A Conversation with Steve Grossman Ė December 27, 2001
Part 1: Tucson Climbing History
Steve: As far as my background is concerned, my parents moved here from Michigan. My father Maurice is a retired art professor at the University of Arizona. My mother was a teacher and a homemaker. They came to Tucson in the early Ď50s and were instrumental in establishing the U of A art department particularly, the crafts section. I was born here April 1, 1958, second child in my family. My sister Barbara, older by two years and my sister Lauren, two years younger than I. We were a family of five. I went to High School at Tucson High School and graduated from the U of A with a BS in Biochemistry. I am currently single and donít have any kids. I am a general contractor living up in Seattle at this point in time.
Beyond that, significant life events were health related. My mother suffered a series of strokes in the early Ď70s that left her comatose and in a nursing home. My older sister developed a cancerous melanoma and died very quickly. Curiously, they both passed away in 1978.
That is terrible.
Steve: Yes. That was definitely a tragedy. Fortunately, I got into climbing in 1970, before all that happened. The community of climbers here, which I will talk more about later, became in many ways my extended family. My other sister and my father were both spending a lot of time just dealing with their lives. Socially, the climbing community filled in some blanks.
My father has always been a very supportive individual. He pushed me to be what I wanted to be without judging my intentions. He always supported me in terms of buying me necessary gear, giving me time to be able to climb, and travel to places like Yosemite in the summer. He provided support, without which I would not be the accomplished climber that I am now.
My sister is living in Seattle with me. She is an artist, a very accomplished one. She is the reason why I moved to the northwest in 1987 after living in Tucson for 30 years.
I began climbing in 1970 as a 7th grader. I have a lot of typical harrowing stories of getting into climbing that a lot of people have. I bought a copy of "Bergsteigen" at the Summit Hut and I read about climbing and climbing techniques. Then I proceeded to go rummaging in my fatherís closet for an old ľ" sisal rope and some moving straps, and I tried to imitate essentially what I was seeing in "Bergsteigen".
A turning point, as far as acquiring proper climbing equipment, came when I was rappelling down a rock up in the Summerhaven area. I decided to try out a Prusik knot for an arrest. I was rappelling down and I was about 15í off the ground using a figure of eight sit harness that I made out of a packing strap. I was running the rope through the packing strap using no carabiners or any kind of climbing gear at all. I got down to the point where I thought, "O.K. I will test this system" and I let go of the rappel rope entirely. The Prusik knot, even though it was the same diameter as the rope I was rappelling on, jammed and then snapped and I went 15í feet to the ground. I ended up hitting my chin and getting hurt. I wandered back over to the cabin where everybody else was hanging out and I had very little trouble after that convincing my father to get me some proper rock climbing gear - even though he probably thought that he was making a mistake.
I remember going into the Summit Hut and buying a pair of blue Galibier Royal Robbins, a blue Mammut 11 mil rope, and an odd assortment of gear. A couple of people took me out climbing early on. The husband of one of my fatherís art students, took me out the first time and I got into it right away. The second time I went out climbing, I ended up leading the regular route on Hitchcock Pinnacle. There were several guys who had taken long falls off the top of the route. They already had a rope clipped in. So I thought "Well, maybe I could give this a try. These guys havenít gotten hurt. Iíll give it a go". So I managed to get up and out, off the only bolt (the one bolt that was the only protection on the route at the time) and finished the route. I thought "Wow, this is really it!" I was totally adrenalized and I love this activity Ė I got to do it.
So I proceeded to spend a lot of time hanging out at the Summit Hut. Iíd come home from school, Iíd get on my bike, Iíd go over to the Summit Hut and Iíd hang out with the people working there and just essentially ask them about climbing.
So the Summit Hut was already in existence in 1970?
Steve: Yes. The Summit Hut actually got its start with Dave Baker and the whole Catalina High School group, who were about six years or so older than I was. He started looking into trying to find climbing equipment because they got interested in climbing as a group. Dave looked into it. The first Summit Hut was actually this little teeny hole in the wall, retail space. As I recall, it was over by Catalina High School. Dave would remember better. That was kind of his humble beginning as a retailer. He has since, of course, become one of the most respected people in the outdoor industry nationally. So thatís kind of how he got going.
When I started climbing, the Summit Hut that was located close to Speedway and Country Club. That was the place to go. Scott Williams, Marty Woerner, Dave, and the other people that worked in the Summit Hut, tolerated me, gave me some pointers, told me about equipment, and how to use it. Things like that. I gradually got folks to climb with, over time. When I went out climbing with people, they could see that I had some ability and that I was worth helping along.
At the same time, I also found out about Campbell Cliffs. Which at the time was really the social hub, outside of the Summit Hut, in Tucson. It was discovered when Search and Rescue got called out to find a guy who was out wandering around this desert road for some reason reading a book. He didnít pay any attention and walked right off the cliff. Search and Rescue people went out there to get him, to recover his body, and do an evacuation because the fellow was killed. They discovered a perfect training area. A couple of bolts were put in for top rope anchors and immediately this area became the place that people congregated. People gathered to find partners and work on skills, essentially the equivalent of a climbing gym atmosphere.
Where is it located?
Steve: You go all the way to the North end of Campbell Avenue. Right now, because of development, it is on private land and access is diminished. It was a huge loss at the time. The quality of the climbing and boulder problems was really quite good. The perfect place to learn how to climb, to stay in shape and to work out. Certainly, it has some of the best bouldering in this area. Bob Murray, when he was here, as a boulderer, developed some other crags, but really, I donít think that anyoneís found a spot that had that kind of concentration of good boulder problems. Most folks went once or twice a week. Anywhere from beginners to very experienced climbers worked on their calluoses. It used to be a big thing - it really isnít anymore. You really had to have a good callus base built up on your fingers if you were going to spend a lot of time hanging out on first ascents; on sharp holds, putting in gear, and working things out. This was part of the ritual back in the old days to do that.
Early on, I first came in contact with the Rupleys. John was a Biochemistry professor at the University and he and Ila knew my parents. They heard that I was interested in climbing and they took me out. I knew about John and I had read about some of his exploits and his connection to the bigger world of alpine climbing. He is really more of a mountaineer, in terms of his accomplishments, than a pure rock climber. We went up to the top of Mt. Lemmon and repeated some of the routes that he had put up on which protection points were largely left fixed. He is a big man and generally speaking, if he wasnít up to free climbing, he would aid up the most difficult sections. Needless to say, the rock in Tucson and the routes that he picked werenít particularly amenable to aid climbing. The cracks here have always been somewhat discontinuous and not really all that good as far as leaving a lot of fixed pitons. John considered these routes to be practice climbs, that he used to condition himself for his summer trips into the Sellkirks (?) and trips into other mountain ranges which is actually what he thought climbing was about. These other routes, much as theyíre destination routes now, were more practice for him. That was how he viewed them. Needless to say, a lot of people, when they saw these routes full of fixed pitons, since putting in your gear and taking it out was more of the style of the day, thought they landed on a gold mine. There were several bad incidents where people pulled the gear out without returning it to John and got him pretty hot behind the collar.
What routes did you climb with him?
Steve: I climbed several routes up on the Ravens with him. I did first free ascents of a lot of these things because some of them were overhanging problems. They were, of course, well protected since they were set up to be aided so it was pretty easy to go ahead and clip the gear and work the moves out. I was mostly free climbing what was there, some of them for the first time. I got introduced to John and we climbed together several times. It was really interesting climbing with him. He came from a more old school approach in terms of the techniques he was using and his approach to clean climbing Ė it pretty much didnít exist. He was into using iron. If he didnít feel like his pitons were going to be left alone, he put bolts in instead. He had a very different approach to it. It really opened my eyes to the fact that there were many different styles and there was a lot of ways to go about it. The things I did get climbing with John were a sense of progression, a sense of accomplishment, and the work ethic to improve your individual skills to do bigger climbs Ė which was very much the old school approach to climbing. Rock climbing in and of itself really wasnít an end. It was just a way to get up on something longer. So that kind of reflected his value system.
I got a degree in Biochemistry, and John and I, despite big differences in political beliefs and a lot of other things, are fairly close. We have a lot of respect for one another. I have kept in contact with him over time, even though we havenít been climbing together for quite a while. He also knows a lot of the great climbers of the time, like Chouinard, Fritz Wiessner, and a lot of other people - He introduced me to a lot of other folks like Fred Beckey who would come through and visit. Fritz Wiessner in particular was a great inspiration. When I got a chance to climb with him he was well into his 70s. It was wonderful to watch him climb. He had decades upon decades of technique and even though his arm strength wasnít what it once was, he was very into climbing. In fact I remember him saying at one point in time, in his thick German accent, "Ven I cannot climb, I vant to die." I thought to myself, "Man, this guy is hardcore." He was at the same time, very humble, considering that he almost had the first ascent of K2 before WW2 and was a world class mountaineer by anyoneís estimation. It really connected me with alpine climbing history and tradition.
Another group of people that influenced my early climbing, was Congressman Mo Udallís family. He had three sons and three daughters and they, as a family, went climbing a lot. They were pretty accomplished Alpine climbers, the whole family. I would go out on trips with them in the early Ď70s. They invited me along to go into the Wind Rivers and actually go do longer Alpine climbs. That was my first experience in doing things that were longer than a couple pitch climbs that were around here. Brad Udall and I went to Yosemite.
How old were you then?
Steve: That was early on in high school, so around 1972 or 1973 Ė taking trips into the mountains.. It is pretty funny because I had a lot of aspirations back then too. I would fully haul a rack of iron and bolt kit to do new routes. We would get in there and look at these grade V and VI routes. I had all the drive in the world but very little experience or technique, so needless to say, it was kind of a hard to talk anybody into getting up on anything. So I had to haul all that gear out again. The weight nearly killed me on several occasions. By being in contact with the Udalls, I was connected to the bigger world of alpinism. They taught me how to snow climb, how to do a lot of things related to mountaineering that you couldnít learn around here otherwise. So they were very influential in terms of giving me a bigger picture. I went and did some mountaineering early on with them, things like Capitol Peak, up and around Aspen. Long climbs that required bivouacs, the really full Alpine experience. So by time I was getting into high school, Iíd done a lot of long climbs. A lot more than I would have done without being exposed to their family. They had a good solid skill basis. Several worked for Outward Bound, so they were experienced teachers.
How did you end up meeting the Udalls?
Steve: Through my parents.. Patricia, Mo Udallís first wife, was a real dynamo of a woman. She and Maurice, my father, got along very well. She really was a very strong and determined person. It had a lot of carry over into their family. Mo spent a lot of time away, in Washington, and that caused problems in terms of their marriage. As A family, the strength of their respective personalities was something that was very inspiring. Recently Mark Udall became an elected Congressman in the state of Colorado and I helped raise money for his campaign. He worked as director of the Colorado Outward Bound School and is really one of the foremost voices for the outdoor industry and people interested in conservation and wilderness, as his father was. So there was a really strong tradition there of the wilderness ethic. Leave it as you found it. Donít do any damage. Think before you do anything that is going to have lasting consequences. Do not impact it Ė taking a conservationist view. I got exposed to that kind of ethic very early.
Another thing that really affected me ethically early on was the 1972 Chouinard climbing catalog. It made a strong push for clean climbing in terms of free protection and people relying less on hammered protection. It had a lot of affect on everybody pretty much in climbing at the time in a way thatís really unparalleled. It laid out the ethics of British rock climbing. You have a small island with a fairly finite amount of rock and a lot of heavy use. They really, in contrast to what was happening in the rest of Europe, developed a low impact ethic. It allowed their routes to see heavy traffic and minimal damage. The big push was toward that same kind of ethic. Fortunately, at the same time, Chouinard equipment came out with hexes and stoppers, equipment that made all that kind of low impact climbing possible. Prior to those innovations, the kind of nuts that were available out there were just not really all that effective. The synergy of that catalog pushing that ethic and equipment that was being produced revolutionized climbing as we know it. Thinking about it now, had that not happened, and had people continued to pound pins and bust flakes off and scar and damage rock, things would be much uglier out there. Itís really pretty horrifying what would have gone on if that revolution hadnít happened.
Do you still have that catalog?
Steve: Yeah. BD is celebrating 30 years since the publication of that catalog. I just wrote a little essay for it so that is going to show up in the issue. That ethic really got pushed heavily in Tucson, largely because of the calibre of climbers that were here at the time.
There essentially were not a lot of people climbing in Tucson during the Ď70s. When I think back about it, I recall several generations or waves of climbers in Tucson. The first wave was people like Joanna McComb, Merle Wheeler, Don Morris, and Dan Jones, who were quite a bit older than the rest of us. They were folks that were really coming into it from a mountaineering background. Somewhat separate from that group, because he was kind of isolated in climbing activities, was John Rupley. He was of the same generation but he didnít have a lot of interaction with the other climbers here. His activities were fairly separate.
The second wave of Tucson climbers was folks that were connected with a particular class in Catalina High School: Dave Baker, Mike McEwen, Mark Axen, Kem Johnson, Jake Bender, Gail Macdonald and Scott Williams. They were all classmates more or less and got an interest in climbing collectively. They found a way to get enough equipment to do it and to learn the proper techniques. Dave, of course, went on to establish the Summit Hut as part of that quest to get better equipment. He made a very successful career out of it. There were also some other characters who were here: Marty Woerner (Sadhana), Dennis Coffee, Peter Depagtter, who were also peripherally part of the climbing scene but werenít from that high school class. It is rather remarkable, several of those folks, Dave, Mike, Kem and Mark were very good climbers. They were responsible for pushing the standards that really made this place a very traditionally bold climbing area for quite a number of years. Iíll talk a little more about those guys in a minute.
The third generation was myself, Rich Thompson, Gary Hervert, Gary Axen (who was Markís younger brother) were kind of a small wave of climbers that came along. Then the next group was John Steiger, Ray Ringle, Scott Brown, Fig Fiola, Don Galagher, and a couple of people moved into town from Phoenix: Peter Noebels and Herb North. Essentially, that core group of people, the second, third, and fourth generations were the wave of climbers that were here during the golden period, if you want to look at it that way.
When I was just getting into high school, the primary person that I was climbing with was Rich Thompson. He was a pretty remarkable figure in Tucson climbing history. He was an avid hiker, an avid explorer, and we had a good solid bond in terms of going out and establishing routes. A lot of the time I spent climbing during high school was with Rich. Heíd get me up first thing in the morning on Saturday and weíd go out and climb on one if not both days on most weekends. He was responsible for my missing Monday at school quite a lot. A lot of times I wouldnít show up and people would wonder where I was. After a while, they knew where I was. I was at home sleeping because I spent all of Sunday night climbing down off some summit with a flashlight in my mouth. In high school, thatís what I spent my time doing. I spent a lot of time in organized sports prior to that, but when I discovered climbing, being on the football team or on the tennis team just seemed like nothing in comparison.
Rich was responsible for doing a lot of things which unified the climbing community here and made a lot of the local climbing more accessible. Dave Baker kept a set of notes in the Summit Hut, which was the "notebook". It was really the only way you got any information about what had been climbed here. They were written descriptions along with photographs. Rich started to take those notes, amplify on them, and keep them up, so the guidebook became a complete thing. When you went up and did a first ascent, you would come down and talk to Rich about it. You would write it up right there and it would go right into the book. He kind of became the keeper of a lot of route information, he was responsible for maintaining the guide. He worked at the Summit Hut and Dave fortunately didnít have any problem with that. It was part of his job description to do that kind of work.
He made a comparative list of the routes and the grades. There was a big problem because everybody was guessing about comparative climbing grades back then. A lot of climbs were being underrated by at least a letter grade or so. If you had a benchmark climb like FIUTT for instance, that was going to be the basis for 5.8s, then everybody went and climbed that route and anything that seemed about as hard as the FIUTT was a 5.8. Well, it turned out that that route is a 5.9, so the whole thing was skewed. And nobody really knew much about it. When Rich first compiled that list, the hardest climb in the area was a route called "The Last Supper" which is now solid 5.11. It was rated 5.10+ along with a handful of other climbs. That was really as hard as anything got. He made an effort to make the rating system somewhat sensible. Arizona was well known for the same kind of problems with ratings.
Nobody thought that local routes measured up with what was being done in Yosemite at the 5.11 standard. Even though Tucson climbers had climbed 5.11 in Yosemite, Mike McEwen for instance, was rather well known for the routes that he was doing, and a lot of climbers there were asking after him when I started visiting Yosemite. He was obviously a very brilliant climber. He was climbing not necessarily at the highest standard of the day but he was climbing in such a style, with such ease, because of his natural ability that he caught a lot of peopleís attention. So it was a big deal when I started leading 5.11 routes: face climbs, as well as cracks in the Valley to have a solid basis of comparison. I really liked climbing face there, even though there werenít a lot of face climbs. I came back and said, "We definitely have 5.11 routes here, plenty of them. We really need to start upgrading some of these routes." I made a conscious effort then to go back through the rating system. Every time I climbed something, try to equate it to a Yosemite type of a rating system. Had Rich not gone to the trouble to compile that list and make an attempt to make sense out of it, that never would have happened. As well as the bold nature of climbing here, a lot of people ran into trouble because theyíd come and then try to climb something that they thought would be well within their ability. Of course, they would be much harder. A lot of folks were getting put off. I didnít have enough ego attachment to the numbers to want to continue underrating. Whatís the harm if we make these 5.9+s 5.10? Who is really going to be bothered by it? I didnít feel egotistically like it was going to be a problem to soften the ratings.
So the numbering system now matches pretty well with Yosemite?
Steve: Itís pretty decent. A lot of Yosemite climbs are cracks. There arenít a lot of cracks around here. I think the rating system equalized itself out. It has the same problem that the Yosemite rating system ran into when massive amounts of 5.10s were climbed. Somebody finally said, "O.K., this thing is harder than all those others. Itís finally a 5.11." People eventually realized that there were four discernable grades in between. The whole letter grade compression was the result of peopleís insecurity, not wanting to rate things accurately using an open-ended scale. Thatís why the rating system started getting jammed up in the higher grades. We really should be climbing routes that are 5.25.
The letter rating system never really caught on, it was a 5.10 or a 5.10+. Eventually a 5.10- creeped in there as people had a better basis of comparison.
So thatís the rating system that Rich used? With the + and -?
Steve: No I think he used just the + designation.
The other thing that Rich Thompson really contributed to was local climbing photography. When we would go climbing together, I knew whenever I was on a crux, that he was going to be looking through the camera lens. I figured out early on that I better not be falling off any of these moves. He was an excellent photographer and made the effort to go out of his way to set things up and take pictures. A lot of social activity was centered around climbing slide shows. Somebody would go away on a trip or put up some routes and we would all get together and show climbing slides. He was very instrumental in making sure that the social web held together. We had reasons to come together beyond just going out climbing. That people interacted socially. For that reason, the climbing community here was very, very tight.
Do you know what happened to the slides or photos?
Steve: I just returned a box of them to Dave Baker. We are in the process right now of trying to locate his Tucson climbing slides. They went to John Steiger back when he was working on the guidebook and his recollection is that he left them with somebody in town here Ė probably Ray. I hope they didnít end up getting lost, because he had a lot of really superb images.
They would be nice to see.
Steve: Yes. Hopefully, those will surface in time here. Unfortunately Rich was killed in Tucsonís first climbing accident that I remember. He was not a particularly bold face climber, despite the fact that thatís most of the climbing that was here. The irony of that accident was that he had just finished a route called "Shanashee" which was a brilliant face climb up in the Reef of Rocks. Very, very run out, very committing. He put up basically the best route he ever did, as far as a first ascent. He finished that route and was climbing a route called "Block Buster Ballet" which was a 5.6 with his partner Tim Kelly. Tim Kelly had climbed up about 100í and put in a belay. Rich was following and was trying to do some public service to clean up some loose blocks that were still on the route. He pulled on some of them. One of them, a fairly sizable one, fell across the rope and pulled on Timís belay. It had been put in quickly because they were thinking that they were just going to be getting out of there. He really wasnít planning on holding any kind of a big fall on an easy climb like that and unfortunately the belay was pulled out. Rich fell to the ground with blocks on top of him. Tim Kelly was pulled a 100í to the ground and survived. That really was an unfortunate end to his climbing career. He was otherwise a very safe climber. It just kind of goes to show you that if you put a belay in, you need to place it well. You never know what is going to happen. The shock and the loss were pretty big. His wife Rene at the time is now married to Dave Baker and has a family. It kind of made all of us stop and take a look at what we were doing very seriously. Then we realized that Rich, of course, wouldnít have wanted us to quit climbing on his account so we all kind of went back at it, a little bit wiser for the experience.
So essentially, out of that core group of climbers that I talked about, probably the ones that influenced me the most were Dave Baker, Mike McEwen, and Mark Axen -for very different reasons. Dave Baker was very much the penultimate explorer. He was very active and very motivated to get a lot of first ascents and to get up on top of a lot of the major features here. Climbing back in those days was really less about individual routes and filling in the all the blanks on particular small cliffs as it was about summits and doing long routes. There were so many good lines available to do. It was quite a long time before I actually managed to get to a significant summit that Dave hadnít climbed first. In 1979, with John Steiger and Paul Davidson , I managed to climb "Chay Desa Tsay" which in Apache means big windy rock - down in the Coshise Stronghold. It was a summit that Dave hadnít gotten to and that was kind of a big thing at the time because he pretty much had most first ascents. He was very motivated and very capable.
He was a very good crack climber and was somebody who went out of his way to climb off-width cracks. This was incomprehensible to most people at the time. He taught me a lot about climbing safety and being solid in crack climbing, learning technique and really working it. He and I had several good experiences. Probably one of my favorites was the first ascent of "Days of Future Past" on the End Pinnacle (1973). We had quite an adventure on this thing. Despite being the man who owned the climbing store we got up to the base of the route and Dave had said that he was going to bring all the gear. He dumped out his pack we had one rope. I looked at the gear he brought Ė the smallest piece of gear we had was a #4 hex. Other than that, we had nothing smaller than a #8 hex. He didnít bring a full rack. He just kind of grabbed a pack and headed out. The other thing was, he had basically only about three bolts with him. So we headed up for a first ascent on about a 400í tower with one rope. It had been climbed before by the "Capím Pissgums" route on the other side. For those of you people that know that route, we climbed all the way up to the end of the crack. Dave put in a belay on some bongs and some nuts and I climbed to the very end of the crack. I put in a bolt and then ran out most of the rest of the next pitch Ė I got all the way up to the middle of the face on the third pitch and put in one bolt. Then, thinking, well, I guess if I find nothing, then I am just going to climb down. I headed up and I had no more bolts. So I got all the way up to the ledge and then we looked at the upper head wall. It was kind of getting late in the day and it was like, "O.K. well, now weíve gone and done it." I went way around the left side of the pinnacle, all on this ledge system, put in a couple of sideways bongs and brought Dave up. We ended up climbing around the corner into this chimney and climbing down to the anchors that you can get to - off of the descent ones that had been established on "Capím Pissgums."
Well, the next we went up to do the route, we got up there, but Rich Thompson was with us this time. We got up there and we had a proper rack, we knew what the climbing was, so I asked Dave, "Well Dave, how many bolts did you bring with you this time?" He said, "I got plenty of bolts, donít worry about it. I got plenty of bolts." So he pulls out the pack and dumps it out and says, "Oh, no. Iíve only got four bolts. I thought I had more than that." I am shaking my head saying, "Oh, boy, this is good. This is really good." So we climbed up the route, went up to the end of the crack, made a station out at the end of the crack with a couple of bolts. I went up on the third pitch and put in two more protection bolts where I had run it out before. I got all the way up to the ledge and put in two bolts and that was it. We had no more bolts. We were at the base of the last pitch and that was it. Dave was standing there and said, "I guess we are going to have to do the same thing. We are going to have to weasel into the chimney and get down again." Rich grinned at him, smiled, reached into his pocket and pulled out a drill and one single ľ" bolt. He handed it to him with a grin and in a devilish voice said, " itís your lead, Dave." That route now has several bolts on that pitch. Dave climbed into the chimney and worked his way across some rotten plates, out onto the face directly above the belay which is where the route goes now. He put in the one bolt and then ran it out to the summit and got to the top. On both occasions, we were hampered by not having enough gear Ė which was pretty hilarious. That was really a big break-through route at the time, for the three of us. One of the first times I climbed with Dave and I knew then to regard him with suspicion after that Ė as far as the selection of gear.
How old were you when you were climbing there?
Steve: I was still back in high school, I am pretty sure. That was the first big, significant, multi-pitch route Iíd ever done at the time, other than doing established things in the mountains.
That is a spectacular route.
Steve: Yes. It is really, really a good climb, but thatís the story. Very few people realize that that entire third pitch was lead with one bolt originally. Pretty committing at the time, but I just kept on climbing.
Mark Axen was another person who had a lot of influence on my climbing. He was somebody who had a very strong technical background. He was very good with tools and really embraced the low impact-climbing ethic that was going on in the early Ď70s. Heís very, very into clean climbing and had an awful lot of natural ability. He also was a pioneering hang-glider pilot, parapent pilot and had gotten in on the ground floor of both activities. I really looked up to him as this multidimensional adventurer. His natural ability was really striking. He and Dave, and Mike as well, all three of them, had a lot of ability that just seemed to come effortlessly. I learned a lot from him about protection systems and about the value of committing, going for climbs and trusting yourself, trusting your equipment, and protection placements which was really a big deal. A lot of climbers in the early Ď70s had their feet in both worlds where you really didnít quite trust these nut things and you really didnít quite trust pins either because they were troublesome. He was one of the people that really got me to stop hammering on protection and not worry about trusting myself and my ability to place nuts. They were somewhat primitive back in those days. You didnít really want to fall and people didnít very often. It was really a hard thing just kind of quiet your mind and trust that you were doing the right thing as far as placing protection. He had a strong influence on me technically.
Probably the biggest contributor to my climbing though was Mike McEwen, it terms of role modeling. He was somebody whoís probably one of the best natural climbers that I have ever seen. He was able to do boulder problems out at the end of Campbell in his street shoes that I couldnít do with my climbing shoes on. He was thin and had a very, very natural climbing style. He was famous for climbing with almost no gear at all. He climbed with a rack that had probably eight pieces on it. I always carried everything but the kitchen sink. It was always kind of a laughable situation when we went climbing together the few times that we did. "Do you want to climb on my rack?" If he asked the question, it was "No! We can climb on your rack but I will bring some extra stuff to go along." So he would always just climb until he found a place to put those nuts in. He made that rack work. One of my favorite routes, most significant ones, "Abracadaver" down in the stronghold on the main Rockfellow dome. Dave Baker, Mike, and I did that route and everybody got to do what they do what they were best at on that route. I climbed up this funny, rotten groove on the first pitch that required some tricky protection and a lot of odd-ball face climbing techniques. Dave Baker got the second pitch that was a long run-out up what he called a 5.9 off-width, which is definitely 5.10- off-width. He clipped into a bolt that had been left on a previous attempt and basically ran the whole pitch out. Then Mike got his lead which was brilliant lie-backing, up this crack that steadily got smaller and smaller and smaller and then a wild, blind traverse around the corner where the protection really wasnít there. He was very run-out but, of course, he found a spot for his favorite #4 copperhead, which was one of the pieces that he carried. It is now pretty much useless. Nobody carries those things. He did and he always managed to find a spot for them. Actually, we werenít able to get that out and that piece was fixed up there for quite a long time. Kind of a cool thing to clip into. But that route, we did several more pitches after that to get up to the top. That was really one of the high points of my climbing at the time. It was a beautiful, striking line. Anyone that gets underneath it, looks up, and it is kind of a gut wrencher. Itís all there. Thereís good protection but itís bold. It was a very big technical breakthrough to climb something like that at the time. It looked like a Yosemite route. It was intimidating like a Yosemite route. It was really a wild thing to be involved in.
The other thing about Mike, in addition to his Yosemite reputation for climbing, is he hated drilling holes. He was famous for putting in bolts that only went in halfway and just running it out. He didnít like stopping to put protection in. One of the routes that typified that the best is "Helmís Deep" up on Rappel Rock. It was originally climbed by Mike McEwen and Dave Baker back in 1971. The first pitch has a lot of funny moves into a groove and then you go up. The second pitch is pretty much a flat, steep face, very steep face. Mike climbed up and drilled the first bolt on it. It was sticking kind of halfway out. A typical kind of thing, he says, "Aw, I canít screw around with this anymore. I am just going to go climb it." He was probably wearing blue RRís, thatís hard-soled shoes, and he climbed up above there and it is solid 5.10 climbing, well out from that bolt that was only halfway in. Up above that it is continuous 5.9. Rather than stop and put another bolt in, he just did what Mike always did which is run it out. At that point, he just kept running it out and running it out and running it out. Dave, sitting at the belay, kept looking at the down at the ground, wondering whether he was going to end up on the ground if he fell and pulled the first bolt out which was sticking out quite a ways. He finally got up to a spot where there was a belay and he put in two crumby bolts in his typical style and brought Dave up. I repeated the route quite a while later with Dave Baker and he told me the story of all that. I went out and led the route and was looking at the moves in EBs, in far better footwear and just shook my head at his ability to gut it out and get through that section. It was pretty impressive at the time. That was a route that really a "must do" route for folks back then.
We replaced some of the bolts. In fact Dave was so unnerved by the whole thing that he had Mike lower the bolt kit down to him when he was following the second pitch and he put the second bolt in. He said, "This is no good at all. No oneís ever going to do that again, so I am going to put a bolt in here." He made the route sensible. He didnít want to walk away from a route that was a horror show like that. It is pretty interesting. If you ever do the route, just ponder that. What it would be like in hard-soled shoes, way, way, way out.
A lot of people climbed in blue Royal Robbinís. The footwear of the day was almost all hard-soled shoes. Until eventually EBs came out and they kind of revolutionized a lot of climbing here. There was a route called "Voodoo Child" that had been put up that is a slab route up on Rappel Rock. It was well protected so falling wasnít really an issue. It had taken dozens and dozens and dozens of falls to do and Mike eventually got it. As a young upstart climber, I went up to do it with Rich Thompson and got up to that pitch and managed to make it through the crux section without falling at all. That was unheard of at the time. I found a different sequence. I was using slightly different footwear and I just managed to move through it without falling off. I gained a lot of respect from the folks of the Summit Hut on that one. Because that was really something that really kind of blew peopleís minds. Now with sticky rubber, that pitch is not terribly difficult because it is a friction pitch. At the time, it was one of the hardest standing problems on the mountain it terms of how much went into actually climbing it the first time. So that kind of pumped me up a lot of notches in peopleís estimation as far as face climbing. That is the kind of climbing I really enjoy Ė bolted face climbing especially. It has always been something I have enjoyed ever since then.
Mark Axen, Mike McEwen, and Dave Baker, really set the tone in terms of where the standard was in terms of boldness in climbing in Tucson. A lot of the routes that were put up here, we put in bolts as an absolute last resort. That was the style nationally. It was particularly the style here. If you felt like somebody else could do it in better style, you would think really hard about leaving the route for somebody else. It is kind of an odd thing now to think about because that kind of selflessness really doesnít exist anymore. Very few people think, "Well, if I want to do this climb and no oneís done it, then I have to do it as well as possible." But the whole idea that it was a scarce resource and that there were a limited number of first ascents and really you wanted to leave the prize of a first ascent to someone who could do it well was very much in the forefront of peopleís minds. So you thought real long and hard about placing a bolt on a route in terms of whether it was really necessary, whether you were really climbing at your best or not, whether the impact from a single bolt was worth the route that you were putting up. Thatís very alien now. You see sport routes and you see lines of bolts and a very different development style. But thatís what forced the climbing style to go that direction.
At the same time as all this drama was going on internally, in terms of whether you place a bolt or not, when I was going to climb in other areas, I really liked bolted face routes. Iíd go to Tahquitz and Suicide and I really got into the challenge of climbing difficult, difficult face climbing with that kind of protection. It kind of cut both ways. Good routes could be created using bolts, although they were rarely ever closely spaced. They were the great equalizer in climbing at the time. There were very few climbs that were heavily bolted to the point where you didnít need to use natural protection. There would be climbs where protection was not an issue. So this was a difficult place to learn to climb. It was very much trial by fire.
The people that climb here now, are learning to climb in Tucson, it is a very different environment. A much better one in a lot of ways. You can learn to move, learn to lead, and have the option of climbing routes that are protected by bolts without worrying so much about the danger aspect of it. That, in combination of climbing in climbing gyms, where you are under the same kind of environment, is a good thing. It made it much easier to push standards. When you do everything on the sharp end, essentially, it is all trial by fire. It took a long time for myself and a lot of other people to push ourselves to the point of climbing 5.10 routes and harder.
As time went by, a lot of gear started showing up. RPs started showing up. Camming units started showing up. With each innovation in gear, it allowed us to push things a little bit farther. Routes that were completely inconceivable were suddenly getting climbed, where suddenly they seemed like something that you might be able to do. If you looked up at an unclimbed section of rock and you could see a black line, you could see a deep crack anywhere, you knew at the very minimum you could get up to that point. You could hang there and get down or do what ever you need to do. If everything was working and you were in good shape, and the rock would cooperate somewhat, you could pull off some really wild leads. So the whole psychology of climbing changed a lot in terms of what was possible and what people were able to do as the range of tools expanded. That really had a large influence on the type of climbs that went up.
Do you think you pushed that ethic to an extreme?
Steve: I think I did. I had a lot of confidence in being good with protection. I always had a very strong ability to trust my protection. I am known for doing routes that are really bold, very bold, but very few of them donít have protection on them. We were so much more used to hanging in the middle of difficult rock and working it out, getting protection where you could, working up a little bit higher. For that reason, protection and placing ability and just the level of perception that went into climbing was much higher. Climbing in the old days with a rack of hexes and stoppers, you had to pay such acute attention to what you were doing. Every decision was consequential. If you climbed by a nut placement, you didnít really know if you were going to get anything up higher and you had a limited number of tools. The amount of attention that was required to do something safely was much higher.