The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

Their ranks included John Long, John Yablonski, John Bachar, Tobin Sorenson and Richard Harrison, this long-haired band of bros from Southern California, who, armed with little more than frayed cut-offs, dark shades and folded bandanas, heralded the golden age of American rock climbing. They called themselves the Stonemasters—cheeky, but deserved—in their stripped-down, bare-bones approach to climbing, they devised revolutionary techniques, underscored by their renegade attitudes. Balancing intensity and exuberance, the Stonemasters were a team of some of the most innovative daredevils the world has ever seen, and in the early 1970s, these laid-back originators of adventure sports were risking life and limb, long before the X Games had a moniker, before Title IX passed legislation, and before the Z-Boys had a pubic hair to scratch between them.

Hybrid pioneers bound by a communal spirit, these surfers of stone followed the cowboy code, “no complaining, no explaining,” while letting it rip across the mountain ranges of the American West. All hail: El Cap, the Column, Half Dim and Middle Cathedral: these peaks were their stomping grounds, their turf. And together, with a sun-bleached flair for the dramatic, they challenged the boundaries not only of the sport, but of nature, itself, catapulting themselves to the world stage of Yosemite.

In the words of author Jeff Jackson, “climbing wasn’t about victory. It was about style.” Fortunately or unfortunately, in this case, style didn’t trump substance. To be sure, there was real substance—many substances. Intoxicated as they were intoxicating, these new frontiersmen brought a playful free-spiritedness that had been sorely lacking in rock climbing, and thereby inspired an international following of countless kids who emulated them, all trying to talk and dress and climb, fashioning themselves after the Stonemasters, with admirers, past and present, as far-ranging as Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard to Band of Outsiders fall 2011 menswear collection.

But it was more than that—it wasn’t just the way they walked, talked, dressed, climbed—in fact, style is an afterthought of their infectious and innate appeal. I think the main reason why they are still emulated the world over is something far more universal: fun. Look: just look at them: they were having so much goddamn fun, and you can’t help but want to be a part of that. Really, looking at these images, don’t you just want to grab a few ropes and hit the road, in hot pursuit of this happy-go-lucky albeit death-defying community of crags? Poring over the photographs gathered in this book, looking at this picture, in particular, I nod my head at that boyish grin on his face, precariously suspended in thin air, halfway between heaven, above, and sure death, below, captured in a moment of such divine and demented communion, I can’t think of any way to describe it, except Spicoli meets the Sistine Chapel.

That’s just one of hundreds of images tirelessly collected and preserved by Dean Fidelman, the de facto Stonemaster archivist, in the book, The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies. Individually, I marvel at every climber; each so alive, so present, so connected, and so ballsy, damn you, all, but when viewed as a whole, the Stonemasters greatest contribution to sport becomes most evident: unity and selflessness. Even now, almost forty years later, in the wake of so many climbing expeditions gone wrong, and despite knowing the all too real individual and collective trials and tribulations of the Stonemasters, it’s difficult not to romanticize their moment in the sun. But still, theirs is the legacy of a time and place as eternal as it was ephemeral, offering us one shining instance in which the young were wasted, but youth was not wasted on the young.

–Courtney Eldridge

Courtney Eldridge is a writer living in Los Angeles

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies





  1. Have you posted about the Stonemasters before JP?

    I was reading about them recently – thought it was here in the yard.

  2. Did Courtney Eldridge really write “…pouring over the photographs gathered in this book”? Is this that magic old California surf magazine influence living on? How often did you get surfers pouring over old maps looking for unridden waves? But that was post-nasal oceanic pouring. Courtney might have intended some poring. Hell, I just dunno any more. Go catch a rock, dude.

  3. I don’t see this kind of fun, this kind of spirit anywhere, anymore… Except… ok: some surfers and skateboarders kept this spirit 😉

    Excellent post. I’ll look for the book! Thanks and greetings from Brazil.

  4. These days everybody would be looking down at their iPhones, tweeting about the shitty cell service on El Capitan.

    These images are priceless – the book is not! Yikes – hopefully they’ll do a paperback version later.

  5. You can actually still purchase the book for $60 at the publisher’s website. I bought a copy yesterday, and it was shipped out the same day even though I chose free domestic media mail. There’s a limited edition with a print also for $200.

    The prices on Amazon are a bit outrageous.

    Anyway, great blog!

  6. Andy, the book is still being sold by the publisher at cost. I purchased one the other day after reading about the Stonemasters here. I did a search because the link provided above directed me to overpriced copies. I tried to post a comment about it yesterday but it wasn’t approved. Maybe JP or someone thought that I work for the publisher. I don’t. I just read this blog all of the time and thought I’d help a fellow out.

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