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The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers In the Seventies. Dean Fidelman, John Long, and others. T. Adler Books/ Stonemaster Press, 2009. Many photographs. 196 pages. Hardcover. $60.00.

“We made this book square, like a block of granite,” said Dean Fidelman, the photographer. That’s how much he and John Long, the writer, wanted it to reflect the experience of being a Stonemaster. It’s exciting how well their big volume succeeds, by diving deep into the legend to locate the sparks that set a few high school kids so on fire they ignited a generation. The story is vivid, thanks to the penetrating writing of their chief spokesman, John Long.

How did it all start? Long “organized a high school rock-climbing club for the sole purpose of enlisting a partner who had access to a car.” The club quickly sank under the weight of teen drunkenness when “a foreign exchange student from Hyderabad [India]—whod shown such promise on The Blob earlier that day—was found wandering the desert in her panties.” But Long had already hooked up with Rick Accomazzo and “a powder-blue Ford Pinto we drove into the tundra over the next few years.” Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.

Fidelman’s iconic shots are everywhere, opening with John Bachar hanging oh-so-casually off the lip of The Molar for a dedication page. Yet they don’t dominate. Instead, their classiness is deliberately upstaged by snapshots that start out reflecting self-conscious poses from reading too much Herman Buhl, but soon dissolve into the warmth and plain goofiness of hanging out in Josh with your buds.

Likewise, Long is too good to just go big with his own language. The book sweeps together writings from many others who were there as the tribe swelled and became the statement, the identity, of a generation. Right away we get multiple views of climbing Valhalla, their initial entrance exam, from Accomazzo and Mike Graham. Plus rare writing from John Bachar, as he steps it up to the first solo of Butterballs, and sweet Tobin Sorenson going alpine.

The Stonemaster legend has loomed, creating a hunger for this book. It wouldn’t have taken much to satisfy the hunger, but we get filled right up by a rich choir of voices, set off by candid moments on Kodachrome.

It’s the start of an era of red two-inch swamis, worn like a pirate’s sash over painter’s pants, long hair, an insouciant stance. They might have been tempted to tighten that circle as more aspirants clamored. Instead, the Stonemasters did a remarkable thing. They threw open the gates and became a generation that wouldn’t quit until it had run itself out on enduring icons like Astroman, the Nose-in-a-Day, and the Bachar-Yerian.

“Dime edges,” we often say, when in truth most of them were larger coin. Long wryly acknowledges “centavo” size as they build early skill bouldering on Mt. Rubidoux before tackling the “holdless” slabs of Suicide Rock, where the drill stances were “round as a wine grape and smoother, too.”

The Stonemasters were the last great trad climbers, pulling the rope after a fall and trying from the ground or the last no-hands stance to send it straight through.

Steve Roper’s slim volume, Camp 4, gestated 30 years before committing to history the Golden Age of Valley climbing. He got it so right, reflecting by turns the serious and farcical, all with painstaking accuracy. A hard act to follow. All the more interesting then that we waited out the same delay in documenting this next great era, one that couldn’t really be contained by the walls of The Gulch. Hardly a tombstone, this volume cracks open with the invitation to make your own mischief and keep it real.

I keep returning to Long’s piece that opens the book, “A Short History of the Stonemasters.” Like a solo on the sax, it has evolved over the years since it was first published with subtle twists and big surprises. By the time I encountered them in the Valley, the Stonemasters were already a movement at flood stage and had recruited the best of the Bay Area boys, like Dale Bard and Werner Braun, Ron Kauk and John “Yabo” Yablonski, not to mention sweeping in their King-of-the-Valley predecessor, Jim Bridwell.

The brilliance in this volume calls out its dark side, which surfaced with a couple of bodies shattered by long falls, the early death of Tobin Sorenson, and a sick obsessiveness oozing out of Yabo that even the strong medicine of climbing itself could not hold in check forever. Lynn Hill digs into the story of sparring with Yabo as no 18-year-old girl should have to, yet so many do. Emotional blackmail forces her hand, and in the heat of the moment they end up practically soloing a line that is lost forever. But its acidetched tale could be the strongest piece in a very strong book.

The Stonemasters scatters a lot of gripping writing among grainy snapshots and epic landscapes. It also innovatively uses a lot of short snippets culled fresh from tossed-off posts on SuperTopo.

Okay, so I’m kind of smitten by the Stonemaster legend. It is truly a thrill to trace their roots, exposed as never before in this excellent book.

Doug Robinson