In the climbing world John Gill needs no introduction. He is called the Father of Modern Bouldering and he set the stage for hard climbing today. John Gill’s past ascents are still sought after and it is common for problems in a local boulderfield that he visited to be called “Gill Problems”. He is known for both his gymnastic approach to climbing as well as the mind bending feats that he performed on and off the rock. It is a tremendous honor for John to take the time to sit down with SEALgrinderPT and talk about his days as a pioneer boulderer and world class gymnast and how his training evolved.
SGPT: Tell us about your early days of climbing in the Southeast and how you began to find bouldering as an outlet.
JG: My first climbing experience was at Fort Mountain, in north Georgia in 1953. I was a high school Junior and a friend needed a companion to do some research concerning Indian lore. We dangled about on limestone cliffs, fighting the mountain Laurel, and I did my first rappel. I was hooked with this strange new activity. A year later, a student at Georgia Tech, I would climb around on Stone Mountain, and found some short pitches in a quarry around back that were, for me, a prelude to bouldering. I also buildered at Tech in the late evenings. I enrolled in a class in gymnastics, and immediately saw a connection with climbing – I actually climbed the 20 foot gym rope climb for speed for about ten years. The use if chalk and dynamics in climbing seemed obvious. I developed a unique perspective of climbing as being an extension of formal gymnastics, rather than hiking. Had I been around other climbers I might not have formed these ideas.
SGPT: How did you develop your training that allowed you to do one arm front levers, one finger pull-ups, one-arm pull-up on a half ledge? What did your training consist of to achieve these remarkable feats?
JG: Much of what I achieved in bodyweight stunts grew out of my rope climbing and still gym rings work. The one-arm pull-up is obvious, but the lever position also came naturally as part of the rope climbing technique, so I never had much trouble learning the front lever or even the one-arm version. Incidentally, I did a one-arm front lever on the middle finger of my right hand, but don’t have a photo of that. It wasn’t really that much more than the one hand version. I wasn’t the first to do this. The finger feats came with a little practice. Nothing very scientific – I just tried them until I got them. When I was at the University of Chicago in 1958, a fellow climber told me Hermann Buhl – the great German climber – had been able to do a one-finger pull-up, so I worked on the stunt for a week or so on the high bar in the gym, taking my time and not straining, and got the move. I was in the gym a lot because I helped Coach Bob Kreider with the mens’ gym team. While there, I managed to do a rings move, an Elevator – a slow pull from an inverted hang to a handstand – that would later be given a D rating, when that rating didn’t exist. At the time there were only A, B, and C moves. I also speculated that one could do a front lever on the rings with the body at the level of the rings. I could pull into it for a half-second, but couldn’t hold it. Years later it was done by a Russian and named a Victorian Cross. You can find it on YouTube.
SGPT: How often did you train for climbing/bouldering?
JG: Much of the time in the South I exercised in the gym two or three times a week and climbed one day on the weekend. In Fort Collins, from 1967 till 1971, I bouldered or climbed perhaps three times a week, and did a few bodyweight moves when I couldn’t get out on the rocks. I never liked to climb or exercise hard on consecutive days; my body simply couldn’t take it.
SGPT: Did you have a special diet or pay attention to nutrition?
JG: Lots of protein, not much fat, and vitamin pills. Fruit, but not too many vegetables. Tuna sandwiches for lunch for forty years!
SGPT: You are known for some amazing free soloing of highball boulders? How did you develop your mental strength to overcome fear to top out these problems?
JG: In fact, what is called highballing was not a part of the game. Although I soloed some, I always drew the distinction that bouldering was all about pure movement without risk. The soloing I did was an effort to explore without equipment: free-solo-exploration. I reached my limits in 1961 on the Thimble, but continued soloing longer climbs until a few years ago when my shoulder arthritis became too painful. Back in the 1950s it was exciting to do this sort of thing, a new kind of climbing activity for me. I soloed quite a bit in the Tetons, usually on unnamed projects – it was illegal to solo in those days!
SGPT: Do you meditate or practice affirmations before or during these hard climbs?
JG: No, not on the longer hard climbs. In bouldering I meditated both before and after sessions, at times, and also practiced repeat problems as a form of moving meditation, as I did long easy rock climbs. At one point about 30 years ago, I experienced the sensation of weaving in and out of the rock while on a favorite 700 foot granite tower climb. I discovered that the instructions Carlos Castaneda gave for the Art of Dreaming worked well for me.
SGPT: What climbs stand out in your mind as ones that you remember the most?
JG: None you would be aware of, I’m afraid. The most rewarding period in my climbing career was after the age of fifty, after I had given up bouldering and gone back to long, modest solos. One route near Pueblo was a 700 foot ridge and tower I called Captain Winter’s Route, after a Disney movie of the 1950s. I put in over 20 miles soloing that climb, doing variations frequently. There is a nearby tower I also did many times. The area in which these formations are located is beautiful and isolated and I very, very rarely encountered anyone out there climbing. It was my private preserve – lovely smooth granite domes and towers in rugged, wild terrain. Spectacular experiences there.
SGPT: Was the Groove your hardest problem? What type of effort was required to complete that climb? Any special training?
JG: I don’t know what would be considered my hardest problem. I suspect that would depend on the person asking the question. It may have been hard for me, but easy for them. Or vice-versa. From the 1950s through the early 1970s I rarely ever spent more than a couple of hours working on a single problem. Then Jim Holloway and a few others arrived on the scene and began devoting what seemed to me to be enormous amounts of time and energy to individual problems – or moves, even. Days, weeks, even months. This was a turning point in American bouldering. I decided to try this approach on something very challenging and see what I could do, at the age of 40. I found the Groove near Pueblo on private ranch land and worked on it for an hour or so at a time over several visits, until I finally did the crux move. I did not like this kind of approach and considered it an unnecessary obsession. The problem has been repeated using holds out to the side, and that makes it much easier, but I stayed right in the groove itself – essentially an eliminate problem – locked into an overhanging gaston, springing from that to a small hold on a lip above. Holloway repeated it, but I never heard of anyone else. But it is very obscure and access is an issue, and at most it is perhaps V10 or V11. I don’t think I would have been capable of anything more difficult. Much of the time I spent on the small rocks was focused on the kinaesthetic experience, rather than pure difficulty. Times have changed, however, as they have for artistic gymnastics; pure difficulty is an almost exclusive goal.
SGPT: Your known for being more than a climber, but an incredible strong athlete/gymnast. Can you tell us more about how those two converge into one athlete?
JG: Brad, in the 1950s there was a certain image men aspired to. I was a skinny beanpole with no athletic experience, and I saw climbing and gymnastics as a way to become more manly and confident. These days androgyny would dictate staying thin and light to climb the hardest test pieces. But that would not have been appropriate in 1954! So, within a couple of years I had put on 40 pounds of muscle and been assured no one would kick sand in my face! Hey, it felt good . . .
SGPT: Talk about the outdoor connection with bouldering. Why not just train in a gym and build up strength and leave it at that? What drew you to the outdoors and bouldering and what was your connection to newly found stone?
JG: There were no climbing gyms back then. Even so, I would have avoided them. For me, the outdoors and a certain amount of wilderness was necessary. I did spend time at gymnastics, of course, but being in the wild was a strong motivator for my climbing. I have memories from half a century ago, high up on the smooth granite walls of Cascade Canyon in the Tetons, utterly alone with the wind gently rustling my shirt, searching for a possible route, putting together hand and footholds with the sheer rock dropping nearly a thousand feet to Cascade Creek. The colors, the vast exposure, all part of the package.
SGPT: A famous photo of you depicts you training on a wooden pull-up device next to a small trailer. Could you tell us the idea behind that device, how you built it and the types of training you did on it?
JG: That was a wooden exercise frame I built for practicing suspended bodyweight moves, while a graduate student at Colorado State. What you see in the photos on my website was what I did. I would watch Jack Lalanne on TV, then go out and do my thing. He was a great motivator!
SGPT: You’re known for your kinesthetic style of climbing which requires a ton of core strength. What are some methods that you developed to build your core to that level of strength?
JG: Simple: 20 foot rope climb for speed starting in a sitting position, and the still rings. That’ll do it.
SGPT: One of the more famous climbs that you completed was “The Thimble”. Can you tell us more about that climb and what level of mental strength it took to complete?
JG: I was a Lt in the USAF, stationed in Glasgow, Montana at the time. I would drive down to the Needles in the Black Hills of South Dakota when I got a chance. I did a lot of solo climbing there. I had soloed a route on the Thimble just to the left of my projected climb, and thought I might be able to do my projected line by going up and down, getting higher as time progressed, essentially wiring the bottom half so to be strong on the critical upper section. It took several visits until I put it together. As I said before, this was a period in which I was fascinated with the idea of finding my limits as a soloist, particularly doing a new ascent from the ground up, without rehearsal and without protection. It took some effort, mental and physical. I found my limits here and never did anything quite so dramatic again. I was never an adrenaline junkie. I sought control and discipline, not thrills. And I considered the Thimble a climb, not a bouldering problem.
SGPT: How have you dealt with injuries and prevention of injuries over the years?
JG: I had not had any serious injury until I tore the right biceps off the forearm in a bouldering accident in 1987. Before that, the most annoying debilitation was a bad case of “climber’s elbow” – I may have been the first to suffer that, about 1969. The climber’s elbow simply required rest and deep massaging, but the biceps injury sidelined me for about a year. I was 50 at the time and had been bouldering for over 30 years, and I quit doing anything serious after that. It actually felt good to leave the bouldering behind! The surgeon who reattached the biceps to the bone told me I would not be doing any one-arm pull-ups anymore, but a year later I was back to doing them. I did my own PT. He also said there was substantial scar tissue where he operated – probably due to all the dynamic moves I had made. After all, I was 180 pounds and 6’2″ – way too big for all the gymnastics I loved. I finally stopped doing one-armers when I was in my early 70s and began suffering from severe shoulder arthritis. Don’t miss them! I still do some climbing and bodyweight exercises that don’t require a lot of high reaches, which are too painful. Pat Ament’s new film, Disciples of Gill II, shows me in some home videos cranking painfully away! But you can’t give up . . . Never, ever . .
SGPT: You’re still active outdoors in hiking and climbing. How do you keep yourself in such good shape both physically and mentally over the years?
JG: Never stop doing!! As you age it is an ongoing struggle to maintain fitness. I’ve had some heart rhythm problems, but medication helps. I wish I were in that good a condition, but you do what you can do.
SGPT: What are a few bits of advice you would give up and coming athletes about training for climbing and gymnastics?
JG: I can’t speak for gymnastics, but for climbing there are all sorts of climbing gym exercises one can do that are far better than trying to combine artistic gymnastics with climbing. It worked for me because that was a different time, a different world, and the strength I developed in the gym carried over to the rocks; but the amount of muscle weight I put on sometimes worked against my climbing. Be thin and agile is the key today.
SGPT: Thanks for the interview John, it is a real honor and we appreciate your time.
JG: Thanks, Brad. A pleasure to contribute to your excellent website!
*Article originally posted on June 3, 2011.
SEALgrinderPT is a donor to the Access Fund