Barry Bates and Mark Klemens--Valley free climbing


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Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 14, 2008 - 03:34pm PT
Why are Barry Bates and Mark Klemens not on everyone’s short list of the most important Valley free climbers?

The thread from Ihateplastic on his frustration with not getting a favorable response about his planned article on Barry Bates got me to thinking about why Barry is not better known. I am also spurred on by the apparent interest amongst ST campers.

Most of us know about climbing history and who did what from a mosaic of information that includes longevity, difficulty of ascents, and personality traits all disclosed in publications of one sort or another. Based on this, if climbers were to list the most important Valley free climbers from 1960 to 1975, you might not see Barry Bates or Mark Klemens on most lists. They did their best climbing after Steve Roper stopped writing about the Valley, they were only active in the Valley for a short time, and they were gone before the mid-1970s Stonemasters craze.

However, on the basis of an objectively driven and relatively simple counts of first ascents on the cutting edge--first ascents that mattered to other climbers thinking about what would go free--Barry and Mark would be on everyone’s short list. They, along with Bridwell and Peter Haan, started the 70s free climbing boom.

My counting is based on my assessment of which climbs pushed the envelope, including difficulty, type, and location. The goal is to include climbs that caused other climbers to try new routes all free, routes that allowed other climbers to push the standards.

This requires a closeness to the climbers and their thinking, both as individuals and as a group, during a specific time—it is granular. While my goal is objective criteria, it is open to different interpretations: aside from flat out mistakes on my part (Oh, I forgot about that!) a route that I take off the list and assign to backfilling may be very popular and may even be the specific genius of a particular climber's further efforts (I mean no offense in my selections). Alternatively, there are some routes on my list that probably have seen very few ascents—Peter Haan’s Hourglass is a good example--and there are almost certainly very hard routes that I excluded because they just never had any impact on what anyone else was thinking or doing--the FFA of The Turret by Jim Donini and John Bragg is in this category: big, huge, loose death block is all I remember, and 5.11 at that.

This allows that some thoughtful people would expand my list. Nevertheless, I think there would not be much variation in the list of the climbers who contributed the most to Valley free climbing because the arguments would be incidental to the conclusions at the top end of the list—the real standouts would be on everyone’s list.

The surprising bit is why Barry and Mark seem to have been left off the common perception of who made the most contributions. When grounded in the period from 1960 to 1975—from the first 5.10s to the first 5.12s—their contributions stand out.

In the period from 1960, when Robbins and Pratt did the first 5.10s in the Valley, to 1965, when Chuck climbed Twilight Zone, the 5.10 standard was set in the Valley, covering short and long routes, different width cracks, and steep face climbing. I count 17 routes, either FAs or FFAs that mattered, with Royal taking only one, Chuck taking five, and Frank Sacherer taking eleven. The surprising part is that Royal contributed little to furthering his establishment of 5.10 in the Valley—this fell to Chuck and Sacherer. However, by the time they were through, 5.10 was no longer trick climbing but instead was firmly established with associated techniques.

The specific routes I include in calendar sequence are Rixon's Pinnacle-East Chimney and Crack of Doom, the first 5.10s by Royal and Chuck, respectively, in 1960. Following those are Reed's Pinnacle-Left Side, Worst Error-Right Side, Moby Dick, Lost Arrow Chimney, Sacherer Cracker, Salathe Route, Midterm, Ahab, The Hourglass-Right Side, Chingando, Middle Cathedral Rock-Direct North Buttress and East Buttress, and ending with Chuck’s Twilight Zone.

As that name implies, somehow, there did not seem to be much room to push the standards without moving into another realm. (Or maybe it was just a ripped off TV-show name.) This idea of another realm would be pushed a little further in naming conventions by Bridwell, but quickly died out when it became apparent that there might not be a limit to the difficulty. Naming routes after TV-shows was still common.

The next four years, 1966 through 1969, were a lull in Valley climbing. Important free climbs include Chris Fredericks’ English Breakfast crack in 1966; Ament's The Slack in 1967, Higgins’ Serenity Crack in 1967; and Royal’s Meat Grinder in 1967. (The Slack and Serenity were quickly robbed of their original difficulty--a block falling out and pin scarring, respectively--and no one could use them as benchmarks. English Breakfast and The Meat Grinder remain hard, iconic climbs still.) Nobody climbed much of anything new in 1969.

There were good climbers in the Valley in the late 60s but they either were not quite ready to come in to their own, or they were drifting away, or they were focused on big walls. But in 1970 and 1971 two climbers stand out in bold relief--Mark Klemens on wide cracks and Barry Bates on thin cracks. I think that there is a common misperception that they were simply Jim's climbing partners. Jim did partner with both, but I think the truth of the matter is that they spurred Jim’s imagination and got him productive, as did Peter Haan. Jim had been in the Valley in the lull and had only had an interest in big walls first ascents. Lead by Barry, Mark, Jim and Peter, the next two years set the foundation for the 70s free climbing boom.

In this two year period, plus one climb in 1972, I include 16 climbs (one twice) and assign the responsibilities this way: Jim instigated seven, Barry six, Mark two, and Peter one. They include New Dimensions (5.11 A0), Waverly Wafer, Gripper, Outer Limits, Wheat Thin, Catchy, Butterfingers, Abstract Corner, Independence Pinnacle Center, Lunatic Fringe, Supplication, Five and Dime, Vanishing Point, Stepping Out, Cream, The Hourglass-Left Side, and finally in 1972 the FFA of New Dimensions with Steve Wunsch. Jim and Mark first climbed New Dimensions in 1970, but Mark finished the crux pitch with a short pendulum to an easier crack. Barry and Steve climbed through all free and firmly established the 5.11 standard for the Valley.

In 1972, a larger group of Valley climbers, using the climbs listed above as starting points, pushed the boundaries of free climbing further, ending in the first 5.12s and the first Big Wall free climbs in 1975. This period also saw the rise to the Stonemasters. The standout climbers include Bridwell, Kauk, Bachar, Chapman, Long, Worrall, Barber, Dale Bard, Wunsch, Donini, Graham, Carrington, and the British Livesy and Faucett. (I count seven of these who post on ST.)

The climbs in this period include new routes on Middle-—Paradise Lost, Freewheeling, and Stoners Highway; harder still crack climbs--Leanie Meanie, Butterballs, Little Wing, Catchy Corner, Crack-a-Go-Go, Pinky Paralysis, Short Circuit, Hotline all free, and Fish Crack; and the first big wall free climbs-—The Good Book, Free Blast, Geek Towers, and Astroman.

It is easy to see that the period 1972 onward eclipsing the short period in 1970 and 1971—the period of the strong foundations built by Bridwell, Bates, Klemens, and Haan—on purely objective grounds since the longer, later routes are more spectacular. But I think the reason that 1970 and 1971 seem to be just a blind spot is for three non-climbing reasons: Mark and Barry did not participate in any of the burgeoning climbing publicity (it was still early days for this), Bridwell’s name increasingly dominated all 70s climbing and the Stonemaster’s mystic has become associated with all 70s climbing. Jim has always been generous and careful to include all of the contributions of other climbers, but history has casually assigned him overarching responsibility for any climb he was on. Neither Mark nor Barry was ever considered a Stonemaster. They were mostly gone by the time the first of the Stonemasters arrived in the Valley. However, the total dominance of the Stonemaster’s overarching achievements starting in the middle 70s also overshadows the early 70s. (None of this overshawdowing was ever fostered by any Stonemaster.)

Given this it is no surprise that Ihateplastic received a cold reception at the climbing magazines and that several ST campers admitted that they don’t why Barry’s name means so much to those of us who were around in the early 1970s.

I hope he keeps after it and succeeds.



3hrs to El Cap Meadow, 1.25hrs Pinns, 42min Castle
Aug 14, 2008 - 03:40pm PT
Barry's always been held in high regard in my mind. When I was around him in the 90's, he was still impressively strong. His lock-off strength is among the best I've ever seen.

Truckee, CA
Aug 14, 2008 - 03:49pm PT

Thanks for the great history recap and clear analysis. You guys inhabited such a rich period in Valley contributions. I can only imagine the fun it would have been to be the first on such a list of classic cracks.

Bart Fay

Social climber
Redlands, CA
Aug 14, 2008 - 03:54pm PT
Peter Haan has posted on The Taco AND he's on all the lists.
I'm just saying...
Amanda Bircheff

Aug 14, 2008 - 03:55pm PT
hello regor this is dave b. my daughter got me hooked up on this, hope i can duplicate this without help sometime.dave.

p.s. In response to your first sentence, BLACK MAGIC!!!!!!!!!!
Phil - adios

Truckee, CA
Aug 14, 2008 - 04:00pm PT
Yo Dave B. Welcome to the virtual campfire!

Its been a long time, hope all is great with you.

Peter Mayfield

Social climber
Ventura, California
Aug 14, 2008 - 04:14pm PT
Barry and Mark have always been on my list for the valley. At the top

Dave good to see on board!

Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 14, 2008 - 04:14pm PT
Hi Dave, Hi Phil,

Welcome to ST. I have a picture of Dave taken at the base of "Smee's Come-on" that I was going to post for Amanda. Do you remember that climb? I will get it posted.

What was black magic was watching them climb. And I have an old picture of Phil, drawn by Sheridan, given that he is sort of pre-history, as in no cameras existed. I posted it here [url][/url].

Peter, it was pretty cool to just walk around with binoculars and pick some new line to try. There were so many choices that we were both picky and sort of lazy--if it didn't look perfect or had any extra work, we just passed. I had to talk Bridwell into going to do CPoF--it didn't take long, but even so, have you seen a more prominent crack? He wanted to know what we were going to do above what turned out to be the eight pitch. I told him we were going to rap off. Nobody even climbs that far nowadays.

Mark’s criterion for any new route was that he had to get his knee in. Barry’s criterion seemed to be tips only.

Best, Roger

Trad climber
Aug 14, 2008 - 04:16pm PT
Roger-- Your hypothesis for Bates's obscurity seems credible to me. The one additional factor is that American histories of bouldering have been (understandably) Colorado-centric and Bates was perhaps even more remarkable as a boulderer.

California typically doesn't come up (aside from perhaps an obligatory gesture toward Robbins then Kamps at Stoney Point) until Midnight Lightning.

Pat's Wizards of Rock has a number of Barry Bates references and (if I remember correctly) described him as the best period boulderer in California.

Trad climber
Las Vegas
Aug 14, 2008 - 04:28pm PT
Wow, wow, wow...

This is so rich !
Thank you so much for that recap Mr. Breedlove.

This thread has made me think seriously about the importance of oral tradition/history.

As modern people we rely almost entirely on published writings for stories of color and history. Yet even though the publications can open our awareness of important people and events, nothing compares to an oration from the people that 'lived it'.

I can foresee 'supertopo' hard copy publications potentially exploring a seeming void in contemporary climbing publications.

attn - Chris McNamara:
Ihateplastic and others are experiencing difficulty in finding climbing mags/periodicals to publish articles rich in history, be they memorable musings or detailed factual biographies.

Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Aug 14, 2008 - 04:46pm PT
Since Ed isn't here, I'll take a schwag at this... my database probably isn't as updates as his, so bear with me:

Barry Bates First Ascents:

Anathema(5.10b), 1972
Application(5.9), 1971
Bongs Away, Center(5.10a), 1970
Chocolate Dihedral(5.9), 1970
Degnan Diagonals(5.9), 1970
Dromedary - The Hump(unknown), 1971
Dromedary Direct(5.10c), 1971
Five and Dime(5.10d), 1971
Independence Pinnacle, Center Route(5.10d), 1970
Koko Ledge, Far Right(5.10a), 1970
Last Resort Pinnacle, The, Center(5.10a), 1972
Lunatic Fringe(5.10c), 1971
Pink Dream(5.10a), 1971
Supplication(5.10c), 1971
Vanishing Point(5.10d), 1971
Waverly Wafer(5.10c), 1970
Yoghurt Dihedral(5.9), 1970

Bates First Free Ascents:

Lost Brother, Northwest Face(5.7), 1963
New Dimensions(5.11a), 1970

Mark Klemens First Ascents:

10.96(5.10d), 1972
Absolutely Free, Center Route(5.9), 1970
Absolutely Free, Left Side(5.9), 1970
Absolutely Free, Right Side(5.10a), 1970
Base Pinnacle(5.9), 1972
Bongs Away, Center(5.10a), 1970
Cartwheel(5.10a), 1971
Catchy(5.10d), 1971
Chosen Few, The(5.9), 1971
Cid's Embrace(5.8), 1970
Cream(5.11a), 1971
Final Exam(5.10d), 1971
Flake Off(unknown), 1975
Forbidden Pinnacle(5.10a), 1972
Geek Towers, Right Side(5.10a), 1971
Gripper(5.10b), 1970
Henley Quits(5.10a), 1970
Independent Route(5.10b), 1970
Jam Session(5.10b), 1971
Klemens' Escape(5.9), 1970
Klemens' Variation(5.10c), 1970
Lancelot(5.9), 1970
Narrow Escape(5.10c), 1971
New Dimensions(5.11a), 1970
Quickie Quizzes(5.10b), 1970
Rixon's Pinnacle, East Chimney, Klemens Variation(5.10c), 1970
Steppin' Out(5.10d), 1971

Klemens First Free Ascents:

Basket Case(5.11b), 1972
Kor-Beck(5.9), 1963

p.s. Thanks for posting that, Roger!
scuffy b

Zeno's Paradise
Aug 14, 2008 - 05:44pm PT
Roger, quite the thought-provoking piece.
I'm trying to remember what Roper wrote in Ascent while this
was going on.
No Yosemite Notes in the 71, because they went into the green
In the 72, he included this raft of new climbs with some
editorializing. As I recall, he seemed genuinely surprised at
the trend toward short free climbs: many of the new climbs
are only a single pitch, and often a short one at that.

(gross paraphrase, please forgive me)
I think he also touched upon the increased likelihood of the
Dreaded Groundfall.


Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Aug 14, 2008 - 06:23pm PT
agreed, those two guys were pivotal figures; i've always regarded them as such.

and it's not just what they climbed -- even more striking was their idea of what might be possible.

i devoured all things climbing as a youngster; this quote from my early bible, bridwell's 1973 article "brave new world", certainly gave those guys the proper props:

"1969 saw few new hard free routes, but many of the existing hard problems were repeated. Beginning in 1970 the big boom of volcanic free-climbing erupted in the Valley. Several young stars started to shine: Mark Klemens, Barry Bates, Peter Haan, Jim Bridwell and Mead Hargis were among those shining most brightly. Mark Klemens returned to the Valley after a two year lay-off and like a lightning bolt became the main motivating force of the year. The fact that he began completely out of shape didn't seem to affect his smooth, controlled style. As an opener, he pioneered Absolutely Free, a respectable route with 5.10 fist and off-width jamming. New routes were his 'bag', and he sacked New Dimensions as his next prize. The climb is very sustained and consistently thin, a real test of finger strength and technique. In the same season, Klemens mounted two more virgin crack systems on Absolutely Free, plus routes such as Gripper, Independence Pinnacle, and Henley Quits. All of these were aesthetic as well as difficult. Barry Bates was also developing quickly in 1970. After three years, his route on the Centre of Independence will still send a thrill even through those experienced at thin hand cracks."

mark chapman attempting owl roof. contemporary with klemens and bates. the idea that in '72 people understood that this would go free speaks volumes about the mindset of the time. all bets were off; everything in valley freeclimbing that has happened since then was really only a matter of time.


Trad climber
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Aug 14, 2008 - 10:47pm PT
Damn Roger! That was, as my relatives would say, "Spot On!" And I love the comment, " Mark’s criterion for any new route was that he had to get his knee in. Barry’s criterion seemed to be tips only." Any of us that have done a selection from either climber can easily agree.

I just went back and looked at your list...

Waverly Wafer
Outer Limits
Wheat Thin
Abstract Corner
Independence Pinnacle Center
Lunatic Fringe
Five and Dime
Vanishing Point
Stepping Out
The Hourglass-Left Side
FFA of New Dimensions

Then I scoured Steelmnkey's list and my palms got sweaty. These may not be the current testpieces enjoyed by today's hotshots, but many, many of them are absolute f*king C L A S S I C S !!!!!

Now, add to that the fact that some (many?... all?) of them were done with pins on the lead in PA's or (far worse) RD's or even some other hard 'n' slick footwear and it really puts these climbs in perspective.

I am far from a sycophant, but Barry and Mark deserve respect.

Final thought, (keeping in mind I only had occasional glimpses of Mark late in his career) while both of these men performed magic on the vertical they were polar opposites in personality. Barry was quiet, kind, polite and accommodating to all, whereas Mark did not suffer fools gladly. I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong in this assessment.


Sport climber
Venice, Ca
Aug 14, 2008 - 11:25pm PT
I was never so stoked as when I bagged the Bates Big Four: Vanishing Point, Five and Dive, Lunatic Fringe, and Independence Center (which is far harder than 5.10d). Those are all-time classics, as are Cream and Steppin' Out (Klemens).


Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Aug 14, 2008 - 11:28pm PT
JL, that is a classic typo... "Five and Dive".
That's about what I did on that thing.

right here, right now
Aug 14, 2008 - 11:45pm PT
Thanks for that one Roger!
You linked it all up quite well -affording us a succinct, informative, and pleasurable read.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Aug 15, 2008 - 01:10am PT
Thanks for posting this Roger.

Both on my short list, no doubt. Bagged New Dimensions without the nick and the Escape too!
Steppin' out with a slingload of nuggets at the upper end of the YDS in solid style. No matter how wide! Say no more!

I met Mark back in the mid-eighties when he came wandering into the rescue site to say hello. He had his beautiful daughter with him and hung out while Charles Cole and I quizzed him in the name of story telling. Those guys cleaned up whatever Pratt had left undone it seems. Amazing.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Aug 15, 2008 - 01:59am PT
Thanks, Roger, for your excellent work, but there were a couple of other early ones that may be overlooked: I'm thinking particularly of Dave Rearick's lead of the Split Pinnacle lieback, and Kor's free lead of the last pitch of La Escuela. The Split Pinnacle lieback, in particular, was a very fearsome matter to me in the days when we swung hammers and never heard of quick draws.

I went back in 1973 with just nuts and crude quick draws, but still chickened out.


Trad climber
Fruita, Colorado
Aug 15, 2008 - 03:20am PT
I've told you before I respect you, so you know I do. And all due respects, even though I say you make a few errors. I won't go round and round with you again, since you've made it clear you're not that receptive to feeback that disagrees with your own experience and perceptions, but let me make a few points at least. I could list many more if I had the time.

Your basic points, though, are good, that Barry Bates and Klemens deserve a lot more credit and recognition. We need to remember these grand special spirits.

You will see I did the first extensive interview with him in an issue of the Climbing Art, years ago, and in my History of Free Climbing I give Bates a lot of credit, as well as Klemens. I knew them both, though I knew and climbed a lot more with Barry. He actually phoned me a few years back and told me I was the best boulderer he had ever seen, back when he was doing his best bouldering. He is a wonderful and generous person, and every climb we did was simply two friends having a great time together. I did many of his difficult roped pitches, led Vanishing Point and Five & Dime, just as two examples, and also bouldered a lot with him. He was already doing very good boulder problems in 1967 (I think anyone who knows would tell you he and I were at top of the Yosemite bouldering standard in 1968 and '69), in my case partly because I was doing so much bouldering with Gill, and some of that was rubbing off, but he was just naturally gifted. He could do a one-finger pull-up with his middle finger through a tie-off loop tied to a tree limb, as far back as 1968.

The time we spent together bouldering had more to do, however, with the good feelings we had as partners.

Yes we all know Sacherer was bold and innovative and did some wonderful first ascents and free ascents. He was a little crazy, as well, at times. We all know Pratt was the master of off-widths. But one cannot short-change Royal, as you repeatedly seem to want to do, by lining up lists of first ascents, and placing some sort of value on such. Royal led several of the first 5.11 routes in the country, outside of Yosemite, a few years before 5.11 was done in Yosemite. Pratt was a great admirer of Royal's ability, and I spoke with Sacherer a few times who thought very highly of Royal. Royal contributed more to the 5.10 era, I believe, than to the 5.11, and that was just as significant in its time, but his very attitude and presence were inspiration to most.

You and I have established that you don't even like to mention the Center Slack, but Higgins will tell you he, Kamps, Pratt, Robbins, Bridwell, and others tried it, in 1967, before the block broke out (creating several bomber handjams), and none of those best of the best could do it. They all had decided it would be 5.11 if done. Pratt was the one who rated it, when I led the free ascent in '67. No one will know how much easier it got when the block broke out. No matter, I can agree that it was a small climb and does not sit atop three other 5.10 pitches, as does Serenity. But when I led New Dimensions (often called the first 5.11 in Yosemite, but in fact led free by Bates in 1972, not '70, as you say), I found it to be substantially easier than the original Center Slack. By April 1972, even John Long had begun to do such tough testpieces as Paisano Overhang at Tahquiz, rated 5.12c.

You list several climbers, such as Haan, etc., who started the 1970s free climbing revolution. I hope you were speaking of the YOSEMITE free climbing revolution, because there were remarkable climbers all over the country. Greg Lowe, for example, was leading 5.12 in Utah about the time 5.11 arrived in the Valley (or earlier). And guys such as Stannard in the East were remarkable masters. Gill, of course... Pete Cleveland... And Eldorado was well into high-level 5.11 from the later '60s on... The people you mention I agree were phenomenal champions, not a doubt about that, but it's only fair to keep things in good context.

What I like about you most, I think, Roger, is that you DO care, it seems, about history, whereas so many these days have no sense of their heritage. To some, nothing could matter less. I have met kids who don't even know the name Layton Kor... other than maybe having seen it in some guide. I think it's great to mention all the significant players, to praise them and remember them, but some of the comparisons and quibbling over numbers of firsts, or whatever, don't contribute much to our sense of the real greatness of these individuals. Bates would just be a name but for the beautiful sunlight that always radiated from those big eternal eyes, and the warmth that flowed from his constant smile. Same for Higgins, and of course Kamps, who were as influential as any... when it comes to almost any free climbing era anywhere in the vicinity of the golden age...

All the best,

Pat Ament
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