Settling Down While Climbing Up

Kevin Jorgeson continues to climb, in a lot of new directions.

Story David Bolling

Kevin Jorgeson was in Bulgaria recently, sitting in a taxi, when he did something completely out of character. He buckled his seat belt.

This is the same Kevin Jorgeson who free-climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan—3,000 vertical feet of polished granite. The same guy who put up the first highball ascent of Ambrosia, the most challenging route on a six-story-house-sized rock called the Grandpa Peabody boulder, outside Bishop, California. In free solo climbing—no ropes, no protection of any kind—the death zone is generally considered to be about 35 feet. In many cases, fall that far and, even with an abundance of foam crash pads, you’re dead.

So here was Kevin Jorgeson cautiously buckling himself into a cab. Why?

The question is posed in a Cotati café, and the answer is sitting next to him as he picks at a plate of roasted vegetables.

“I don’t know,” he muses. “Usually, in a taxi, I just hop in and hop out, but I found myself buckling my seat belt. Which I never do. It was just a three-minute ride to the airport. It’s little things like that…

The answer interrupts him.

“We’re investigating life insurance options.”

Her name is Jacqui. She and Kevin have been married long enough to carefully calculate the risks of what he does and perhaps how that can affect their relationship.

But that doesn’t really explain the seat belt. What explains the seat belt is inside Jacqui, the couple’s first son, perhaps to be named for Kevin’s grandfather, a beloved Chico schoolteacher. There’s some ongoing discussion about the name, because it’s Edsel, which is also the name of the Ford Motor Company’s most colossal failure.

Be that as it may, the impact of this boy, whatever his name will be, is already tweaking the carefully constructed equation of Kevin’s life.

He insists that all the climbing risks are carefully calculated, but they can never be eliminated.

Does that disturb Jacqui?

“It’s a question that I get a lot, understandably. As soon as friends and well-intentioned strangers find out what my love does for a living, it’s an automatic, ‘Doesn’t that scare you, aren’t you constantly worried?’ And I used to only say no because he was climbing before he was walking. It’s clearly what he was born to do. His passion for the sport is one of the things that initially attracted me to him. I can’t imagine a world in which he isn’t climbing, and I’d always say I would be more afraid of him texting and driving than clipping gear 2,000 feet up a wall.”

Kevin sits quietly, listening, as Jacqui continues.

“And then the August before this final Don Wall attempt, a dear friend of ours, a climber named Brad, who was like a brother to Kevin, was climbing in Tuolumne, free soloing, just a really simple route he’d done before, just in training for a bigger climb, and rock broke, or he got a cramp, we’ll never know. But he fell, and that absolutely shifted my understanding of risk and just the reality that there are conditions outside human control—that a climber can be utterly meticulous, as Kevin is, and that things still happen. And there’ve been a couple of falls, and specifically deaths, in this community since then that have hit close to home. The most recent being right in Yosemite on El Cap. Kev had friends who were climbing that same route, who let them pass, and he was right across the meadow from them when it happened, and that really hit me hard. One of the climbers had gotten married just a couple months before we did, and just looking at their photos and learning who they were and the legacies and lives they left behind…”

Jacqui pauses, sorts her thoughts.

“And then, being pregnant on top of it really was probably the hardest on me since we lost Brad. But, I still don’t choose to live in that place because it’s not just a part of Kevin’s life, it is in his DNA. It’s in his breath and it’s beautiful, and so I think there’ve been a couple times since the pregnancy where I maybe questioned the risk of a project more than I would’ve in the past, but we have conversations about it. And usually it’s just a matter of me getting more of the facts and talking to other climbers who are familiar with what he’s working on, and getting reassurance, and then my nervous system settles down.”

Kevin speaks up. “At least I’m not doing crazy highballs.”

Jacqui counters, “Well, there was that one at the coast that looked …”

Kevin, “Right.”

Jacqui, “…really sketchy and that had me in tears.”

Kevin, “Right.”

Jacqui, “The thought of you working on a wet, sharp, steep, high boulder on the coast didn’t feel good, but I think it’s rare that … I’ve never asked you not to do a climb.”

Kevin, “Yeah.”

Jacqui, “Because I trust him. Someone said, ‘He’s the most analytical person I know,’ and he was just joking with you, ‘Yeah he’s the most risk-averse big wall climber I know’…”

Kevin, “Who said that?”

Jacqui, “And he said it as a joke, and then he thought about it for a second, then he’s like, ‘That’s actually the truest statement I could make. You’re the most risk-averse …”

Kevin, “Was it Ben?”

Jacqui, “No, it was someone at the wedding, maybe. But that honestly gives me a lot of comfort that he’s so hyper-meticulous about what he does.”

Which leads us to one of the important discussion points related to climbing (and probably everything else in life). Is climbing as much a mental challenge as a physical one? Is analysis of the route and the moves required as important as the physical skill?

Kevin nods vigorously. “Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s how you manage it, because there’s risk and there’s consequence, and they’re not always the same thing. The consequences you’re facing are totally relative to the situation you’re in while you’re climbing. The further up you are above your piece, the higher the consequence of a fall. Then you clip the next piece, and it goes down again. So, you’re constantly managing consequences while you’re up there, and that’s where the mistakes have all their ramifications. You clip a bad piece of gear, you forget, or you intentionally skip it to go faster … the consequences just go up and up, but the risk can be relatively low if the terrain is easy, for example. The risk of actually falling on a five-zero, or something like that, is really low if you (regularly) climb five-fourteens. But the consequence … this is what happened to our friends, the fellows on El Cap … I’m sure the terrain they were on, the risk was extremely low. Super easy terrain they’d climbed literally over a hundred times. It’d be like us tripping on this sidewalk. That was like the level of risk they probably felt like they were taking. But because of the style in which they were climbing, the consequence was really high. They didn’t have any gear in between them or they only had a couple of pieces; we don’t know what the situation was. The risk was low, the consequence was high, something happened.”

Risk, he insists, is always relative. “If you drive with your seat belt on in a car with airbags at the speed limit, theoretically, it’s pretty safe. You drive at 110 miles an hour with no seat belt in an old car, it’s a different kind of risk. You don’t clip into the gear, you don’t tie into the rope, it’s super risky. But if you manage it properly, if you clip all the gear, if you place it properly, if you stay tied in, it looks insane, but the risk is truly relatively low.”

Kevin has already shared that as soon as he leaves the café he is headed to Yosemite to work on a “project,” which is to establish a free climb on a 1,000-foot rock column, called “Higher Cathedral Spire,” that has been traditionally climbed with aids.

“That’s kinda what I like to do. Take old legacy lines that were done in the ‘60s and ‘70s and bring them into the modern age.”

And for the week in Yosemite, Jorgeson will revert to a classic climber lifestyle.

“Tomorrow I’ll wake up in the back of my truck in Yosemite,” he says. “I’ve done that for, I don’t know how many hundreds of nights. Over the last ten years, there’s still that dirt-bag, vagabond kind of style to certain parts of my life, which is nice. A nice contrast. I think that’s one thing we both appreciate, is contrast. I’m happy sleeping in the dirt or in a fancy hotel. I can appreciate both. I don’t need one or the other all the time, but I can appreciate the contrast.”

A dramatic example of that contrast, perhaps the most dramatic and fortuitous contrast in his life, occurred on a Caribbean island.

Explains Jacqui, “For many years, I worked as a professional hula-hoop dancer and teacher. I helped to run a global hula-hoop fitness company that sent me all over the place. And I was hired, as Kevin was, to work the resort season at this really swanky five-star resort on the tiny island of Anguilla. And within seven days we were pretty committed to each other.”

Kevin immediately had a crucial role in her life. “His first official duty as my boyfriend was, he was my fire safety. I was performing on New Year’s Eve and had a fiery hula hoop spinning around me, and he was spotting me, like I was on a giant jungle gym or something.”

“My plan,” says Kevin, was to push her into the pool.”

In the process of growing their relationship, they acquired an island nickname.

“They called us ‘Hoops and Rocks,’ there goes Hoops and Rocks. And I thought it was funny so I bought the web domain and it ended up being our wedding website five or six years later.”

Jacqui now has a good excuse not to go with Kevin to the Yosemite climb, a trip he’s relishing because it draws him into the heart of the climbing experience.

“What’s fun on a project like Higher Cathedral Spire, every time you finish a pitch, your perspective of the landscape changes. You’re looking directly across at El Cap for example. When you start, the bases are relatively similar in elevation. Every time you do a pitch, you look across and you can see your relative height on El Cap. So that’s kind of a fun thing. You’re like, ‘Oh, we’re at the boot flake on the nose now. Now we’re at the great roof.’ By the time you top out the spire, you’re not at a higher elevation than El Cap, but you can appreciate how far you’ve gotten, because now you can see Yosemite Falls, which you couldn’t see from the beginning, and you’ve got falcons screeching around and the wind is blowing. You become really familiar with weather patterns and simple things like the sun. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll see the sun from 2 to 4. We’ve got to try to get here by this time.’”

Jacqui interrupts to add, “I remember you telling me early on about how it’s just you and the birds, watching the way they would swirl and catch the thermals, and the way the rain sometimes would float up the wall.”

Kevin explains, “All the wind on El Cap blows up, typically. So in the spring, when the runoff would melt, it would meet the wind coming up. The water drops would be like gumballs, really big, you could reach out and just pluck them out of the air. They were like levitating. Then they would go up, and down, they’d hit you in the face. That was still one of my favorite memories for sure.”

When Kevin steps away to take a “two-minute” phone call, that lasts nearly an hour, Jacqui shares the major paradox of their marriage.

“When I met him on this island, and we just connected so quickly, and we were walking through this beautiful, perfectly maintained property together, and I’d see him with these children, on this little climbing wall, that’s what he was brought in to do. He was the most ovequalified guy to ever clip little kids into an auto-belay. He was so gentle with them, and so patient, and so really nurturing in his instruction and his encouragement. I never knew for sure that I wanted kids, but thought, ‘Well, gosh, that just says a lot about a person.’ It was maybe a couple days later that we were walking through the property, this budding romance, and we were both smiling and peaceful, and we both happened to glance over and see a little brother and sister, these beautiful children playing. I’m thinking, ‘Look at us, enjoying these adorable children together.’ And he looks at me, and just exhales and says, ‘God, I hate kids.’ I just said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Don’t like them. Don’t want them.’”

The astounding paradox? Kevin Jorgeson has devoted a good part of his climbing career funding and installing climbing walls in Boys & Girls Clubs, the first installation being in Sonoma. And now he has created a foundation called One Climb, with the goal of getting a million kids to climb. And that means building climbing walls all across the country.

“I think,” says Kevin, “that my ambition has always been broader than my own personal climbing objectives. You could argue that climbing is a pretty selfish sport, pretty self-serving in your ambition. Whether it’s the kids climbing stuff, or other things that I’ve always wanted to do, I think climbing helped unlock some doors, or open some doors that may otherwise not have been open.”

Clearly Kevin is now ready to have a child. What happened? Jacqui explains, “It took a couple years, I think, for him to rewire that and realize that he actually, in fact, does like kids quite a lot. It had a certain level of complexity to that process, but he’s just great because he is such a thinker, and he goes about everything analytically, and so I think he probably took apart that puzzle of, ‘Why do I think I don’t like kids?’ Then he sort of, out of nowhere, said, ‘Okay, I could see how it would be cool to have a little ankle biter running around.’”

The ankle biter is due in November, and due further on down the line, in a year or three, is a $7 million climbing facility Kevin and his business partner plan to birth in Santa Rosa. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, Kevin Jorgeson is somewhere outside, hanging around high on some rocks.

 

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