SI Vault
Sam Moses
June 02, 1986
Ron Kauk, acclaimed as the best there is at going up sheer granite walls, lives as freely as he climbs
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June 02, 1986

On The Rocks, Kauk Is It

Ron Kauk, acclaimed as the best there is at going up sheer granite walls, lives as freely as he climbs

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They are about halfway up. Below them the Merced River wends through lush El Capitan Meadow. To the climbers' left is the imposing Nose. Heavy weather is on the way. A steel-gray cloud is suspended low in the sky, and muted thunder rolls up the valley.

"The valley is an intense place," says Kauk as he climbs. "You go anywhere else and it's not the same. You go to the ocean, or you go down to Fresno or whatever, it's like it's all too easy or somethin'. Werner [Braun] still says that. He says he has to keep climbing in the valley because everything else in life just seems too easy."

Kauk and his partner can see the specks of two other climbers high on the glistening granite, on a route called Bad Sign. They're about three days high. For some reason they're shouting to each other in a mock language—"Just to be weird," they will say later, when asked about the gibberish. They were merely "amped up." ("Some people who climb big walls nowadays are lunatics, real psychos," says Kauk when he hears this. "It ain't like it used to be.")

"I feel like going for speed now," Kauk tells his partner, leaving the narrow ledge they had been on. "I may be slow getting up in the morning, but once I get on the rock I zoom." He moves around a corner out of sight, and in no time the 150-foot rope stops being drawn through the partner's hands.

"Off belay!" shouts Kauk, and it's the partner's turn to climb the pitch. Around the corner lies a tricky traverse on a bulging rock with the thinnest of footholds. The spot is completely exposed—the next thing under his feet is El Cap Meadow. The move is a giant step, a stretch left, across and down to a foothold consisting of half an inch of rock protruding from the flat wall face. The partner makes his move. The ball of his left foot is stable on the nub, but when he commits his body to following by shifting all his weight to the left foot, the foot slips off, and he "peels" toward the meadow.

He scarcely has time to gasp before the rope pulls tight. Kauk, some 120 feet above, has caught him. The partner hangs there in his harness, hands against the rock, feet scraping it, scrabbling to find friction. He looks down for a foothold and is unable to ignore the ground. 800 feet below. His thought is how scenic the view is, and he is surprised he is so caz about it. He's secure in the knowledge that he is being belayed by the best rock climber in the world.

Recovering, the partner completes the pitch and pops onto the relative comfort of the ledge where Kauk is resting, his shoes off. Kauk is leaning back against a rock, his bare feet pointed skyward. He sometimes wears no socks in order to gain more feel in the shoes, which have soles of soft, smooth rubber, like a racing tire.

From the ledge, Kauk zooms off again. He flows around another corner. This time he reappears above, on a sharp edge that spears skyward at a 70-degree angle.

He is a bright apparition—red climbing pants with blue chambray shirt tied around his waist—against a blue sky streaked with thin clouds. He climbs as if there were rungs on the rock, running the rope out 50, 60 feet without pausing to place protection for himself.

He makes it all look so easy as he climbs into the sky.

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