Learning the Ropes
Jim Bridwell was a Texas born son of a military pilot. Though his parents hoped, often and loudly, that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, Jim had different ideas. From a young age, he was drawn to high places. In an interview with Climbing magazine published posthumously in 2022, he cites his fixation with capturing birds of prey as the thing that got him excited about climbing.
“The easiest way was to climb to the nest and take the young birds, then train them. After a while, the climbing became more important than the birds.”
When Bridwell was 18, he permanently left any military ambitions behind and joined the modest throng of adventure seekers in Yosemite Valley. Learning under the tutelage of figures like Royal Robbins and others of Yosemite’s Golden Age, he quickly took the torch and ran with it. As the Royal Robbins’ and Yvon Chouinards’ of that era faded out of the spectacle and the 1970s approached, Bridwell – still a young man – stayed on and the apprentice turned master.
At the turn of the decade, a fresh crop of energetic climbers began trickling into the Valley; people like John Long, Ron Kauk, John Bachar, Dale Bard, Lynn Hill and others, green as grass in springtime. Uncertain and shy, at first, the question of who would show them the way soon became evident. Bridwell had called the class to session.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, Jim Bridwell was the uncontested authority figure in Yosemite climbing. He even established the first Search and Rescue team, a partnership he brokered with the park service in exchange for a free camp spot in Camp 4. The previous standard bearers of progression in Yosemite – Royal Robbins, Warren Harding and the like – had only plundered the treasures of their beloved big walls so deeply. Once Jim Bridwell stepped to the helm, he took things to the next level.
Over 100 routes in Yosemite Valley, alone, bear the mark of Bridwell. He is credited with the first ascents of many cutting edge aid routes in Yosemite, including the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Capitan (VI 5.9 A5), The Aquarium Wall (VI 5.9 A4), and Sea of Dreams (VI, 5.9 A5).
For some context, A5 was and is STILL the most difficult rating given to an aid climb. That Bridwell was blazing this kind of trail in the 70s is hugely significant. That he accomplished many of these things whilst under the influence of psychedelic substances – a “necessity” that he was rumored to never climb a wall without – is downright wild!
In 1975, in what would arguably become the climb and landmark that he was best known for, Bridwell, alongside John Long and Billy Westbay completed the first one-day ascent of The Nose on El Cap in 17:45 – a monumental achievement for the time period.
To wit, it was an earth-shattering milestone in the rock-climbing world. Since the first ascent by Warren Harding, Mark Powell and Bill Feuerer in 1958, the Nose had been climbed many times by many different parties in the intervening years.
Yet, most of them took on a more judicious attitude and parsed the climb out over a course of days, if not weeks. As a point of comparison, it took Royal Robbins – THE father of American rock climbing – and his party a whopping seven days to complete the route during their 1960 second ascent of the route.
His Overseas Ventures
Bridwell’s international FA game is nothing to scoff at, either. In 1979, he and Steve Brewer completed the first ascent of The Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. In 1981, partnered with Mugs Stump, Bridwell put up a first ascent on the east face of Moose’s Tooth, a peak in Ruth’s Gorge in central Alaska (VI 5.9 WI4+ A4).
Delineation Of Yosemite Decimal System
During Bridwell’s apprenticeship under the titans of Yosemite Golden Age, the free-climbing ceiling in American rock climbing had more or less come to rest around 5.9. For a long time, to be able to free climb at a 5.9 level was the province of the elites, and 5.10 was an entirely theoretical grade. When Bridwell became the de-facto leader of the Stonemaster generation in the 1970s, the free climbing ceiling started to rise, and fast!
In the face of a community that was reluctant to accept higher grades, Jim Bridwell was the first to suggest a further breakdown of the existing system. He proposed adding a lettering system to any grade above 5.9, and thus, it became customary to denote every grade with an a, b, c or d to help create more options in the Yosemite Decimal System.
Death & Legacy
Jim Bridwell passed away in 2018 at the age of 73 due to complications with Hepatitis C. He is survived by wife and son. The Bird left a permanent and indelible mark on the world of rock climbing. If not for him, the sport might look quite different.
More than simply pushing the envelope and chasing grades, his life stands as a testament to where the wings of passion can carry us. He instilled a sense of freedom and passion in his disciples, an inferno of spirit that has touched innumerable climbers across the world.
Fly on, Jim.