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John Gill The Founding Father of Modern Bouldering...The Interview 03.14.2003
Posted on Friday, March 19
by Robert

Feature Article
John relaxes after a day of bouldering at Little Owl. 2002.
Shades Mountain, in Birmingham, AL. 1964
The Scab in the Needles of the Black Hills. 1963
John Gill at Little Owl Canyon. 2002
SCC: It's a great honor to interview you John as you have made a dramatic impact on the sport of climbing. We've put together a few questions for you as many southern climbers are very interested to hear your views and comments on your life in climbing.

Jgill:  Thank you.  I hope you find my replies relevant.

SCC: How did you get started climbing?

Jgill:  I was going to Bass High School in Atlanta in the early 1950s when a classmate, Jeanne Shearer (bergen) asked if I d like to go on a trip to north Georgia to search for Indian relics in a cave in a limestone cliff. She had an army surplus nylon rope and a few pitons and carabiners and slings and had climbed the previous summer in Colorado. I went along and was thrilled with the experience of roping down a cliff and scrambling around. I was hooked. (we didn t find the cave). 

SCC: Tell us about your family and where you live now.

Jgill:  My father was a university professor and my mother a housewife. I was first married in 1962 in Colorado to Lora Brooks. In 1965 my only child was born Pamela. She now lives and works in NYC. Lora and I were divorced in 1972, and I remarried in 1974 to Dorothy. She had two children, and one , Susanne, now lives in Pueblo with her son Dylan (13). The other (Chris) lives in Denver with his wife and 14 year old daughter, Nicole. We live in Pueblo West, a few miles from Pueblo and I25 , and about 40 miles south of Colorado Springs.


SCC: Where were some of the early areas that you climbed in the deep south? Any specific climbs that stick out in your mind?

Jgill: I hiked and scrambled around Stone Mountain, outside of Atlanta, when I was in high school and college. At that time it was an unregulated wilderness of granite, lichen, trees, foxes and eagles. Wild grapes grew on its flanks. I climbed in quarries on the back side, and later climbed up the lower part of the uncompleted confederate memorial, with its creaking and rusting scaffolds and cables. I also climbed several times in Cloudland Canyon in northern Georgia, and Tallulah Gorge and Black Rock Mountain. The only evidence I ever found that others might be climbing as well was on my first climb up under the confederate carving I found a Holubar piton sitting on a stone shelf. These were easy scrambles and climbs. You can t imagine the naivete regarding climbing at the time. These excursions were real adventure. I knew little about rating climbs until I began doing routes in the Tetons in 1956.

Later, I returned to grad school at U of Alabama, and while there (1962-1964) I climbed a little at Shades Mountain in Birmingham and DeSoto Canyon. No one else had climbed at either place, as far as I could tell, and I just went up whatever seemed appealing no route names or grades.  Who would care? Then from 1964 to 1967 I lived in Murray, KY, and spent quite a bit of time exploring and developing Dixon Springs in S. Illinois, and climbed in several other areas in the region. I saw no evidence of any previous climbing.

SCC: Who were your early climbing partners?

Jgill: Jeanne was my first climbing partner, then I drove out to Colorado in the summer of 1954 with a fellow Georgian, Dick Wimer, who had done some climbing before. While at Georgia Tech (1954-1956) a couple of my frat brothers got interested. During the summers of 1957 and 1958 and for a few years after that, when I was getting very strong and was formulating what would become modern bouldering, I climbed/bouldered with Yvon Chouinard, Bob Kamps, Dave Rearick, Mark Powell, Royal Robbins, Layton Kor, Rich Goldstone, Ray Schrag, Pete Cleveland and many others.

SCC: Many other climbers were doing longer routes and big walls back in your early years. What drove you to bouldering?

Jgill: My confidence that climbing should be perceived as an extension of gymnastics , rather than as an extension of hiking, which was the prevailing view (the Yosemite Decimal System clearly shows this, with its classes 1 through 6). I suspect I was the first climber to take this philosophical position. Where better to practice gymnastic rock climbing than on short outcrops and boulders? I saw bouldering as a stand-alone crucible in which difficulty standards could obviously be raised. Later, I discovered there were other dimensions to bouldering - e.g., as a moving meditation that added to its appeal and made it more of a life-long activity. A climbing career doesn t have to be all about difficulty.

SCC: Tell us about gymnastics and what impact it had on your climbing.

Jgill: An enormous impact.  I worked on the 20 rope climb and still rings, and became very strong and very fast. At the same time I viewed climbing as an artistic endeavor that should be practiced and polished, like a competitive gymnastic routine. I learned dynamic motion from gymnastics, and brought both the concept of dynamic moves and the use of gymnastic chalk into the world of American climbing in the late 1950s. Before, any deviation from traditional three point suspension was regarded as heresy. In 1959 I did the first significant dynamic boulder problem the center of Red Cross Rock at Jenny Lake. It also goes down as the first V9  (there s an easier variation using an additional handhold that s V7), although it was years before such a rating scheme was adopted.

A real turning point for me was watching a movie newsreel of Albert Azaryan doing a still ring routine about 1955. I saw the potential for applying that kind of strength to climbing, and began trying moves on the rings. In the process, I went from a scrawny  145 pounds at 6 2 to about 180 pounds, all added muscle. I became an athlete. It s ironic that now in order to pull on the tiny holds on severe boulder problems one might need to go from 180 to 145 !  The kind of strength I developed was appropriate at the time, but times do change. . . Nevertheless, I still would prefer being the athlete I was rather than being skinny enough to use a few extra handholds.

SCC: You have been injured a few times in your career. How did that affect you physically and mentally?

Jgill: I was laid low in 1970 with (the first?) case of climbers elbow . I was out of climbing for a year. It was depressing, but I had a family and was completing my PhD in math, and was starting a career of sorts, so I didn t fret too much. Then, in 1987, just after I had turned 50, I tore the right biceps off the forearm in a freak bouldering accident. It was surgically reattached, but the doctor found lots of scar tissue thanks to 30 years of dynamics (I m a little large for the acrobatics I loved).
I retired from any semblance of competitive bouldering and returned to my other fond indulgence: free-soloing. Now, at the age of 66, oddly enough, I ve sort of returned to light bouldering (must be dementia setting in!).


SCC: You have been called the "Founding Father" of bouldering. Any thoughts on today's bouldering "scene" and how it differs from the past. Any similarities?

Jgill: More accurately, the founding father of Modern Bouldering.  Bouldering itself has been around since the 1800s, but not as a stand-alone crucible for the pursuit of difficulty. In 1958 I devised the first rating scheme for bouldering: B1 = current greatest difficulty in roped or trad climbing, B2 = broad category of harder climbs, i.e., of bouldering level difficulty, B3 = an objective rating applied to a hard problem that has been done only once. It can be downgraded.

My idea was to encourage competition and advancement of skills, but discourage number chasing. Guess what? Number chasing won. Actually, my system broke down with the advent of sport climbing an activity that would have been greeted with near universal scorn as completely unethical back in the Golden Age.

All the numbers and letters and score cards and accumulated points these days make me a little nauseous. The open-ended scale has certainly enticed a lot of youngsters into the sport, but has dulled the imagination of many a climber.  Is that all there is to climbing?

When the sport was young, most dedicated climbers could reach the frontiers with enough work.. Now that s not possible. The large number of participants has produced a much smaller group of genetically-appropriate athletes of superlative abilities. The extreme grades are no longer accessible to the great majority of climbers. They are the abstract mathematics of our sport. And you know what?  I m not sure where anatomy ends and difficulty begins.

SCC: Did you ever think that bouldering would become as popular as it is now?

Jgill: No I didn t. It s a bit depressing.  But it is exciting and cheap!  I hope it doesn t turn into skateboarding. Actually, I think it s a little like golf the media focuses almost exclusively on the Tiger Woods of the sport, but most golfers plug away and have a great time at it without being fixated on the champions. It s a personal thing. In fact, to carry the analogy a bit further, bouldering should have a rating system something like golf, with a par designated for each problem. If it takes about three tries for experts to do a problem, then it becomes a par 3 .  To me this makes more sense then an open ended scale.


SCC: You are a professor of Mathematics. What does mathematics bring to the table when climbing.

JGill: I was a Professor of Mathematics. Now I m an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics. Mathematicians and climbers love problem solving. For mathematicians, peer recognition is the most important motivator. Sound familiar, fellow climbers?

SCC: Tell us about your first ascent of "The Thimble".

Jgill: It took several trips down from my AFB in northeastern Montana during 1961 for me to get the bottom wired and commit to the top. It was a personal challenge to determine how far I was willing to go to pursue exploratory free-soloing. (Of course, the expression free-solo wasn t coined for another quarter century). I had already had some experience with this extreme form of the sport when I soloed several difficult routes in the Tetons a year or so earlier. 

At the time the Thimble was probably the hardest short rock climb in the world. At a current consensus V5, it must have been the very first 5.12, although some see it as the first hi-ball. To me it was a climb. I found the limits I was seeking. I was damned lucky I didn t get wiped out on it. I hear that the second ascent in my style was done 27 years later. After the Thimble I concluded that this was a frontier for others to contend with, and returned to relatively safe, conservative solos.

SCC: Any other great ascents that bring back great memories?

Jgill: My fondest memories are of easy to moderate solos, where I glide effortlessly up the rock, pulled by some invisible cord. Overcoming great difficulty produces pride, but not necessarily the warmest memories.

SCC: Tell us about your solo climbs in the mountains. What kind of experience is that to you?

Jgill:  Well, it s entirely different from climbing with others. When you rope up you become a part of a team and the climb becomes a kind of social event. By myself, it is a more mystical experience, and I connect with the environment in a stronger, but more subtle way. It s as if the world changes and becomes extremely personal. There is a flow, almost rhapsodic in nature, that quiet, continuous movement induces that is never seen in the stop- and- go process of team climbing. I feel like I am on an upward journey along a vertical path. I virtually never pause and look down there is always an irresistible upward inertia. But, if the climbing becomes difficult, I lose this happy rhythm and shift into the heightened and adrenalated state that is the goal of most risk-takers. I m not driven to take risks. I don t climb for that kind of thrill, so most of my solitary excursions are on easy terrain.

SCC: What do you think the future holds for bouldering and climbing in general.

Jgill: Great variety for climbing in general. Lots of different specialties for different temperaments. I do hope there will be some degree of departure from the very narrow view that climbing is solely about doing the most difficult moves or routes you are capable of . . .  reaching and testing your limits. Pushing yourself to do harder climbs or problems is vital for the sport, but I think it may be more a reflection of the social and metaphorical use of the  word climbing than an intrinsic component of the physical act, itself. Climbing even simple motion gives pleasure because it s part of our evolutionary heritage. Much the same way monkeys cavort on the bars and ladders at the zoo. It can also titillate that part of the brain that produces spiritual or mystical sensations, as well as trigger the more common endorphin effect. There s a lot of unknown territory here that future climbers might explore.

SCC: Thanks for the interview, we really appreciate your time.

Jgill: My pleasure.
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