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Dinner With Alpinist Kevin Cooper

Over boiled fish and steamed veggies, Coop recalls his climbing partner of 20 years, surviving a 300-metre tumble, and establishing cutting-edge routes deep in Alaska.

“Did you see that whipper I took,” Kevin Cooper says from across the kitchen. He’s describing a fall he took two days before at a dry tool crag in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), Colorado. After his tool popped, he smacked a ledge from 20 feet as he was reaching up to clip the next bolt.

I heard “FALLING.” Then I glanced up to see his partner, on the top of the first pitch, lock him off. The rope stretched, Cooper’s crampons impacted the snow-covered ledge and his body buckled forward. Surprisingly, he was unhurt.

Later that afternoon we exchanged info and set up a dinner at my cabin above Boulder.

Kevin Cooper climbing the first ascent of Meat and Taters, RMNP. Cooper collection.

Cooper and I been in touch for years, since back when I was an editor at Alpinist but we hadn’t met in person until that day. I knew he was a highly accomplished climber across the board, from hard big walls to committing alpine climbs in Alaska.

Dinner and climbing over the wood-burning stove

“I just bounce off shit,” he says completing the ledge-fall story. Then he walks to the hallway, grabs a set of ice tools from near the fridge and starts a workout on the hang board. His tools skated as he tried levering them off a finger pocket, but he continued on unfazed. Next— tools still in hand— he traversed a railing over the raging wood burning stove.

A 300-degree stove, wool socks, and ice axes — what could possibly go wrong? Photo Chris Van Leuven.

He tells me in 2013 Epic TV said he had the “sickest ice route of the year,” he says, of his 60-metre route Window Pain WI6 on the left side of the Longs Peak (4,000m) Diamond in RMNP. The route has had two ascents since. In 2014, Climbing Magazine awarded him the prestigious Golden Piton Award for his ascent of Mt. Johnson in the Ruth Gorge in Alaska. He completed the 1,220-metre first ascent Stairway to Heaven with his longtime partner the late Ryan Jennings. The route is rated Alaska Grade 6 M6 WI4 AI5+ A1.

Jennings, his partner of 20 years, died in a solo ice climbing accident in Redstone, Colorado, in December 2015. The two were recently awarded the Mugs Stump grant and were planning their next dream trip to Alaska.

Fifty-one-year-old Cooper, or Coop, resides at 2,636 metres, in Allenspark, where he’s lived since 1996. The town is four miles from the Diamond, the El Cap of Colorado. He’s climbed it 16 times including in winter. He’s also skied its North Face “top-to-bottom, no rappels,” he says. He and Topher Donahue established two new routes on the face.

Cooper and Ryan Jennings (in the red with his crampons above Cooper’s head). “Jennings was my heart and soul in the alpine,” Cooper says. Cooper collection.

Coop is the father of two, Névé Sierra, 11, and Corinne Alexandra, age 19. His wife is an avid climber and owns a cleaning service, and he works outside year-round as a framer and construction carpenter. “[He’s] about as far from a full-time climber as you can get,” former Climbing editor Dougald MacDonald wrote of him in 2014.

He grew up in San Lorenzo, California, and spent his youth side-country skiing in the Sierra with his parents and younger brother, Paul, and older sister, Julie. It was during that time he fell in the love with the mountains.

In 1986 he joined the Army ski team and ended up stationed in Germany at the foot of the Alps. “I did my early scrambles in the Alps, and should have died, could have died there,” he says lifting his beer in a half-cheer.

Cooper and the late Ryan Jennings on The Talisman, Ouray, Colorado. “One of the sickest routes in Colorado,” Cooper says. Cooper collection.

When his three-year commitment with the military ended — “barely, I was in trouble all the time,” he says— he moved back to San Lorenzo and began looking up local places to climb. Soon he discovered the world-famous bouldering area, Indian Rock, in Berkeley. Then he started bouldering at Castle Rock near Santa Cruz. It was there he ran into a climber who told him about the epic climbing in Yosemite. The following weekend the two made the four-hour drive to the Valley.

During that trip, he and his partner bumbled up the 5.8 Nutcracker at Manure Pile Buttress located at the foot of El Cap. That was his first trad lead. The following year he climbed the Shield on El Cap. To date, he’s climbed the formation by 16 routes with routes up to A5.

He started alpine climbing in 1990 when he climbed the Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton with his brother Paul. “We were both highly inexperienced climbers,” he says with a laugh, “we were just breaking out from Yosemite.”

Thirteen years later, in 2003, he and Ryan Jennings visited Alaska for the first time. For their first route, they chose Shaken Not Stirred, Alaska Grade 5 WI5, on Moose’s Tooth. Though everything went fine during the climb, disaster struck during the descent. A few pitches from the deck, a rappel anchor failed and the two tumbled 300 metres, airing a bergschrund, before finally coming to a stop. Once the dust had settled, Coop jumped up and screamed “We’re alive!” but his partner writhed in pain. Jennings fractured both his tibia and fibula. Coop had to facilitate a rescue for his partner. Coop didn’t walk away totally unfazed; he partially tore his MCL and spent the next month on crutches.

“I’ll never forget the feeling of flying over the ’shrund,” he says.

Summit photo on top of Mt. Johnson from 4 a.m. on the third day. Cooper collection.

As dinner wraps up and I pass him another beer, he tells me what’s next. “I always want to do new ice routes. There are always variations.” He wants to climb “impossible” routes in Alaska all the while having as much fun as he can in the vertical environment.

Then he emphasizes that he misses Jennings every day — the best climber he’s ever shared a rope with. “I just don’t have a partner. A partnership is everything.”

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