[Photo] Greg Epperson
Late last night we got word that world-class climber and Alpinist contributor Scott Cosgrove died near his home in Santa Monica, California. A representative at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office Investigations Department told us that 52-year-old Cosgrove was pronounced dead at 1:20 p.m. on February 23, in the city of Calabasas. The cause of death is still unknown.
Our condolences go out to Cosgrove’s friends and family.
During the past 16 months, Cosgrove had made an impressive recovery from a near-fatal accident. On October 2, 2014, while performing rigging work, he had fallen 30 feet from a crane onto concrete. The impact had caused open fractures above his wrist and below his knee. He had broken ribs, damaged the bones in his face and fractured his skull. Soon after, his sister Lori (Cosgrove) Elbert started a fund on the crowd-source site giveforward.com to help raise money for his recovery. Slowly, Cosgrove returned to the outdoors and began hiking.
Of his death on February 23, 2016, his sister says: “All I know is that he was hiking in the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains. He was hiking and doing really great with his recovery. Apparently a hiker found him face down. It’s hard to say what [happened.]”
She continues: “He could only hike about a mile a day because he was still recovering from his injuries.” She also said he still had problems with his short-term memory.
Cosgrove began climbing 38 years ago at age 13. He first climbed El Cap at 18. Over the years, he free-soloed up to 5.12; authored four first ascents of aid climbs rated A5, climbed up to 5.14 and guided more than 6,400 client-days, his resume states on camountainguides.com:
As an accomplished wall climber having established big walls in Yosemite, the Yukon and South America’s Patagonia as well as conducting guided trips to Jordan, the Himalayas, Alaska, Canada, Thailand and Australia, Scott has over 400 first ascents worldwide, including a first free ascent of the Grand Wall in Squamish Chief, British Columbia. Scott has well over 28 ascents of El Capitan, and has guided El Cap 10 times. He is also well known for doing the first free ascent of…Southern Belle [on the South Face of Half Dome]…in 1987…perhaps the most feared rock climb in the world today.
The recipient of two Presidential Civilian Bravery Commendations during his service on the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team for eight seasons, Scott, as part of a team, earned an Academy Award in 2005 when he received an Oscar for Technical Achievement for aerial camera rigging by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Scott is also an accredited member of the Wilderness Guides Association and a professional member of the American Mountain Guides Association as well as a PADI certified Rescue Diver.
Eyes scare people, and my city friends call me Crazy Eyes. After you’ve watched the moon rise on a Patagonian glacier, its light beaconing through a storm as you struggle to survive; after you’ve glimpsed the red patterns on the blood-spattered ledge where a friend lies; after you’ve picked out holds to move with grace a hundred feet above gear; after all the lines jump out at you, in all shapes, on what looks like a blank face of rock–your gaze changes…. I wanted eyes like those that came from hard, bold climbs and heavy living, that looked straight through bullshit and death toward something else I didn’t know.
After improving his mental edge by methodically climbing tall boulder problems in the Valley floor, Cosgrove set his sights on the big walls. “He applied the highball mentality he practiced in Camp 4 to routes,” 1980s Valley climber Bruce Morris said over the phone from California.
Cosgrove recalled one of his most pivotal experiences from his youth, a 1986 free variation called Powerpoint with Werner Braun on Higher Cathedral Rock:
A golden arete like a peregrine’s wing spread above the Valley….
The corner pinched off and turned blank. Below my feet, the air swept down to where the arete became like a ship’s prow, then over the crest of a stone wave, another three thousand feet to the Valley floor….
There was nothing left to do except try the unknowable, equipped with two years of training and a collection of madmen’s parables. I worked out a no-hands rest, pulled up the bolt kit, but in my hurry and inexperience, I drilled too shallow, leaving a quarter-inch button head, overdriven and hanging halfway out of the hole. I leaned back off the holds, reaching up, praying for some secret passage unseen from below…
Pure happiness: I found a flat edge, matched hands, cranked hard. Like magic, another series of handholds came into perfect position, spaced to fit my body. Now I was in danger of hitting the corner if I fell–and unsure of whether my bolt would hold. Kauk’s words rang in my ears, Focus on your power-point. Put all your energy to the single move, clear every thought…
Four hours after we started, [Werner and I] sat side by side on the summit…. Below us an ocean of rainbow air flowed high above the Valley. I felt the presence of those who’d sat on this ledge before us and long since vanished. No one who has been there would ever doubt that something more powerful surrounds us…
I’d climb for another twenty years and establish other hard routes, but I owed it all to a man who had enough time to argue with some kid. It took me twenty years to understand that the true heroes are those who do something greater than themselves, who find our true potentiality.
And now I have the eyes, too, the crazy eyes that look right through bullshit, that have stared down death hundreds of times, but they are kind, not crazy; they took a lifetime to earn and a moment to make.
Southern Belle, Half Dome
One of the most important routes of Cosgrove’s career was Southern Belle. John Bachar and Rick Cashner started the 1,500-foot project in the mid-1980s but abandoned it partway. Walt Shipley and Dave Schultz then took it to the top of Half Dome but were unable to free it in its entirety. Schultz returned to it with Cosgrove in 1987, and, the pair climbed it at 5.12d R. “This is probably the most feared and difficult multi-pitch free climb in Yosemite,” states SuperTopo.com. The legendary climb became a right of passage for some of the world’s top climbers–the late Dean Potter, Leo Houlding, Alex Honnold and Will Stanhope. “It’s a featured, knobby face [and the] runouts are epic,” Alex Honnold said over the phone. “Some of the pitches have a single piece of protection. It’s a definite testpiece that has lived on. Hank Caylor broke both his ankles on it and Peter Croft backed off of it.”
Cosgrove himself remembered Southern Belle as: “…so hard, we thought we had no prayer, but we pulled it off by a whisper. I often think about the Belle, the long runout that pushed me over the edge sitting on a rock below the massive face with Dave, lost in our dreams….”
Below are some remembrances from Cosgrove’s friends and family.
Perry Beckham Recalls a Climbing Partner and Kindred Spirit
“[Cosgrove and I] met in Camp 4 but didn’t initiate a friendship until I met up with him and Kurt Smith in Joshua Tree in 1982. As a function of the sport and our age, we all courted peril; we stuck our necks out whether that was free soloing or long runouts or being places we shouldn’t be. We were the best of friends.
“I gave him one of his first film jobs in the early ’90s, called Bushwhacked. We also worked on Tron: Legacy. His bearing on the job wasn’t much different than in his climbing. He had a really strong work ethic, very creative thinking.
“What can’t be understated is that Scott earned a place in the southern California climbing community, which was very closely knit. He became a leader in his own right and left his own mark.
“Scott really earned a place in the pantheon of climbers of all times.
“We repeated the University Wall on the Squamish Chief, with Scott just going for it with full max effort. We climbed the three great free routes on the Chief–The University Wall, The Daily Planet and Freeway–all in one week. We were utterly in sync as climbers and human beings.
“Climbing was just a focal point for who we are and why we’re here and how we make our lives more meaningful. Our friendship was much deeper than [that of] climbing partners; we became very close friends. He was a kindred spirit. The loss is horrendous.”
Cory Dudley Remembers 46 Years of Friendship
“We’ve been friends since elementary school. The high school mountaineering program, called Carlmont Mountaineering, gave us an opportunity to get outdoors. Ron Kauk went through it.
“Kauk came back and visited [Cosgrove and me] at Carlmont High School with Jim Bridwell and told us stories about the [Yosemite] Valley. I moved there the day after high school. Scott did the same thing, where he rekindled with Kauk, who turned him onto the cast of regulars like Werner [Braun].
“We did four El Cap routes together. We were friends for 46 years, dude. We were there for each other [like when] his dad died. Once Scott almost lost his middle finger on his right hand when a rock fell over it.
“We regularly texted and talked. He loved being outdoors. Since his injury, he wanted to go hiking and camping. We were planning to go to Rocky Mountain National Park and camp overnight.
“I’m just gonna miss the hell out of him. I’m bummed we won’t be having any adventures. He loved my little daughter. He was one-of-a-kind you know. He’s definitely part of that early tribe that is getting smaller and smaller from the old schoolers. He’ll be missed.”
Lori Elbert (Cosgrove) Talks About Her Younger Brother
“It’s shocking to say the least after everything he went through during the last year and a half.
“I am his only remaining sibling. I’m three years older than him. We had a sister. She passed away about 30 years ago. My mother is still alive.
“He was always very adventurous and he loved climbing. One thing I was always envious of is that he did what he loved for a living. He was the most patient, amazing rock-climbing teacher that I met. He had an amazing ability to get anyone up any cliff. He was always, always very safe. He required people to do things right in the business.
“I remember when I was climbing with Scott one day. I was hysterically crying that I couldn’t get down. He gave me the courage and the ability to get down. He was incredible in that way.
“We grew up in Belmont, south of San Francisco. Scott got started in rock climbing in the high school rock-climbing program. I was a leader in the mountaineering class he [joined] as a freshman in high school. The moment he started climbing, boy, he was climbing everything. He would climb up the wall in our house up the banister. He was an amazing climber. He did stuff no one else could ever do.
“One of the things he did was train the Navy SEALs in his 20s or 30s. He had a climbing school called California Mountain Guides.
“One of the things he loved more than anything is my daughter. [I want to have] a celebration of his life. I’m not sure when, but it will be in Joshua Tree. I call his home Joshua Tree because that’s where his guide service is. He lived in Calabasas and the LA area for the past 10 years.”