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Meet the California Crew That Brought Sex, Drugs, and Free Jazz to Rock Climbing—and Made it the Most Stylish Sport of the 1970s

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Style FlashbackMeet the California Crew That Brought Sex, Drugs, and Free Jazz to Rock Climbing—and Made it the Most Stylish Sport of the 1970s

Rock climbing is exploding nationwide right now, with new climbing walls opening every day and people like our cover star, Jared Leto, blowing up Instagram. But to find the source of rock climbing's cool, you have to go back to the 1970's. That's when a California crew called The Stonemasters took the sport to new heights (literally) from Joshua Tree to Yosemite and beyond, fueled by Jimi Hendrix, LSD, and the undeniable drive to look like no one else while doing it. Here, in their own words, is the story of the legendary Stonemasters.

They weren’t the first men to climb mountains. They were just the first to make it look this damn cool. They invented their own bare-bone, white-knuckled style of climbing, yes—taking down unprecedented multi-day ascents, and honing the art of free-soloing, climbing alone without any ropes. They also patented a lifestyle built around the sport and the spirit of scaling steep cliffs, sheer rock faces, and impossibly pitched verticals. All under the influence of the California sun, the psychedelic sounds of the 1970s (especially Jimi Hendrix), and copious amounts of cheap, green reefer. They were known as the Stonemasters, and they would last roughly a decade, from 1970 to 1980, blasting rock ‘n’ roll music, partying around campfires (“there was always a crazy amount of girls around”), and making insane first ascents through Yosemite National Park (and later the world). By decade’s end, the world would change and catch-up, their influence would endure through a many billion-dollar adventure sports industry, but that magic time in the forest couldn’t last forever. But “it was Woodstock forever” for awhile and everyone involved in the scene knew it. Here the core surviving members take us back to that time, up on sugar mountain for one last long look.

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Stonemasters co-founder Richard Harrison, who died in 2014, seen here in 1977.

Style Was Everything

JOHN LONG (co-author of ‘The Stonemasters’; arrived at Yosemite in 1969 at age 16 from Upland, California): The Stonemasters were a cultural event that happened in the mid 1970s that catalyzed what would go on to be the adventure sport and action sport craze. It had a lot of things to do with—it was a style kinda thing.

LYNN HILL (first person, man or woman, to make a free ascent of The Nose, Yosemite’s most iconic big wall): Well, style is everything. And just because you get to the top doesn’t mean that you should celebrate your success. It’s how you get there that’s really very important.

DEAN FIDELMAN (co-author of ‘The Stonemasters’; climber, photographer and creator of the nude climbing calendar Stone Nudes): All of us were aware of what was going on in surfing and we all thought that those guys were bitchin', you know. They had style. They had the style, and that's what we started bringing to climbing—a certain style. And it first started with the clothes—the white painter pants and the chalk bag and then the headband. It also went to the way you climbed. You climbed super smooth, but when there was a big hold, you'd hang on it. You know, you'd show how strong you were and how fluid you were. And then you wouldn't use a whole lot of protection to show how big your balls were.

LONG: The Stonemasters were a pretty gracious group. That’s not to say that we weren’t arrogant—because we were—but it wasn’t arrogant in reference to other people. It was just arrogant because you were part of something and it was cool.

MIKE GRAHAM (founder of the climbing lifestyle brand Gramicci; arrived in Yosemite in 1974, the year he turned 18): It was a cockiness, a confidence that you have because you survived this pitch when no one else had been able to do it, and if you fall, you maybe could have broken yourself for the rest of your life, or died, and you survive it. It makes you feel like, “Maybe I’m untouchable.” You’re always thinking, “Well, shit, I’m pretty much what’s happening and nothing’s gonna stop me.”

FIDELMAN: We wanted it to be as natural as possible. We're trying to do it as beautifully and as well as we can, because there's a certain amount of respect for the beauty of the rock and the beauty of our environment, and that's how we tried to blend in and be a part of it. Cause everything here is at the height of its mastery, and we wanted to be that way, too. As beautiful and graceful as a tree, as strong as a rock, you know.

LONG: [Other places] have some fantastic formations but they’re nothing like Yosemite. It had a magical kind of feel and enchantment. There’s a reason why it’s called a crown jewel of the park system. I came out of sports but you know—no arena is remotely as grand as El Cap [El Capitan, the vertical rock formation on the north side of Yosemite Valley]. It’s freakin’ 3,000 feet high. It makes Yankee Stadium look like a dog house.

RICK ACCOMAZZO (photographer; arrived at Yosemite in 1973 at age 18): You cannot believe how big El Capitan is. It’s just staggering. It’s life changing. Imagine the World Trade Center—one of the highest manmade things in the Western hemisphere—it’s not quite, but two of those. Stack them up. And that’s El Cap.

DEAN FIDELMAN: I was climbing in Joshua Tree before that and I had never—the scale of everything was just so monumental and just the beauty of the whole place. I fell in love with it immediately is really what happened. I knew I was home.

LONG: Climbing wasn’t a mainstream thing at all then. So [climbers] had an outlaw curious feel to them that I found interesting. And they were all fit—an energetic subset of athletics and culture that I also found interesting. Outlaws, really. The regular rules didn’t really apply to them ‘cause there was nobody to enforce anything. They simply weren’t hypnotized by regular values. They were like jazz musicians or something.

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Lynn Hill, pictured in Yosemite, shows why she’s one of the best climbers man or woman—to ever touch a rock.

FIDELMAN: Then you had the Dogtown and Z-Boys guys who could fucking surf. You know, they could make that board sing, right? Back then, there was a lot of uptight motherfuckers that climbed, but they couldn't really climb.

DALE BARD (arrived at Yosemite in 1971 at age 17, then lived out of a tent for years): Some folks in the Buddhist religion call it enlightenment. And that is the best way I can describe what a Stonemaster is. You've superseded everything. You've superseded training, you've superseded talent, natural ability, because it's just part of your being. That is the definition of a Stonemaster.

LONG: Psychologically you have to have whatever the intangibles are that allow people to walk up to a big cliff and go, “Okay, here goes nothing.”

HILL: One of the great things about climbing is that it gives you a chance to see what you’re made of. So, something like El Cap, you know. You can’t really hide who you are. It’s very apparent.

BARD: I never could figure it out, but white pants were the thing to do. White. White, like white. Bellbottoms were in. I had some 501s. [Jim] Bridwell kinda dictated the dress. When we were doing special routes, Bridwell actually would dress us. It was for pictures, photo ops, that kind of stuff, to make us stand out, to look as rebellious as possible.

FIDELMAN: You'd have the white painter pants, and then you'd go to a thrift store and get an outrageous shirt of some sort. You had the headband. Anything psychedelic. Anything paisley. Bridwell would have been climbing walls with white painter pants and a psychedelic shirt, just because he's making a statement.

JIM BRIDWELL (“the biggest cheese in American climbing” in the '70s, according to Long; first climbed in Yosemite in 1961): I liked paisley. Comes from India, you know?

ACCOMAZZO: The headbands were utilitarian—style was certainly secondary. We all had long hair, and when you’re climbing you’ve got to keep it out of your eyes. You wear these white pants so they reflect the sun and they’re noticeably cooler when you’re up on a hot Yosemite wall. So white pants and headbands were de rigueur, but they had a prime utilitarian purpose.

FIDELMAN: We idolized Bruce Lee. he was really fast and badass and he was ripped. And we wanted to be ripped. We were just like, Dude, that's it. He was hard as steel, but skinny and little. Everyone knew the less you weigh, the harder you can climb. Weight to strength was a really big thing on everyone.

GRAHAM: We were definitely inspired by the Bruce Lee character. He was so inspiring because he was so athletic. What you could see him do was just mind-boggling, and we all would apply those ideas to climbing.

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Bachar plays the sax at a campground in Yosemite.

Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll (and Jazz)

BARD: We did do a lot of drugs. And there was sex. And there was, um, music.

LONG: My favorite thing was listening to jazz. Gary Burton, Miles Davis, Bill Evans. Also, the fusion music that was happening back then, Chick Corea and Bill Bruford. Allan Holdsworth. All that stuff had this crazy kinetic energy that was really well received by our group. And then Hendrix, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.

FIDELMAN: A lot of guys started moving toward jazz, and that was based on individual performance. Roland Kirk or Miles Davis. We would listen, and it's like these guys are just badass. You know? Dig how they're blowing those horns. We knew they were masters, and we all aspired to be masters. We were trying to get to the point where we could master individual performance.

LONG: Hendrix was the go-to dude. He was fricken good. He had a melodic sense to him. He was inventive. And at times his music could be transcendentally beautiful. All things that we really liked and relate to. He was like a mascot to the Stonemasters.

ACCOMAZZO: Psychedelics were around, but the vast majority of the climbs are done quite sober—but there were exceptions.

BARD: Bridwell was notorious for taking LSD on walls.

BRIDWELL: You don’t want to be climbing anything serious on acid—when you take LSD, you’re taken to a place that you really haven’t earned the right to be yet.

LONG: First time I ever took acid was with Bridwell. I remember he had a little vial and a couple windowpanes at the bottom of it. It’s teeny stuff, right? He had maybe four or five of them in the bottom of this vial and he held this thing up and goes, “who would ever believe you can get stoned from that?” I go, “I don’t. We’d better take two.”

FIDELMAN: One of the favorite things that some of us used to do as a group out in Joshua Tree is drop acid then go out soloing.

LONG: The drug of choice was just cheap low-grade weed. Bongs were the ritual. We were just smoking reefers all the time.

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John Yablonski hangs out on one of Yosemite’s big walls.

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The headband, a Stonemaster style staple, keeps Ron Kauk’s hair back while bouldering.

FIDELMAN: There'd be guys with helmets, using too much protection or climbing really slow in a very cautious manner on very easy ground. And on easy ground, we wouldn't even use a rope half the time. We'd be going for it smoking dope.

HILL: Yeah, the Stonemasters—Masters of Stone [laughs], and being stoned, perhaps.

FIDELMAN: Nixon was convinced that all these hippies were gonna take over the national parks. So what happened back then, basically in 1970 or so, '71 by that point, was, the paradigm was to get rid of the hippies, get rid of the long hairs, get rid of everything like that. So that's when they, the rangers would start harassing us.

BARD: We didn't like the hippies. At all. They basically created hell for us. Because the rangers did look at all of us as a single group and we weren't. Hippies wanted to basically just make love, smoke pot, and hang out, and they weren't athletic, they didn't give a shit about the cliffs or anything like that.

ACCOMAZZO: Well, we hung out with hippie girls. [laughs] That was it. Oh, hippie girls were everywhere. Long hair. Joni Mitchell-style hair.

LONG: I couldn’t for the life of me, looking back, tell you why any female would ever find anybody in Camp 4 the least bit interesting. Cause nobody had much money. The lifestyle was very ascetic. It was the diametric opposite of anything that would normally be considered romantic. Save that a lot of the people were super young, super fit, and just hot people. I guess I still find it hard to believe. The point is there was always a crazy amount of girls around. It was like Woodstock forever.

BARD: A lot of guys would start being with women from the dorms across the street because then they could sleep on a real bed. And you get free food if you dated a woman that was a waitress or something like that. There were perks.

LONG: Oftentimes they’re up there as seasonal workers. Working as maids or working at the hotels. I knew some that were in accounting. They were all young, like us, like 20. Around that age. And so it was perfect for people to take “fliers.” Right? That’s what life was then.

FIDELMAN: There was always some climber that you knew who would start introducing you to the girls. And within a week or so you had a girlfriend. And they might come back year after year or they might not. Chances are, they wouldn't. It was a summer thing. The '70s, nobody cared.

LONG: People weren't looking to go out there and get married.

ACCOMAZZO: Well, I have a lot of good memories from Yosemite, including the fact that I met my wife there.

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Dale Bard, Bachar, and Kauk test gravity in Yosemite.

You Can't Be 20 Forever

GRAHAM: It was starting to get commercialized. There still wasn’t much money to be made in it, it seemed. But I think more people starting getting involved. When you get more people involved, you have to start satisfying more people in terms of what they get out of it. And a lot of people, I don’t think, were keen on risking their lives. It became more suited to the masses instead of suited to the eccentric kind of crazies that wouldn’t think twice about killing themselves trying to climb something, or just doing something really stupid.

BARD: Climbing changed and it became a sport. It lost its passion and its lifestyle. We became well-known, and this Stonemaster thing did catch on a little bit. And everybody wanted to be that romantic Stonemaster. And so they thought it was vogue, so to speak, to live in the dirt and be a bum, and they had no had concept that we were doing this just because we loved climbing.

FIDELMAN: I never felt more satisfied than when I would be sitting around a picnic table at the end of a long day of climbing with a group of friends. Just sitting there and maybe passing a reefer or talking about the day.

LONG: The group splintered and went all over the world and did all kinds of different things. It was an international statement. And wherever they went, what the Stonemasters did, the way they dressed—headbands and scarfs around your head and long hair and muscles. Working out all the time, smoking weed. All of that was like the magna carta of this group.

ACCOMAZZO: Now I look back, and it was not the perfect lifestyle, but it was pretty darn fun. It was a darn good way to waste your youth.

Reporting by Lu Fong and John Thompson.

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John Bachar, Tobin Sorenson (juggling), Gib Lewis, and Ed Lasley in Joshua Tree, 1973.

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MORE FROM THE MASTERS

There's plenty more to the history of climbing in Yosemite. Now streaming on Netflix: Valley Uprising, a multi-award-winning feature-length documentary that covers the past 50 years of bugged-out antics, both on and off the big walls, from pioneering extreme ascents to confrontations with the national-park authorities, narrated by Peter Sarsgaard. And for an in-depth history of the crew featured here, track down a copy of The Stonemasters by John Long and Dean Fidelman, a limited-edition tome that contains hundreds more pages of dizzying photos and inspiring stories.

Read more