Brad Gobright: Pure of Heart by Lucas Roman (Part 1)

Brad Gobright is pure of heart. So pure, in fact, that he may never have faced a dilemma in all his life. That’s not exactly serving him well right now, as he’s stuck in a pickle of his own making, at the top of the first pitch of Southern California’s gem climb, The Vampire. He’s never taken a whipper like he’s about to, and Lord knows I’ve never caught one. But forget about what the Lord knows for a moment, and focus on what Brad does. With his last piece fifteen feet beneath him and an impossible move above him, he knows there are those who take caution, and there are those who take whippers, and by no choice of his own, he’s compelled toward the latter, preprogrammed to it even. Knowing full well that I’ve got no clue what a “soft catch” is or how to feed it out, he’s up high looking like a hot mess.

by Lucas Roman, published in Volume 18, the new zine. Banner photo by Dan Krauss

“Okay, okay. Fuck!” he shouts above the clanking sound of gear rattling from his quivering leg.

Down below, I’m nearly out of sight at the belay. Perched above a few hundred feet worth of slab, I make a quick sling around a feeble tree for an anchor while Brad flushes out his options. My fear, no doubt, is that once he takes that whip, his house-of-cards excuse for protection will zip out cleaner than a surgeon’s scalpel from white flesh and send us both on a stone-skipping path toward the bone collector. He’s got the reputation for it after all, and even though we’ve only climbed a few times, I’ve already seen plenty of his gear go south.

“Okay. On the count of three! Three, two, one!”

I clinch the brakes and gnash half the enamel off my teeth, but nothing happens. Brad just can’t let go.

“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck me.”

Sweat beads from his bright-white brow under an uncaring California sun. Uncaring rock and uncaring world, it seems, especially when measured face-to-face with the grandeur of his dreams. He’s just a kid after all, not far out of high school even.

By this time, the local hard men who are on neighboring routes work up into a frenzy, laughing and heckling the poor bastard. Aware of the bitter circumstance, I don’t know whether it’s peer pressure or fatigue that leads to Brad finally take the ride. But, come to think of it, he’s never been about the business of life with a need to be accepted by others. At least not primarily. And what’s important, in this case, isn’t what made him take the ride—it’s that he took it. Because most don’t.

On the next go over, Brad starts at three, then counts the two, as if to surprise himself, but never makes it to the one. All I hear is the long, upward U following the hard T, and then he’s off. Brad flies through the sky and crashes into the wall with a hard thud provided by my helpless belay. And that was it. According to him, it was his first real whipper. What would turn out to be just one of many repeating moments in his now-infamous ride on this orbit. Brad Gobright, by all measures, the fool. But for just a moment in flight, between heaven and earth and wrapped up in a gorgeous flicker of light that most in their short time on this blue spinner simply will not know, he might have been the ideal man. An honest conclusion I wasn’t ready to reach about him.

I wanted a double take on the revelation, but real moments in life are only lived once; they violently stir us awake, and then quickly pass. Enough time has passed between then and now to realize that, in a lot of ways, it’s the brevity of the highlight reel we spin that makes it so bright. Our fortune is that these moments do burn, deep, like a sunspot into countless frames after the fact. You see it even when you aren’t trying to. That was back in 2007.

Gobright soloing Big Moe, Joshua Tree, California. Photo: Hobo Greg

Brad was my first climbing partner. As a person, he astounded me. His capacity was so specific to just one dimension, to climbing alone, that it moved me. Not in the way one is moved by a demonstration of love or sacrifice from one human to another, not in the way one wants to emulate on merit of its grace, nor in the way in which we come to fashion heroes and heroines—it was much less traditional, and in that sense, more profound. Brad lives almost exclusively on the surface. His walking narrative, his energy, is and was simply of the now. One suspects with his type there is not so much an arc of character—or if there were, that he wouldn’t concern himself with his place on it—as there is simply character. Didn’t matter what came before or what lay ahead. It is not a knock to that character but an appreciation of it, to note that with Brad there is a complete lack of guile, of architecture, design, or even noticeable levels of depth in his quieter moments of reflection, and it is exactly that simple purity of heart and his inability to engage in anything but the present moment that is his greatest asset.

He’s spent more nights in Yosemite hiding from rangers, bivying alone under scrummy boulders, hitching rides, and shivering without a fire than most of us ever did. For years, he’d eat anything he could, from the leftover plates of the tourists he so loathed at the Yosemite Village cafeteria to campfire-cooked roadkill in the Creek. He’d stomach expiration dates for calories, steal any gear necessary, work any bum job, and take any ride to get wherever it was that he needed to go. He’d do anything. He had that contagious swagger of someone with nothing to lose, whether he realized it or not, and it both got him into and out of every cluster he could fuck.

Shit, I even remember getting pulled over by a Valley ranger with Brad in the back of the open bed of my old pickup truck, in 2008, when he had first put his five articles of clothing in the car with his climbing gear and “moved” to the Valley. There were already three of us in a two-seatbelt cockpit up front, but Brad didn’t care, he jumped in the back and gophered under some gear. “Hey, throw that crash pad on top of me, would you? That’ll be perfect.”

Down the road a few miles later, pulled over without a working brake light, when the ranger peeled back the onion layer and Brad was right there like a deer in his flashlight, the ranger was so shit-scared by it, he actually dropped his light.

“Jesus Christ,” he sputtered, while picking up the Maglite. “Do I know you, son?”

“Maybe, um, officer. I work at The Ahwahnee.”

“I need you to exit the vehicle now, young man.”

More pissed about Brad’s surprise appearance than our brake light, overstocked cabin, and naïve to our open containers, the ranger shooed us off on down the road but kept Brad hostage. All we heard on our way out were the beginnings of his plea deal.

“Hey, sir, could you not tell my boss about this? Please? She thinks I’m sick today, and if I get busted and lose my job, that’s gonna kill my climbing.”

A confounding riddle, completely untouchable by the fabric of modernity.

Society never had a chance with Brad, and neither did the ranger. It couldn’t make him want to be someone or something else any more than the ranger could. You couldn’t punish it out of him any more than you could sell him on an alternative. Brad was exactly himself, and the only person seemingly not concerned about that was him. No dilemma, just Brad. He simply couldn’t fathom any other way to live.

Brad climbed while he still had baby teeth. If that wasn’t enough to set his life course, he fell into it just after the free-climbing revolution of the early nineties. He didn’t grow up with a smart phone and a streaming service, but that didn’t matter. Content was out there, and whether it was Dano’s locks or Lynn’s cutoff jean shorts and purple cotton top, when he saw human beings way up on that stone with their hair flying in ballads of splendor, he knew it, immediately. He was only ever going to go in one direction.

He once told me that as a kid he used to stay up in his room watching climbing movies, and that carried over into adulthood. The first night he and I stayed illegally in Camp 4, on our first trip to the Valley, while sleeping open bivy on the ground with a cardboard buffer, ’cause a Therm-a-Rest was too high a price, Brad played a Masters of Stone DVD on his handheld while other kids smoked pot around a fire and chugged down a good Valley blackout.

A month later, on our way home from the Needles, after having just spent a full weekend on the yellow spires, he watched the entire series while riding copilot in the pickup. He literally couldn’t get enough, and he had no choice in the matter. At that point, society couldn’t sell or give Brad anything, but if it was in a climbing film and he saw it, you can bet your ass he’d beg, borrow, cheat, or steal for it. And he did.

For most of us, those first few seasons of dirtbagging carry an inspiration, a drunken freedom for transient souls, you might say. But, generally speaking, if you do it for long enough, there’s often another cost involved. At some point each one of us meets a deeper calling out there. Somewhere, we all gotta answer to something. And it’s not a question that society asks of us; it’s something we do. When it all comes clean and the ropes are pulled from the chains, will all the sunsets from all the summits ever actually be enough? And if not, what, in the end, will be the cost? What of all the relationships we’ve left in our wake as we’ve been chasing shadows?

For many, the greatest climber is the one who rides the ultimate line—not that of danger and absolutes—but that of a holistic life. He or she whose balance is as much in life altogether as it is weighted upon the smallest smear of the smallest crystal. That is the finest line, one which most of us who venture outside only ride on the lopside or in a state of perpetual conflict. But where others sink, Brad soars. Climbing, the real thing, out there on the big stuff, has always been his fullest expression. With a featherweight conscience impervious to even the most compelling gravitas, he soars. That he has a program, which runs without dilemma, is his gift, for sure. It has enabled him to go so big and so far without the need or the compulsion to even once look back. And yet still, beyond the gift, how he runs the operations, what he’s done from the close of that gas cap in 2008, until now, that will always be his art.

In 2008, five of us, including Brad, rigged our first highline above the Rostrum, spanning 70 feet in length and fluttering 1,000 feet above the Valley floor. It was gangbusters. Four of us spent the whole of a perfect fall day trying to walk that thing, romanced by the notion of expanding ourselves in the process. But not Brad, he didn’t try it once. Not out of fear, but because it wasn’t even in his register. He was there to climb, always. Climb. Execute. Repeat. Adinfinitum. It’s the only function that runs in his programming. Like any other drive, it doesn’t even require a qualifier—it’s just a core drive. It operates on condition of consciousness.

After we spread the word on our highline earlier in the day, our new acquaintances, Nico, and a strapping Belgian-Irishman named Sean, arrived. These guys were the type who took on everything with an air of impeccability. Counter to Brad in the fullest. Their entire style lay on an impossible line where an ungodly ethic, and the level of suffering it prescribed, was met with premiere abilities and a carefree attitude. Highlights of their climbing achievements included first ascents of big wall free climbs, including a route on El Cap, established completely ground up. To the average among us, theirs was an impossible bar.

Highlights of Brad’s accomplishments, to that point, had been nearly dying on a rope-solo toprope on the Cookie Cliff, killing a squirrel in a bloody Tarantino stand-off while cleaning rooms in The Ahwahnee Hotel, and being known locally in Southern California for having been “The Guy” to use an actual construction ladder to aid in the ascent of Intersection Rock’s Left Ski Track, in Joshua Tree National Park. If Sean and Nico had taken wind in their sails from Robbins, Brad had surely blown down from a Harding howl.

In the afternoon, while Sean was walking the highline and playing his mountain flute, we cracked beers and took it all in, because, conditionally, you couldn’t have asked for anything more. Unless you were Brad. After asking each of us, and even a party of Germans who’d just topped out via the standard finish, to climb with him, Brad set up his rope for a rappel into the final pitch, alone. Just before yanking the GriGri brake release, he looked up to Sean in a last effort.

“Hey, man, any chance you want to rap in here with me and toprope the Alien finish? It’s supposed to be classic!”

I swear the gust of wind that had been blowing steady for hours suddenly came to a pause. One single strand of Sean’s beaten hair lifted in the last of the wind, with a spiraled flutter, while Brad, young as he’d ever be and pure of heart, waited out the pregnant pause.

“Haha,” Sean started, with his marbled Irish accent, “no chance, my friend. I bet it’s a great pitch, indeed.” Smiling through his warlord’s beard, he finished, “But, that shit’s just not in my ethics, man.”

The four of us had to double take. Jaws dropped down to the floor.

Not. In. My. Ethics. Are you kidding?

He’d pulled it off better than Jesus. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Surely, Brad looked the fool for even asking such heresy. At the same time, it was obvious that Sean hadn’t intended to scorn the poor kid either; there wasn’t a bad fiber in him for that kind of shit.

It was just so profound, so clear. Sean had identified an ethic and made an informed choice to follow it. And not only to follow it but to do it joyfully. Forget climbing for a moment; in life at large, we’d literally never seen anything like it. Sean’s ethic emphasized how you got somewhere, not where you were going to end up.

Digesting it, Brad turned to a dumbfounded gaze. It was as if someone had asked him if he wanted to go to college or if he had a life plan. It was deep shit for him, maybe too deep, precisely because it appealed to something far deeper than the here and now. But, with Brad, what is incredible is his ability, his unwitting ability, to rise back to the surface. There’s nearly no amount of gravity in a situation that can override his operations in the present.

He doesn’t have a lot of the same questions as the average among us, and if he does on occasion, for the most part, he doesn’t need answers on one condition before he can proceed to the next. In a world where we often feel like something is not right if we don’t understand it, if it’s not going our way, or if we don’t feel quite right or ready for the situation, Brad is a refreshing spring of water. Always at the source and the destination. Now. Here. Always. In action.

He went ahead and rope soloed the Alien anyway.

If you never have to ask why your programming runs, you also don’t have to navigate the how of it. You don’t really have to navigate the ethics. Brad was always honest in reporting how and by what means he did something, but it was never really as important to him as the fact that he was doing. Doing was being.

There’s a lot that seemed to fly over Brad’s head, and it’s easy to want to write him off in some ignoramus script. But pay heed. On land, the common point of view is that he’s not doing much good for society, but you put him on the rocks, and it’s magic. The fucker will glide across planes and depths of the human experience that most will surely sink in. Make no mistake, his lights are on, perhaps on a different circuit; but the longer you spend with Brad, the more you sense that it is unwise to write off what you do not understand.

Here was Sean, the valiant, Sean, the heroic. And then Brad, the anomaly. He didn’t serve an ethic; he just was, and that level of being is impenetrable. You almost call it foolish until you see just how it has served him over the years.

Since then, Brad has done all of it. Nearly. Speed record on El Cap. Big wall free climbing. First ascents. Hard climbs in almost every discipline of the sport. Free soloist of a generation. Including more than a handful of times ropeless on the Rostrum and an uncountable number of laps on the Naked Edge, in Eldorado Canyon. Back in 2008, that same group of four of us actually voted him off an El Cap team, because his climbing had gotten so frenetic and dangerous. As fortune would have it, we didn’t summit. He’s now climbed it more than fifty times.

Ian and I had a good laugh about it when we considered that not only did we not summit on that go, we suffered. We dropped climbing shoes off the Ear pitch, a tag line off a backpack, a sleeping bag off the Alcove, and got pissed on by the Aussies under the Monster off-width, and that was all just on day three, with a team that was apparently safer and sounder without Brad. When Brad did climb El Cap for the first time, it was in a single day. I can remember Ian’s characteristic laugh, the maniacal kind, jolting till his ribs hurt when we considered the irony. Ian later left us in his own accident a few years ago, BASE jumping in the remote parts of Turkey with a poor pack job. There are fewer of us left these days, but there’s also a comfort in knowing we can spin that reel anytime and see the mark of their sunspots.

This is part 1 of the story. You can read the full piece in the new Zine, Volume 18. Part 2 will be posted shortly.

Lucas Roman is a nursing student who writes for his partner, Nathalie, his friend Jeremy, and the last of the red-hot lovers. This piece, and others, will be featured in a collection of short stories, titled, Likeness; Ad Infinitum, to be published by Di Angelo Publications in 2021.