Scott Cosgrove crack climbing.
Scott Cosgrove crack climbing.

Obituary: Climber Scott Cosgrove (1964-2016)

A pioneering big-wall climber who made his mark in Yosemite and Joshua Tree died unexpectedly earlier this week

Scott Cosgrove crack climbing.
Bob Gaines

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The climbing community has lost a brother. On Wednesday, news emerged that Scott Cosgrove died unexpectedly near a hiking trail in the Santa Monica hills, not far from his home. The cause of his death was not immediately clear. He was 51 years old.

I first met Scott in the early 1980s at Hidden Valley Campground, the epicenter of rock climbing at Joshua Tree, in our early twenties. The quintessential dirtbag, friendly and laid back, he was living out of an old, beat-up van. We began working together as rock climbing instructors, eking out a living teaching climbing on the vast playground of rocks that would later become Joshua Tree National Park.

In those halcyon days, we were living the dream: doing what we loved and making a living from it, however meager. When we weren't climbing for work, we were climbing for fun. I called him Coz and he called me Brother Bob. Tying into the same rope we felt like brothers in arms, doing battle in the vertical world.

“My friends who climbed with me on those great adventures are still my brothers.”

Scott grew up in the city of Belmont in the San Francisco Bay Area and began rock climbing at age 12. By 18, he had committed his life to climbing and never looked back, leaving for Yosemite, where Werner Braun, the godfather of Yosemite climbing, took Scott under his wing. Scott, in turn, passed on his wisdom through his instruction. Clients whom he'd guided later told me that taking lessons with Scott was like learning to shoot hoops from Michael Jordan. He had a rare gift—an extraordinary, self-motivated athlete who was a patient teacher.

In Joshua Tree, Scott’s natural athleticism began to shine. Well before his time, he established some of the hardest sport climbs in the U.S., including Joshua Tree's first route to be rated 5.14 (Integrity, which he set in 1992). Many of his routes from the nineties have seen only a handful of ascents, even after a new generation of young, motivated, and super-fit climbers emerged from Southern California climbing gyms to test themselves on real rock.

One brilliant winter's day at Joshua Tree in 1988, on Super Bowl Sunday in fact, I belayed Scott when he redpointed one of his 5.13+ testpieces, which he'd been working on for more than 20 days. You could say he was determined.

Scott had a penchant for free climbing big walls. In 1989, he and Dave Schultz completed the first free ascent of Southern Belle (5.12+) on the south face of Half Dome, which Scott called “the scariest, most beautiful thing I've ever done.” On an early attempt at a repeat, one suitor retreated after a long, slab-splashing fall, with a broken leg and a bruised ego. Only a few people have climbed the route since.

That same year, during a trip to Patagonia, Scott and Jay Smith waited out two months of bad weather before making a mad dash to climb a new route on the Central Tower of Paine, an 8,100-foot-high blade of granite. They summited just as a storm hit, rappelling off in 100 mile-per-hour winds.

In 1994, Scott and Kurt Smith spent a total of 54 days and 21 nights on El Cap, free climbing the Muir Wall. In one of the greatest and most frustrating climbs in Yosemite, they free climbed all but 30 feet of it.

As Scott's guiding career evolved, he founded California Mountain Guides and became the go-to guide for America's elite Military Special Forces, including SEAL Team 6. His climbing acumen eventually led him to Hollywood, where he worked as an accomplished stunt performer and aerial rigger, with a resume of over 35 feature films to his credit. In 2005 he was part of a group awarded an Oscar for technical achievement for aerial rigging for the movie Van Hesling. His work in the movie 300 earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Taurus Stunt Award.

Scott was one of the rare pioneers who managed to make a living by doing the sport he loved. But like many athletes who push the limits outdoors, he eventually became a casualty of his own career. In an ironic twist, after all Scott’s perilous climbing exploits, his greatest injury occurred during a seemingly mundane rigging job. During a commercial shoot in the San Fernando Valley in 2014, Scott fell 30 feet from a crane onto the concrete floor of an airplane hanger, suffering compound fractures to his skull, wrist, and leg and slipping into a coma. The recovery was prolonged, but it didn’t stop Scott from getting back outdoors, hiking. He’d hoped to climb again one day.

During a recent interview in Climb Ski Boulder Magazine, Scott commented on the over 400 first ascents he's done in his climbing career: “Some stay with me to this day. My friends who climbed with me on those great adventures are still my brothers.”