Jim Thorn­burg’s 30- year quest to doc­u­ment the art of red­point climb­ing.


As my friend “Doug” is fond of say­ing, “Red­point­ing is ev­ery­thing I hate about climb­ing. I don’t want to mess around with remembering moves and mak­ing them pretty. I just want to get in there and fight— I’ll get knocked down and bite an­kles if I have to!” I get what he means: Grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion are un­de­ni­able as­sets in climb­ing, and Doug has those in spades.

It’s pos­si­ble that Doug’s fierce dis­taste for red­point­ing is re­lated to the roots of our sport, in which the orig­i­nal goal was to walk up to a moun­tain and climb it by “fair means”—solv­ing its chal­lenges on the go. In my own early Cal­i­for­nia climb­ing days (1980s), I learned that “re­hearsal” and “pre-in­spec­tion” were two of the most egre­gious crimes an Amer­i­can climber could be ac­cused of. If you fell, you were sup­posed to lower off, pack up your crap, and re­turn when you were bet­ter. Even the for­got­ten prac­tice of “yo-yo-ing” didn’t al­low for re­hearsal. The only ex­cep­tion was if you were on a multi-pitch route and in sur­vival mode—but only if you later con­fessed to your poor style, aka do­ing the route “French Free.”

Iron­i­cally, the less dog­matic Eu­ros sim­ply con­sid­ered such tac­tics nor­mal. In 1973, the late Ger­man climber Kurt Al­bert in­vented the con­cept of red­point climb­ing—he would paint a small red dot at the base of aid climbs he’d freed in the Franken­jura. And yet like Doug, even Al­bert had a dis­taste for work­ing on a route for more than a few days.

Like a work of art, a climb can be re­al­ized in a bril­liant flash of in­spi­ra­tion or it can be the re­sult of weeks, months, or even years of re­fine­ment. In 2013, Alex Me­gos be­came the first climber to on­sight 5.14d when he walked up to Es­tado Critico in Si­u­rana, Spain, and fired it in a vir­tu­oso per­for­mance. Con­versely, Tommy Cald­well fa­mously spent seven years dream­ing, scout­ing, and work­ing on the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) of El Cap­i­tan be­fore his and Kevin Jorgeson’s FFA in 2015.

Both ap­proaches have their place, but for me, the great­est art is found within the lat­ter. The craft of red­point­ing can bor­der on mys­ti­cal, es­pe­cially with a first as­cent, a tab­ula rasa that no one has climbed be­fore. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time coach­ing fel­low climbers to red­point. I fell in love with pro­ject­ing in the 1980s while try­ing hard boul­der prob­lems at In­dian Rock in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and later while at­tempt­ing first as­cents with friends at nearby Mickey’s Beach. Those climbs were be­yond my abil­ity to flash or do sec­ond try; in­stead, I worked on them un­til they be­gan to make sense. In the process, I learned to be pa­tient and to be­lieve. Mean­while, my pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy was a di­rect off­shoot of my pas­sion for climb­ing; I wanted to share the ex­cite­ment I felt as our dreams turned into these visu­ally stun­ning new climbs.

As a pho­tog­ra­pher, I’ve had a front-row seat to some amaz­ing as­cents dur­ing the 30 years I’ve been shoot­ing. Mem­o­ries in­clude wit­ness­ing the ups and downs of Ron Kauk’s multi-year bid on

Magic Line (FA: 1996), a 5.14 thin crack next to Yosemite’s Ver­nal Falls that went un­re­peated un­til Kauk’s son, Lon­nie, did it in 2017. And watch­ing Chris Sharma, just 17 at the time, de­ci­pher the crux moves on Biogra­phie (5.15a) in 1997. A few weeks later, Chris, beat down by the un­re­lent­ing dif­fi­culty of the mon­ster line, re­ceived a pep talk from Lynn Hill, who en­cour­aged him to fo­cus on the more man­age­able process of refin­ing his beta and ef­fi­ciency rather than on the daunt­ing feat of send­ing the en­tire climb. More re­cently, in 2016, I wit­nessed as Ethan Pringle walked a fine line be­tween mo­ti­va­tion and burnout on the first free as­cent of the spec­tac­u­lar trad line Black

beard’s Tears (5.14c) on the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast, one of North Amer­ica’s most dif­fi­cult tra­di­tional pitches.

While doc­u­ment­ing these ex­pe­ri­ences was en­light­en­ing, it wasn’t so be­cause of the climbs’ ex­treme dif­fi­culty; in­stead, it was for the priv­i­lege to wit­ness how much ef­fort, pas­sion, and emo­tion went into each as­cent. Ul­ti­mately, these are ex­pe­ri­ences that can be had by any climber at any level who is will­ing to com­mit to a climb and stick with it, send or fail. The men­tal, phys­i­cal, and tac­ti­cal bar­ri­ers we break are the same at any grade.

On these pages, you’ll find a semi-chrono­log­i­cal record of red­point at­tempts and as­cents from my three decades’ of shoot­ing. Some im­ages doc­u­ment epic bat­tles that took years, while oth­ers are rough-hewn sec­ond-try sends. I pre­fer to shoot the longer bat­tles. They give me mul­ti­ple at­tempts to re­fine my van­tage points, capture dif­fer­ent light, learn from my mis­takes, and ul­ti­mately “work” my way to a pho­to­graphic red­point—a tac­tic I much pre­fer to get­ting in there and, as Doug phrases it, bit­ing an­kles.

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