John Long: Legend of Lord Gym
And what it really means to “take it outside.”
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 138 (December 2004).
Sammy and I hunkered into the shade beneath the Weeping Wall, Suicide Rock, panting between pulls on a gallon jug of water. The sun had just crawled over Tahquitz Rock, a mile across the Sunshine Valley, and heat waves welled off the Suicide slabs. No big. We’d loaf for a few hours until the east-facing walls fell into shadow, then rally again.
Out left, a 50-foot arete, steel grey and glass smooth, shot into the blaze. Earlier that morning—in the shade, with a toprope, after several tries—Sammy and I had thieved our way up it. Now we watched “Buster,” cool as a cod, hiking the thing and pausing for its grim clips as if hanging on a pegboard. It was 90 degrees F in the shade, but Buster, 22, and his partner, “Andy,” 20, weren’t bothered.
“Freakin’ crazy he can stay on in this heat,” said Sammy, watching Buster door-hinge up the final moves. Sammy and I were from the same hometown and had been climbing together since high school, about 75 years ago.
“I feel old,” I said.
“How’s that, gramps?” asked Sammy. He’d untied the Stokes litter stashed behind a nearby pine tree by the local rescue group, laid it in the shade, and stretched himself out in it—like a stiff in an open casket.
“Impressive,” I told Buster when he and Andy found their way back to us after polishing off our testpiece.
“That’s some kind of slick rock,” Buster said.
“Solid for the grade,” said Andy.
“Looked like you were marching up a wheelchair ramp,” Sammy said from his coffin.
Their graciousness seemed genuine, though flashing a hard climb can turn a scoundrel into a prince—for a while.
During the two-and-a-half-hour drive from LA, we’d razzed Buster about his new tat—a multicolored tribal emblem filched from some hip-hop rag—breaking to him the sad truth that tattoos had gone out with the 1990s. The silly pirate’s hoop in Andy’s ear and the faux micro-ruby in his beak were embarrassments as well. What did we geezers understand about style? the boys wanted to know. They’d already commandeered my CD player, inserting some thug claptrap featuring a 300-pound artist named Paddy Wack rapping about the virtues of “hot ice” (stolen diamonds). Both boys were products of extravagant LA prep schools and, in one of the daffiest verbal alloys I’ve ever heard, would pepper their drift with Ebonic locutions borrowed from Paddy Wack and friends.
We traded insults for 120 miles to fool away the time, but in fact we barely knew Buster and Andy. They were just two more gifted kids from the gym, and had hitched a ride with us to Suicide Rock. A trip to the mountains promised cooler temps than the city and a chance for Buster and Andy to test-drive some “duffer routes,” as they called them. Neither had ever visited Suicide.
Around 3 p.m., clouds moved in, the temperature dropped, and while Sammy and I futzed about on some cracks we’d climbed a thousand times, Buster and Andy dashed up the few nearby routes that are gym-bolted and beastly hard. Only a geologist could say why, but Suicide is neither steep nor sufficiently featured to produce exemplary sport climbs; the soaring faces and several renowned cracks remain the attraction. A few routes from the 1970s and early-1980s hold water today, but they chiefly involve off vertical dime crimping and sketchy protection—a technique and a style as passé as Doo Wop and wing tips. Avid sport climbers like Buster and Andy rarely visit. Some So Cal climbers, longtime veterans of Williamson, Echo Cliffs, New Jack City and a raft of other industrial sport cliffs, know little to nothing about Suicide or Tahquitz. Twenty years ago, the place was a regular ant farm, and had been for 50 years. During the long drive up—at Buster’s urging—I’d sketched out a brief history of the area.
Suicide Rock’s glory days ran from 1965 to about 1975. Tahquitz was developed much earlier, starting with the first ascent of The Trough (5.1; circa 1938) by Jim Wilson and a neighbor kid. The Sierra Club Decimal Rating System was developed at Tahquitz, and quickly became the American grading standard. Over the next half-century, ratings were cemented on seminal Tahquitz and Suicide climbs, including Mechanic’s Route (5.8; 1938), Open Book (5.9; 1952), Big Daddy (5.10; 1959), Valhalla (5.11; 1970) and Paisano Overhang (5.12; 1973). In the mid-1950s, the trailblazer and guidebook author Chuck Wilts invented and drove home the first knifeblade piton, into Tahquitz’s white granite. Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, TM Herbert and many other Yosemite pilgrims had cut their teeth here. On dozens of Tahquitz routes during the early 1960s, Mark Powell and Bob Kamps essentially pioneered on-the-lead bolting of challenging face climbs. Hand in hand with Yosemite, traditional American free-climbing ethics—ground up, on-sight—were, in large part, forged at Tahquitz.
Though sporadic development continues at Tahquitz via link-ups and niggling variations, most all the prized lines were bagged by the mid-1960s. After the last of these were free-climbed, around 1974, the great white rock, and the shadowed slabs across the valley at Suicide, began gathering dust. In time, the sport-climbing revolution lured young, ambitious climbers to steeper cliffsides more conducive to clip-and-go routes.
Nowadays, to trudge up to either cliff during a weekday is a haunting safari, akin to visiting the Washington Memorial. Long gone are most of the pioneers—the folks who helped invent American climbing, and rendered its values—and their greatest victories loom on the cliff like etchings on a tombstone.
Later that afternoon, Buster asked about several notorious 5.12s on the south face of Suicide. Was it worth the slog around the formation to “run a few laps” on these climbs, he wondered. I thought it was, and said so.
He and Andy, 10 days back from Thailand, were trained up and ready to climb anything, anywhere. I recommended Caliente, a sublime, 120-foot old-school 5.12 first climbed in 1978 by John Bachar and Rick Accomazzo, two of the greatest face climbers of that era. We split up, agreeing to meet at the car. Sammy and I chugged up a few easy 5.10s, jogged down the trail, and made it to the rig just as darkness fell. Buster and Andy were already there, and neither was pleased. At first I thought I’d given them bogus directions to Caliente. Not so. The problem was the route itself.
“What the f—k was Bachar thinking?” Buster grumbled as we stuffed our gear into the trunk.
“Why hasn’t anyone put some bolts into the damn thing?” Andy went on. And on and on. Their graciousness was gone.
Never had it occurred to me that the runout after the crux would shut these guys down. I hadn’t climbed Caliente in a dozen years, but I remembered the route well. Following a bouldery headwall, Bachar had sunk a bolt from a small stance, then run the line over 20 feet of crimpy 5.11 to a final, 30-foot arch (5.10c). Fearing Buster would never shut his trap, I didn’t tell him that Bachar couldn’t arrange much pro in the arch, and that he’d basically run the pitch to the top. At that time, Caliente was one of America’s first solid 5.12s, and the runout, though thrilling even by Suicide standards, had never, to my knowledge, hosed anyone who’d managed the crux. Buster and Andy had both pulled the crux headwall, then bailed rather than brave a “totally pointless fall” on the route’s easier, though sparsely protected, finish.
I wasn’t going to start a fader rant on the modern generation lacking all vestige of authentic sack, not when I was perfectly content to clip every bolt I came across. There’s no chance that in my 40s I would take the same risks I took at 20, and it seemed that by bolting the crap out of every inch of previously unclimbed rock, new-routers were doing me a personal courtesy. Still, I couldn’t get my head around why the young studs didn’t occasionally toss in a runout just to goose the action and keep the fluff off. The adventure lacking in most sport routes was, for some, now finding play in highball bouldering, deep-water soloing and so forth, but rarely on the sport cliff itself, which befuddled me as much as Buster’s tirade about Bachar.
“Where do you reckon he coulda stopped and drilled a bolt?” Sammy asked. He’d climbed Caliente several times, and knew that no man alive could pause in the midst of that steep runout to hand-drill.
“You put the f—ker in on a toprope,” Andy argued.
“Hello!” said Buster. “It’s a no-brainer.”
“Not Bachar’s style,” I said. “Especially 25 years ago.”
“Well, we know better now,” Buster said. “Somebody could fix that route in five minutes, and they should.”
I stiffened in my seat and glanced over at Sammy, who didn’t flinch, then I stole a glance at Andy in the rearview mirror. As he sat there griping about missing bolts, I realized that beneath his awesome sport-climbing chops, beneath his shiny face gear and purloined ghetto ‘tude, Andy was the original dork, the one that used to sit behind you in civics class and fart all the time. By agonizing over his defeat, he showed a vulnerability that wrenched the heart. I loved him for it, but knew he’d resolve nothing by blaming Bachar or “fixing” Caliente. What needed repairing was the continuity between him and Bachar. Yet, sport climbing had emerged from a destruction of that continuity. This was nobody’s fault, least of all Andy’s; and since it left him clawing for bolts that were not there, who could fault him for feeling rooked?
Before sport climbing took root in America, the progression in American climbing had been fluid: Multi-day routes, first free ascents, big-wall free climbing, and speed ascents were major tactical and technical shifts, each new feat a logical next step that built upon the past. But sport climbing went in a totally different direction, and from the very beginning drew its own crowd, drafted its own rules, and never looked back.
The second that sport climbing lifted the taboo against runaway bolting, risk taking, in the form of the most benign runouts, was deemed needless, and, in time, reckless. With the majority of novice climbers stepping straight from the gym onto the sport cliff, the early orientation of an entire generation was not toward adventure, but rather security. Not surprisingly, sport climbing attracted a vastly more gentrified crowd than the edgy characters who ruled the trad era, many of whom felt and acted like expatriots in their own land. Conversely, a percentage of sport climbers arrived not as guests, but as owners of the cliffside, where they drilled, chipped and glued to their hearts’ content. Buster and Andy were among that rare, super-sheltered group that thought it had always been that way.
Somewhere during that glum stretch of road between Beaumont and Cucamonga, as the four of us rolled along in labored silence, I mentally replayed the fellows’ tantrums. My initial reaction was to call them crybabies and make them hoof it back to LA. But I kept my eyes on the road and my mouth shut, and, eventually, the basic picture became clear.
Trained exclusively in climbing gyms and on sport cliffs, Buster and Andy were pressed from a different mold than those of us who grew up adventure climbing. The difference was not of generations, but orientation. So fascinated were we by the primitive intensity of risk and fear that we’d hurl ourselves onto sketchy runouts and miserable walls. The unconscious promise was that a trial by a big enough fire would burn off our personal underbrush and unveil some special real estate. The process never had a fixed, or even known, destination. The goal was simply the feral rush of embracing forces greater than yourself and getting continually morphed into some different form. A born hero might discover little in the exercise, but those of us with prickly deficiencies and self-doubts could occasionally touch into our souls, and we’d risk most anything to get there. If sport climbing had appeared 20 years earlier, who’s to say that I wouldn’t have been a spitting image of Andy or Buster.
The two had been taught only to engage their muscles, and when the rock required more than that, they blamed the climb. Certainly, these guys kept plenty in reserve, though for when, and for what, I doubt even they could say. The silence in the car stretched for miles: They never asked any questions, and Sammy and I offered no answers. We dumped them off in Hawthorne with nothing more than a “See you later.”
“Go figure,” I said as we swung back onto the freeway.
“These guys don’t need an excuse for being alive,” said Sammy.
“I dunno,” I said. “If you play everything by your own rules … ”
“Didn’t we?” Sammy asked. “If they don’t like running the rope, so what?”
“So long as they don’t go gym-bolting Caliente,” I said.
“Gets a little sticky there,” said Sammy. “But it’s their issue, not ours, and who cares anyhow?”
Of course the real issue wasn’t rock climbing at all, rather surpassing yourself, which every young person is obliged to try. Many resist, dig in, calcify and nervously age till the reaper falls. Others work on the surface, circling a wagon that never really moves. I had to wonder what might come down if the boys ran the rope here and there. Would Buster, son of a prominent West-side attorney, still tat himself up like an NBA point guard, and would Andy, whose family owned a huge construction business, keep drilling holes in his grill and spewing ersatz Ebonics like a goofy little wanksta?
“They’re drawing from a different well,” said Sammy. “We didn’t have anything else and they do. I’ve got no truck with those kids.”
I dropped Sammy off and rolled back on the freeway, heading for Santa Monica. I admired Sammy: He never seemed to let life’s undertow pull him into the chop, and if he did, he’d toss off a few comments and swim to shore. But for all my mixed feelings, I couldn’t dump the topic just yet.
I wondered how other risky trades might look after Buster and Andy “fixed” them according to their revisionist philosophy. NASCAR would swap out the 1,200-horsepower engines for four-bangers lifted from old Honda Civics, then start running in lanes or, better yet, on monorail tracks. Ski runs would be carpet-bombed to clear all rocks, burms and trees, then groomed smooth as bowling lanes. Skydiving, hang-gliding and parapenting would be legal only as virtual activities, utilizing those funky glasses and industrial-sized fans. Extreme kayakers might be short-roped to a helicopter in the event of an endo, while big-wave surfers would simply have to retire … and like it. Then we could all get on our cell phones and talk about nothing. But I was ranting now, and I knew it. I also knew my opinions were irrelevant.
I sport climbed today at Malibu Creek State Park and had a blast. These days, I’m not much inclined toward adventure climbing, but it’s reassuring to know that those knee-knockers are still out there for the taking. The trap of the geezer is to try and rain on a parade that passed him by years before, which is perhaps why some old trad climbers hung up their boots rather than embrace sport climbing, which is their loss. Nevertheless, we can’t reconfigure the past into contemporary contours. When the painter Paulus Potter put the final stroke on the classic “Piebald Horse,” it was done. Finished. Claude Monet didn’t bust into the Louvre two centuries later and paint water lilies over the steed, offended by Potter’s obsolete style. Claude knew the “Piebald Horse” wasn’t broken. He respected another craftsman’s vision and work, so he didn’t take it upon himself to fix it.
Longtime Rock and Ice contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.
Also read John Long: Guilty Pleasures