The Stonemasters: Righteous Rock Climbing Legends

The Stonemasters: Righteous Rock Climbing Legends

By Nathan Siegel

1970's rock climbers from the book Stonemasters by John Long and Dean Fidelman


Because when a vagabond posse of SoCal outcasts innovates and changes rock climbing forever, there’s a lot to learn. 

By Nathan Siegel

Just past 5 feet, just past 30, Lynn Hill became the first person ever to free climb The Nosean ultrafamous route on El Capitan in Yosemite. No ascending aids, just herself. It was 1993, and Hill vaulted to the pinnacle of the rock-climbing universe, too: “the biggest thing that has ever been done on rock,” said Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, no climbing slouch himself.

The next year, she did it again … in less than 24 hours. “It goes, boys!” she said at the top, referring to rock climbing’s male dominance. For most, it was an undeniable affirmation of women’s arrival on the rock-climbing scene and representative of their massive influx during the 1980s — not coincidentally just as the effects of Title IX were taking hold.

Get stoned, climb + conquer, nonconform, never rinse and repeat.

Hill is one of the most prominent living ambassadors of a ragtag pack of Southern Californians — known as the Stonemasters — who took the climbing world by storm beginning in the early ’70s and would popularize what is now considered modern rock climbing. They started as a bunch of high schoolers.

Stonemasters was a free-for-all, “embrac[ing] all comers, sweeping along climbers of every age, gender and ability in an avalanche of exuberance that California could no longer contain,” wrote the ’masters’ premier muse, John Long. They were self-proclaimed dirtbags, long-haired vagabonds who scavenged for leftover food scraps from tourists, slept out of cars and fashioned their own climbing equipment. Get stoned, climb + conquer, nonconform, never rinse and repeat.

Outdoor sports, and rock climbing specifically, are more popular among Americans now than ever before. In 2013, almost 50 percent of Americans participated in an outdoor activity, which (seriously? only half?!) is the most on record, according to the Outdoor Foundation. Four million of those are rock climbers. The millions who play in the air-conditioned, Lululemon palaces that today pass as rock walls have a few dozen rock-hugging hippies to thank for their daily dose of adrenaline. As well as their apparent sex appeal.

Lynn Hill free climbing a rock during the day

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Source Getty

They pioneered and popularized free climbing, or using ropes only to safeguard a fall, not to ascend, and free soloing — that’s raw: no ropes, no nothin’. Nowadays, free climbing is the norm, challenging people to use only their arms and legs (and chin, nose, whatever you gotta do) to reach the top.The Stonemasters were the progeny of “a rock and a lightning bolt hav[ing] a crazy romance,” wrote Long, a founding member along with Hill, John Bachar, Tobin Sorenson and Rick Accomazzo, among other greats. On epic cliff faces in Yosemite Valley, the raggedy outcasts launched a wild and righteous attack on traditional climbing conventions.

The initial crew cut their teeth as teenagers at Joshua Tree, near their high school. They ventured to the valley during summers, where the likes of Chouinard, Royal Robbins and others had spent the previous 20 years claiming a host of first ascents on iconic walls like El Capitan and Half Dome. Seen as the godfathers of rock climbing, these fabled outdoorsmen relied on a lot of equipment and took a lot of time, too — sometimes a week or more to conquer certain climbs.

In contrast, the young Stonemasters were unhindered by heavy gear and intimations of mortality. They blazed a litany of single-day free climbing ascents, raising the bar so high that some routes have remained untamed since.

The motley crew has laid claim to more walls than Genghis Khan has offspring — and did it with style. But while the counter-mainstream lifestyle and climbing legacy of the Stonemasters live on, many of its members were not so fortunate. Bachar, the “Grand Templar” of the movement and early adopter of free soloing, fell to his death in 2009, three decades after Sorenson died in similar fashion.

Ludicrous to many, free soloing forges on and is, to proponents, the purest form of rock climbing. And although the public isn’t usually so keen on poking death with a burning stick, it’s under the Stonemasters’ legacy that we climb.