PUEBLO WEST • In a room full of mementos from one of man’s most daring rock climbing careers, there lives a bird. A cliff swallow, says Jimmie Dunn of the little guy perched on his finger.
“They live under the bridges and stuff, build their nests upside down,” says Dunn, 71, his East Coast accent running 100 mph, the speed at which he once lived.
“Anyway, he couldn’t fly. We think maybe he got abandoned. Like maybe he was forced out of the nest to fly, you know? Anyway, he’s the friendliest bird. See? Isn’t he a nice bird?”
Dunn and his wife, Hellen, have thought to name him after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
“He is grateful,” Hellen says, “because he’s not dead yet.”
Dunn is also grateful. It’s a wonder how he made it here, having spent the majority of his 71 years taking on some of America’s biggest, sheerest rock walls.
He’s best remembered for his landmark mission in 1972: The perpetual school dropout from Colorado Springs became the first to scale a new route solo on the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. After nine days battling the granite, he stumbled through the forest of Yosemite, apologized for underestimating its power, and decided to name the route Cosmos.
That was far from the last time he’d raise the bar.
Classic routes climbers know, love and fear today in Utah’s desert were first achieved by Dunn. He ruled Black Canyon of the Gunnison for a while, too, alongside Springs pal Earl Wiggins, setting a new standard there and at crags all over Colorado.
What previously took a select few of the world’s fittest climbers a matter of days to complete, Dunn and Wiggins would finish in a matter of hours. They were the fathers of today’s popular phrase: “A rope, a rack and the shirt on your back.”
Often, it was without a rope. While America has come to widely know the term “free solo” for a certain documentary chronicling a certain climb of El Cap, Dunn was the one who helped popularize the act, the shaggy-haired kid who even preferred to go up barefoot.
He was an eccentric crusher, a true dirt bag from a bygone era. This was back when Moab was a dusty mining outpost, not the crowded mecca it is today. Back when climbing was rather taboo. Not the large population of sponsored, Instagram-posting athletes, but rather a small band of broke “social misfits,” as Stewart Green recalls.
A lifelong friend and local climbing historian, Green considers Dunn the Springs’ most important, living pioneer of the sport.
He was “a maniac,” Green says, “obsessed.”
“Jim was one of those few people you went climbing with when you knew you were gonna get up the damn thing,” Green says. “He hated to retreat. He hated to give in.”
And perhaps more striking than any single achievement was the longevity of Dunn’s career, what he counts as 50-plus years.
“Climbing rocks was his life,” Green says.
Now, finally, Dunn has slowed down. He’s catching up on the rest of life, normal life.
“I’m 71 with a 15-year-old son,” he says. “Is that normal?”
Last year, Dunn, Hellen and Charlie Joe moved down here to a desert tract of Pueblo West, where the property was more affordable and where Hellen, an artist, could have a studio in the backyard.
It would be normal for someone Dunn’s age to be retired, but now and then he’s still picking up contracts to mine rare gems. That was one job he worked throughout his life between long “climbing vacations,” as he calls them.
“That’s why at my age I don’t have a house paid off or, well, a lot of things paid off,” he says. “Because I went on all those climbing vacations.”
They were ongoing when Hellen met him at a gem show in 1997.
“Who on Earth is that?” she recalls remarking at the sight of him. And she was told he was one of the best rock climbers out there, living in a VW van with a bunch of dogs. He’ll talk for a little while, she was told, before he’d have to step away to do 100 pull-ups.
He was going on 50, but he was built like a ball player in his prime. He was going on 50, but there was a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm about him.
Hellen joined him in the van, off to the desert, where she’d continue her yoga and art.
“I remember him crawling around on his hands and knees and sticking his nose in the primroses,” she says. “I thought it was amazing. This guy is amazing.”
So went an eight-year odyssey on the road with him, “a fairytale,” as Dunn remembers.
“I had never met anybody who was truly uncompromising and clear about what they felt was important in life,” Hellen says.
Now he’s compromising. No more climbing vacations. He lives to support Hellen’s career now, he says.
He still has that shaggy hair. Still has that gangly, muscled frame that allowed him to maneuver those soaring cracks and ledges. His hands are like paws, swollen and scarred.
“These are dish-washing hands,” he says. “Our dishwasher just broke, so I’ve had to change my technique.”
It sounds like he’s joking, but domestic life is no joking matter to him. His laundry efficiency. His vacuum with a new and improved filter. “I’m proud of what I’m doing, to be honest,” Dunn says. “I really am proud of what I’m doing.”
A bird finds his wings
That includes in the backyard, where he’s known to trap rattlesnakes and relocate them to safety dozens of miles away. He wants to transform this space, to make it all green and hopefully attract insects and birds.
He loves birds. Always has.
“I knew all the bird calls,” he says, reflecting on his childhood. He keeps a grainy picture of him as a kid, a hawk perched on his knee.
Dunn was born in 1948 in New Hampshire, the son of a rising baseball star. “Mighty Joe,” they called him, before his sudden end. Jimmie was 9 when the man died of a heart attack.
“I’m sure my life would be different if he hadn’t died,” Dunn says. “That’s how it goes, you know.”
In 1965, the family moved to start anew in Colorado Springs. Dunn came by a newspaper ad for a climbing group. Before he knew it, he was a teenager leading seasoned vets up pinnacles in North Cheyenne Cañon.
Then he was on a bus with northing to eat but a bag of grapefruit, bound for the Needles of South Dakota, a vertical stage for a first ascent.
“That was it,” Dunn says. “Nothing else mattered.”
He was hooked.
There are past struggles he doesn’t dwell on — his dad, his first marriage, his first son — just as there were early, romantic emotions of climbing that he struggles to articulate. He tries.
“When you’re climbing, you’re there. It’s not yesterday or tomorrow. You’re just there. That’s the way it is, for sure.”
Climbing against time
He’d work to climb — mining, construction, beekeeping — then he’d climb until the money ran out, then he’d do it all over again.
In the 1970s, it seemed he’d settle into his role as director of a climbing school in his native New Hampshire. The school was in a multi-story building, and the dingy, upper level came to represent Dunn’s uncontainable ambition.
Secret from building security, he took some wood planks and old mattresses and set up what came to be called the Jimmie-nasium, accessed through a window via ladder.
“I called it the torture chamber,” Dunn says. “We’d just get trashed in there.”
He first married in 1978, had a son in ’81. But Dunn’s focus was clearly elsewhere.
He was preoccupied with New Hampshire’s rock, setting routes never imagined before. One he called Possessed. Another was Zonked Out, today considered the state’s first climb of its grade (5.12).
His style of sport climbing would catch on — the style that would inspire much fancier gymnasiums than the Jimmie-nasium — and the climbs that were once great unknowns would be no longer that. There would be magazines. There would be bigger groups, the word of mouth louder and spreading, the egos growing.
The years went on, and Dunn refused to fade. He only got stronger through the ’80s and ’90s while zipping around in the VW van that by then was a relic.
Into the new century, Hellen was just fine sleeping in there without a pillow. Was just fine living on the little they had. “I was so in the moment,” she says. “I was just free.”
But thoughts of tomorrow emerged. She wanted more, a steady bank account, a child and a home. And Dunn wanted that for her, though even into his 60s, he wasn’t quite ready to extinguish the fire that burned within.
It was 10 or 12 years ago, Green says. He and Dunn went out to Turkey Rocks outside Colorado Springs, the monoliths Dunn would lap back in the day, up and down without a rope. Now he wanted to do it again, but now Hellen was here, along with little Charlie Joe.
Green recalls stopping him. “Man, Jim, you sure you should be doing that?”
Living for more
In the room with Jerry Garcia the abandoned bird, Dunn keeps piles of hand-written notes and slides, mementos of the glory years. Here are stories and pictures of people no longer around.
Billy Westbay, once the fellow Springs youngster pushing Dunn in Yosemite, died of cancer in 2000. Another Yosemite regular from then, Jim Bridwell — the guy who cooked at the campfire for Dunn after Cosmos — died a couple of years ago.
A couple of months ago, Dunn called Green with bad news. Douglas Snively, another one of their after-school climbing friends from the Springs, had died.
Another, Earl Wiggins, Dunn’s mighty partner in Black Canyon, died by his own hand in 2002. Dunn has known too many go that way. It’s a dark end that climbers removed from climbing too often face.
Dunn doesn’t dwell on these tragedies. Though, he has commiserated with Green before. “Why?” he’s asked. “Don’t they know they have so much to live for?”
It seems now Dunn is realizing that here at his home with his wife and son. Maybe he’s making up for the last time he started a family, Green says, “redeeming himself.”
But sometimes, he feels that burn again.
“I’m coming back stronger than ever,” Dunn will say, only to later say he was joking.
“I don’t want to go the rest of my life without climbing,” he’ll say, only to later say that would be OK.
He reconsiders. “It would be nice to be in killer shape again,” he says.
He’s talked about building a practice wall in the basement. “Just a little something,” he says.
No, he’s got other duties, he says. He’s got a backyard to transform, to make all green.
“Hey, I gotta go,” he says here, dashing back inside. “I gotta feed the bird.”