside+ membership. Outside+ also includes a year of Climbing magazine print PLUS our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent. Sign up now and don’t miss a single word!

I’m doing a new book and my publisher received an email from a woman (“Jill”) in England who called me out as a womanizer, a fraud, a liar and creep who took advantage of a situation when I was supposedly trying to help her organize her writings into a book. Instead, I hit on her. Nothing came of it. No fling. No twisting arms or anything like it; but the episode shattered her trust and turned her inside out. Jill was raging mad. I’d been all of those things she’d accused me of, and several more as well.

Jill’s email threw me into a surreal state of self-centered fear, which caught me totally off guard. The Jill incident happened years ago. I can’t be sure how many years because I was in the tail end of my active boozing and acting out, and that whole time looms behind me like a dark and boiling ocean. Eventually, I got into recovery for alcoholism, and after a hellacious initial year, I finally started grappling out of the darkness. A key part of recovery is “cleaning up the wreckage of the past,” but I had so much troubled water to traverse, four or five years passed before I even remembered the incident with Jill. I immediately emailed her, hoping to make amends. She was moving to England, she said, but was encouraged I had gotten hold of her to try and make things right. She would get back to me when things settled after the move. I heard nothing more from her till her letter to my publisher.

My terror at that moment was not so much about getting retroactively called out.  Rather, that the narcissist I had become as an active alcoholic could jump back from the tar pits and wreck the same havoc and harm it once did when it ruled my life. Years have passed since this was strictly so, but I haven’t done this perfectly and the fear of falling back into shitheel addict mode felt overwhelming. It once again exposed the hole in the middle of me, a sure sign that I had more work to do. After all these years of being sober, of seeking the truth that had so long eluded me, I was only now getting to the hard part.

Long’s partners Jim “The Bird” Bridwell and John Long on the first coast-to-coast a traverse of Borneo in 1983. “55 days in hell.” Photo: John Long collection

My journey to escape hell is nothing special or unique.  There’s an understanding in recovery rooms (especially AA, my path of choice) that we’re basically all telling the same story, but those of us with a genius for denial, dishonesty and self-deception have to hear it over and over to hear it at all. Then we need to keep hearing it to stay the course. “Eternal vigilance.”

My story started with a bad adoption and unremitting violence growing up. I struggled in school. My only salvation was sports. When I found climbing, and eventually made Yosemite my home base, I was only vaguely aware of my vastly imbalanced mania to prove myself and make a name. At any cost. I’d come along at an opportune time in climbing history, had ambitious, driven partners and through luck, chance, and a little talent, managed some historic climbs and got “famous” in a small time way. I dove into adventuring and went to the North Pole, traversed Borneo and Irian Jaya, explored the world’s largest river cave. When the bloom started fading from the adventuring life, I went on a film shoot to the Venezuela rainforest (with Jim Bridwell) and we rappelled thousands of feet down Angel Falls for the Guinness Book of World Records TV series. I met a Venezuelan school teacher, who worked in the jungle resort near the falls. Two years later we got married in El Tigre, Venezuela.

Fast forward a dozen years. I have two daughters and a house in Valencia, Venezuela. My wife was always a little fiery, but a darkness crept into her that eventually grew so fierce and toxic the girls and I were thrown into survival mode. Somewhere in there a cousin told me that mental illness ran in my wife’s side of the family (her mother was likely schizophrenic). Whatever her actual condition, I was vastly overmatched by my wife’s erratic moods and behavior, which felt eerily familiar, like family. When my oldest daughter went to medical school and did a semester in a psych ward, she informed me one evening that mamá had chronic depression and who knows what else since she refused treatment. She did, however, blame me for everything, and I started feeling torn open and rattled to the core. I was burning inside and tried to douse it with booze, an automatic response to someone who’d grown up in an era and a milieu (Yosemite) where drinking and drugging were expected, even celebrated. Then my wife got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two torturous years later, she died at our home in Valencia.

For the last year before my wife’s death, nothing I did could dull the torment. I teetered at the edge. My wife died and I fell. I no longer cared about anything but trying to fill that hole. I became an alcoholic in a month’s time as all sense of meaning, truth, dignity, and value crumbled away. I’d seen various of my original climbing partners fall off the cliff like this, which at the time was tragic to watch. Now I didn’t care.

How I survived the next 18 months defies logic. How I had any friends who would still speak to me is an even greater mystery. I became so rogue, so inauthentic, so Machiavellian that I lost myself entirely. The hole only widened and burned out of control. All that mattered was immediate gratification. Buying things I didn’t need, compulsive exercise, meaningless, deceitful sex, binging on any and everything, and tossing people aside after their usefulness to me was over. I had no conscious, no empathy, no hope. This demonic state became so intolerable that I could only sleep for two or three hours at a time, regardless how much booze I drank. I’d wake several times during the night, pound a couple shots of tequila, and pass out again. The first morning I found myself at a convenience store to buy booze at six in the morning an almost inaudible voice inside of me said, “You’re gonna die doing this. And your daughters won’t care.”

I somehow made it back to my place and for several hours sat with a terror more easily imagined than described. I was out of control and out of my mind and had no capacity to self-correct. I had just enough wherewithal to call a childhood friend who took me to an AA meeting.

John Long, with Billy Westbay and Jim Bridwell made the very first one-day ascent of El Cap, via the Nose in 1975. Here, Long polishes off the famous Stoveleg section. Photo: John Long collection
John Long, with Billy Westbay and Jim Bridwell made the very first one-day ascent of El Cap, via the Nose in 1975. Here, Long polishes off the famous Stoveleg section. Photo: John Long collection

The year that followed proved the hardest of my life. I got a sponsor, Roberto, an aging Mexican American I couldn’t con or swindle because he’d been exactly like me 30 years before. Much to my amazement, putting down booze was the easiest part of the process. For some it remains an ongoing battle, but I’d been scared straight. Back then, the only thing I respected was fear.  The hard part was coming to grips with how recovery worked and couldn’t work. Admitting the problem defeats some, but I couldn’t deny I was alcoholic, and had acted like one, in spades. Next was accepting that for the vast majority of us, booze and using is only a symptom for deeper issues that got us drinking and acting rogue in the first place

It didn’t much matter why I’d acquired my torment, said Roberto, or who was at fault. We had the “ism.” It was nobodies job but ours to unpack it. What’s more, those of us who sought compulsive defense strategies for avoiding that smoldering hole could and would use any means to fill it. Whatever addiction took us down, we’d have to address that first; but the crucial work ran deeper. Then I had to take stock of who I was and the damage I’d caused and go back and try and make amends.

If there was any question about the wreckage caused by addiction, and the addicts like me who caused it, I had those questions answered during my first experience with the amends phase of recovery. Dealing with my own family was especially tricky, since both my parents were dead. Both my sisters (including my older sister, a psychologist) were thrown back into the chaos of our upbringing. Those were turbulent months. Then all the women to whom I’d feigned interest, even love. The wreckage was real and at a depth I couldn’t have imagined until they were screaming right into my face. I was always amazed when such people forgave me, and not surprised when several others would do no such thing.

What the Jill debacle unearthed in me was the preverbal conviction that I had been born flawed and had proved as much with my using, lying, cheating and general mayhem. How does a person every recovery from that? I needed “Steve” to guide me through it.

When Steve was 19, he killed a man in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight. He got life without parole and spent the next 38 years in prisons like Fulsom and San Quentin. I met him at a meeting shortly after the governor commuted his sentence and he finally got out. He was one of the most sincere, rock solid people I’d ever met and we became fast friends. He’d transformed himself in “the big house,” and I needed to know how. If he could come back from murder one with special circumstances, maybe I had a shot. But the man he killed could never come back, so how did he deal with that? How could I deal with the people I had betrayed? And the few who would always hold me in contempt, insisting my efforts at amends were insincere, were cons, lies.

“You can’t roll back time and take it all back,” Steve said. My only option was to try and be the person the world wanted and needed. An actual adult who strove to do the right thing. The whole God mystery, at the core of many recovery programs, always felt slippery to Steve and me. We both were inveterate meditators. I’d logged about 800 Zoom meditation meetings during the pandemic and probably would never have seen things so clearly, or at all, had I not spent so many hours on my ass, shutting my mouth and being still. And all those previous epics dealing with those whose trust I had broken and who swore every response from me was nothing but bullshit and defending, that I was doing it all wrong, “So fuck you!” Nothing else would have woken me up—and continues to wake me up.

But seeking “God’s will,” as we’re instructed from the start, seemed nebulous. I couldn’t get hold of it. But I certainly knew what God’s will was not. And doing the right thing, being a responsible, self-contained adult as the world shakes and rattles around me, was something I’d understood how to do for a long time. The trick was to do it—in rain or shine and in the dark. To live by the philosophy that got Steve out of jail, knowing I couldn’t do it perfectly.

John Long today, clean and sober and planning on staying that way.

“There’s nothing else to do,” said Steve. And it was always an action step, not a philosophy or slogan or intellectual understanding. Not a concept. It was how we are in the world. Setting limits. Creating safety, trust and dignity. It’s a confirmation of life, which is never just about us and our wants and desires and impulses. And it was not just about “my recovery.” It was far bigger than that. Not an easy path, but it’s all there is.  It’s all that’s left.

Caroline Treadway’s excellent documentary, “Light,” explored and exposed the perils of eating disorders, which for years had lurked like an elephant in the rooms of gym and sport climbing. Alcohol and substance abuse are particular concerns, but all of these disorders are mental health issues. Only now, at long last, is the subject of mental health starting to lose its stigma, and for the prevalence of all the “isms” to be acknowledged and understood, in both the adventure world and society at large. My hope is this short article can do some little part for us “users” what Light did for eating disorders, and the whole issue of mental health.

The way Steve puts it, anyone can be better than their most destructive action. It all starts with coming out of the shadows and admitting the problem. As Dr, G. said in “Light,” Anyone can fully recover. It is hard. It is a street fight. It is a shit show. But it can happen. You can live free.

Only then can we chart a way ahead.

Recovery Options

Very few addicts and alcoholics every recover and stay clean and sober through their own efforts. Help is usually required. The options are many these days. The go-to programs for many are AA and NA (narcotics anonymous), owing to the sheer numbers of meetings held in most areas, the essentially free membership (always unofficial), and a timeless regimen that has helped millions worldwide to get and stay clean and sober. Fellowship among people battling the same challenges is a vital part of recovery. But AA is not for everyone. For-profit treatment outfits often feature personalized programs, which many find useful if they can afford the often staggering costs of private in and out-patient care. But the main challenge usually resides with the subject, who is addicted to doing everything on their own terms (“will gone riot”), and are often pathologically adverse to introspection and taking direction. Most any comprehensive treatment program will work if it is followed to the letter. But no program is successful without willingness from the subject.  Few are driven to treatment by anything short of desperation. Those are teachable moments, and the addicted person will find many viable options to recovery if they seek them and stay the course.