Tim Kemple: A Towering ObsessionMonday, July 17, 2017
I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was, however, born beneath a photo of Half Dome that was taken by my father from the top of Royal Arches. The image was one of the visual affirmations my mother had set up in her hospital room. So you could say that I came into this world with both climbing and photography running through my veins.
Growing up, we were consciously middle class. My parents’ thinking is still to this day rooted in the idea that a life rich in experience is worth more than all of the money in the world. My father in particular didn’t want to be like his father; working two jobs and saving all of his money to one day buy a Cadillac. Which, he finally did—only to die in an accident a month later.
“He worked so hard for money, but he never got to spend time with friends, family, or even enjoy it for a second,” my dad used to reflect.
So because our household valued experiences, especially if they involved climbing or skiing, I was constantly surrounded by a stacked collection of guidebooks, biographies, and films portraying the world’s most extreme mountain ranges and the badasses who climbed them.
Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Roper and Steck, The Hard Years by Joe Brown and the “Masters of Stone” series on VHS were my versions of the modern day Instagram. I would race home from school to pick up the new Climbing magazine or thumb through the latest Black Diamond catalog. Although my father’s name wasn’t listed alongside Chouinard, Tompkins or Bridwell’s, his passion for seeking out new climbs in far-flung mountain ranges provided a steady flow of inspiration.
Living in the Northeast, we had endless amounts of climbing to explore. On a good weather day in the fall, some of the best bouldering in the country is in New England. The sport lines at Rumney are world class, and the trad and ice climbing in North Conway rival anything in the Wasatch.
We had it all, except for the one thing: Towers. These mythical formations were the coolest climbs in any of my dad’s guidebooks. I could only imagine standing on top of a freestanding hunk of stone with 360-degree views for miles. So like most kids, the one thing we didn’t have was the one I wanted the most.
Since those early days, I’ve made it my mission to seek out towers around the world. What follows are the free-standing monoliths that I frequently run to—as there’s no way to fully ever scratch that itch.
Cathedral Peak and Mathis Crest
It takes three AAA Plus Cards to have your vehicle towed from Tonopah, Nevada, into the Camp 4 parking lot, and the same three cards a few days later to get from Camp 4 to the Bay Area. My buddies Peter Vintoniv, Tony Veltri and I learned this the summer of my 19th birthday. I drove an old Volvo Station Wagon that had already made a few cross-country adventures, and this trip to Yosemite was its last. Pete and I spent the summer trying to be modern day “Stone Masters,” while Tony was trying to be the next Jim Thornburg with his fancy digital camera.
Despite a successful “free” ascent (with several hangs) of Half Dome, and having Dean Potter pass us while we soloed Royal Arches, the memory that sticks out the most was running up to Tuolumne with some REAL dirtbags, and tagging the summits of Cathedral Peak and Mathis Crest in the same day. Just one of those days up there—with mesmerizing views in all directions—was honestly enough to get me through another semester of school.
Every year my father and I make a pilgrimage to try a classic climb together. We’ve been to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, The Hulk, The Valley, Eldo, The Black Canyon and more. But for some reason, we’ve pulled the card of the Utah desert more times than I can count. No desert run was more memorable than a couple years back when we climbed Lightning Bolt Cracks on the iconic North Six Shooter, my dad leading all of the hard climbing. Sticking out like a middle finger on the skyline, the North Six Shooter truly is the classic desert tower.
The Alaska Range
Do you ever wish you had a super power? What would yours be?
I wish I could happily sit at basecamp for weeks on end in shitty weather, be stoked and spry when the sunny weather comes, and then send the gnar. How cool would that be?
Alaska is the last great wilderness of the U.S. You don’t have to be a climber to appreciate the scale and remoteness of these mountains. And honestly, even if you only get to appreciate them from the window of an Alaskan bush plane, it will be one of the best days in the mountains you ever have. With spikey summits as far as the eye can see, it would take a lifetime to climb them all. But wouldn’t it be fun to try?
The first time I walked below the mighty spires of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, our packs were over 100 pounds and the march took all day. We sat in the rain for a week and climbed one route before getting chased back to town. These days though, the weather forecasting is dialed, and the approaches are well traveled. So much so, I was able to twist my dad’s arm for a 3-week adventure to the Dr. Seuss-like mountains of Patagonia.
For two and a half weeks we paced the floors in our small apartment waiting for the skies to clear before we finally got our window. I can’t put into words how cool it was to stand on top of one of those spikey peaks. From the summit we marched through the night, and right onto the bus home the next day.
It was about noon in out hotel lobby when I suggested that with the clearing weather, we should give a moderate route on Tre Cime a try. I remember Hazel Findlay’s words in her British accent vividly.
“Tiiiimmmm. You don’t just start a climb in the mountains at noon.”
And she was right. The lightning in the forecast didn’t bode well for the tall freestanding limestone pillar I wanted to climb.
In my two weeks at Tre Cime, I’m not sure that I saw the sun for more than 15 minutes … but the combination of exposure, weather, and shear steepness of the climbs left a lasting impression.
I’ll definitely be back.