Tobin Sorenson


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Boulder climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Oct 5, 2011 - 07:48pm PT

This day, 1980, Tobin fell during his solo attempt on the North Face of Mt. Alberta. We miss him still.

Boulder climber
Oct 5, 2011 - 07:58pm PT
Thanks Bruce. . .df
the kid

Trad climber
fayetteville, wv
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:01pm PT
Tripod? Swellguy? Halfwit? Smegma?

Trad climber
Wanker Stately Mansion, Placerville
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:12pm PT
I can't imagine anyone having not read it, but if for some odd reason you havn't The Green Arch is a brilliant, classic John Long story about the "legend"

Big Wall climber
So Cal
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:24pm PT
I have grown up hearing all kinds of stories about him. I regret that I never got to meet him.

31 years goneby

Social climber
So Cal
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:27pm PT
Seems like a week, or a month ago.

Not like 31 years.

What would he be spewing here with the rest of the geezers?

Social climber
So Cal
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:39pm PT
And a lot more important /lasting things than climbing.

Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Oct 5, 2011 - 08:55pm PT
Only climbed with him once. Much respect.

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
Oct 5, 2011 - 09:39pm PT

We came from nowhere towns like Upland, Cucamonga, Ontario, and Montclair. None of us had done anything more distinguished than chase down a fly ball or spend a couple of nights in juvenile hall, but we saw rock climbing as a means to change all that forever.

Lonely Challenge, The White Spider, Straight Up - we'd read them all, could recite entire passages by heart. It is impossible to imagine a group more fired up by the romance and glory of the climbing game than our little band, later known informally as "The Stonemasters." There was just one minor problem: There were no genuine mountains in Southern California. But there were plenty of rocks. Good ones, too.

Every Saturday morning during the spring of 1972, about a dozen of us would jump into a medley of the finest junkers $200 could buy and blast for the little alpine hamlet of ldyllwild, home of Tahquitz Rock. The last twenty-six miles to ldyllwild is a twisting road, steep and perilous in spots. More than one exhausted Volkswagen bus or wheezing old Rambler got pushed a little too hard, blew up, and was abandoned, the plates stripped off and the driver, laden with rope and pack, thumbing on toward Mecca. We had to get to a certain greasy spoon by eight o'clock, when our little group would meet, discuss an itinerary, wolf down some food, and storm off to the crags.

The air was charged because we were on a roll, our faith and gusto growing with each new climb we bagged. The talk within the climbing community was that we were crazy, or liars, or both; and this sat well with us. We were loudmouthed eighteen-year-old punks, and proud of it.

Tahquitz was one of America's hot climbing spots, with a pageant of pivotal ascents reaching back to when technical climbing first came to the States. America's first 5.8 (The Mechanic's Route, 1938) and 5.9 (The Open Book, 1950) routes were bagged at Tahquitz, as was the notion and the deed of the "first free ascent," a route first done with aid but later climbed without it (The Piton Pooper, 5.7, circa 1946). John Mendenhall, Chuck Wilts, Mark Powell, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, T.M. Herbert, Yvon Chouinard, Bob Kamps, Tom Higgins, and many others had all learned the ropes there.

The Stonemasters arrived on the scene just as the previous generation of local hard cores were being overtaken by house payments and squealing brats. They hated every one of us. We were all young, vain, and flat broke, and cared nothing for their endorsement.

We'd grappled up many of their tougher climbs not with grace, but with gumption and fire, and the limelight was panning our way. The old guard was baffled that we of so little talent and experience should get so far. When it became common knowledge that we were taking a bead on the hallowed Valhalla (one of the first 5.11 routes in America) - often tried, but as yet unrepeated - they showed their teeth.

If we so much as dreamed of climbing Valhalla, we'd have to wake up and apologize. The gauntlet was thus thrown down: if they wouldn't hand over the standard, we'd rip it from their hands. When, after another month, we all had climbed Valhalla, some of us several times, the old boys were stunned and saw themselves elbowed out of the opera house by kids who could merely scream. And none could scream louder than Tobin Sorenson, the most conspicuous madman ever to lace up Varappes.

Climbing had never seen the likes of Tobin, and probably never will again. He had the body of a welterweight, a lick of sandy brown hair and the faraway gaze of the born maniac. Yet he lived with all the precocity and innocence of a child. He would never cuss or show the slightest hostility, and around girls he was so shy he'd flush and stammer. But out on the sharp end of the rope he was a consummate fiend.

Over the previous summer he'd logged an unprecedented string of gigantic falls that should have ended his career, and his life, ten times over. Yet he shook each fall off and clawed straight back onto the route for another go, and usually got it. He became a world-class climber very quickly because anyone that well formed and savagely motivated gains the top in no time - if he doesn't kill himself first. And yet when we started bagging new climbs and first free ascents, Tobin continued to

defy the gods with his electrifying whippers. The exploits of his short life deserve a book. Two books.

One Saturday morning, five or six of us hunkered down in the little restaurant in Idyllwild. Tahquitz was our oyster. We'd pried it open with a piton and for months had gorged at will; but the fare was running thin. Since we had ticked off one after another of the remaining new routes, our options had dwindled to only the most grim or preposterous.

During the previous week, Ricky Accomazzo had scoped out the Green Arch, an elegant arc on Tahquitz's southern shoulder. When Ricky mentioned he thought there was an outside chance that this pearl of an aid climb might go free, Tobin looked like the Hound of the Baskervilles had just heard the word "bone," and we had to lash him to the booth so we could finish our oatmeal.

Since the Green Arch was Ricky's idea, he got the first go at it. Tobin balked, so we tied him off to a stunted pine and Ricky started up. After fifty feet of dicey wall climbing, he gained the arch, which soared above for another eighty feet before curving right and disappearing in a field of big knobs and pockets. If we could only get to those knobs, the remaining 300 feet would go easily and the Green Arch would fall.

But the lower comer and the arch above looked bleak. The crack in the back of the arch was too thin to accept even fingertips, and both sides of the comer were blank and marble-smooth. But by pasting half his rump on one side of the puny comer, and splaying his feet out on the opposite side, Ricky stuck to the rock - barely - both his arse and his boots steadily oozing off the steep, greasy wall. It was exhausting duty just staying put, and moving up was accomplished in a grueling, precarious sequence of quarter-inch moves. Amazingly, Ricky jackknifed about halfway up the arch before his calves pumped out. He lowered off a bunk piton and I took a shot.

After an hour of the hardest climbing I'd ever done, I reached a rest hold just below the point where the arch swept out right and melted into that field of knobs. Twenty feet to pay dirt. But those twenty feet didn't look promising. There were some sucker knobs just above the arch, but those ran out after about twenty-five feet and would leave a climber in the bleakest no man's land, with nowhere to go, no chance to climb back right onto the route, no chance to get any protection, and no chance to retreat. We'd have to stick to the arch.

Finally, I underclung about ten feet out the arch, whacked in a suspect knife-blade piton, clipped the rope in-and fell off. I lowered to the ground, slumped back, and didn't rise for ten minutes. I had weeping strawberries on both ass cheeks and my ankles were rubbery and tweaked from splaying them out on the far wall.

Tobin, unchained from the pine, tied into the lead rope and stormed up the comer like a man fleeing Satan on foot. He battled up to the rest hold, drew a few quick breaths, underclung out to that creaky, buckled, driven-straight-up-into-an-expanding-flake knife-blade, and immediately cranked himself over the arch and started heaving up the line of sucker knobs.

"No!" I screamed up. "Those knobs don't go anywhere!"

But it was too late.

Understand that Tobin was a born-again Christian, that he'd smuggled Bibles into Bulgaria risking twenty-five years on a Balkan rock pile, that he'd studied God at a fundamentalist university and none of this altered the indisputable fact that he was perfectly mad.

Out on the sharp end he not only ignored all consequences, but actually loathed them, doing all kinds of crazy, incomprehensible things to mock the fear and peril. (The following year, out at Joshua Tree, Tobin followed a difficult, overhanging crack with a rope noosed around his neck.)

Most horrifying was his disastrous capacity to simply charge at a climb pell-mell. On straightforward routes, no one was better. But when patience and cunning were required, no one was worse. Climbing, as it were, with blinders on, Tobin would sometimes claw his way into the most grievous jams. When he'd dead-end, with nowhere to go and looking at a Homeric peeler, the full impact of his folly would hit him like a wrecking ball. He would panic, wail, weep openly, and do the most ludicrous things. And sure enough, about twenty-five feet above the arch those sucker knobs ran out, and Tobin had nowhere to go.

To appreciate Tobin's quandary, understand that he was twenty five feet above the last piton, which meant he was looking at a fifty-foot fall, since a leader falls twice as far as he is above the last piece of protection. The belayer (the man tending the other end of the rope) cannot take in rope during a fall because it happens too fast. He can only secure the rope - lock it off. But the gravest news was that I knew the piton I'd bashed under the roof would not hold a fifty-foot whipper.

On really gigantic falls, the top piece often rips out, but the fall is broken sufficiently for a lower nut or piton to stop you. In Tobin's case, the next lower piece was some dozen feet below the top one, at the rest hold; so in fact, Tobin was looking at close to an eighty-footer - maybe
more, with rope stretch.

As Tobin wobbled far overhead, who should lumber up to our little group but his very father, a minister, a quiet, retiring, imperturbable gentleman who hacked and huffed from his long march up to the cliffside. After hearing so much about climbing from Tobin, he'd finally come to see his son in action. He couldn't have shown up at a worse time. It was like a page from a B-movie script: us cringing and digging in, waiting for the bomb to drop; the good pastor, wheezing through his moustaches, sweat soaked and confused, squinting up at the fruit of his loins; and Tobin, knees knocking like castanets, sobbing pitifully and looking to plunge off at any second.

There is always something you can do, even in the grimmest situation, if only you keep your nerve. But Tobin was gone, totally gone, so mastered by terror that he seemed willing to die to be rid of it. He glanced down. His face was a study. Suddenly he screamed,"Watch
me! I'm gonna jump."

We didn't immediately understand what he meant.

"Jump off?" Richard wanted to know.

"Yes!" Tobin wailed.

"NO!" we all screamed in unison.

"You can do it, son!" the pastor put in.

Pop was just trying to put a good face on it, God bless him, but his was the worst possible advice because there was no way Tobin could do it. Or anybody could do it. There were no holds. But inspired by his father's urging, Tobin reached out for those knobs so far to his right,
now lunging, now hopelessly pawing the air.

And then he was off. The top piton shot out and Tobin shot off into the grandest fall I've ever seen a climber take and walk away from - a spectacular, tumbling whistler. His arms flailed like a rag doll's and his scream could have frozen brandy. Luckily, the lower piton held and he finally jolted onto the rope, hanging upside down and moaning softly. We slowly lowered him off and he lay motionless on the ground and nobody moved or spoke or even breathed. You could have heard a pine needle hit the deck. Tobin was peppered with abrasions and had a lump the size of a pot roast over one eye. He lay dead still for a moment longer, then wobbled to his feet and shuddered like an old cur crawling from a creek.

"I'll get it next time," he grumbled.

"There ain't gonna be no next time," said Richard.

"Give the boy a chance," the pastor threw in, thumping Tobin on the back.

When a father can watch his son pitch eighty feet down a vertical cliff, and straightaway argue that we were shortchanging the boy by not letting him climb back up and have a second chance at an even longer whistler, we knew the man was cut from the same crazy cloth as his son, and that there was no reasoning with him. But the fall had taken the air out of the whole venture, and we were through for the day. The "next time" came four years later. In one of the greatest leads of that era, Ricky flashed the entire Green Arch on his first try. Tobin
and I followed.

Tobin would go on to solo the north face of the Matterhorn, the Walker Spur, and the Shroud on the Grandes Jorasses (all in jeans), would make the first alpine ascent of the Harlin Direct on the Eiger, the first ascent of the Super Couloir on the Dru, would repeat the hardest free climbs and big walls in Yosemite, and would sink his teeth into the Himalaya. He was almost certainly the world's greatest all around climber during the late 1970s. But nothing really changed: He always climbed as if time were too short for him, pumping all the disquietude, anxiety, and nervous waste of a normal year into each route.

I've seen a bit of the world since those early days at Tahquitz, have done my share of crazy things, and have seen humanity with all the bark on, primal and raw. But I've never since experienced the electricity of watching Tobin out there on the quick of the long plank, clawing for the promised land. He finally found it in 1980, attempting a solo winter ascent of Mt. Alberta's north face. His death was a tragedy, of course. Yet I sometimes wonder if God Himself could no longer bear the strain of watching Tobin wobbling and lunging way out there on the sharp end of the rope, and finally just drew him into the fold.

Ice climber
Oct 5, 2011 - 09:52pm PT
That's for the reminder. The winter we spent in Canada climbing and baking bread when it was too cold to climb was one of the finest memories I have of him.........that and the summer of '77.
What a unique guy and a great friend.

Mountain climber
San Diego
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:01pm PT
I sure would have liked to have met Tobin, talk with him, and climb with him.

Great climber. Sounds like he was a wonderful friend and very full of life. He loved GOD. The son of a preacher man.

He is inspirational, even now.

TFPU brunosafari
Johnny K.

Oct 5, 2011 - 10:06pm PT
Always heard stories about Tobin,always been amazed.

Largo,thanks for posting that amazing post!
ron gomez

Trad climber
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:18pm PT
Thanks for the story John, Tobin is a legend for sure to many of us. Jack how lucky you were to spend time with him.

Social climber
So Cal
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:23pm PT
One of these days I'm gonna finish what I started here.

My partner that Id learned to climb with had quit and Id bought his rack. I decided to take my chances on finding someone to climb with in the valley as the year before there had been plenty of climbers in camp four over Easter break. So, I loaded up my motorcycle and headed for the valley. I pulled in mid afternoon and found a site a ways back and as I shuttled my stuff from the parking lot to my spot I noticed this kid with a salad bowl haircut hanging around the rescue site. It took three or four trips to get everything out of the saddlebags and to my spot and I noticed that this kid was about as accepted as a pesky squirrel at the picnic table. A while later while I was setting up my lean-to tarp setup that passed for a tent he came shuffling over and struck up a conversation. He had the campsite next to mine. It turned out that he lived less than a mile from me. He was finishing up his trip and was leaving in a day or so. He hadnt had all that successful a week. Hed climbed with a guide maybe once or twice in So Cal and had taken the bus or hitched a ride to the valley and had been trying to talk people into taking him up things all week. It sounded like hed only gotten a couple of routes and some boldering in.

We didnt climb as Tobin was leaving the next day. It drizzled that night and in the morning as he was getting ready to leave he insisted that I borrow his tent. Now as it turns out this was classic Tobin. Not only would he give you the shirt off his back, hed give you someone elses if it was available. Turns out it wasnt his tent. The rest of my trip was moderately successful. I had some trouble finding partners but did find one reliable enough get up Royal Arches. I also had several that talked a good line in camp but suddenly remembered they had urgent business that they had forgotten when a pitch or two up something. If you werent part of the select crowd it was hit or miss finding good partners.

When I got back to town I went over to return the tent his mother met me at the front door and she was livid, thats when I found out it wasnt his tent. Hed borrowed it from a relative and hed told his mother he was spending the week with one of his friends and had snuck off to join the camp four circus without his parents permission or knowledge. She thought he was spending the Easter week with a friend in town.

The next weekend I took him to Tahquitz and took him up Angels Fright. He was agitating to lead all the way up and I finally did let him lead the last pitch. I explained where the three variations went and that Id done the Left , friction one and the easy ramp to the right and told him he ought to go right. He started out and the n said what about straight up? I answered that Id never gone that way and the gear didnt look all that good. So of course, that s the way he went. Over the next few months we did most of the obligatory introductory climbs at Tahquitz with him doing more and more of the leading. A few incidents stand out. I decided we were ready for Whodunit. Tobin was hot to lead and took off on the first pitch, (for some reason I was under the impression that the crux was higher up). He sketched his way up going way right of the normal line. Still dont know how he pulled that off! We came to an impasse at the chimney, (could have been running wet) and about then I spotted a fixed pin on the Swallow so we ended up finishing on that route.

Trad climber
Choss Creek, ID
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:23pm PT
Largo & all: Thank you for your Tobin stories.

Sad that I never met the lad.

Trad climber
Brea ca.
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:38pm PT
Thank you for that wonderful story Mr. Long. I'm sure his friends and family still miss him deeply, but I can tell from here, his legend continues to grow.

Social climber
So Cal
Oct 5, 2011 - 10:43pm PT
Another one from the wayback machine.

Trad climber
Oct 5, 2011 - 11:35pm PT
Largo and others-

Thanks for the share on stories of Tobin. Like many others, it is a shame that inspired people with so much potential (not necessarily climbing related) leave this world too early. What is risk?
Double D

Oct 6, 2011 - 12:32am PT
Largo... truly one of your most brilliant pieces. Tobin was the real deal and a super nice guy to boot.
Todd Eastman

Bellingham, WA
Oct 6, 2011 - 12:55am PT
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