Jim Bridwell, 73, rakish renegade peak conqueror

Ron Gomez via Associated Press

In this 2015 photo provided by Ron Gomez shows climbers Ron Kauk, from left, Jim Bridwell, and Ron Gomez in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, Calif.

By Harrison Smith Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — Jim Bridwell, a paisley-clad climber who pioneered routes up some of the world’s most formidable rock faces, including the prow of El Capitan — a granite monolith in California’s Yosemite Valley that rises twice the height of the Empire State Building — died Friday at a hospital in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 73.

He had liver and kidney failure from hepatitis C, his wife, Peggy, told the Associated Press.


Mr. Bridwell made historic climbs in the Alaska Range near Denali and in the Andes of Patagonia, and in 1982 he was part of an expedition that became the first to circumvent Mount Everest, trekking 300 miles around the mountain and over some of its 20,000-foot sister peaks.

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.’’

While Mr. Bridwell and his circle blazed through prodigious amounts of low-grade marijuana, they also established themselves as some of the world’s most intrepid climbers, devising new routes — and setting speed records — on the rock domes and spires that have made Yosemite the Mecca of American climbing.

Mr. Bridwell notched 100 first ascents in the national park and was 30 when he performed his signature climb, scaling the so-called Nose of El Capitan with his friends John Long and Billy Westbay. The 2,900-foot ascent was once considered impossible, and even when it was first scaled, in a siege-style expedition led by Warren Harding in 1958, the climb took 47 days.

Mr. Bridwell and his partners, complementing their store of ropes, pitons, and water with about five packs of cigarettes, completed the ascent in 15 hours, smoke breaks included.


‘‘Friends greeted us outside the Mountain Room Bar with a heroes welcome,’’ Mr. Bridwell wrote. ‘‘Soon, I had more drinks in hand than I could juggle. My fondest memory occurred the following day when [Harding] . . . gave me his warm congratulations. I thanked him and hobbled toward the cafeteria for some stolen coffee.’’

The achievement has long since been surpassed — last year, climber Alex Honnold scaled the rock in about four hours without the use of ropes — but became an indelible moment in the history of American climbing, immortalized in a photo of Mr. Bridwell and his partners standing at the base of the mountain.

‘‘They seem to exude cockiness — gods sneering down on mere mortals,’’ Honnold wrote in his book ‘‘Alone on the Wall.’’

‘‘Cigarettes dangle from Bridwell’s and Long’s mouths. They’re dressed like hippies, in loosefitting vests and shirts, but they could just as well pass for Hell’s Angels.’’

Mr. Bridwell sometimes wrangled with park rangers, who sought to stymie the all-things-go culture of his climber commune at Yosemite’s Camp Four. (The camp sometimes seemed blessed from above; in 1977, some of the climbers salvaged several thousand pounds of marijuana from a plane that crashed in a nearby lake.)

Still, the Park Service commissioned Mr. Bridwell in 1967 to establish Yosemite’s search-and-rescue team, according to journalist and climber Daniel Duane’s book ‘‘El Capitan: Historic Feats and Radical Routes.’’ (Given Mr. Bridwell’s disdain for bureaucracy and authority, it was ‘‘not the wisest policy decision we ever made,’’ one Yosemite superintendent later said.)

Mr. Bridwell sometimes rappelled hundreds of feet to aid mountaineers who found themselves injured or trapped at high altitudes and was himself no stranger to alpine disasters. Near the end of one of his most celebrated climbs, a 1979 ascent of the Argentine-Chilean peak Cerro Torre, a sling broke while he was coming down the mountain. Mr. Bridwell suffered several broken ribs, a chipped elbow, a bruised hip, and a ‘‘rearranged’’ mind, he later wrote, from a fall that dropped him 130 feet before he was caught by his rope.

Mr. Bridwell’s risk-taking style led some fellow climbers to label him reckless and reportedly contributed to his being left out of major American expeditions to the Himalayas in the 1980s. In his mind, however, the hazards of injury and even death were part of what made scaling a mountain worthwhile in the first place.

‘‘Adventure and excitement are the two things missing from civilization,’’ he told the magazine Palm Springs Life in 2015, from retirement in Southern California. ‘‘Danger keeps you on your toes. You'll never feel as alive as when death is over your shoulder.’’

He was born in San Antonio on July 29, 1944, the son of a pilot who was shot down while serving in World War II. His parents divorced and remarried three separate times, according to Rolling Stone, and Mr. Bridwell said he found in climbing a refuge from the larger world.

‘‘In Yosemite I felt comfortable and accepted for the first time in my life,’’ he told the magazine. ‘‘I immediately grew up there. I think it’s one of the reasons I've stayed with climbing so long.’’

He said an affection for birds of prey also fueled his interest in mountaineering, resulting in a nickname, the Bird, that he became known by after he arrived at Yosemite in about 1964. By then, he had dropped out of what is now San Jose State University and become a self-described ‘‘draft dodger.’’

Mr. Bridwell supported his wife and their son, Layton, through occasional work as a ski instructor and stunt cameraman on climbing films. He also lectured and led mountaineering demonstrations, including for Navy SEALs, that covered part of the cost of his international expeditions.

It was on one such trip, a 1980 traverse of Borneo, that Mr. Bridwell may have contracted the disease that eventually killed him, his wife told the AP. He received a tattoo from a tribe of reputed headhunters, as well as a severe stomach ailment that Mr. Bridwell initially believed was cancer.

Rather, it was ‘‘a tapeworm the size of a black mamba,’’ his climbing partner Long later wrote. Amid a ‘‘titanic bender,’’ a resigned Mr. Bridwell eventually purged the parasite from his body.

‘‘Legend has it that the Bird was instantly restored to his former hale self,’’ Long continued. ‘‘Fetching the adder by the neck, he dispatched it, diced it into a frying pan, and offered it to Camp Four passersby. When challenged to sample a morsel himself, the Bird replied, ‘No thanks. I’m a vegetarian.’ ‘‘