Scarpa North America Blog

Dan Bolster: A new perspective on an old game

Jul. 17th 2012

Salathe Route, El Cap, 1981. Photo by John Borstelmann

Dan Bolster spent springs and falls climbing in Yosemite between 1979-1988, climbing cracks thin and wide, doing the Nose and Salathe on El Capitan, freeing the Chouinard-Herbert in 5 hours, and making friendships that have stood the test of granite and time. Today, at 58, he and a few of his climbing partners from those days have been at it again, this time with a different perspective on climbing and on life.

With barely time for a “watch me Phil!,” the thin finger crack spit me out like a kid who’d just shoveled in a mouth full of something tasting awful. I gave the crux another shot with the same result, and then pulled through on gear. One time after a friend of mine narrowly avoided taking the big whip she said to me, “I can do amazing things when I’m scared.” I wouldn’t say what happened next was amazing, but what my friend said about being scared pretty much describes how I was able to hang on with flamed forearms and climb the remaining thirty feet to the anchors without peeling off again.

After getting lowered to the ground, I sat down on a smooth granite boulder and took off my climbing shoes, careful not to disturb the bloody slice in my left forefinger. I looked up at the beautiful 10.d crack shooting up like an arrow towards the sky and thought, “Thirty years ago I used to cruise up that thing.” One time I climbed it with a friend who had farming roots, and as I moved smoothly from one thin jam to the next my farmer friend exclaimed, “You look as happy as a gopher in soft dirt!” “Well, that was then, and this is now,” I said to myself.  While the thin crack and grey sweep of granite looked the same as it ever did, it seemed to me that something, maybe the texture of the ground, had changed in the last thirty years of the earth describing its annual arc around the sun.

Dan Bolster with an old Rigid Stem Friend. Photo by Phil DeRiemer

After Phil took a lap on the climb we decided to call it a day. As we were packing up two young climbers hiked up the trail and dropped their packs at the base of the climb, eager to have a go at the thin splitter. It was Will and Mike, two friendly and engaging young guns we’d run into three or four times earlier in the spring. The four of us were right in the middle of the usual “hi how ya doin’, what’cha been climbin’?” conversation when Mike looked at Phil and me and asked, “Not to be rude, but how old are you guys anyway?” With a pained look on his face, Phil rolled his right shoulder around and said, “Every once in a while my old war injury flares up.” Then Mike asked, “War? What war?” To which Phil replied, “The Civil War.” We all had a good laugh until Will’s curious eyes spotted something strange on the rack draped across the rock next to me, prompting him to ask in an inquisitive tone, “What are those?” Mixed in with a rack full of shiny new Metolius Master Cams and Black Diamond Camalots were a couple of high mileage looking rigid-stem Friends.

During the spring of 1980 I climbed in Yosemite with Ray Jardine, the inventor of Friends. As he worked out the design of the first Friends, Ray kept the prototypes a secret. When he went to the cliffs he hid them under a shirt or jacket until he was sure no one was looking and then would throw the jacket off and blast off up the climb before anyone could get a peek. Later, when climbers first saw Ray’s Friends they asked the same question Will had just asked me: “What are those?” Looking over at Will, I realized that I had been at both ends of the question asked about Friends; back when they were new and revolutionary and now, when they are antiquated, a curiosity.

Dan Bolster on Eagle Ledge, El Capitan, 1980. Photo: Ray Jardine

As I hiked the steep trail down through the black oaks and ponderosa pines on the way back to the car, I felt inspired by the day’s climbing. Even though I had not been able to lead the climb cleanly, the experience of being out on the sharp end had caused my fingers to tingle, my heart to pound. I felt alive, and I understood that while the gear has changed over the last thirty years, the essence of climbing is unchanged. If anything, it has deepened for me. Where numbers and achievement drove me then, now it is about appreciating the place and people that I share the experience with. It is about reveling in the fact that something old can feel so new, like the joyous feeling I get slotting my hand into a perfect hand jam, feeling the sharp sensation of my fingers gripping the edge of a flake, or the thrill that shoots through me when I turn around and see a cloud hovering over Half Dome as my climbing partner and I sail up a sea of rippled golden granite on North Dome.  The awareness of my spirit’s connection to the stone and feeling myself align with the greater, constant flow of energy that moves through earth, rock and sky and everything in between, this is what calls me to pick up my rack and rope and follow the flow of inspiration that leads me to more adventures, more discovery, more joy, and more appreciation for this incredible thing called rock climbing.

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