A Conversation with Steve Grossman Ė December 27, 2001
Part 3: A General Conversation
[Steve and I took a short break. Of course, the conversation stayed on climbing and after a couple of minutes I realized I better get the tape recorder going. The interesting thing about this segment is that when you listen to the tapes, the tempo and pace of the conversation picks up. Steve had said what he wanted to say on bolting ethics and had covered Tucson climbing history as he saw it, and now it was time to kick back and have fun talking climbing.]
What has happened to most of the folks you used to climb with? For example Mike McEwen, the Axens?
Steve: Mike McEwen is still in town and comes to the Beanfests sometimes. Gary Hervert is around. Both are builders. Mark Axen is restoring and living on a tri-maran in California. Gary Axen is a geology professor in L.A. DB is definitely here. Jake Bender is still here. Scott Williams is not in town. Kem Johnson I believe is living in New Zealand. Marty Woerner, who goes by Sadhana, (his spiritual given name) is still living in town. Peter Depagter is in Idaho last I heard. Dennis Coffee is, I think, in California. I have no idea where Joanna McComb, Merle Wheeler, Don Morris and Don James are. They are probably still in town here but I havenít seen them in years or heard about their whereabouts. John Steiger is the head lawyer for the U.S. department of the interior in Salt Lake City. Ray is still here. Scott Brown, I am not sure where he is. Fig Fiola is living in Bishop and climbing again. Don Gallagher is living back in Pennsylvania. Herb North is living in Bend Oregon and climbing occasionally. Pete Noebels is still here. There are a fair number of folks that are still around.
So these people were a lot like your family in the early Ď70s? Thatís the way you described it?
Steve: Yes. There was a really extraordinary sense of community in those days. Things werenít so good at home so I hung out with this group of people and got the support and encouragement that I needed to be able to deal with my own situation and the illness and death and death in my family. Looking back, I came to realize that taking on serious, committing climbs, was taking on death at some symbolic level. It hasnít changed my love for that sort of climbing, but I realized that was what I was grappling with.
Was there a certain period that you did the extreme climbs?
Steve: I still do that stuff. I am not spending enough time on the rock to be really pushing that edge. Still, if I am in a climbing area and see some rusty old quarter inch bolt hangers on a long run-out face route that doesnít get done very much. Iíll eye it up and think about getting up on it
I also have a compelling interest in the relationship between individual style and route history Certain peopleís routes, if I run into them, anywhere, at any crag, Iíve got to climb them. Tobin Sorenson, Bob Kamps, anything that Henry Barber did, anything that the Lowe brothers did, if I run into those routes, I am really interested in doing them because of that historical connection. I really value the legacy that other climbers pass on and the style in which the routes were established. Unless you have a guidebook and you have some names in there, that sort of information never gets passed along. The model thatís going over in Joshua Tree now, for instance, where nobody gets first ascent credit, I think is kind of a shame. Because back in the old days, if certain people put up a route, you knew you really had to be climbing well to deal with it. Some of thatís somewhat watered down now, but if you are climbing in California say, and you run into a Bachar route, you know you had better be climbing well. People regard my routes in somewhat the same way.
I have some friends that that was their goal, to climb all the Steve Grossman routes. So it goes on here as well.
Steve: Yes. I used to think that nobody really liked those routes and that I was somehow doing the community a disservice by climbing that way. But I have since run into a lot of folks who specifically like my climbs and what goes into them. That makes me feel good. They are usually demanding and not really routes that you are going to get up on casually on any given day. But at the same time, if you are going to climb something that Iíve done thatís an R route, thatís 5.10, and you are pushing 5.10 in your climbing ability, itís likely going to be a harrowing experience. Because I was climbing solid 5.11 at the time a lot of these routes went up and they just happened to be reasonable when I climbed them. But I made a point of going back and repeating most of the climbs that I did, so I had a real handle on how hard they actually were. When you are doing a first ascent, a lot of times you are so intensely focussed that sometimes you go past the hard climbing and youíre so over-psyched that you just donít notice it and the climb seems easy. The rock in Tucson is so featured that most routes are easier than they appear on sight and the main problem is arranging adequate protection to keep moving.
When you were climbing, how often did you climb? Every weekend? Every other day?
Steve: When I was really active, I was out there pretty much every weekend. While Campbell cliffs were accessible I went bouldering every other evening during the week. There were points where I would climb several days a week and try to stay fit. Most of the time I would be climbing off the couch.
Is that the only training you did was climbing, or did you do other forms of training?
Steve: When I was senior in high school, I took a weight training class and really went at it intensely. I put on about fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle in six months and essentially shaped my body in a way that it has retained ever since. I also worked out with Fig on the gymnastic apparatus at the U of A for about a year during college. We just started showing up and were earnest enough about learning the basics that the "gymnasties", as we called them, tolerated our intrusion. A few gymnasts had tried climbing out at Campbell Cliffs so we had some basis for being respected. I learned the value of muscle tone and was probably the strongest that I had ever been at that point. Other than that I never really trained beyond bouldering. The joke was always "lots of 16 ounce wrist curls" and that was the extent of my training. Thatís the other thing that I thought "Iím putting these routes up, usually off the couch, usually not in the greatest shape, without chalk, how hard can they be?" My friends would laugh and say, "Plenty hard!"
So climbing is a mental game?
Steve: Well, it is experience driven. The rock here is very idiosyncratic. I would go away on climbing trips in the summertime and come back and everything didnít feel right. Bold climbing is about confidence and awareness as much as strength and muscle tone It requires being very much in tune with spotting holds, trusting your feet, being able to work things out and placing protection efficiently. It is very demanding. So much effort goes into a new route even if itís only one pitch long. It was a big deal, for instance, the first time two 5.11 pitches went up in a day on Mt. Lemmon.
Who were you with?
Steve: I was climbing with Paul Davidson. We did "Baradur" and "Ankles Away" on Rappel Rock and Chimney Rock. Baradur was especially demanding psychologically since it follows a crack system that clearly dies out well before the hard climbing is over. There actually is protection but you have to be able to hang out and get it. Tied-off knobs come into play. One even held a good fall when Chip Chase from Colorado sailed off of the crux on an early repeat attempt. Many of the climbs that Iíve done are protected by small wires. It takes a certain kind of climber and a certain kind of drive to want to work that hard. If you are in the mindset that you just want to go out and move, and not worry about that sort of thing, then a sport route is perfect. One of my routes is just not going to be your thing. So there really has to be an identification with the route and a desire to climb that particular section of rock and see what is up there, to push yourself that hard.
I havenít climbed these routes, but one thing I noticed is that one is up on Rappel rock and one is down at Chimney rock. Did you scope these all out ahead of time, have it all planned, and just say "Todayís the day?"
Steve: It was more a question of having enough drive on that particular day to jump on another project. Weíd gone up and done "Baradur" and came down the mountain with plenty of daylight and so it was, "Well, letís get up on this thing." Paul was stoked to lead the first pitch because it has a short, technically severe overhang, and he figured he had a pretty good shot at that. Then thereís the second pitch that involves a weird heel hook maneuver that gives the route its name.
Thatís why you called it "Ankles Away"?
Steve: Yes. If you slipped off that move, you were likely to break your ankle. It was kind of odd-ball protection on the thing too. Now, with big camming units you can protect the move by placing gear over in Copperhead Number Five. When that was put up, it was a little bit less than well protected. New routes are work; you could often finish an 80 foot first ascent and be totally wiped out by the demands that were placed on you to get up that stuff. It was kind of an interesting thing. Thatís a very rewarding kind of climbing to get into, but it is very different than clipping bolts.
What are some of your favorite climbs? Do you have any favorite climbs?
Steve: Iíve got some. There is a route on Chimney rock called "Gripping Space" that I really like. It was a route that was established really late in the development of the crag. It was this thing, I started spotting these edges going up. Itís a wonderful climb. Itís 5.10. Itís fairly committing. Itís fairly steep. Itís just one of those routes that came together really well. At one point in time, I wanted to climb that route with all my friends. I wanted to go climb "Gripping Space" with everybody. I got through about 35 people. So thatís always been a favorite.
I have always really, really liked routes like "Abracadaver" down in the stronghold. "A Question of Balance" has always been a favorite route. "Mean Mistreater" is another one. Iíve always really liked that route. Itís kind of hard to imagine now, because the area is so developed, what it was like climbing here way back when. A lot of crags hadnít been visited. A lot of my time was spent wandering around looking at something, getting horrified over it and then getting up there and finding out it was 5.10. Thatís a lot of what the rock provides here. If you are willing to muster yourself up and get up there, get in the hot-seat, then most of the time I always felt like the universe was going to provide me with holds.
The other place that I really like a lot is Rappel rock Ė because of the rock quality and the nature of the slab climbing up there. I have always really been more of a face climber rather than a crack climber. So a lot of those routes I really enjoy and I did them a lot.
How do you feel about the falcon thing where you canít climb there for part of the year?
Steve: I feel like climbers have to put their interests second sometimes Ė when climbing on native American lands for instance. I did really laugh at John Rupleyís response to that. Knowing him and knowing how conservative his politics are when he said, "Well, just get rid of the birds."
I think that the closure of the entire Rockfellow domes because of one nesting Peregrine pair is a bit extreme. If you can figure out specifically where they are nesting, I think those birds are adaptative enough that they are not going to get scared off. They are quite used to climbers being around.
It is of the utmost importance that we cooperate with land managers and try to keep the friction to a minimum because of access to places like Hueco. What has come up with the fixed anchors in wilderness issue is that bureaucrats can shut us down if they want to. A lot of the conflict had to do with people developing sport crags in designated wilderness, such as Mt. Charleston, in the Las Vegas area. If you think about a land manager who really takes wilderness seriously, who really takes protecting it seriously, walking up and seeing a heavily grid-bolted piece of rock thatís got chipped holds, drilled holds, glue behind flakes, and things like that. It is their worst nightmare. It is crucial that people behave responsibly.
You see quite a bit of impact on some of the places on Mt. Lemmon.
Steve: Yeah. Itís an inevitable part of heavy use. The onus is on everybody to behave responsibly and keep the impact down Ė in every sense. Whether that is adding bolts to existing routes or maintaining trails. We have to take care of these areas because we are the ones using them.
What were some of your most positive experiences climbing? Do you have days that stand out, where you say, "Man, that was a great day!"
Steve: The first ascent of "As the Wind Cries" on Chay Desa Tsay was one. It was the classic adventure. On the last pitch to get up to this thing, you climbed straight up the headwall, way around this corner, the wind was howling, and you are dealing with horrendous rope drag and 5.11 face climbing. That was really a peak experience. My sister had just died and I really needed something to counter that. To get to that unclimbed summit, with the sun going down in the company of two of my closest friends lifted my spirits greatly. You barely make it up, you crawl down in the dark. It takes everything youíve got. These sort of experiences were what I had a lot of climbing here. The stronghold, in particular, is an area where sport bolting and heavy impact climbing is something that was really met with a lot of resistance. It is an area where you really have to think about the visual impact when you are putting up routes. We are really the only people that are up there a lot but lines of closely spaced bolts are an eyesore, plain and simple. There was a time when I took the hard line position that I would chop any rappel-bolted routes that went up in the Stronghold and had I not left it would have been interesting. There are a couple of climbs that have been put up there recently that cause me great concern. There is a variation that was put up on a very, very bold route called "Great Gig in the Sky" which was essentially just another bolted route. So I think you really have to be aware that when you bolt heavily, it does affect the routes nearby and can amount to character assassination. If the stone in the Stronghold becomes developed and grid bolted along the lines of Out Of Townerís Dome just so low commitment climbers have something to do it will be a real aesthetic tragedy. It saddens me that some of my best routes are now only perceptible as narrow lanes of clean stone between bolt ladders and that the experience of anyone repeating them will be far removed from my own on the first ascent. My solution to route and variation interference has always been to keep the number of bolts to an absolute minimum and climb boldly.
To me, the Tucson climbers, for example yourself, almost all these climbers, Eric Rhicard, Peter Noebels, Scott Ayers, I would never recognize them or know them. I have never seen any photos of them. They are unknown people. That is kind of disturbing in a way. (Note: since the interview I have met Eric Rhicard and Scott Ayers and I am looking forward to meeting Peter Noebels some day).
Steve: Yes, itís nice to connect a face with a name. Unfortunately, unless you have social gatherings such as the beanfest and things like that, you donít tend to see the community as a whole. We used to have a really tight group and saw each other often. Itís a much more diverse, dispersed community here now.
I think when you have guidebooks and things like that, you donít have to really mingle with the community like you used to. Now you can get your guidebook and you have a couple of friends that you go out with.
Steve: Yes, it is pretty easy to keep your activities isolated. There are so many climbs. Thatís obviously one of the nice things about climbing here is that you have a certain amount of privacy. You can go out climbing, even on a weekend, and wouldnít run into that many people. It used to be we had a signal weíd yell out that came from Kem Johnson. He was a guy with a really black sense of humor. He was into parachuting, jumping out of planes. He was totally fond of getting to the door of the plane with his back out, looking at the other skydivers and yelling "Black Death!" at the top of his lungs and jumping out of the plane. In the old days, this became a way to find somebody else that you knew upon the mountain. If you saw some cars and somebody climbing youíd get out and yell at the top of your lungs, "Black Death!" If it was somebody you knew, theyíd yell "Black Death!" back or theyíd yell down "Death Seeks!" which was kind of a macabre thing. We all thought it was pretty funny at the time. Some folks who came in from out of town didnít think it was very funny.
There just werenít that many people climbing here. It was a very small community. Even nationally it was that way. There was a point in the Ď70s where I could almost list, by name, the people that were climbing 5.11 in the whole country. There just werenít that many climbers. Now there are tons of climbers.
One of the things I read in Steigerís book was Rich Thompson set up the slide shows and some of the parties. How big of groups were those?
Steve: Originally, there were a couple of things that happened before there was ever a beanfest. The Catalina High School crowd, when they were out of high school threw a party. It was called a rock-festival Ė down at Coyote domes. It was just basically a big bash. Some climbers up in the Flagstaff area, that called themselves, as a group, the Syndicato Granitico, Scott Baxter, Lee Dexter, Karl Karlstrom, Larry Coats, Paul Davidson. People that lived around Flagstaff would have a banquet; theyíd have a climberís party, a dedicated climberís party. We went to a couple of these things and thought this is a really good idea. Usually, these gatherings were less than seventy-five people.
For some reason Ray Ringle, Scott Brown, John Steiger, Don Gallagher, Fig, and myself were hanging out in the rain up in one of the campgrounds up in Bear Canyon. I donít know why didnít get in the car and drive down hill because it was just pouring rain, it was a really a totally miserable night. But we were hanging out there and we started passing around a bottle of Tequila. We had a hot pot of beans. We didnít get into the beaning ceremony. For some reason, the idea of getting drunk, hanging around eating beans seemed like a good thing. It wasnít too long after that, we had another grouping of people, and John Steiger got religion, he got this religious zeal in his eye. At one point in time, he grabbed the beans, totally drunk, got up and went around putting beans on peopleís foreheads and handing them a bottle of Tequila. The nucleus of the beanfest got going. It made sense because weíd all been getting together for slide shows but we really hadnít been getting together to party outside Ė to have a climberís party. The tradition got going very quickly. It was a good idea even though several people, Karl Rickson among them, and this other woman from Phoenix, were horrified by the idea Ė that it was somehow becoming a cult. They ran off into the dark. We went off and yelled their names out and told them that we were going to come find them Ė they better come forward and be beaned. They came back out of the gloom and ended up getting beaned, much to the delight of the converted.
Was this in the stronghold?
Steve: This was in Bear Canyon. Then the beanfest started turning into a twice a year deal and it started going on in the stronghold. The whole idea of a beanmaster, the person who was responsible for picking the location, the events, the tone, and the thing got going. The rest is history. Itís always been a fun thing to do that, to get together people and party and just have a good time. It does tend to mitigate the isolation that you normally get when you go out cragging, just you and your group of friends. It is a way to connect with the bigger climbing community. Living up in Seattle, itís even more dispersed. Other than running into folks at the climbing gym thereís just no community. It was something that I realized was a pretty special thing at the time Ė really valuable. It takes effort to create it.
Do feel like there is much community still here or do you feel like it is getting pretty dispersed Ė as far as you personally?
Steve: I have a core group of friends here in town that I see sometimes but I feel like the community is pretty dispersed. People just donít have the same amount of free time to hang out, socialize, or go bouldering or go climbing in a specific place. When there was Campbell cliff, it was very easy because that was the only place everybody went. When it was beanfest and the community was small, then you figured youíd see most of the people that were around. It was kind of a time that has come and gone. Itís certainly a little bit naive to think that you can recreate that. If certain individuals put the time and the energy into getting people together then you can have that synergy that is a wonderful thing. The climbing scene is very different than it was in the late Ď70s and early Ď80s Ė there is no doubt about that.
The town is significantly larger too. That has a big impact.
Steve: Yeah. It is actually interesting. There is a climb called "Tucson Epitaph". It is up on the south slope of the Catalinas Ė over where Finger rock canyon is, in that area, Pima canyon. When it was first climbed, Rich Thompson went up there to make an attempt on this thing. There were two long parallel cracks. He got part way up on one of the pitches and he turned around and came down. He looked down and he saw the extent of the city and the development and he went, "Wow, the cityís really growing." I went back up there to actually do the first ascent of the route along with Dave Baker, I forget what year it was, three or four years later and he couldnít believe it. It was like the city was growing like mad. It was called the Tombstone and the route was called "Epitaph of a Town". Now I quake to think about how over-developed this area is. The cityís literally twice as populous in this valley and the surroundings as it was then. There is not a lot of undeveloped land that you can see. It is a very impacted place. In spite of all that, I actually think that the condition of the Mt. Lemmon climbing crags is actually pretty good. Because there have been trash clean-ups and because this place is reasonably durable.
It seems like to me that most of the climbers are pretty clean. The only place I really see much trash is around Windy Point. A lot of that is just the people hanging around up there.
Steve: Yeah. I donít think there is a lot of folks, other than people tossing cigarette butts around, that are willfully littering. People have it together enough to not do that. That is a good thing in terms of impact.
Have you ever been severely injured or hurt while you were climbing? Besides the hit on the chin?
Steve: Yeah, the hit on the chin early onÖ I had a pretty significant injury. Peter Noebels and I were climbing on; there is a big double overhang up around the bottom of the Chessman. We went up to go climbing and I was in the best shape I had ever been in my life. I donít remember exactly when this was. I could probably figure it out from the guidebook. It was raining lightly and I thought, "Well, O.K. this thing is a huge double roof. Itís probably going to be dry." So I climbed up the crack system and put in four opposition nuts in a horizontal and traversed out across to this great big loose block. I got out to that and itís like, "O.K. This thing canít take gear. Itís too loose. Iíll have to get up there and see if I can attempt to get something in to stand on aid and put a bolt in. Maybe climb around it. See if I can get up to the lip of the thing". Iíd already climbed out the traverse and back across and I thought, "O.K. Well, I know I can do these moves. Let me see if I can arrange this protection." So I put an RP behind a little flake and clipped into it. I had a loop of rope in my hand and was pulling on the thing and was moving over and trying to put a friend behind this huge block and the RP popped. I ended up falling with a loop of rope in my hand and it sheared off the end of my right pointing finger. Three out of the four opposition nuts failed. I ended up down near the ground. The fall got stopped by one number four wired stopper placed horizontally which for no particular reason stayed in. It was a pretty good wound, which ended up taking off the entire pad off one of my fingers, all the way down to the bone.
I sat there. I thought, "O.K. This is the injury that, psychologically, I had been preparing myself for. So I sat there and went, "O.K.". I looked at Peter, whoís been an OB instructor, perfectly competent in terms of first aid and things like that. I took a deep breath and said, "Alright, I am going to go into shock here a little bit, Iíll come out of it." I got a little bit shocky and then came out of it and was holding my finger up and I said, "Alright Peter, letís go see if we can find the piece of tissue." Of course it had gotten abraded to bits. So weíre thrashing around, looking in the leaves and things like that, looking for my fingertip. I hadnít lost my sense of humor. I turned up and looked at Peter and I said, "I have heard of trying to find yourself, but this is ridiculous." We ended up walking down the hill. My arm looked like one of those Chianti bottles that you melt candles on Ė blood all down it. I ended up going down to the emergency room and called Josh Toefield who happened to be a surgeon and a hand specialist to boot. He was able to come over and essentially do a skin graft from one of my adjacent fingers.
It was a strange situation. I was in killer shape. I am a carpenter and it was my right hand trigger finger. I couldnít operate a saw and I couldnít work. I was still in such good shape. As soon as they cut and separated the graft off and I had all five fingers again, I said, "Well, I donít really have anything to do except go climbing." So I went back up and went climbing. I actually went and free soloed a new route up on Rappel rock called "Imaginary Guitar Notes" Ė this 5.10+ thing, keeping my finger up and climbing with everything else. I actually went back and repeated it a while ago. It was kind of a hard little problem. I kept on climbing. It didnít really throw me off. It all healed up reasonably well.
Did you ever do the Chessman route?
Steve: No, I have never been back up there since.
Never wanted to?
Steve: Oddly enough, it just seemed like a silly route to me, just something to do at the time. I probably should go back up there, but it wasnít such a great prospect
We came up with lots of good route names for it in the same way that Ben Burnham did on his route. Thatís really pretty much it. I dislocated a shoulder on a route once in Yosemite. Free soloing and doing all the other stuff Iím doing, I can just slide my shoulder right out of joint any old time. Once my shoulder strength is up there, it really hasnít become an issue too much. Except when I onsight soloed "Crescent Arch" up in Tuolumne Meadows. It has a lot of awkward climbing. It is not a good thing to solo. It is one of the last big things that I soloed on-sight. Itís got very slippery 5.9 climbing and it had a couple of roofs that you could really easily aggravate this injury and dislocate my shoulder. I climbed up that and it was greasy because people had been climbing it all season. I finally got up to the 5.10b friction traverse on it, which was no problem at all but the lower part was really unpleasant. I started thinking; "You knowÖ soloing is probably something I should taper off doing." That was a big decision. Since then I have talked to other people who donít like soloing that route either because it is really, really slimy, a big route, but not the right thing to be climbing without a rope on-sight.
It hasnít really been an issue, but every now and then, especially climbing in the gym when I am hyper-extended itís just, "Well, if it pops here, you are probably going to fall off this thing." But, it hasnít been too bad.
It seems like Ben likes to put in these routes, not talking to the first ascentionist and then you get this can of worms Ė what do you do? The "Grips of Wrath" comes to play where he puts the route where it crosses over.
Steve: Yeah, that situation on that particular route, it is kind of unfortunate what happened. When you have a route thatís been done in the traditional way, that follows natural weaknesses, forcing up a variation diminishes the original route. It really is an unfortunate thing.
Itís kind of the same kind of situation where every climbable section of rock doesnít really need to be bolted. I had a situation like that on a climb that I did up on Lizard rock, this thing called "High Noon", thatís 5.9+. Itís definitely not worth bolting in my estimation. I had these guys come up to me that were really fascinated with this thing and they were all proud of the fact that they climbed this direct finish to it up off the top. They put bolts in. The one guy came to me, I forget his name, and he was very proud of this, you know, kind of beating his chest a little bit over it I just turned to him and said, "You know, I really didnít think that thing was worth the time and the effort to bolt it. I donít think the climbing was that good, I donít think the route was that good. Youíre not really upsetting me by doing what you are doing."
Sometimes it has impact. Putting up heavily bolted variations or new lines especially in close proximity to cleaner more natural ones has considerable impact on someone climbing the original line.. It is a little bit different story. Then you are kind of saying, "Well, this climbing on this original route isnít good enough. I am going to go explore and do something else." You have to question, "What is the quality of the climbing? Is it really that good? That long and independent that itís worth the visual impact?" Again, it kind of gets down to an aesthetics thing and you lose your objectivity. If that line of bolts is yours, then you kind of like looking at it. If itís somebody elseís, then you donít. Thereís kind of a limit though. There has to be a limit on the density of routes, I think, eventually, that you have to pay attention to it. Ask yourself how distracting it would be to have someone ten feet away clipping bolts while you are in the middle of a long runout. Is the quality of your effort on the sharp end in keeping with that of the routes around you? Ultimately, you can climb just about anywhere with enough strength and bolts, so it becomes a question of personal pride and responsible creativity. It is difficult to say no to yourself and leave the rock alone or leave the adventure for someone better able to meet it well.
One of the things I wonder about is, as climbers get older and older, they are not going to be around forever. Eventually, they are going to pass on, they are not going to be here. Now come along people that want to make additions or modifications or do these sort of things to routes. Whoís responsibility is it to maintain those routes? How do you maintain the tradition or keep people from bolting over these older routes? Whoís responsibility is that?
Steve: Well, it is really something that has to be a matter of principle. I canít imagine the climbing in 20 years or 30 years is going to be all that different an experience than it is right now. I donít think shoes are going to get that much better. I think gear will get a little bit better. People are going to be doing it for more or less the same reasons. There will always be a reason to leave bold routes bold. It gets difficult when you have somebody making decisions, "Well, screw these people. I donít care about history. I want to climb this route, lead this route, I want to get the gratification to do it. I am going to do what I want." Especially when you get in a position where you are dealing with somebody like Ben Burnham who is a guide. He may clip into or place a set of anchors in the middle of a route for convenience sake and yet heís got people that heís teaching. The onus is really on climbers teaching other climbers to make sense out of different types of protection. Drilled protection, like whacking pins and scarring, or doing anything, or gluing holds and doing things like that, they all have lasting consequences. What you are doing here with this web site makes a difference because people get a different perspective.
I am sure glad to get the interview. Even more, I am glad to meet you.
Steve: Likewise, I am glad you take an interest in this stuff, because I was kind of going, "Well, I wonder if this is a good idea?" In the process of trying to find out a little bit about you and how you fit into this sort of scene, I found out about Ben and what heís up to. All right, this is definitely relevant now. If heís here and heís airing his views about what is acceptable then I feel like I should.
When I was asking him about the mid-pitch bolts that were on "Beeline", he said that he had replaced the bolts that are at the belay at the end of that pitch with these 3/8" bolts. And he said at one point in time, "What about those bolts up there? Should I pull those things and replace them with quarter-inchers, because the climbís over by then? The easy climbingís up above there." I said, "You know, I always do that climbing. I go do ĎBee Lineí, I do ĎBee Lineí". I said, "If I donít want to, I can haul another rope up and rappel off those bolts. Why would I want to put crummy ľ" bolts in?" And stylistically, I said to him, "Iíve been placing 3/8" bolts, on stance, for decades. I was the first one here to do that Ė way back when." I said, "Iíve never put a bolt in on rappel on a route that I didnít lead, without doing that before. Iíve never put a line in on rappel period. I donít pre-inspect routes. I donít rappel down and place bolts." I said, "Adventure climbing is what I am about! If I canít climb a particular section of rock, Iíll leave it for somebody else. If they come back and sport bolt it, so be it."
The thing about style, itís not what you do; itís what you donít do. Itís what you are willing to do without. I just read an article about Yvon Chouinard. Heís this guy whoís invented all this gear, all this equipment, Patagonia clothes and stuff like that. The author is going to go climbing in the Wind Rivers with him. The guy is saying, "Well, what do we need here? Do we need a tent?" Yvon goes, "Ah, you donít need a tent." But it rains a lot in the Wind Rivers. "I have been into the Wind Rivers, you donít need a tent." So he said, "All right, letís get a rack together. How about some camming units?" "No, No. You can do this with hexes and stoppers." You think he is some kind of lunatic, but he has been preaching that ethic a long time. The more technology you use to cushion and safeguard your experience, the farther away you are from the adventure and the real essence of it. If you go climbing with a minimal amount of gear, like McEwen did in a way, you are going to get more out of it. So the old adage, "Less is more" applies. It really is true. Even though he makes all the stuff, he has been making hardware and pins forever, he actually walks the true line with integrity. Iím going to respect the hell out of you for that.
The Rupleys sure loved the Chouinard pitons.
Steve: Oh yes. That was one of the funniest things about climbing with John. It was like í73, í74, I was a fully converted clean climber. So I go climbing with them and heís got this big old passenger car, he cranks open the trunk. I look down in there and think, "Oh, boy." I wasnít really aware that his routes were fixed and I am looking at all this iron, I donít trust pins. The one accident I had, I had a pin fail. I pulled a block off climbing something over by "Hai Karate" trying to do a first ascent and went all the way to the ground, yanked the pin out, never had a whole lot of liking for them. And there I am and heís racking up with all this iron and I am rummaging around. "Oh, thereís foxhead. Oh, I got a nut. Oh, I got another nut." I eventually resigned myself to "All right, when in Rome, do what the Romanís do." When you climb with John, I guess Iím going to tap. So we went up and did a climb on one of the Ravens. Fortunately, everything was in place, I didnít have to compromise my ethics by banging on any iron.
It was pretty interesting. Being a scrawny high school kid, I had to hold him on tension. When he went around the corner I thought I was going to die.
Well, thatís what Ila had to do to. I guess she wasnít very big either.
Steve: Oh, yes. The idea of the California hip belay without a plate or any kind of a device, of catching somebody who, as he puts it, "When heís in shape, he weighs an 1/8th of a ton." He almost drug his wife and his son into a crevasse up in Canada. I respect the hell out of him. He is a big guy. I know a couple of climbers that are like that Ė well over 200 pounds.
I was quite happy I didnít have to ever deal with that eventuality. I was pretty amazed that Ila actually caught him on that fall on the Rupley Towers. That must have been exciting.
She was pretty thankful she had the belay plate. I guess Fritz Wiessner had given her the belay plate.
Steve: Yes, he obviously saw the problem right away, dealing with a weight disparity.
The only other thing that might be of note here is that I design and build climbing walls as part of my contracting business.
Do you do them here in Tucson or just up in Seattle?
Steve: Mostly up in the northwest. There is an organization called the Outdoor Industry Association that used to be ORCA, the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America. I was the chairman of the board of directors of the climbing wall industry group (CWIG), which is the people who make hand holds and design walls. It used to cause people a lot of confusion because hereís this guy whoís mister hardcore traditional who is pandering to sport climbers by building climbing gyms. It is something that I do. Try to make sure people donít end their climbing career in a gym. Iím trying to get some standards pushed through the ASTM to make sure that climbing walls are built to a certain level of stability so people donít get hurt.
Do you climb a lot in the climbing gym?
Steve: Yes, at times I do.
Because of the weather and stuff like that?
Steve: Pretty much. Itís the best training around. There is really no bouldering around Seattle except this artificial wall thatís outside. It was built out of concrete. Climbing in the gym is a pretty good way to stay fit.
Do you have a climbing wall in your house or just go down to the gym?
Steve: No, but I am planning on it. Iíve got a steep pitch roof. One of these days Iíll put up a gym in the attic space, but right now, I am just worried about getting the rest of the house done.
Have you been down to "Rocks and Ropes"?
How does "Rocks and Ropes" compare to the Seattle rock gyms?
Steve: Thatís a really good gym. Ray designed that and heís built one up in Flagstaff also. I think they did a really good job.
Steve: Yes. Thatís his design work. I actually led my first 12a in there.
O.K. Thatís pretty good.
Steve: Yes, hanging upside down and grabbing some great big thing that was like a spare tire, this homemade hold that Ray made. It was, "Oh, well, I guess I am going to trust this thing." I latched onto this thing upside down. Itís fun. I am pretty sensible about it. If I start developing tendonitis or any kind of joint problems I generally walk out and donít come back for months. Unfortunately, the gym really nails a lot of people, I think, because they over train and donít allow their connective tissue to strengthen and keep pace with muscle power.
For me, it is just as close to go up on the rocks almost as go down there.
Steve: Exactly, itís a long drive for you.
Except if the weatherís bad of if you want to go out at night. Iíve had a lot of good times down there.
Steve: Yes, itís fun. Itís a good social scene too. You know when certain folks are showing up. Yes, itís a good time; I like being a part of that industry.