The Climbing Q&A: Lonnie Kosuko Kauk

Born and raised in Yosemite Valley, Ahwahneechee Tribe member—and pro climber/snowboarder—Lonnie Kosuko Kauk is taking Valley climbing to the next level, with 5.14 cracks, 5.14+ projects, and beyond.
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Placing his own gear, Kauk makes the first-ever redpoint of Magic Line (5.14c), Vernal Falls, Yosemite, a route first pinkpointed by his father, Ron Kauk, in 1996 and for many years the world’s hardest crack.

Placing his own gear, Kauk makes the first-ever redpoint of Magic Line (5.14c), Vernal Falls, Yosemite, a route first pinkpointed by his father, Ron Kauk, in 1996 and for many years the world’s hardest crack.

On November 14, 2018, Yosemite’s native son Lonnie Kosuko Kauk completed the first redpoint of Magic Line (5.14c), an offset tips crack established by his father, Ron Kauk, 22 years earlier.

“Once the senses are cleared up, the native spirits come to you,” Lonnie says while bouldering at the Housekeeping Boulders in Yosemite Valley. “The rocks, the cliffs watch you and get to know you. And they know when you’re thankful. I’m almost in a prayer when I do climbs.”

The spirits tell the Yosemite Valley native, 35, when he’s ready for a long free solo or highball, or when he’s ready to send Magic Line, one of the world’s hardest cracks. Located at the base of Vernal Falls, this 98-foot seam was established by the Stonemaster and Yosemite legend Ron Kauk in 1996. The route required a year of dedication, with Ron redpointing it with pre-placed micro-wires and small cams along its length. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lonnie pinkpointed the route in December 2016 for its first repeat. Then, wanting to better his ascent, he returned and on November 14, 2018, positioned a bird feather at the base of the climb, lit some Eastern Sierra sage, and then proceeded to redpoint the crack, placing 13 triple-zero, double-zero, and single-zero cams as he went. “Magic Line is the most amazing thing ever,” says Kauk, who has since redpointed it a second and third time. “It’s not just physical—it wants your spirit.”

Kauk lives in June Lake on the East Side of the Sierra, making his living as a sponsored snowboarder and professional climber. He’s repeated many of his father’s hardest lines, such as Thriller (V10) and Crossroads (5.13d) in Yosemite, and Peace (5.13c) and Broken Arrow (5.13c) in Tuolumne. Kauk has also has climbed the 55-foot Too Big to Flail (V10 X) in the Buttermilks, and free-soloed Looney Binge to Towering Inferno, a 5.12c to 5.11a linkup in the Owens River Gorge. He also has FAs in Owens in the North Gorge, including Make a Love (5.13b), Ascension (5.13b), Elemonkey (5.13c), and Legend (5.13c).

Born in Yosemite Valley’s medical clinic, Kauk is a direct descendant of Yosemite’s Ahwahneechee Tribe chief Tenaya. Kauk was raised by his Native American mother, Lucy Ann Parker, and maternal grandparents, Ralph and Julia Parker, along with his brother Yuodde, two years his senior, and half-siblings Quincy, Plake, Ronda, and Ursula in Yosemite Village where he attended school until the eighth grade. His mother and grandmother weaved baskets at the Yosemite Native Museum while Kauk made arrowheads and “clacker sticks,” elderberry-stick ceremonial instruments. When Kauk was 14, Parker moved to the East Side after she took a job at Bodie State Park and began working as an interpreter and ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain. His father, meanwhile, spent most of his time away from the family. “My dad was out climbing on superhero status,” Kauk says. Growing up in the Valley, Kauk made annual summer 50-mile spiritual hikes along the old trade paths and attended sweat-lodge ceremonies with other tribe members. “Through these experiences, I learned to talk to the spirits of the place,” Kauk says. “Now, the whole tribe climbs the route with me from the beginning. If I send, they send. I have that honor badge.”

Kauk sits in front of Tuolumne Meadows’ Medlicott Dome.

Kauk sits in front of Tuolumne Meadows’ Medlicott Dome.

During his youth, Kauk got into skateboarding, often riding his board through the park. He sometimes had run-ins with the authorities at school for reasons he believed had to do with his Native American heritage. Since he often wore baggy pants, he was once mistaken for a gang member—on the first day of eighth grade, the principal took him aside and said, “We don’t take gangs here.” “I felt like they were after me,” Kauk says. Feeling singled out, he transferred out of the park to Mariposa High, and then left after one year to be homeschooled. Kauk soon found his place in the snow.

“I grew up ski racing under my grandfather’s guidance,” Kauk says. “I raced on the local Badger Pass Ski Team (now called the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area).” At age 14, Kauk switched to snowboarding, then moved to the East Side two years later to pursue it full-time. During the day, he snowboarded; at night, he worked as a janitor for the concessionaire on Mammoth Mountain, clocking in at 4 p.m. to work until midnight. His snowboarding skills earned him his first sponsor, Mammoth Mountain, then came DC Shoes and Monster Energy. Kauk hit the terrain park up to eight hours a day, riding until his legs trembled with fatigue. “I’m known for hitting the big-ass jumps,” Kauk says. “It feels like free soloing, which is probably why I got into free-solo climbing.” In 2006, Snowboarder named Kauk the “Super Park Standout.” Later that season, a Teton Gravity Research helicopter filmed him as he bombed off the biggest jumps in Aspen. The next year, he made semi-finals in the ESPN X Games slopestyle. “It was a heavy comp for sure,” Kauk says, “Everyone was hucking every gnarly jump known to man.”

Kauk began climbing at age 16, after he hurt his ankle skateboarding. Hoping to use climbing to rehab his ankle, Kauk got a pair of La Sportiva Kaukulators from his dad, and then was dropped off with a crashpad at the Puppy Dome Boulders in Tuolumne. As he and his friend Trevor Benson worked a hand traverse, they saw Chris Sharma working on what would become Thunderbird (V11). Kauk pawed the opening holds and felt inspired to get strong enough to do it someday. “Sharma was my guiding light. I got to witness his climbing in person and then try to pull up on the starting holds, thinking ‘What?’” Kauk says of grabbing the quarter-pad crimps on the 30-degree-overhanging wall.

Lonnie Kosuko Kauk runs a late-night lap on Haroun and the Sea of Stories (V11), Buttermilks, Bishop, CA.

Lonnie Kosuko Kauk runs a late-night lap on Haroun and the Sea of Stories (V11), Buttermilks, Bishop, CA.

Kauk soon started toproping at the Owens River Gorge. A couple of years later, he led his first route there, a 5.10c called Hardly Wallbanger. By age 19, Kauk was climbing 5.12, and at 20, he’d ticked Midnight Lightning (V8), a line his father had established four years before he was born. Prior to sending the Camp 4 testpiece, Kauk didn’t consider himself a serious climber. “I was just wandering around,” Kauk says. “Midnight Lightning gave me the key to unlock the rest.”

As Kauk’s climbing evolved, he found a new mentor in John Bachar, the Stonemaster and renowned free soloist. The pair began climbing both on and off a rope in Tuolumne, Clark Canyon, and the Owens River Gorge. Ron began climbing with his son as well, taking him on his first multi-pitch and trad climbs. A few weeks after Lonnie climbed the Regular Route (5.9; 1,000 feet) on Fairview Dome with his father, he and Bachar free-soloed the line and then followed up with a free solo of South Crack (5.8 R; 800 feet) on Stately Pleasure Dome.

“Bachar was spiritual,” Kauk says. Shortly before his July 2009 death from a free-solo fall, Bachar had told a young Lonnie, “Once you go and focus on the mountain and feel good, you don’t have to go on the mountain anymore. You go there to find yourself and do amazing feats.” Kauk continued soloing after Bachar’s death, following the joy the activity brings him.

In October 2018, Kauk began eyeing the extension to Steve Schneider’s Raging Waters (5.13c) on Medlicott Dome in Tuolumne, a route that he thinks could go at 5.14+. (Schneider had bolted the extension.) “I was linking it to a stopper edge that I figured out how to use. Now it’s down to one move: a deadpoint to a flat-edge knob at 120 feet,” Kauk says. ‘That move is hard as fuck.” Located at nearly 10,000 feet, Medlicott’s famed wall of orange and gray feldspar knobs contains other classics like Peace (5.13c), the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c R/X), and You Asked for It (5.10c X).

Kauk climbs on Crossroads (5.13d), Reed’s Pinnacle, Yosemite.

Kauk climbs on Crossroads (5.13d), Reed’s Pinnacle, Yosemite.

“My dad and Bachar did those prominent black streaks with Peace and the Bachar-Yerian. I want the final big streak to the top with Raging Waters,” he says of the extension. “If you send the V10 crux, then go higher, it would be like Peace. I saw it the other day and was, like, ‘This is it. We gotta do it.’ Then this bald eagle flew by when I was stick-clipping through the crux.”

Interview

Why Magic Line?

Lonnie kosuko Kauk: When my dad saw it, he knew it was next level. The next step. For me, the next chapter of Magic Line is the story of Ron Kauk and his son. Even the story of the ups and downs.

My dad belayed me on it when I sent it on pinkpoint in 2016. I continued working on the redpoint, and in 2017, when I was one fall from the send—right at the top—he caught my whip but then wouldn’t come back up there with me. I would have done it that week for sure, but he bailed on me and I had no partner. It sucked.

I felt like a beginner when I was first trying it. I decided it would take leaving a piece of my life there to do it. Then one day, I was sitting up there alone. I felt, like, this magic dust come down, and right after that I linked through the crux. That was the day I knew I could do it.

What was the crux like?

There’s one painful pinky lock high on the route. Your toe is going numb in the crack, too. Then you do this sketchy move—I call it the Prayer Move, as in “Please let me through.” It’s a little scary there. You put this one last piece in and look at it on the go. If it’s not set right, you can’t do the route.

I can’t wait to go back up there. It’s crazy. I want to do it again.

Lonnie_FINAL_bleed-web

Where do you get your climbing style?

I get my smooth climbing from my dad and Bachar. I was, like, “If I climb one day, I want to climb like that.” It’s like Bruce Lee’s “Be like water”—to be honest and crystal-clear with your thoughts and actions.

Any plans to apply your skills as a snowboarder to Yosemite and make technical descents?

I want to be the native son who’s connected with Yosemite as a snowboarder, climber, and hiker.

What was it like growing up in Yosemite?

I would see all these random big-wall climbers come in and out of the house. We were around all these crazy characters, but they were cool because they were always on adventures—people like my cousin Troy Johnson, who put up big walls on El Cap. I never planned to go to college. I just wanted to go snowboarding and climbing. Or just be out in nature.

I wanted to be a sponsored athlete like my dad and Bachar. The Masters of Stone vids with Dan Osman and ski vids with Glen Plake were my mold, my guiding light.

How do you make it work?

I’ll do construction with my friends, and do anything to keep it going and get back to the crag. When I free-soloed Oz [5.10d; 600 feet] on Drug Dome in Tuolumne in 2014, I had no money and was in between jobs, but it was the day I was gonna do it. So I called my friend Christian Pondella to get a ride. I said I was doing it for the ancestors. It’s my native side that guides the whole vision. Once I connected with that energy at the base of the climb, I was flying.

Tell me about the super-runout Bachar route You Asked for It. It follows the large black streak on Medlicott’s west face.

It’s 5.10 sandbagged X. No R. On that third pitch, you’re swimming out there in a sea of blank rock, and there are maybe three micro-knobs on the whole pitch and lots of tiny-ass, slopey footholds. It’s like you’re soloing. You highstep, paste your foot, stand up, and repeat. If you fell, you might scrape all the skin off your leg. Who knows what would happen if you hit your belayer? I don’t think many modern climbers have wanted to do that route, as the rating is low. When we did it, I was, like, “That ain’t no grade, man—that’s an experience.”

When I made it through the hard part, I could hear Bachar’s voice. He said, “Congratulations, man!” And when I was done I realized he was talking to me the whole time. Then there was this rad sunset.

What does climbing in Yosemite feel like to you?

My spirit needs this. You can’t buy it. You can’t even sell it. It’s just a vibe. That vibration will always be a part of you. The rocks are alive. Like people. You get to know yourself when you climb them, and Yosemite gets to know you, too. The place will let you do things after awhile. Our native beliefs are that the rocks are watching you, and they like it when you’re strong. You get energy from the rock.

What’s next?

I’m headed back to Raging Waters in the spring. That’s the first thing I’ll go to. Then make my way to El Cap. Maybe I’ll just do that until I’m 60. Why not? El Cap is the bomb.

Kauk establishing a boulder problem in Tuolumne Meadows close to the Phobos-Deimos Cliff.

Kauk establishing a boulder problem in Tuolumne Meadows close to the Phobos-Deimos Cliff.

Lonnie Kosuko Kauk’s top 5 tips for tuning in

Kauk’s best days come when he’s in the right mindset. Dialing in your environment will help you climb harder and have more fun doing it.

1. Be positive

Be happy to go climb at the crag. I like to keep in mind, “We’re here today and this is awesome, regardless of sending the hardest route.” It just feels happy to be able to climb.

2. Tune in

I like to get a good song playing in my head and dance up the climb as if the song is playing. I like listening to classic rock like Led Zeppelin. I grew up listening to Metallica, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix.

3. Be a supportive partner

When I belay people, I always talk with them. I tell them “Good,” out loud, when they make crucial clips. I support them and they support me.

4. Set your environment

From the native side of things, I burned sage at Magic Line and asked it to keep me safe. Burning sage is a way of washing away impurities.

5. Commit

Have everything straight in your head. If you’re gonna do it, go all in or don’t do it. Like with Magic Line, you gotta be 100 [percent] when you put that last micro-piece in. But you also have to know that you’re committed before you even put your shoes on. 

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