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Largo's Apprenticeship


by Jim Bridwell

December 29, 2001

I knew them when they were children. Well, children to me. Not that I was old, but I was older and I had been a regular fixture around the Yosemite scene for over ten years. Along with Mark Klemens, Jim Pettigrew and a few others, I had dominion over bagging new routes, more or less at will, ever since my predecessors had bequeathed the kingdom to me in the late sixties. Of the new generation, a 17-year-old John Long was the first to show up and make known his intention to take the Valley by storm.

One morning Jim Donini strolled over to my camp site located by the generator. He brought news of a recent arrival I had to meet. John Long was his name and climbing was his game. John was brash and outspoken with a precocious appetite for the most difficult routes-- of which he had a familiar list. Produced by Peter Haan, this catalog recorded only hard Yosemite routes done in the past two years. John entertained me with his contagious enthusiasm as I inspected the list. Immediately I could see that the record of climbs offered complications for the Yosemite neophyte: Cream, Steppin' Out, Basket Case and other climbs on the scroll were offsized large cracks involving the dreaded 'offwidth' technique, a style of climbing nearly unique to Yosemite. I understood John was from the greater Los Angeles area, a Tahquitz regular and doubtless an excellent face climber. "Have you done many awful-width cracks?"

"No," he admitted, but blustered on. "But they can't...and I can.....

"Hmmm, uh-huh," I intoned, suspicious of such uninitiated pronouncements. These smooth, featureless fissures were, at best, difficult to protect. Wishing to humble and not to harm, I offered to usher the lad up an easy, though exemplary route: the left side of Reed's Pinnacle. John eagerly agreed and next morning we were tooling down the road toward Reed's in my '56 Ford. As we drove, John extolled his abilities, naming the many test piece face climbs he had mastered. I listened as I wheeled the old Ford through the series of turns, knowing that in all probability he would find this route very different fare.

At the base, John announced his desire to lead the first pitch, a chimney of confining dimensions. I thought, Good enough--it would be hard to fall out due to John's already sturdy stature. Off he charged like bull at the cape. With a display of power, if not grace, he soon found himself at the belay. I followed using the practiced technique of a Yosemite regular, and quickly arrived at his side.

With little hesitation I picked through the hardware and selected one nut (knowing the necessary size) and two carabiners, then started off. John looked bewildered, but said nothing, perhaps out of respect. I climbed up, clipped and moved past the bolt--purposely neglecting the rest spot. An interior crack on one side of the main fissure occasionally accepted the chosen nut. But then again, sometimes it didn't. This time it didn't and the nut slid uninhibited and unhindered down to the bolt. John's alarmed voice warned me of the mishap while I moved through the crux section. I replied casually that I was aware of the fallen protection and that it didn't matter. Actually, I had soloed the route several times and felt solid, but certainly didn't want to let on to John and thus ruin the effect of my cool composure.

After dispatching the rest of the pitch, I prepared to belay the lad. He started with robust ease, using his face climbing skills on the large edges that garnished one side of the crack. But the edges vanished at the bolt and the climb became more typical of Yosemite; in a word-- smooth. John attacked the crack with force. His muscles bulged and his veins popped. He neared the polished six- inch-wide vertical crux section with little left but courage. Lactic acid crescendoed as panic replaced what little technique he had. He tried to slump onto the rope for a cheater's rest but I was having none of it and paid out slack in kind. If he made it up, I wanted him to know he had done it on his own. His face flushed with effort, his once powerful arms quivered, but his heart wouldn't quit until the synapse collapsed. Just then I took pity and divulged the secret rest hold he hadn't seen behind his back. John's hand shot to it like a chameleon's tongue. Saved! Air flooded into his lungs in great vacuum-cleaner rushes. After a short rest he swam his way to the top and my congratulations.

That evening at camp a friend, Phil Gleason, stopped by and suggested that I have a try at a new route he'd been working on. Fed up with it himself, he offered me the route. As we talked, I could see the keen interest in John's eyes, so suggested that he might come along with Mark Klemens, my usual partner, and me--if he wanted. Without hesitation he grabbed at the chance. The next morning I was awakened by the drumming xf John's pacing feet outside my tent. We threw some gear into a pack and walked to the coffee shop. We were too lazy to make something for ourselves, it was free because the waitress lusted for me as I did for her. After breakfast John still looked confused about the payment of the bill as we rode the shuttle bus toward the climb. The bus took us to the Ahwahnee Hotel, only a short walk from the route. Within a few minutes we stood at the base. As foretold, the flake arched above, leaning and overhanging. We drew stones and Klemens won the lead.

Mark's skills in flaring, overhanging offwidths were beyond reproach and John watched with awe at each precise movement. The flake leaned increasingly until the last eight feet, where it shot out horizontally. A young John Long sat next to me, totally confused as to a solution to this final bit. I'd analyzing the problem since our arrival and had come up with the answer but merely said to John, "You'll see." Klemens showed incredible control while working hard to place protection. John fidgeted nervously. Mark tried again and again to get something in before the crux. A bong would be his preference as he disdained the new fangled nuts, as yet in their evolutionary infancy. He reached to the rack, selected a large l-beam-shaped contraption and announced with typical Klemens' cynicism, "You know I'm desperate now." After using considerable energy fiddling with it, to no avail, he threw it to the ground, cursing. Nearly spent, Mark finally managed to secure a bong, but without the strength to carry on, he lowered to the deck.

My turn. Mark had set it up for me, having done all the hard work of placing the protection. All I had to do was climb and clip. I climbed up to the high point at the crux. John made the mistake of looking away as I slipped quickly through the tricky sequence. I'd gotten two reasonable fist jams, swung down, reached out and pinched the edge of the flake, pulled into a lieback and was resting before the boy from So. Cal. looked up again.

John was outspoken, to say the least but only because he could usually back up his words with action. He started using the pure brute strength of his powerful arms, his feet flailing for purchase. Through the echo chamber of the flake, I could hear his locomotive breathing, amplified. Once again he was desperate, but his great heart and the desire of his ego kept him afloat. He'd thrashed and struggled to the crux, but now hadn't a clue. His life signs ebbed as I shouted down instructions which he followed to the letter. A hand flashed to the finned edge of the flake and his head and torso popped into view, gasping for air. A few power pulls and he'd done it.

"Good job, man!"

John would affectionately become known as Largo to his friends, and he and I would share many great adventures--the Nose in a day, the crossing of Borneo and others--but I'll never forget those first two days. There were others I met when they first came; Ron Kauk, Werner Braun, Lynn Hill, Maria Cranor and many more. They were children when I first knew them.

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