John Long: A Man for All Seasons
The myth of Oliver Moon changed the face of Yosemite climbing forever.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 166 (March 2008).
I’d borrowed my dad’s 50-foot, three-ton Lincoln Continental with its mammoth 500-cubic-inch engine. The mileage was shit but who cared? Gas was 34.9 cents a gallon. I snagged Richard Harrison and gunned it onto the Riverside Freeway heading for Roubidoux, a popular practice climbing area an hour east of LA.
It was October, 1971, and Vietnam was boiling over onto the streets; many turnoffs we passed were strewn with veterans, glum and distant, hitchhiking to nowhere in particular. Madmen had recently gunned down Martin and Bobby, and even as we drove, the National Guard was opening fire on Kent State and prisoners were tearing down the walls at Attica and San Quentin. When Neil Armstrong took that Giant Step onto the moon a couple of years before, galactic order was apparently disrupted and the Home of the Brave slid off its foundations.
Amidst the turmoil, Richard and I grappled with rock, searching for the solid stuff, something real we could grab and pull and stand on because our world felt alien and spun out.
Our immediate challenge was figuring out the fine points of the Swiss Seat, and we spent most of that morning descending a 30-foot overhanging wall. Getting the sling adjusted so it wouldn’t garrote our ‘nads or migrate up to our necks took half a dozen rappels; not ’till the last one did I notice a free-climbing line so thin Richard couldn’t see a hold until I ticked them all with chalk.
We both managed the first few moves, heaving ourselves up on flaky corns, but no more. So we took turns lowering down from the top, trying to hang onto holds so bleak that three decades later the Moon Shot is still spanking America’s finest. Anyway, the wall had been chalked bottom to top when (as we later recounted) up walked a stranger, shirtless, shod in varappes and chalked to the elbows. He was just as white and muscled as Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave, and his dark eyes, passionate, but touched by a haunting dolor, locked onto those chalked holds. I’ll just have a go, then, he said by way of an introduction, and hiked the thing straight off, cordless, pausing only for the last move, a sloping mantel. He didn’t return to the base for praise or small talk, he just pushed on, scouring the hillside for greater adventures. Richard and I couldn’t have been more amazed had a buffalo pranced by on its hind legs.
Reports of the chalked wall and the impossibly hard new free climb quickly circulated. When we returned to Roubidoux a few days later, we were cornered straight off by a Sierra Club outing leader, an accomplished Tahquitz veteran who had spotted us on the impossible wall the previous weekend.
“Out with it, boys,” said the outing leader. “What gives with those chalk marks?”
“Right before our eyes,” I said, “this wizard walks up and free solos the sucker in nothing flat, then up and vanishes.”
“I’m telling you,” said Richard. “Never got a name, though.”
“The whole thing’s a lie!” the leader barked.
“It’s the plain truth,” another chimed in, a mustachioed philosophy student with a cinder block physique who, along with several others from UC Riverside, the local university, said they had spotted the phantom climber soloing all over the mountainside. “The guy yards up and down the Joe Brown Boulder 50-foot high, 5.11ish like it’s a stepladder,” said mustache. “Then it’s straight up Aunt Amy’s Anus!”
“That’s a stinking lie!” the Sierra Club boss repeated, and I wondered myself. Even the greatest visiting climbers rarely probed the troublesome Anus, a dark and unctuous lacuna. Successful ascents, counted on one hand, were always accomplished with a toprope, usually snug as a bowstring. I went to question the alleged Anus ascent but by now everyone was yelling over each other.
One eyewitness, with two giant buckteeth and a voice like Tom Hanks, claimed the phantom soloist was French, with a glassy pate and hands like Pain Poilane. Another, visiting from Colorado, with a green felt hat like the one Whymper wore on the Matterhorn, said the soloist was the prodigal son of a missionary, recently returned from the boulder-choked interior of Borneo, strong like a bull, but so skinny he can bivy inside a blow gun.
“He’s just some neighbor kid who’s wired up a few problems,” said still another, a carpenter who lived at the foot of the mountain.
But, as I’d later explain to the crowds, the mystery man was none of the above, though to find out as much took some digging and another chance encounter, out by Equinox, in the nether regions of Joshua Tree. We were just dumping out our packs when we spotted someone, maybe a hundred yards across the valley, on a 5.10 offwidth we’d bagged the previous winter.
“Guy’s got no line on him,” exclaimed Richard.
“Apparently not,” I said.
“He’s climbing down,” Richard added.
“Let’s go and we jogged over.”
The phantom soloist offered his hand and said, “Moon. Oliver Moon. By chance you bring a rope?”
The British accent was subtle but evident.
“Two,” I said.
“And we’re fixing to put them to good use,” said Richard.
So we tied in for a few routes that day, and though we managed to follow Moon’s lead (Moon always led) with faculty, it was the attention shown us by his hound dog, a Liverpudlian mastiff named Claudius, that probably sealed our friendship, if you could call it that. At best we were tolerated, since Moon was solitary in the extreme and did the bulk of his climbing solo, though he fancied a rope and a belay for his more ambitious projects. That’s where we figured in.
Once word got out that we were roping up with the author of the notorious Moon Shot, we were pestered half mad by questions about the man calls at home, telegrams, letters. We were flagged over at every crag and the bottom and top of every route. The crowd only backed off a few months later, when I found myself at a giant campfire gathering at Josh. Moon rarely talked about himself, but little by little we’d learned the rudiments of his background.
“Oliver Thornycroft Moon is British,” I started, “the illegitimate son of a defrocked priest and multimillionaire named Alfred North Moon, lately of Glockenshire, a little pub town in the middle of gritstone country.”
I was reading Bront’s achingly dreary Wuthering Heights in my freshman lit class and was intrigued by the parallels to Heathcliff. But the moment I went to contrast the two men, cries of “Bugger Heathcliff,” and, “Get on back to Moon, will ya?” rang from the crowd. It was no use.
So I explained how Moon grew up on the grit to the extent that climbing (soloing, by and large) was not so much something he did, rather it was who he was. A born mountaineer, he’d taken to the rock much as the vicar had done during his youth.
“Wonder why he left the UK?” someone asked.
“The reasons are vague,” I said, “though over time, certain things have come to light. We know of an intrigue involving an Austrian countess, and some business about dueling pistols and throwing knives, and several mysterious deaths.”
I had barely finished the bit about throwing knives when half the crowd shagged off for their mess kits, and, wielding such cutlery as they could muster, began letting fly at a nearby yucca. An errant blade pierced a Swede’s tent and a night hiker was struck in the backside. The rangers were called and the knives put away.
It was into the wee hours before I finished running down Moon’s background, that the greatest free climber alive had fled to America, buoyed by a personal fortune running into the millions, a weakness for race cars and the ponies, and an insatiable taste for new rock. I explained that shortly after we met the Englishman, Spencer Young of the Olive Branch Genealogy Library in Salt Lake City supplied us with historical data on the Moon clan as well as a coat of arms for the House of Moon, consisting of a mirror image of hedge hogs, wreathed by crescent moons and growling above crossed scimitars and the words Magnus Pectus Semper (Big Breasts Forever).
Throughout that winter, we’d meet Moon at prearranged times and places. He’d blaze up a host of climbs, dragging lines for us then he would screech off in his fire-engine-red Jaguar XKE. For sure, the red roadster was key in building the Moon legacy. By sheer fluke, an officer at the Marine base in 29 Palms also owned a red XKE, and a few times a week would race it through the monument. This was back when you could do such a thing and not go to jail, or even get caught. I met the officer at a burger joint in Yucca Valley and encouraged him to keep up the good work, especially on weekends when the monument was packed with witnesses.
Count on it, soldier, he said, and was good to his word because hundreds of people saw the red Jaguar blasting along the big straight away out past Conan’s Corridor. Some claimed it was a Ferrari Datona, still others a Lamborghini Countach. Either way, it was red and it was fast and every time someone observed the roadster blazing into the horizon, O. Moon got the credit.
The majority of our best climbs back then were either led by Moon, with us following, or more often than not, Moon would make the second ascent, invariably onsight and cordless. In only a month after he’d first been seen driving upwards of 150 mph in his red sports car (the Lt. Colonel who owned the other XKE said he rarely got it over 60 mph within park boundaries), Oliver Moon had been spotted soloing all over the Monument. He was even written up in the first climbing guide. Better yet, a handful of people claimed to have climbed with Moon, something we found very unlikely.
As Moon waxed, every campfire burned with anecdotes about the Phenomenal Pom, as he was sometimes called. There were Moon sightings in Yosemite, atop the Mexican volcanoes, in the Andes. There was even talk of Moon sneaking into the Himalayas and soloing K2, sans porters and permits. Only three months after his first solos out at Roubidoux, O. Moon, or at any rate, O. Moon’s image, was going galactic.
The majority of things said about Moon came straight out of a bong pipe; but the effect on us in the know was greater, perhaps, than all others, and did much more than confirm our Dionysian tendency to hop things up. In taking human form, Oliver Moon not only shouldered our wildest dreams and projections, he became a talisman who, through imagination and inspiration, slowly drew us up to his rarified plane. Out on the sharp end, on a new route, a dozen feet above a sketchy wire, people wondered: What would Moon do? This simple question, asked a thousand different ways, changed lives, especially our own.
Culturally, America was at a crossroads. Racial prejudice and aggression the two-headed monster that had spurred a civil war and dominated the national agenda almost from the outset were being turned back by the bold few who risked everything for peace and freedom. In its own way, climbing faced a similar crossroads, and so did we climbers.
The Yosemite pioneers had struck camp and the local So Cal saviors were succumbing to family, careers and malt liquor. How could our generation find direction without mentors, without a few torch-bearers to light the way ahead? To bridge the gap, to hurl us past the moribund and into a world of possibilities, we needed a catalyst, an outsized champion like Oliver Moon. In fact, we couldn’t have lived without him.
At the end of the school year we all migrated up to Yosemite, and Oliver Moon came right along with us. Sort of. The Stonemasters were still a year or so off and in this sense Oliver Moon was a transitional guide to the Stonemaster crusade. And nowhere could the Moon legacy take faster and deeper root than in Yosemite Valley. Just as it happened down south, What would Moon do? became the operative question once the Englishman’s credentials were known and understood by the Camp 4 faithful which took about 15 minutes.
It was also here, in the Valley, that we found an improbable mentor in Jim the Bird Bridwell.
Most of us slept straight on the ground, or slithered inside five-dollar tube tents. The Bird, on the other hand, had a massive green canvas tent that resembled General Schwarzkopf’s field office during Desert Storm.
In the clashing aromas of odoriferous EBs, ragweed, Camel straights, Lucky Lager, and green stick incense, we’d lounge away the evenings sprawled out in the Bird’s chambers, abusing drug and drink and discussing the days doings.
“I’m thinking Moon would have just laybacked the thing, someone would offer, about a crack one or the other of us jammed straight on.”
“I’ll see that to believe it.”
“You’d see it and weep, or I’ll kiss the Limey’s arse myself.”
Then the arguments would break out and always at the center was the genius of O. Moon, to which everything and everybody was measured. Moon was scheduled to show up later that summer and everyone was dying to meet and climb with the master.
Slowly, the constant Moon comparisons and the speculation about the Englishman’s technique and crypto-romantic life started ringing hollow. This was the first summer in the Valley for many of us and during those initial few months our learning curve was steep as the Leaning Tower. Toward the end of summer we were pulling even with existing standards and in some cases, starting to nudge them a little further out there. Over time the emphasis shifted away from Moon and his legendary accomplishments, and over to what we were doing. I still remember one evening toward the end of summer when three or four of us were loafing in the Bird’s tent and someone said, Oliver Moon ain’t gonna make it to Yosemite.
“Not now or ever,” said another.
“Who needs him?”
“We’ll always need heroes,” said the Bird, “so give the man his due.” And we hoisted the pipe in his honor.
For a few weeks a rumor went around that Moon had died free soloing in the Bugaboos. Then that rumor itself died and Oliver Moon was forgotten as fast as he had sprung from the lamp out at Mount Roubidoux, barely six months before.
Every once in awhile I find myself surfing through various climbing websites, clicking on the ubiquitous threads about religion or faith or the science of mind. There are always those party poopers insisting that anything we can’t measure is not real and therefore has only imaginary effects on our lives. Brilliant arguments often outline our primary need for data. And yet despite our dependence on stats, we find ourselves in trouble at least part of the time scared, lost and angry. America is not the same country that galled and amazed us in 1971, though, sadly, the issues of race and war continue to deplete our nation and the world. Is not deliverance from such vexations more important than another round of facts and figures?
I should have asked the kid call him Hunter who I saw a few weekends ago out at Roubidoux, nearly pulling his arms off while trying to dick the Moon Shot. He couldn’t grasp how anyone had on-sight flashed the thing. Nonetheless, the Prometheus of Oliver Moon, concocted on the spot and pasted on that very wall of quartz monzonite some 35 years before, put such gunpowder in Hunter’s veins that he came within a few moves of actually climbing the damn thing. Just as the legacies of King and Kennedy continue to stoke our embers today, Moon’s myth kindled real effects in the real world. Pieced with desperation and cultural frisson, Oliver Moon sprang full blown out of the broken heart of America; and like a Frankenstein composed of disparate parts, he took on a life of his own not a monster but an inspired hero. When Hunter looked up at the legendary wall, his eyes shined. He would be back. He would climb the Moon Shot, he promised. No doubt he will, if he hasn’t already.
Because our lives are written in rain, we’ve always required more than maps and statistics. And most of us have entertained two basic questions: are we Odysseus, or Penelope’s pretenders? A handful of special people appear most every generation. We call them heroes, leaders and saints, and in the end they all serve as catalysts for the call to action. If we heed the call we ride their vapors right to Polyphemos, the Goggle-eye, and a thousand wonders beyond. Of course, Polyphemos can signify many challenges, from social movements to quests into the unknown, all of which are victories for the human spirit and the best proof that imagination is a true force in the world. Cave walls, ancient tombs and our earliest writings all illustrate our longing for cities of gold, for men who walk on water, women who launch a thousand ships, and people who can levitate up holdless walls of rock. If you were around the So Cal climbing scene during the early 1970s, in your own way you probably knew such a climber, a man we could never fully outgrow and wouldn’t want to, besides. His name was Oliver Thornycroft Moon.
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: High Times