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But to Kauk's surprise the speech turned out to be a freebie (he had expected to earn his gas money, at least), and it was around this time that he decided to resume climbing.
"The motivation to get back in climbing was sort of money," says Kauk. "I was just tired of living in campgrounds or somethin'." First came a third engagement for Survival of the Fittest '83, for which he wasn't in top shape and "got fourth or somethin'." When he was asked to free-climb the Nose on El Cap for an episode of The American Sportsman, he got more serious. He led Werner Braun and Johnson to the Great Roof. 2,000 feet up, farther than anyone had ever climbed free on the Nose. Hoover followed with a television camera.
He was invited on expeditions to Aconcagua, in the Argentinean Andes, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, and to Mount Everest, but Ronda had just been born so he stayed in the valley. In the summer of '83, nine years after his first summer in Yosemite, he worked for the Park Service building log cabins. "Laborer," he says. "Carried buckets of cement and logs up a hill. But every day after work I'd go to Tuolumne Meadows and work out. I got into a disciplined schedule: Monday, Wednesday and Friday I'd climb, Tuesday and Thursday I worked out hard—weights, jump rope, running, fingertip pull-ups."
And he was bouldering again. Scattered amidst the cedars and ponderosa pines of Camp 4 lie rocks as high as 20 feet. The strength of a gorilla and the balance of an acrobat are needed to scale them. "I was getting kind of jacked up, getting my confidence back," Kauk says. "I freed this 5.12 boulder problem, down in Tuolumne Meadows. And I did Midnight Lightning in Camp 4. That's always been kind of the super test. I freed it when I was 21 or somethin'—it took me weeks of working on it, 50 or 60 tries. It waited about five years or somethin' before anyone did it again."
On Midnight Lightning the crucial move is a spider-monkey swing 15 feet off the ground. The climber must suspend himself by the fingertips of his left hand, swing around a ledge of rock and propel himself far enough up, about four feet, to grab a precarious fingertip hold with his right hand. To do that he has to create momentum from stillness.
"Ron has an unfair advantage, you know," says Bridwell. "Look at his hands. They were made for climbing. His fingers are curved like hooks. If he puts his hand flat on the table, only the fingertips touch."
In August 1984, Kauk took his current job with the mountaineering school. And that autumn, he climbed some of his old routes to make sure he still had it: Astro Man, Hotline, Tales of Power. Belaying him from below and following on aid when he needed it was Braun, Kauk's favorite partner. "When you climb up some rock and come face-to-face with this guy sitting there meditating, that'll be Werner," says Kauk.
Braun lives mostly in a bashed-up '69 Pontiac Le Mans. Recently he considered hacking off the roof of the car. "But it gets a little bit radical up here in the winter." he says. He also has an old van that looks like a temple inside, and he burns incense there. Braun has been almost deaf since birth. "Ron and I don't need to talk when we climb," he says. "We communicate mostly by instinct."
Early in 1985 Kauk, Mike Graber and Galen Rowell, an acclaimed climber-photographer-author, made the first winter ascent of the East Face of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, at 14,494 feet the highest peak in the 48 states.
The scariest moment on that climb occurred when they heard what Kauk thought for sure was the thunder of a "death avalanche."