Had a few beers, turned on the tele and watched Valley Uprising last night. Nice way to remember Jim. Climbed with him occasionally in Rocky Mt. Nat. Park in the early 70’s. He taught me a lot but most importantly it was fun to wander around the mountains with him. rōbert
On February 12, Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, captain of numerous El Cap voyages of physical and psychological expansion, inventor, writer, thinker and fashion setter died of complications from hepatitis C. He was 73.
I last saw Bridwell five years ago at the Ouray Ice Festival.
“Come here,” he ordered during an evening event, a flea-market type gathering of gear makers and climbers. “I’ve got a pecker to show you.”
Bridwell reached into a pocket and slung out a junkyard of gear, the fruit of an ever-evolving vision he had had about 30 years ago when he sawed one arm off of an anchor-shaped nut, the Chouinard Crack-N-Up, to make a micro pin for times when the RURP was just too big.
Bridwell was in his late 60s but he seemed to have not aged—even when he had been young he had looked old. Years of sun and privation and maximum effort had famously given him the face of a plowed field. It was said that he had “the head of a 70-year old, body of a 25-year old, attitude of an 11-year-old.”
Bridwell was a tinkerer. He looked for an edge. A sliver of creativity occupied his mind like a burst of light through a cracked door. There was the rock shoe with a swim-fin toe for slotting into thin cracks. It was beautiful except when there wasn’t a crack. Another invention, the chalkbag, found greater popularity. Paisley shirts set off with a colorful bandana had their turn, too. The handlebar moustache would have caught on, but no one else could grow one like him.
Bridwell materialized in Yosemite in the early 1960s when the establishment of Robbins, Harding, Pratt, Sacherer, Et al., were still making hay, but were soon to split, having grown up or died.
The Bird inherited the kingdom and decreed a new game, free climbing. The throne fit him. When he had arrived in Yosemite there were just two 5.10s. By the time he left, around 1980, there were so many routes of that grade and miles harder, he had to develop a sub-grading system of a, b, c, and d to tell them apart.
Standout lines of his from his prime included Freestone, Wheat Thin, Outer Limits (Yosemite’s first rappel-bolted route, in 1971), Butterfingers. When he felt like he was too old to free climb at a world-class level, Bridwell grabbed iron and banged out the hardest walls in the world.
Yet Bridwell’s brand in Yosemite went beyond achievements—he was the evolutionary link between the old and the new, taking youngsters John Bachar, John Long, Ron Kauk, Dale Bard, John Yablonski, Dean Fidelman, and others under his wing. A decade older, he was a father figure. “Bridwell’s Boys,” who later became The Stonemasters, were the crew on his ship and they sailed the granite sea plundering treasure. There was the first one-day ascent of El Cap, with Long and Billy Westbay. A free ascent of its Stovelegs. A string of fierce nail ups, the Sea of Dreams being his Pieta. Over 100 first ascents in all. In his prime Bridwell was likely the best rock climber in the world, and he climbed hard well into his 50s, making his final FA on El Cap when he was 57. “For sheer production of routes,” wrote Long in a 1970s feature for Mountain, “he is unparalleled.”
Fidelman remembers meeting Bridwell in 1974. “I was 16,” he says. “I ran into Largo [John Long] in the parking lot. He asked me if I had any dope, and led me to a tent in the back of Camp 4.
“Jim was inside, they both proceeded to smoke ALL of my weed, that’s how I met JB, I was awed to meet my hero. Jim was a father figure to all of us … I went climbing with him shortly after we met. I struggled to lead a pitch and got frustrated and embarrassed. Bridwell asked me to sit with him on the ledge, he told me that it wasn’t important to him how hard his friends climbed.
“He said, ‘I’m not friends with climbers, I’m friends with people.’ I’ve always taken this lesson to heart.”
Besides projecting motivation like a solar flare, Bridwell brought longhair and joblessness (he “had a disdain for labor”) to Camp 4, becoming one of the first professional climbers, and in a time when being the best climber in the world might earn you a free rope. “I was never tempted by money,” Bridwell said. “If I had been, things could have gone badly.”
On rock, Bridwell was a technical master, bold but calculating. He disdained soloing, saying: “I don’t need to solo, I got friends.”
He was a hippie, but not in the traditional sense of say, Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes. He was anti-establishment, but could fit in when he needed to.
In Yosemite for the long haul, Bridwell founded YOSAR with John Dill, a “true patriot,” in 1970. He scraped by, drawing the occasional wage by saving a life or recovering a body and “canning,” rummaging through trash for bottles and cans for their redemption deposits. He didn’t need much. Camping was free. Food was “scarfed” from tourist leftovers in the cafeteria, and smokes were “damps,” discarded cigarette butts with a few puffs left. Later, when fame caught him, he would be sponsored by Camel cigarettes.
Driven by his background in athletics, Bridwell erected the outdoor gym by the Columbia boulder and trained. Climbers still work out there.
When Bridwell wasn’t in the Valley he made it as a ski patroller at Squaw Valley and a climbing guide in the Tetons, a duty he considered as lowly as Mozart teaching the kazoo. He wrote books and articles, gave slideshows and did stunt camera work, rigging and consulting for Hollywood, notably on Cliffhanger.
Bridwell’s father, a WWII pilot who later flew for Pan Am, would have preferred that Jim follow his lead. He did, for a time, intending to put in two years at college then join the military, get his wings and move on to the private sector. Offered a full-ride scholarship to Purdue, he instead went to San Jose for its track program and majored in psychology. “There were lots of crazy people so it would be easy to find work if you could handle being with crazy people,” he wrote in an unpublished article for Rock and Ice.
When the Vietnam war flared up, Bridwell cooled on his military ambitions. He decided, “not to go to war and kill other humans at the dictate of a specious government,” and dropped out and said he later dodged the draft.
In 1964, inspired by Maestri’s (now debunked) ascent of Cerro Torre, Bridwell dedicated himself to achieving a singular goal: to climb Cerro Torre himself.
With that pot of gold in mind, Bridwell climbed in Yosemite until, as Long wrote, “Yosemite and Bridwell were synonymous.” In 1979 Bridwell did climb Cerro Torre, via the Compressor Route in just 36 hours, and arguably made the first ascent of the route itself—Maestri hadn’t bothered to climb the summit snowcap, and Bridwell had had to drill rivets up the final summit headwall, implying that Maestri hadn’t even climbed all the rock.
Bridwell’s ascent of Cerro Torre, with Steve Brewer, established him at the forefront of alpinism, an achievement most remarkable because he was a fledgling alpinist who had hardly worn crampons at that point..
Bridwell, with Steve Brewer, made the first alpine ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, in 1979. Arguably, this was the route’s first ascent, as Cesare Maestri never stepped foot on Cerro Torre’s summit.
|Feb 16, 2018 – 04:18pm PT|
Peace, respect and my deepest condolences to Peggy and Layton. I will always be grateful to Jim for his friendship, guidance, inspiration and, of course, some very very good times. Another one gone from this group. Dick Dorworth
From left front around table.….Man with hat and beard, (can’t remember), Kim Schmitz, Jim Bridwell, Craig Calonica, A.P. Marston, Dick Dorworth, Galen Rowell, Paul Buschmann, don’t remember, Steve McKinney, Carl Gustafson. The two I don’t remember names for are casualties of my aging memory as they were part of the group and I should know their names. Sigh. Cheers……Dick
Jim Bridwell, born July 29, 1944, advanced modern big wall climbing and inspired generations of climbers who came after him.
Bridwell’s list of accomplishments includes hundreds of first ascents in Yosemite, with notable ascents in Patagonia, and Alaska. He advanced modern aid climbing techniques and founded what is likely the most famous search and rescue outfit in the nation, YOSAR.
Bridwell emerged in Yosemite during the mid-60s and promptly began putting up first ascents up El Cap. He served as a bridge between golden-age Yosemite pioneers like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding and the Stone Masters era of renowned climbers John Bachar, John Long, Ron Kauk, and Dale Bard.
Climbing Icon Jim Bridwell Remembered
In 1975, he was on the first team to climb The Nose of El Cap in under a day, accompanied by John Long and Billy Westbay. This ascent spurred a competition among climbers to see who can climb it the fastest.
Other notable ascents include the first complete climb of the controversial Compressor route in Patagonia on Cerro Torre, and the first ascent of the East Face of the exposed Moose’s Tooth in Alaska.
During his heyday, Bridwell was one of the strongest climbers in the world. But he didn’t stop young, making his final first ascent on El Cap at the age of 57.
Bridwell died of Hepatitis C complications and is survived by his wife, Peggy, and son, Layton. His son started a GoFundMe at the outset of his health complications, and described where the disease may have originated. It serves as a lens into the wildly adventurous and daring personality that was Bridwell.
“My mom suspects he could have contracted from any number of his adventures but more likely than not it came from the tattoo he received from the Headhunter’s during his cross navigation of Borneo back in the 80’s when I was a kid,” said Layton.
Exhausted, the three men race against heavy clouds hurtling across a smoke-gray sky. They complete a snow cave to cache their climbing gear, which they’ve backpacked up the glacier, when Jim Bridwell casually suggests they wait out the approaching storm in the cave. John Bachar and Mike Graham are astonished. Bridwell knows as well as they that the blizzard will last for days. They only have lightweight sleeping bags and a little food. Then Bachar and Graham recall that for the past six to eight hours Bridwell has seemed serenely detached. He’s expressed childlike wonder at pretty flowers. As the first snow falls, he grins inanely. Bachar and Graham look at each other, and the look says, “What is this guy on?”
Several days later, at base camp, Bachar and Graham announce they’re abandoning the expedition, an attempt on the unclimbed east side of a peak named Cerro Torre, in Fitz Roy Park in the Argentine Andes. And so Bridwell finds himself alone in Patagonia, the eerie region of high winds and twenty-day storms at the tip of South America. He has no partners; the sensible thing would be to head home at once.
But Jim Bridwell is a notorious renegade of mountaineering. He packed dozens of tiny window-panes on alternative reality for recreational use around park headquarters.
But in a five-decade climbing career, he was most closely associated with Yosemite National Park, where in the 1970s he led a group of renegade climbers that dropped acid while bouldering, filched food from the park cafeteria and idolized the strength of Bruce Lee and the psychedelic rock of Jimi Hendrix. They called themselves the Stonemasters. A more fitting name, climber Lynn Hill once joked, might have been the “stoned masters.”