Feels Like the First Line

Thirty years later, legendary big-wall climber Eric Kohl heads out to retry his first route, which has now fallen into obscurity.

By Chris Van Leuven

“It’s got some cobwebs on it,” says Eric as we look up at the 30-foot boulder split with an overhanging, leaning finger-to-hand crack.

We’ve spent the past hour hiking up the railroad-grade trail that winds up Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, California, followed by twenty minutes along the side of a fence picking our way through thick forests, downed trees and poison oak along a steep, narrow creek.

We’re here to unearth legendary Yosemite big wall climber Eric Kohl’s first, first ascent.  It’s a route he found at the age of 17… 30 years later, it looks like it’s seen little traffic since he last climbed it in 1985.

We talk about our respective ages. “I feel old, but not creaky old,” he says. The crack is covered in moss webs. There’s not a spec of chalk on it. That’s the norm for like 90 percent of Eric’s routes—most of them haven’t been climbed in years.

Eric’s developed a reputation of establishing hard, bold routes, and though he’s put up many free routes, some up to 12d sport, his notoriety has come from dangerous aid climbs. He calls things as he sees them, regardless of how people receive him. Looking at this route, and comparing it against the modest rating he stuck on it, plus its remote location, I’m getting an idea of why he’s so misunderstood, and how hard he works on his climbs, often in solitude.

Even though I’m 12 years younger, I’ve known Eric nearly as long as I’ve been climbing, upwards of 20 years, but only recently have I gotten to know the man behind the ‘tude. My experience has been so positive, yet his rough reputation has more often than not overtaken his more caring side. Maybe I’m just lucky to be getting to know him now that he’s decided to open up to people and share his experiences.

On the way in we talked about the many romantic relationships we’ve had over the years. We’re both confident that the partners we share our lives with now are the ones that bring out our best. They don’t want to change us. Trust is a recurring theme and is the basis for how we let people into our lives, we say.

His older brother, Peter, 15 years my senior, and I were both mentored by the same bouldering guru, Russ Bobzien. Peter, 50, says even though he was once regarded as the best gearless climber in Prescott, Arizona, his brother Eric, specializing in gear-heavy aid climbing, is likely one of the most accomplished aid climbers in Yosemite. Peter and I recently spent a sun filled Wednesday afternoon traversing Marin’s most visible and well-traveled boulder, Turtle Rock, reminiscing about what Russ taught us about movement, and the many lines he pointed out that are still our favorites.

Today I’m ten miles away on Mount Tam with Eric in the shadows, by a cool creek, out of sight from even the hearty Mount Tam explorers, on a route filled with dead bugs.

Eric wasn’t mentored by Russ to learn smooth technique by ascending eliminates on Turtle Rock. Instead he tucked himself into one of Tam’s many sprawling fingers, engraining muscle memory and developing mental fitness on this short solo climb with its dire consequences. It’s a theme that would lure him up  an extensive list of fist ascent A5 pitches, mostly done solo, like World of Pain on the Yosemite Falls Wall, and Plastic Surgery Disaster on El Capitan. Eric’s done 34 Yosemite first big walls, and counting.

I wait on a moss covered boulder in the middle of the lightly flowing creek for him to setup the anchor on the tree on the top of the boulder using an old climbing rope he’s cut up for this purpose. A small waterfall cascades near my perch; otherwise everything is still.

He lowers down an end of the pink climbing rope until it dips in the river. Tiny bubbles float to the surface. I get up from my perch and try and keep the rest of it from landing in the water, until he lets the end free.

I notice a burned tree that has fallen over the nearby fence, crushing it. It’s a reminder how very close we are to trespassing on the Ralston Retreat property, which is likely one of its reasons that this climb has fallen into obscurity. Discovering it in the first places was a coincidence—an old high school friend was cultivating weed on the sunny hillside directly across the way. Ironically, the retreat is located on El Capitan Avenue.

The retreat, erected in 1913, contains a 14,000 square foot house, a heart shaped driveway and various footpaths over its 43 private acres. The concrete for the pool was poured nearly 100 years ago. The Ralston Retreat website shows a pic of the pool in use in the ‘30s and states the pool once held 35,000 gallons of water. It has long since been abandoned but the concrete pool is still there, though filled in with sediment. “I used to take girls to pool that is fed from this creek” he says, and laughs.

When he graduated high school in ’85, Eric moved to America’s granite mecca, Yosemite. At least there in the Park the granite was reliable, unlike here on Tam where it’s common for holds resembling gray concrete to crumble in your hands.

He called the route Ralston Crack, named after the house, and rated it 5.11a. Through his junior and senior years in high school, he frequented the route, first picking all the loose cobbles out of the crack on rappel and later recruiting a partner who’d never belayed, much less worn a harness, to belay him. He slapped the proper gear on his partner, showed him how to belay and sussed the route with the safety of a top rope. Over time he dialed it in so that every move was solid and routinely free soloed the line. It’s tall, steep, and challenging enough that I’d be hard pressed to find anyone to solo it today. Looking up at now in its dirty state it looks even less solid.

He hikes back down to the base and unzips his red and gray synthetic jacket to reveal his black motorcycle T—the same one he’s worn nearly every time I’ve seen him. He’s dressed in his customary camo man-pris and wearing gray, canvas approach shoes.

He crosses the creek and admires the line. “This was my first first ascent,” he says proudly. “Man, it looks dirty.”

“I’ll belay you,” he says with a smile. “See if you can onsight it.”

Each jam hurts because gnarly irregularities dig into my hands and fingers. I trend up the crack over the lightly flowing creek filled with jagged boulders. Each move feels insecure and I fall when I’m unwilling to thrust my hands into deep, gray cobwebs. Raking my wooden toothbrush through them, I pull off a big glob of thick cobwebs littered with bug parts and cast it to the ground. Eric laughs.

After several failed attempts, I finally make it to the top. Like he said, it does ease off but only after a long series of hard moves. Due to the poor landing, an un-roped fall from anywhere on the route would land me in the hospital. Towards the top it’s so dirty that I often just grab handfuls of moss.

He talks about an ex. “I was so unhappy when we dated,” he says. Then he talks about the happiness and mutual dedication of his fiancée, Cherry.

He ties in. His man-pris are now rolled over his knees.

After climbing a few moves off the ground, he falls and yells an expletive. “I can’t believe I used to solo this thing all the time,” he says with astonishment.

That’s what I thought.

“How hard are do you think it is?”

“5.11+ and gutsy,” I reply.

“I’m out of shape,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right,” he adds, before slumping on the rope again.

He returns to the ground and looks down at the open wound on the back of his hand. He repeats, “I used to never fall on this thing.” Another expletive. “It’s hard. I thought I would get this thing second go.” Several attempts later, he still has not made it clean.

“I haven’t done it since ’85,” he says. He slips his approach shoes on, lets out a sigh and sits down on the boulder over the creek, then looks back up at the crack.

“Climbing this thing got me all psyched on cracks in the Valley,” he says.

“It’s funny. I’m totally struggling. If I had my brother here he’d totally walk it. I could lose about 10 pounds… I could probably do that if I cut my beer drinking in half. And Cherry always cooks me this really good food. I blame her for gaining all this weight. She got a slow cooker and makes meat and potatoes in it.”

“I’m trying to dial it in to feel how you felt when soloing,” I say. “But I can’t make it that secure.”

“I had it totally dialed so that I knew there was no chance I’d fall,” he says. He stares up at it. “I’ll give it a go,” he says.

The creek tinkles around the rocks.

He comes down and looks me in the eye. “Yeah, that’s the sequence,” he says. “That felt hard. I can’t believe I just did it.”

“I’m [expletive] bleeding all over. “Look at that,” he says with a small laugh under his breath referring to the strawberry on the back of his hand.

He puts his approach shoes back on. “That definitely takes me back, dude. Hard to believe 30 years ago I found this thing. I don’t know. All these years this crack was a forgotten place. I would come here all the time if I still lived in Mill Valley like I did in high school.” He now lives in Pacifica. “I’ll probably check it out again.”

I think about how maybe this really was Eric’s road to El Cap. If he could see soloing this, and did what it took to get a belay on it on the first place, maybe that same tactic was useful for climbing El Cap, both with partners, alone and later, on cutting edge first ascents.

I think back to the time I asked him about his thoughts on some of his more treacherous big wall FA’s. He said he doubts he’d be able to do them anymore.

We soon leave the boulder. Heading out, he points up to a crag mid-way up Mount Tam. It’s one I’ve never noticed before, though like Eric I’ve been climbing on Tam since high school.

“I hiked up there with Cherry once and looked over the top to see bolts. I don’t know who put those in or when.” He asks if I’d like to climb it with him. “It’s a long walk,” he warns, but I agree to venture up there anyway.

Chris Van Leuven writes for The Alpinist, The Gear Institute and Elevation Outdoors.