Earl Wiggins

Fearless climber on missions 'impossible'

Friday 24 January 2003 01:00
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Earl Wiggins, rock climber, film-stunt rigger/cameraman and producer: born Colorado Springs 24 August 1957; married; died Lake Oswego, Oregon 28 December 2002.

Earl Wiggins was a rock climber best known for his cutting-edge ascents in the Utah Canyonlands during the mid-1970s. He reached a much wider audience, however, with his work for the cinema. Audiences for many of the Hollywood "blockbuster" action movies of the last decade will have unwittingly admired his skilful handiwork in helping to arrange and film stunt sequences.

Wiggins hailed from a school of radical American desert climbers who are widely credited with helping to shape the laid-back minimalist style – the "rope and the rack and the shirt on our back" approach – which characterised the golden age of Seventies American rock climbing. The main aim was to pare down the climbing equipment paraphernalia carried on climbs, and ascend difficult routes in the purest athletic style possible. Wiggins was one of an élite group who sometimes took this to its logical limit, soloing desperately hard routes without a rope or running belays to catch him should he fall. A bold climber right from the start, he soloed the extreme climb Outer Limits in Yosemite at the age of 16, followed by Whimsical Dreams at Turkey Rock, Colorado, and, in 1980, the 14-pitch climb Scenic Cruise in Utah's Black Canyon, completing this hard and dangerous climb in just an hour and a half.

Arguably Wiggins's finest moment came in 1976 when he made the first ascent of the world-famous Supercrack in Utah's Indian Creek Canyon. A strenuous and much-photographed route, it can only be climbed using a specialised technique climbers call "jamming". By shaping their fists into a boxing-style clench, climbers literally "jam" them into wide cracks, along with their feet, and haul themselves upwards using friction.

Today, it is possible to arrange a degree of protection on such types of climb by using expandable camming devices, but back in 1976 Wiggins had to rely mostly on his faith in his strength and stamina to down-climb if he got into difficulty. Putting this achievement into context, the desert-climbing veteran Annie Carrera commented, "Protecting surgically perfect parallel-sided cracks without a full rack of 'Friends' [modern camming devices] was a form of Russian roulette that few chose to pursue." The US climbing legend Henry Barber later described Wiggins's ascent as "groundbreaking"; in the pre-cam era this could have easily have been literally true.

Earlier the same year Wiggins, partnered by Jimmy Dunn, also made a sensational virtually "free" ascent (i.e. unaided by direct pulls on equipment) of the 1,800ft North Chasm Wall in Black Canyon in a single day. It was a route that had originally taken the leading 1960s US climber Layton Kor and friends four days – even with the help of artificial aids. The climbing historian Pat Ament stated that on this climb Wiggins and Dunn "wagered their salvation on raw ability and madness".

Wiggins also contributed other significant routes to Black Canyon of the Gunniside and South Platte in Colorado. With Katy Cassidy, he wrote the climbers' guidebook Canyon Country Climbs (1989).

Perhaps, given the iconic status of the midwestern desert landscape in American movies, it was no surprise that Wiggins, who had spent so much time climbing among the soaring sandstone spires and plunging canyons, would end up working for Hollywood. He became involved with stunt rigging and production, and his credits could soon be found gracing virtually every Hollywood film that featured climbing, cliffs or "big air".

Starting in 1992 with the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger, his CV reads like an Empire magazine list of action films of the Nineties onwards. Waterworld, Batman Forever, Dante's Peak, Batman & Robin, Dinosaur, Mission Impossible II, AI, Minority Report, Stuart Little 2, Catch Me If You Can, The Italian Job, Terminator 3, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and The Amazing Spider-Man are just a selection of recent or as yet unreleased films Wiggins Aerial Rigging Inc was involved with. In addition, Wiggins took part in filming large-format Imax adventure and exploration documentaries such as Journeys into Amazing Caves (2000), Wild California (2000) and Coral Reef (2002), and in line-production for US versions of stunt-based television shows such as LWT's Don't Try This at Home.

In answer to criticisms that his work helped perpetuate the cartoonish action sequences which characterise Hollywood's consistently inaccurate depiction of climbing, Wiggins remained unrepentant. "Of course we're being chided by climbers for not having a realistic climbing sequence," he said when describing the cliff-face set pieces starring Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II (2000):

What climbers don't realise is that climbing is not a very exciting spectator sport, and nothing is more boring on film. Also, nothing else is believable in the film so why should the climbing be? It achieves the goal of making [Cruise] look "studly", gives the audience a sense of danger and provides great vistas for the revealing of the mission. As Anthony Hopkins' character puts it, "This isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible."

Hopkins's line could also be regarded as a suitable epitaph for a man who so fearlessly pushed the standards of American freeclimbing in the 1970s.

Colin Wells

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