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Fifty Years in Yosemite: The soft-spoken legacy of Werner Braun, "Mr. Astroman"
Posted on: July 11, 2022
While talking with climbers around Camp 4, I heard that some of the very best Yosemite climbing stories will never be told. "How so?" I inquired, and eventually I learned about the quiet character of Werner Braun, and a deeper history surrounding the world-famous route of Astroman.
In a personal and solemn way, Braun prefers many of his climbs to remain off the record. Last summer, he packed away the tools and equipment of his little company, Werner Engineering, as he prepared to leave Yosemite Valley with his wife Merry for their new home in St. George, Utah. Unfortunately for us, his unspoken stories seem to have, for now, left the Valley with him.
Braun is pictured here on Reeds Pinnacle (originally rated 5.9, now considered 5.10a). Photographer Bob Gaines: "Werner clowning around, ca. 1983. Scott Cosgrove was there too. Just a great day of fun-in-the-sun free soloing." [Photo] Bob Gaines
"He's so private, we will never know," Yosemite Climbing Association President Ken Yager told me in October 2021. "He didn't want to be recognized. Climbing made him feel alive and one with the Earth; that's what's important to him. He climbed predominately solo because he couldn't easily talk with people, often nobody knew what he was doing."
A hearing impairment that began in childhood made it more challenging for Braun to connect with some people. I think his silence is also an intentional practice. His talk is scarce and free-form. He communicates in his own way at his own pace. He is open, friendly, spontaneously humorous and also serious, naturally private. A nonconformist and a sincere team player.
When he first came to Yosemite half a century ago, Braun was able to bond with other climbers while also finding solitude by questing into the heights alone, often without a rope. Some of his favorite routes to free solo were Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral (listed in the modern Sloan guide as "5.9++," 1,300'), Reed's Pinnacle Direct (5.10a, 180'), Stone Groove (5.10b, 150') and Gripper (5.10b, 240').
"The best free soloists in those years were Peter Croft, John Bachar, Dave Schulz and Werner Braun," said Yager, "They were the precursors to what Alex Honnold has been able to achieve."
Braun at his workshop in 2021. [Photo] Earl Bates
"It's a miracle I'm still alive, it really is," Braun told me one cool cerulean-sky day last spring in his outdoor workshop in Yosemite Village. He was on a break from working on specialized radio and electronic projects for the National Park Service. Occasionally, as we spoke, he looked up to the surrounding granite walls, his eyes lingering on particular cracks, corners and ledges, as if gazing into a portal of private memories. True to his reputation, he offered sparse detail about his 50 years in Yosemite. In conversations I had with him between 2019 and 2021, he talked little about his countless climbs and harrowing search and rescue missions. After so many episodes of intrepid climbing, skiing and selfless service with Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), the essential narratives of his life appear beyond conventional description.
There is some history surrounding particular routes that Braun has shared openly. While he has always preferred to abstain from the limelight, there are reasons he is respectfully known as "Mr. Astroman."
A magazine ad for Five Ten climbing shoes featuring the famous photo of Braun climbing the Enduro Corner (5.11c) on Astroman, ca. 1990. In 2005 Braun shared some of the backstory on SuperTopo.com. He explained that his wife Merry is belaying him in the photo, and that she led the pitch first to hang the rope for photographer Charles Cole, the founder of Five Ten. Braun wrote: "Charles then jugs up with his big ass large format camera and starts doing these huge bounces out into space behind me while snapping off shots." [Photo] Earl Bates
Astroman is a 1,300-foot route that connects steep, formidable cracks on the East Face of Washington Column. With nearly every pitch checking in at 5.10 to 5.11c, it remains a daunting objective to this day. Back in 1975 it was considered to be the hardest big-wall free climb in the country. Pioneered as a piecemeal project, the first free ascent of Astroman is often credited to the team of John Bachar, Ron Kauk and John Long.
According to A History of Free Climbing in America by Pat Ament, members of the team had freed each individual pitch during two climbs over a period of two days. In the book, Ament quotes Long as saying, "I agree with Bachar that our ascent of Astroman only proved that all the pitches could be done free, nothing more." Ament wrote, "Indeed, from the viewpoint of a person doing every pitch free, this was not a free ascent."
In a recent phone call with an Alpinist editor, Long emphasized that the precise definition of a big-wall free climb was still in flux because no one had attempted a route as big as Washington Column, and the concept of a "team free" ascent, in which every team member free climbs an entire route, had not yet been adopted as a stylistic benchmark. That shift would happen the following year in conjunction with a few ascents around the Valley, including Long's team-free ascent of the Chouinard-Herbert on the Sentinel with Pete Minks and Erik Eriksson.
Ament's book reports that the first continuous free ascent of Astroman was accomplished in 1976 by Kauk in collaboration with Braun.
On SuperTopo.com, Braun wrote: "Yeah, we talked about it [while climbing] Tis-sa-ack [on Half Dome], Kauk and I. He wanted to do the first continuous all-free ascent. I told him, after we get down, I'll jumar and you lead all the pitches. Ron really wanted to do it and we agreed to our idea. We bivied at the base the night before because Ron thought it would take all day and wanted to make sure we got off by dark. Ha-ha. We got to the last pitch about 11:00 in the morning."
"This, for me, was the real first free ascent, when Kauk led every pitch," Bachar said in Ament's book. "That was intense, he did not fall once. Then I went up, with Werner Braun, and led every pitch without a fall. Then Dale Bard did the same thing. So, really, those were the first free ascents."
Like a sage, Braun has volunteered his informal way of mentoring throughout his lifetime in Yosemite. "I can't help but be amazed by how selfless and egoless Werner is, he supported so many climbers to achieve their goals without caring about receiving his own accolades," Yosemite Park Ranger and Climbing Program Manager Jesse McGahey told me.
"I remember times when Werner would go out every week and climb Astroman, he loved it so much," said Yager. "I'll bet he climbed it hundreds of times, I don't know for sure, that's his business. But I'll tell stories about him because he's a genuine badass, there's no doubt about it. Additionally, he's a guy who will always walk up and say hello and help out whenever he can, I can't think of an individual who is nicer, more helpful or a better human being, really."
Yager has known Braun since 1976.
"I was 17 years old, my father dropped me off at Camp 4 in December," he said. "I started exploring around Camp 4, the boulder problems, trying to figure out how to do them. I kept running into this quiet person. After two or three days of seeing each other at the same boulders, we talked. It was Werner Braun. He showed me how to do all of his favorite boulder problems in and around Camp 4 and over by Lower Falls. At that time, there was this other group at Camp 4, they called themselves Skull Camp. They saw me walking around and bouldering with Werner and said to me, 'Do you know who that is? He's a Stonemaster!' I didn't know anything too much about that stuff at the time, there wasn't much written about the Stonemasters. In those days, stories were passed around more by word of mouth. Werner has always been the unknown Stonemaster, that's what I would call him. He was always right there with the climbing elite, and he could keep up with all of them."
Braun's abilities extended beyond the rocks, too.
"Werner was an extremely good skier, probably as good as anyone," said Yager. "He's an extremely good athlete, all-around, but many people don't give him the credit for that. At Mammoth Mountain, there's this tight skinny chute through the rocks. It's S-shaped and about six feet wide, probably one of the gnarliest things to ski at Mammoth Mountain. It's called Werner's Chute, not because he was the first one down it on skis, but because he was the first one to carve turns through it. He didn't do jump turns, which everyone else was doing, he just carved it and came out the bottom at 80 miles per hour, or more. Werner liked to ski fast."
Climber and skier Don Harder, who has known Braun since the 1970s, recalled that Braun's ski buddies included Craig Calonica and Steve McKinney. Calonica represented the US Ski Team in speed skiing from 1974 to 1987, and McKinney was a pioneer in the sport of extreme skiing.
"Absolutely one of a kind," Harder said. "Werner skied right along with these hardcore racers."
More importantly, Braun continually proved to be a person of high integrity.
"Werner has certainly been one of the most significant members of the Yosemite community, but he's mostly unrecognized," said McGahey. "Such a good climber and such a good rigger, some of the best climbers in the world have chosen Werner as their climbing partner. As a devoted climber, Werner developed a real connection to the rock and to the environment while caution, humility and the quiet craftwork of climbing became an integral part of his character. He loved to go back to the same climbs over and over, practicing a sense of the Zen moment and getting into the flow state before it was a thing. It strikes me that Werner practiced climbing, and practices life often, in a state of pure immersion, without ego. He has no expectations of fame, fortune or even praise, existence itself is enough for him."
"While working with YOSAR, I was impressed with how Werner would be the first team member to start getting a SAR [search and rescue] organized," McGahey continued. "Whenever Werner went out on a SAR, others were inspired to help and he would gently offer his expertise in an educational way. He treated Yosemite National Park, YOSAR and his work of outfitting our vehicles, with the same attitude. Anytime he could help anyone he would. In spite of his hearing disability, he always proceeded without complaining, with a big heart and an incredible sense of humor."
"Werner has always had fun," Yager said. "He reminds me of Warren Harding in a lot of ways, he never took himself too seriously yet has always been a top climber and a top influencer."
Ken Yager at the Yosemite Climbing Museum holding one of the most iconic photos of Werner Braun, taken by Jim Bridwell on the Pacific Ocean Wall, El Capitan. [Photo] Earl Bates
In his characteristic hard working, quiet and friendly way, Braun has been closely involved in the Yosemite community since the early 1970s.
"There's no doubt that Werner has contributed more to YOSAR than almost anyone," said Yager. "I would say the only person who has contributed as much would be John Dill; they are the two people who have been doing it forever."
Dill, a technician for YOSAR, wrote in an email:
"Werner became the go-to person on our team for working with electronics and minor mechanical problems. We eventually gave him an unused workspace, which he turned into a valuable shop facility.... His wife, Merry, is a smart and careful worker; she was his second pair of hands and eyes and kept all the wiring organized on what were often complicated installations. Of course, Werner was limited by policy in what he could do. But with the Brauns around not much else stayed broken or un-invented for very long. I can't imagine the amount of money and time they saved us (and therefore the taxpayers) over the years."
Charles "Butch" Farabee participated in about 800 search and rescue missions as a Yosemite Ranger from 1971 to 1981. "I was also the SAR officer for part of that time, so I worked with Werner pretty consistently," he said.
Since Braun had climbed most of the big routes in those days, he was familiar with many particular details and was able to talk intelligently about where someone was located and what might be needed to take care of the problem.
"He was always a rock star in the league with Kauk," Farabee said. "In Werner's case, however, he always seemed to want to remain in the background."
Any climber spending time in Yosemite Valley is likely to hear various pieces of folklore that involve Braun. These anecdotes often carry endorsement for him as a homegrown luminary of the Camp 4 subculture. One recurring story says he might have done the first free solo of Astroman, or he was very close, or maybe he achieved it but didn't care to take credit. The legend himself clarified on Supertopo.com: "I went over to Astroman to free solo it two different times," Braun wrote. "Both times I psyched myself out. It was those little bouldering moves before the endurance corner that got me. Then one day I decided to solo it with a rope. I free-soloed all but the 5.11 sections, [on] which I belayed myself. Of course, I had the route totally wired to begin with; [it] took me two full hours for the whole climb."
Ron Kauk was too young for a driver's license in 1973 when he was hitchhiking into Yosemite Valley along Highway 120. Someone driving a vintage Ford Falcon stopped to offer a ride. The guy was wearing old jeans and a flannel shirt.
"Meeting Werner when I was 15 was like opening a door into a connection for living a certain way of life that seemed natural and free, very free, totally outside of the box," said Kauk, reminiscing to me at Camp 4 in November 2021. "I was aware of the climbing scene here but not really in it yet. Werner was very welcoming and exuded a language I was reading that was not words, it was a whole impression."
Kauk said he remembered thinking, "This guy is authentic, he's not trying to be anybody, he's just truly who he is."
"There's something inspirational about that because all of us are on a path to figure out who we are," he said.
Kauk began making Yosemite his home. He got to know all of the Camp 4 dignitaries of the 1970s, Jim Bridwell, John Bachar, Dale Bard, Mark Chapman, Kevin Worrall, and many others, "But Werner fit in his own unique way, he just went with the flow of everything."
Kauk recounted his first time ascending the Nose of El Capitan, "There's a memorable climb, going to do The Nose with Werner Braun, Dale Bard and John Bachar.... It was the summer of 1975; we all just went and did the Nose like it was fun. We were freeing the hell out of it, tons of stuff in the 5.11 range. So, you go from being picked up by Werner hitchhiking when you're 15, to climbing El Cap together, how cool is that? Here's the thread, something was ignited in the whole connection that he was exuding that was a reference to myself, too, where I might be headed."
Kauk went on to become one of the most well-recognized climbers in history. Some of his first ascents in Yosemite are among the most iconic climbs of all time, including, Midnight Lightning (V8), Separate Reality (5.12 at the time of the first ascent), and Magic Line (5.14c).
"It's not just about how hard you climb and whether you place gear or not, it's about a way of connecting and understanding the lesson to be learned in the environment of Yosemite," said Kauk. "[Werner] put his life into being here in Yosemite."
"Werner leaving Yosemite at this time marks the end of an era," Kauk continued. "The end means a new beginning, too, so a transition. It's important to recognize one of our great elders of climbing and what he gave us, I know he gave me this ability to imagine what we could be and to become that together."
That's why friends and colleagues gathered in Yosemite Village last summer to recognize the Brauns' contributions to the Yosemite community.
"I can only hope that Yosemite can find a few good souls to replace the void that Werner and Merry have left here," said McGahey. "Maybe we can all step up and support each other and the places we love with more intention. It probably still wouldn't replace the karma they gave to Yosemite, but we could try!"
Werner and Merry Braun. [Photo] Werner and Merry Braun collection
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