Cliffhanger : Free-Solo Climber Plays the Ultimate Game: Making the Right Moves Up 800 Feet of Rock

What some consider death-defying or just plain crazy--either with a certain amount of justification--Dave Wonderly sees as the ultimate game.

What, he asks, could be more "clean" or more fun than scrambling up and around 800-foot-high rocks and cliffs, themselves perched on 8,000-foot peaks, totally unhampered by ropes and other safety devices?

The 28-year-old Wonderly, who lives in Laguna Beach and works as a truck driver, spends many of his weekends and holidays free-soloing, considered by aficionados of rock climbing to be the purest form of the sport.

Unlike other forms of climbing, generally categorized as aid climbing, free-soloists carry no ropes, anchoring devices or safety equipment. If they get into trouble, they have only themselves to get out of it.

It's not that Wonderly considers himself especially brave. It's just that he can't afford to be frightened when he's 800 feet off the ground--about the height of a 57-story high-rise--clinging to a slab of granite with nothing but his hands and feet.

The only things the 5-foot-9, 175-pound blond, muscular Wonderly takes with him when scaling jagged rocks are the clothes on his back (usually a pair of shorts and a T-shirt), a bag of chalk strapped around his waist (to provide the hands with a little extra grip) and an extremely high degree of self-confidence and tenacity.

His sole companions are a few lizards skittering around the rocks, the sun and strong breezes that whistle past his ears.

His highest and probably most challenging climb was 800-foot Tahquitz rock in the Idyllwild area, a climb he has done several times.

At an altitude of 8,828 feet, the wind blows strongly at Tahquitz, scattering pesky bugs and cooling off a hot sun. As he does on all of his climbs, Wonderly picks his route carefully, "one hand, one foot at a time," knocking off loose rock to make sure the hold is strong.

Wonderly moves quickly once he hits his rhythm, his breathing slightly strained by the high altitude. Sometimes a swallow whizzes past. "It sounds like falling rock," he said, and prompts him to check above to make sure some other climber hasn't kicked some gravel loose.

Along the way, like a deer flitting past a pack train, he occasionally passes groups of climbers roped together and loaded down with gear. Some stare in surprise, others wave and some even grumble about the unexpected company, Wonderly said.

The Tahquitz climb takes only 40 minutes, and that's allowing for the moments he stops to take in the eagle-eye views. And most of the time he has no one to contend with. "There's just you and the rock," he said.

Climbing on granite such as Tahquitz is surprisingly clean--Wonderly said he gets dirtier hiking up the approach trails. And the granite surface is so hard that, after years of climbing, Wonderly not only has developed hard callouses on his hands but has long since rubbed off his fingerprints. Sometimes after a week of heavy climbing, the surface of his palms turns a raw pink as if they have been sanded.

On some climbs Wonderly has found himself "hanging on for dear life. But the only times I've really gotten scared is afterwards."

He has fallen just once, while he was "bouldering," a form of rock-climbing that is exactly what it sounds like: scrambling around on huge boulder formations. (For some rock climbers it is a precursor to free-soloing.) He slipped and fell about 18 feet from a rock, but walked away with just a few sore muscles and bruises. The only thing he broke was his watch.

Randy Vogel, author of seven guides to rock-climbing areas, including one on Orange County, compares free-soloing to a game of chess where all the moves are worked out on the face of the rock. But when the moves mean the difference between life and death, it becomes "the ultimate game," he said.

Vogel, a longtime resident of Orange County until he moved to Beverly Hills a year ago, is himself an accomplished climber and occasional free-soloist. He is also a member of the American Alpine Club and works on legal problems of liability and access to rock-climbing areas. He said that within the last eight years he has seen a "tremendous increase" in the number of rock climbers who have become enthralled with free-soloing because they consider it to be the purest form of climbing.

Scrambling around rock faces without equipment also affords an extra thrill that has been rendered--at least in some climbers' minds--relatively safe by high-tech climbing equipment, Vogel said. For some, free-soloing is akin to "pushing the envelope," he said, borrowing a phrase from the movie "The Right Stuff."

Vogel figures there are about 250,000 active rock climbers worldwide. An estimated 50,000 of them climb regularly in California, many in Joshua Tree National Monument--also a favorite haunt of Wonderly's--because it has more than 2,000 routes. Wonderly estimates that he has free-soloed at least 300 of those routes.

Wonderly describes his exploits on the rocks in the matter-of-fact way someone might talk about climbing the stairs. He can't remember when he didn't climb. Growing up in Michigan, Wonderly spent a lot of time climbing trees, taking his share of childhood spills. "I thought I was climbing mountains at the time," he said.

His parents later moved to California, and when he was 16, they sent him to a summer camp near Idyllwild, where he got his first taste of rudimentary rock climbing. By age 18, Wonderly was climbing regularly on weekends and holidays, learning how to use the ropes and anchors.

As he became more adept at scaling higher peaks--he has climbed nine of the 80 routes on the 3,000-foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park--Wonderly tired of being loaded down with equipment. He started scrambling over large boulder formations without gear. As his skill improved, he graduated to more difficult and higher routes.

In Orange County, Wonderly has practiced at such popular climbing areas as Pirates' Cove at Corona del Mar State Beach and a place referred to by climbers as The Falls, 21.5 miles east of Interstate 5 on Ortega Highway. Both areas are also listed in Vogel's guide book.

Chris Zwior of the North Face mountaineering company in Costa Mesa described free-soloists as people who live to climb. Although he has seen a tremendous growth in the past two years in the number of people interested in rock climbing, free-soloists remain a breed apart. "It's not something you casually do," he said. Zwior figures there are only three people in the world considered masters of the sport .

Wonderly doesn't pretend to be in the master class, although he has climbed and shared stories and beer with John Bacher of Yosemite Valley, who is considered one of the world's best. And aside from being an avid mountain biker--the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his rock-climber girlfriend is decorated with trophies from cross-country bicycle competitions--Wonderly is not deeply into training for his climbs. "I'm lazy," he said, grinning. "I just do it."

But Wonderly definitely understands the mental discipline that the sport requires.

"If you get scared, you're in trouble," he said. "If you get scared you lose control, you lose confidence."

Fear is saved for the ground, Wonderly said, "after you get down and say, 'Wow, maybe I shouldn't have been up there.' "

But aside from being scared, there is also the joy of stopping on a ledge and looking down from dizzying heights, surveying sights enjoyed only by high-flying birds.

"That's part of the fun."

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