Celebrating the Life of Steve Wunsch: “By Your Own Lights”
Steve Wunsch was one of the best climbers in the world in the 1960s and 1970s, making the first ascent of many cutting edge climbs including Supercrack in the Gunks, New York, in 1974, originally graded 5.13 and considered by many the hardest climb in the world at the time.
October 25, 2019: “Today was a wonderful fall day in the Hudson Valley, but it somehow felt gray and a bit empty.”
— Longterm Gunks climber, Joe Bridges, on learning of the death of Steve Wunsch, arguably the greatest climber you never heard of
Sometime in 1993: It is the first time I am climbing with Steve Wunsch, and we are in the trad climbing area, the Shawangunks (aka The Gunks), steep-to-overhanging 200-foot-high cliffs two hours north of New York City, six miles outside the funky college town (now morphed into weekender resort town) of New Paltz. I am belaying Steve as he starts up the Gunks 5.6 classic, Disneyland, which opens with a thin, tricky-to-protect traverse leading to a weird scrunchy mantel with bomber pro the rest of the way.
Two 20-something men watch this middle-aged man with a slight paunch carefully climb up, look for pro, climb down, and then repeat. Several times.
“You can do this, man,” Man #1 shouts earnestly.
Man #2 chimes in, “Yeah, dude, believe in yourself. You can do this, trust your feet!”
They continue to call out encouragements.
Smiling graciously, Steve thanks them, and they move on.
After we top out, as Steve is coiling rope, he admits, “I had some trouble finding the pro on that traverse.”
He adds, matter of factly, “I never saw the climb from the bottom up.”
As it turns out: Steve, along with two other Gunks greats of the 1970s climbing pantheon—John Stannard and John Bragg—used to climb Disneyland a lot. But it was after scaling some heinous 5.12 R, using Disneyland as their descent route —unroped, of course—a mere casual walk down in the woods for them.
Steve knew the climb well, but only from the top down, and only without pro.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Steve Wunsch, who passed away Friday, October 25, at the age of 72, established himself as one of the top climbers in the U.S., even the world, in an era before the concept of sport climbing existed. Climbing was moving from the era of hammer and pitons to protection based on removable small pieces of metal of varying sizes and shapes—sometimes homemade—placed into cracks and crevices. Climbing style and ethics were also evolving, as climbers began embracing a purist approach: no hanging on pieces; no rapping down to first examine the rock face; facing scary falls on this new type of pro; and starting from the bottom up all over again if you fell. (This before cams, so all pro consisted of nuts, tricams and other pieces relegated to historical climbing museum collections, such as hexes and sliding nuts).
And while virtually all climbers at the time adhered to the era’s purist ethos in varying degrees, none embraced its most uncompromising genre like Steve Wunsch, earning his nickname “The Prophet of Purism.”
One of Steve’s favorite phrases back in the day was, “by your own lights.” While he might repeat the phrase ad nauseam to climbing partners, it embodied his values on and off the rock. “No one ever saw him lose his physical or emotional balance. He had a zen-like approach to life,” long time friend and fellow Gunks climber, Rich Goldstone, says. “Steve was one of the very few climbers I’ve met who had a style so defined that you could recognize him at a distance just from the way he moved.”
Henry Barber, one of the top climbers in the world during the 1970s and a close friend, says, “Steve was one of the most visionary climbers I ever climbed with. He put up hard climbs that were ahead of their time by a decade. I was known more for scary onsights, but his climbs compared to mine were futuristic by 20 years harder than anything I did. It took over a decade for Steve’s Psycho Roof in Eldorado Canyon to be repeated.”
Bob Palais, a ubiquitous Northeast climber during the 1970s, including at the Gunks, and now an internationally acclaimed Professor of Mathematics at the Utah Valley University, adds, “When I went to California for grad school in 1980, I was amazed to discover that Steve had revolutionized the perception of what was possible, and had advanced climbing to the point where they needed new grades. I had no idea beforehand of all these incredible things he did out West. When he and Barry Bates made the first ascent of New Dimensions in 1972, it became the first 5.11 in Yosemite, and that doesn’t include his first free ascents of many classic test pieces such as La Escuela in 1973; Hardd in 1975; Cramming in 1972; Goldrush in 1972; Siberian Swarm Screw in 1972; W’allnuts in 1973; and more.”
That list doesn’t include Steve’s most iconic first ascent. In 1974, Steve pulled off what many considered the world’s hardest climb to date: Supercrack in the Gunks, the world’s first 5.13 (with rearview-mirror perspective now 5.12+). Only 40 feet high, this detached pointy outcropping features numerous cruxes along an unrelentingly thin overhanging crack, crowned halfway up by an 18-inch overhang—after which difficulty levels continue.
On a spring day in 1974, as usual, a group had gathered at the rock’s base to watch the latest set of thwarted attempts from top Gunks climbers and visiting international rock celebrities. Likely Steve went through his usual pre-ascent ritual of stretching—maybe extending into a full split, some yoga or meditating—before it was his turn to tie into the rope.
As usual, he used his feet with absolute precision, easing his way up, and placing pro on sight. Rich Goldstone says, “Everything about Steve’s climbing was cerebral, precisely tailored to the problem at hand, and seemingly carried out with nonchalance, in spite of the difficulty and risk of the situation. I don’t doubt that an iron will and intense motivation lay underneath, but on the surface his demeanor was mild, humble, encouraging, and accommodating.”
Steve Wunsch had not only climbed Supercrack, he also made it look effortless. It was three years before two other climbers, trained on California cracks, finally made it to the top after a relentless four-day siege. For years, scaling that 40-foot-high piece of rock entitled a climber to rock superstar status.
Steve also embodied his personal motto—live by your own lights—in appearance and attitude, as he metaphorically ascended other Supercracks in life.
Certainly, Steve didn’t look or act the part of the traditional hard climber. Photos from the era show a long, scraggly beard and disheveled shaggy hair.
Henry Barber recalls, laughing, “Steve had these skinny little legs and arms, and wasn’t . . .”—here he pauses for the right words—“. . . and he wasn’t . . .” Henry pauses again, laughing. “ . . . He wasn’t ‘too’ cut. I wouldn’t call it a paunch, but he had a little round center. And he was always slinking off somewhere, sometimes with his girlfriend, sometimes his guitar, or to meditate. He was into time alone.”
Longtime friend, Rich Romano, insists that Steve was unable to manage even a single pull-up, even at the height of his prowess, and Henry Barber concurs.
“Steve had no business getting up the climbs he did with that body,” Henry says. “On top of it, when we were together on a climb that was serious and hard, I’d hear his funny little high pitched, mischievous giggle and grin. The only thing you could see through his beard was his smile, and the twinkle in his eye. And he climbed so beautifully on his feet, really poised putting in difficult protection, and did so many of his climbs wearing hard soled boots rather than the EB’s [popular climbing shoes of the time].”
Even during his decade of life as a dirtbag climber, the 1969 Princeton graduate from a wealthy St. Louis family understood the dumpster-diving lifestyle carries more risk than salmonella: Steve’s then girlfriend, a climber, died soloing easy rock in Rocky Mountain National Park. Steve met his future wife Marcia, the love of his life, in Boulder. Soon, with two young daughters to support, Steve decided it was time to shave the beard, take regular showers, buy a suit and get a job.
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While taking a break from climbing to work for a few months for his father in St. Louis—a successful book manufacturer—Steve found himself reading the Wall Street Journal every day and becoming interested in Wall Street, particularly the specialty of interest rate futures trading.
After a couple of starter Wall Street jobs, Steve’s smarts landed him at the renowned (now defunct) investment bank, Kidder Peabody. He eventually ran its stock index futures business. But Steve’s “Prophet of Purism” mindset honed on the cliffs followed him to “the Street.” Particularly bothersome to him was the practice of “flash trading,” where large institutions have access to information enabling them to trade stocks based on advantageous timing rather than underlying stock value, producing more beneficial stock trade pricing for the large institutions than for individual investors.
After a decade at Kidder Peabody, Steve left to develop the world’s first computer-automated stock exchange, launching the Arizona Stock Exchange in 1990 to provide more information on pricing to both buyers and sellers, with the goal of creating a fairer trading environment for the small investor.
The exchange lasted until 2001, before shutting down, fought ferociously and successfully by the established stock exchanges, which were threatened by an approach that would diminish their power and profitability. Many felt that Steve’s concept was valid but ahead of its time—like New Dimensions and Supercrack.
After I profiled Steve for Climbing magazine in the mid 1990s, he and I decided to try a day climbing in the Gunks together. An avid hiker, by then he was cheerfully and unabashedly out of climbing shape. With our mutual professional backgrounds in financial services—writing for the climbing magazines was my side gig— we found ourselves bantering industry gossip while on the belay ledges.
I think, too, that my limited but enthusiastic climbing abilities helped him feel comfortable returning to the rock, to relish the beauty of the Gunks again, and to reenter the vertical world that he so loved. For me, it was wonderful to climb with a supportive and safe partner who appreciated weird humor, enjoyed being out on the cliffs, and loved stories about back in the day.
Returning to climbing as a sometime weekend recreational climber also allowed Steve to enjoy the risk taking element to his personality belying his calm, gentle exterior, which Steve exercised in his corporate career as well as on the cliffs. One Sunday, we started up Hans’ Puss (5.7) under gray looming skies. By the time we reached the first belay, the sky looked like it was threatening to break out into a fierce storm. Smarter parties than us (i.e. just about everyone else) were rapping off.
Somewhere on the second pitch, the sky finally opened up, sending down fierce sheets of rain. I don’t remember how, but Steve managed to set up an anchor and rappels—all, of course, without leaving pieces behind in the rock. Not only was he unflappable, I think he was thoroughly enjoying himself the entire time.
Among Steve’s admirers in the Gunks in the 1970s was a teenager phenom described in Laura and Guy Waterman’s book chronicling the history of Northeast climbing, Yankee Rock & Ice, as “something of a misfit even in the tolerant social scene of climbers.” Rich Romano, like Steve, was devoted to climbing in the purest style, with no interest in recognition. Rich lived for weeks at a time in the Gunks, sleeping under overhangs, quietly putting up hard and dangerous 5.12 R/X first ascents on the most remote sections of cliff.
The two bonded immediately, and shared more in common than climbing values. Notably, they shared a love of classical guitar. As Rich says, “Very few people knew of Steve’s passion for the guitar. As an amateur guitarist myself, we would spend hours playing for each other, and I was amazed at some of the pieces that he could play! I still haven’t come close to mastering some of them. And Steve was so humble. Humility is another thing that I learned from Steve.”
As Steve lay dying, it was Rich Romano—his friend of 40 plus years and a nurse, who more than anyone understood Steve’s drive for challenges in mountains and music—who was there by his bedside with Marcia, telling Steve stories of back in the day and playing Steve’s favorite classical guitar pieces.
Friendship with Steve helped restore your spirit. The world is a better place for him being in it, and we who were fortunate to call him a friend felt better people for it.
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