In Memory of Bob Kamps

Article Index

Bob Kamps:
Man of Will, Skill and Wit
1931 - 2005

Sample Image

Way back when, Bob Kamps broke his ankle and heel in Tuolumne Meadows, California, while scoping the first moves of a new route two miles from the road. When I returned with help, he had crawled a mile through the forest toward the road. There was Bob, inching along, bathed in sweat, pants torn, hands raw, showing his essentials: chagrined at his blunder but undaunted, in charge, full of will and determination.

Bob began climbing in 1955, and fervently pursued the sport until he died at age 73 from a heart attack, while reaching for a hold at a local gym. Bob began climbing in an era before gyms or how-to books, while he was visiting Yellowstone National Park. There, he recruited any climbing partner who could walk, and would invent techniques on the fly. For example, during his 1956 ascent of Pilot Peak, Bob cut a U-shaped bollard in a dirt hummock, which he used to rappel. Also in Yellowstone, he met Bonnie, his loving wife of 46 years.

While Bob was perhaps best known for the first ascent of the Diamond of Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with Dave Rearick in 1960, he didn't make much of the climb. His diary is terse on the subject: "Parades, TV stars, etc. Even Time Magazine." Bob would prefer to be remembered for his long-running love affair with climbing in good style on challenging, shorter crags, and for his many deep and lasting friendships. When asked about his favorite first ascent, Bob revealed with his crinkled smile that it was Tuolumne Meadows' Lucky Streaks, a wispy, sweeping series of steep cracks that he and I established in 1967.

Bob's great love for climbing was meticulously documented in his climbing diary. He made the entries, and Bonnie translated them into a comprehensive database. Bob climbed more than 3000 routes in 50 years, pushing his limits until his death. Bob liked climbs that tested his skills: nearly two-thirds of his first ascents were 5.10 or harder. He made 162 first ascents, and 25 first free ascents. He was a regular at Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows, Joshua Tree, Tahquitz, the Pinnacles, and the Southern Sierra. His penchant for good, hard free climbs earned him an apt tribute from Steve Roper, Yosemite climbing historian, who described Kamps in his book, Camp 4 as, "one of the finest free climbers of the Golden Age."

A master slab climber, Bob's footwork dazzled spectators, but he also climbed overhanging rock and unpopular off-widths. He wasn't a muscle man, but finessed steep stone, resting and pacing himself. Climbers and hikers often stopped to watch him: craggy legs typically exposed in cut-offs, strong, sinewy arms poking from a frayed T-shirt; gray hair, leathery skin, gold-rim glasses. He edged with his feet turned out, ballet style, using the inside of his foot while pressing his hips close to the rock. He moved up, down, and fidgeted to get in impossible protection.

Climbing with grace and purity, Bob never rested on the rope when he fell, but instead lowered to the last stance and started again. He placed bolts sparingly, by hand, often from difficult positions, and was one of the first to write about bolt ethics in a 1966 article for Summit Magazine. To this day, climbers marvel at how his bolts above the aid ladder on Tahquitz's Chingadera (5.11) were placed from thin, thin stances. Bob derived no satisfaction in beating a climb to death, and usually gave up after about six or eight falls. Even if he made it then, he recorded the climb in his journal as "HD" for hangdog.

Bringing humor and wit to climbing, Bob's puns were endless and funny. One friend described them as "knife-between-the-ribs puns ... made on the fly with material at hand." His wit was apparent in fitting, smart names to routes. Seam-Stress in Estes Park follows, of course, a difficult seam. Next to my climb The Vision on Pennyroyal Arches in Tuolumne are his routes Da Vision, and Multiplication. In the same vicinity, he coined our route up damp cracks as Ooze and Ahs.

Climbers aren't saints, especially when young, and Bob was no exception. He could be self-centered and competitive. He was ecstatic to beat you at a bouldering move, and pissed if he "lost." Same thing for cards, jokes, and crosswords. As time passed, Bob became wry, accepting, and funny. We began joking about our heel/ankle breaking competition, which he won three to two.

Nor was Bob always a climbing comet. There was a period when he slacked off to dabble in golf, and dig around in ghost town dumps for glassware. Bob believed that seeing and holding three successive big falls caused his slack period: my 50-foot slider at Tahquitz, and Joe Fitschen's and Frank Sacherer's 60-foot Yosemite tumblers. All these falls were caught without belay devices, as was an enormous earlier whopper, Yvon Chouinard's 160-footer off The Crooked Thumb in the Tetons. While these falls scared him into thinking he was a jinxed belayer, his slack period eventually ended, and he returned full force to the crags.

Finding new climbing areas was a passion for Bob; he loved chatting with the locals, and trying their recommended routes. He wasn't after a volume record; he just loved climbing. His climbing trips paralleled his later-life job as buyer and seller of unclaimed storage units; in both, he went seeking, finding, and savoring volumes of unpredictable gems. Bob invented a name for his work: "Entrecrapeur," as many of the units proved to contain mostly crap.

Both Bob and Bonnie were teachers, enabling them both to enjoy their summers in the mountains. After retiring from teaching, he became "Entrecrapeur" full time, acquiring collectibles of the human parade. His competitive passion for this job earned him good money, allowing him to help out young climbers in a pinch. Under Bob's crusty exterior was a very generous soul.

Bob had a sense for the absurdity of life. He once told me climbing and playing cards were both good ways to pass the time. I'm enormously grateful to have passed the time with you, Bob Kamps. Goodbye great climber, climbing mentor, loving man, and best friend. Thankfully, the luck of Lucky Streaks was yours as you eased into the soundless dark while reaching for a handhold, dying the way you lived: with passion and purpose.

Many thanks to Bonnie Kamps, Steve Roper, Jim Fulmis, and Kevin Wright for assistance in preparing this obituary. For a database of Bob's climbs, excellent pictures and colorful, moving tributes from his friends, visit bobkamps.com.

Climbing Magazine, 2005