Greg “Grug” Cameron
A Life of Trad Climbing
He tells me it’s hard for him to get off route or fall out an offwidth, which is his justif ication for onsight free-soloing the f irst free ascent of the offwidth Pipeline, in Squamish, in 1979. And though he never learned to stack his hands in the wide – “I must’ve been absent from class the day that was taught” – he has complete trust i n arm-bars and chicken wings. And just as he relies on them for upward progress, he feels equally comfortable down-climbing with them.
However, i n 1995, when Greg “Grug” Cameron attempted to free-solo Yosemite’s (short) 5.10c offwidth Generator Crack, after not climbing for a year, he slipped out, almost l anded on his girlfriend and slammed into the ground, breaking his back and requiring a helicopter rescue out of the park.
Back to Pipeline on Slhaney in Squamish. The physicality of ascending 60 metres of (sandbagged) 5.10+ offwidth aside, the crux of the route was getting his knees out and back into the crack, past the aluminum pipes that were banged i nto the seven-inch gaping maw. Seven were left in place from an aid ascent in 1969 but when he ventured up there 10 years later after local crusher Perry Beckham showed him the line, only four remained. Relying on them for upward progress meant they could pop out and send him f lying to his death. But he couldn’t ignore them. These were hurdles, objective hazards that added to the challenge of his historic free-solo.
To reach the left-side-in crack, he had to solo 100 metres of terrain up to 5.10b on the route Birds of Prey. Once in the meat of Pipeline, “It was physical but just what I expected: pure offwidth climbing. I did it really fast, which made it uneventful.” With the route complete, he walked back to camp and connected with his friends Tom Gibson and Rob Rohn in what he recalls as “typical Squamish squalor,” i.e., a disarray of faded tents displaying poverty and neglect.
He shows me his ginormous mitts and puts them next to his enormous knees. He says his body is built for wide cracks and that three-inch Camalots are hands for him. He’s stacked like a wrestler. “It’s not like I specialized in offwidths,” he says between bites of sausage and pasta and sips of beer, fuelling his muscular 61- year-old body at my place in the hills above Boulder, Colo. “I was just the offwidth gun in our group. I didn’t excel at them until 1975. In those days it was all about all-around climbing.”
Like anyone who’s excelled at something, as Grug has, I wanted to know what motivates him, where he came from and why he does what he does. This includes a 20- year climbing partnership with legendary alpinist George Lowe and his fascination with climbing long free routes i n Colorado’s 650- metre Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He’s also established a handful of multipitch 5.11 crack routes on Mount Evans, also in Colorado, at 14,000 feet.
Born i n Detroit and one of 11 kids, Grug’s family moved to California when he was five. He grew up i n Poway, i n San Diego County, known as “the city in the country.” He started climbing right around the time the f amous California Stonemasters did, which began with Rick Accomazzo, John Long, Richard Harrison, John Bachar, Gibb Lewis, Mike Graham and Rob Muir. But Grug wasn’t a Stonemaster, he was a Poway Mountaineer, “a different group of climbers through the ’ 70s,” he says. If these groups were gangs, as in S.E. Hinton’s novel the Stonemasters would be socs and the Poway Mountaineers would be the Greasers.
“I knew of the Stonemasters but I never felt competitive with them,” he says. “I was fine with having these guys doing these incredible things. We were just doing them afterwards.” Grug, like many legends of climbing from that era, got turned onto the sport/lifestyle from his high school teacher. For example, at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., the school’s mountaineering program churned out Ron Kauk and the late Scott Cosgrove. Even Jim Bridwell visited the school. It was Poway’s high school teacher, the late Gary Hepler, who hooked Grug onto climbing.
A year after getting the basics down and training hard, Grug’s older brother Ji m dropped Grug and his friend Kinley Adams off at Middle Cathedral, a 650- metre wall across from El Cap. Over two days the duo, with the rope tied around their waist and equipped with heavy chromoly pitons, ventured up the North Face route, a 5.9 A2. The leader banged in and tied off pitons and the follower cleaned the pitches by clipping into each piece, with a hip belay from above, whacking away at the one below with his hammer until the steel dropped out onto his hand.
“When Kinley and I got off Middle Cathedral late,” he says, “we didn’t know where everybody was and ended up sleeping somewhere in the sticks. That night a mosquito nailed me over one eye and it swelled up rather grotesquely. When my friends looked at me they all laughed like crazy and it became a legendary moment in our group.” Grug’s brother Jim climbed The Nose i n 1972. And i n 1975, Grug climbed Valhalla 5.11a at Suicide Rocks – the route to do if you wanted to be a Stonemaster – the most difficult climb in the area at the time.
After cutting his teeth on California’s sometimes slick, sometimes rough granite, he began spending three weeks a year in Squamish climbing with the likes of Tami Knight and Peter Croft. Sometimes, as a joke, he’d make dog food cookies for long routes and share them with his unsuspecting climbing partners. It was a trick he picked up from the Poways.
By the mid to late ’ 70s, Grug became an
Greg Cameron on Black Wall at Mount Evans, Colo.