Scott Cosgrove, a 52-year-old climber of extraordinary accomplishments in Yosemite and elsewhere, died this week near his home in Santa Monica. His cause of death is unknown, though some acquaintances have speculated that it might be related to serious injuries he sustained in a 2014 rigging accident.
Cosgrove kindly gave me an interview for a collection of adventure stories I published in 2011. Though we had never met, he was warm, friendly, and enthusiastic about helping me with the book. For me, getting to know many good folks like “Coz” who shared a love of the mountains was the highlight of the project. Scott’s contribution to “Yosemite Epics” follows.
Scott Cosgrove: “Affliction”
A thin line separates passion and obsession and those who cross it risk serious consequences. Yet only a seemingly superhuman drive permits some outdoors enthusiasts to accomplish their most mind-boggling feats. Scott Cosgrove and Walt Shipley proved as much as they pioneered a daring climb on Higher Cathedral Rock in July of 1990. The virgin route they attempted presented the pair with challenges even greater than its formidable 5.12 climbing difficulty.
Cosgrove, then just 21, served with the veteran Shipley on Yosemite’s search and rescue team. “Coz” had already achieved first free ascents of Half Dome’s Southern Belle and Machine Gun, a 5.13c rock face which was the park’s hardest climb for years. But none of his previous efforts involved the combined physical and mental tenacity required on the 1,500-foot terror which the duo aptly named The Affliction.
When I climbed a first ascent of Power Point with Werner Braun on Higher Cathedral Rock, I looked around a corner and saw a hairline crack going across the north face. It was a big, shady, intimidating line that comes right out of a catwalk gully. I went to check it out from the ground and saw it was a gigantic, right-facing corner. Nobody had ever climbed it before and I showed it to Walt Shipley, who was looking to do a first free ascent. He got excited and we decided to go for it.
Walt was a famous, well-liked climber and something of a mentor. When I moved to Yosemite, I was 19 years old and he was about 32. He was a really bright guy, a former Lockheed engineer and super-talented at everything from free climbing to direct aid to ice climbing. He was also totally crazy.
We had gone climbing together before. I wasn’t quite the wall climber he was. I was just starting out when we tried to do Mescalito on El Cap. I decided to bail and he was frustrated and disappointed in me. I was really good at first free ascents, though. I wanted to impress Walt by doing this climb with him, but I don’t know if I did that. He was a hard guy to impress.
The route looks spectacular from the ground and I was hoping it would be really good, but there’s a reason no one had ever climbed there before. That’s because it’s loose and dark on one of these Yosemite faces that almost never sees sun. When we got up there we found it wasn’t the best rock, but we decided to go ahead anyway. Walt said, “Let’s do it in a day.” I didn’t want to say that we couldn’t do it in a day. So we just took a minimal amount of gear, food and water for the first ascent. A lot of crazy things went on and we had to fight for every inch up there.
We started heading up and turned a corner onto the north face. We get to the face and there’s a gigantic drop-off into a gully. We started climbing up this corner and it turned out to be just nasty, vegetated and dirty with gigantic loose blocks, though the climbing itself was generally okay. Walt led the first pitch and he actually drilled a bolt straight away to protect a 5.12 face move. Then there was a really scary 5.11 section.
“Coz, this thing sucks,” Walt shouted. “But it’s just right for us. Nobody else will ever do it!”
The next pitch was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Four gigantic flakes, 30 feet by 20 feet and three feet thick, sit on top of each other with no visible attachment to the wall whatsoever. We’re two pitches from the start but way above the gully and thousands of feet off the ground. In my head a voice says “I don’t want to do this!” But I also didn’t want to let Walt down. That turned out to be the bigger priority.
It felt really wrong, but I started leading. When I got to the first flake, it was even worse than I thought. I compensated by putting a bunch of gear in behind it, even though the gear could pull the flake from the wall. Walt commented that he’d never seen me put so much gear onto one pitch, but the climb was 5.11c and loose and I was terrified.
After I get on top of the third flake, I get back into the corner we saw from the ground and we’re back to good pro again. I still can’t believe how crazy that pitch was, but the pitch after that was even crazier. Walt led a super-overhanging flake with hard stemming and really sporadic pro. He’d go 25 feet, place a cam, climb another 25 feet and place another one, all on solid 5.11c. He only placed five pieces on the entire pitch. That was the epitome of Walt’s climbing ability and style. With his engineering mind, he could always find the best protection, and he was crazy enough to totally rely on it.
Our last pitch that day took us to a big ledge. To get there, I had to lead desperately loose 5.11c. Walt was really impressed when he got to the ledge but it was clear we weren’t going to top out that day.
“You know Scott, we’ve got enough food and water. Let’s just sleep here tonight,” Walt says.
I think, “We don’t have any bivvy gear.” But I don’t want to let him down, so I agreed.
We wanted to let our girlfriends know we were okay and we saw these guys descending from the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. So Walt dropped rocks down the gully to get their attention. They didn’t notice right away and there was no way the rock would hit them, so Walt finally threw a gigantic rock that made a huge explosion.
“What the fuck!” they yell.
We tell them, “Hey, we’re Walt and Scott. Please go tell our girlfriends in Camp 4 that we’re okay and sleeping on this rock tonight.”
They probably worried we’d throw more rocks and kill them and didn’t want to go down the gully after that. Walt was a nut job and thought it was funny to throw bigger and bigger rocks. They said “Whatever” and they actually did find our girlfriends. Then they said to them, “Your boyfriends are screwed up! What did you do to them?”
That was the coldest night recorded that spring and we started a little fire on our ledge. Walt started snuggling up to me to keep warm. I wasn’t going for that and I slept on the other side of the fire. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to be here, but I don’t want Walt to think I’m a wimp.” We toughed out the night.
In the morning we tried to traverse past a couple of bolts. Walt tried to climb past them and place a third bolt but had trouble doing that without hanging on the bolts that were already there.
“Walt, you’re not strong enough. You need to lock off on the bolt and lean out,” I said.
“I’m not strong enough? You arrogant son of a bitch!” He just lost it and started screaming and going off on me.
“Sorry Walt, I didn’t mean it that way!” This was my worst nightmare. Here I was trying to impress him and instead I get him mad at me.
“I’m not good enough?” he says. “This climb sucks. We’re going down!”
We rappelled, hiked down and got back that afternoon, totally wasted. We both swore we weren’t going to have anything to do with the climb again.
Then a day went by and I went over to his van.
“Don’t say it!” he said.
But I did anyway. “I want to go back.”
“So do I,” he said.
So we went back up there again with the same plan: crank to the top in one day. We got back to our ledge where we bivvied before. Walt leads the next pitch again and this time he clips the second bolt and swings over from it into a crack system. I followed and now it’s my lead in a gigantic off-width corner. I got into this thing and it’s so hard I almost die. I’d been climbing in Colorado where the rock is totally different and I can’t get up. So Walt takes over and leads beautifully to the top of that stellar off-width pitch.
I lead the pitch after that and get to another giant loose block, like the ones below only way worse. I touch it with my finger and the whole thing moves. This block is 60 feet high and right above our ledge. The whole geology up there is loose and this flake could peel away like a giant onion at any minute. I won’t climb it. Walt thinks I’m being a wimp, but then he looks at it and he won’t do it either. We decide to bail again.
He lowered me a ways and I clipped into a bolt. I wanted to add another bolt to rappel from there.
“Walt, send me down the bolt kit.”
“No! We’re not adding a bolt.”
He was mad about his girlfriend running around with some other guy and wanted to get down in a hurry. So he takes me off belay, rappels down to me and clips right into my carabiner in the bolt. Now we’re both hanging from a single quarter-inch bolt because he’s too pissed off to add another one! He raps off the bolt, swings around at the bottom of the rope and jumps onto a ledge. I had to follow him. I’m the young protégé and I don’t want to bug him too much, but I couldn’t believe he did that. We’re fighting and pissed off all the way back to camp, and we swear we’re never going back up there again.
But the next day, I go back to his van.
“Don’t even say it!” he said.
“I want to go back,” I said.
“Me too,” he said.
First we had to figure out how to get past the flake. We hiked to the top and I rapped down three pitches, leaving Walt at the summit. I just put my hand on it and this whole 60-foot pillar flies off. It was like kicking a Greyhound bus off the wall. Slowly it turns over and over, hits the Middle Cathedral catwalk and explodes. The shit we were doing for this climb just kept getting more insane.
As we hiked up the approach again, Walt stopped in the talus and looked at me.
“What’s wrong with you, Coz?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You’ve got a great girlfriend. You’re one of the best climbers in the valley. But you’re not happy down on the ground. You’re only happy when you’re up here climbing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have an affliction.”
That’s why we called it The Affliction. Maybe he was right, because no matter what happened to us, we kept throwing ourselves back up there.
We start again and we get back to that part where the block used to be. There’s a gigantic right-facing corner followed by a huge crack. Walt pulls into this 5.11c off-width fist jam.
“Hey Coz, a bird shit on my hand,” he shouted. “It’s an omen to me that we’re gonna die!”
Then I lead a 5.11a corner and I had to belay him on two small stoppers, not even close to what you want for an anchor. He gets up to me and sees the meager pro and he just goes postal.
“You fucking idiot! We could die, Coz!” This from the guy who rapped off one bolt!
He leads a hard 5.11c fist jam pitch past this roof that hangs over the entire valley. I follow that and lead the last pitch. Finally we top out.
It felt really good but also irresponsible, like if you go to Vegas for the weekend, party too hard and say, “Why the hell did I do that?” Between the one bolt we rapped from, the loose block we pushed off, that weak anchor I belayed from, the bivvy and all the pitches down below, it was a scary, horrible 1,500 feet. It didn’t feel right to me but Walt was stoked out of his mind and really happy by contrast.
My lesson was that a commitment to a friend, even if you don’t feel like following through with it, is more important than anything else. On every pitch, we were going to make it or have a bad accident. We had every reason not to go on, but I’d committed so I never backed off or told him I was scared. I’m still the same way. I really think long and hard before I agree to something because I believe in taking responsibility for my decisions.
That affliction that Walt talked about is the same feeling that all climbers have when a climb gets under their skin and they really want to do it. Walt claimed that he and I had it so bad that we just weren’t right for this planet. We didn’t belong. In many ways, I think he was right.