Local Limelight: Ron Bonnett

Like our last featured member, Grant, Ron has been around EVO since its inception – he donated some of the holds that are still on the walls upstairs. But he’s worn many hats besides that of a regular member and fixture of the EVO climbing community. He’s a combat veteran, a former newspaper editor, an ultra-marathoner, a journalism teacher (retired as of 2003), and the author of a memoir. He was kind enough to take some time out of a bouldering session to tell me more of his story and how he came into the climbing world.

Why don’t we start with your background and how you got into climbing?

Well, I grew up on a Chippewa reservation in Michigan – I’m Cree, but the Chippewa adopted me after some hard times growing up in the deep South. We were really poor, but life was pretty good. When I was nine, I got a paper route and would run five miles into town and back every morning. In two feet of snow, I’d follow the plow. I needed the money, but what I didn’t realize was that I was training. In my mind, this is just what needed to be done. So I did that all the way through high school ‘til I was sixteen. I picked up track and cross country and did as well as I could in school. I got some help to go to college because of my running – that was lucky for me. And after that I went into the Army and spent several tours in Vietnam.

When I came back, I got a job at the Times-Herald in Michigan, and became a reporter, and then a few years later, an editor. ‘Course, I wanted to have a career and get out of the small hometown newspaper, so I went to the Free Press in Detroit, which was the 5th largest paper in the country. I worked news and sports back and forth. In most newspapers, the sports guys have no clue what’s going on in the real world and the news guys like sports, but they don’t know who the people are or anything really about it, you know? I had knowledge in both areas, so that made me flexible. I eventually came to Boston and then up here, to get my kids out of the big city – I have two boys. After 20 years, I figured I’d really like to teach journalism, because some of the kids coming out of college that I worked with still had a lot to learn, so I started teaching at Pembroke Academy.

About ‘86 or ’87, I got an injury. I used to run a lot – I coached cross-country, ran every step with the kids, and I competed in lots of marathons and ultras. I hardly ever got injured, but that year it finally happened. My hamstring just would not heal. One day, my friend Rich said, “You know, we should learn how to rock climb!” I looked at him like he had handed me a spider or something, like “What? Rock climb?” All I could picture was Mount Everest, which wouldn’t work for me – I’d be a popsicle and a detriment to the people who would have to carry me down the mountain! Rich says, “No, no, no, rock climbing!” and showed me a picture in a magazine. I’m like “Oh cool! Okay, wow, where do we learn?” And he said, “EMS!”

So we went up to EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) and did a weekend with them. They showed us how to do everything – the harnesses, the ropes, took us up on some little things and showed us the mechanics. One thing I learned right away is that you don’t need to be strong. Being a distance runner, I couldn’t do two chin-ups because you don’t want the weight – if I had been bulked up and tried to run a hundred-miler with an extra ten pounds, it’d be like a weight belt. The guys from EMS took us up to Whitehorse Ledge, which was wonderful! I really, really liked it because here’s something that I could do when I got injured (with all the miles I’d be putting in, I knew I wasn’t always going to be healthy).

And how old were you when you started?

46. And I’m 71 now, so I started late, very late. And it was wonderful, but it was all ropes. I don’t think the word “bouldering” had even been mentioned. After I learned to climb, I started going to Pawtuckaway with friends and continued to go for many years, for the slabs and all that, but we’d always go out and park by the horse farm. We were aware that there were boulders, but it didn’t mean anything to me – we were harness-and-rope people.

Then, within three or four years, the other guys I was climbing with decided they were old or something and quit. I got curious about these boulderers, and someone told me that they were down the other side. So I came in the Reservation Road way one day and when I walked in, there were all these boulders – who knew? All I needed was a pad, some shoes, and a chalkbag, and I could do this by myself. I’ve got this big boulder pad in the back of the truck and I can fall on it from 10 feet and not get hurt! So bouldering became “the thing”. I still have a nice Petzl harness, but I mostly boulder. In fact, this gym is really unusual because you can top out in the bouldering area. I’ve never seen that before. It’s usually climb-up-jump-off and I hate to see people jump off. I always tell them to down climb – you get two climbs for one and it’s better for you, especially for your feet. Also, with bouldering, I think I already told you that I’m colorblind for the most part…

Oh! No, you didn’t tell me that!

Yep, I’m mostly colorblind and it certainly makes things difficult. That’s why I always stand there and watch people on routes. I’m really good at memorizing, except I might lose the feet a little bit. Some people help me – there are points where I’m flummoxed and it’s becomes weight training because I’m hanging there looking for the foot! Then, someone will throw a chalk ball, or use a laser pointer to show me the feet, and it’s extremely helpful. Some of the tape colors are just so close. It actually usually works out better on the ropes because Syd will only have two colors. If one is really dark and the other is really light, then I’m good to go. But when there’s a pink and a red or something like that, I’ve got nothing. In fact, there was a climb on one of the darker walls in the bouldering cave that was marked with black tape and I didn’t even know it was there!

Wow! So given all this experience, what is your philosophy surrounding climbing?

For me, it’s a secondary sport. It’s relaxing. I always have a good time, even on a bad day. I don’t let it bother me – as opposed to running, where I was very competitive in high school and college. I was pretty manic about the whole thing actually, almost obsessive. I HAD to get my five miles in the morning and five miles at night, because that was my thing. But when I found climbing, it was different. It always makes me sad to see people fall off and get mad. No! Don’t get mad! This is enjoyable! This is fun! So relax and have a good time, that’s my philosophy. If this is your primary sport and you’re competitive, then I can see getting a little upset – I can relate from all those years I spent being upset about running. But when I look back now, I wonder why I was so upset. When I ran in high school and even as a kid on the reservation, I was looking for that “Atta boy!”, you know, any sort of encouragement. That’s why when I see younger climbers now, I give them a “Good job!” I want to be very supportive of them. It’s like when I was coaching – it’s all about fun!

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