Tribute to Bev Johnson: Climbing Astroman Together

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I knew Bev from climbing with her some in the 70’s. We did a number of short crack climbs in Yosemite. She had an infectious energy, raw power and determination on the rock which I much admired. I also loved how she handled being a woman climber when there were few and when lots of men were threatened by the thought of a woman entering their prized mostly male sanctuary. She entered the holy place without knocking and blasted around with such confidence and verve it made all the chauvinism look utterly silly.

I have not told the following tale anywhere because it is hardly my proudest moment or hers (I can’t find any writing of hers on the climb either), but Beverley and I did Astroman in the early 80s, nearly coming undone in the process. I was determined to get it free within my old traditional standards of few falls, no hangs and starting over after falls from free stances or pitch starts. I was still in rebellion against style transitions of the day and prone to occasional mad proselytizing on the subject. Beverley respected my desire and knew about my stylistic warring but mostly just wanted to do the climb however we did it. Off we went.

All went well until the Enduro Corner. Beverley tried to lead it but half way up got tired and started hanging for rests. She was angry at herself the more she rested. I was quiet at first, and then in a rising pissy mood protested, “NO AID.” She told me to fuck off. I said we should rap off if we couldn’t do it in good style. She challenged me right back saying something like, “Let’s see you do it right.” Now I was wildly fired up to give it a go, just the mood I needed looking back on it. Down she came and up I went. She was grim faced but I ignored her. We should have talked it out but didn’t. When I was about a third of the way up the corner, she told me she wouldn’t hold me if I fell and I’d just have to start over. “Fine” I yelled back. The camaraderie we had established over several climbs together was falling apart. I found there were a few edges on the right wall allowing rests here and there and managed to get near the end of the corner without a fall before the crack opens up. Suddenly a batch of swallows burst out of the crack into my face and off I went, screaming. Before I could say anything, Beverly, true to her promise and the very rules I touted for the climb, lowered me away to start again.

At the belay ledge I looked at her and said, sheepishly, “It wasn’t my fault!” She looked at me with her soft but penetrating eyes and slowly started to smile, then laugh. Our temper tantrum melted away thanks to her good heart. She, unlike me, was looking beyond the climbing to its meaning for two people who loved the walls. We sat and laughed for several moments. Then, looking over to Half Dome starting to turn golden she slapped my leg and said, “You’re a fucker!” I said back, “I know.” I remember that interchange like it happened yesterday. I guess it was what I needed, because I got the corner next try and Beverly followed it with only one fall and rest, and was fine with it.

Higher, the other remaining challenge for us was the Harding Slot. Beverly wanted a go at leading saying something like, “I want this sucker.” Looking up at it, I was happy to let her give it a go. I had never been on the route and was horrified by the slanting bomb bay look of it. She fired off the lower layback but had trouble getting into the slot.  I told her to come down and try it again, though getting down from such an overhanging thing was not easy. She came back some rope shenanigans, looked out at the waning light and told me to give it a go. Now we were comrades again, trying to get up the wall and get off with whatever combination of climbing worked. Perhaps it was because I was pretty skinny in those years but I found I could get into the slot as it widened without too much effort. The only problem was the minimal protection. In current parlance, I think one needs about a #6 to adequately protect the slot and we had nothing close.

A strange thing happened as Beverley followed: she turned the tables. She tried the chimney part twice without luck, but insisted on down climbing each time to start over. Down climbing the Harding Slot from almost anywhere beyond the beginning probably is harder than climbing up it. I couldn’t tell if she didn’t want to weight the rope or take a big swing. It was getting late. Now I was the one concerned about getting up before dark versus style issues. “Beverley, we’ve got to get going.” Or words to that affect. “Shut up Higgins. We’re doing it your way.” And those words are exactly hers.  Even in my frustrated state I thought, What a woman. Third try she got it.

Above, there are a couple of strenuous laybacking pitches. I remember Beverley zoomed up one of them in waning light (I think it’s called Changing Corners). I got the last pitch in near dark, for me the toughest on the climb. While it’s face climbing, right up my alley, it was hard to see and protect and the rock seemed crumbly. Unlike me, Beverley didn’t whimper about the oncoming dark and try to hurry me. She followed with no problem or comment.

We had lights and got down the descent gully gingerly, feeling wasted and not talking much. The minimal dialog I remember with her, and the last we spoke to one another due to her untimely death, went something like:

“Not the best climb,” I said.
Unfazed, “It was OK.”
More skittering down the gully.
“Sorry I got pissed,” I said.
“OK, fucker.”

Farewell again, Beverly, good and brave soul you were.

 

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 Supertopo Post May 20, 2013