He Chose Not To Be A Stonemaster—Other Matters Mattered More
Paul Gleason was a talent of his generation and would be well-known today, but his greater impact was elsewhere, in firefighting where he revolutionized and saved lives.
This story was first published as “The Real Deal” in Rock and Ice magazine.
An aerial photo of Upland, California, from 40 years ago shows a gigantic orange grove, like a borderless green quilt, spilling gently off the San Antonio Mountains into the alluvial flatlands of Pomona Valley, 40 miles east of LA. SpongeBob might have grown up here; General George S. Patton, Mark McGwire and Tom Waits actually did. So did Richard Harrison, Ricky Accomazzo and me.
Back in 1970, we were 16, and most local rock climbing—which wasn’t much—flowed through the Sierra Club and several Boy Scout Explorer troops. The Riverside Search and Rescue Team, allied with the Sheriff’s Department, formed a menacing third party. In that bygone age of leisure suits, Charles Manson and Watergate, if you didn’t hitch on with one of the official outfits, you were nothing.
The groups were insular, and disapproved of outsiders winging it in their sport; you either played by their rules or slipped someone $20 to school you on the side. I paid the $20 to Jack Schnurr, a SAR member who taught me basic rockcraft in one afternoon, and another $20 to Bob Dominic, a former Eagle Scout who guided me for a day at Tahquitz. Since it took ages to raise 40 bucks, I declared myself fully “taught” after these two sessions. I passed on my training to Ricky and Richard, and we collectively bought a rope and a skeleton rack.
Dominic had first told me about Mount Rubidoux, a popular bouldering area near Riverside. In mid-summer, Rubidoux is a parched and smoggy wasteland choked with brambles and tumbleweeds. But in early winter, clover and wildflowers shroud the mountainside, and the air is cool and clear. Motoring up the single-lane road en route to the 100-foot summit crucifix, you pass hundreds of boulders, from 10 to 50 feet high, rearing off the angled terrain. A Monument for Peace sits near the apex, with a rock-and-mortar bridge and minaret bearing a fading brass plaque of 100 nations, erected 110 years ago by a forgotten local dreamer. Something hangs in the atmosphere—a vague but pacific feeling. From the crown of the minaret, when the Santa Ana winds blow, you can look north to the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains, and a million miles beyond.
From the first afternoon at Rubidoux, we were snubbed by anyone with a rope because we clearly were neither Boy Scouts (the cigarettes betrayed us) nor from the Sierra Club. With little gear and less experience, we needed help. But whenever a group of “proper” climbers visited Roubidoux, they’d strip our topropes and elbow us into the weeds. In the daffy dynamics of official 1970s climbing, such handling was actually an initiation ceremony, and junior group members instructed us to seize the opportunity, suck up to the leaders and plead to join. But we no more belonged in one of those groups than Tikis belong on Mars. So we stumbled down our own path—not an insuperable problem, but even a malcontent such as myself looks to learn the ropes in supportive circumstances.
Truth is, I’d screwed up most everything, especially relationships, because I’d never learned how to blend or comply. But up on the steep, I felt solid and connected, and life took on some little ease. Ricky, Richard and I had found something to love, and the future, which can haunt a teenage mind, began to take the profile of great granite walls on the horizon.
We had almost no money and limited access to a car, so after school we’d often hitchhike out to Rubidoux and boulder until we couldn’t make a fist. We’d been climbing for six months when Paul Gleason picked up Richard and me hitching home and drove us 20 miles to our doorsteps in his rust-pocked VW bug.
I don’t remember how it all got started, but we began meeting Paul out at Rubidoux at the oddest hours. With his lumberjack frame, shoulder-length red hair and a Van Dyke moustache/goatee ensemble, Paul resembled Buffalo Bill Cody with 20 pounds of gristle packed on. Paul was entirely free of guff and posturing, which had a calming effect on a tightly wound kid like myself.
I started copying everything Paul did, even down to the way he walked—a sort of Cro-Magnon shuffle with firm, collected purpose. Paul wore white Navy pants—longtime livery of the Valley hardmen—and in a week we all had them as well. Paul smoked a corncob pipe (“Missouri Meerschaum”), cycling between Flying Dutchman and ragweed, a sacrament Richard and I adopted straightaway. The challenge was trying to match Paul move for move on the boulders, a nearly impossible task because he was one of the best.
From roughly 1956 to about 1972, Stoney Point, in the San Fernando Valley, and Rubidoux were the bouldering hot spots for aspiring California climbers. Joshua Tree soon usurped both venues, but one need only visit Rubidoux on a cool winter day to appreciate the area’s biting diorite and crimpy bouldering.
As early as 1968, two shadowy figures—the phenomenal Phil Haney and the crimp wunderkind Ben Borson—established a stack of Rubidoux problems upward of V8. Lunging, jumping, crimping, and open-handing absolutely nothing, Haney tamed overhanging rock 15 years before sport climbers made it their native turf. Nevertheless, the sage and gatekeeper of Rubidoux was Paul Gleason.
Around 1970, when most Southern California climbers were driving angles into Tahquitz granite, Paul made annual junkets to Colorado to bone up on John Gill’s infamous Dakota sandstone problems, returning to So Cal with revolutionary strategies like the use of chalk and hatefully tight “varape” boots. More important, Paul, one of the first to repeat Gill’s Mental Block and Eliminator dynos, near Fort Collins, understood that a fit climber could yard up most anything with holds. Without the direct mentoring of its original members by Paul Gleason, a sort of geological Mr. Chips, those of us who later became the Stonemasters would never have realized that, in the early 1970s, the field of free climbing stretched before us with all the sparkle of the open seas.
Once we enjoyed Paul’s laconic tutelage out at Rubidoux, our learning curve so steepened that we could barely hang on. Like many effective coaches, Paul inspired by virtue of who he was, not through what he said, which was never much. His praise and suggestions were laid on with a feather, which made us listen that much closer.
We’d watch Paul send the Wall of Glass, with its V7 dynamic start and 25-foot 5.11 slab finish. Then, rather than sing his own song, he’d return to the base and say, “I figure one of you boys should get that today.” We’d pull ourselves silly and scare ourselves crazy, taking jumbo skidding falls into the shrubs trying to make good on Paul’s prediction. A “Nicely done,” or “You’re starting to move real well,” was the most we’d hear. When we all finally climbed the Wall of Glass, Paul quickly ferreted out the corncob. We huffed and hacked and howled. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d joined the world.
Paul modeled a different rendering of a human being, one based on potential, quiet enthusiasm and awe for living. In a word, love. Not the quixotic, emotional article, but some nameless spark that ignited my inherent appreciation for being alive and for expressing that stoke on the boulders, which Paul readily admitted were only minerals. I’d always been paralyzed by judgements—from family, coaches and everyone else who couldn’t contain me. I’d taken it personally, and a rebel the size of Godzilla had for years marched point in my life.
I started rock climbing to show the world who was wrong or die trying. After a few months around Paul, I no longer pushed so hard off everyone. Paul played it easy with us for those first few months, but as we rounded into shape, the curriculum grew increasingly grueling. Paul had a concentrated focus when it came to bagging new boulder problems—he’d chart moves out on graph paper and file the edges of his PAs with an emery board. For Paul, sending a hard new problem was not a physical triumph but something to cherish by howling at the sky, dancing in place and, of course, stoking the hallowed corncob. From then on, we knew that Paul would lead us over to that ghastly problem till we’d all succeeded. Paul did not like to smoke the corncob by himself.
Sometimes, we’d sit atop a boulder and stare into space. I can still envision Paul on top of the 40-foot Joe Brown Boulder, gazing into the vastness. “Whatcha looking at?” I’d ask, squinting. He’d reply, “Nothing in particular.” When I’d probe a bit deeper, he’d say, “Pretty amazing we can see at all, wouldn’t you say?” Such comments threw me, as I generally wolfed down reality in large chunks, often resulting in heartburn. “How does anyone stand on such a small hold?” he might say in the middle of a problem, and I’d tumble off wondering what he meant. Once I started pondering things I’d long taken for granted—walking, thinking, remembering, forgetting—I awoke to a nuanced world.
Often, I’d swing by Highland Outfitters, where Paul worked, and we’d sneak off to boulder. Or I’d pedal my bike to his house, in Claremont, and we’d motor out to Rubidoux. Paul was no saint and struggled with his share of problems—trouble with his wife, too little money, an equivocal future. He’d drop into a mood. I’d dig, and he would run down some difficulty. Then, I’d say, “That sucks,” to which he’d reply, “No, it’s just part of the deal.”
We slowly caught up with Paul, and I distinctly remember the afternoon out at Rubidoux when he looked me in the eye and, in his unassuming manner, said, “John, you’re going to be an outstanding climber. You’re strong and your technique is starting to get good. You’ll go as far as you want to.”
I had no way to know how good I was or could become because I didn’t know myself and couldn’t see 10 minutes into the future. But Paul could, and over the next year he made us understand that while he might have the talent, it was not in the cards for him, or anyone else he knew in the So Cal climbing community, to really go after it on the big stones. That fell to Richard, Ricky, me and several other young So Cal climbers who’d adopted the ridiculous name of the Stonemasters. Paul knew we’d realize the unrequited dreams of many So Cal climbers and had a plan to get us started.
“There’s this crack out at Tahquitz,” he said. “I nailed it last weekend and was thinking how you boys might free the thing if you could muster a good effort.” Paul described a soaring, 150-foot offset, first climbed by Royal Robbins, which went from wide hands to fingers. It sounded fantastic. “I figure it’s worth a look,” Paul concluded. Two days later, we freed the Bat Crack (5.11), the first chapter in a saga that picked up again in Yosemite that summer.
When I returned to attend college after 90 days in the Valley, Paul wanted to hear all about our exploits. I talked his ear off for weeks about hooking up with the heroes of American climbing (all 12 of them) and venturing onto Middle Cathedral, Half Dome, etc. Nobody could have been more excited for us than Paul, but when I swore up and down that he could—and should have—climbed all those routes with all those people, I was unprepared for his answer.
“Why?” he asked. I instantly gave him 50 reasons. “Those are your reasons, John. And they’re good reasons,” he said, “because it’s your path. But it’s not mine.”
“It could be,” I insisted.
“Maybe,” he said, and then paused for a long beat. “Anyone could see where you were going because you had to go there,” he said. “But I don’t, because it doesn’t fit me.” He talked quietly about family, his low-key life, the bouldering he still loved, and other things since forgotten. The rewards he got from living his life according to his own inner compass were no greater, and certainly no less than, my own, he told me.
What Paul didn’t tell me was that he’d returned to the fire fighting community that he’d started with as an 18-year old greenhorn. Over the following two decades, Paul Gleason would revolutionize wildland fire fighting, becoming a legend in process, inventing protocols and strategies that saved entire communities across the world, and untold lives as well.
Paul had crazy skill and creativity, but his true path was that of a mentor, instilling in his students a sense of value and gratitude that would outlive our tendons and the atomic energy of youth. In fact, Paul’s perspective furnished a gentle segue from brute effort into subtler realms where value and gratitude are currencies that will outlive us all. His true influence came into its own when Rubidoux, Yosemite and all the rest were largely behind me. Instead of living off the past till I eventually just dried up and blew away, I’d still see the future aglow with the promise of the days when the corncob burned hot and El Cap was king.
In 2003, when Paul was slowly expiring from colon cancer, Phil Gleason (Paul’s younger brother and an early Valley partner of mine) got hold of me and gave me Paul’s phone number. Making that call was excruciating.
Paul sounded composed, even content with the inevitable; I found myself on sketchy ground listening to his muted voice. All I could do was thank Paul for having faith in us long before we did. Most of all, I thanked him for being himself. Paul gave us permission to find our own way, and, in a sense, we did it all for Paul. I told him so.
“I really appreciate hearing that,” he said. “It was a pleasure knowing you. I was always proud of you guys.” I can’t say why—who knows how these things work—but despite the deep sting of the moment, I also felt optimistic. “I’ll see you on the other side,” I said.
“I’ll be waiting,” he said. A few weeks later, Paul Gleason, world-class boulderer, seminal wildland fire fighting educator, and son of a traveling evangelist minister, was gone.
Several months later, I visited Rubidoux after a four-year absence. The crisscrossing footpaths, the pepper trees and every hold on every boulder were draped in memories. So was the small dirt grotto below the Borson Wall, where Paul, Ricky, Richard and I would yank ourselves stupid on the bulging, saber-edged face and where we passed the corncob like Comanche warriors.
As the sun dove into the west, I trudged to the top of the Joe Brown Boulder and gazed over an expanse I’d literally grown up with. Here, I had come of age, had gone off and conquered part of myself, and now I’d come full circle. I felt hollow knowing Paul would never again lumber around the corner. I gazed out past the rim of the world at a lone star shimmering in the gloom, trying to appreciate the awesome fact that I was there at all, seeing, remembering, suffering and struggling to live up to Paul’s words that “It’s all part of the deal.”