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John Long: What I’ve Learned About Climbing, Writing, Death and Beyond

John Long, an original Stonemaster, rolled into Yosemite in the early 1970s. He's learned a lot since then.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 193 (April 2011), and is a member benefit when you join Active Pass. Sign up, and you’ll get access to dozens of stories by John Long, and over 3,000 articles and features by other leading writers. You’ll also get a one-year subscription to Climbing magazine and our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent


When I first headed for Yosemite, I was 17 years old and had no idea who I was. Then I met Jim Bridwell, de facto lord of Camp 4. From our first route together, I saw how measured “The Bird” was per the whole climbing process. It took a while, but slowly I stopped muscling through things and started noticing life, in all of its dark and dazzling facets. So ran the process of learning to take myself seriously, of appreciating what the hell I was doing, even as the pitches flew past.


My life is paradoxical, full of discord and not-knowing. But there are also moments on the bed in the lamplight, and you want to show up for these because that’s where the paradoxes resolve themselves, where for the time it takes a tear to dry, we taste the open-hearted freedom. And it’s often just a look, two palms flushed together, all the simplest things.


I grew up with a vastly screwy experience of family. Adopted at two days old from a podunk community clinic in Indio, California—then the low desert asshole of Southern California—I was thrown into a cauldron full of people who looked, acted, thought and felt nothing like me whatsoever. Dad was a doctor, Mom was a scholar. Both sisters were brainiacs. I threw rocks at cars and loved to fight Mexicans, who gave me my nickname, Largo, which is my adopted name, Long, in Español. My family was an amalgam, custom-made in America, combining German-Jewish and dustbowl Okie. Years later, when my adoption papers were unsealed, I discovered I was seven-eighths Irish and one-eighth Comanche (easy on firewater, Tonto). Anyhow, I couldn’t have felt more different and disconnected had I washed ashore on a palm frond.


I recall the early days in Yosemite and doing body recoveries, and how we never could talk to death. Words bounced off the prettiest corpse and the bag of bones as well. We saw plenty of both. Death has its own itinerary, listens to nobody and leaves no one behind.

I was on Half Dome with two girls, bivying on Big Sandy Ledge, when I first realized the absurdity of worrying about death. I spent the first hour worrying about how to get the girls out of their knickers. I apologize to the universe for having such thoughts, but I did. They just popped into my mind like grouse flushed from the hedgerow. The girls didn’t suffer these thoughts, at all, so my mind shifted to the next subject over, death, and all those eons before I was born, and how I never gave a shit about missing them all. So if I didn’t care about existing before I was born, why fret the afterwards?