Touchstone Interview: Dave Altman

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Every Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., a scraggly haired fellow helps climbers and exercisers in the weight section of Berkeley Ironworks.  Dave Altman, a 60 year old climber, has been working for Touchstone since it began.  Altman began helping people with their strength training technique in August of 1992 when the gym was CityRock.  In between introducing people to weight training, helping people rehab their injuries, and teaching outdoor climbing classes, Altman is an obsessive mathematician, enjoying low-dimensional topology and physics-related differential geometry.

More notably, Altman and his friend Ray Jardine, made early ascents of Tales of Power, Separate Reality, Crimson Cringe, and Cosmic Debris, all hard 5.12 Yosemite cracks.  Altman talked to the Touchstone blog about his long time climbing career.

Altman 3

How long have you been climbing?

Apparently, I’ve been climbing since I could crawl. There’s a letter from my mother to one of my grandmothers when I was 1-1/2 years old. I’d pulled the dresser drawers out to make stairs and she found me sitting on top of the dresser.

“He’s just like a little monkey.” my mother said.

Through high school, I did a lot of peak bagging in the Sierras, but didn’t get serious about climbing ’til first visiting Indian Rock, which I’d heard of from several friends who were climbers, in April 1972. It was probably a mistake: I’d be a fat, tenured professor on the verge of retirement now if I hadn’t done that.


Tom Carter snapped this picture of (from left to right), Dave Altman, Bill Nichol, and Vern Clevenger at Yosemite’s Reed’s Pinnacle parking in 1974

A legislative fluke in 1973 made staying in Camp IV free for the next year. Knowing that wasn’t going to last, a number of us immediately moved there. My first year of graduate school was spent hitchhiking between the Valley and the Bay Area. I’d go to my few classes (having already taken all the “beginner” grad classes since I was also an undergrad at UC – I was only taking a couple seminars.),  buy groceries (the Village Store was way more expensive than the Berkeley Co-op), hitchhike back to the Valley, and spend the rest of the week climbing or cross country skiing, depending on the weather.  In the summer, we all moved to Tuolumne, then back to the Valley in the fall. I did better on the two qualifying exams I took then than the one I stayed home and studied for.

What are some significant rock climbs that you have done?

The best known is Red Zinger at the Cookie Cliff, done with Ray Jardine in 1979. Otherwise, I’ve done around 3000 climbs (counting repeats), some more signifigant than others.

What is a good way to improve your climbing?

Pay attention to 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 the things you’re already good at.

Over at the front desk of Berkeley Ironworks is a great interview that Mike Papciak wrote about Dave Altman. The interview about the Mayor of Indian Rock appears in the December 1995 issue of Climbing No 177