by Lucas Roman. This story is published in Volume 18. Banner photo by Hobo Greg
Brad Gobright is pure of heart. So pure, in fact, that he may never have faced a dilemma in all his life. That’s not exactly serving him well right now, as he’s stuck in a pickle of his own making, at the top of the first pitch of Southern California’s gem climb, The Vampire. He’s never taken a whipper like he’s about to, and Lord knows I’ve never caught one. But forget about what the Lord knows for a moment, and focus on what Brad does. With his last piece fifteen feet beneath him and an impossible move above him, he knows there are those who take caution, and there are those who take whippers, and by no choice of his own, he’s compelled toward the latter, preprogrammed to it even. Knowing full well that I’ve got no clue what a “soft catch” is or how to feed it out, he’s up high looking like a hot mess.
“Okay, okay. Fuck!” he shouts above the clanking sound of gear rattling from his quivering leg.
Down below, I’m nearly out of sight at the belay. Perched above a few hundred feet worth of slab, I make a quick sling around a feeble tree for an anchor while Brad flushes out his options. My fear, no doubt, is that once he takes that whip, his house-of-cards excuse for protection will zip out cleaner than a surgeon’s scalpel from white flesh and send us both on a stone-skipping path toward the bone collector. He’s got the reputation for it after all, and even though we’ve only climbed a few times, I’ve already seen plenty of his gear go south.
“Okay. On the count of three! Three, two, one!”
I clinch the brakes and gnash half the enamel off my teeth, but nothing happens. Brad just can’t let go.
“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck me.”
Sweat beads from his bright-white brow under an uncaring California sun. Uncaring rock and uncaring world, it seems, especially when measured face-to-face with the grandeur of his dreams. He’s just a kid after all, not far out of high school even.
By this time, the local hard men who are on neighboring routes work up into a frenzy, laughing and heckling the poor bastard. Aware of the bitter circumstance, I don’t know whether it’s peer pressure or fatigue that leads to Brad finally take the ride. But, come to think of it, he’s never been about the business of life with a need to be accepted by others. At least not primarily. And what’s important, in this case, isn’t what made him take the ride—it’s that he took it. Because most don’t.
On the next go over, Brad starts at three, then counts the two, as if to surprise himself, but never makes it to the one. All I hear is the long, upward U following the hard T, and then he’s off. Brad flies through the sky and crashes into the wall with a hard thud provided by my helpless belay. And that was it. According to him, it was his first real whipper. What would turn out to be just one of many repeating moments in his now-infamous ride on this orbit. Brad Gobright, by all measures, the fool. But for just a moment in flight, between heaven and earth and wrapped up in a gorgeous flicker of light that most in their short time on this blue spinner simply will not know, he might have been the ideal man. An honest conclusion I wasn’t ready to reach about him.
I wanted a double take on the revelation, but real moments in life are only lived once; they violently stir us awake, and then quickly pass. Enough time has passed between then and now to realize that, in a lot of ways, it’s the brevity of the highlight reel we spin that makes it so bright. Our fortune is that these moments do burn, deep, like a sunspot into countless frames after the fact. You see it even when you aren’t trying to. That was back in 2007.
Brad was my first climbing partner. As a person, he astounded me. His capacity was so specific to just one dimension, to climbing alone, that it moved me. Not in the way one is moved by a demonstration of love or sacrifice from one human to another, not in the way one wants to emulate on merit of its grace, nor in the way in which we come to fashion heroes and heroines—it was much less traditional, and in that sense, more profound. Brad lives almost exclusively on the surface. His walking narrative, his energy, is and was simply of the now. One suspects with his type there is not so much an arc of character—or if there were, that he wouldn’t concern himself with his place on it—as there is simply character. Didn’t matter what came before or what lay ahead. It is not a knock to that character but an appreciation of it, to note that with Brad there is a complete lack of guile, of architecture, design, or even noticeable levels of depth in his quieter moments of reflection, and it is exactly that simple purity of heart and his inability to engage in anything but the present moment that is his greatest asset.
He’s spent more nights in Yosemite hiding from rangers, bivying alone under scrummy boulders, hitching rides, and shivering without a fire than most of us ever did. For years, he’d eat anything he could, from the leftover plates of the tourists he so loathed at the Yosemite Village cafeteria to campfire-cooked roadkill in the Creek. He’d stomach expiration dates for calories, steal any gear necessary, work any bum job, and take any ride to get wherever it was that he needed to go. He’d do anything. He had that contagious swagger of someone with nothing to lose, whether he realized it or not, and it both got him into and out of every cluster he could fuck.
Shit, I even remember getting pulled over by a Valley ranger with Brad in the back of the open bed of my old pickup truck, in 2008, when he had first put his five articles of clothing in the car with his climbing gear and “moved” to the Valley. There were already three of us in a two-seatbelt cockpit up front, but Brad didn’t care, he jumped in the back and gophered under some gear. “Hey, throw that crash pad on top of me, would you? That’ll be perfect.”
Down the road a few miles later, pulled over without a working brake light, when the ranger peeled back the onion layer and Brad was right there like a deer in his flashlight, the ranger was so shit-scared by it, he actually dropped his light.
“Jesus Christ,” he sputtered, while picking up the Maglite. “Do I know you, son?”
“Maybe, um, officer. I work at The Ahwahnee.”
“I need you to exit the vehicle now, young man.”
More pissed about Brad’s surprise appearance than our brake light, overstocked cabin, and naïve to our open containers, the ranger shooed us off on down the road but kept Brad hostage. All we heard on our way out were the beginnings of his plea deal.
“Hey, sir, could you not tell my boss about this? Please? She thinks I’m sick today, and if I get busted and lose my job, that’s gonna kill my climbing.”
A confounding riddle, completely untouchable by the fabric of modernity.
Society never had a chance with Brad, and neither did the ranger. It couldn’t make him want to be someone or something else any more than the ranger could. You couldn’t punish it out of him any more than you could sell him on an alternative. Brad was exactly himself, and the only person seemingly not concerned about that was him. No dilemma, just Brad. He simply couldn’t fathom any other way to live.
Brad climbed while he still had baby teeth. If that wasn’t enough to set his life course, he fell into it just after the free-climbing revolution of the early nineties. He didn’t grow up with a smart phone and a streaming service, but that didn’t matter. Content was out there, and whether it was Dano’s locks or Lynn’s cutoff jean shorts and purple cotton top, when he saw human beings way up on that stone with their hair flying in ballads of splendor, he knew it, immediately. He was only ever going to go in one direction.
He once told me that as a kid he used to stay up in his room watching climbing movies, and that carried over into adulthood. The first night he and I stayed illegally in Camp 4, on our first trip to the Valley, while sleeping open bivy on the ground with a cardboard buffer, ’cause a Therm-a-Rest was too high a price, Brad played a Masters of Stone DVD on his handheld while other kids smoked pot around a fire and chugged down a good Valley blackout.
A month later, on our way home from the Needles, after having just spent a full weekend on the yellow spires, he watched the entire series while riding copilot in the pickup. He literally couldn’t get enough, and he had no choice in the matter. At that point, society couldn’t sell or give Brad anything, but if it was in a climbing film and he saw it, you can bet your ass he’d beg, borrow, cheat, or steal for it. And he did.
For most of us, those first few seasons of dirtbagging carry an inspiration, a drunken freedom for transient souls, you might say. But, generally speaking, if you do it for long enough, there’s often another cost involved. At some point each one of us meets a deeper calling out there. Somewhere, we all gotta answer to something. And it’s not a question that society asks of us; it’s something we do. When it all comes clean and the ropes are pulled from the chains, will all the sunsets from all the summits ever actually be enough? And if not, what, in the end, will be the cost? What of all the relationships we’ve left in our wake as we’ve been chasing shadows?
For many, the greatest climber is the one who rides the ultimate line—not that of danger and absolutes—but that of a holistic life. He or she whose balance is as much in life altogether as it is weighted upon the smallest smear of the smallest crystal. That is the finest line, one which most of us who venture outside only ride on the lopside or in a state of perpetual conflict. But where others sink, Brad soars. Climbing, the real thing, out there on the big stuff, has always been his fullest expression. With a featherweight conscience impervious to even the most compelling gravitas, he soars. That he has a program, which runs without dilemma, is his gift, for sure. It has enabled him to go so big and so far without the need or the compulsion to even once look back. And yet still, beyond the gift, how he runs the operations, what he’s done from the close of that gas cap in 2008, until now, that will always be his art.
In 2008, five of us, including Brad, rigged our first highline above the Rostrum, spanning 70 feet in length and fluttering 1,000 feet above the Valley floor. It was gangbusters. Four of us spent the whole of a perfect fall day trying to walk that thing, romanced by the notion of expanding ourselves in the process. But not Brad, he didn’t try it once. Not out of fear, but because it wasn’t even in his register. He was there to climb, always. Climb. Execute. Repeat. Adinfinitum. It’s the only function that runs in his programming. Like any other drive, it doesn’t even require a qualifier—it’s just a core drive. It operates on condition of consciousness.
After we spread the word on our highline earlier in the day, our new acquaintances, Nico, and a strapping Belgian-Irishman named Sean, arrived. These guys were the type who took on everything with an air of impeccability. Counter to Brad in the fullest. Their entire style lay on an impossible line where an ungodly ethic, and the level of suffering it prescribed, was met with premiere abilities and a carefree attitude. Highlights of their climbing achievements included first ascents of big wall free climbs, including a route on El Cap, established completely ground up. To the average among us, theirs was an impossible bar.
Highlights of Brad’s accomplishments, to that point, had been nearly dying on a rope-solo toprope on the Cookie Cliff, killing a squirrel in a bloody Tarantino stand-off while cleaning rooms in The Ahwahnee Hotel, and being known locally in Southern California for having been “The Guy” to use an actual construction ladder to aid in the ascent of Intersection Rock’s Left Ski Track, in Joshua Tree National Park. If Sean and Nico had taken wind in their sails from Robbins, Brad had surely blown down from a Harding howl.
In the afternoon, while Sean was walking the highline and playing his mountain flute, we cracked beers and took it all in, because, conditionally, you couldn’t have asked for anything more. Unless you were Brad. After asking each of us, and even a party of Germans who’d just topped out via the standard finish, to climb with him, Brad set up his rope for a rappel into the final pitch, alone. Just before yanking the GriGri brake release, he looked up to Sean in a last effort.
“Hey, man, any chance you want to rap in here with me and toprope the Alien finish? It’s supposed to be classic!”
I swear the gust of wind that had been blowing steady for hours suddenly came to a pause. One single strand of Sean’s beaten hair lifted in the last of the wind, with a spiraled flutter, while Brad, young as he’d ever be and pure of heart, waited out the pregnant pause.
“Haha,” Sean started, with his marbled Irish accent, “no chance, my friend. I bet it’s a great pitch, indeed.” Smiling through his warlord’s beard, he finished, “But, that shit’s just not in my ethics, man.”
The four of us had to double take. Jaws dropped down to the floor.
Not. In. My. Ethics. Are you kidding?
He’d pulled it off better than Jesus. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Surely, Brad looked the fool for even asking such heresy. At the same time, it was obvious that Sean hadn’t intended to scorn the poor kid either; there wasn’t a bad fiber in him for that kind of shit.
It was just so profound, so clear. Sean had identified an ethic and made an informed choice to follow it. And not only to follow it but to do it joyfully. Forget climbing for a moment; in life at large, we’d literally never seen anything like it. Sean’s ethic emphasized how you got somewhere, not where you were going to end up.
Digesting it, Brad turned to a dumbfounded gaze. It was as if someone had asked him if he wanted to go to college or if he had a life plan. It was deep shit for him, maybe too deep, precisely because it appealed to something far deeper than the here and now. But, with Brad, what is incredible is his ability, his unwitting ability, to rise back to the surface. There’s nearly no amount of gravity in a situation that can override his operations in the present.
He doesn’t have a lot of the same questions as the average among us, and if he does on occasion, for the most part, he doesn’t need answers on one condition before he can proceed to the next. In a world where we often feel like something is not right if we don’t understand it, if it’s not going our way, or if we don’t feel quite right or ready for the situation, Brad is a refreshing spring of water. Always at the source and the destination. Now. Here. Always. In action.
He went ahead and rope soloed the Alien anyway.
If you never have to ask why your programming runs, you also don’t have to navigate the how of it. You don’t really have to navigate the ethics. Brad was always honest in reporting how and by what means he did something, but it was never really as important to him as the fact that he was doing. Doing was being.
There’s a lot that seemed to fly over Brad’s head, and it’s easy to want to write him off in some ignoramus script. But pay heed. On land, the common point of view is that he’s not doing much good for society, but you put him on the rocks, and it’s magic. The fucker will glide across planes and depths of the human experience that most will surely sink in. Make no mistake, his lights are on, perhaps on a different circuit; but the longer you spend with Brad, the more you sense that it is unwise to write off what you do not understand.
Here was Sean, the valiant, Sean, the heroic. And then Brad, the anomaly. He didn’t serve an ethic; he just was, and that level of being is impenetrable. You almost call it foolish until you see just how it has served him over the years.
Since then, Brad has done all of it. Nearly. Speed record on El Cap. Big wall free climbing. First ascents. Hard climbs in almost every discipline of the sport. Free soloist of a generation. Including more than a handful of times ropeless on the Rostrum and an uncountable number of laps on the Naked Edge, in Eldorado Canyon. Back in 2008, that same group of four of us actually voted him off an El Cap team, because his climbing had gotten so frenetic and dangerous. As fortune would have it, we didn’t summit. He’s now climbed it more than fifty times.
Ian and I had a good laugh about it when we considered that not only did we not summit on that go, we suffered. We dropped climbing shoes off the Ear pitch, a tag line off a backpack, a sleeping bag off the Alcove, and got pissed on by the Aussies under the Monster off-width, and that was all just on day three, with a team that was apparently safer and sounder without Brad. When Brad did climb El Cap for the first time, it was in a single day. I can remember Ian’s characteristic laugh, the maniacal kind, jolting till his ribs hurt when we considered the irony. Ian later left us in his own accident a few years ago, BASE jumping in the remote parts of Turkey with a poor pack job. There are fewer of us left these days, but there’s also a comfort in knowing we can spin that reel anytime and see the mark of their sunspots.
Fast-forward a handful of years and a lifetime of memorable ascents later, and Brad is home in Southern California for the summer to earn a few extra bucks while the weather is hot. I caught up with him at the local gym, where on this day—as opposed to ten years ago when his peers would heckle him—the entire place went quiet when he climbed. There was even a kid who asked for his autograph when I lowered him off his first climb. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old and was as shy as you could possibly imagine. When the boy was timid on the ask, his father nudged him to say a few words, but the youngster rolled his shoulder into an inflated ball and hid under his dad’s wing. Having worked with kids at the gym for years, Brad eased the anxiety with a brief hug and posed for a photo. It’s a brave new world. Brad Gobright is the stuff of dreams.
A moment later, after wrestling with a harder grade, I asked, “You ever think about route setting yourself, while you’re home?”
“No way, dude,” Brad replied. “I’d be absolutely terrible at it. For a fact. I’m definitely more in my element with kids, goofing around.”
Which is true. Compared to my experience with other high-level athletes across the disciplines, Brad has a really low register for his own biomechanics. Keeping track of his own movement patterns, let alone constructing them for others, is admittedly out of his league.
For all the things he’s done, especially in the realm of soloing, where mistakes wager in life sentences, he’s not exactly tuned in. He has a hard time describing experiences of his body as much as experiences of his mind. If you ask him about the tension in his body while navigating a crux, he can tell you what he did with each limb from points A through C, but he can’t necessarily tell you how. The experience gets away from him. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have it. I’m sure that he does. In fact, when he gets to the crux, you see it. When he isn’t getting as much back from a rest as he’d like, you see him move into a new position. He does make adjustments; he makes mental connections in the moment to physical positions and takes the appropriate actions. It’s just that he doesn’t necessarily catalogue them. The nature of his programming is to run the functions, not to run analytics.
When Brad and I last shared a meal in Squamish, he’d just recovered from the first of his career detours, a broken back. He’d come by for dinner with his girlfriend at the time, and we discussed his thoughts on soloing after his injury.
“I had a freak out the other day, and I’m really not sure what caused it,” he began. “I was completely fine on the route, but I dunno what happened. I’ve never had any feelings like that, you know, real nerves.”
He later described it as a response to the exposure. Even though he was fit for the climb, just the idea of another backbreaker and the recovery process caused his body to shut down. Still, as he reflected, it wasn’t as much a fear of dying he was experiencing, but a reaction to the sudden exposure. A flashback. A surprising reminder that he was a little human, after all.
Now that it’s been a few years, I asked him if he’s had any similar experiences since then, because I think most people are curious about the process of fear management altogether.
“No way,” he quickly responded.
“What about fear in general? How often do you feel afraid up there when you climb? Not afraid to fail ’cause you aren’t sending, but afraid, like actually scared to be just where you are?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he offered.
“Never while soloing?”
“I don’t think so.” He shrugged.
Brad is honest, so it was obvious he wasn’t saying this to sound bold. In fact, if you ask him, he’s not that bold at all. His core drive is to climb, so in his mind, he’s always on the right side of the risk-and-reward curve. Others might hesitate to do something in the sport because it could mean losing family or functionality in some other part of life deemed more valuable. But for Brad, climbing is the function, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might risk not being able to continue climbing. Even at what appears to us as his most extreme.
“Yeah, I just never really get gripped up there. Never have when soloing. I mean, I’ve been nervous and had some anxiety before doing something, but once I’m off and moving, I don’t think it’s fear I feel. That would be bad,” he finishes.
He must have some internal bearing, though, like the rest of us do. That feeling that talks us off certain climbs and away from certain risks. We’ve all got climbs we haven’t done, for reasons that are usually more a mystery to us than they are apparent. Times when it just didn’t feel right.
“What about last year?” I asked. “What about that day when you bailed on the Half Dome solo?”
He’d planned an all-means solo, free climbing most of it but also clipping bolts at a few crux points and common pendulums.
“Oh, that day.” Brad’s cheeks puttered. “That day, I don’t know.”
He struggled for a moment, going deep to explain, then came right back to the surface. “I don’t really know what happened that day, but I’ll tell you what. It’s a really good thing I didn’t go solo it ’cause I would’ve had to call some friends for a rescue. You know, after that big rockfall a few years ago, some guys went up there and put up a new bolt ladder, but I guess those things are sketch, at best.” He finished with a look of fright.
“I mean, it’s only been a couple years, and rumor has it those bolts are already sticking out a quarter inch and ready to pop. No way I would’ve trusted my life to one of those things!” Brad paused. “So yeah, it would’ve been a pretty epic bail.”
“Come on, Brad,” I asked further. “You’re telling me that was it? I’ve got tons of climbs I haven’t done, and we both know guys who have them too. Stuff that just didn’t feel right for one reason or another. Stuff where you wanted to do it, you really did. But when you woke up that morning or when you hiked into it, you just had a deeper feeling that took you away from it. You don’t think you had something like that happen that day? You don’t think you had something deeper protecting you from going into that situation?”
Brad paused for a moment and finally conceded. “I guess you’re right. I did have a really good spring, and I wanted to end it with a bang last year. But every time I was going to do it, something just wasn’t right. I’m not sure what that was, exactly, but I can see what you’re saying. It could’ve been a deeper voice.”
Maybe that’s as good as he needs it to be. And I shouldn’t insist otherwise. Most climbers I’ve known who have that deeper voice, or compass, really make it a priority to look for it before each climb. Most of us want to find that voice and get practiced in how to hear it as often as possible. Brad, to no surprise, might just feel that it’s there when it needs to be, and beyond that, he doesn’t need to figure it out—beyond that, nothing needs explanation. And that is his remarkable Zen.
He is aware of danger all the same. Not too long ago, he repeated Indian Creek’s Carbondale Short Bus, first climbed free by Hayden Kennedy—with the use of preplaced gear on the critical opening sequence. A perfect example of why, to him, he’s not that bold, nor does he take risks that would disable him from that core drive to climb free. He’ll free solo terrain that would make most of us quiver, but on the same coin, he’ll insist to preplace gear if a ground fall looks possible.
A moment later, as we look over to the bouldering area, Brad notes the position of a crash pad and shakes his head with worry. “Dude, that pad placement, that’s super dangerous. Total ankle breaker.” It’s a funny outlook considering his total sense of cool after having just discussed nearly a decade of soloing in the death zone.
A lot of what he’s done in climbing has that feel of paradox. When you ask him about speed climbing El Cap, he’ll just tell you that it sprung from his first experience on it. Recall that the first time he ever climbed it, it was in a day; and it wasn’t because he read Largo’s article about the 1974 excursion with Bridwell and Westbay and felt inspired, but because he really hates hauling systems and haul bags. Admittedly, he’s terrible at rigging. And for Brad, any big wall that takes days is, to him, much harder than a climb that takes only one. That simple. It’s not the history books he’s after when it all comes clean—it’s simply climbing.
For some, the greatest experiences found in climbing come down to partnerships, to who you are with regardless of what you are doing. The powerful moments of exposure on physical and emotional heights can bring out an expanded capacity to work for a greater good, for something more corporate, above the individual. For some, the entire outside life is fashioned as much for an experience with another human as with nature itself.
Admittedly, Brad’s never been great with relationships, and that’s not a fault—it just is. Lately though, he’s moved the needle, a little. In his hardest ascents and fastest climbs, near his limitations, he’s understood that he has a need for others. Little by little, it seems, he’s finding as much joy in the company of others as in the company of the high planes. It’s not a strong suit, yet, but it’s certainly in process.
“What about friendships, mate?” I proposed. “Any blooming relationships up there on the wall? People who you just want to experience any climb with, no matter the grade? Any relationships that are made richer simply by sharing the rope?”
Brad ruffled his cheeks in an effort to stall. “I guess so. But I mean, there’s always an objective too. So maybe the climbing is always coming first.” Then just a moment later, “I guess I’ve got some friendships that are cool though.”
“So, when you talk about moving back to Boulder next summer, is that ’cause there are people you want to see? Friends you miss and want to get closer to?”
After another pause, he came clean. “Not really. I mean, there’re people I’d like to see, but I also think I’d just want to go back for the summer to climb a lot of stuff too.”
It’s understandable. I don’t think he’s in tension about it, but I think he’s also learning that there’s a part of the human experience that he can access, a level of interaction with others that isn’t based on doing things together as much as just being with each other. For Brad, growing up, the lack of articulation skills made it hard to navigate social endeavors, and for all his strength as a kid in the climbing gym, he never really came into an outfit. He didn’t gel on a youth team, and he wasn’t all too interested in competitions, sport climbing, or bouldering as ends unto themselves either. You wouldn’t call it hazing, but in a lot of ways the flimsy swings and bad footwork that got him up climbs in the early days made him more jester than knight. People laughed at him, but they loved him too.
“Fair enough,”I continued. “And what about women? Do find yourself longing for anything more committed since you’ve been single for a while?”
“Not really. I don’t really think it’s a good time for something like that, because I’m just way too into climbing. I think I learned that from the last relationship.” He briefly struggles to find his words, then continues, “She wanted to plug in to society and still climb and stuff, you know, but her focus was more wholesome than mine. I think we both realized it wasn’t going to be a good thing for us to do long term. The good news is we’re still friends and everything.”
Brad might not need intimacy as we’ve just discussed it, and if he’s honest, he probably doesn’t really get how the whole thing is supposed to work. Few do. But, what he does get, suddenly, is an inspired look on his face, which leads him to open up further. He’s got an almost-sinister grin and the look of a kid about to share his favorite secret on the hush.
“I’ll tell you what. I did briefly get on that Tinder thing lately. And man, that’s a weird way to meet people if you ask me. Girls these days are pretty forward out there.”
He smirks like he’s living in a flickered memory on repeat, then continues, “Wanna know something even weirder? In Yosemite Valley, right now, a lot of people are using it, and it’s kinda wild. Climbers and tourists.”
“Wait a minute, Brad! You’re telling me that right now, or on any given day during the high season in the Valley when thousands of tourists are in bumper-to-bumper traffic, that a whole flock of them are on Tinder, parking at the nearest spot off the road and just running into the meadows or the forest for a fucking shag?”
“Bro”—he laughs out loud—“you can’t even imagine the stuff I’ve seen out there lately. It’s everywhere!”
Let’s not forget we began this discussion looking for intimacy and connection, and now we’re buck naked in Yosemite having unprotected sex. But, that’s Brad. Right on the surface, exactly where he’s best designed.
Most have a hard time digesting Brad’s simplicity in the face of his experience. For all his efforts, especially in soloing where his level of execution must be finer than a Michelin-star kitchen, popular belief is that he must operate—not only on a wall but on the everyday activity—from a plane of excellence. We demand that it be so. When we come to find he floats lighter than a newborn, and in similar streams of consciousness, it is we who find ourselves confounded, not Brad.
Among other feats, he’s arguably most famed for his soloing efforts on Eldorado Canyon’s Hairstyles and Attitudes. The nature of the climbing style, the insecurity of it, the sequential detail of the crux moves, the near impossibility of reversing any of them—and thus the commitment level—have made it a solo for the ages. Even in the wake of Honnold’s Freerider solo, the sheer improbability of Hairstyles as a solo climb will probably keep it in the annals of Western rock ascent.
It was profound enough that, when Hayden Kennedy remarked about it in a B side cut of Cedar Wright’s Safety Third film, he spoke of it with reverence and likened the entire experience to an enlightenment.
“Whatever was meant for Brad to have in that moment was meant for Brad alone,” Hayden said.
It’s not even that anyone can have that experience, but that that experience may have only ever been meant for Brad, alone. It’s not as tall or sustained as El Cap, sure, but it’s quite possibly just as singular a human experience. For no one else, perhaps ever. That profound.
“Hayden said that your experience up there might have been meant only for you, and that whatever it is that you got up there, that it must have been special.” I looked at Brad and asked, “So, what was the experience like for you? What did you find?”
In a most typical short and inspired fashion, Brad probed into the recesses of his mind, looking to read from the teleprompter. When it ran blank and without text, he just smiled for a moment, almost as if he’d taken flight again, unhampered by the weight of such an achievement or the need to explain anything about it. Whatever the Hairstyles experience had provided him had long since left, if it was ever anything he’d attempted to hang on to anyway.
“Um, you know…I’m really not sure. I just knew I could do it, and I always wanted to.”
He didn’t do it just to say he’d done it. He just did it. The only qualifier, a certain knowledge he could. He didn’t want what was on top. He wasn’t after a revelation, and he wasn’t running away from anything looking for a solution. It wasn’t going to solve a life problem or make anything better. He didn’t want to be known as the guy who did it. It was literally just a thought that came onto his radar without any check against it. No voice telling him otherwise. Nothing to analyze. It really doesn’t matter in the feedback loop of Brad’s programming, because after all, there is no origin, only operation.
You want it to be so much more; you want a feat like this to traverse the infinite plane and lead to the divine. You want to look inside the formula and find the perfect expression. But the simplicity, the honesty, the perfect, unaffected level of naïveté, that comes through his blue eyes when he looks at you, is really just as good.
Brad Gobright is pure of heart. So pure in fact, that he may never have faced a dilemma in all his life. What to do and when to do it? Who to become and how to go about it? What are the designs needed to construct the life you want to live, and how do you even draw them? If anything, it is we who have suffered his decisions, more than he has. That he’s never been in any form of tension with his course in life begs explanation. That we can’t seem to carry on with ours until he qualifies his begs our own. He is a Zen koan, placed in this world to reframe our concepts completely. Indeed, just how we see Brad seems to say more about who we are than who he is.
You want him to be brilliant. But he’s happy. You want him to be multifaceted, but he runs perfectly as is. He is not what you want him to be, nor is he trying not to be, he just is. Zazen.
Of all the characters in the lore of Western climbing history, of all the heroes and the heroines, the maniacs and misfits, one could hardly script Brad’s character. The madman and the obsessed we’ve seen; in our tradition they are, in fact, a dime a dozen. The willingness to sacrifice anything and any relationship, those who quarrel about ethics, those who burn bridges and craft a life so self-centered it will abandon all for glory. Those who are coded by a pure obsession for a summit, for notoriety, for an achievement or even a feeling of peace in an otherwise chaotic world, we can understand. We’ve seen the type. Even if they fail to ride that most fine line, even if they fail as fathers or sons or daughters, for the places they take us, for how they lift the human spirit, we are willing to call them heroes of some kind.
Even when they face a tragic end, we consolidate their memory, as one would with an addict of any type, suggesting to ourselves that our heroes were indeed good people, making the best of a condition not of their choosing. We think that when they knowingly pursued summits over simpler obligations, they did so not because they wanted to, but because they were compelled to. We say, it made them the happiest, to be doing X, Y, or Z, and how could we ever ask of them to be otherwise. But momentary happiness is not our entire expression. That happiness, the kind that is attached to achievements, is always unsustainable. Usually, nobody knows that more than the hero who finds, at last, more emptiness after the fanfare of each ascent. But ask any recovered person about real happiness, and they’ll tell you it only ever came when it was given away.
Brad really is different. Same look. But different. He’s never had that dilemma. He’s never tried to juggle capacities. He’s never run counterintuitive functions. At first that can seem basic, almost one dimensional, but looking closer, temper the judgment and you’ll see that his character is, in a most Eastern aspect, perfect. Fully reduced, nothing to add and nothing more to possibly subtract. Pure. Realized not with prose and pomp but with action. He flashes before your eyes, and if you are too busy looking at the incident—which is his manner of living itself—you’ll miss that flicker of brilliance.
If it’s hard to close a box around, if his humanity seems just too far to grab, hold to this: He does believe in beauty and all that it promises us. It might be the one thing that supersedes his whole drive. The one thing that can put a pause on the feedback loop. The one thing that will freeze action. As he described it to me, the one thing that can make him stop what he’s doing and just look around with total wonder. In the middle of a twenty-four-hour day on the stone, somewhere deep on a trail after some ungodly link-up, even if he’s going for a speed record or trying to rush out of the tent at daybreak, even if he’s got an agenda for something that seems pressing—when a beam of nature is suddenly lighting up the empty corridors of that unconflicted mind, beauty will overwhelm him. He’ll stop; he’ll be raptured with the same rush of love and incomprehensible glory as you will.
“I definitely think that climbing El Cap, just being on it at sunrise or sunset, is the most beautiful thing I can do in my life. It’s the most beautiful rock out there. And there have been times on it where the sky is so perfect, I can’t imagine anything else. For me, that’s it. I’ve had it happen all over in nature, when I get completely frozen by something beautiful, but it happens to me the most on the Captain. I can climb all over the world, but I don’t think anything will beat it. It’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
That’s it. That’s what’s up there. Beauty. There isn’t so much a “why” to his action. There never was with Brad. It’s not in his nature to ask why he has the drive. He just runs it. Beauty is up on that rock, and so is Brad. He’s not going to take our aspirations up there with him. Lord knows he’s not carrying any form of science or philosophy into that experience each time he goes. He is taking the only thing he has and the only thing he’s ever needed—that pure heart.
As hard as it was, at times, to watch him live, it’s much harder to know he’s gone. It is terrible on context, terrible on condition of how it happened, and terrible on timing, as it always seems to be with loss. Brad was on an arc after all. He’d grown, and was growing, in a lot of new capacities, and we could all see it. Some of us had been on that arc with him longer than others, but the truth is it doesn’t matter where we were on it—it just matters that we were there. It matters that we can keep him and all his indelible, robust, comical, and even gentle aspects alive in memory.
He’ll be missed for so many things—the million or more quirky details, the mimes and the sarcasm, the infamous chicken bock at the tourons, the jokes and the laughs he provided. He’ll be missed for all the superlative measures we kept record of him by. Those blanks, those frames are scripts we all get to fill in, with our own stories of him. But he’ll be missed for so much more than his lightness and his amusement. He’ll be missed for his singleness of heart, for his honesty, his authenticity. For all the things we struggled to consolidate about him, for all the things that made him him. That’s what we’ll miss the most.
We’re all going to have that last text, that last phone call, that last hug, that last beer, or that last climb we shared with him. Those painfully close will have that last I love you. Painful as they may be, those are priceless memories, and we should nurture them. Grief is a force of nature, a part of the cycle we must submit ourselves to. It does not get solved, it is not a matter of logic, and there’s nothing pretty on face value with it. Grief simply must be had. But, grief is of nature too, and for that it is good. It is good because it keeps us together. Let’s remember all those sunspots Brad burned on our reels when he was flying through the frames. Let us play them back, honor them, celebrate them. They were real; they were special; they were once in a lifetime.
To me, he had it. When you are known as much for your failures as your successes, as much for the falls you take as the summits you make, you’re onto something. That’s my image of him. Brad Gobright, up there looking the fool, could be an epic fail or his greatest ascent, it doesn’t matter because he’s shining just the same. That same light we’re all shielding our eyes from as we find ourselves looking on from below is the one he’s wrapped in.
Radiant, fleeting, glorious. Light.
Lucas Roman is a nursing student who writes for his partner, Nathalie, his friend Jeremy, and the last of the red-hot lovers. This piece, and others, will be featured in a collection of short stories, titled, Likeness; Ad Infinitum, to be published by Di Angelo Publications in 2021.