Ron Kauk spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school living on the floor of Yosemite Valley in Camp 4, a home away from home for climbers. That was 1974, and at the time free climbs (climbs in which the rope and other equipment can be used for protection in case of a fall, but not for a boost) were rated for difficulty on a scale of 5.0 to 5.11. Word traveled fast around Camp 4 when the easygoing 16-year-old "flashed" the 5.11 climb called Butterballs, a vertical crack one inch wide and two knuckles deep that runs 100 feet straight up a granite wall. To flash a climb is to zip up it on sight. Butterballs had been climbed only twice before, both times after extended struggles and numerous falls.
The summer of '74 ended with Kauk (pronounced "Cowk") and a partner 1,200 feet up El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite monolith that dominates Yosemite's western entrance. El Cap had first been climbed in 1957-58. Kauk and his partner had started up a route known as the Nose just to see how far they could get in one day. It was Sunday, and school would begin Monday. Kauk wanted to keep going, to climb right through the leviathan overhang looming above them—"God, the Great Roof, and it was right up there!" he recalls-but they rappelled down and dutifully went to school, with bloody knuckles to remind them how sensational the summer had been.
Too sensational. The next day Kauk went back to the valley, located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range in California, for good.
The '70s were explosive years in Yosemite. Competition to pioneer new routes up any available surface was so intense that climbers seemed to be engaged in a round-robin of vertical races. It was a time when a climber could make his creative mark on the rock—achieve immortality—and in this arena the teenage Kauk became a phenomenon. He was 5'8" and 145 pounds, wiry and muscular, with dark, deep-set eyes and long, dark hair that he usually wore tucked under a headband. Climbing shirtless, he looked like an Indian. He listened to Jimi Hendrix tapes during bivouacs on big wall climbs. He fell under the wing of Jim Bridwell, the granddaddy of Yosemite Valley climbers, a character who wore bell-bottoms and paisley shirts as he climbed.
June 1, 1986
"I remember when Ron first came to the valley," says Bridwell, now 41, a professional guide and the leader of a party that last year came within 600 feet of climbing China's unconquered 24,050-foot Mount Spender. "He'd been in the valley only about a week. We did this climb called Outer Limits, and I watched him pretty carefully. When we came down, I believe my words were, 'He's going to be the best.' "
On longer climbs, Bridwell and Kauk were often joined by Dale Bard, a flyweight with a hummingbird's metabolism and superhuman strength. The trio was referred to as the "Mod Squad," and they put a new 5.11 route up Geek Towers, which rises beside Yosemite Falls for 800 feet. On another climb, with John Long and John Bachar, Kauk freed the 1,200-foot East Face of Washington Column, a 5.11 route called Astro Man. It was the most difficult big wall—a vertical climb over 1,000 feet—yet to be ascended free. "I guess you could think of it as being ahead of its time," says Kauk, casually. "People were really blown out about it, anyhow."
In 1975 Kauk and Bachar, a fellow boy wonder who was 18 at the time, broke the 5.12 barrier with Hotline, a 600-foot climb up a stark pinnacle on Elephant Rock, an area of giant shards of gray granite. Hotline begins as a crack that gets thinner and thinner for 150 feet, then fades into a sheer, blank face that compels the climber to traverse, using holds the size of dimes for his fingertips, and nothing for his feet.
"Maybe people thought of me like it was this young-lion thing," says Kauk, "but I was just so excited and so overwhelmed by the valley, that I didn't think about any of that stuff. All I wanted was to do the best climbs I could."
Nor was Kauk such an elitist that he dismissed aided climbs—climbing by engineering, construction and hard labor, pounding pitons, drilling expansion bolts, standing and hanging in slings, frequently enduring overnight bivouacs. He did nearly a score of aided climbs, one of them a new route named Mother Earth that required three days on the heavily shaded side of 2,000-foot Middle Cathedral.
He also free-climbed—and named—Sky, a 5.12 crack on the ear of Elephant Rock, which you get to by rappelling 165 feet down to a ledge from an 800-foot perch. But he's best known for free-climbing Tales of Power and Separate Reality. He had moved from Jimi Hendrix to Carlos Castaneda by the time these routes were conquered. Tales of Power is a dark streak on a backward-leaning wall, revealed to Kauk one spring morning in 1977. It was 90 feet and "a little more awesome than anything around, but meant to be climbed," he says. After five or six tries over six months he reached the ledge at the top...and saw 20 more feet of a Separate Reality, which took 10 more attempts for him to free. Its most intimidating section is a horizontal overhang extending 21 feet to the lip. It looms 800 feet above the road through Merced Canyon. This is what climbers call "exposed." Once up on the ledge that forms the base of Separate Reality, a narrowing crack is the only way out to the lip where an up-and-over move completes the climb. The climber has to inch along hanging upside down like a lizard, first with a fist and then, as the crack narrows, with his fingers wedged into the fissure. "The initial solid hand jams soon give way to the finger locks," reads the description of the route in Yosemite Climber. "These are used to make a gymnastic flip to gain a heel lock...followed by a stretch and a toe hooked over the lip.
"Getting the sequence correct is essential on these last moves," the book adds, as if a climber could forget this with 800 feet of air between his straining fingers and the next relatively secure expanse of rock.
From 1974 to 1978, Kauk's acrobatic ascents of valley walls stunned the best of Yosemite climbers. Even today, they'll say the climbing he did during those years was the most brilliant display of natural ability the valley has ever seen. Kauk, now 28, is still in the valley, working as an instructor and guide at Yosemite Mountaineering School.
He has also become something of a celebrity since he climbed Lost Arrow Spire for Wide World of Sports in 1985. The final push of that two-day ascent was shown live. Lost Arrow is a 1,400-foot-high granite needle with 5.12 moves at the top. He climbed with Jerry Moffatt, a rock climber from England. "It's kind of weird," Kauk says of his recent acclaim. "I didn't do anything I hadn't been doing for years."
Making it look easy: That's what he has been doing for years. "What I remember most vividly is when he was six," says Kauk's mother, Susan. "Out front of the house in Belmont [Calif.] was an 80-foot pine tree, and the little sucker climbed to the top of that thing. I mean the very top. Came out to call him to dinner, and I hear this little voice going, 'I'm up heeere, Mommy.' "
At nine months, Ronnie had begun walking—"with assurance, not staggering around like normal babies," says Susan—and climbing in and out of his high chair; by nine years, he was going up the stairs on his hands. Soon the cliffs in the canyons behind the house began to beckon.
"When Ron climbs he dances," says a sometime partner, Kim Schmitz. "He floats. He makes it look so pretty. He reads the rock as if he had it memorized, and he's got the best footwork I've ever seen, bar none. He puts his foot down and doesn't move it an inch, anywhere—just puts it down right where he wants it, even on a hard climb that he's never done before. I've never seen him at a point where he starts to fumble around and misplace his feet. I've seen a lot of climbers, but I've never seen anyone close."
"He's like a cat in so many ways," says Beverly Johnson, who has climbed on El Cap with Kauk. "You can't get him to do anything he doesn't want to do. But mostly it's his grace on the rock. I've seen him move around on thin ledges of loose rock, unroped, and you'd no more worry about him falling off than you would a house cat on a fence."
One of Kauk's favorite words is "caz," short for casual. He uses it to describe climbs that are labeled "desperate" by most climbers. "Oh, it's pretty caz," he'll say. He also likes the expression "or somethin'." As in "It's a 5.11 or somethin'." He can be caz with such details, since he doesn't have to worry about them.
Along with the legends of Kauk's climbs go the tales of him as a free spirit, of the two sons by a woman he used to live with in the valley; and about how the waitresses at Tioga Pass Resort, a lodge where he once washed dishes, still bring him extra pancakes in the morning.
"Yeah, he could always con everybody in the neighborhood," says his mother. "If he had yard work to do, I'd go out and there'd be seven or eight little neighborhood kids doing his work." But with Kauk it's not all take: He invariably brings a cup of coffee to the old guard at Yosemite's Tioga entrance on his way to work each morning.
Ron's parents, Gary and Susan Go-forth, were divorced when Ron was one, and for eight years Susan raised him alone. In 1967 she married Elmer Kauk, who had his own son, Mitch, from a previous marriage.
"Ronnie was always small," Susan says. "But always the natural athlete. When he was 12, he tried out for Pop Warner football, and the coach turned him down because he was too small. It devastated him, turned him off team sports. All through high school, coaches tried—he was fantastic in gymnastics—but he wouldn't have anything to do [with the team]. He was independent as hell so that was it. When Mitch took him climbing, he discovered his thing. His heart's in Yosemite."
Kauk lives in a cabin near the climbing school in Yosemite. In the two parking spaces that make up the front yard sit a 1982 pickup that he bought with the money ABC paid him for climbing Lost Arrow and a '71 Chevy Nova with a floor shift and fat tires, which he bought for ex-girlfriend Sheryl Dondero. Sheryl, a Paiute Indian, left Ron recently, taking their daughter, Ronda, 2, with her. Lucy Parker, another ex-girlfriend, lives down in the valley with Kauk's sons Y-u-od-de (pronounced "Yody"), 8, and Lonnie, who is five.
"It looks like I've got kids all over the valley and I'm carefree Joe," Kauk says. "But I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world for what I've got going. It's as important to me as anything, that I've been able to have kids. It's not your standard procedure, and I wouldn't recommend to anyone to go out and have kids and not get married and that whole ball of wax, but it has worked for me, although it seems to work against you when people start talking about it. I'd say nothing in my life seems too regular."
His climbing reputation led him out of the valley in 1979 when John Roskelley, an American mountaineer, was forming a party to scale the sheer 3,000-foot East Face of Uli Biaho Tower, a stark, frozen mountain in Pakistan's Karakoram range. The ascent was Alpine-style: four climbers—Roskelley, Kauk, Schmitz and Bill Forrest—traveling fast and light in one push to the 19,957-foot summit. It was a rock climb on mountain-climbing terms, the most ambitious in history.
"I wanted to have the absolute top rock climber in the world with me," says Roskelley, who lives on a 40-acre farm near Spokane. "I had heard that Ron Kauk was the person to take."
The scariest part of Uli Biaho was the final trek to the base of the mountain. It was through a steep, icy, half-mile-long bobsled run for boulders loosened by the sun. "They came whizzing down like cannonballs, and if they tagged you you'd be wasted," says Kauk. "On the first day we started at 7 a.m. or some-thin', which was too late. I saw this huge rock about the size of a VW zoom down, and I was sure it had gotten someone. After that, I was looking for any way to get out of it."
"He wasn't used to getting bombarded by rocks," says Roskelley, who, after 15 years of mountain climbing, was.
But from the third day on they started at 2 a.m. to beat the boulders falling out of bed. They reached the summit of Uli Biaho 10 days later. "Between the four of us we'd done a lot of Grade VI climbs [aided climbs are rated with Roman numerals, VI being the most difficult designation at the time], and we knew that Uli Biaho was a grade harder than anything any of us had ever done," says Roskelley.
"The thing that impressed me most about Ron is that he didn't take chances," Roskelley goes on. "And he didn't risk his partners. One time he was leading way up high, in a real ugly place where flakes of stone kept breaking off. He could have free-climbed right through, but he stayed there and hammered in aid for us. He was placing bongs [wide aluminum pitons] and it was very, very difficult work. He kept yelling down and joking to us even though he was kind of scared."
"Ron is very human, and he's willing to admit that he has dark demons in his head, just like all of us. He doesn't try to hide it," says Schmitz, who is in his second year of recovery from an 80-foot fall in the Tetons that shattered both his legs. "We were climbing in Nevada and in one place where it was real exposed, he rushed some moves. When he got to the top he said, 'God, I hate getting like that, when I freak out and get scared. I can't do anything right.' Not many people would say stuff like that."
From the summit of Uli Biaho, it was downhill for Kauk for the next few months. In 1980 he was invited into the field for NBC's Survival of the Fittest, a made-for-TV contest pitting assorted iron men against one another in harrowing outdoors-related events. The film crew called the show "Dying for Dollars." But neither the events nor the competitors—which included Bob Coffman, top-ranked U.S. decathlete and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team—were lightweight.
Kauk won several events before a white-water swim was scheduled. "The survival swim was horrendous," he says. "Big rapids. The day before we'd had a kayaking event, and a lot of people had flipped over. That's what happened to me. One guy, a marine, got stuck underneath this rock and almost drowned. That night, he's admitting to all of us that he thought he was going to die and all this stuff, and I'm seeing myself going 'Blib-blib-blib'—because the next day we had to swim the same course. Everybody's getting a little bit weird about it, going 'I don't know if we should do this, maybe we should complain about it.'
"So I had this plan: Forget it. I figured, I'm not going to swim this course. It won't hurt me to not get any points—I could have jogged through the last event and still won. So I swam down the course a ways and pulled out and said I cramped up. The TV producer went berserk."
"Ron's not a follower at all," says Mike Hoover, one of the creators of Survival of the Fittest and a climber-cinematographer who has made 11 surreptitious trips to Afghanistan to film the guerrilla war for television. "Like all climbers, if something doesn't make sense to him, there's no way he'll do it. The marines were great to work with: Tell a marine to go through that brick wall, and he'll go straight for it. But a climber is as independent as a rock."
Hoover might have understood Kauk, but that didn't stop him from deducting points for not finishing the course. After the penalty Kauk narrowly lost to Kevin Swigert, a skier on the U.S. cross-country team.
"Ron's ego is as low-key as any ego for a top athlete I've ever seen," says Roskelley. "In a way it's because he hasn't ever gotten any recognition; he hasn't enjoyed the benefits of being the best. But he's stuck with it, because that's the way climbing is."
Climbing is at least as addictive as any other sport. And because Kauk is the best he may be the most hooked. He recalls that when Lonnie had just been born, "I was starting to convince myself that it was time to get it together. You figure you just got to do it, because that's the way it's got to be with kids. So I started doing that whole work thing."
The work thing never really panned out. Over the next few years Kauk spent time working for a National Park Service trail crew, rescuing climbers for the Yosemite Valley Rescue Team, shoveling snow at the Mammoth ski resort, retrieving four peregrine falcon eggs from a ledge 500 feet above the valley floor in a conservation project, chopping firewood, working construction and washing dishes. The last job lasted "for about two weeks. I tried to go climbing afterward, and my hands were like butter." He also worked in a pumice mine. "My first job there was to roll piles of rock. It was like San Quentin, man."
Kauk earned $1,200 in half an hour "or somethin' " as a stunt man on The Last Ninja, a TV movie. That job came during a stint as a ranch hand in Bishop. Calif. "It was Sheryl's uncle's ranch. Indian families are tight, and I really like being a part of that. We'd ride his horses, mess with the cows, brand calves, feed chickens, rope a little bit. I had it made." He also agreed to be an after-dinner speaker for the ultra-exclusive Bohemian Club in San Francisco, where he told climbing stories and showed slides of himself in improbable positions. "The only slide show I ever gave before that was in a bar in Squaw Valley," he says. He arrived at the Bohemian Club in a pickup truck with hay and garbage in the back, wearing a borrowed suit and shoes. He forgot his notes. The president of the American Alpine Club encountered Kauk in the men's room and gently assisted him in tying his necktie, since Ron didn't know how. He was a hit.
But to Kauk's surprise the speech turned out to be a freebie (he had expected to earn his gas money, at least), and it was around this time that he decided to resume climbing.
"The motivation to get back in climbing was sort of money," says Kauk. "I was just tired of living in campgrounds or somethin'." First came a third engagement for Survival of the Fittest '83, for which he wasn't in top shape and "got fourth or somethin'." When he was asked to free-climb the Nose on El Cap for an episode of The American Sportsman, he got more serious. He led Werner Braun and Johnson to the Great Roof. 2,000 feet up, farther than anyone had ever climbed free on the Nose. Hoover followed with a television camera.
He was invited on expeditions to Aconcagua, in the Argentinean Andes, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, and to Mount Everest, but Ronda had just been born so he stayed in the valley. In the summer of '83, nine years after his first summer in Yosemite, he worked for the Park Service building log cabins. "Laborer," he says. "Carried buckets of cement and logs up a hill. But every day after work I'd go to Tuolumne Meadows and work out. I got into a disciplined schedule: Monday, Wednesday and Friday I'd climb, Tuesday and Thursday I worked out hard—weights, jump rope, running, fingertip pull-ups."
And he was bouldering again. Scattered amidst the cedars and ponderosa pines of Camp 4 lie rocks as high as 20 feet. The strength of a gorilla and the balance of an acrobat are needed to scale them. "I was getting kind of jacked up, getting my confidence back," Kauk says. "I freed this 5.12 boulder problem, down in Tuolumne Meadows. And I did Midnight Lightning in Camp 4. That's always been kind of the super test. I freed it when I was 21 or somethin'—it took me weeks of working on it, 50 or 60 tries. It waited about five years or somethin' before anyone did it again."
On Midnight Lightning the crucial move is a spider-monkey swing 15 feet off the ground. The climber must suspend himself by the fingertips of his left hand, swing around a ledge of rock and propel himself far enough up, about four feet, to grab a precarious fingertip hold with his right hand. To do that he has to create momentum from stillness.
"Ron has an unfair advantage, you know," says Bridwell. "Look at his hands. They were made for climbing. His fingers are curved like hooks. If he puts his hand flat on the table, only the fingertips touch."
In August 1984, Kauk took his current job with the mountaineering school. And that autumn, he climbed some of his old routes to make sure he still had it: Astro Man, Hotline, Tales of Power. Belaying him from below and following on aid when he needed it was Braun, Kauk's favorite partner. "When you climb up some rock and come face-to-face with this guy sitting there meditating, that'll be Werner," says Kauk.
Braun lives mostly in a bashed-up '69 Pontiac Le Mans. Recently he considered hacking off the roof of the car. "But it gets a little bit radical up here in the winter." he says. He also has an old van that looks like a temple inside, and he burns incense there. Braun has been almost deaf since birth. "Ron and I don't need to talk when we climb," he says. "We communicate mostly by instinct."
Early in 1985 Kauk, Mike Graber and Galen Rowell, an acclaimed climber-photographer-author, made the first winter ascent of the East Face of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, at 14,494 feet the highest peak in the 48 states.
The scariest moment on that climb occurred when they heard what Kauk thought for sure was the thunder of a "death avalanche."
"It was so quiet you could hear ringing in your ears, and suddenly it came from out of nowhere over the mountain," Kauk says. "I thought, 'The mountain is coming down. Prepare.' I shut my eyes as tight as they could go and smashed my cheekbone into the rock. Agh!" Seconds later Kauk realized that what he had heard was the echo of a jet fighter.
His comeback complete, Kauk found himself involved in the Free Solo Debate, which currently rages up and down Yosemite Valley. The controversy is also known as the "Bachar/Kauk thing," much as Kauk and Bachar would like to avoid that label, which implies animosity. They respect each other's achievements and remember their times together up on the walls. But lately their achievements have been very different.
Bachar often climbs alone, with no rope at all: free solo. Good climbers will occasionally venture off unroped, usually for speed and efficiency, but Bachar pushes it, in conspicuous places, such as LIFE and PEOPLE. He believes free solo is special because your life is at stake with every move. He calls the rope a psychological aid—which is probably accurate.
"It's a completely different ball game," says Bachar, who, when hanging around the Tuolumne Grill in Yosemite with other climbers, seems like a man with a boulder on his shoulder. "It takes a different kind of concentration. A lot of times the only contact you have with the rock amounts to the area of a postage stamp, and you're a hundred feet up. It's really exhilarating. Most of the time I'm not scared at all, I'm just cruisin', it's great. It gives you a really deep understanding about yourself that you don't get on a roped climb. I don't know, it's like you're floating."
"John is the ultimate in pushing himself mentally up there," says Rick Cashner, who has taken two free-solo falls, suffering a concussion and a broken arm each time. "But John is very competitive. Very. John is the most competitive guy in the valley. That's why he free-solos."
"I am a competitive climber," admits Bachar. "I solo because no one else is doing it at my level—there's a lot of 5.10 routes I've soloed, and even some 5.11s, and no one's repeated them."
"I can see it, but I hate to believe it," says Kauk, who has free-soloed the 1,500-foot North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, which includes 5.10 moves. "Bachar is heavy on my mind, like a bad commercial or a song you don't like and can't get out of your head.
"For a long time Bachar and I were great friends, we kind of came from the ground up together. We did some big walls together. Then I eased off and was doing my work and stuff. He took over and, man, he was king of the mountain for a while. He put up some unbelievable routes. Then I get back into it, and it doesn't take me long to be right back where I want to be. And he starts doing all these free solos.
"Free solo is kind of like martial arts. You don't just learn to beat up people and then show everybody how badass you are. You don't just do it to get an ego boost. If you do, something's screwy. I used to not want to tell anybody about it when I free-soloed, because it gets recognized, doesn't it? I'd really like to be able to slow things down and have climbers think about themselves, use climbing for a tool to better themselves, not to try to impress people."
Kauk is on El Capitan with a partner. They are on the East Buttress, not a sheer route up the face, and maybe only 1,600 feet high, but it's a classic one-day climb with variety: chimneys that must be stemmed, cracks that must be jammed, overhangs and teensy face holds.
They are about halfway up. Below them the Merced River wends through lush El Capitan Meadow. To the climbers' left is the imposing Nose. Heavy weather is on the way. A steel-gray cloud is suspended low in the sky, and muted thunder rolls up the valley.
"The valley is an intense place," says Kauk as he climbs. "You go anywhere else and it's not the same. You go to the ocean, or you go down to Fresno or whatever, it's like it's all too easy or somethin'. Werner [Braun] still says that. He says he has to keep climbing in the valley because everything else in life just seems too easy."
Kauk and his partner can see the specks of two other climbers high on the glistening granite, on a route called Bad Sign. They're about three days high. For some reason they're shouting to each other in a mock language—"Just to be weird," they will say later, when asked about the gibberish. They were merely "amped up." ("Some people who climb big walls nowadays are lunatics, real psychos," says Kauk when he hears this. "It ain't like it used to be.")
"I feel like going for speed now," Kauk tells his partner, leaving the narrow ledge they had been on. "I may be slow getting up in the morning, but once I get on the rock I zoom." He moves around a corner out of sight, and in no time the 150-foot rope stops being drawn through the partner's hands.
"Off belay!" shouts Kauk, and it's the partner's turn to climb the pitch. Around the corner lies a tricky traverse on a bulging rock with the thinnest of footholds. The spot is completely exposed—the next thing under his feet is El Cap Meadow. The move is a giant step, a stretch left, across and down to a foothold consisting of half an inch of rock protruding from the flat wall face. The partner makes his move. The ball of his left foot is stable on the nub, but when he commits his body to following by shifting all his weight to the left foot, the foot slips off, and he "peels" toward the meadow.
He scarcely has time to gasp before the rope pulls tight. Kauk, some 120 feet above, has caught him. The partner hangs there in his harness, hands against the rock, feet scraping it, scrabbling to find friction. He looks down for a foothold and is unable to ignore the ground. 800 feet below. His thought is how scenic the view is, and he is surprised he is so caz about it. He's secure in the knowledge that he is being belayed by the best rock climber in the world.
Recovering, the partner completes the pitch and pops onto the relative comfort of the ledge where Kauk is resting, his shoes off. Kauk is leaning back against a rock, his bare feet pointed skyward. He sometimes wears no socks in order to gain more feel in the shoes, which have soles of soft, smooth rubber, like a racing tire.
From the ledge, Kauk zooms off again. He flows around another corner. This time he reappears above, on a sharp edge that spears skyward at a 70-degree angle.
He is a bright apparition—red climbing pants with blue chambray shirt tied around his waist—against a blue sky streaked with thin clouds. He climbs as if there were rungs on the rock, running the rope out 50, 60 feet without pausing to place protection for himself.
He makes it all look so easy as he climbs into the sky.