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Big Wall Legend Jim “The Bird” Bridwell Dies at 73

American big wall legend and expedition climber Jim “The Bird” Bridwell has died at the age of 73. He died of complications from hepatitis C that he likely contracted from a tattoo he received in Borneo in 1983.

Bridwell started climbing in the mid-1960s and climbed new routes in Yosemite, Patagonia and Alaska. He climbed hard new aid routes, spent days on walls and pushed free climbing standards.

In Yosemite alone, he had over 100 first ascents. He made the first one-day ascent of The Nose on El Cap on May 26 in 1975 with Billy Westbay and John Long.

He went on to start the Yosemite Park’s Search and Rescue Team (YOSAR) and took part in a number of rescue.

Jim Bridwell

He wrote countless articles, a book called Climbing Adventures: A Climber’s Passion and helped advance the sport of rock climbing in many ways. And he invented climbing gear like bird beaks and copperheads.

He once said, “A sense of uncertainty that is potentially fatal is what makes climbing an adventure. Anything less is just working out.”

Bridwell was notorious for taking LSD while climbing big walls. He later said in an interview, “You don’t want to be climbing anything serious on acid—when you take LSD, you’re taken to a place that you really haven’t earned the right to be yet.”

Duane Raleigh of Rock and Ice had spent time climbing with Bridwell and wrote in an article published today title Jim Bridwell, Founder of YOSAR and Big-Wall Godfather, Dead at 73:

“Yet Bridwell’s brand in Yosemite went beyond achievements—he was the evolutionary link between the old and the new, taking youngsters John Bachar, John Long, Ron Kauk, Dale Bard, John Yablonski, Dean Fidelman, and others under his wing. A decade older, he was a father figure. ‘Bridwell’s Boys, to later became The Stonemasters, were the crew on his ship and they sailed the granite sea plundering treasure.

“There was the first one-day ascent of El Cap, with Long and Billy Westbay. A free ascent of its Stovelegs. A string of fierce nail ups, the Sea of Dreams being his Pieta. Over 100 first ascents in all. In his prime Bridwell was likely the best rock climber in the world, and he climbed hard well into his 50s, making his final FA on El Cap when he was 57. ‘For sheer production of routes,’ wrote Long in a 1970s feature for Mountain, he is unparalleled.'”

Bridwell was many things to many people, to us climbers he will always be guru who helped push a generation to find bigger and blanker stretches of rock to explore.

10 Cutting-Edge Jim Bridwell Routes
1965 Entrance Exam 5.9 at Arch Rock in Yosemite with Chuck Pratt, Chris Fredericks and Larry Marshik
1969 Triple Direct VI 5.9 A2 on El Capitan with Kim Schmitz
1975 Pacific Ocean Wall VI 5.9 A4 on El Capitan with Bill Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East
1979 Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre in Patagonia with Steven Brewer (first alpine-style ascent of the peak)
1979 Northwest Face of The Ship Prow on Kichatna Spire in Alaska Range with Andy Embick
1981 Zenyatta Mondatta VI 5.9 A5 on El Capitan with Peter Mayfield and Charlie Row
1981 Dance of the Woo Li Masters on East Face of The Moose’s Tooth VI 5.9 WI4+ A4, 1,520 m with Mugs Stump
1999 The Useless Emotion VII 5.9 WI4 A4 on The Bear’s Tooth with Terry Christensen, Glenn Dunmire, Brian Jonas and Brian McCray
1999 Odyssey on Grand Capucin VI 5.9 A5 on Mont Blanc with Giovanni Groaz
1999 Dark Star VI 5.10 A5 on El Capitan with Giovanni Groaz

A fund was started online to help with Bridwell’s medical expenses before his passing. You can still donate to aid the family with outstanding bills. Visit here.

The Nose in a Day team of Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell, and John Long stand in El Cap Meadow below The Nose in 1975. Photograph courtesy Stonemasters Press