Ron Kauk spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school living on the floor of Yosemite Valley in Camp 4, a home away from home for climbers. That was 1974, and at the time free climbs (climbs in which the rope and other equipment can be used for protection in case of a fall, but not for a boost) were rated for difficulty on a scale of 5.0 to 5.11. Word traveled fast around Camp 4 when the easygoing 16-year-old "flashed" the 5.11 climb called Butterballs, a vertical crack one inch wide and two knuckles deep that runs 100 feet straight up a granite wall. To flash a climb is to zip up it on sight. Butterballs had been climbed only twice before, both times after extended struggles and numerous falls.
The summer of '74 ended with Kauk (pronounced "Cowk") and a partner 1,200 feet up El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite monolith that dominates Yosemite's western entrance. El Cap had first been climbed in 1957-58. Kauk and his partner had started up a route known as the Nose just to see how far they could get in one day. It was Sunday, and school would begin Monday. Kauk wanted to keep going, to climb right through the leviathan overhang looming above them—"God, the Great Roof, and it was right up there!" he recalls-but they rappelled down and dutifully went to school, with bloody knuckles to remind them how sensational the summer had been.
Too sensational. The next day Kauk went back to the valley, located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range in California, for good.
The '70s were explosive years in Yosemite. Competition to pioneer new routes up any available surface was so intense that climbers seemed to be engaged in a round-robin of vertical races. It was a time when a climber could make his creative mark on the rock—achieve immortality—and in this arena the teenage Kauk became a phenomenon. He was 5'8" and 145 pounds, wiry and muscular, with dark, deep-set eyes and long, dark hair that he usually wore tucked under a headband. Climbing shirtless, he looked like an Indian. He listened to Jimi Hendrix tapes during bivouacs on big wall climbs. He fell under the wing of Jim Bridwell, the granddaddy of Yosemite Valley climbers, a character who wore bell-bottoms and paisley shirts as he climbed.
"I remember when Ron first came to the valley," says Bridwell, now 41, a professional guide and the leader of a party that last year came within 600 feet of climbing China's unconquered 24,050-foot Mount Spender. "He'd been in the valley only about a week. We did this climb called Outer Limits, and I watched him pretty carefully. When we came down, I believe my words were, 'He's going to be the best.' "
On longer climbs, Bridwell and Kauk were often joined by Dale Bard, a flyweight with a hummingbird's metabolism and superhuman strength. The trio was referred to as the "Mod Squad," and they put a new 5.11 route up Geek Towers, which rises beside Yosemite Falls for 800 feet. On another climb, with John Long and John Bachar, Kauk freed the 1,200-foot East Face of Washington Column, a 5.11 route called Astro Man. It was the most difficult big wall—a vertical climb over 1,000 feet—yet to be ascended free. "I guess you could think of it as being ahead of its time," says Kauk, casually. "People were really blown out about it, anyhow."
In 1975 Kauk and Bachar, a fellow boy wonder who was 18 at the time, broke the 5.12 barrier with Hotline, a 600-foot climb up a stark pinnacle on Elephant Rock, an area of giant shards of gray granite. Hotline begins as a crack that gets thinner and thinner for 150 feet, then fades into a sheer, blank face that compels the climber to traverse, using holds the size of dimes for his fingertips, and nothing for his feet.
"Maybe people thought of me like it was this young-lion thing," says Kauk, "but I was just so excited and so overwhelmed by the valley, that I didn't think about any of that stuff. All I wanted was to do the best climbs I could."
Nor was Kauk such an elitist that he dismissed aided climbs—climbing by engineering, construction and hard labor, pounding pitons, drilling expansion bolts, standing and hanging in slings, frequently enduring overnight bivouacs. He did nearly a score of aided climbs, one of them a new route named Mother Earth that required three days on the heavily shaded side of 2,000-foot Middle Cathedral.
He also free-climbed—and named—Sky, a 5.12 crack on the ear of Elephant Rock, which you get to by rappelling 165 feet down to a ledge from an 800-foot perch. But he's best known for free-climbing Tales of Power and Separate Reality. He had moved from Jimi Hendrix to Carlos Castaneda by the time these routes were conquered. Tales of Power is a dark streak on a backward-leaning wall, revealed to Kauk one spring morning in 1977. It was 90 feet and "a little more awesome than anything around, but meant to be climbed," he says. After five or six tries over six months he reached the ledge at the top...and saw 20 more feet of a Separate Reality, which took 10 more attempts for him to free. Its most intimidating section is a horizontal overhang extending 21 feet to the lip. It looms 800 feet above the road through Merced Canyon. This is what climbers call "exposed." Once up on the ledge that forms the base of Separate Reality, a narrowing crack is the only way out to the lip where an up-and-over move completes the climb. The climber has to inch along hanging upside down like a lizard, first with a fist and then, as the crack narrows, with his fingers wedged into the fissure. "The initial solid hand jams soon give way to the finger locks," reads the description of the route in Yosemite Climber. "These are used to make a gymnastic flip to gain a heel lock...followed by a stretch and a toe hooked over the lip.