You see it all of the time—outdoor enthusiast friends start a new adventure sport or want to do an old one faster, and they buy a whole new kit. Skiing Denali? We’re gonna need some lighter boots, skis, and a two-person sleeping bag. Want to sport climb harder? You’ll probably need a skinnier rope and stiffer shoes. Climbing The Nose in a day? Enter ultra-light Camalots and those lighter-than-air Dyneema quickdraws. Each time I read about first ascent parties, I’m humbled and reminded how little that crap matters.
What does matter? Heart, gumption, and a fundamental belief or naiveté about what’s possible. Jim “The Bird” Bridwell had all three, along with an irreverent, carefree attitude that made him a cultural icon.
Bridwell, along with Billy Westbay and John Long, completed the first ascent of The Nose in a day on May 26, 1975. In just over 15 hours, this party of three set a new standard for what was possible in the world of rock climbing. No fancy gear here—they were wearing swami belts—harnesses made out of 17 feet of one-inch tubular webbing finished with a water knot. They’re quite uncomfortable when you sit in them. They brought your standard big wall rack—ropes, pitons, nuts—and your not so standard five packs of cigarettes. Westbay later commented that he was annoyed at how fast they moved through the end of the climb because they didn’t take enough cigarette breaks.
Bridwell took the third and final block of The Nose as the team approached the summit of El Capitan. Exhaustion started to set in and the mood grew quiet. A stuck rope led to cursing and jerking, they became snippy with one another, and methodically continued to hammer their way up. At 7:00 pm, the team topped out, completing the single most significant climb of the ‘70s. But they were too tired to relish in their accomplishment. “On the summit, there was no celebration, no elation at all,” Long later wrote.
On February 16, 2018, 73-year-old rock climbing legend Bridwell died in his Palm Desert, California, from hepatitis C. He guessed that he contracted the disease from getting a tattoo in the 1980s in Borneo.
The Bird earned his nickname from his love of, well, birds, which actually got him into climbing as a teenager—salvaging down eggs and bringing them back to their nests high on cliffs. He was born in San Antonio, Texas in the final years of the Second World War. His pops was a naval pilot and mom was a homemaker and artist. From Connecticut to New York to Japan, the Bridwell family moved around a lot when Jim was young, perhaps instilling vagabond values as a kid.
Bridwell fully leaned into the vagabond lifestyle at 18, moving to Yosemite and setting up home at Camp 4. He showed up green but with an appetite to learn and was mentored by the greats of the day like Warren Harding and Royal Robbins. He picked it up quickly, putting up his first ascent in Yosemite the following year on the Northeast Buttress on Higher Cathedral Spire.
The first ascents kept rolling. In Bridwell’s time in Yosemite, he put up over 100 new routes, making him one of the most ubiquitous climbers in valley history. And he kept pushing the limit. New routes like Pacific Ocean Wall and Sea of Dreams became the hardest aid lines in the world at the time. And he did them in good style with impeccable ethic—in fact, the second ascent party added 17 holes to Pacific Ocean Wall and Sea of Dreams has over 160 more holes today than when Bridwell climbed it, both of which he sternly disagreed with.
Though he’s most well known for his Yosemite climbing—and most famously for founding Yosemite Search and Rescue—his reach extended beyond California. In 1979, he climbed the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre with Steven Brewer, and in 1981, he and Mugs Stump completed the first ascent of the east face of the Moose’s Tooth in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. He was on a team that first circumnavigated Mt. Everest in 1982—an expedition of 300 miles, all above 17,000 feet. The circumnavigation was fondly referred to as a “circumskition.” Bridwell led the charge on a first winter ascent of Pumori via a new line. Not 30 hours after the climb, the team watched a massive avalanche demolish the lower route. Bridwell was the first to speak—“Well, that’s luck.”
Bridwell was at the forefront of the 1970’s avant-garde iconoclast culture, taking the lead of the Stonemasters (or Stonedmasters as Lynn Hill aptly named them). John Long called him “an escapist from boredom and mundane things and an occasional abuser of everything including himself.” He did his fair share of drugs and wore plenty of paisley button-downs with bandannas in his hair. But it was mostly an image. He went so far as to dress his climbing partners if he knew photographers were around. Fellow Stonemaster Dale Bard called Bridwell the Yosemite fashion consultant, their PR rep. In a 2016 interview with GQ magazine, Bard remembered that Bridwell did it all for “photo ops…to make us stand out, to look as rebellious as possible.”
Bridwell had his share of near misses—from rock fall to broken bones. The final straw came in 2008 in Idaho, when he rappelled off of the end of his rope, splitting the back of his head open. Sixty stitches later, he took the accident as an omen to stop climbing. But Peter Mayfield, who was mentored by Bridwell, insists that he was neither reckless nor brash. Mayfield called Bridwell’s personality “sweet and soulful,” and a very calculated, thoughtful climber.
Even though he may have stopped climbing, it was an essential part of his being, core to who he was and now a big part of his legacy. He put it best:
I think anything that you put your life’s energy into becomes part of your identity. It would be difficult for the Rolling Stones to not play rock and roll anymore, because that’s their image of themselves. When you’ve convinced everybody that that’s who you are, that’s who you are.
The climbing world is certainly a bigger, more prodigious place because of all he did.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons