Three weeks ago, during a clear, cold December afternoon in Fort Collins, Colorado, I stopped by Brad Jackson’s house with a mutual friend, Craig DeMartino to say hi and see his underground “adjustable crack machine.”
I hadn’t heard from or seen Brad, one of the first people in the world to climb a 5.13 offwidth, for 15 years.
It was ‘97; I was in my early 20s living out of my psychedelically-painted truck in Yosemite Valley climbing big walls. I saw him around the scene a few times during that period, even gave him a ride across the park one day in my truck. He was there taking the brutal wide crack skills he’d refined at his home crags at Vedawoo, Wyoming, to El Cap.
Offwidth climbing is a supremely physical climbing technique that involves shoving, stacking and levering off one’s limbs to ascend cracks wider than a fist. That season, partnered with ‘Wild Man’ Warren Hollinger, Brad made the second ascent of El Cap’s Scorched Earth, (VI 5.11 A5: FA 1987, Randy Leavitt, Rob Slater), a line that hadn’t seen a party on it for 10 years. Hollinger led the aid cruxes and Brad led the notorious free-climbing cruxes with 80-foot runouts that kept all the others away. This was his second big wall; his first was El Cap’s Shield (VI 5.8 A3, FA: Charlie Porter).
Arriving unannounced at Brad’s house, we waited at the door for several minutes for him to answer. Growing impatient and doubting he was even home, several times we turned around and prepared to leave only to stay “for one more minute,” said Craig. I know I was nervous, and could sense Craig was uneasy as well. Meeting an offwidth climber is like encountering a giant squid, an unusual, iron-tough animal confirmed to exist but rarely seen.
Offwidth climbers are the extreme sub-genre of the already bold, leather-skinned, scuffed up trad climbers. These wide-crack aficionados grunt their way up the meaty routes 99.9 percent of the rest of us don’t have the gusto, skills or determination to even try to get off the ground on, much less lead. These guys do double-fists stacks. They have hands taped up like professional boxers. Using their knees to climb is a daily occurrence for wide crack climbers. They slot, cram, wedge, and smear their knees in cracks every which way. They get inverted on the steeps. One word describes members of this crew: Badass. I was intimidated.
Through the grapevine I’d heard about Brad’s life outside of climbing: The Wyoming guys have a reputation for being rugged and he’s more rugged than most. ‘Why don’t we just leave,’ I thought.
I’d forgotten his exact features but imagined he would look like the archetypical Wyoming climber, built and dressed like a carpenter but with gobies on his wrists and back of his hands. Craig described him as a guard dog.
We heard some scuffling. Then the door creaked open and out walked a shirtless giant of a man. His intense blue eyes that stared directly through me. I stepped back, then said in a quiet, fast voice: “I’m Chris, I met you in the Valley like a decade ago. I do guidebook work for SuperTopo.”
“Yer Spaz. C’mon in,” he said. Spaz is my Yosemite Valley handle, the name that was assigned to me, during my first wall, Half Dome’s RNWF, in 1995 when I was 18. To earn a handle in the climbing world is a sign of respect, regardless if it’s positive or negative sounding. Other Valley names are Coiler, Mud Falcon, Nicktendo, Surfer Bob, Peaches.
He led us through his living room, down a narrow hallway, to the garage and to the Crack Machine. It was a 17 feet long, totally horizontal crack to shove hands in feet in for training, with an adjustable width from 1.25” to 4.5.” Scattered across the floor but away from the training areas are various tools for building out the training room which is only partially completed. On the walls were 90s era climbing posters for training inspiration: Tommy Caldwell in Indian Creek taking a giant fall, shots from Vedawoo and one of Brad on Belly Full of Bad Berries in Indian Creek.
I came by the next week and we trained. Over the hours spent talking about the old days and days to come, I began to recognize Brad as someone who, like me, had taken time off of climbing to pursue other interests and is now back with a renewed drive, love and appreciation for the lifestyle and culture.
Climbing upside down in the Crack Machine in a 4.5” crack is one of the most unusual movements I’ve ever made. On the first attempts I felt like a first time climber. “Lead with your feet,” said Justin Edl, one of Brad’s training partners. Eventually, I made some horizontal progress doing hand-fist stacks before falling out and landing onto pads on my head. Brad and Justin ran several laps on it.
He casually invited me to come to J Tree with Justin, and “stay at our friend’s mansion. It’s a little over the top.” This southern California climbing area contains 4500 routes. He wanted me to give him the tour of the classics. It would be his first visit to the area. I agreed.
Fast-forward three weeks.
Two days ago we showed up to his friend’s $4.5 million mansion. They’d already been in California a few days, stopping along the way to climb at Mount Woodson. “I have to go back there, nothing got done,” he said. This means he didn’t send any 5.12 or harder offwidths. “I fell off the top of [the wide] Mother Superior (5.11+) twice.” Now this is a climbing trip, I thought, these guys are here to get it done.
It’s evening. He’s sitting across from me, poolside, dressed in gray T-shirt, red Mountain Hardwear synthetic jacket blue and Hawaiian shorts. He’s barefoot. He talks in a deep voice that sounds like he’s from a bar. We began an interview.
What’s your occupation?
“I’m a sport specific -strength and conditioning coach. It’s private coaching and training plans oriented around or based on your goal. Consultation. Evaluation.
You’ve climbed for 24 years. You were 19 and now 42.
“Vedawoo. I learned to climb there. I went with friends who knew how. I showed a lot of enthusiasm. I had success on it very early on. I mentored under some of the best climbers of the area. I skipped over the 5.6s and 5.7s and got right on the 5.9s and harder because of who I was climbing with.”
“Sean Bradley. Bryan Bornholdt, he was a partner of Mike Caldwell [Tommy Caldwell’s dad] for many years. An extremely driven, outstanding climber, and mathematics guy at the University of Wyoming. Then Bob Scarpelli. ”
That was ‘89-90. Were you doing offwidths right away?
“No. We typically avoided them. When I started climbing with Bob, I started taking an interest [in them]. It was a total horror show to me at first. I realized the techniques that I needed to know and took off with it and got way enthusiastic about that too.”
What did Bob Scarpelli teach you?
“More than anybody. You know how climbing is – you learn everything you need to know by doing it. He showed me around to different areas. To the big areas. Like Indian Creek, Freemont Canyon, Vedawoo. We crag climbed a lot. One-third of the routes were [did were] offwidths.”
You were doing 5.11 offwidths right away?
“I was climbing with someone who was in his prime at the time [Scapelli]. So we were gunning for the ones that became the study. I became the under-study because I got more out of that than studying anything else.”
How do you feel on sport climbs?
“Never at a hard level. I was more drawn to long trad routes and wall climbs with offwidths. That’s when Bob and I went our own ways. I applied what I learned from him [on the 35 to 200 foot routes at Vedawoo] to the bigger, longer, harder to reach stuff. The doors opened up then. I ended up on big routes. It all culminated in grade V’s [first ascents], hard offwidths and I advanced the standard of offwidth climbing.”
How did that happen?
“I was at Indian Creek with Scarpelli over Thanksgiving in 1995. That day I discovered the route that would become Belly Full of Bad Berries [world’s first 5.13]. I’d just done Trench Warfare adding a direct finish [5.12d, his finish added eight feet of hard climbing to the lip, but he won’t specify if it raised the grade]. I didn’t do that many first ascents of that grade [5.13]. Sometimes you lock into a project like that you don’t know how hard you climbed because you figured it out. I was 27, 28 at the time. I would sell whatever I had to go [climbing] then come back and work.”
How did you know Belly Full of Bad Berries was 5.13?
“The only way I could tell was because I’d done multiple 5.12 and 5.11 offwidths that could be that hard (5.12). This was significantly harder than those.”
You got inverted.
“It’s ring locks to hands to fists and kick over. The right foot is over your head following on hand stacks. Hand fist [stacks].”
How do you place pro?
“Place the gear behind me. Run it out a little bit. On my 12th try, when I sent the route, I left several pieces on the ground. I kept figgle fucking around with a 5 Camalot so I left it on the ground. [Once I reached the ground after sending the route] Bob Scarpelli gave me a hug that day. He’s the burliest man I’ve ever met in my life. He said, ‘you should be really proud of what you did today.’”
How do you feel now?
“I feel like I returned to what I should be. Almost over joyed with the climbers and the lifestyle and everything that goes along with it. I’m psyched again.”
The next day Jackson visited a V5 roof offwidth in J Tree called Big Bob’s Big Wedge.