Jim Bridwell, 1944–2018
The renegade climber who conquered Yosemite
In the 1970s, Jim Bridwell led a group of maverick climbers in Yosemite National Park known as the “Stonemasters.” Fueled by food stolen from the park’s cafeteria, these longhaired mountaineers smoked prodigious amounts of marijuana and often climbed while high on hallucinogenic drugs. Yet for all their wild living, the Stonemasters were among the most accomplished climbers of their generation. Bridwell made no fewer than 100 first ascents in Yosemite; in 1975, he and two other Stonemasters became the first to complete “The Nose”—a devilishly challenging 2,900-foot route up the towering El Capitan rock formation—in less than 24 hours. Bridwell believed firmly that the more perilous the climb, the better. “Adventure and excitement are the two things missing from civilization,” he said. “Danger keeps you on your toes.”
Born in San Antonio, Bridwell started climbing because he loved watching birds of prey, said The Washington Post. When he arrived in Yosemite in about 1964, having dropped out of college and become a self-described draft dodger, he was nicknamed “the Bird.” Bridwell quickly ran afoul of the park rangers, who sought to curb the anything-goes culture he championed. But they recognized his talents, and in 1967 commissioned him to establish Yosemite’s search-and-rescue team. “He was the leader, kind of the Godfather,” said fellow climber Dean Fidelman. “When you got picked [for the rescue team] it was like you were a made man.” Bridwell and his hippieish friends “lived hand-to-mouth in campgrounds,” said the Associated Press. Eschewing “technical clothing,” they climbed topless “or in gaudy paisley shirts, with headbands to hold back their long hair.” When a plane carrying 6,000 pounds of marijuana crashed in the park in 1977, they hiked to the crash site and recovered much of the cargo.
“Bridwell did not confine himself to Yosemite,” said The New York Times. Funding his travels by teaching skiing and climbing, he completed major ascents in Patagonia and Alaska. In 1982, he and three other Americans became the first to trek around Mount Everest, a 300-mile journey over several 23,000-foot peaks. But Bridwell acknowledged that his “devil-may-care reputation” probably harmed his chances of being invited on more major expeditions. “There aren’t many people,” he said in 1986, “who’ve managed to be a failure for this long a time.”