Stepping Into the White

Throughout the 1970s, Tobin Sorenson etched his hairy, pioneering leads on Yosemite big walls and European alpine routes alike, perhaps the era’s best all-around climber. His death on Mount Alberta in 1980 is a haunting facet of the North Face’s history. When Sorenson’s body was found at the base, the only clues as to what had happened were a rope and a few pitons, still clipped together. Traces of yellow rock were stuck to the pitons, leading to the belief that he fell from a particularly rotten band of yellow shale 2,000 feet up the face. Rescuers speculated that he fell about 30 feet before his anchor pins pulled. Mark Wilford, who later attempted the same solo, described the rock through that section as “a putrid yellow shale which had no visible adherence to anything.”

In the words of John Long, whose hilarious tales of his fellow Stonemasters have become part of the fabric of climbing literature, Tobin climbed “not with grace, but with gumption and fire.” Sorenson established dozens of routes in California such as The Edge (5.11a R) at Tahquitz in 1975.

In California, Sorenson’s ferocious climbing attitude was perhaps best characterized by his performance on the Green Arch (5.11b/c), a sweeping curve up the southern shoulder of Tahquitz. Sorenson’s tunnel vision and juggernaut attitude toward route finding left him stranded on dead-end sucker holds 25 feet above a hastily bashed piton. Long described him screaming, “Watch me! I’m gonna jump!” just before he fell, popping the uppermost piton and plummeting 80 feet in what Long wrote was “the grandest fall I’ve ever seen a climber take and walk away from.” Sorenson moaned as he was lowered to the ground and lay still for a minute before slowly getting to his feet. “I’ll get it next time,” he muttered. 

While Sorenson is probably best known in the United States for such So Cal escapades, his record in the Alps is in fact more impressive. Tobin, a devout Christian, showed up in 1977 on a break from smuggling Bibles into the Communist state of Bulgaria, where practicing Christianity was illegal. Not having climbed at all that year but excited nonetheless, he made the first ascent of what was subsequently called the hardest ice route in the Alps, 2,300-foot Dru Couloir Direct with Rick Accomazzo, climbing straight up the ice flow that other parties had aided around. Much of the route’s ice has since fallen off, giving it today’s grade of AI 6+/M8. He followed with an ascent of the Gousseault Route (ED3) on the Grandes Jorasses, a route that went unrepeated for 23 years, and the third ascent of the Eiger Direct (ED2). To polish off the season, he soloed the North Face of the Matterhorn (ED1) in eight and a half hours.

In 1979, Sorenson and John Allen set about freeing local projects at the Frog Buttress near Brisbane, Australia, including Tantrum (5.12b), Green Plastic Comb (5.10c/d), Barbed Wire Canoe (5.12b), and The Guns of Navaronne (5.11c). In Andrew Martin’s Cheap and Nasty Guide to Frog Buttress, the description for Tantrum, accompanied by a tiny skull-and-crossbones icon, reads, “This line is thin, desperate, sharp and poorly protected … what could possibly go wrong?”

Despite his savage climbing style, Sorenson was remembered by all for his easygoing attitude and sincere smile. Ronald H. Sacks describes him in the American Alpine Journal as “invariably cheerful … selfless and giving.” In an interview with Joe Friend in 1979, Sorenson described the mountains to the Australian climbing rag Thrutch as “a small taste of what the majesty and glory of God is.” He did not use his beliefs as a source of false pride, though, nor press them on to others. He had an open sense of humor and, at his lectures, would break the ice by tripping while approaching the microphone, claiming that he was clumsy on horizontal ground.

In his 25 years, Sorenson often climbed on the edge, somehow remaining unscathed. Dean Fidelman, a close friend of Sorenson’s, calls him “the worst climber you’ve ever seen. He had horrible technique but the biggest balls. He was just as likely to fall as he was to send. He was the best leader there ever was, though. I got dragged up some of the hardest climbs in the world by him. I trusted in him as much as he trusted in whatever kept him going.” 

In the interview with Thrutch, Sorenson described why he soloed. 

“I like it,” he said. “In climbing there is something I call the grey area. Soloing allows me to step into that area. I would define the grey area as where the outcome of success is less certain, where there is no room for mistakes and it is always a daring place. When you step back into the ‘white,’ it is a tremendous place to be.” 

Sorenson’s eulogies have been numerous and heartfelt, but John Long’s The Green Arch may be the most evocative. “His death was a tragedy, of course,” Long writes. “Yet I sometimes wonder if God Himself could no longer bear the strain of watching Tobin wobbling and lunging way out there on the sharp end of the rope, and finally just drew him into the fold.”

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