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Climbing legend Jim ‘the Bird’ Bridwell dies at age 73

Jim Bridwell died this morning, February 16, at age 73 in Palm Springs, California, after months of suffering from Hepatitis C. His family believes the disease was probably contracted from a tattoo he got during an expedition in Borneo in the 1980s. A GoFundMe campaign was started in January to help pay for medical costs.

Nicknamed “the Bird,” Bridwell has been an icon of American climbing for decades. He arrived in Yosemite as a wide-eyed 17-year-old in the early 1960s and eventually learned from the foremost climbers of Yosemite’s Golden Age, including Royal Robbins, Layton Kor (for whom he later named his son), Chuck Pratt and Frank Sacherer.

Bridwell wrote a story titled “Bird’s Eye View” for Alpinist 18, in which he recalled of Sacherer:

It seemed as though all Frank had to do was simply envision something wild and it came true. “I want to do the Nose in a day,” he said one night in Camp 4. If anyone else had said it, all the residents would have laughed. Instead we listened with awestruck silence, as Frank explained that if the Stoveleg Cracks went free, the remainder could be done in under twenty-four hours. In 1964 he took me on a reconnaissance of that pitch, and a year later, when he left to pursue his physics career, I felt as though he’d willed his vision, and the Valley, to my generation.

Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell and John Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose in 1975. [Photo] Courtesy of StoneMastersPress

Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell and John Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose in 1975. [Photo] Courtesy of StoneMastersPress

Bridwell merged the ideas of the Golden Age into the era of the Stonemasters as he mentored the new crop of up-and-coming climbing legends, including John Long, John Bachar, Ron Kauk, Billy Westbay and others. The Stonemasters pushed free climbing to new standards, and Bridwell is credited for introducing the letter subgrades to the Yosemite decimal system (a, b, c, d) when they realized that there was a wide range of difficulty among routes that were rated “5.10.” The grade of 5.11 was ushered in not too long after.

In a 1973 Mountain story titled “Brave New World,” Bridwell penned a manifesto that declared a new age on the vast stone walls of the Valley, with words that now seem prophetic of modern-day hard first free ascents:

The general concept of climbing in Yosemite is centred on the mystique of Big Walls. However, the glorious sweeping plains of sunlit granite that capture the imagination of the primary climbing urge have lost their lustrous aura. Advancements in equipment and, more precisely, in knowledge have stripped the mystery shrouding the ‘Big Walls,’ laying bare the boring and laborious logistics and the stifling repetition and tedium of placing one gadget after another into begrudging cracks. In more recent years an ever-growing vanguard of imaginative and progressive young climbers has been fostering a fast-moving renaissance of Yosemite free-climbing. Refined techniques, strength training, equipment improvements and purification of ethics have led to amazing new routes. Yesterday’s aid climb is today’s standard free climb. The pressure of the ever-evolving spirit within has started to be felt and is now expressing itself in the idealism of imaginative new routes, in the beauty of control of mind, and the precision of movement which is required for the execution of these route.

Bridwell was both a skilled aid and free climber in his own day. He was also known for his ingenuity as much as for his climbing prowess and his style of flamboyant clothing. He tinkered with piton designs, creating the first version of what became known as “beaks” or “peckers”–specialized pitons for thin cracks that are now considered essential gear for many aid routes.

After realizing Sacherer’s vision of climbing the Nose in a day in 1975 with Long and Westbay, Bridwell became one of the early climbers to take a fast-and-light strategy to the Greater Ranges. He made the second, and first complete ascent to the very summit of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route in 1979 with Steve Brewer, who happened to be traveling solo when the Bird crossed his path. The two climbed the route in 36 hours, and Bridwell fell an entire rope-length on the descent when the sling connecting him to an anchor failed, resulting in broken ribs, a chipped elbow and a bruised hip.

He wrote in Alpinist 18:

“Muy rapido, muy rapido,” the Italians shouted when we stumbled into their camp [after the 36-hour ascent]. Only half joking, I told them we moved so fast because we were frightened. Warmed by their soup and rum tea, I felt the pain fade into satisfaction: my wild, improbable vision had indeed taken form.

Bridwell went on to complete other notable ascents in Patagonia and Alaska, including Dance of the Woo-Li Masters on the Mooses Tooth in 1981 with Mugs Stump, which he returned to in 2001 with Spencer Pfinsten to add a more direct start. Of the minimalist style Stump and he employed on the route, Bridwell explained:

Just as Steve [Brewer] and I had on Cerro Torre, Mugs [Stump] and I minimized our gear for speed: eighteen pitons, a set of nuts, seven ice screws, four cams, four days’ worth of food and fuel. Mugs wanted to bring a bolt kit, but I insisted it was too heavy. The lower half of the climb consisted of avalanche chutes, and if a storm came in while we were still on the wall, retreat might be suicidal. The first clear day we timed the avalanches, trying to guess whether there was some hidden pattern. The night before we started, we drank a third of a bottle of scotch with hot tea: facing the next morning with a hangover somehow seemed easier.

Through the years, Bridwell established numerous Yosemite testpieces with partners who were often younger than he was: El Capitan’s Pacific Ocean Wall, with Fred East and Jay Fiske in 1975; Sea of Dreams, with Dale Bard and Dave Diegelman, 1975; and Zenyatta Mondatta, with Peter Mayfield and Charlie Row, 1981–all of which at the time received the hard aid rating of A5.

In a Mountain Profile of El Capitan for Alpinist 25, Tommy Caldwell recalled Bridwell’s inspiration:

His long hair and moustache, colorful headbands, and palatial, carpeted Camp 4 tent made [Bridwell] look like a 1970s rock star, but his broad shoulders and huge forearms turned him into a warrior. He took over the Camp 4 leadership role from [Royal] Robbins and, while he shared Robbins’ appetite for the unknown as well as his commitment to drill as little as possible, he carried out the quest in his own particular fashion. Bridwell’s hard aid lines on the steep right-hand side of El Cap, like Pacific Ocean Wall…and Sea of Dreams, with their multiple pitches of A5 and potential for sheer, sustained terror, took him into a realm of psychological and technical difficulty few could have envisioned before him. Bridwell, [Ron] Kauk recalled, ‘was the music and the times’…venturing onto incipient seams, expanding flakes and nearly blank faces, within nothing but the tiniest copperheads, RURPs and tenuous hooking.

Throughout Bridwell’s career, he used climbing to seek rare, bold and wild forms of living, to transform his experience of the world according to his rich imagination. In Alpinist 18, he explained, “From my bird’s eye view at the top of the wall, anything now seemed possible. If I could imagine a route, I could climb it. Climbing had become a cause to live for–a way to prove the freedom of my mind.”

Bridwell is survived by his wife of 45 years, Peggy, and their son Layton.

“Bird’s Eye View” from Alpinist 18, in which Bridwell writes about his life, can be found here. Alpinist plans to follow up with more stories about Bridwell in the near future.