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The Man Who Climbs In Jeans: Free Soloing Mt. Whitney At 65

Bob Kaspar 1969 BOB SOLO MT AGGASSIZ

Bob Kaspar, 1969, solo Mt. Aggassiz, California

OAKHURST — Bob Kaspar has always been ahead of the curve. He built his first telescope at the cusp of his teenage years. When he was 14, the Massachusetts native rode a bicycle alone from southern California to Yosemite.

At 15, he spent six weeks solo off-trail hiking and climbing through the High Sierra. Turning 16, Kaspar rebuilt his first car, a Corvair van he drove 30,000 miles around the country. A few years later, he built an offshore power boat and navigated it successfully in deep water. That was all before he turned 20. So, it’s no surprise that at the age some consider retirement, Kaspar is doing the kind of climbing that most younger athletes wouldn’t dare.

Bob Kaspar 1992 BOB VALLORCINE FRANCE

Vallorcine, France 1992 (photo credit Ingrid Nystrom)

Experienced climber, world traveler, and longtime Oakhurst resident Bob Kaspar recently carved another notch into an already impressive belt of achievements: just shy of his 65th birthday, he free soloed the East Face Route of Mt. Whitney in a record amount of time. The one-time guide with the Yosemite Mountaineering School and instructor with Yosemite Institute completed the Grade III, Class 5.7 rated climb in less than half the time expected, according to local standards of the Yosemite Decimal System.

Click on images to enlarge.

The grade refers to the amount of time expected to complete the route — in this case, the climb is rated for half a day. Class refers to degree of difficulty, where Class 5 is considered technical roped free (without hanging on the rope, pulling on, or stepping on anchors) climbing; belaying, and other protection hardware is used for safety. Anything above 5.0 defines progressively more difficulty in the climb.

“I’ve been a climber since about 1962 and have mostly climbed roped including some very difficult climbs around the world,” says former teacher Kaspar, who once owned a large construction firm, having designed and built the original Panda Express in southern California in 1983.

“I’ve taught technical rope systems to various governmental and private search and rescue organizations. On several occasions I’ve rescued the rescuers, when search and rescue personal had gotten into trouble on climbs.”

E FACE WHITNEY WITH AREA OF CLIMB PHOTOS SHOWN better rectangle Kevin Radle

East Face of Mt. Whitney shows area of climb. Red rectangle indicates area of photo below, showing Kaspar on the “Fresh Air Traverse.”

Kaspar finished Mt. Whitney in one hour and 45 minutes, free solo climbing a route recommended by experts as one of the fifty classic climbs in North America.

“I climbed the East Face Route,” explains Kaspar. “It should not be confused with the hiker’s trail to the summit or the Mountaineer’s Route near the East Face.”

Kaspar is apparently the most seasoned climber to complete this route. In fact, most who do are in their twenties. The route starts at the Whitney Portal trail head where he proceeds up the main trail for about a mile, Kaspar says. Then, he cuts off and continues up the unmarked trail that follows the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek for about four miles, and 4,000 foot elevation gain.

On this particular trip, Kaspar arrived at Iceberg Lake at the base of the 2,000 foot East Face where he camped overnight.

Bob Kaspar BOB START OF ROUTE

Starting the route up Whitney (photo credit Bob Comlossy)

“The next day I began the climb at approximately 9 a.m. which is a generally late start but since I was carrying no warm clothes it was necessary to wait for the sun to warm things up. My gear was my rock climbing shoes and a chalk bag.  Climbers use gymnastic chalk on their hands for better grip. I also tape my hands for protection when jamming them into cracks for holds.”

Kaspar is a self-taught national-level finger style guitar champion, so those hands are busy when he’s not climbing. He was also an integral part of the excellent Coolwater House Concerts produced by Robin Ralston, bringing internationally famous guitarists to the mountain community.

Back on the route to Mt. Whitney, you won’t find ropes and other gear used by most climbers as backup in case of a fall on Kaspar’s equipment list. He’s into free solo climbing, advancing confidently within his limits and without attachment. Kaspar estimates that less than one in a thousand climbers are willing to climb without ropes.
“About 30 years ago I started climbing free solo but on routes well below my capability level,” recounts Kaspar. “I’ve free soloed the Matterhorn and the Eiger in Switzerland, Cima Grande in Italy, Mt. Blanc in France and the Troll Wall in Norway, among others.”

He has soloed walls in Yosemite including El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, Washington Column and Half Dome, and he’s done a considerable amount of climbing in the Wyoming Tetons, as well.

Bob Kaspar 1993 BOB UNROPED SOLO MATTERHORN

Unroped solo of Matterhorn (1993)

“Free soloing, with it’s obvious danger, nonetheless allows you to move smoothly and with speed. You have to be careful. I’m by nature pretty aggressive about most things and so for me it’s a challenge to control that aggression when climbing solo.”

Kaspar says that free-soloing sometimes gets a bad rap for no good reason.

“It’s a common misconception that there is a ‘bungee-jumping adrenaline stunt junkie’ aspect to this. This is actually just the opposite of true. Where skill, calmness and control are required, as when climbing solo, the absolute last thing you want is adrenaline. I’ve never been attracted to no-skill stunts or thrill type activities. Technically, do you even have to be alive to bungee jump?”

While his desire to reach new heights continues to increase with age, Kaspar says it’s a challenge to swallow the reality that some of his strength has diminished compared with years ago.

Bob Kaspar 1977 BOB EL CAPITAN STORM

El Capitan during a storm, 1977 (photo credit Bill Lester)

“When I was younger, I could do several one arm pull ups and I’m not nearly that strong anymore. But the thing is, I often still think about myself that way and that attitude can propel you into things both very good and very bad. So whereas, when I was younger, I could basically just throw myself at difficulties and rely on sheer physicality to prevail, I now have to be much more systematic and calculated. Essentially,  I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not 50 anymore.”

On his 50th birthday, Kaspar hiked 50 miles in 24 hours at high elevation in Sierras. Now, more than a decade later, it’s clear that Kaspar’s expectations for himself are higher than most, except he’s no fashionisto. That was evident when he arrived at the summit of Whitney last week, only to find 60 or 70 people who had arrived via the hikers’ trail. Initially it wasn’t his quick completion of the climb or his impressive fitness that struck the hikers, it was his wardrobe.

“They seemed very curious about me climbing in jeans and casual shirt. When asked why I was climbing in jeans I said, ‘because my tuxedo is at the cleaners.’ People are entirely too attached to product-driven image as a substitute for actual performance, and further confuse fashion with style.”

Bob Kaspar KASPAR SOLOS FRESH AIR TRAVERSE enlarged cropped Kevin Radle

Kaspar solos the “Fresh Air Traverse.” Area of photo indicated by red rectangle in photo of East Face above (photo credit Kevin Radle).

Kaspar explains that he wears a helmet only where rock fall is a problem, such as in the Alps or winter climbing, and he doesn’t do much of that these days. For weight savings he carries very little when approaching climbs or just backpacking, including no stove or tent.

“For a few days you can get by on cold food. In my view people associate the back country with being in camp, so they carry huge amounts from camp to camp. For me the attraction is in the travelling itself and the camp is just for sleeping when you can’t travel anymore. So I basically treat everything as a climbing bivouac.”

Bob Kaspar 2016 Whitney solo start of Towers traverse

Start of Tower Traverse (photo credit Bob Comlossy)

In his recent trip up Mt. Whitney, Kaspar carried the bare minimum, and ultimately returned back down Lone Pine Creek that night by headlamp.

“The descent was down a hiker’s route called the Mountaineer’s Route and was an uneventful but tiring plod in uncomfortable rock climbing shoes until I could retrieve my tennis shoes from where I had stashed them earlier. On the way down I met a couple other climbers on the trail, their headlamps panned down and one said, “You’re the guy soloing in jeans! Everybody back at the trail head is talking about that.'”

Also climbing the route that day were two heavily equipped roped parties,” notes Kaspar. “The two other parties were professional climbers Kevin Radle and Joao Paulo-Pereira from Santa Rosa, and Bob Comlossy and Garth Pintle from Tahoe. Radle and Paulo-Pereira manage and instruct at Vertex Climbing Gym in Santa Rosa. I completed the climb in about one hour and 45 minutes, and the two other parties in the very respectable time of about four to six hours.”

Even on longer trips, Kaspar concentrates on taking only what he considers essential. Cutting down on the weight allows him to increase his daily distance traveled.

“Most people carry backpacks that weigh 35 to 65 pounds and travel six to ten miles per day. My pack for a week, including food, weighs about 15 pounds and I’ve hiked the entire length of the Muir Trail, 225 miles, in seven days several times. That’s about 32 miles per day.”

Bob Kaspar 2016 BOB WHITNEY SOLO SUMMIT

At the summit of Mt. Whitney, Aug. 24, 2016

Following his summit of Mt. Whitney, Kaspar has other plans in the works, and he has work. Kaspar has been kept busy with references from government agencies as a public water system designer in the Tahoe area, and he recently completed a 12,000-foot remotely-operated system at 7,400 feet on Echo Summit.

When it comes to recreation, he may do another multi-day solo climb on El Capitan, possibly taking the route he was on in 1977. Then, he was stranded halfway up El Cap in a snowstorm for four days, without storm gear, and with no tent. Kaspar wants to try that one again, and that’s not all.

“I’d like to do another seven day backpack of the entire Muir Trail or maybe the Continental Divide Trail. Parts of the Pacific Crest Trail are attractive and may be worth doing  but others are, in truth, boring.”

Bob Kaspar 2005 ROBIN RALSTON MARTHA YOSEMITE

Bob took this photo of friend Robin Ralston and his partner Martha Robrahn in Yosemite, 2005

More immediately, though, Kaspar says he’s getting back into cycling — something he drifted away from around the same time he rebuilt that Corvair van.

“I used to cycle everywhere but predictably that stopped the day I got my driver’s license. Recently I got a new road bike and have been doing progressively longer rides.”

As anticipated for such an accomplished individual, Kaspar has a plan and, somewhat surprisingly, it involves clams.

“I was born in Massachusetts and have always missed the whole fried clams you get there. They’re much different from the clam strips you get out here. So this spring I’m planning to cycle to Massachusetts, eat a big lunch of fried clams and then cycle back.”

It’s about 7,000 miles both ways, Kaspar says, and he plans to move at a rate roughly midway between touring — 40 to 60 miles per day — and racing, which is about 200 miles per day.

“Averaging about 120 miles per day, it should take me about a month each way. That may turn out to be a little optimistic but, like climbing and backpacking, I’ll carry very little equipment and essentially sleep behinds haystacks, under bridges, in county lock-ups, wherever.”

Bob Kaspar cropped

Photo of Bob Kaspar by unknown hiker on summit of Mt. Whitney

It’s not that Kaspar doesn’t want possessions — he has many, including the very same telescope he built as a young teen. He’s got simple tastes. His descent of Mt. Whitney in the dark allowed him to return to the trail head by 6 a.m. the day after he started, and that got Kaspar to MacDonald’s in Lone Pine by 7 a.m.

Bob turns 65 on October 7, 2016

Contact Bob Kaspar for more information.

Kellie Flanagan is the Managing Editor of Sierra News Online

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