Remembering Dave Altman

 
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By Janet Wells.

Pioneering climber and Berkeley Ironworks strength guru Dave Altman, 68, died early Tuesday morning on November 10, 2020 when the van he called home caught fire.

Part of the Touchstone family for more than two decades, Dave—whose legendary feats of strength included a one-finger pull-up with 50 pounds in the other hand—helped countless climbers get stronger, rehab injuries, and improve their bouldering and climbing techniques.

Known as the Mayor of Indian Rock for his knowledge of every eliminate and willingness to share beta, Dave ticked the first ascent of Yosemite’s Cookie Cliff classic Red Zinger (5.11d) with Ray Jardine in 1979, and early ascents of numerous hard Yosemite cracks, including Tales of Power, Separate Reality, Crimson Cringe, Hang Dog Flyer, and Cosmic Debris.

Dave ticked the first ascent of Yosemite’s Cookie Cliff classic Red Zinger (5.11d) with Ray Jardine in 1979, and early ascents of numerous hard Yosemite cracks, including Tales of Power, Separate Reality, Crimson Cringe, Hang Dog Flyer, and Cosmic Debris.

Born in 1952, Dave made his way to UC Berkeley for undergraduate and graduate school. Friends took him to Indian Rock in the early 1970s, and he became part of the early wave of Cal students whose climbing careers were launched at the historic crag in the Berkeley Hills.

Photo: David P. Anderson

An “obsessive mathematician who enjoyed low-dimensional topology and physics-related differential geometry,” Dave told Touchstone in a 2012 blogpost interview that climbing at Indian Rock changed his life: “I’d be a fat, tenured professor on the verge of retirement now if I hadn’t done that.”

Dave was “obsessive mathematician who enjoyed low-dimensional topology and physics-related differential geometry.”

By 1973, he was hitchhiking weekly to Yosemite, spending more time on granite than in grad school. Thousands of ascents later in the early 1990s, Dave settled into a less nomadic, if still atypical life in the Bay Area.

Low-key and low-in-stature with an easy, self-deprecating laugh, Dave kept honing his strength at the UC Berkeley Recreational Sports Facility (RSF), earning the nickname The Original Man for his muscular physique. “I am not naturally strong,” he wrote on his website. “I got strong the old-fashioned way, the most efficient way: heavy, systematic weight lifting.”

“I am not naturally strong,”[Dave] wrote on his website, “I got strong the old-fashioned way, the most efficient way: heavy, systematic weight lifting.”

Touchstone co-founder Debra Melvin first met Dave at the Berkeley RSF more than 30 years ago. “I was a beginning climber trying to get stronger, and I just gaped at him,” she said. “He was incredible, pulling a human flag move like it was nothing, and he seemed to know everything about training and climbing. He was extremely patient with my inane questions, and he brought that to Touchstone. A lot of climbers are strong because of him.”

Dave began training climbers at the East Bay’s first indoor gym, City Rock, and moved to Berkeley Ironworks when it opened in 2000. He was a frequent presence in the fitness area, his aged panel van a fixture in the parking lot. Dave taught bouldering classes at Indian Rock, roped climbing at nearby Cragmont Rock, and, with his usual enthusiasm and encouragement, also offered tutoring in math: “Trouble with trig? Still don’t understand Taylor’s Theorem and the exam is next week? How DID Wiles prove Fermat’s Last Theorem? I can help!”

…with his usual enthusiasm and encouragement, [Dave] also offered tutoring in math: “Trouble with trig? Still don’t understand Taylor’s Theorem and the exam is next week? How DID Wiles prove Fermat’s Last Theorem? I can help!”

Dave’s amazing strength continued well into his 60s. “Up until a few years ago he would casually grab the pull up bar and hoist himself into a front lever position, hold it, and slowly lower down,” recalled Berkeley Ironworks manager Lyn Barraza. “When I asked if he was training, he would reply with his trademark chuckle, ‘No, just making sure it’s still easy.’”

After getting a hip replacement in recent years, Dave had difficulty moving around and was forced to stop his regular workouts—which were still monster sessions, Lyn said. “After surgery in Summer 2019 he was diligent about his rehab, and had just started his strength training workouts again a month ago. About a week into it, he told me he had gotten back to doing ‘just’ one rep of body weight bench press. He could deadlift triple body weight a decade ago.”

His workhorse approach to training and improving climbing technique offered a wise, and wonderfully Dave-like metaphor for life: “Pay attention to the types of climbing that you avoid—it probably means that you haven’t done enough of it to like it…”

With an abiding interest in sumo wrestling and passionate opinions about net neutrality, free speech, and media objectivity, Dave was a quirky, ever-curious, and peerless member of the Ironworks staff. His workhorse approach to training and improving climbing technique offered a wise, and wonderfully Dave-like metaphor for life: “Pay attention to the types of climbing that you avoid—it probably means that you haven’t done enough of it to like it. Work on your weaknesses. Progress will be a lot faster than working on things you’re already good at.”

We miss Dave immensely, and would love for you to send your memories of him to social@touchstoneclimbing.com for our tribute page.

We are also planting a memorial garden for him in his parking spot, and invite everyone who knew and loved Dave to plant a succulent there in his honor.