Well, the answer is yes! Bears can rock climb, as seen in this viral video filmed by youtuber Stephanie Latimer. These bears aren't quite poetry in motion; they seem too clumsy, shaky and husky to be testing their vertical limits. And since they climb free-solo (meaning without ropes or protection because they are bears), you're left on the very edge of your seat with every reach and paw shuffle.
"These are the best bear climbers I've seen since 1999 in Yosemite when I witnessed the impressive free-solo of a 50-foot 5.9 off-width by a bear....The mom employs some masterful stemming at the crux, while the cub realizes that this is a reach problem and is forced to establish a more difficult variation."
These are Mexican Black Bears, a subspecies of black bear listed as endangered in Texas, and they grow to weigh 200-400 pounds--not an ideal weight for such miniscule paw holds. Yet somehow the little cub, after watching her mother traverse like a furry Alex Honnold to the safe ledge, learns quickly. She nervously negotiates the route and tops out in dramatic fashion.
These black bears are often spotted by campers in Santa Elena Canyon, part of the 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park in the lone star state. Campers and hikers might witness them lumbering around and foraging near the river with their cubs. But seeing these bears crimp, traverse and jug up the canyon walls, claws and all? That's another story.
"Rarely are [black bears] seen scaling the walls of the canyon," says a Park Ranger of Big Bend who prefers anonymity. But, he says, it happens, and it's not as impressive as the video suggests. "The cliffs actually aren't all that vertical," he says, and it's common for bears to climb anything that they perceive is climbable.
Plus, rock climbing in Santa Elena Canyon isn't conducive to human methods of climbing. The canyon rock--soft igneous and limestone flutes--is much less dense than say Yosemite's granite. Drilling and placing climbing protection are risky for the climber and damage the rock's integrity.
Wright (pictured, tall), however, remains awestruck. "After careful examination," says Wright, "I can confidently say that this is a cutting edge ascent that in bear grades is in the upper stratosphere of what is possible. I would guess it is a solid B.15." Wright equates the "B" scale (for "Bear") to the highest-rated climb in human standards, 5.15.
"Even by human standards this is one of the great ascents of our time. A new bar has been set. I think it's time for [Chris] Sharma, Honnold and [Tommy] Caldwell to hang up their hats and give respect where it's due."
Video credit: Stephanie Latimer
Photo credit: Cedar Wright
J. Scott Donahue is a former intern at Sierra. He will soon obtain an MFA in nonfiction writing, and his thesis is composed of travel essays about trekking, mountaineering and running Nepal's Himalayas.