Paul Gagner — Training for Aid Climbing by Bouldering

Meet at “The top switchback just above the Y-traverse,” read Paul Gagner’s (pronounced Gan-yay) text giving directions for Flagstaff Mountain, located above Boulder.

Twenty minutes later Paul pulls up to the boulders in his gray Prius. It’s 4:10 P.M, Tuesday September 3.

“I haven’t been up here in quite a bit. I usually go up to the Satellites if I’m going to come up here,” he said.

It’s my first time in the area.

He steps out of his car, throws his military-green, thrashed crash pad out of the trunk and onto the ground and opens his clear blue Nalgene water bottle coated in gray duct tape with a green one-inch climbing sling fastened to the side, and takes a sip of water.

He’s dressed in gray rip-stop mid-thigh shorts, pine-green cotton tee, and narrow frame Ray Bans with brown lenses. His demeanor is low key, relaxed, steady.

JL_PaulGagner-02We exit the parking lot and move to the nearby boulders. He slips on his red climbing shoes. I get a whiff of the familiar climbing shoe stench– for a moment it reminds me of being in a climbing gym.

“How old are you?” I ask, starting the interview.

“53. Too old,” he says. “I don’t know what happened. I used to be 19. Then all of a sudden I got old. I don’t feel old, though.”

“I’ve got most of this stuff…” he drifts off, then adds, “you know,” but doesn’t finish his sentence. I can tell he means he’s been climbing on these red sandstone boulders for a decade or more. I comment on how ingrained and smooth his movement is on the rock. “I haven’t done most of this stuff since March,” he says.

The discussion turns to climbing 3,000-foot El Cap in Yosemite. He watched a team firing fireworks off their portaledge from across the wall during the late 90s. I reminisce about a time I witnessed the same thing during that same era. “We had a casual ascent, like five nights. Took our time,” he says of the route New Dawn.

He jogs up the next problem. Then another.

He sits back on his pad placed over a light tan rock and proceeds to air-climb on his back like a turtle. He’s talking about the time he popped his knee out of alignment. It was when he was 26. The injury “put the kibosh on that trip to Alaska,” he says.

He grew up in San Jose, near the cragging areas Castle Rock, Goat Rock, Pinnacles. He started climbing at seventeen. Two years later he climbed El Cap for the first time. It was ’79.

I say I was two years old. We laugh. He’s 16 years older than I am.

He drags his pad across the dirt and sits back on the upward slope so the pad acts like a couch. He talks about soloing Colorado 14ers in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. On the solo he completed a few weeks earlier he “got all jacked off route,” but was able to regain his composure, get back on route, and finish the ascent.

Clouds form overhead cooling the air.

JL_PaulGagner-01I confirm some family statistics – his daughter is eight and a half. And “On Friday I’ve been married 11 years,” he says.

He explains that runs the outdoor division at Nite Ize, a producer of outdoor accessories and hardware. As long as he can remember, he’s worked in the outdoor industry.

He moved to Boulder in ’90, moved away for 10 years before moving back, and has been here ever since.

“You’ve climbed El Cap, what, 30-40 times?” I ask.

“I wish,” he replies. “More like 20.” He cruises up the next boulder.

I’ve met up with a Paul a few times over the past few months. We share a lot of similarities – we love all aspects of climbing, and have spent a great deal of time aid climbing the Fisher Towers – an area of slender muddy towers up to a 1,000 in Utah, and on the impeccable granite found on El Cap in Yosemite.

He first climbed in the Fisher Towers in the 80s, then  “forgot about them for a time,” he says. “If I can’t get to Yosemite I can go there and take advantage of new routes.”

On our previous interview at his spacious house in south Boulder, he said he uses his relaxed, focused mindset, which he engrains on the boulders, highballs included, and applies that mind space to hard aid routes.

This topic became the focal point of today’s interview. I wanted to know what he meant.

To qualify as a hard aid pitch, there really has to be serious consequences in case of a fall; like whipping 80 feet into a body-crumpling ledge; a ground fall, all the while moving tenuously on technical, body-weight only gear placements like hooks, copperheads and pitons. “Death of serious injury can occur in case of a fall,” or so goes the saying.

“My analogy to aid climbing to bouldering,” he says, “As crazy as it may seem — bouldering is all about an economy of moving and precision. Aid climbing is the same thing – [especially] when it’s more tenuous aid. When you’re bouldering something hard you want to remember to breathe. I make sure to make myself breathe to keep calm. Otherwise I get on edge and that’s when you tend to make mistakes. You want to keep calm on a highball problem.”

Falling from a highball – problems with nasty landings or towering above heights of 20 feet or more — also means serious injury or death.

“Walls have a lot of heads-up spots. There are a lot of routes with little ledges to hit. I’m amazed more people don’t get hurt aid climbing. You might not die, [but it may be a] big ankle sprainer/ankle breaker.”

He starts up a highball.

“What is this V6?” I ask as he palms, rocks over his feet as he moves up the rock.

“V12,” he says, pauses, looks out from the rock and gives me a big smile. Then finishes the arête. He’s joking about the rating, but I still have no idea how hard the line is.

Raised in San Jose, California, Paul began climbing in 1977 at the age of 17. By 19 he established his first, and only, first ascent on a big wall in Yosemite. A route that’s “likely unrepeated,” he says called A Joint Adventure on Liberty Cap (height 955 feet).

“I did the first one day solo of Mt. Watkins (2,000 feet) somewhere between ‘85 and ‘87. “Yeah, that worked me…I was so hot I couldn’t down any food. I had some breakfast and did the whole thing on a bag of Skittles.”

I ask him about expeditions. “That was the thing,” he says. “When my buddies Steve Schneider and John Barbella were doing new routes on El Cap, I was doing expeditions to Baffin, Patagonia, Garhwal in the Himalayas, Alaska.”

“I never had any down time in 35 years [of climbing] except injuries,” he says. “I’ve sprained my ankle tons of times bouldering. The rockfall on my head on the Steck Salathé (Sentinel Rock, 1,500 feet, 5.9), but that wasn’t [much of] a set back.” He has a strip of stitch marks on his head but it’s been so long he forgets how many of them there are.

He talks about trying to make a first one-day ascent of El Cap’s Tangerine Trip (1,800 feet, mixed free and aid). The first time they were going too slow and rappelled from about 600 feet off the ground. The next time he dropped all the hooks while fumbling with them in the dark forcing them to rappel to the ground from about 900 feet up the wall. Both times he ended up rappelling off a single bolt, which had been placed by a film crew for a Star Trek scene; the bolt was rumored to be half-inch wide, and five inches long.

He continues: “I tell you getting old is weird,” he says. “I’ve lived the life I’ve wanted, climbing, drinking.” He points out that his lifestyle hasn’t had negative consequences. He’s fit, healthy and climbs like big kid, but one with decades of experiences under his harness.

He’s perched on the edge of a boulder, legs crossed, arms outstretched for balance and leans forward as he tells a story of a recent road trip where his friend and passenger fell asleep. His friend’s throat started clicking and he wouldn’t wake up. Paul gets all animated as he acts out how he tried to roust him awake. At the time he thought his friend had died; it turned out he was fine.

He gets up from his perch, asks the team of boulderers next to us if they don’t mind if he climbs over their pad and heads up the next problem.

He’s logged perhaps 10 problems so far. It’s 5:25 P.M. and the sun is cresting behind the clouds above the Rockies once again cooling the air.

He talks about climbing at an area called Avalon, which he’d revisited with his friend Alan Lester. It had been so long since he first visited the area he’d forgotten that he’d climbed there.  “It’s great as you get older,” he says, “Everything’s an Alzheimer’s Point. It’s always an onsight — doing it for the first time,” he says.

We wrap up the interview and head back to our cars. For a moment we stand by our vehicles awkwardly. I was planning to head home, but he convinces me to go out. We agree to go to the Southern Sun for beers and burgers.

Once there the conversation continues and we begin lining up our next climbing plans. In a few weeks he’s headed to Yosemite and knows there’s a chance he may need a partner. I’m interested, but we have a hard time coming up with an objective on El Cap that piques our interest, and one that neither of us has completed. I hope we can find a suitable objective; it would be great to spend a week on the side of El Cap with Paul.

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Chris Van Leuven

Raised sailing and backpacking, Chris began climbing rocks as a teenager. 20 years later, Chris still climbs several days a week. He writes about travel, adventure and climbing. Follow him on Facebook: