Bird's Eye View

Posted on: November 27, 2006


Jim Bridwell leading Pitch 16 during the first ascent of The Useless Emotion (VII 5.9 WI4 A4, 4,700'), Bear's Tooth, Alaska Range, Alaska, in May 1999. The route marked his third attempt on the wall in ten years. [Photo] Glenn Dunmire

First Climb, Rio de Janeiro: The 1950s

Sunlight glistened along the lizard's back like water. Each time I reached for it, it darted, quick as a minnow, higher up the rock, swimming over bulges and through the cool shadows of small cracks. I was six or seven. I'd always liked watching small animals, but the lizard absolutely mesmerized me. Now, it wriggled out of reach. I touched the rock, wishing my hands and feet could stick to the granite flakes like the tiny creature's did, and then, without thinking, I began to climb after it, farther and farther up the cliff. From time to time the lizard stopped, as if to lure me on.

My foot slipped a little on a loose patch, and I looked down. In the dirt lot beneath me, everything had gotten smaller. There was no one around. I began to shake. The lizard was gone. A shadow seemed to pass over the bright day. Slowly I relaxed my tight grip on the handhold above me and moved my trembling fingers to the one below it. Then the other hand, then a foot, reversing the moves. The same terrain that I'd passed over, hypnotized by the lizard's easy movements, had grown steeper, the holds harder to find.

When my feet struck the ground, I stumbled backward, the horizontal world unfamiliar. My anxiety subsided, and I imagined the lizard, high on the cliff, looking down at me, its slim body quick as a wink.

For years the memory of that beauty and that fear fermented in me until I realized it wasn't about the lizard. I wanted to capture something that was even more elusive: I wanted to find the limits of my imagination itself.

Yosemite: The 1960s

I was seventeen, and I didn't even have climbing shoes. Walls billowed and crested above the forests in colossal waves of granite. I felt dizzy with anticipation. Inevitably my pursuit had brought me to Yosemite; in the 1960s it was the center of free climbing in America, a close and somewhat guarded community. There wasn't a guidebook to the Valley then; route information spread by word of mouth, and it took a while for a new face to gain admittance. But traveling the way I had—my dad was a pilot in the military—I was used to being the new kid.

I hung out at the climbers' campsites, listened to them talk about their routes, followed them to the base of the walls. Occasionally, I was invited to go bouldering. When I went home to San Jose a week later, I got a job shoveling chicken shit and earned enough money to buy shoes. I recruited high school friends to climb on local crags and practice rope skills.

Back in Yosemite that winter, everyone was talking about the Dihedral Wall. Two relative outsiders, Ed Cooper from Seattle and Jim Baldwin from British Columbia, along with the more established local Glen Denny, were putting up the third major route on El Cap—and some Valley climbers, like Royal Robbins, were annoyed by their siege-style tactics. Climbing fast and efficiently, using fixed ropes as rarely as possible, had become the new ideal. As much as they liked hard-drinking, bawdy Jim Baldwin, his approach seemed like a setback.

"Hey Jim," Baldwin said to me, when I showed up in the campground; his voice came out deep and rough from behind his thick beard, and his eyes flashed mischievously under big glasses. "When d'ya get back?" It was the first time a Valley resident had called me by name.

The next spring I would go with several others to the base of the Washington Column to carry Jim's body out after he rapped off the end of his rope in the dark and fell hundreds of feet onto talus. From the tense faces and reddened eyes of the climbers around me as we lifted him rose a sense of deep, abiding brotherhood. Afterward, each time I rappelled, I thought of Jim. I determined never to let my awareness lapse and always to be self-reliant.

Jim Bridwell in Camp 4, ca. 1964, when finding a partner was still hard for him. Forty years later Bridwell is credited with nearly eighty first ascents in the Valley; he also helped found the Search and Rescue Team in 1967 and introduced the "a, b, c, d" subgrading of the Yosemite Decimal System. [Photo] Glen Denny

"Are you free climbing?" Layton Kor yelled down to me. Layton didn't believe in wasting time.

"Yeah," I said.

"You little bastard," he said, laughing. Layton was so full of good-natured energy, striding around the campsite, running his words and ideas together as he talked, telling dirty jokes, stupid jokes, devouring food, pursuing women, speeding up one route after another, sending wall after wall (including the fourth new route up El Capitan, the West Buttress, 1963, with Steve Roper), until he ran out of partners, then grabbing anyone he could find to climb with him, even me. When he and I had freed Rixon's Pinnacle Far West Side, he'd buffaloed the leads; six foot five inches tall, he'd said, in a dead-serious tone, "This is a scary pitch and height makes a lot of difference." I won my first pitch from him that day on Left Side of the Folly. Near the top an offwidth turned into a squeeze chimney, and big-chested Layton stared at my skinny-little-kid frame. "Hey man," he said, in a resigned voice. "How 'bout you take this one?" I'd been waiting for such an opportunity.

I squirmed quickly up the pitch, proud that for once I wasn't just cleaning his pitons. Layton was my first mentor, and he taught me the value of speed. A "just-get-up-the climb" kind of climber, to Layton anything was fair—pull on a sling, step on a piton, whatever got you moving faster. Years later, in the mountains, I would value that lesson.

Click here to discuss this Article

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.