Out of Mud and Hail

by John Long
Spring 2010

In the early 1970s, a rock and a lightning bolt had a crazy romance and a slew of wayward kids they named Stonemasters. Our lullaby was Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? Our thrill was to jump into the unknown as far as we could. Those who jumped first hit a geyser of inspiration that swept us far from home and into the wild places of the world. Of course, the romance between the rock and the lightning bolt is mythology. The rest I’ll try to explain.

We started in Southern California as a handful of high school kids who got together most winter weekends to climb at Joshua Tree and Tahquitz. Summers we spent in Yosemite, on the granite walls – El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel, Mount Watkins – first climbed in the 1950s and ’60s, during Yosemite’s “golden age.” It took us a few seasons to climb past our fears. Then the Stonemasters busted some moves.

Some Stonemasters flashed in a single day rock faces that once took a week to ascend. Others freed the classic big-wall routes, using hands and feet, with ropes only to safeguard a fall. A few souls – bold or crazy, we could never decide – ditched the ropes altogether. After a few short seasons, the impossible became routine. The Stonemasters embraced all comers, sweeping along climbers of every age, gender and ability in an avalanche of exuberance that California could no longer contain. As big-wall pioneer Yvon Chouinard foretold, Yosemite became a springboard to the Alps, Baffin Island, the Karakoram, Patagonia and beyond.

We cast off from Yosemite dreaming of blue sky and perfect rock – and half the time found ourselves clawing up mud in a hailstorm. Mountains and jungles scoffed at our plans; the outcome was always unknowable. Adventure, we found, was not about gymnastic moves or mental steel but the head-on collision between what we wanted and what we got. I could never have imagined – nor wanted to get – dysentery in the middle of Borneo, to have to brave landslides in Papua New Guinea or rockfall on Norway’s Troll Wall, or get stranded at the bottom of Angel Falls in Venezuela following a world-record rappel for some jackass film project.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” became the mantra for many of us as we found ourselves tied to a stake half a mile up a rock face, too late to go down, with the only crack dead-ended just ahead. We could not escape ourselves. Shriveled with fear, we’d beg for something different, something better. Only when we finally surrendered to the hateful gale and battered hands and the whole glimmering catastrophe, could we experience the freedom we had sought all along. There were magnificent times, certainly, and a few famous moments; but we were fashioned out of mud and hail.

I count myself blessed to have seen many lands and peoples and faced scads of adventures with partners I loved and loathed. Decades later these experiences burn in my heart like torches, inspiring me to keep jumping into the unknown, where life unfolds in color – rarely according to plan, but always frank and exhilarating. And every time I jump, I realize the Stonemasters were just the next group chasing an age-old dream.

Mankind has always sought the sparkle of distant stars, tromped up ridges toward secret summits, dreaming of a fantastic elsewhere. One step in that direction, and past, present and future become one giant river in flood. That’s why we never saw a torch change hands from the Golden Age climbers to us Stonemasters, or from the Stonemasters to the many who follow today. The torch is always in transit. The dream is always becoming.

About the Author

John Long is the editor of The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies (Dean Fidelman curated the photos). Last fall Rock & Ice Magazine recognized John as “the most influential climber in the world” of the past 25 years. He won the 2006 Literary Award from the American Alpine Club, its highest honor, and his short stories have
been translated into many languages. While still in high school, John and friends became the original Stonemasters, and he is the chief chronicler for his tribe.