Paul Gleason’s Influence Went Way Beyond Wildland Fire

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Paul Gleason “bouldering” during a day off in the early 1980s when he was the Superintendent of the Zigzag Interagency Hotshot Crew. When Gleason wasn’t on a fire you could most likely find him somewhere on a challenging rock face.

Legendary Rock Climber John Long Credits Paul Gleason for His Initial Teaching and Inspiration

Legendary American rock climber John Long is a founding member of the elite group known as the “Stonemasters”. This group’s famed climbing exploits—from the French Alps to the North Pole—combined with Long’s popular writings, propelled the Stonemaster ethos into becoming a central fixture in the “extreme” adventure sports culture.

Long’s many climbing feats include the first one-day ascent of the most sought after rock climb in the world, the 3,000-foot “Nose Route” on California’s El Capitan on Memorial Day in 1975.

Long’s writings about his climbing achievements inspired an entire generation of “free climbers” throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. He is known for helping to establish “bouldering” in general and “high balling” (high bouldering sans rope) in particular, as a valid and extreme expression of traditional climbing.

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In John Long’s Rock and Ice article on Gleason (pictured above), he writes: “Paul had a concentrated focus when it came to bagging new boulder problems — he’d chart moves out on graph paper and file the edges of his PAs [climbing shoes] with an emery board. For Paul, sending [successfully climbing a route without falling or resting on gear] a hard new problem was not a physical triumph but something to cherish by howling at the sky, dancing in place, and, of course, stoking the old corncob.”

Long popularized “free soloing” (climbing with no rope) during his high school days in southern California—with Paul Gleason providing him his most significant teachings and inspiration.

In the March 2005 Rock and Ice magazine (Issue 140), Long penned an article on how Paul Gleason was a major mentor influence in Long’s climbing ability and perspective.

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Paul Gleason (with black shirt on right) leads a two-day ropes/climbing course with members of his Zigzag Hotshots in the early 1980s. Gleason’s crew, that included several advanced climbers, was known to travel with climbing ropes and gear.

“With his lumberjack frame, shoulder-length red hair and a Van Dyke moustache/goatee combo, Paul resembled Buffalo Bill Cody with 20 pounds of gristle packed on. Paul was entirely free of guff and posturing, which had a calming effect on a tightly wound kid like myself,” Long writes in Rock and Ice. “The challenge was trying to match Paul move for move on the boulders, a nearly impossible task because he was one of the best.”

Another John Long insight on Paul Gleason: “Like many effective coaches, Paul inspired by virtue of who he was, not through what he said, which was never much. His praise and suggestions were laid on with a feather, which made us listen that much closer.”

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Gleason in his other element besides wildland fire.

Long writes about hearing that Paul had fatal colon cancer in 2003 and calling him. “All I could do was thank Paul for having faith in us long before we did. Most of all, I thanked him for being himself. Paul gave us permission to find our own way, and, in a sense, we did it all for Paul. I told him so.”

In the wildland fire world, we tend to think that Paul Gleason was solely a mentor for our ranks. In this John Long article on Paul—in which wildland fire is never mentioned—we learn that his exceptional influence included helping to inspire this country’s climbing community.

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To read this article on Paul Gleason’s positive influence on legendary rock climber John Long:

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