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The Evilution of Jason Kehl

posted by dpm on 04/18/2014

Hook

Under the light of a brilliant full moon, the towering apparition jilted up the pebbly hill towards a gigantic boulder. As the ground flattened out, its steps became more even, then stopped entirely. Standing in the shadow of the monolith, the figure raised one long thin arm, placed it against the cool granite, and began to scrub. 

 

Deeper

The young man appeared to have a scorpion dangling from one bloody eyelid. It was an unusual look for someone in a white suit and a top hat, and were those dreadlocks sticking out the back? The glint in his eye stopped you just short of asking about it. It made you wonder.

 

Origin

On the 18th day of the 10th month in the year of the fire dragon, the family Kehl awaited a precipitous birth. The moon rose and set. A cry pierced the air. The child emerged with a full head of dark hair, and, unusually, a tan. It was a Sunday, the day of the monkey, and Jason Robert Kehl had entered the world.

 

A Brief History of an Artist

It’s fair to say most parents wouldn’t let their young children watch zombie movies, but Jason’s parents were in their early twenties and, as his mother Jeanne says, they weren’t like most parents. Not only did Jeanne allow her young son to watch the theatrical gore, she bought him a detailed book on costume makeup that he uses to this day.

“Jason was always fascinated with the human body,” she tells me as we sit in the afternoon sunlight outside Spruce Confections in North Boulder. “And he loved the theatrical makeup. Halloween is his favorite. Once, when my sister was over for a haircut, Jason came in hollering with one leg tied up behind him and all this corn syrup blood and goopy makeup where his knee was so it looked like his leg had been cut off. My sister nearly had a heart attack.”

Jason’s mom maintained the live-and-let-live attitude with her children, giving them a sense of personal responsibility and lots of freedom to be themselves. “You know how kids tend to be the exact same? I told my kids, ‘It’s one thing if you like that, but don’t feel like you have to dress and be like everybody else. Be yourself.’”

Jason's younger sister Chrissy says the message went home. "My brother was different than most other kids and I benefited a great deal from that. When Jason imagined something he would actually make his vision come alive."

I ask about the hair. One of Jason’s most defining characteristics has been his unique take on haircuts, with lots of black and phases of bleached-white-blonde and red streaks in the many variations on his trademark Chinese mullet. The longest running was the front shave with thick black dreadlocks in the back, what Jason called, in a wonderful pun, the Dreaded Wudan Mullet. He cut the dreads in a ceremony in Zanskar and these days his haircut is as normal as he gets, but his partial shave and ducktail still turns heads in rural towns. Jeanne is a hairdresser, so it made sense that she might have inspired her son to take a rather liberal view of what could be done with scissors, a razor and some hair dye. She shrugs.

“He always had a normal haircut. He was in high school when he started coming up with a different look. I think he was comfortable because I cut hair, but I don’t do those styles.” She laughs. “He was always trying to design crazy haircuts for my nephews, even drawing them out on paper, but I’d say, ‘Jason, I’m not doing that!’”

She stops a moment to contemplate her son, then, laughing again, volunteers her take on another of his trademarks. “Baby dolls? I have no idea where that came from.”

First Brush with Destiny

The young warrior trained himself in the fields and woods surrounding his home in the countryside of Jarrettsville, Maryland. His family land was half clear-cut, half woods with a stream at the far end.

“My husband loved hanging out in the woods as a child, and Jason was the same. He always just wanted to be outside. Period,” his mother says.

Young Jason spent most of his time by himself. He was extremely active, but he was also quiet and easygoing. His mother says that he rarely got upset, so she was surprised when, on a family trip to Williamsburg, Jason spent a dinner pouting. Earlier in the day he had found a book on climbing in a bookstore. He wanted it, but his mom said no. “He wasn’t a reader, and it was twenty dollars!” she remembers. Nevertheless, after a dinner of animated requests, Jason was allowed to go back to the bookstore. “If it was open,” His mother says, “It was meant to be. If not, no book.” The bookstore was open, and Jason got his climbing book. They returned home and, as his mother had predicted, the book sat on the shelf, unread.

 

Finding the Path

Some five years later, the stars aligned and Jason Kehl finally read his climbing book. Then he read it again. The stars continued on their journeys across space and time, but from that moment Jason’s life would never be the same.

Like his father, Bob, Jason is extremely handy, capable of creating anything he can envision. With skills that would later serve him in the customization of his vans, he made holds out of wood and other materials he found around the family land and put them up on his climbing trees. Soon he told his mother he wanted to climb on real rocks. She enrolled him in a class at the nearest climbing gym, Clipper City. He did an indoor day and an outdoor day. He began working for the gym, making signs and doing whatever else needed to be done. He climbed every chance he got.

His mom said that climbing was a little scary to her, but she wasn’t worried about him. “I said, ‘Jason, if you’re going to do something, just be sure of what you’re doing. I don’t care what you do, people can get hurt walking on the sidewalk, but think about it first. Trust yourself.”

Instead of his high school senior trip, he went to the New River Gorge. On another trip to the New, he failed to onsight Pudd's Pretty Dress (5.12d) and swung away from the wall, impaling the top of his right calf on a protruding tree branch. “He told me he knew something was wrong, but he didn’t listen to himself and he trusted someone else instead. They carried him out of there.”

 

The Journey Begins

As soon as Jason finished high school he left for Yosemite. “It was before cell phones, and I said, ‘Jason, you can’t even talk to the guy at the 7-11, how are you going to go across the country by yourself?’” his mom remembers. “He wasn’t worried. He said, ‘If I have to, I will.’ And he did.” Thus began the trip that would span the next two decades of Kehl’s life.

 

Blue Baby Dolls and a Skullet

Jason became a ubiquitous figure in the climbing world. His decorated white van with a flying black skull was a fixture at bouldering areas around the country. The first time I saw him, he was sitting under a warm-up at the Buttermilks with the front several inches of his head shaved. He was accompanied by another strange figure with short, spikey red hair. Both were wearing huge sunglasses and both waved a hello. A life-sized naked blue baby doll sat in a bush nearby. We waved back, and we weren’t sure whether they were boys or girls. It turned out his companion was long-time girlfriend and climbing partner Alyrene Dorey.

“Jason is a contradiction,” Ally tells me now, some twelve years later. “He presents a façade which can be off-putting or intimidating, yet when you get to know him he is neither. In fact, there is something very magnetic about him; he is constantly exploring, creating, and innovating and each time you meet him he’s got a new experiment he’s attempting—like his sensory deprivation chamber, or bee-sting therapy, or baking an obscure Moroccan dish of cloves and pigeon meat. He’s not interested in doing things as they’ve been done before, and a lot of people find that very appealing; you want to be around him and see what he’ll do next.”

Later that day I remember watching the lone figure soloing atop the Buttermilks hill. He was shirtless and as pale as the bright white rock, though his long dark hair stood out clearly as he ran up and down the crumbling towers. It was 2002, and Jason was in training for the ascent that would define his career.

 

First Big Kill

Chris Sharma is arguably the most famous rock climber the world has ever seen. In the late nineties and early 00’s, Sharma made several stints of first ascents in Bishop that included iconic problems like The Mandala. On the road-side face of the lowest and biggest boulder in the Buttermilks, the Grandpa Peabody, Sharma had climbed a face to the lip some 20+’ off the ground, then dropped. Jason decided he’d figure out a way to turn the slab and climb the nearly 60' boulder to the summit.

“I guess I was into highballs before that,” Kehl remembers, “but there weren’t really that many hard highballs. You were always in your comfort zone more or less. Evilution was on one of the most beautiful boulders I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t going to try it if I didn’t take it to the top.” Jason lowered a rope to clean the slab and learn the moves.

In the video, grainy footage belying the year it was taken, Jason’s haunting voiceover begins: “I’ve been on the road for months now, looking for an experience larger than life…They say it can’t be done, but when have I ever listened to what they say.”

What follows is Jason throwing himself at the problem, falling again and again from each move. Not present are the strength and control seen in today’s hardest ascents. He is yelling, screaming, crimping down hard. The problem looks painful and desperate from the very first hold, his hands and feet barely sticking as he fights his way up moves that you’d think would be, at this point well-rehearsed. At the lip once again, he crosses, screaming, onto the slab. The next hold looks even worse, and he should be out of the woods as he stands but instead it looks like he might fall. As he lurches for the final hard move his scream says it all—complete effort, pure terror. Jason is not just pushing his physical limits, he’s breaking the worldwide mental barrier that a problem this hard and this high cannot, or perhaps should not, be done. His hand goes over the hold, closes. His yell turns to triumph as he realizes he’s got it, and he sprints up the rest of the tall slab to the summit.

“I feel like I’m in an alternate universe,” the voiceover says. “Like repetition of failure and now I’ve broken through…to a place that I only could experience in my mind.”

World-class climber and highball first acentionist Nalle Hukkataival remembers seeing a photo of Jason’s first ascent of Evilution in a climbing magazine. “It was definitely one of the most striking things I had seen in climbing. A hard boulder that highball was something unseen back then, as it was around the time when crash pads were just becoming good enough to be able to push your limits on really tall boulders.”

Longtime Bishop climber Wills Young shares a similar sentiment. “Jason’s ascent of Evilution was, for American bouldering, one of the most influential ascents of all time.” Young went on to describe the problem as “the poster-child for a new wave of highballing.”

For Jason, the problem was transformative. In 2013 he wrote on his DPM blog: “[Evilution] was the problem that started it all. When I think of the perfect boulder, this is the only one that comes to mind. I don’t know if I will ever find another problem to rival this one. When I stood on the top of this boulder, I truly understood that anything is possible.”

 

Proving Himself in Battle

The early days of American bouldering competitions were just as much about the eccentric characters competing in them, and Jason was one of the most interesting. He wore black-painted fingernails, eyeliner, a karate armband or any other of a number of strange outfits, and threw himself at the problems with wild abandon and screams of 110% effort.

Route setter Tim Steele remembers meeting Jason. “He showed up for a competition wearing these outlandish black costume boots that he had festooned with metal scallops on the toes, like some kind of neo-gothic plate-mail. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?!’”

At one event, he used latex to create the illusion that his competitor number was actually pinned through the skin on his bare back. At another, he badly injured his knee jumping from the top of the first problem.

NE2C Competition Organizer Pete Ward witnessed Kehl’s injury. “For me art is described by the passion with which one pursues that which matters to them, and Jason showed that. What I saw was a guy so committed to his art that he, after trying unsuccessfully to walk it off, felt totally content to try the remaining routes one-legged. Most impressive was that this wasn’t some attention-driven display of martyrdom on Jason’s part. I believe that he really thought he might find a way to beat Chris Sharma and [Sharma’s main rival], Nels Rosaasen on one leg. I swear to you Jason believed it. And that for me is the purest demonstration of who Jason is: a climber who pursues climbing the way a Samurai pursues battle.”

Jason Danforth, setter and NE2C Competition Organizer, takes it a step further, “There’s a commitment and a performance to his climbing that is akin to the action artists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and wholly disparate from other top climbers. Ultimately, it’s not the Rasputina [a strange band that Jason likes] and the eye-liner that make Jason such a fucking legend, it’s the idea that he’s playing a different, far more interesting game than everyone else.”

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Photo: Merrick Ales

The 2003 ACL tear eventually healed to the point that Jason was able to climb on it, but in 2006 he re-injured it and had to have surgery. He documented the events in the enjoyable (considering the subject) video, “This is What Happened to Me.” 

 

Forging New Ground

Despite his ACL injury, by the fall of 2003 Jason had another big ascent in the works. He'd decided it was time to try to climb The Fly, a famous and rarely repeated 5.14d route at Rumney. There was one catch--Jason wanted to climb it without a rope.

"It looked like an amazing boulder problem and I wanted to climb it in the best style," he said when I asked him why. For Jason, the best style is without a rope, and, despite the terrifying landing, on November 7th, 2003, he succeeded on The Fly and became the first person in the world to boulder a 5.14d. He declines to grade the climb, saying only that it's hard and looks impossible when you first see it, and that he considers it his biggest accomplishment in climbing.

The Man in Black

“What is funny about Jason,” says former girlfriend Mélissa Lacasse, “is that people who don’t know him have this idea of who he is. They expect to meet someone really intense and dark…then they meet him and realize how nice and mellow he really is.”

From a public perspective, everything about Kehl, from his crazy sense of personal fashion to his extreme ascents, screams wild, crazy, attention-seeking. In person, however, he is just the opposite. Even close friends are hard-pressed to get news of his climbing days or his intentions. He is soft-spoken, polite, and respectful. He takes his time before responding and will often hit you with an all-knowing, “Oh yeah?” that makes you question everything you just said. He is fiercely clever, occasionally making small comments that, to the aware listener, belie his bizarre sense of humor and the depth of his creativity.

Jason is also a wonderful climbing partner, teacher, and, for the last several winters in Hueco Tanks, guide. Years of experience and his intuitive nature have helped numerous friends and clients push their limits.

“He’s the first person to jump up and spot you on your project,” says Hueco regular Jay Bone, “and like a rock psychic, he knows where your head is on a problem.”

His girlfriend Martina Mali, speaking last year on her ascent of Rumble in the Jungle, adds, “Jason was explaining to me that I should appreciate every small detail that I have learned during every session and that it takes time and I should rest between my goes and all that very true nonsense, but all I wanted was to do it right then. That didn’t work, of course. In the end I learned that Jason is almost always right, at least climbing wise.”

 

A Little Help from Friends

Jason has had a huge influence on indoor climbing holds, from his early shapes with Ritual, Pusher, and ETCH to his current lines with Revolution, So Ill, and CryptoChild. His shapes are unique and constantly evolving. Hold shaper, artist, and E-Grips and Kilter founder Ian Powell says, “The kid’s a real artist. He inspires me and pushes me to be a better shaper.”

Longtime friend and sponsor Clark Shelk (Pusher, Revolution) shares Jason’s bizarre sense of humor and has been instrumental in Jason’s lifestyle, from buying hold shapes to keeping him safe with a steady stream of thick foam to land on.

Friends Dan and Dave Chancellor of So Ill have also given him room to express himself through their company, and besides holds, ads, videos, and other design work, Jason again forged new territory when he created two gigantic features, climbable sculptures really, that So Ill distributes. Dan and Dave also help Jason with his own company: the hold, t-shirt, and design brand that is CryptoChild.

You can read what Jason has to say about his shaping on his DPM blog here.  

Photo: Andy Mann

CryptoChild

To every light there is a dark, and via his alter-ego, the twisted CryptoChild, Jason is widely considered the foremost creative force in the rock climbing world. His perspective is wholly unique and his outlets are many—video, photo, altered photos, graphic design, writing, drawing, sculpture, hold shaping, route-setting, gym design, fashion, dolls, experiments with language, and vehicle alterations—and his influence spans the globe. He gives slideshows and has art shows where he sells photo, video, and sculpture. His altered white van, with a bone shifter, horn door handles, bloodshot graphics, baby dolls, and a bejeweled skull on the front bumper, is recognized across the country. His style is a combination of surreal, challenging, unsettling, and sometimes gross, yet his art appeals to a wide audience.

“I’ve always really respected Jason for walking his own path,” says friend and climber Leif Gasch. “There are so many flashes in the pan, but Jason has always stood out from the pack as an innovator and a driving force in our sport.”

 

The Student Becomes the Master

In 2014 Jason is climbing as high and as hard as he ever has, with multiple first ascents last year alone including Count to Six and Die, a V13 highball with such a bad landing that his spotter had to be on belay. The year before he finally finished another V13, a longstanding project in Hueco that he dubbed The Seventh Circle as that was how far into project hell he had to descend to finish it. Both remain unrepeated.

Professionally, Jason is in demand. He works constantly and travels extensively. In January of this year he helped set the new Earth Treks gym (which he also designed) in Golden, Colorado; did some more first ascents in Hueco; and traveled to Singapore to set a competition—but he doesn’t seem to tire of the life he has made through art and climbing.

Jason’s productivity is impressive. He releases top-notch, creative, original videos with professional quality graphics on the regular, and though his personal tastes trend towards the macabre (think “Count to Six and Die,” or the gruesome art short “Dinner With Myself,”) he is also capable of producing beautiful films like this 2013 piece on his girlfriend Martina Mali’s ascent of Rumble in the Jungle. For a throwback, visit the “Rules of Chaos" video he made with Jay Bone, in which Jason is kidnapped and beaten by terrorists for his highballing antics before being rescued by a beautiful woman.

LT11 founder and filmmaker Jon Glassberg calls him an inspiration. “When I started making climbing movies, I would always think to myself, ‘Is this piece I’m working on as cool and inspired as what Jason is making?’ Often times, no. I would say Jason is one of the few producers making true art with his climbing films.”

 

A True Magician

There are so many more things to ask Jason, so much more to learn, but some will have to wait for another day. After all, we can’t share all his secrets now, can we?

I asked Jason if he’s ever repeated any of his hard highballs.

“I like to think of it like a strike of lightning,” he says. “Everything builds up to one moment, physically, mentally, and at the right moment that’s what’s special to me. I don’t think you can recreate that, especially with a first ascent. After all, a true magician never does his trick twice.”