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Give Him Enough Rope

Whether you call him irresponsible or avant-garde, mountaineer Jim Bridwell is definitely on the edge

Jim Bridwell, Mountain Climbing

Mountain climber, Jim Bridwell, June 9th, 1983

Glen Martin/The Denver Post/Getty

Exhausted, the three men race against heavy clouds hurtling across a smoke-gray sky. They complete a snow cave to cache their climbing gear, which they’ve backpacked up the glacier, when Jim Bridwell casually suggests they wait out the approaching storm in the cave. John Bachar and Mike Graham are astonished. Bridwell knows as well as they that the blizzard will last for days. They only have lightweight sleeping bags and a little food. Then Bachar and Graham recall that for the past six to eight hours Bridwell has seemed serenely detached. He’s expressed childlike wonder at pretty flowers. As the first snow falls, he grins inanely. Bachar and Graham look at each other, and the look says, “What is this guy on?”

Several days later, at base camp, Bachar and Graham announce they’re abandoning the expedition, an attempt on the unclimbed east side of a peak named Cerro Torre, in Fitz Roy Park in the Argentine Andes. And so Bridwell finds himself alone in Patagonia, the eerie region of high winds and twenty-day storms at the tip of South America. He has no partners; the sensible thing would be to head home at once.

But Jim Bridwell is a notorious renegade of mountaineering. He packed dozens of tiny window-panes on alternative reality for recreational use around park headquarters. For the climb, he has a more traditional drug, obsession, which, if he lets it, could put him “in a dangerous frame of mind.” (He says, for instance, that it was his obsession with Cerro Torre that made his behavior in the snow cave seem strange.)

The next days pass in a blur. A stranger named Steve Brewer hitchhikes into the park, and Bridwell seizes him as partner. Hiking back up the glacier after the blizzard, they can’t find the snow cave. The ropes, the ice screws, the pitons, even the climbing harness, are hopelessly buried. They hustle hardware and ice tools from a New Zealand expedition. Bridwell and Brewer depart at 3:30 a.m., and for nineteen hours Bridwell leads most of the steep rock-and-ice pitches, finally chopping out a bivouac ledge that’s like the freezer shelf in a refrigerator.

He’s climbing so brazenly he hasn’t brought a tent; if a storm moved in he and Brewer could not survive. And they could not retreat either, because they don’t have enough rappelling hardware and the winds are too strong. The next day, Bridwell climbs a headwall that ends beneath a snowy skirt guarding the summit. He punches through, and thirty-six hours after leaving base camp, 5000 feet below, he steps onto the top. It’s possible that no one has ever climbed so high so quickly on a mountain of such difficulty.

To some in the climbing world — which quickly learns of the achievement — Bridwell’s behavior has the ring of madness. But he is only the most recent to be driven to the edge by what’s been called “a mountain so beautiful and aggressive that it borders on the unreal.” Cerro Torre looks nothing like the popular conception of a mountain. It rises dead vertically, a nearly smooth cylinder, as gray and cold as an ICBM. Walter Bonatti, the greatest climber of the Fifties, flatly declared it impossible. An Italian climber once attacked it with a gas-powered drill to construct a ladder up its perfect flanks. The 9908-foot summit is not high, and the name is largely unknown to the world, but Bridwell, with his ascent of Cerro Torre, solved what climbers had called the Last Great Problem.

IN THE POPULAR MIND, ALL MOUNTAINS ARE AS symmetrical and lovely as the Matterhorn, and mountaineers are selfless, courageous fellows deserving, like Sir Edmund Hillary, to be knighted. The truth is more complicated. For Jim Bridwell, America’s most controversial climber, Cerro Torre was one entry in a ledger of brilliant ascents that is balanced equally by debacles and dissolution.

As a result of what they consider Bridwell’s wildly irresponsible behavior in Patagonia, John Bachar, a celebrated solo rock climber, says he and Mike Graham “will never climb with Bridwell again.” Others have also apparently decided not to tie into the same rope as Bridwell, who’s been blackballed from a series of prestigious expeditions.

Cerro Torre sealed Bridwell’s reputation as a desperado, but it also placed him in the avantgarde of mountain climbing. The sport is entering a bold new age. The new climbing is called superalpinism, which John Roskelly, America’s foremost Himalayan climber, defines as “a small team taking on a highly technical route in a continuous push, whatever it takes, with absolutely no chance of being rescued.” On a superalpine ascent in Pakistan, Roskelly and three others spent twelve days scratching their way up a ledgeless ogre named Uli Biaho.

“Uli Biaho was a stunning route,” says Bridwell. He’d been invited on the expedition, scheduled for the season following Cerro Torre. When word of his antics circulated, however, Roskelly yanked him from the team. “A couple of our guys,” says Roskelly, “got turned off to the fact he’d gone down to Patagonia and pissed everybody off — had been so aggressive and one-minded and not safe enough. I thought, ‘To save the team I have to let Bridwell go.'”

‘THE RABBIT COMES OUT OF THE HOLE, AROUND THE tree and back down into the hole,” Jim Bridwell says as he demonstrates how to tie a bowline knot — the one climbers learn before they can lace their boots — to two novices from the Exum School of Mountaineering. He’s spending the summer in the Teton mountains of Wyoming, hustling work as a climbing guide because he needs money. A three-month expedition to Mount Everest last spring put him deeply in debt. There’s a pack of flesh—hungry creditors on his trail. He’s holed up in a camper mounted on a ’69 pickup with two bald tires and a starburst crack in the windshield.

He removes his warm-up suit to lead the climb in black spandex pants. At age forty-one, Bridwell has the body of a collegiate wrestler, but his face is cracked and rangy, corrugated and hard. It’s the face of a great character actor or country & western singer, except that Bridwell’s dues have been paid on cold mountains and harrowing rock walls. He once bivouacked at 9000 feet in Alaska in a Hefty garbage bag. He’s shackled himself to so many ledges that he developed bleeding hemorrhoids that had to be surgically removed.

He’ll lead the two paying clients and me up a route named Open Book. Bridwell, smiling, christens it the Last Great Problem of the Tetons.

For him to be guiding beginners is as pathetic as Dwight Gooden pitching in a Police Athletic League. Earning a living is humbling for a fulltime mountaineer, and Bridwell has been a janitor, an oil-field roughneck and a stunt cameraman. “There aren’t many people who’ve managed to be a failure for this long a time,” he says ruefully. Even his fortunes as a climbing guide seem uncertain, for it’s a vocation that, like being a waiter, is three parts élan, one part personal grooming. Guides at the Exum School live by their reputations with clients. Bridwell, one of the foremost superalpinists in America, has been dressed down for haunting the school office looking for work.

He gets us safely to the top of Open Book, and we’re high on the wave of accomplishment. He leads us to a lunch spot beside a frothing brook, a setting that elicits a surge of gratitude for all things wholesome in the world. Bridwell proceeds to pass out six Hostess Tastykakes and unroll a pack of Camel nonfilters from the cuff of his climbing tights. In just such a setting, he recalls, blowing blue smoke, he once saw a UFO. “It was cruising down the Yosemite Valley, flashing blue lights,” he says. “It took a sharp left and then flew out of sight.”

His clients, a Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon and his wife, stare at each other. The stare says, “What is this guy on?”

THE LINE BETWEEN BEING A FULL-TIME mountain climber and being down and out is usually blurred. When Bridwell smiles, there’s a glint of wire – cheap, temporary bridgework he’s worn for years since losing some teeth when he was hit by a falling rock in the French Alps. “My situations sort of fucked for taking care of stuff like that,” he says.

There are subcultures of full-time climbers in places like Boulder and Lake Tahoe, where they bang nails while their contemporaries scale the alp of success. A climber wants the respect of society, but he can’t take a straight job or he’ll slip from the front rank, or slip and die for being out of shape. Most climbers are in their twenties. They soon tire of the underclass. They, too, go to graduate school.

But Bridwell is in it for the long haul; he’s a career mountaineer. For nearly fifteen summers, his home was Yosemite National Park, world Mecca of rock climbing, where for some it’s an outlaw sport, a game of dodging park rangers to avoid paying for campsites or food. “Every good, upstanding climber has spent a night in the Yosemite jail,” says Bridwell. He was once brought before a judge on charges of showering in the Yosemite Lodge. “The judge was itching to get me,” says Bridwell. “He thought I had too much power with the climbers and some rangers.” For his offense, Bridwell was barred from entering the park for six months, “banished from my kingdom,” as he says.

He was king of the rat pack, the leader of the low-lifes, the master of unreality. On the Ansel Adams walls, he was the senior climber of his generation, and at night he presided over Yosemite After Dark, a scene of juvenile delinquency and substance abuse. “I was sort of the Richard Alpert of climbing,” Bridwell says. John Bachar confirms this: “Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been drug king.” Another climbing rat, John Long, describes Bridwell as “an escapist from boredom and mundane things and an occasional abuser of everything including himself.”

Balancing the degeneracy was his climbing record. Along with Long and Billy Westbay, in 1975 Bridwell became the first to climb the world’s most famous cliff, El Capitan, in a single day; afterward the three were borne triumphantly into Yosemite’s Mountain Room bar, where hundreds drank them to oblivion. Three years later, Bridwell spent twelve days leading the first ascent of the Sea of Dreams route on El Capitan, then considered the world’s hardest rock climb.

“I like to pick routes that all these great guys have tried and failed on,” he says. The Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska, was obvious: a molar-shaped mountain whose vicious East Face had repulsed no fewer than ten parties, including some of the sport’s biggest names. Bridwell joined Mugs Stump to make a 1981 attempt. Packing their rucksacks the eve of the climb, they passed whiskey back and forth. Soon it was after midnight, and the bottle was empty. “We started realizing we were sort of drunk,” Stump told Climbing magazine, “and we were asking each other, ‘Should we even go to sleep? We may as well just start.'”

There are climbers who say they do it for perfect consciousness, the slow trudge toward the peace that surpasses understanding, but Bridwell seems to be a Type T, a thrill seeker. Psychologist Frank Farley, who developed the theory of Type Ts, includes anyone driven to a life of constant stimulation – daredevils, gangsters, drinkers who drive drunk for the added excitement. Four and a half days after stepping boozily up to the base of Moose’s Tooth, Bridwell and Stump reached the top. They climbed at a breakneck pace, lowering the risk of avalanches and falling rocks by speeding through the “death zone.”

“I HATE CLIMBING,” PEGGY BRIDWELL SAYS, FUMING. “It takes him away from home too much, and he doesn’t make enough money.” We’re closing down the bar at the Tahoe House in Tahoe City, California, where the mountaineer’s wife has come off her waitressing shift. Bridwell drove home the night before after finishing his guide work and turned over to Peggy $200, his earnings after deducting enough for carb work to get his truck running. Peggy is dressed in a dirndl, her uniform, but the resemblance to Heidi ceases there. She’s a sassy blonde from New Brunswick, New Jersey. “He’s getting too old,” she says. “I think he should find another profession.”

“I’m going to do this till I die,” says Bridwell.

“Then you’ll do it a single man, because I’m not going to be waiting around,” says Peggy.

Actually, you can tell they’re in love. Bridwell spoils her with presents he can’t afford, and Peggy, like faithful Penelope, is always waiting. This time he’s home for only three days before taking off for western China to lead a fifty-two-day expedition for a U.S. trekking company. The comings and goings are rough on a marriage. “It’s almost like you don’t know each other,” says Bridwell. “You don’t just jump in the sack. It’s not like that at all. There’s usually quite a period of reacquainting, with me bitching and she bitching. That’s our way, actually.”

He doesn’t want to go to China to lead rich clients up a 24,000-foot mountain he suspects will be only a snow slog. But he made no money for three months while on Mount Everest. That was when the collection men started calling Peggy. After Everest, Bridwell flew to Bangkok for rest and recreation, clearing airport customs only to be told by an official to call his wife.

“Goddamn you, get your ass home,” Peggy ordered. “Don’t you ever do this again. If you don’t start supporting this family, I’m leaving.”

Bridwell says Peggy and he married when they knew she was pregnant. They wanted to provide their child with a secure nest. “When parents come and go, it’s brutal,” says Bridwell, whose own father, an airline pilot, married and divorced his mother three times. Raised in seven states and two foreign countries, Bridwell had neither friends nor girlfriends. “In Yosemite I felt comfortable and accepted for the first time in my life,” he says. “I immediately grew up there. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed with climbing so long.”

But he agonizes about whether climbing is creating insecurities all over again for his own son, Layton, named after a famous rock climber. Bridwell’s son is an angel-faced six-year-old who “just goes crazy” when his father is away. He told a telephone caller last spring, “My daddy’s not here. He’s on Everest, and he’s not coming, back.”

Bridwell takes a sip of his Grand Marnier. Peggy inclines her glass toward bartender Kenny for another white wine. “Now I’m getting a buzz on,” she says.

Some asshole called from Citicorp and read her the riot act, she tells Bridwell. He responds that he has a plan to make money. He’ll offer the first guide service for Himalayan peaks above 26,000 feet. He’ll operate out of Katmandu, where Peggy and Layton can come live.

“I have no desire to be in Katmandu, without running water or toilets,” objects Peggy. “Uh-uh. I’ll meet you in Hong Kong or Bangkok for shopping.”

“You won’t meet me in Bangkok,” says Bridwell. “My other wives are there.”

“You really want to get laid while you’re home, don’t you?” says Peggy. “Say that again and it’ll be another fifty-two days.”

AS EVERYONE KNOWS, THE REAL MOUNTAINS ARE not in Patagonia or Alaska; they’re packed like triple-rowed shark’s teeth along the boundaries between China, India, Pakistan and Nepal. Himalayan routes are so arduous and summits so high that, traditionally, a series of permanent camps is set up, threaded together by ropes and supplied, for the most part, by paid Sherpas. This is mountaineering as warfare, with all the logistical hassles and grim determination of the siege of Stalingrad.

But siege-style climbing has gone out of fashion in recent years, replaced by leaner and gutsier superalpine ascents. You’d think that with Bridwell’s phenomenal record on Cerro Torre and the Moose’s Tooth, he’d be playing an important role. Yet this has not been the case. “For years I’ve made it known I’d like to go into the higher ranges, but that doesn’t pull a lot of weight,” he says. “Those are things you get invited on because of who you know.”

One thing is certain: it hasn’t been a question of ability. Bridwell would have been ideal on the East Face of Mount Everest, which was the most celebrated U.S. expedition since Americans reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain for the first time in 1963 via the South Col. A permit to attempt the East Face, on the Tibetan side of Everest, was granted in 1981. Bridwell was nominated by expedition member Eric Perlman but was blackballed repeatedly. Says Perlman, “The minutes will show that every time we had a team meeting, I asked, ‘How come Jim Bridwell is not on this team? What’s going on here?'” Bridwell’s disreputable image makes him unpalatable to some climbers, Perlman says. Getting on a major expedition “is not like the all-star game,” he says. “Nobody goes through the roster and sees who has the hottest batting average. It’s who you know, who owes you favors, who’s sleeping with whom.”

What effectively was an all-star expedition was fielded two years later to attempt Everest via the West Ridge, without bottled oxygen. Ever since the great Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner climbed Everest without oxygen in 1978, high-altitude mountaineering has changed utterly. Messner argued he was the first to conquer the 29,028-foot summit by “fair means,” without bringing it down to his level. In 1980, Messner changed the game once more by climbing Everest without Sherpas in an astonishing three-day solo. By such feats of superalpinism, he believes, the great problems of the Himalayas will fall.

But climbing faster and lighter is a dangerous gambit, and superalpinism has exacted a horrible toll. Chris Chandler, one of the strongest U.S. climbers, died attempting the third-highest peak, Kanchenjunga, in the dead of winter, accompanied by only his wife and one Sherpa. At least eleven people have perished in the past four years on Everest while climbing in superalpine style.

The 1983 American West Ridge team was lucky to escape without fatalities. John Roskelly developed acute altitude sickness, nearly drowning in the fluid that drained into his lungs. The team, widely hailed as the strongest group of Americans ever, aborted the climb soon after. Bridwell, a pal of many of them since the great Yosemite days, had wanted desperately to go as a video cameraman. He’d even crashed a training camp held the previous winter in Aspen. “Bridwell hopped in the car with me to go to Colorado to try to get himself on the expedition,” says climber Steve McKinney, “but the team had already been selected and there was nothing he could do.”

When Bridwell finally did get invited to “the only mountain anyone’s ever heard of,” it was not with a team or in a style he would have chosen. The 1985 American West Ridge Direct Expedition laid siege to Mount Everest with twenty alpinists, twelve Sherpas and 30,000 feet of fixed rope. The largely inexperienced group elected Bridwell climbing leader but in the end was not strong enough to advance men and supplies high enough up the eight-mile route. Dan Larson, the expedition treasurer, partly blames Bridwell’s short-comings as an organization man.

“If you look at the great leaders on Everest, they’re guys like Chris Bonington, who has an Apple computer with him,” Larson says. “Bonington can tell you with a flick of the buttons what it’s going to take to put two men on the summit. Bridwell’s attitude was not to work things out in advance but to sort of wing it.”

“Beginners on Everest” is how Bridwell labels the debacle. He “absolutely hated” taking responsibility for thirty-two individuals and a small Matterhorn of gear. “That’s the last time I’ll ever be climbing leader of a big expedition,” he says. “It’s not my style to put up with a lot of personalities.”

Bridwell led the dangerous and difficult climb down low, but higher up he was ineffective. He had been hit by three intestinal infections, and he vomited and coughed up blood from altitude sickness. Some blamed his smoking and drinking, but he won’t apologize for his unwholesome habits. On the eve of the last summit bid by Jay Smith and Rob Anderson, Bridwell took five hits of a mind-altering chemical and chanted Tibetan prayers for their success.

COPPER MANTRA BELLS, A BLOWGUN from Borneo and a lacquered Chinese trunk are illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the open door. Layton, sipping apple juice, is hypnotized by the Saturday-morning cartoons. At a pink range, Bridwell fries eggs and bacon. Still in bed, Peggy shouts from the back of the trailer, “I can’t stand the smell of breakfast.”

The telephone rings and Bridwell answers. “Who said that?” he says edgily. “Wrong…. How’m I getting mad? … Well, she paid parts of bills.”

Peggy appears and hisses, sotto voce, “Don’t tell them where I work, or they’ll attach my paycheck.” She shuffles over to the pink kitchen sink and looks out the window. This is not a modern mobile-home community, double-wides laid out trimly like suburban estates. No, this is Dogpatch on Lake Tahoe, where the Bridwells’ home is a secondhand trailer set among International school buses with stovepipes jurting from windows. The Bridwells’ yard is the final resting place for a bashed ironing board, a toilet tank, a seatless chair and an open bag of kitty litter.

“This Everest thing really ate me up,” says Jim into the receiver. “You won’t be able to get ahold of me, I’m leaving for China tonight for fifty-two days…. … They’re sending an advance to my wife…. … Um, maybe three days.”

Peggy turns on the kitchen tap and discovers what Jim has known since waking up: the water in the trailer park has been turned off to repair the main. She swears a blue streak.

“Mommy!” Layton shouts as a commercial comes on. “Here they are! Switchblades!”

“Look here,” Peggy says to him. “I have no money.”

Jim snarls into the phone, “We’re not worried about American Express going broke!” Eventually, he settles down. “Okay, okay, go ahead.” He writes down a name and address. “G.C. Services in Sacramento? Okay. Yeah, yeah.”

Then he hangs up. “That’s the same guy who called and gave me shit about attaching my wages,” Peggy says.

Taking a seat at the table in the claustrophobic kitchen, Jim shakes out a Camel and sighs, drawing smoke as though it could soothe everybody’s nerves. Peggy’s gaze wanders to Layton’s, his attention torn from the television by what even he understands to be an air of moroseness. A friend has given Bridwell two tickets to a rock concert at a nearby ski area, and he wonders aloud if he ought to drive over and scalp them.

Instantly, he recognizes the idea for what it is: an irresponsible way to spend his last day home. Peggy and Layton eye each other apprehensively.

Then Bridwell announces he’ll take his wife and son rafting on the Truckee River. He owns his own white-water raft, spongy and orange, visible in the yard through the window above the pink sink, where Peggy now turns, in great relief, to contemplate the breakfast dishes. Layton happily returns to the TV in time to accompany the Transformers jingle. Suddenly, water bursts into the sink as service is restored. A gusher splashes off the stacked plates and onto the counter and floor. “Water!” Peggy shouts. “We have water!”

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