Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
This feature first appeared in Ascent No. 250
Richard Harrison downshifted and the old VW van crested a rise and the Northeast Face of Mt. Wilson hove into view. We pulled over, as we’d done every day that week, and gazed at the mile-wide heap of Aztec sandstone, with its chasms, hanging forests, flying buttresses and iron-striped bands of rubble. For years, whenever I’d study a big new route, it would roar at me, like someone had shoved a seashell against my ear. Now in the silence of the desert, Wilson had the stand-alone, Sphinx-like feel of time in mineral form. Shapes, identity, being—all seemed to dissolve in its shadow.
“They’re calling for rain this weekend,” I said.
Richard tugged the corner of his walrus moustache. He had the thickest beard I’d ever seen, and not once can I remember him clean shaven. The stash and the stubble, along with his bandana, were personal trademarks. So were new routes, and we were looking at one. A big, lonesome one.
Only in the cross light of late afternoon did the 1,600-foot, diamond-shaped Aeolian Wall stand out from the shambling monolith, rising 3,000 feet off the desert floor and ruling the southwestern skyline. Aside from a route along the left margin of the Aeolian (established six years before by Red Rock, Nevada, pioneers Joe Herbst and Larry Hamilton), Old Man Wilson had gone it alone. Fine by me. Winter was near, and we could let the Old Man be.
Richard toed his cigarette out in the sand and shoved the butt in his pocket, as he always did. “Tomorrow, then.”
I was burned out bad, but he knew I couldn’t refuse a new route.
We wheeled off for Las Vegas and Randal Grandstaff’s dirtbag hacienda, sunk in a parched arroyo south of McCarran International Airport. Rent monies to Grandstaff were squandered on white magic charms and slot machines, so months before both gas and electricity were cut. Why was I still living like this? We went outside to barbecue and organize gear for tomorrow. After summer in Yosemite and fall in Red Rock, the last of our gear hung sadly on one sling. The bolt kit, crucial tackle for big new routes, was down to a single drill bit and three ¼-inch Rawl “coffin nail” bolts—sketchy in sandstone, but better than nothing. I kept staring at our one shitty rope, formerly our haul line, grimy wraps of athletic tape covering holes in the sheath.
“We’re golden,” said Richard.
We’d climbed nonstop for a decade, had ticked big routes from Venezuela to the Arctic Circle, and we always walked away. But challenging the Old Man with one rope wasn’t golden. It was asking for trouble. Richard Harrison never asked for trouble. He sought it out, fought it to the ground, chewed it off the bone till it became his flesh and blood. Blame it on Joe.
We were barely 17 when Richard and I met Joe Herbst out at Joshua Tree, and he coached us through a couple of grainy chimneys, his forte. He’d recently climbed El Capitan, a feat in the early 1970s. Around the campfire Joe’s eyes went glassy as he described a place called Red Rock, a short ways west of Las Vegas, with nameless canyons and sandstone walls half a mile high, all unclimbed. That Easter, Richard and I rode the Greyhound bus from our hometown in Upland, California, to Blue Diamond, Nevada, south of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where Joe and his wife, Betsy, managed a Boy Scout camp and lived in a trailer.
Joe was busy with the Scouts, so for our first big multi-pitch adventure he suggested we bag the second ascent of Jubilant Song, a route he’d established that summer. “We’re on it,” said Richard. We laid out our gear on the floor of the trailer, Joe thumbing our mismatched carabiners, replacing this chock with one of his own in the going-to-battle ritual known to climbers from every land. That night I paced, checked the packs, recoiled the rope, even laced on my boots a few times to make sure. How could Richard snore like that?
Joe dumped us on the highway with a hand-drawn topo map describing wild burro trails, barrancas and slabs we luckily followed to the base of Windy Peak. We hit a big roof on pitch four, and I traversed out right, slotting a tiny wired Stopper, the first I’d placed, wondering out loud if a wafer of aluminum cabled with a guitar string could possibly hold a fall.
“They couldn’t sell the thing if it didn’t work,” Richard yelled over. Made sense. I pushed on.
We turned the roof and gained the upper corner. Snow started falling. Three pitches later we swam over the top in a whiteout. Joe had said the descent was “fast,” but provided no details, so we tromped along a ridgeline in the vague direction of the road. Twice we got cliffed, dead-ending at fatal drops, and had to reverse directions. We couldn’t see 10 feet ahead. What was the desert thinking? The sunrise had cooked us hiking in, and now our cotton pants and sweatshirts were plastered with slush and soaked through.
We nestled into a grotto, smoking bowls of Flying Dutchman tobacco in corncob pipes, a practice we borrowed from our bouldering mentor, Paul Gleason. Richard’s hands shook when he waved a match over the cob. We laughed, though it took a while to know why. Here was the trouble that had sought us all along. Our teeth clacked but we held position, dangling in midair as the alchemy of the big rocks crushed our pasts and made us over in their own image. You don’t come back from that. Not all the way, any more than a pickle reverts to a cucumber.
We stumbled into a gulch and charged blindly for the sound of truck horns, miles off. A blast of light shined through the clouds and finally we saw the road. We both had convulsive shivers when we hailed a passing car and got dumped at the dirt road snaking off toward Herbst’s trailer, slogging the two miles through shin-high drifts to get there. The trailer was locked. Herbst had gone looking for us. We weren’t Buhl on Nanga Parbat, or Herzog on Annapurna, or any of the great ones featured in the books we lived on and could recite nearly line for line. But we were goners if we stayed outside.
I broke a window, filled the tub, and we stuck our frozen feet in the hot water, furiously smoking our corncobs through the screaming barfies until the sensation in our legs returned and we laughed again. That’s when I knew we would never die in the wilds.
Richard blew out a cloud and said, “So what’s next?”
“Dunno,” I said. “Maybe throw a rack together and wait till Joe gets back.”
We never did much waiting after that. Trouble owned us.
Early the next morning we push-started the van and motored for Mt. Wilson. A prospector’s trail led to the mouth of the canyon. Ten minutes along a dry streambed and we veered left toward the lower wall, a chossy, 1,500-foot washboard bristling with trees and thorn bushes. Toward the top a scruffy 5.9 corner landed us on a sandstone terrace with a pine tree that cast a shadow like a thundercloud. A steep slab swept off the ledge toward the start of the upper wall. We needed to gain a horseshoe-shaped bowl above the slab, where a crack wound up and left.
Richard shouldered the skeleton rack of gear. Our eyes met.
“Here goes nothing.”
He ran the rope 80 feet over rickety holds before sinking the first bolt. A short ways higher he found a crack and banged home a small piton, sank another bolt, anchored to both and brought me up. The U-shaped bowl was still a hundred feet away.
“Only got the one bolt, just so you know,” he said, sounding like Clint Eastwood in “Hang ’Em High,” a film we’d watched so many times that early on we walked and talked and even spit like Clint. Richard worked a cheroot for a while, but could never keep it lit.
“Watch me close … if you wanna learn something,” I said, borrowing a line from our Godfather, Jim Bridwell. Richard chuckled. “Educate me.”
The wall above steepened, the holds thinned, and I didn’t get far before imagining myself cartwheeling onto Richard’s head. I placed our last bolt. The rock above was smooth as a bottle and the bottom of the bowl hadn’t gotten any closer.
“I can lower to the belay and we can rap off a single line,” I said. We’d have to leave the rope and down solo that 5.9 corner below, a stunt I wasn’t high on but figured we could do if we had to. “But once I cast off from here … ” I didn’t need to mention that once I committed to the remaining slab, retreat was physically impossible with one rope, that the only way off was up.
It had gone that way since our first tour of duty in Yosemite. We weren’t sure how to get started so we called Joe Herbst for marching orders.
“Washington Column was made for you guys,” he had said. Meaning we should skip the small beer at the Cookie, Arch Rock and the other short crags where Valley rookies traditionally break in, and jump on the big walls straight off. This sounded reckless, but I wanted to be like Joe. Richard already was.
We invited our high school pal Jay Smith (later a legendary alpinist) to join us for our first Yosemite big wall: The East Face of Washington Column. I still can picture Richard casually nailing the Enduro Corner, smoking, of course, and Jay worming through the infamous Harding Slot. When he cut the haulbag loose, Richard and I watched amazed as it zoomed 30 feet into space. Richard took the ride himself because he could. At the next belay I asked Richard what gave with all the horror stories we’d read about hauling a bag (ours, an Army duffel, was feather light), not realizing our mistake in packing so little water—and none at all when we groveled onto Overnight Ledge, three pitches from the top.
We slouched back, shoulder to shoulder on the little granite bench, blue stars winking back at us. It felt like being in church—till a hankering for a sip morphed into brain-frying, soul-murdering thirst. All night long we stared at the moon, trying to will it across the sky.
Richard apologized for not bringing more water but it wasn’t his fault. During the first ascent of the East Face, in 1959, Warren Harding and Chuck Pratt nearly perished from heat and thirst. Five years later, caught in a heat wave during the first ascent of the South Face of Mt. Watkins, the pair once again ran out of water, and clawed to the top more dead than alive. Neither man was a fool. A short memory is a prerequisite for all wall climbers.
We summited in a daze, our mouths and eyes glued shut. I hardly recall trundling down North Dome Gully, or reeling through the Ahwahnee Hotel, across the golf course as tourists in Polo shirts watched three zombies bushwhack off through the forest toward Mirror Lake, where we dove in fully clothed. Richard, who couldn’t remember nothing, racked up for The Prow, also on the Column, that afternoon. A day later, joined by our hometown friend and partner Rick Accomazzo, we climbed The Prow, rested a day and fired the South Face, with one rope, a day pack and a gallon of water on board. Over the following decade we ran out of water many times, until finally I forgot how to forget.
The U-shaped bowl might as well have been on Mars. The slab below was steep and blank. We were out of bolts. Richard asked what I was waiting for.
From the moment we set foot on Old Man Wilson, we’d mostly free soloed, but now tied in and 30 feet off Richard’s hanging stance, I moved with extreme diligence because I doubted my one ¼-inch coffin-nail bolt, nor yet the belay anchor, could withstand a big fall.
I juked around trying various lines and downclimbing back to the bolt before finding an unlikely traverse along a flexing black scab, followed by easier but runout dog-paddling to the bottom of the bowl. Per ham and eggs, they say the chicken is committed but the pig is all in. We were all in.
Richard cast off, laybacking a fold inside the bowl. The higher we climbed, the less I liked the looks of the knee-wide roof crack jutting into space at the end of the fold. We only had one big nut. Someone was going to die.
“Looks like Paisano Overhang,” Richard chuckled, peering out at the roof. That had also been Richard’s wise idea, free climbing Paisano Overhang, a 20-foot, down-jutting roof crack at Suicide Rock, our home crag. He was sure it would go. So was Rick. It was my job to prove the boys right. Depending on whom you ask, Paisano Overhang was the first no-doubt-about-it 5.12 in the country, and Richard made the most of it.
It started with his allegation—to a climber who witnessed the climb from a distance—that I’d taped my hands to fit the crack. This jackass story spread like measles. Every time we were called on to describe the ascent, Richard hopped it up a little more, until finally I’d managed the roof by lacing on boxing gloves, gifted to me by Muhammad Ali.
I kept peering at the roof crack, half a ropelength overhead, regretting I’d ever seen Mt. Wilson. Who was this heap named after, anyhow? Maybe Woodrow Wilson, the President who committed us to World War I. Or was that William “Tubby” Taft?
“Only gonna get bigger you keep eyeballing it like that,” said Richard, handing me the measly rack.
I started bridging along the fold toward the overhang, luckily finding a flake that skirted around left to a small ledge. The crack above melded into pleats and dihedrals so situated that we couldn’t see where the route might go. Our guesstimate put the summit about 800 feet away. Twisting ramps and shallow corners, unseen from below, kept connecting, though the higher we climbed, so rose the odds that somewhere soon the crack would blank out or run into a holdless roof, leaving us stranded.
Richard snubbed out his Camel and dove into an offwidth crack, vanishing around a corner as vultures started circling in my head.
Whenever I arrived in midair like this, I immediately started jonesing for escape. Nothing scared me more than the notion that I couldn’t. Richard was never conflicted like that because he was a vulture himself. I tried to be. On inspired days I soared with the best of them. But at times like these, when there’s only one way and possibly none, the blood pounded in my temples and the breath roared in the back of my throat like I was some kind of wild animal, snared in a bear trap. For years I’d been addicted to this feeling, and the rush of charging in a rampage. Fear is better than heroin, but I didn’t want to die. Walking that edge is the pact we made with trouble, all those years before, in a shady little space we called The Basement.
The Basement was a walk-in bunker beneath a 1950s-era split-level house stuck in the boulder-strewn foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. A dirt road found it. A short ways below The Basement sat a rustic country home where Richard’s mom, two siblings, grandparents and 20 some dogs all lived in Old McDonald’s other farm. Richard’s father, a woodworker renowned in the fine-art world, had left years before, so we had The Basement to ourselves. The place had so much weed smoke billowing out the open door that small planes swooping overhead, en route to the local airport in Upland, were known to land in Cucamonga, even Buckeye, Arizona—as the story goes.
Long before The Basement birthed the Stonemasters, and served as our nest and launching pad, it was Richard and me, two nobodies from nowhere who couldn’t belong if we tried. We liked the people fine, but so much of life seemed distasteful and stupid. And who cooked up all these rules we had to follow? By some miracle we’d been made alive, with a gusher of experience too fleet and promising to waste time working and dogging down loot. What did a job ever buy you but distance from the things that made life interesting: encountering elemental forces and drinking from the source; wrestling dragons and sparring with gravity? But what we wanted, body and soul, was magnitude. So we went bouldering at Mt. Rubidoux, building skills on pebbles, ever reminded how small our lives really were.
Local crags added scope, and we quickly climbed the harder lines. Grand, but lacking because we were still playing other people’s music. And listening to it, too, on Richard’s creaky eight-track tape deck: Hendrix, The Who, a tsunami of jazz fusion to match our restlessness, all garnished with soul, R&B and funk, including our favorite, Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.” What the hell. We were born before the wind. If Van Morrison could sail into the mystic, maybe so could we. The plan came together in thin air: scavenge the great rocks of the world for the best new routes we could find.
Initial efforts were mundane. Mostly fighting up sandy ditches out at Joshua Tree. They were all ours, but even we didn’t care. That is, until we free climbed Vampire, Le Toit and The Flakes: iconic, 800-foot aid climbs (established by our hero, Royal Robbins) at Tahquitz Rock. We were vultures ever after, none hungrier than Richard Harrison. For going on 40 years, he never landed.
The breeze died, and silence slithered into canyons and over the face of Old Man Wilson, veiled in ancient shade. Solitude filled our minds with so much space we could hear forever. Lashed up high we were as much a part of the place and the stone as a petroglyph. But one of my hands kept reaching for the ground.
The rope kited off as Richard mounted out of sight. The intensity of belaying is made so by the long silences, when you learn what it means to be alone. I didn’t like it. The next new route had always stretched before me like a starlit bridge over the dimness of my life. For weeks I’d watched it waver; now it crashed. The rope came taut.
We climbed for hours, eventually joining Joe’s original route along the left margin of the Aeolian Wall, which we quickly followed to the top. The thrill sprang less from the route we climbed than the one I kept imagining, the one we couldn’t get off with one rope, the one nobody knew we were on and never would till our bleached bones were discovered years later, if at all. The climb in my head was always the best one.
A little scrambling found a cairn on the summit. We stood there smoking cigarettes, absorbing the panorama. We were snowflakes in the sun, but the desert lasts. If Richard took anything from the mountaineering books we devoured early on, it was a thing for these summits, and an eye for the classic line.
Ambitious peak baggers had worked out a route on the Byzantine backside of Mt. Wilson, but even if we could have found and descended it we’d have landed miles from the van. So we scrambled across the right shoulder, looking for a way off, Richard hobbling like a man with a pegleg, pulling the limb behind him. Years before he’d caught a staph infection that settled in his hip socket. By the time they discovered what it was, cartilage and bone had dissolved. He left the hospital in a body cast and walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. That he ever managed these Red Rocks death marches, or climbed 5.13 on one good leg, is a wonder.
We dove into the most promising-looking gully and started descending toward the flats and the urban sprawl, where folks were spending their way to the Promised Land, hunkered in digs—bigger the better—arrayed with handsome stuff and significant people seeking meaning through theater, five-course meals, gadgets, witty conversation, prayer, sex and intoxicants. We weren’t so different in our search for prodigious experiences. But none of us kept a permanent address. We had dangerous dreams and rambling feet, and when they said go, we had to follow. We ate whatever food there was, generally skipping the belongings and formalities and going straight for the sex, intoxicants and a piece of rock with magnitude. Mainly we were broke—and I was sick of being broke. But I still prayed if I had to, and this time I meant it because little else could get us down a 2,500-foot, rotten gully with one rope and little gear.
We started the first of many half-ropelength rappels off saplings and horns. When we couldn’t get an anchor, we downclimbed until we found one. The wall steepened and the trees thinned out, forcing us to leave a nut here and a piton there until we were tying off little more than house plants, holding our breath as we rapped the doubled line. We finally ran out of nuts and held a board meeting on a shattered ledge. The last 500 feet of junk wall plunged beneath us. Water and candy bars were long gone, and so was most of our gear. A couple of shrubs festooned from the lower wall, but no other signs of natural anchors.
We sat on the ledge and shared our last smoke, gazing off at the wonderland of jutting buttes, bluish draws and brusque peaks, outlined one against the other like a deck of stony cards, swaying and rising in fading light.
A month later, Richard and his wife, Tina (childhood sweethearts since our early days in Yosemite), would move to Las Vegas and Richard extended his legacy all across this vast cordillera, mentoring a band of fledgling vultures collectively known as the Adventure Punks. For 20 years running they mined Red Rock for some of the world’s great adventure routes: the 2,000-foot Lone Star, in Black Velvet Canyon; the 2,500-foot Resolution Arête, also on Mt. Wilson; Blitzkrieg, a towering, super-remote wall that no one was even sure how to get to before Richard and Sal Mamusia first climbed it in an audacious one-day blast. And, of course, the supernal Cloud Tower, the “Astroman of the Desert,” and near the top of every trad climbers tick list. But that all dangled in the future. Now we had to get down this last stretch of vertical gully. We rigged the rappel off a threaded chockstone that skittered and rained gravel when weighted.
“Someday we’ll go too far,” I said.
“Someday we’ll have no choice,” said Richard. “But right now we’re golden.” Richard backpedaled off the edge and into the void, shadows racing up to meet him. It took three more decades—during which I was lucky to see Richard and Tina once a year—before the shadows finally caught him.
I got word that Tina had cancer and there was nothing they could do. For most of their adult lives they’d lived there in Las Vegas, on the edge of town, where year after year Richard wheeled off for Red Rock, or on far-flung road trips, and made history by stealth. The specialist tills a given crop, restricting his scope to the area under cultivation. Richard quietly worked the whole garden: from bouldering to big walls, from sea cliffs to desert towers. And few knew a thing about it.
Sometimes I’d get a postcard. More likely I’d hear rumors about him and John Bachar free climbing the D7 on the Diamond, say, or bagging Shiprock and the Totem Pole. Whatever I’d dreamed of doing, Richard was “on it,” all over the Americas, often with his daughter, Lisa, the apple of his eye.
In the years after I stopped climbing full time, homesick and missing fellow vultures, I’d occasionally spoken to Richard and he always said the same thing: “It’s all good. Family’s good. You know, just looking for the next new line.”
Sometime around his 50th birthday he went from leading 5.12 adventure routes to lying in a coma with a bleeding ulcer. We almost lost him. A few years later, Bell’s palsy paralyzed his face, but he still bounced back. Other maladies he never mentioned drained off a little more life force. When I saw him out at Joshua Tree, at Todd Gordon’s international climbers’ ghetto, I was shocked by how his body had betrayed him.
Then Tina got glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor. When I heard she was fading, I hopped on the first plane to Vegas. Tina was still lucid and walking fine. But Richard was a bag of bones, his skin hanging like parchment off his frame, his eyes fixed on a measureless panorama.
We moved into the small living room. Richard, a voracious reader, proudly showed me a few first editions of Mark Twain, our favorite author, and a dog-eared copy of the original Joshua Tree guidebook, the one in print when we first ventured to Josh in high school. We sat on the couch and thumbed in, running our fingers over grainy pictures of the old Desert Rats waging war on the first routes we ever climbed. We’d both been in the mountains too many times to remember, but at bottom we were desert people, and these were leaves of gold.
We paused at the photo of the guidebook editor John Wolfe, circa 1968, jammed in the Waterchute, our first 5.10 route. Despite John’s awkward position, all knees and elbows in the flare, we knew at a glance that he belonged right there, as water fits into the sea.
We fret, slave, ponder, write, draw, brag, beg, marry, love, meditate, cheat, grovel, drink, lie and serve, chasing this perfect belonging. Sitting on that couch, gathered by shadows, we knew we were lucky because we’d found it. We found it out at Josh on the Waterchute, on a hilltop of tumbleweeds and boulders at Mt. Rubidoux, on El Cap in an ice storm, and on a long-forgotten climb on Mt. Wilson. All those places where we belonged.
We leafed through other books from which we had drawn our heroes, giants we honored through rebellion, as the brat defies his parents, stoked by the hope of doing things they wouldn’t or couldn’t do. Of course we were loyal containers of their traditions, none more than Richard, his every new route preserving essential family rituals. Tackle all climbs ground-up. Limit bolts so far as he could, and strive for the on-sight flash. With skin in the game, he liked to say, you’re always playing with real money. In this regard, Richard Neil Harrison, trad climber to the bone, was a millionaire. Yet even the greatest traditions are less like endless cycles and more like choruses to a classic song—a song that, like every song, has an ending.
Tina stayed behind with their beloved dogs, Nikki, Sam and Puppy, as Richard walked me to the door. There was death in that house, and it scared me and broke my heart. But not Richard. He tilled the whole garden. Always had. My face must have said what I couldn’t.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re golden.”
Things quickly went south for Tina. And she was gone. Four days later, Richard collapsed in his front yard. Through his death the desert that lasts came into its inheritance, reclaiming one of its own.
The second-to-last rappel was partially free hanging and ended on a small ramp. Our entire rack lay on the gulch we’d descended, save for one last knifeblade. We scratched around and managed to slug the blade home in a thin crack where the ramp met the main wall. The rising ring told us it was bomber.
If I could get down this last rappel and not die like Tobin and John and Tim and what seemed like half of the guys we’d grown up with, I could walk away and get a place with stuff and conversation with deep thoughts and important feelings and a fridge full of nice food, things I later got and never know what to do with—except for the food.
I rigged the blade with my chalk-bag sling, chucked the doubled rope into space, and peered over. The ends seemed to reach, and fortunately they did, with a few feet to spare. We stumbled out to the dry streambed as pitch darkness fell. And darkness in those canyons is true darkness.
It took us many attempts to push start the van. We wheeled off the Scenic Drive loop road onto Charleston Boulevard, heading for Vegas, and Old Man Wilson was lost from view.
John Long is a Senior Contributing Editor, and author of over 40 books.