SEA OF DREAMS
Revered big wall climber and alpine mountaineer, Jim Bridwell caught the climbing bug in his falconry days and dropped out of college in ’63 (a psychology and maths major) to pursue climbing and esoteric mind expansion. Around this time he joined the Rosicrucian secret society “it gives you disciplines to work on to improve your consciousness, like a stepwise advancement”. In the esteemed Yosemite Valley, Bridwell came up under the likes of climbing mentors Layton Kor, Frank Sacherer a theoretical physicist and also to a lesser extent Chuck Pratt. In the 70s progressive age of rock climbing he stepped out of their shadows and truly came into his own. Sometimes referred to as the “valley hardman”, Bridwell raised the difficulty levels and speed stakes in big wall climbing of the day. Through ballsy moves, efficient climbing and with mental fortitude he broke through many psychological barriers to forge new ascents in record times. The fact that he originally wanted to become a race car driver comes as no surprise. He approached the wall with the same daring zeal. In ’75, Bridwell led the first one-day ascent of “The Nose” on El Capitan. He has numerous first ascents to his name, arduous routes that in their day had an A-5 rating, which is given to climbs with dangerous sections that require advanced technical skill, nerve and mental strength and a certain fearlessness due to increased risk of long range falls – somewhere in the ball park of if you fall, there is nothing there to save you. Remember this was back when the only head gear was Hendrix-inspired headbands, climbing apparel was thrifted (white backer pants or ladies stretch pants if you dared) and hardware was often handmade DIY experiments duplicated from a picture that would with good luck hold your body weight in a jam. “They probably weren’t very strong, but better than nothing I guess,” Bridwell recalls. Some refused to rope in with him, put off by his obsessive drive to push limits and his fearless antics. It was during this time that he mentored the Stonemasters; he was not their leader but an honorary member. Free climbing developed in this era and later the Stonemasters would move into free soloing, something Bridwell believes goes against cosmic reality. Idealism he doesn’t tolerate.
In the 70s, the so-called Age of Aquarius was in full effect and Camp 4 became overrun with hippies. Park rangers started imposing more and more “governmental controls” and cracking down on the two-week camping limit, which Bridwell says disrupts climber progression. They had to hide out in the nearby Tetons. Of those days, Bridwell says he was into Bob Dylan “his insight into culture and society is profound” and Cream more than Hendrix. The name of the route “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” is lifted from a Mahavishnu Orchestra song. Was he a hippie? No way, he declares. But what about the 70s psychedelic rock-inspired get up? He says it was a stunt. When asked about his love of paisley, he in turn asks: “Do you know about fractals?” before answering, “It’s a number thing. Mathematics is similar to a paisley. Cosmic.”
Contrary to popular thought, Bridwell says he only took acid on one climb the “Sea of Dreams” first ascent in ’78. The “Sea of Dreams” on El Capitan has been described as his opus. He says a situation over drilling holes in advance bummed out the experience and that he was more sidetracked than contemplative. When asked about any epiphanies and revelations he experienced along the way, he spoke of an awareness of the geological processes of rock formation and the creation of the earth. The wall, he says, is no place for acid, but skiing on acid now that is truly something else. He cautions about the unbridled use of psychedelics, not everyone, he believes, is ready to go there.
His alpine ascents have been his most memorable and extreme. Bridwell made the first alpine ascent of Southeast Ridge peak of “the impossible mountain” the highly controversial Cerro Torre, Patagonia in 1979. It was the second attempt after the first ended with his partner, an Australian, being deported for not having a visa. Bridwell failed to convince the climbers down there, including some of the best climbers of the day to give it a go. On the second attempt he went down with two talented Stonemasters who aborted the mission, but not before they had democratically decided not to place a fixed rope leading into the snow cave (where they stored their gear during a snowstorm) against Bridwell’s insistence that they should. They left and Bridwell never found the cave, his gear lost. In 1999 climbers came across his camera and 4,000 dollars worth of climbing equipment. Bridwell asserts: “Democracy is not an evolutionary thing, it’s an ideal. Ideals are dangerous. [Chuckles] idealists! I’m a realist.” Not discouraged by losing his partners or gear, Bridwell obsessively rallied together a new partner Steven Brewer and enough gear to get by. Without all of the necessary technical equipment there were new restrictions, instead of pushing forward with the East Face they chose to go the Compressor route and pushed beyond it to reach the summit.
Bridwell is tough, resilient and over the years relentless in his pursuit of climbing. He grew up without a free ride or privilege and has worked since the 1st grade. Over the years, he has been a member of the ski patrol, worked as a ski instructor and as a climbing guide. He has been integral in setting up Search and Rescue, mooched off the American ski team in Europe for a place to stay, worked in drilling crews on oil rigs and on movie sets in between climbing and various odd jobs. He even helped write the screenplay for “Cliffhanger” and no he didn’t cash in on the petrol soaked bales of weed from the infamous drug runner plane crash in Yosemite in ’77 that inspired the “Cliffhanger” plot; he was down in Patagonia at the time.
Learn something new everyday, is the mantra Bridwell lives by. It is one that his father, a calculus genius with only three months of 8th grade education, instilled in him. When talking to him be sure to have an encyclopaedia handy, he might test your knowledge. He says the two main problems in the world today are mediocracy and overpopulation. Bridwell laments society’s decline “no one reads anymore” and America’s dropping averages in maths and science scores, which he says are not the hallmark of a world leader. “Is that progressive?” he asks, “I don’t think so. I think that is regressive: prone to extinction.” He is pro-education not propaganda. America, he believes is losing it’s grip. Expressing disdain for the liberal elite, Bridwell is glad that America is not currently run by a lawyer or a career politician. Quoting William Shakespeare, he remarks: “‘First thing we should do is kill all lawyers.’ The problem is they make lies sound like the truth. ‘Thou shall not bear false witness.’” These days Bridwell lives in Palm Desert where he and his wife take care of his 102-year-old grandmother. I managed to track him down for a fascinating conversation that ranged from UFO sightings to climate change, Mafia JFK conspiracy theories to rats in Guam, God and creation to LSD among others. Here is a collection of his thoughts.
The one thing missing from modern civilization is excitement. It seems like climbing is a fairly positive one, as long as you are not stupid. Ernest Hemingway once said: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I took up climbing but I wanted to be a race car driver [laughs]. I mean climbing was a second choice. It was an economic choice. In other words I couldn’t afford to be a race car driver… If I was a race car driver I probably would have killed myself a long time ago.
YOSEMITE EARLY DAYS
I was selective about who I hung out with, discriminating you might say. If you hang out with people with inferior intelligence you are going to live that or as Einstein would say, common sense are those prejudices learned before the age of 18. Common sense is basically public opinion right. It becomes common sense when it becomes public opinion. And public opinion has always retarded social progress. Einstein was a pretty smart guy.
There was an article by I think Robbins about when he climbed the direct route on Sentinel, which we renamed the “Mozart Wall”, because Robbins said he looked down and saw the wind blowing the grass in the valley and it was almost like listening to Mozart. Then [Layton] Kor did the second ascent and said it was almost as good as listening to Fats Domino [laughs]. He was one of my mentors also, Layton Kor; he was probably my favourite.
It was full of hippies. No, I’m not a hippie. Do you know what we used to say to hippies? They would be after spare change: “Spare change, spare change?” I said: “Your mother ain’t my mother, your father ain’t my father, get your hand out of my top pocket and quit calling me brother.”
Yeah they came in from the South, they were from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Southern California. It was a loose organisation; they had a Stonemaster language. It was pretty creative at the time. We’ll call it progressive, in other words adapting. Those things that don’t adapt become extinct. So when we say progressive, what we actually mean is they’re adventuresome and productive. Unlike what we would call progressive today as far as political goes, which is anything but progressive. [Anyway] It wasn’t that it was necessarily negative but it basically stigmatized them as being the leading edge. Stonemasters has a double meaning by the way. [Their] Leader, no I was an honorary member, a mentor.
He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Soloing is a good form of suicide. When you drop something it falls. That’s cosmic reality, gravity. Also things break that’s called erosion. Free soloing leaves you open for natural justice, which is inevitable conformity from causes to results. In other words, you do it enough and you’re going to kill yourself. Get it, holds break. I took three falls in five years and they were all holds breaking, snapping off. I was free climbing with a rope. I’m not suicidal, although some might disagree with that. There is a fine line between boldness and stupidity as there is between prudence and cowardice. […] You have to know where your limitations are. Stay within your limitations but in the words of Lionel Terray: “To pick the flowers on the boarder of the impossible requires great moral strength.” Beautiful! It’s French.
FIRST ONE-DAY ASCENT OF "THE NOSE", EL CAPITAN IN 1975
(Jim Bridwell, John Long and Billy Westbay)
“The Nose” in a day was something that was not my idea. It was Frank Sacherer’s idea. He did what he called camping on the bluffs [laughs]. He was into fast and efficient climbing. He used the smaller climbs to free climb some of the smaller test pieces like routes that hadn’t been done free. They were mostly free but it seems that people’s minds hadn’t opened to the possibility. Sacherer was a true progressive. He moved forward. He was always pushing himself. His vision was that you could do a lot of things that other people couldn’t do because they didn’t think they could do it. So they were limiting themselves by there own thinking.
Cast not pearls before swine [a quote from the New Testament]. Don’t tell someone something they can’t comprehend. First of all, let me tell you, everybody is not created equal. And I would say that drugs in general are inappropriate. I don’t recommend just everybody to take psychotropic drugs. Psychotropic drugs – like LSD, mescaline, which is peyote basically synthesized, psilocybin, which is the chemicals in the mushroom synthesized – increase your awareness but not everybody has a stable mind enough to take them. So kids taking LSD is out of the question.
I didn’t take drugs just for no reason - we were prepared, we would read books, my favourite guy was Meher Baba he was a Sufi. Sufi is the more esoteric form of Islam, actually peaceful. In other words, it is a learning experience. Exactly. You prep your mind ’cause you are going into energy levels that are sort of the lower levels of cosmic reality we’ll call it or God consciousness. But, you are going to see what you are. In other words, your hallucinations are something that comes from you, not from god. It’s your distortion of reality that you are seeing. You are just seeing yourself. What you see is what your body sees. You see it; it’s yours. It came from you. Hallucinations are basically you.
LSD allowed you to concentrate better and focus. You could focus your energies. LSD meant the best ski teachers in the world. Man you could make perfect turns on LSD. Of course they are too perfect for ski races [laughs]. Some guy would say: “You were making some nice turns the other day.” Yeah that was because I was on LSD. You just flow with it. It’s so… climbing is not, skiing is much better for LSD. In its own way it is distracting, from the actual spiritual experience, with the physical part, which is somewhat a spiritual mixture. Your spiritual being is reflected in your actions.
In the early 60s, if you were in Berkley or something you could get paid to take drugs under supervision, because they were testing them to see if they could militarize them in Vietnam for instance, they thought they might be able to spray it. Actually, they had a more potent form called STP, which is a government thing, and that would last a lot longer and be a lot more physical than LSD. I never did take any but I knew people who were rangers that sold it when going through college.
FIRST ASCENT OF "SEA OF DREAMS", EL CAPTAIN , 1978
(Jim Bridwell, Dale Bard and Dave Diegelman)
One of my favourite routes, “Sea of Dreams” which is basically just next to the “Pacific Ocean” climb as it gets up higher and one veers off to the left and one to the right. It is one of my best routes. But routes evolve or de-evolve. We are DEVO [laughs]. A rock is not necessarily solid you know. Some of the things break off. Generally, people are not ready for the route, they end up having to add bolts and stuff like that. With the “Sea of Dreams” originally we had 39 holes, not necessarily bolts, 10 or 15 of those were anchor bolts, the rest were rivets aluminium dowels, we didn’t have machine rivets yet. I took acid on one climb and it was not my day to climb, it was not my day to lead. Not a good place [to do LSD], you are in a jail of your own making. You are going to get to the top or you are going to have to go down… That was a first ascent – a waste of LSD. Well, I heard there was some tapping going on up there, a drill being used and I thought what the hell is going on up there. There shouldn’t be any holes drilled yet. So I climbed up, we had a fixed rope there. Dave was drilling a hole. I asked why are you drilling a hole? He said Dale told him to. I said, you do what you think is right, don’t listen to Dale. Anyway, I was concentrating on that stuff and LSD was wasted. There was no contemplation going on, I was distracted by what was going on… a waste of 2 dollars and 50 cents.
ACID EPIPHANIES ON THE WALL
No, [more like] mental things, spiritual things, like looking at the rock and understanding how the flow of the rock, originally before the glacier cut through and made the valley. It has different types of rock most of it, well it is granite but there are a lot of different types of granite. Like “Half Dome” is a different type of granite than El Capitan. Cap point granite comes across the valley or it did before the glacier and intrudes in what we call “North America” on El Capitan. It’s a different rock the diorite; it’s formed with different heat. It is an intrusion into the other granite. The salt is the heaviest stone. The Columbus salt that would be like devils power, it’s quite hard and heavy. It is basically solidified magma. The plates of the earth sit on a molten layer, right, so it’s floating. But before that there was no atmosphere, so the meteorites would just hit the planet, bang, bang, bang with nothing to burn them up because there was no oxygen yet. So that would come from there. The chemicals that were in the granite, in the earth, from the meteorites hitting would eventually form as the planet cooled, because obviously space is colder than the planet. The centre of the earth is about five thousand degrees, about the same as the surface of the sun. So there is heat also coming from inside the planet, which caused geological shifts because it is floating. It used to be just one continent, which we call Asia and then as it rose up it would sink in places. So basically, originally there were two horizontal depressions, which filled up with water, which would become saltwater because of the minerals in the meteorites that were hitting the planet. So those would modify or evolve into different types of organized molecules. When we say the organized universe that means it’s condensed, it’s solidified and became more solid. At first, it was just gases that shot out from the sun. In fact, as I understand it, a nearby or galaxy closer than normal came not in contact but would affect our sun and this huge solar flare sent out and that would become solidified into the planets. As it solidified it gained its own gravity, it’s own attraction so it would pull these meteorites into it and they wouldn’t burn up because there is no oxygen yet. So anyway, that’s the kind of thing I would think about when I took it up there, which I only did once. Yeah I’m talking about acid, LSD-25. Do you know the history of LSD-25? Do you know what it is made from? Rye mould. If we go back to the Salem witch hunts in the United States. It is more likely that they consumed the rye mould in its unpurified form basically because LSD is synthesized so it’s concentrated rye mould. It was first developed, well the guy was trying to find a cure for migraine headaches, a Swiss guy [Albert Hofmann]. Sandoz is where they made it, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals.
DID LSD CHANGE THE CLIMBING GAME?
No. LSD gives me a more holistic view of life I would say: mental and physical. I didn’t limit myself to public opinion. […] We limit ourselves, in other words, we retard ourselves because of a number of different factors: fear of failure is one. Well if you never fail you never know your limitations. So you gotta take the good with the bad; you’ve got to learn. Climbing taught me to not limit myself to other people’s perceptions. In other words: don’t rely on public opinion or common sense.
Actually, it [the change] was more of a mental thing. It was more of believing in yourself and that you are not going against cosmic reality, which is taboo. To knowingly go against cosmic reality is a basic sin. To make it a habit, then it becomes evil. To make it serve your creed where it becomes dominating, it becomes basically extinction. Hope is delusional. […] You can’t control the mountains. The best thing you can do is try to understand them.
[I once read a short story titled “Night Walker”] It’s about a guy; he’s the only one out at night. He can see the glow inside all the windows from the televisions. He was out walking by himself and around the corner comes an unmanned vehicle that says: “Please get in the car.” It’s taking him away, because he’s not following the rules. He’s inspiring the idea of freedom. I thought that was telling…Yeah, I’ve always been anti-establishment.
I would say, I was never a great climber; I’m a fairly average person, maybe a little above average but not much. […] I may not have been much of a climber but I believe.
We live on an evolutionary planet. To decide that man has not evolved, he was just pop created is not exactly true. I believe in intelligent design, in other words we were designed by higher intelligence, whether you call them angels or aliens, well I’ll just call them the celestial corps. Our cosmic makeup is designed for this planet. In other words, whose design? That is the question. There is God: all-powerful and all-knowing. God’s will is evolution.
It seems that man is quite confused about the meaning of the god and beauty he’s gone so far away. That is one of the dangers of budding industry on a little planet here…
So what do you think of UFOs? What if those are what we call Angels?
Words / Amber Grünhäuser
Photos courtesy of Jim Bridwell