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Author Interview: Pat Ament, John Gill: Master of Rock

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Vertebrate is very excited to be releasing John Gill: Master of Rock in ebook format. The biography centres on the life of bouldering legend John Gill, and is written by Gill’s friend and fellow climber, Pat Ament. John Gill: Master of Rock delves deeply into not only the fascinating life of Gill, but the very raw essence of what it means to boulder. 

Our Digital Assets Editor, Sarah, talks to Pat about some of these themes, the process of writing a biography, and his climbing adventures with Gill:

Did you find writing the biography of such a high-profile boulderer intimidating at all? Or was it made easier due to your friendship with Gill?

I have always been somewhat fearless. John and I had become close friends, and we were two of the most serious boulderers in the country. We were among the few who viewed bouldering as an end in itself. It was an incredible blessing that we lived close enough to be able to boulder often. I had the notion I would make a film, in black and white, of John. He had begun to show signs of serious injury, such as his ‘climber’s elbow,’ and I wanted to document his supreme ability, his prime, before it was gone forever. We chuckled when the camera would stop, just at the critical move. For the film, he and I sat for a few hours and enjoyed a 'fireside chat,' and he thought I planned to use this ‘interview,’ a few parts of it perhaps, for the film. Yes I would make the film, but all the while I had a book in mind – my secret. When I get an idea, I tend to go with it. I am not intimidated.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing the biography?

I did not want to make just another biography, a story from start to finish. I wanted to incorporate thoughts from his partners, and I wanted to give glimpses from my own wild, young imagination. I wanted to show how bouldering was as magnificent and noble as mountaineering. For years many climbers thought bouldering was little more than trivial practice for the important stuff. I wanted the writing to approach poetry, at least in places, to show how it could involve the inner mind and be a meditation, or something spiritual. To pull all this off would take some experiment, although in fact things flowed together rather naturally.

What was Gill’s reaction when you informed him that you were writing a biography about him?

He learned about the book, with somewhat wide eyes, when I presented a brand new copy of the finished, published book to him at my cabin in Eldorado one day. He was quite surprised, and I got the feeling he liked the look and feel of the book. I think he trusted me and believed he would not be disappointed when he read it.

You have published two biographies, John Gill: Master of Rock and Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age. If you could write a third, who would it be about, and why?

My newest book, mostly finished but which I continue to play at, is a kind of multi-biography of Layton Kor, Bob Culp, Dave Rearick, Larry Dalke, Royal Robbins, Tom Higgins, Bob Kamps, Chuck Pratt, and John Gill. I go into greater detail with both Robbins and Gill than I did in their bios, and I delve the rather profound lives of each of these important figures in climbing. My treatment of Royal is better, more insightful, than the biography, and what I write about Layton is, as some have told me who have read it, the best treatment on Layton yet. I have not had an urge to do another single biography, beyond these people. Walter Bonatti once said I could write a bio of him, if I went to Italy and hob-knobbed with him for a spell. I never did get it together to do that. My current book captures these people mentioned all in one story and how their lives wove in and around mine.

John Gill: Master of Rock details many incredible moments and adventures that you shared with Gill. What was your favourite climb together, and why?

There were so many climbs and boulders. I suppose I could say I was inspired one day when he showed me a new area east of Horse Tooth Reservoir. He was not climbing, because he was letting his elbows heal, but he had scoped out a number of good overhanging problems at this granite area. He could have kept them to himself, but he was always generous. I did the first ascent of all of them. I was in good shape, and John liked what he saw. But there were so many good times together.  

John Gill: Master of Rock was first published in 1977 – over forty years ago – yet the story of Gill and his pioneering approach to bouldering is still so inspirational today. What would you say is the number-one reason for this?

John Gill was the best climber in the world, in my opinion, and he was light years ahead of his time, but he always was/is such an amazing person. He was never a snob or someone who ever short-changed other climbers. He always acknowledged the abilities of others and played his own ability down. In terms of his strength, how many climbers today can do a one-finger one-arm front lever? Even when people tried to dismiss him or reduce him, he simply shut them all up with his achievements. Humble and kind, he would do ‘no-hand routes’ that some of the best climbers could not do with feet and hands.This showed his footwork and balance. Without strength, he would have been a supremely skilled climber. I think perhaps the strength of the book, and the reason he continues to command respect, is that he was the best while at the same time being the best kind of person. The book definitely changed the world.    

There is a beautiful quote in John Gill: Master of Rock that says ‘Bouldering is the poetry of mountaineering … good bouldering comes from within. It is derived from an inner eye, then refined.’ Can you expand on this? How do you think viewing bouldering in this way has impacted the way that you climb? Is it almost a spiritual experience?

Poetry of course is shorter, more intense, than prose. It has all the best elements of writing but in a concise expression. The greatest poetry does have a spiritual aspect, something personal and deep that touches the heart, mind, and soul. I finally realized I loved the freedom – at the same time discipline – of bouldering, and through the decades I did lots of long climbs but gravitated toward the bouldering art. Some of it is a mystery. To climb is a form of expression, and a person – like his or her ascents – becomes a work of art.

John Gill: Master of Rock will no doubt continue to inspire generations. What is the one piece of advice that you would give to someone wanting to try bouldering for the first time?

The world has changed, and bouldering may never have the solitude we knew. We had to become experts at ‘spotting,’ because there were no crash pads. Or, alone, we mastered technique, so that our safety was found in technique and control. People can achieve similar things now, and as always people will push and push and train, to be the measure of their newest goals. I would tell younger climbers to find their own goals and not be swept up in the latest hype. A person finds the most satisfaction in being an individual. Also, one can find mastery at any level. If you are a 5.8 climber, master that. There is nothing less significant about a lower grade. Develop your control, work at the skills and strengths you are given, and respond as you are inspired to respond, or is your need, as you feel inclined to transcend whatever grade you’re at. It’s all relative, anyway. Today’s best climbers, to see the horizons of the day, stand on the shoulders of those who went before. Ability is only relative to its time. Figure out what your temperament is, what type of climbing to which you are drawn. Build your world, your kingdom.   

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