Yosemite’s Next Top Idol- is on The Dirtbag Diaries- Listen to the recorded version.
Every year, hundreds enter the contest to become Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. Only a few earn the honor. Hopeful climbers gather around the cafeteria table in the Yosemite Lodge during the spring season, and again in the fall, to talk about their glorious achievements, to make outlandish exaggerations, and to flex. It’s a seasonal ritual. To move beyond just being another face at the table, to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol-one of the great Valley climbers, one has to be a true character.
I wanted flashing lights. I wanted to live forever. I wanted real fame. I wanted a Facebook fan club page. The reality though was that I was a just a humble dirtbag rock climber. I fought to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. Status as an A-list celebrity, a Yosemite Idol, was way better than being a D list dirtbag.
Everyone moved seats when the heavy hitters came to the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria table. Mouths dropped when Surfer Bob pointed at his wide back and proclaim, “You don’t get a back like that by towing into the little waves. I surf the monsters.” Emaciated trad climbers watched Platinum Rob nibble certified organic high protein whey supplements. They marveled at his dedication. Platinum once brought a scale with him while free climbing El Cap to weigh out perfect proportions of food. He worked out constantly and was also known as “The Dictionary”; he had definition. Magoo, the mouth of this vicious social climbing ladder, wore horn rimmed glasses with coke bottle for lenses. He had hustled his way into a full time career as a sponsored rock climber, and voiced the path to being a Yosemite Idol. He said that to gain true recognition you needed an incredible story- escape captivity from Krygakistani rebels, climb enormous Arctic walls in single pushes, or huck laps on down canyon testpieces then swim back up to Camp 4- feet first. My climbing ability was mediocre at best. I just wasn’t cut out of granite like those guys. For years I’d had a soft spot for donuts. Now, I had a lot of soft spots because of donuts. Still, I wanted to join the elite.
I wanted to train like Surfer Bob. I wanted to Platinumize my body into an extreme fitness machine like Rob. I wanted to be a fully sponsored rock jock like Magoo. I was desperate for the glory that these men had achieved. I wanted to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. I wanted it bad so I transitioned from my life as a college student and into one of a dirtbag climber.
My first step was to move into a tent in the woods behind University of Califirnia Santa Cruz campus. I had to toughen up mentally so I did.
I hate the rain. I don’t melt in it- I’m not made of sugar but the whole cold and wet thing is not for me. The first season living in my tent, it rained for forty days. The Santa Cruz redwoods became lush and red, the banana slugs emerged from the forest in full force, and I -- I went crazy. I thought about how the flooding water would float my little tent out into the Pacific. I wondered how long it would take me to sail to Australia, or Europe, or somewhere warm with good rock. I festered through the rain, contemplating if suffering through storms was really part of being a rock climber.
One day I found a banana slug on my pillow. I brushed it off to living outdoors in the Monterey Bay. A few mornings later, I woke to the tickle of a tick on my testicles. Alliteration aside, it was not a pleasant sensation. I swore that if I found another critter in my “home” I would go savage. The next morning, I found a worm in my sleeping bag. I showed him no mercy; I buried the bastard alive.
The grim living conditions, the nightly wet bivies, they forced me to escape-to go climbing on the weekends, and ditch school for short trips during the week. I had little to do but climb. I didn’t go to college with high academic dreams. I majored in Economics and Business Management with the intention of getting a job where all I had to do was staple things. My motto was “C’s” get degrees. I dreamed of meeting a nice, young, rich girl and then marrying her mom. I could be a “sponsored athlete,” a rock climber supported by someone’s mom. But my constant trips to Yosemite kept the ladies away. I saw few. Plus, if I mentioned that I lived in a tent in the woods behind campus, they would think I was either an Ewok or Ted Kazynski. This was the kind of thing a true Yosemite Idol needed though- a monastic lifestyle, where there would be no fear of women ever distracting me in my goal from being Yosemite’s Next Top Idol.
Every weekend I was in Yosemite, or at the sport crag, or in the boulders. I commuted to the climbing with Platinum Rob, who gave me training goals, and reminded me to stay thin. At the top of Tuoulumne Meadow’s Private Property cliff, after a hard day of sport climbing, I watched Rob pour a handful of macadamia nuts into his hands. He counted them, plucked three out, and put them back into the bag.
“How many macadamias do you eat Rob?” I asked, stuffing Cheetos into my mouth.
“Well, James,” Rob chewed slowly, relishing his nuts. “I eat 10. But you, since you’re a little- you know” He ballooned his cheeks. “You’d only want to eat seven.”
The Yosemite Idol contestants were all so thin they’d disappear if they turned sideways. I had become mentally tough in my woodland hovel, but if I was to be a contender, I’d need to go on a strict diet. Over the years I had contracted Dunlop disease- my stomach dun lop over my belt. Rob agreed to train me at his Santa Cruz gym. I biked down from my tent on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school. After class, I hit the climbing gym, and then on the weekends I headed back out to the crag. The wafer thin Supermodel Kate Moss gave me a mantra. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. My muffin top, the spare tire around my stomach, slowly started to fade. I was lean and I was mean. When I showed up at the Cafeteria table, all skinny and fit with pine needles from the Santa Cruz redwoods sticking out of my hair, I looked like the best of the contestants. I had the mental toughness, and the lean physique. But I lacked talent on the rock. I needed to step up my game.
The climbing came along slowly. I have never been adept at moving my body. My only redemption is that my tenacity makes up for my lack of talent. I shook up the most mediocre of routes. A half inch above my last placement, I would be wrought with jazz hands and Elvis leg at the same time. I was an autumn leaf about to blow off the rock. I went to the Cookie Cliff, where Surfer Bob trained. He lapped the same cracks a million times, fueling his body off a tablespoon of olive oil. He trained for the ultimate training day. I tried to do the same, running countless laps up routes that I had dialed. “It’s just like paddling into Jaws,” he said while he cruised his 139th lap up the Red Zinger, a difficult 5.11+ crack. “You got to start off strong and ride into the wave. Let the motion take you there.” I tried to follow his advice instead I thrashed. I’d never been surfing in Hawaii break and, frankly, the water scared me. I had no idea what he was talking about.
In the boulders behind Camp 4 Magoo, showed me his circuit- a series of heinous offwidths and horrendous grovel problems he had wired over the years. Every “easy” problem felt impossible. He sandbagged me at every opportunity. Magoo explained his secret to success, “You don’t really have to climb anything. Just try real hard, talk a mean game, and shamelessly self promote.” He sniffled and shoved his glasses up his face alot, “That’ll work way better than climbing harder,” he added in a conspiratorial manner. I followed his advice. When I established a first ascent, I called it the Muir Trail, telling people that I hiked it. I related half truths- I claimed to have climbed up to 5.14 on El Capitan. Which was true- I had climbed up to it and then I aided through it. I worked my mouth like Magoo suggested.
Soon, I had the big talk down. Everyone in Yosemite knew that I was kind of a big deal.
I kept working on Magoo’s impossible boulder problem circuit. But I kept flailing. I had leaned up on Platinum Rob’s diet but I was still a Man of Girth. I trained like Surfer Bob but then I would fail on anything off the circuit. That was how they earned their Yosemite titles but none of it would work for me. Each of them had sandbagged me into believing I could do it. I couldn’t keep up. I could only try and fail. So that’s what I did. I tried and I failed. I made small craters from wildly falling off the center stage routes in Joshua Tree, in Yosemite, anywhere there was a crowd. I was covered in cuts, and bruises from falling all the time. Soon I earned a moniker. Big Fall James. Long scars ran across my elbow, ankle, and back. I became a highly recognizable walking disaster. When I hobbled through Camp 4 with huge rope burns across my arms, watermelon sized ankles, and enormous bruise- people knew who I was. Big Fall James. The man who could survive the most enormous whippers around.
A few mornings ago, I sat at the table of the Yosemite Lodge. I’d been living the dirtbag climbing lifestyle for four years. I stayed skinny even in the winter months. I climbed without looking like a jackhammer on the rock. I talked an enormous game. I was as close to being Yosemite’s Next Top Idol as ever. A kid, fresh out of his mom’s house, in a collared shirt buttoned to the neck, sat next to me. He glanced at me, then cast his eyes down, and mumbled, “Big Fall James, How do you become a Yosemite Idol?” I smiled. I had fought for years for this moment- this opportunity to be acknowledged as one of the great Yosemite Climbers. My mind raced through a library of sage advice. I had sat in the same spot, listening to Surfer Bob, Platinum Rob, and Magoo. I thought about what they had told me. I looked at the kid. I thought showing him Surfer Bob’s ultimate training day schedule, about telling him Platinum’s dieting advice, or describing how he needed Magoo’s confidence. I prepared to tell him how he should follow my lead and become a walking disaster. Then I paused. He would need a lot of help. I patted him on the hand, put my arm around his shoulder, and totally sandbagged him.