He talks with a long, swaggering drawl and sharp, concentrated intonations. Half cowboy, half Indian. It’s like listening to John Wayne and Crazy Horse speak at the same time. Our morning began in his humble abode discussing the state of the human spirit.
He said, “You have to summon a special kind of energy to climb 5.15 or V14. It’s incredible. But I’m more concerned with where it’s all coming from. Are they motivated by the climb itself, the rock? Or is it comin’ from some video they saw on the internet?”
He put another log into the wood-burning stove, walked into the kitchen and poured himself some coffee.
He went on: “I’m just tryin’ to make sense of it all, you know? How are we supposed to evolve when we’re so caught up in material things? Society is so anxious. We want so much and we want it all, now. Man ... you need to work at it, you need to put in the time in order to be rewarded.”
The winter sun shown through the clouds as it crept over the walls of lower Yosemite Valley. Soft light surrounded the small, one-room cabin, lending an ethereal glow to our movements. It was still very cold outside.
“Ron,” I said, “the sun should be hitting the Cookie Cliff by now. It could be warm enough to climb.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I need more wood for this stove.”
We went outside to the woodpile. Ron grabbed his axe and lifted it high above his head. With his smooth, arcing blow, the log gave way to a tiny split. He swung again and the log split in two. He split those two into four.
“You wanna try?” he said.
I picked up the axe and swung as hard as I could, making the tiniest crack. I went for it again and made another small crack.
He said, “You gotta hit it in the same spot a few times over. Then it will finally go.”
I gave it two more swings and could not hit the same spot twice.
“You’re working against it,” he said. “It’s like climbing. You gotta work with what you have. You look for the weakness in the rock, relax, and follow that line. See, you were hitting right on a knot here and swinging way too hard. It’s all about technique.”
I swung again and the log remained in one piece.
“Man, you gotta let go of that ego,” he said. “You’re trying too hard. Back in the day I remember standing in the Camp 4 parking lot with Bridwell. I picked up a rock and threw it at a flagpole that was pretty far away – and hit the thing. Bridwell turned to me and said, ‘You mean to do that?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I wanted to hit it but I wasn’t really trying.’ I never forgot about that, and I applied the same approach to climbing, to life.”
I thought about that.
Eventually, I split the log into four pieces, but it took me 12 hits as opposed to Ron’s four.
“What about the Cookie Cliff?” I said. “The sun should be on it.”
He put another log up for me. “Try it again,” he said.
Again, I could not hit it in the same place twice. It was frustrating. I really wanted to go climbing. I glanced at the spot that I wanted to hit, looked away and gave it a casual swing. It split in two!
“See,” he said, “you let go that time. It’s not hard.”
I split them into smaller pieces and thought about Red Zinger, Meat Grinder, Wheat Thin – all the routes that would be in the sun by now.
Ron set up another log for me to hit. I swung at it twice, to no avail.
“Remember what I told you,” he said. “Don’t try so hard.”
I repositioned the log and gave it another go. The axe landed at least three inches off my mark. I swung again and missed. Damn it.
“Ron,” I said, still thinking about the Cookie. “Who did the first free ascent of Butterballs?”
I turned around and Ron was gone. He had left me six more logs to split. The sun was much higher; the clouds had parted and dropped well below the horizon – a beautiful day to go climbing.
I took off my flannel shirt, raised the axe high above my head, and tried my best to let go.