John Gill is one of the most remarkable and innovative pioneers of bouldering in the history of the sport. Though bouldering seems to have appeared in the climbing magazines like a new sport, John started bouldering in the early 1950’s. One of his most famous test piece boulder problems called the “Thimble”, was done in 1961 and it took over twenty-years for this boulder problem to be repeated. John was concerned with form as much as difficulty or success. Dedicated to overcome difficult movements in a relaxed, controlled manner, he believed that a boulder problem was not truly mastered until he could execute it with grace and elegance.
The first time I ever met John was at the annual American Alpine Club meeting in Denver, Colorado, where he was invited to speak. His humble demeanor and “realist” background as a professor of mathematics at the University of Southern Colorado, gave no hint to his remarkable strength and legacy in climbing. John humorously set the tone of his talk with the following paraphrase of a statement made by Somerset Maugham: There are three rules that will enable a climber to succeed at any pitch…unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”stands out in my mind: “In the best spirit of play I remove myself from undertakings that have purpose and focus on one that has only meaning.” These are just a few of the qualities that have long since inspired tremendous admiration and respect for this phenomenal climber and gracious human being.
While I was living in the South of France, I interviewed John for an article in a French climbing magazine. One of the more interesting questions and answer was the following.
Lynn: “You experimented with various forms of mental training. In your book, “Master of Rock”, you spoke about a kind of mystical state of consciousness. You described an experience when you felt a “merging with and re-merging from the yellowish and polished surface of the granite.” How did you discover this state of consciousness?
John: “I was introduced by a friend to the books of Carlos Casteneda, in which the author describes the art of dreaming. I began this activity by following the author’s suggestion of trying to look a your hands while asleep. I had no problems doing this, and moved quickly on to experiences elsewhere described, I suspect, as astral projections. I walked through walls, floated over cities and even learned the art of internal climbing. I found that certain predisposition, an intent, was the key to reaching these states.”
Lynn: Did this practice help your climbing?
John: The art of dreaming didn’t make me a better climber in a technical sense, but it ultimately spilled over into my external climbing activities and made climbing a different sort of experience, a deeper and more spiritual endeavor, and on occasion more vivid – like a Technicolor version of reality. I lost the momentum of intent after a few years and practiced “dreaming” sporadically thereafter. Once you accomplish this act, however, your life is forever changed and to this day, my climbing has a different texture and hue that it did before.”
When I asked him if he had any words of wisdom to pass onto other climbers, he replied with the following response: “I would suggest that a climber beware of the strong pull of the mainstream – go out and try something novel, something that will forcibly broaden the perspective of the climbing community. Be an individual.”
Perhaps these final words of advice express what I respect most about John Gill. Undisturbed by social pressures or judgments by others, John continues his search for balance and inner satisfaction between spending time with family, maintaining his passive-solar house, teaching, hiking, and climbing.