Interview with Climber and Poet – Pat Ament

SEALgrinderPT is very pleased to post up this interview with legendary climber Pat Ament.  A rennaissance man in every sense of the word, Pat is not only a great boulderer and climber but also a poet, musician and filmmaker.  Sit back and enjoy this great interview from one of the true masters of the beautiful sport of climbing – Pat Ament.

SGPT: Tell us about yourself. Who is Pat Ament?

PA: I am a madly creative individual. I suppose I just have always loved life and been interested in whatever was put before me, from music to rock climbing, from chess to line drawing, from photography to gymnastics, from filmmaking to karate… I have never been wildly talented in any area, but my gift is passion. I have worked hard in every endeavor. I focus my entire soul on any activity that becomes one of my loves. To describe me, I think I am a shy person and a kind person. I believe in courtesy though do not always succeed at it. I like making someone feel good who might be in some struggle. I naturally tend to befriend the straggler, the hard traveling person who happens along my path. Many people have spent time with me through the years and later told me how much that meant to them. Never have I been able to do things the way the world does. I can’t follow directions. I have to figure things out myself… I feel I have been hugely blessed with the most amazing opportunities and people in my life. Yet I was not blessed with the ability or knowledge to know what exactly to do with those blessings and how best to honor them. This is probably because of a deep rooted self-esteem problem whereas I sabotage friendships, for example, because I don’t believe I am worthy of such friendships. I am a complicated character. My good side fights in the light to defeat my darker side which is cunning and sneaks up at me at times to try to defeat me.

SGPT: How did you learn to climb and boulder? Who were your early influences?

PA: Imagine being an aspiring artist and growing up in the Renaissance, and doing an apprenticeship with Da Vinci, or
Rembrandt (Dutch Renaissance)… The gods put me in the company of the best climbers in America, if not the world and placed me in the best climbing area on the planet. Right away I was climbing with Layton Kor, Bob Culp, and Dave Rearick. Then Royal Robbins took me under his wing, and took me to Yosemite, and as I became a gymnast and started to take bouldering seriously I became acquainted with John Gill, simply the best. In Yosemite I developed a great friendship with Chuck Pratt and with Tom Higgins and Bob Kamps. In my bouldering heyday in Yosemite, my right hand man was Barry Bates, the best boulderer in Yosemite in the late 1960s. I’ve had lots of amazing friends in climbing, as though it truly was a kind of destiny that I be part of such a world.

SGPT: You are known for being both an excellent gymnast and boulderer. How do you see those two disciplines converging?

PA: They very logically go together, as they involve short, difficult moves that take a lot of hard work and practice. They involve coordination and mastery of the body but also the mind. Or at least they involve the mind and how it interacts with the body. They both can be meditative. Of course John Gill and I brought chalk from gymnastics to climbing. Both bouldering and gymnastics require a certain control and strength, a lot of balance, the outcome being grace and beauty… and so forth.

SGPT: What was climbing and bouldering like back in the 1960’s? It sounds like an exciting time.

PA: There really were so few climbers, almost everything we did was a first ascent. The standards were not there, already clearly set for us to match and test ourselves against. There was a different consciousness. We more or less were young and creating our own standards. So the possibilities were phenomenal. In a certain sense we were at some golden window of opportunity, where all was possible. In my case on Flagstaff Mountain, above Boulder, there were no climbers who had much of a desire to push as hard as I did, although they started to appear soon. But for a short time at least, a couple of years maybe, I had to define my world, so to speak. Gill started earlier and, as far back as the late 1950s, was doing boulder routes that were beyond what anyone else could envision. It was a real spiritual and mental frontier, what I like to think of as an ephemeral world of creativity, joy, and challenge.

SGPT: There are many stories about your feats as a gymnast. Can you tell us of some of the movements you were able to perform at that time?

PA: I wasn’t a great gymnast. I was good in certain specialized ways. But for Dave Rearick, who knew a few handstand presses, I taught myself entirely, as there were no gymnastic programs at my junior high school or high school. At a parent night, the gym coach when I was in 7th grade introduced me to everyone as a member of their gymnastics program. He failed to tell them I was the only member. I walked all the way around the far edge of the basketball floor, in a handstand. People were impressed. Later in ninth grade, that gym coach did a similar thing. Finally I was a walk-on with the University of Colorado gymnastics team. All the other members of the team had been through many programs and summer camps, had lots of skilled coaching, and were very good. I had a lot of good balance and strength, could do an almost perfect handstand and a good one-arm handstand. I taught myself a slow, pure hollowback with a straight body off the floor into a handstand. At least once I did a plange on the floor, with straight body and straight arms. But I never got great at a full routine. At one meet, though, I did a good routine on the parallel bars and held a one-arm handstand for some five full seconds. I did a nice slow, straight-body press into a handstand in the routine. The whole team ran out yelling and applauding when I finished my dismount. It was a wonderful moment. They were supportive of me, because I really was more like the water boy or a mascot than a true college level gymnast. I wasn’t good enough to be there… in principle. But then I did a few things that were difficult for the other team members. For example, I taught myself a one-arm mantel on a two-inch wide wood ledge on a wall. You start in a one-arm hang, with your fingers  on the wood ledge above your head. You pull up and hop the heel of your hand onto the ledge, all the while not using your left hand. Then you press up above the ledge until your elbow locks out. You bring your left foot to the ledge and stand up. I managed to do something similar on a few rocks, such as the Right Hand Mantel on Flagstaff, which John Sherman says has frustrated climbers for decades who thought they had progressed beyond 1960s standards! Another of my talents was a slow, pure muscle-up on a bar. This is where you start in a hang and slowly pull upward to where your chin is above the bar. Then you go above the bar with both arms and elbows going up at the same time, with no kip or jerk, just pure pull, and finish above the bar. I sometimes took one of the other good gymnasts climbing, and they weren’t great at it, to my surprise — even with all their strength.

SGPT: Ditto for bouldering. There is a famous story of your climbing the Right Side of the Red Wall in your penny loafers? Is that true? Story?

PA: I probably did the Red Wall in penny loafers, or more probably in my Tretorn tennis shoes, but there were other climbs I know for sure I did that route in the penny loafers, such as First Overhang (there is a well known photo of me on that route). Sometimes the ground up there was muddy, or it had snowed, and there was no point in wearing climbing shoes. So I’d use my loafers. If I was in good enough shape it wasn’t too bad.

SGPT: Your boulder problem Right Hand Mantle is also notorious. How did you dream up and perform that one?

PA:  I’ve explained that above, but let’s get the spelling right on mantel, as opposed to mantle. Haha. I like to kid people about that. Royal sent me his last book to edit and proof, and I corrected all of his spellings of mantle, but in the final published book they somehow all came back!

SGPT: Can you tell us about the Direct South Face of the Amphitheatre (aka Little Thimble)?

PA: I saw that line immediately and, because it was so clean and beautiful, I realized the only way to climb it was to do it John Gill style, from the ground up, without wiring on a top rope and without rappelling to look at the holds and so forth. I simply wanted to be the measure of the climb and go up and do it. The route involves some very small nubbins on a dead-vertical, if not slightly overhanging, wall, with a bad landing. A protruding slab of rock might well remove one’s knee caps in the event of a fall. So I had to do the route with an added amount of control. It is a very special experience to get into good enough shape, which happens now and then, to be able to master such a stretch of rock, to know I could do it and succeed calmly. I have often gone back to routes and found they were totally beyond me, because I had let myself get a little out of shape.

SGPT: Did you meditate or visualize before hard climbs such as that?

PA: I did a little visualization at times. There were routes I couldn’t do at all, not even get off the ground, and after a day away from the rock, thinking about the route, dreaming about it, I would return and mysteriously go right up it. That was always a wonderful revelation, to find out how the mind works and that a person has secret powers he or she might tap. I was able at times to exercise those secret workings of the inner mind, so to speak. I never did meditate in any formal mantra sort of way, but sometimes just to be alive is a meditation, or a short walk up through a grassy stony slope toward the boulders has a meditative aspect. The real idea is to empty the mind and control one’s breathing, in order to fill the mind later with what you want there, what you intend to focus on. It’s akin to karate.

SGPT: What types of training (gymnastics and climbing) did you do during those days?

PA: As I’ve said, I was a gymnast — which meant working out every day. But I often bouldered every afternoon or evening, in addition, and I climbed a lot. I had many kinds of exercises. I used to use a hand squeezer and would try to break my own record for how many times I could squeeze the thing and how fast I could do it a hundred times with each hand, or how long I could hold a penny between the bottoms of the handles. I had a somewhat regular workout where I would do 150 fingertip pullups in five minutes, then 150 deep dips on the parallel bars in the next five minutes, and then I would hang by my finger tips from the rings at one minute intervals (with a minute rest between one minute hangs) for a total of ten minutes. Then I would do some mantels around the gym and some presses into handstands…. and climb the pegboard with my fingers in the holes instead of the pegs. The whole exercise would take about an hour. Then I would get a pizza, sit on the floor, guzzle a bottle of Liebraumilch wine, and lean over out cold. Many mornings I would get up and start the day with ten deep handstand pushups, the kind where you go down and kiss the floor, really deep and more difficult than the usual kind where you just go down far enough to touch the top of your forehead.

SGPT: Did you ever encounter injuries? If so, how did you deal with them or prevent in the future?

PA: I have not had many injuries. One of the worst was more recently when I pulled off a hold and landed on the ground. I sustained a deep compression bruise of my right femur, some fierce pain for a solid month. My worst injury, strangely, was to tear the big tendon of my left middle finger in about 1975 or so. For a long time I could put no weight on that finger without pain. Then finally after really excruciating cortisone shots into that tendon and after a couple years the pain went away but I had no strength in that finger. Routes such as the Right Side of the Red Wall became far more difficult for me. I returned for a time to longer climbs, because even upper fifth class didn’t require that kind of finger intensity, and I led any number of 5.12 routes, but really my heart was in bouldering. But my heart was kind of broken, because my bad finger just more or less ended my ability to push as I once did. In the last ten or more years I developed adhesive capsulitis in both shoulders, and that’s bad stuff. I talk about that in my film, and you can see in that footage what kind of a climber I have been reduced to…

SGPT: Do you still climb, boulder and train these days?

PA: I don’t train anymore. I climb a little with my two young daughters, and now and then I go out with a friend for some moderate fun. I like to find some area where no one has climbed, where I can develop easy traverses and fun things, and pretend I’m still a good climber. You know, with as much experience as I have as a climber, I may always be able to do certain things well, footwork-type problems, balance moves…

SGPT: Tell us about your book, Master of Rock?

PA: the book John Gill: Master of Rock (Climbing Classics) probably opened the world’s minds to what it would take to be the best possible climber. It was a kind of revolutionary book, in that it inspired a lot of people. I never hear the end of it, when it comes to the effect that book has had on people. Individuals write me and phone me and comment on the forums about how much the book has meant to them. Of course it’s not me that makes the book great, it’s the subject — John Gill. But I have always wanted to flatter myself to think John and I are a team, special comrades in a vast universe (forgive me, I’m a romantic), and the book was just a little evidence of that friendship.

SGPT: What do you do and enjoy these days?

PA: I am a serious songwriter and pianist. I have a small studio in my house and record new songs all the time. I am still a serious poet, but most of my poetic efforts are directed to music and lyrics at the moment. I am a filmmaker and am finishing a second film about Gill. The first was a big hit with people, and many people have told me it really touched them deeply. It will be a tough assignment to make this second film as good as the first one. Everything I do is art, in one form or another. Perhaps the attraction to filmmaking is that it combines so many talents: photography, filmmaking, music, climbing, editing, writing…

SGPT: What is your favorite climbing area?

PA: Well I always loved Eldorado Canyon, and I loved Yosemite and Tuolumne. For bouldering, I loved Split Rocks and Flagstaff, but I have had wonderful experiences in almost every area I have visited. I had great times all alone, but some of these areas are simply symbolic of the great friendships that existed there.

SGPT: Thanks for the interview, Pat.

PA: Thanks for your interest in my life — which grows more ignominious by the day.

This article first published on March 1, 2011.
SEALgrinderPT is a donor of the Access Fund

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