Ruminations from the past
By Dick Dorworth
1968 changed my life in ways for which I am eternally grateful and from which I still learn. The previous year I had tuned in, turned on, and dropped out if you are old enough to catch my meaning. I was supporting myself by teaching skiing at a resort near Lake Tahoe. During this time I made friends with some climbers, who invited me to Yosemite. I showed up a few weeks later and dove headfirst into the climbing lifestyle. While living in Camp 4 and immersed in Yosemite climbing, I met some people who changed my life.
After a month of learning the basics, I left on an epic journey with Doug Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard, and Lito Tejada-Flores. We drove a van from California to Patagonia, picking up the ex-pat Brit Chris Jones in Peru. We made the third ascent of Fitz Roy in Argentina and Lito made two films, Fitz Roy and Mountain of Storms, about our adventures and interactions. It was one of the more significant climbs done in the world that year, and when I returned to Yosemite in the spring of 1969 I was a mini-celebrity despite my limited experience. It was a few years before I appreciated the true quality of my basic climbing instruction from some of the world’s finest climbers and a few more years before I realized how the mindfulness of their climbing had affected the path of my life.
The word ‘mindfulness’ was not common at the time, but mindfulness is as old as humanity, perhaps older, and mindfulness is as central to climbing as honesty is to integrity. Without it, things fall apart. The late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observed: “Mindfulness practice is not an evasion or an escape. It means entering vigorously into life — with the strength generated by the energy of mindfulness. Without this freedom and concentration, there is no happiness.”
Doug Tompkins exemplified the mindfulness of joy and determination. His entire life was a celebration of climbing, skiing, kayaking, business, family, and friends. He was also doing his best to save Mother Earth from humanity’s overpopulation and destruction of Her finite environment. And Doug’s smile warmed, informed, and illuminated the path of mindful living for those fortunate enough to be in his presence. After co-founding The North Face, Doug left the business world in 1989. In the 1990s he bought and conserved more than two million acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina. His goal was to save biodiversity on the largest scale possible. He passed away while kayaking in 2015.
Lito Tejada-Flores has expanded the limits of the possible in every activity and person he has touched. When we started the Fitz Roy trip Lito had a 16 mm Bolex motion picture camera and 200 pounds of Kodak color film. He had never operated a motion picture camera or loaded film into it, but the two award-winning works from that trip (Fitz Roy and Mountain of Storms) have stood the test of time. His climbing, skiing, kayaking, writing (including fine poetry), and cheerful, unique lifestyle have also helped expand the boundaries of the possible. Just before leaving for Fitz Roy, Lito was on the other side of the camera as a climber in Glen Denny’s film El Capitan, which documents one of the earliest ascents of the Nose route in Yosemite. Shot in 1968 and 1969, El Capitan included a lapse in Lito’s mindfulness that came close to costing him his life.
Yvon Chouinard’s childhood was shaped by the natural world of southern California. As a boy he trained falcons and learned to climb. This led him to Yosemite. The rest is history. He eventually took the mindfulness of the climbing realm into the business world. His company Patagonia is one of the most respected brands in the world. On the subject of mindfulness, Yvon has written, “It was the most formative time of my life. When a 15-year-old has to trap a wild goshawk, stay up all night with her until the bird finally develops enough trust to fall asleep on his fist, and then train the proud bird using only positive reinforcement, well, the Zen master would have to ask, ‘Just who is getting trained here?’”
In 1965 Chris Jones, a recent college graduate, was living in London pursuing a traditional climb up the business ladder to financial stability and social status. He frequented Britain’s rock crags on weekends and spent three weeks each summer on the higher peaks and faces of Europe. He did not like what he saw in his future and was saved from it by following the directions of his heart. Chris quit his job, left England, and moved to Truckee, California where he climbed and worked menial jobs to survive. In 1967 he moved to Yosemite and Camp 4 where he found his calling. In the next few decades he put up hard routes throughout the continent, and his book Climbing in North America is considered a classic.
There are way too many memorable climbers from the old days to make a complete list here, but in many ways, we were all circling the orbits of Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, and Chuck Pratt. They influenced all of us.
Warren Harding was the most beloved because his mindfulness was centered on his emotions. He climbed for the emotional ecstasy of the entire climb and the move at hand, and his will to persevere was as legendary as the routes he pioneered and his habit of drinking way too much.
Royal Robbins’ approach to climbing was the opposite of Warren Harding’s. His mindfulness was not centered in his emotions. Still, in other ways, the two men were very similar. They both had a powerful force of will that few could match. After Royal died in 2017 his daughter Tamara told Climbing Magazine, “My father faced challenges in his climbing, his writing, his business, his role as a father and husband, and later in life in his debilitating illness. Through it all, he rose to the occasion, taking the challenges on with grace and humility. For that, he’s my hero.” Tamara speaks for everyone who knew Royal, though on occasion he was also known to take on challenges with the hardness and hubris that conquers stone. Royal was not perfect but he was really, really good.
Chuck Pratt, in my opinion, exemplified mindfulness more than anyone. His attention to detail while climbing was a pleasure to watch and he took that into everything in life. His favorite activities were climbing, drinking, traveling, and taking photographs of women he knew.
I always wished he had spent more time writing, as his few efforts at the craft are superb; but he made it clear that he would rather climb than write about it. A remembrance I wrote after his death includes this: “By the time I arrived in Yosemite in 1968 as a novice climber, Chuck was an established master of a big wall and hard technical rock climbing, regarded by cognoscenti with a respect verging on reverence. I watched him climb but did not know enough to realize what I was seeing. He free climbed like a magician, a man born to vertical stone, comfortable where others struggled.”
Mindfulness was a quality evident in every Yosemite climber I knew during the 1960s and 1970s. I see the same power of mindfulness in later generations of climbers including Lynn Hill, Alex Honnold, Jim Reynolds, Beth Rodden, Tommy Caldwell, Chantel Astorga, and many others. What I see now is similar to what I first saw in 1968. The power of climbing as a practice of mindfulness.
Dick Dorworth is a climber, skier, and outdoor philosopher. He is the author of Night Driving and other works of climbing fiction and nonfiction. He currently resides in Boseman, Montana.
Main image: Yosemite climbers caught in a moment of mindfulness during a game of chess. Pictured here from left to right — Royal Robbins, Lito Tejada-Flores, Krehe Ritter, and Dick McCracken. This photo, by professional photographer Paul Ryan, was taken sometime in the mid-1960s in Yosemite.