Words and photos by Jonathan Siegrist.
If you have ever met Bob Siegrist, aside from his athletic build and omnipresent smile, you surely noticed one distinct characteristic: his everlasting optimism. He glides through life with a stoke that I’ve never quite seen elsewhere, in both celebratory and dire times. Any advice you may receive from him will certainly be optimistic: any weather prediction, cost analysis, hiking time or hope for the future. With Bob the glass is simply not half full, it is three quarters full.
There is no doubt that Bob is a gifted athlete, climbing 5.13, running marathons, and summiting Himalayan Peaks, but I feel it’s something about his attitude in particular that has driven him to success and seemingly stopped the aging process. Every body eventually grows tired with age but not every mind.
My dad started climbing in the mid 1970’s- in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. A passionate white water rafter, he looked to borrow some rope work tactics from fellow members of the legendary Hoofers Outing Club at UW Madison. The original goal was to better understand rappelling for descending into hairy waterfalls with his boat. His long time climbing partner Kurt Krueger recalls, “It was in the days of goldline rope, we tied in just to the rope and if you were sticking with it, make a harness out of 16 feet of webbing. But Bob came in with a lot of strength due to all the kayaking he had done. He had a big lead on most of the new climbers.” His newfound love for climbing gradually overshadowed his interest in boating, and the friends he made through Hoofers would be life long: he even met his beautiful wife (and my incredible mother) to this day, Sue, in the Hoofers club.
At the time he found climbing he was finishing his Master’s and beginning his PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. During the school week he, Krueger and other friends would traverse the flagstone Alumni building for training. “We would go almost everyday together just moving back and forth as one. If it was during work hours (for the people in the offices) we would traverse around the building sneaking past the windows,” Krueger remembers. “It was his dedication and work ethic for everything he did,” that Krueger feels made Bob such a great athlete.
The Hoofers crew took epic road trips for climbing when they could. Driving through the night to reach a classic climbing destination for as little as a weekend. “We did an autumn trip to the Gunks in the late ’70’s. We both were just breaking into leading 5.9, and we did most of the ‘Land’ climbs (i.e.: Roseland, Birdland, etc, etc). Classic 5.9’s. I don’t think we stopped grinning on the whole thousand-mile drive back to Madison,” says one of Bob’s original climbing partners, Ron Lenz.
Rock climbing was something of a stepping-stone during these times as my dad’s vision had grown to climbing in the big mountains. In 1980 he joined a team of three, including Krueger, to climb the West Rib of Denali. After being tent-bound by horrendous weather for days at high camp, they summited self supported. Krueger has fond and inspirational memories of the route, “The main thing was that we didn’t know what we could do and we found out.”
In 1982 a crew assembled to attempt the first winter ascent of the South Ridge of Ama Dablam, a beautiful 6800 meter peak in Eastern Nepal. Largely self-supported, the team faced extreme winds at high camp above 19,000ft for nearly three weeks. Just my dad and Krueger were left when the others had bailed, and on their summit attempt, within sight of the top, they made the difficult decision to retreat when Krueger began suffering from severe altitude sickness. “It was a choice for me, one I have never forgotten, to go on solo or help my partner down and retreat. I made the right choice,” wrote my Dad. When remembering the climb, it’s clear that my Dad still slightly aches from such a close call, but overwhelmingly, as always, his attitude is positive: he describes the things he learned, his experience in a foreign land, and even the drive to return one day.
In between these big mountain trips he was still crimping hard. ‘Acid Rock’ at Devil’s Lake was likely his first 5.12, sometime in the early 1980’s. As Ron Lenz remembers, “At the time, it was rated .10c in the brutally sandbagged Devil’s Lake Guide.” It’s now consensus 12a. The nature of the climbing at Devil’s Lake would reinforce Bob’s tendons and edging abilities, something that he so clearly displays even 40 years later.
Once I came onto the scene in the mid 80’s my parents didn’t hesitate to bring me along for adventures. “Your first trip to the crag was right around three weeks!,” remembers my mom, Sue. We eventually relocated to beautiful Boulder, Colorado. As I grew up, a couple times a year my Dad would bring me along on a Flagstaff Mountain bouldering day, drag me up an easy Lumpy Ridge Classic, or bring me down to the budding sport scene at Shelf Road, but it was not until around age 18 that I truly embraced climbing for myself. My excitement for climbing took off, driven by my own passion and ambition, and my dad certainly took notice.
My dad’s interest in the mountains unquestionably led me to a life of climbing, but it was my drive to progress that encouraged him to try his personal best. And we climbed and pushed ourselves together often. He belayed me on my first 5.12, and I nudged him onto his first 12+. It was clear to me from the beginning that his skills outweighed his resume, so I encouraged him at every turn. Some years down the road we had nearly overlapping breakthroughs when I climbed my first 5.15 in June of 2014 and he shortly after climbed his first 5.13.
Climbing became a means to really challenge himself and to set and accomplish goals. His optimism paid off whenever he took on a new project. His latest goal was a big one, and one that he made without any push from me. Blue Light Special 13b is a savagely crimpy route at the French Cattle Ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. A route that would play to his strengths from years before but also a route that pushed him to train in a way that he had never done before.
The first several days on the route he didn’t even make it to the chains. Single moves felt very hard, but fueled with his success on neighboring routes he kept returning over and over, making the 7-hour trek from Boulder. Some trips ended early because of a freak summer snow storm. Others were distracted by the failing health of his loving mother, Dorothy. He took five separate trips to try Blue Light Special over nearly two years. Twenty-one days of effort on the same exact route on the same warm-ups, with the same stoke. When I sensed he could be getting close to the send I joined him to support and belay.
I watched him break all of the way through the crux for the first time. On a later try he ran out of gas just a couple moves below the anchor. In classic Bob style, after his fall, the first thing he said was, “Cool!” This always confused me growing up climbing with him: what about failure is cool? Over the years I’ve learned it’s all in your attitude, and this is a perfect expression of that. He says “cool” because in his mind he has already found the silver lining, even before his body weights the rope.
On the following day, in somewhat horrendous heat, he tied in, laced his shoes and fired the route, as I belayed. A crowd of supporters had gathered and the whole cliff was cheering him on. My friend Alex Honnold leaned over and expressed, “That was sick!” Needless to say it was a big moment for Bob. Something about his persistence and attitude had led him to his most challenging route after 43 years of climbing, at 67 years old. If his continued optimism is any indication, I expect to see many more sends before, and after 70.
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