Dave Altman, a longtime Berkeley climber who had been called the “Mayor of Indian Rock,” died early Tuesday morning after his SUV caught fire in the Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym parking lot where he lived on Potter Street.
Described by Ironworks in 2012 as a “living legend” who could “do pull-ups with just his finger tips hanging from bolts,” Altman and his friend and climbing partner Ray Jardine made a name for themselves in the Bay Area rock climbing scene with their numerous early ascents in Yosemite National Park in the 1970s.
Altman was pronounced dead early Tuesday morning after he was located outside his burning SUV, which had been parked for years outside Touchstone’s Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym at 800 Potter St.
Berkeley Police spokesman Officer Byron White said police and firefighters were dispatched to the area just after 12:30 a.m. on a report of a full-size SUV on fire. Initially, a caller told authorities the vehicle was burning in the Weatherford BMW parking lot just west of Ironworks, but that was incorrect.
White said emergency personnel discovered a man’s body near the burning vehicle in the Potter Street parking lot when they got to the scene. The 68-year-old man, later identified as Altman, had been severely burned and was pronounced dead.
White said the Berkeley Fire Department is working with the Alameda County coroner’s office to identify the cause of the death and the fire.
BPD homicide detectives are handling the death investigation and do not believe the circumstances to be suspicious, White said Wednesday.
Altman had lived in his SUV outside the gym at 800 Potter St. since at least 2012. It was also the address where he had registered to vote, according to county records from 2018.
“There’s only one of him and [he] lives here in the parking lot of Berkeley Ironworks,” the gym wrote in a glowing 2012 Facebook post promoting an interview with Altman. “He’s been working for Touchstone since before Touchstone was Touchstone.”
Altman began training people at the gym in 1992 when it was still called CityRock, according to an unidentified blogger for Touchstone. Altman was also “an obsessive mathematician, enjoying low-dimensional topology and physics-related differential geometry,” the blogger wrote.
When Altman was a 1½-year-old toddler, according to the interview, he once pulled out the drawers from a dresser to make “stairs” for himself: His mother found him sitting on top of the chest of drawers. She described him as “just like a little monkey.”
When Altman was in high school, he spent time “peak bagging” in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, reaching as many summits as he could, the Touchstone blogger wrote. Altman started rock climbing in earnest, at Indian Rock Park in Berkeley, in 1972.
“It was probably a mistake,” Altman told the Touchstone blogger 40 years later. “I’d be a fat, tenured professor on the verge of retirement now if I hadn’t done that.”
Bob Palais told Berkeleyside that Altman had been a mentor to him when Palais was a math graduate student and, later, a post-doc at UC Berkeley. Palais described Altman as “irreplaceable,” and said his friend had been “generous and multitalented” in a wide range of creative endeavors, from mathematics and music to climbing, fitness and culture to friendship, language and fine cooking.
Altman was an amazing guitar player, Palais said, “especially Jimi Hendrix on his acoustic.” He was an excellent cook of Japanese food and “did math translation to and from Japanese as side work.”
“It feels like those moments in Star Wars,” Palais told Berkeleyside. “The Force just took a hit.”
Altman and climbing partner Jardine won some measure of acclaim in the climbing world, according to the interview, for their ascents of the difficult Yosemite granite cracks known as Tales of Power, Separate Reality, Crimson Cringe and Cosmic Debris.
As of 1992, Altman had completed about 3,000 climbs, he told the gym blogger, and said the most significant among them had likely been a climb known as “Red Zinger at the Cookie Cliff” in Yosemite.
In 1995, writer Mike Papciak interviewed Altman for a piece in Climbing magazine, calling Altman the “Mayor of Indian Rock.”
Touchstone told Berkeleyside that Altman was “a treasured member of the climbing community and an important part of the Touchstone family. We are all deeply, deeply saddened by his loss.” The gym has posted a detailed remembrance of him on its website.
“Born in 1952, Dave made his way to UC Berkeley for undergraduate and graduate school,” according to the memorial post. “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.”
Altman was clearly a force of nature: An undated image by now-deceased photographer Galen Rowell shows Altman bouldering at Indian Rock with his muscular arms and body supporting his powerful legs, which are thrust into the air against a bright blue sky. Berkeleyside attempted to reach Rowell’s gallery for permission to share the image but did not succeed.
A striking aerial photograph of Altman bouldering at Indian Rock appears in John Sherman’s 1994 book, “Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America.” In the book credits, Sherman thanked Altman and others who helped him put the history project together. Sherman identified Altman in the book as one of a dozen or so Berkeley climbers who were “local legends” and “Indian Rock regulars” who were otherwise “virtually unknown beyond the Bay Area.”
On his own website, entitled “Institute for Original Studies,” Altman offered coaching in rock climbing, math and strength training. He wrote a few blog posts on the website, but had not updated it since 2004. In the blog, he expressed concern about human rights around the world, the Iraq war, the perils of polling and the nation’s increasing polarization.
A brief bio from his CityRock climbing gym days also appears on Altman’s website, though it’s introduced with an emphatic caveat to any reader who might come across it: “NOTE: I did not write this!”
“Dave Altman is a self-described hermit who ventures out only so often to maintain the weight room at CityRock and teach outdoor classes,” the bio reads. “Dave has been climbing for as long as anyone can remember and he is a fixture at Indian Rock. His mathematical prowess is almost as well known as his strength. He can bench 240 pounds while explaining … Wiles’ proof of the semistable case of Taniyama-Shimura implies Fermat’s Last Theorem.”
Touchstone said it will plant a memorial garden for Altman in his longtime parking spot, “and invite everyone who knew and loved Dave to plant a succulent there in his honor.” Email the gym for details.
Berkeleyside will share additional information about Altman’s death when it becomes available.
Did you know Dave Altman? Please share memories and photographs in the comments section below or write Berkeleyside directly.