Above: John “Verm” Sherman on Edge Direct, 1979
A climber of 37 years, John (The “Verm’) Sherman, 53, lives in his custom home: a tricked out F-350. Always the perpetual vagabond, if there’s iconic climb somewhere, anywhere, chances are he’s climbed it, or knows everything about it.
Verm’s written for Climbing Magazine and published several books spanning back to the 80s, including an early guide to Hueco Tanks, Texas. Recently he overhauled his 1997 book Better Bouldering. To promote it, he’s been making entertaining YouTube videos like Jaws V3. He has ascended big walls, big towers, and even attempted the North Face of the Eiger.
I first saw the Verm at a climbing gym in Berkeley in the early 90s. He put on a slideshow promoting his then new book Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America to his old crew – guys he started climbing with in the 70s at nearby Indian Rock. Then I saw Verm in 2000 at base camp in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the NW Territories, home to the 2,200-foot Lotus Flower Tower. Since then, I’ve run into him about half a dozen times in both Utah and Colorado.
After attending high school in Berkeley, Verm attended CU Boulder climbing his way through college. He attained his degree in geology and soon pursued a (mostly) seasonal career working as a surveyor in the oil fields as a wellsite geologist.
During the time of our first interview, over the phone, he was in the back of his van at sunset photographing birds as he overlooked Cochise Stronghold, Arizona. He was leaving for Arapiles in a few days for a several month-long stay. We also talked in person in Fort Collins, Colorado during the spring.
Indian Rock — it sounds like you had a lot of mentors and a supportive community in general. Can you name a few other early influencers?
Dave Altman, Fred Cook, Steve Moiles, Nat Smale, Scott Frey, Harrison Dekker, Strong Rob, Bird Lew, Mike Loughman, Amy Fillan, Bruce Cook, Fred Crooks, Becca, Kailen, Fred, Duncan, Bert Levy and the dogs Hombre and Shiteater were there most every afternoon.
I took my EBs [early Ellis Bringhams] to school and rode a different bus route home that would drop me near Indian Rock, then I’d boulder until dark, go home, eat dinner, do homework, and repeat.
Did you really switch EBs from one foot to the next when the inside edge wore out?
This was before resoling was common, so after we wore a hole all the way through to the shoe to bare skin, we’d switch boots from left to right. It’s not like EBs fit that great anyway – foot pain was assumed back in those days.
Tell me about your early bouldering days.
I bouldered for 15 years hard before pads came out. You were very cautious of where you were landing and you wouldn’t jump off as quickly. If you flailed up a route back then, there was a good chance you’d get hurt.
I assume you were a good writer in college?
Oh God no. My worst grades in college and high school were all in English and creative writing [he says with a big smile]. They would give an assignment — something very concrete that they wanted out of their writers as a result of the assignment and they felt I was too creative.
How did you begin your writing career?
It was a review of an early Hueco guide called Indian Heights. I was only the person at the [Climbing] magazine who’d been to Hueco Tanks. I cranked out one like all theirs [and then] I cut loose and had fun, like I was writing a letter to a friend. [They took the second one.] It all went from there. [My] first articles came out in ‘84, ‘85. Stone Crusade was almost 10 years after that.
People ask me about writing. Think of your best friend and then write your story as a letter to a friend. That’s your voice. I don’t understand the technicalities in grammar but I do understand when it comes out right.
What was life like working as a wellsite geologist?
I made a lot of money, which is why I don’t really have to work now [laughing]. There would be times when I would work 40 hours without sleeping. I am very glad I don’t have to do that anymore. I got in it at the right time and got out of it at the right time.
Tell me about Better Bouldering.
Better Bouldering doesn’t really skip over any techniques — it talks about jamming, offwidths, everything you can do when climbing.
What’s the story behind Inedible (Verm’s 35 foot tall V8 FA at Independence Pass, near Aspen, Colorado)?
I was spending a lot of time working with Allison Osius and the other editors at Climbing Magazine, which was based in Aspen. I would go by the office and fight over my articles in person — I don’t think they really liked it that much [laughs].
I called it the Inedible because I wanted to leave something in the area that my editors couldn’t touch.
When retreating off the Eiger, you said you actually bounce tested an anchor out. What was it made of?
Pitons — I hammered them back in, they held and we continued down. [We] got quite sloshed in the hotel after reaching terra firma. Then I had to stop Tom (Cosgriff, my partner on the climb) from trying to hijack the train for a joy ride up through the Eiger tunnels to the Jungfraujoch.
Tell me about risk taking:
One of these days I may pay big price for it and I’ll fall and get hurt really bad. But, maybe not. It’s my favorite part of climbing — when you erase doubt from your mind and do the moves to perfection.
On age and psyche:
Since I was 45 I still put up over 500 new climbs. I can’t stop and I don’t want to.