We recently had the chance to interview Scott Cosgrove, an Academy Award winning climber, who has won two Presidential Civilian Bravery Commendations for the Yosemite Valley Rescue Service.
Scott’s career is truly remarkable, he’s the owner and president of California Mountain Guides, Inc., and has been a world class rock climber and professional climbing instructor for 30 years. Out of five confirmed 5.14 climbs, Scott is the author of three of them and was the first American to establish a grade 5.14A and 5.14B rock climb. He’s made ascents (un-roped) up to grade 5.12 and established first ascents of four A5 grade six rock climbs.
Check out his profile! We thought an interview was in order with this tremendous athlete.
Editor: We’re honored to interview you and we do appreciate your time. Thanks for speaking with us, Scott.
Scott Cosgrove: Thank you, talking about myself has always been a great pleasure;;;))) It's something I can still remember, most of the time.
Editor: Where are you originally from and how old were you when you knew climbing was for you?
Scott Cosgrove: I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, a little town known as Belmont. We had large oak trees in the back yard and open space. I started climbing as a kid. I was about 12 years old my first time, when I actually did some real rock climbing.
When I was 14, I started climbing full time. We lived close to Yosemite a (three hour drive) and many of the older kids went there on the weekends. I use to spend summers up there. Yosemite was besides Castle Rock near my hometown my first experience with rock.
Editor: Who were some of your first climbing teachers?
Scott Cosgrove: I did a lot of climbing with a lot of people. My friends in high school helped a lot. But at 18, I drove to Yosemite and climbed with Werner Braun. He showed me how the real pros were doing it, put me in my place, scared the crap out of me and was my friend.
Finally, I started getting better and climbing with Ron Kauk and John Bachar. I'd say those three had the most effect on my climbing. Ron was just natural and went to the same high school as I did. It was such an honor to tie in with. He would just float really hard boulder problems and I'd do them to because it looked so easy. Bachar was so dedicated and cared so much about style. Ron taught me to be mellow and John was a pro and more serious.
Editor: You’ve established big walls in Yosemite, the Yukon Territories and South America’s Patagonia as well as conducting guided trips to Jordan, the Himalayas, Alaska, Canada, Thailand and Australia; you have amassed over 400 first ascents worldwide.
That alone is spectacular! This includes a first free ascent of the Grand Wall in Squamish Chief, British Columbia.
What was it like to travel the world and getting to climb in some of the most spectacular places in the world?
Scott Cosgrove: Traveling around world was a dream come true. I'm big on history and many of the places were incredible. The climbing was also amazing. Patagonia was quite back in 1989 and we had no cell phones, all alone going for broke on the Central Tower. In Jordan, we traveled to Petra and the Dead Sea, drank tea with a Bedouin tribe, and climbed big wall sandstone in the incredible Wadi Rum. In Nepal, I was touring the Buddha monastery on the way to Everest.
I really have come to notice most of the world is pretty close to being the same. People want safety, friends and family. I also learned how amazing and unique the US is. I really wanted to kiss the ground every time I flew home. I'd have to say that the Yukon in Canada is probably one of the last truly wild places left in the world. We’d climb a big wall, freeing a first ascent and saw animals and terrain that have never seen humans. It's purely magical.
Editor: You’ve made more than 28 ascents of El Captain, and have guided El Cap 10 times. You’re also well known for doing the first free ascent of the South Face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, Southern Belle, in 1987. What drew you so powerfully to climbing, Scott? What is it about this sport that drives you emotionally?
Scott Cosgrove: I always wanted to climb. Trees and buildings, anything I could find. My parents were busy people and I had time after school. I tried every sport, but climbing I was good at. I decided at 14 that I wanted to dedicate my life to climbing. I did everything I could and just trained. It gave me friends, family and my own tribe. Emotionally, climbing made me who I was, as a man.
I was shown how scared or how tough I was. The thing I loved the most was being totally absorbed by the climb. Being in a cool location and just flat out being happy. The Southern Belle was a dream I always had, when Dave Shultz asked me to free it with him, I dropped everything and went to the Valley. It was the scariest, most beautiful thing I've ever done. I had never been that at my limit. Back then almost 30 years ago, it was the most feared climb in the Valley. I hear Holland say it wasn't that bad and certainly not a death route. It just cracked me up, how could a 300 fall over dikes and ledge be anything else but death. Pretty cocky and youthful, but just a sign of how petty people can get.
Editor: Can you tell our readers about winning an Academy Award in 2005? How did that come about? And which movies are we talking about? Did you enjoy the experience?
Scott Cosgrove: I was asked to joined my friend Mark Chapmen to work in the Czech Republic and fly a camera in three dimensions over a huge movie set for the movie Van Helsing. After twenty eight non-stop days, our rig was built. It was 120 feet high, 500 feet across and 200 feet across, and had 35,000 feet of tech rope involved. We succeeded in filming the point of view of the bat brides in the movie. That year we built the same rig on Cat Women, Miracle on Ice, and Troy. They awarded us the technical achievement for the Academy awards. It was given to the entire flying camera team.
Editor: How did it feel to receive an Academy Award? Not many climbers can say that, it must have been a wonderful moment.
Scott Cosgrove: Well, I was only part of a team, but it was flattering. I think people thought it was mind blowing, but I was just doing my job. It was less a wonderful moment than I thought. I've won some other awards, including a SAG award for STUNTS and some others. It's nice and I'm proud of it. Still, it's not climbing and prestige never really got me going. People just don't know and I never go around telling anyone.
Editor: A SAG award is really impressive. So, what made you create your own guiding company?
Scott Cosgrove: I had been making a living as a guide for about 12 years and got lucky. I was asked to work with a special forces team in rock climbing. This was 1989 and the group was a very secretive and intimidating bunch. Through the years they grew tired of the person running the classes and wanted to hire me solo. I had moved out of Joshua Tree and back to the Bay Area. I started my guide service to train civilians and the military. Now, I'm exclusively working with the military.
I have a way of teaching climbing that uses very simple and easy to remember technique. It was nice to be my own boss and have the freedom to teach climbing as I saw fit. I also have worked for myself ever since. It's really challenging and rewarding. You have to be honest and let people go, but it's just doing your job.
Editor: Which were some of your favorite first ascents (routes/grades) that are close to your heart?
Scott Cosgrove: I'd say Central Tower of Paine in Patagonia was incredible, plum grade 6 A4, 5.12. We spent two and a half months and only climbed on four days. We lost our tent in an avalanche and all our survival gear. We made a desperate summit bid, climbing ten new pitches on the last day and rappelling in 100 mile an hour wind storm.
Freeing the Muir Wall grade 6, 5.13, was incredible. We wanted to free El Cap by fair means, not resorting to any tricks like rappelling from the top. We climbed about ten new pitches do the upper dihedral - center of El Cap- after 54 days and 21 nights of effort. We couldn't free thirty feet, however.
Also the Southern Belle on the South Face of half dome grade 6, 5.13a is really the best route I've ever done. If it had more bolts, one of the most popular anywhere. It's as good as anything in Yosemite.
Editor: How is your recovery coming along? How are you feeling now?
Would you like to share what happened to you?
Scott Cosgrove: I'm recovering well, but it's a long road and a very tough climb. After getting away with 35 years of climbing, it's ironic to get hurt falling at work.
Editor: Do you have any data for us as to how things will progress health-wise? Many of your fans and students are rooting for you.
Scott Cosgrove: I'm walking already and faster than I thought. I'm doing 5 hours a day of rehab 6 days a week. So, in three months we should know a lot more. I'm hoping just to be able to walk and ride my bike…climbing is just a goal at this time.
Editor: Okay, we’ll switch gears and talk about things you enjoy doing!
Do you like books? Which ones are your favorites? Which are your all-time-favorite movies? What kind of music do you enjoy? I don’t you’ve ever been asked this, so it will be a fun treat for your fans!
Scott Cosgrove: I'm a very avid reader. I've read books my whole life and studied poetry. I read many history books mostly about the first and second world wars. I also read fiction from the good writers. The classics are always on the list. I never had money for a TV and electronic devices were not popular in my day. It was story-telling and reading that filled our days. I can really have conversations about a lot of things. Books have really expanded my mind to the world around me.
I also work and watch movies. I've been working on them pretty steadily for the last 14 years. I do love watching them, but not so much the big action ones I work on. I like stories that are character and story driven. The ones I like the most over the years, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, California, Something about Everything.
Editor: Would you like to add a few words about how climbing is changing so fast and will continue to change? It seems the focus now is on speed, breaking records and grabbing sponsorships.
It seems like more and more folks are joining indoor climbing gyms. How do you feel about climbing gyms, Scott?
Scott Cosgrove: I think climbing started to change as I kind of became more remote. The modern climber seems to want to promote themselves as much as climb. They would focus on what I really always called tricks. I climb a route 3 minutes faster than you and now I’m in the New York Times, was the deal. It was instant glory and sponsorship. In my day, people dream of the first ascent, for being good in every type of climbing.
I tried to hone every skill down to a point where I could go out on virgin rock and find my way. A first ascent often ended up being a waste of time. But some stay with me to this day. My friends who climbed with me on those great adventures are still my brothers.
We shared adventure, suffering fear and finally relief and happiness. I only got press from things that I considered first ascent. The circus tricks gets lots of press, but are really contrived to the actual process of walking up to a virgin wall and climbing it.
I like climbing gyms for training and to hang out with climbers. It's not really outdoor climbing but it makes you strong. The trickster, proxy flyers and slack walkers are great thrill seekers, but full on old school climbers… who knows. If you don't leave a mark as a climber, your climbing is mostly forgotten.
Editor: What are your thoughts on the preservation of nature and climate change?
Scott Cosgrove: Well, global warming is a scientific fact, it is not a belief. The big money folks try to make a political issue out of science, but it's purely idiotic when it comes to the realization that the Earth's health is more important than profits and responsibility. I think the warming climate has obviously changed the high mountains more than the rocks.
The glaciers are melting and disappearing. I've seen it first hand in my years. The lack of knowledge of the Earth and preservation of nature attached to religious or party affiliation is a complete misconception of reality. My hope is that the people will see that they are being manipulated by big money, using what they hold dear. Basically the world is changing and all I can say, is get out and see the beautiful places before they’re no longer there.
Editor: Do you have a few words of advice about climbing that your fans can use as pearls of wisdom from you?
Scott Cosgrove: I would say don’t be competitive, as there will always be somebody better. The person to be competitive with is yourself. Try to improve slowly and safely over time. That way you will get a little better every day.
Footwork takes a lifetime to master and most never do. I would also never scare yourself, never let yourself get into a situation you can't get out of. If you climb safely every day, climbing will seem safe and fun.
It was always my dream to push the limits of climbing and I achieved it for a short time. It came, because I had the ability … but also the hard core training it took. I did it because it made me happy. It was all about being happy.
Finally don't spend time thinking about what everybody thinks. They tend to be envious, jealous and greedy. They're not worth your time.
Editor: We truly appreciate the chance to interview you and learn a bit more about you.
Thank you for dedicating your life to climbing, for sharing your vast knowledge with countless students and for all the hard work you’ve put into your career.
We wish you a speedy recovery.
Scott Cosgrove: It's my pleasure, I always wanted to be a climber and just followed the voice in my head to follow my dreams. I love to share with people and hope some of my thoughts help others.
Climb safe and walk away, live to climb another day. Thanks for having me and good luck with your venture.
Photo Credit: Greg Epperson
On the Cover:
Cover Date: April 9th, 2015