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
Jgill: Thank you. I hope you find
my replies relevant.
SCC: How did you get started
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
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
SCC: Who were your early climbing
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
You are a professor of Mathematics. What does mathematics bring to the table
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,
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
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.