"Getting the sequence correct is essential on these last moves," the book adds, as if a climber could forget this with 800 feet of air between his straining fingers and the next relatively secure expanse of rock.
From 1974 to 1978, Kauk's acrobatic ascents of valley walls stunned the best of Yosemite climbers. Even today, they'll say the climbing he did during those years was the most brilliant display of natural ability the valley has ever seen. Kauk, now 28, is still in the valley, working as an instructor and guide at Yosemite Mountaineering School.
He has also become something of a celebrity since he climbed Lost Arrow Spire for Wide World of Sports in 1985. The final push of that two-day ascent was shown live. Lost Arrow is a 1,400-foot-high granite needle with 5.12 moves at the top. He climbed with Jerry Moffatt, a rock climber from England. "It's kind of weird," Kauk says of his recent acclaim. "I didn't do anything I hadn't been doing for years."
Making it look easy: That's what he has been doing for years. "What I remember most vividly is when he was six," says Kauk's mother, Susan. "Out front of the house in Belmont [Calif.] was an 80-foot pine tree, and the little sucker climbed to the top of that thing. I mean the very top. Came out to call him to dinner, and I hear this little voice going, 'I'm up heeere, Mommy.' "
At nine months, Ronnie had begun walking—"with assurance, not staggering around like normal babies," says Susan—and climbing in and out of his high chair; by nine years, he was going up the stairs on his hands. Soon the cliffs in the canyons behind the house began to beckon.
"When Ron climbs he dances," says a sometime partner, Kim Schmitz. "He floats. He makes it look so pretty. He reads the rock as if he had it memorized, and he's got the best footwork I've ever seen, bar none. He puts his foot down and doesn't move it an inch, anywhere—just puts it down right where he wants it, even on a hard climb that he's never done before. I've never seen him at a point where he starts to fumble around and misplace his feet. I've seen a lot of climbers, but I've never seen anyone close."
"He's like a cat in so many ways," says Beverly Johnson, who has climbed on El Cap with Kauk. "You can't get him to do anything he doesn't want to do. But mostly it's his grace on the rock. I've seen him move around on thin ledges of loose rock, unroped, and you'd no more worry about him falling off than you would a house cat on a fence."
One of Kauk's favorite words is "caz," short for casual. He uses it to describe climbs that are labeled "desperate" by most climbers. "Oh, it's pretty caz," he'll say. He also likes the expression "or somethin'." As in "It's a 5.11 or somethin'." He can be caz with such details, since he doesn't have to worry about them.
Along with the legends of Kauk's climbs go the tales of him as a free spirit, of the two sons by a woman he used to live with in the valley; and about how the waitresses at Tioga Pass Resort, a lodge where he once washed dishes, still bring him extra pancakes in the morning.
"Yeah, he could always con everybody in the neighborhood," says his mother. "If he had yard work to do, I'd go out and there'd be seven or eight little neighborhood kids doing his work." But with Kauk it's not all take: He invariably brings a cup of coffee to the old guard at Yosemite's Tioga entrance on his way to work each morning.