Ron's parents, Gary and Susan Go-forth, were divorced when Ron was one, and for eight years Susan raised him alone. In 1967 she married Elmer Kauk, who had his own son, Mitch, from a previous marriage.
"Ronnie was always small," Susan says. "But always the natural athlete. When he was 12, he tried out for Pop Warner football, and the coach turned him down because he was too small. It devastated him, turned him off team sports. All through high school, coaches tried—he was fantastic in gymnastics—but he wouldn't have anything to do [with the team]. He was independent as hell so that was it. When Mitch took him climbing, he discovered his thing. His heart's in Yosemite."
Kauk lives in a cabin near the climbing school in Yosemite. In the two parking spaces that make up the front yard sit a 1982 pickup that he bought with the money ABC paid him for climbing Lost Arrow and a '71 Chevy Nova with a floor shift and fat tires, which he bought for ex-girlfriend Sheryl Dondero. Sheryl, a Paiute Indian, left Ron recently, taking their daughter, Ronda, 2, with her. Lucy Parker, another ex-girlfriend, lives down in the valley with Kauk's sons Y-u-od-de (pronounced "Yody"), 8, and Lonnie, who is five.
"It looks like I've got kids all over the valley and I'm carefree Joe," Kauk says. "But I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world for what I've got going. It's as important to me as anything, that I've been able to have kids. It's not your standard procedure, and I wouldn't recommend to anyone to go out and have kids and not get married and that whole ball of wax, but it has worked for me, although it seems to work against you when people start talking about it. I'd say nothing in my life seems too regular."
His climbing reputation led him out of the valley in 1979 when John Roskelley, an American mountaineer, was forming a party to scale the sheer 3,000-foot East Face of Uli Biaho Tower, a stark, frozen mountain in Pakistan's Karakoram range. The ascent was Alpine-style: four climbers—Roskelley, Kauk, Schmitz and Bill Forrest—traveling fast and light in one push to the 19,957-foot summit. It was a rock climb on mountain-climbing terms, the most ambitious in history.
"I wanted to have the absolute top rock climber in the world with me," says Roskelley, who lives on a 40-acre farm near Spokane. "I had heard that Ron Kauk was the person to take."
The scariest part of Uli Biaho was the final trek to the base of the mountain. It was through a steep, icy, half-mile-long bobsled run for boulders loosened by the sun. "They came whizzing down like cannonballs, and if they tagged you you'd be wasted," says Kauk. "On the first day we started at 7 a.m. or some-thin', which was too late. I saw this huge rock about the size of a VW zoom down, and I was sure it had gotten someone. After that, I was looking for any way to get out of it."
"He wasn't used to getting bombarded by rocks," says Roskelley, who, after 15 years of mountain climbing, was.
But from the third day on they started at 2 a.m. to beat the boulders falling out of bed. They reached the summit of Uli Biaho 10 days later. "Between the four of us we'd done a lot of Grade VI climbs [aided climbs are rated with Roman numerals, VI being the most difficult designation at the time], and we knew that Uli Biaho was a grade harder than anything any of us had ever done," says Roskelley.
"The thing that impressed me most about Ron is that he didn't take chances," Roskelley goes on. "And he didn't risk his partners. One time he was leading way up high, in a real ugly place where flakes of stone kept breaking off. He could have free-climbed right through, but he stayed there and hammered in aid for us. He was placing bongs [wide aluminum pitons] and it was very, very difficult work. He kept yelling down and joking to us even though he was kind of scared."