If I had to pick a time and place when my romance with John Long began, I would choose the summer of 1978, in Yosemite Valley. One afternoon John, a self-styled bard, had dashed off a humorous ballad and was reciting it to the gathered crowd of climbers. As I listened, it became evident that he had carefully rehearsed his poem, because his delivery – with barrel chest thrust forward to better project his deep voice and with hands mincing like an orchestral conductor – was flawless. I was taken less by his poem or his theatrical presence than by the childlike sweetness of his act: a desire to share something of his own creation with the climbers he spent his life with and to make them laugh. He titled the poem, “Must Be No One’s Fool”
Sitting in bliss in my nylon seat
Paying out the rope
Caught three whistlers-one-two, three
Almost gave up hope
Looking left, then staring right
To my mind’s dismay
A naked maiden soloing
But ten yards away.
I tied the bonehead off but quick
And laced my boots up tight.
She glanced down claiming holds-a-plenty
Though I saw not one;
But after all, my eyes glued on
Loins which shone in the sun.
I cranked, I edged, my fingers bled
But no advance was gained.
The maiden chalked and high-stepped on
And woe, my heart was pained.
She topped out soon thereafter
Voicing down to “play it cool”
I answered back that “Climbing wise,
I was no one’s fool!”
Ten feet from the summit
She observed my face’s frown
Sacred perlon down.
I grabbed the cord, and thanked the Lord
Then tied my carcass in.
I cranked like hell, I almost fell
The holds were terribly thin!
A mantel quick, then pan the scene
No maiden to be found.
Bereaved I paced, then stumbled ‘cross
A note upon the ground.
“Dear handsome one, a nice display
And though you make me drool
The man I need, climbing wise,
Must be no one’s fool.”
After John finished, he cast a searching glance toward me. His clear blue-eyes seemed to ask, Am I your fool?
At that time, I was just a naïve seventeen year-old girl from a sheltered suburban neighborhood in Orange County, California. I had learned to climb a few years earlier with my older sister, her boyfriend and my brother, but I knew very little about the history and heritage of climbing. It wasn’t long before John Long took me in under his wing and introduced me to a core group of characters such as Mari Gingery, Mike Lechlinski, Dean Fidelman, John Yablonsky, and John Bachar, who were what I considered to be true Stone Masters.
I was thrilled to join this group of friends who were actively pushing the standards of free climbing every weekend or holiday possible. I felt a part of a special clan of people in which climbing was our sacred ritual. Our style of free climbing was based on an unwritten code of ethics that both respected the purity of the rock and the purity of our ascent. We believed in minimizing our reliance on the equipment while doing the most aesthetic and outrageous climbs possible. We felt a sense of freedom and adventure in these beautiful pristine wilderness areas with no one to answer to but ourselves. Climbing was one of the few things in life that allowed us to escape the trappings of materialism, commercialism, and reliance on the artificial constructs of modern society. Those years between 1978 and 1982 were some of the most memorable and exciting times of my life!
One of my most memorable road trips with John started out in Yosemite, and then we headed across the western states, stopping first in Arizona at a place called, Granite Mountain. John’s infectious enthusiasm and commanding personality motivated me to push myself in ways I hadn’t even considered before. In those days, there were plenty of first ascents to do and John seemed to find them at every crag along the way. The first route we climbed at Granite Mountain ended up becoming the first free ascent of the best line up the center-most feature of the cliff called, Coatamundi Whiteout. Minutes after we hiked back to the bottom of the cliff, two local climbers arrived at the base of the route and explained that they had planned to attempt to free climb this route that very day. They had trained for months in preparation and they were clearly disappointed to discover that John Long and his girlfriend had scooped them!
Our next stop was a place near Aspen, Colorado called, Independence Pass. On our first free ascent of what turned out to be one of the most difficult and dangerous routes at the crag called, Pea Brain, I had a really hard time making some ridiculously long reaches. Somehow I was able to use holds that John didn’t even recognize as such. But John knew that being small had it’s advantages and he knew when to send me up to place small RP’s and nuts in places where his big mitts could barely fit. This was an ideal partnership and we applied our skills very well together on another first free ascent of a notoriously hard route called, Ophir Broke (5.12d) near Telluride, Colorado. On the first section of the route, John was able to make long reaches on some thin holds to reach the start of a thin crack that turned out to be the worst possible size for John’s hands. Though the first section of the route involved a series of ridiculously thin, desperate moves, my hands turned out to be just the right size for the crack and I was able to finish the lead.
John was always motivated to try just about any route that hadn’t been climbed – the bigger the better. It’s not surprising that years later, it was John who suggested that I try to do the first free ascent of the Nose. We were fortunate to arrive at a time when there were plenty of first ascents to do in these complex canyons filled with huge sandstone formations, located just thirty-minutes drive outside of the Las Vegas strip. One route we did together while living in Las Vegas, was way ahead of its time and perhaps one of the first multi-pitch sport routes in the world. The first ascent of this route called, Levitation 29 was climbed using extensive aid and bolts by a prolific climbing couple named, Jorge and Joanne Urioste. It seemed fitting that John and I did the first free ascent with Jorge and Joanne on Joanne’s 29th birthday.
During that period, I spent most of my summer vacations climbing in Yosemite Valley, where I met several other Stone Masters such as Jim Birdwell, Ron Kauk, and John Yablonsky, or Yabo as he was known. We were bonded by our desire to master every form of rock climbing around from the boulders of Camp 4, to the classic Valley free routes, to the big wall routes on El Capitan. Mari and I set out on an early ascent of the Shield (then rated A-4?), even though we had practically no experience aid climbing except our ascent of the Nose (A1) the previous year with Dean Fidelman. Mari and I got plenty of experience leading, aid climbing, hauling, and dealing with rope management, since Dean refused to lead but one pitch on the entire route! Climbing the Shield was definitely a new realm for Mari and I, but the hardships we faced such as getting lost off-route, climbing in the dark, running out of food and water, or running it out on sketchy gear, were all part of our apprenticeship in learning how to do without and make the most of any situation. After spending six-days on the route, we were very happy to see John and Mike Lechlinski (Mari’s partner still to this day) waiting for us at the summit.
In the thirty-years that has passed since those days, modern society has infiltrated the climbing world in many ways. With increased numbers of climbers, there are more rules, regulations, commercialism, environmental concerns, and liability issues to manage. Over the years, I’ve become increasing involved as an ambassador for climbing and I feel more responsibility than ever to uphold those core stone master values of taking responsibility for myself in all situations and having respect for both the environment and the experience of others. Mari and I have spent countless hours talking about how climbing has evolved over the years and how grateful we are to have been a part of that unique period in a time when the term “Stone Master” meant something really special. Ironically, what started out as a passion and escape from the constraints of the modern world with a core group of friends in southern California has expanded to an international community of people from all over the world.
Click to read John Long’s story about those times, entitled “Guilty Pleasures.”