• Volume 11 – Solos, Choss, and Reflection (plus new subscription rates)

    Sep 12 • Uncategorized • 92 Views

    As we’ve grown from a black and white stapled together zine to our full color book/magazine hybrid we currently have today, our goal has been to constantly refine The Climbing Zine. As Volume 11—Choss, Solos, and Reflection—is about to be released we think we’ve continually succeeded in that goal. (If you’re a Kindle, reader, the “story only” version of Volume 11 is now available to read.)

    Now in 2018 we will be moving from two issues a year to three issues a year.

    That means our subscriptions will be adjusted accordingly, with a one-year subscription including three issues, and a two-year subscription including six.

    Please consider subscribing to “America’s Creative Climbing Publication” today, and supporting our mission to “represent the essence of climbing”.

    Already a subscriber? Pick up one our books, or our “dirtbag state of mind” hats.

    Dirtbag State of Mind hats by Peter W. Gilroy.


    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (six issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • Up (and over) the Pope’s Nose by Josh Smith

    Sep 4 • Locations • 809 Views

    “Think we could throw a haul bag out of an airplane? That would make the approach really easy.”

    Kennan was looking at me and Jeff with a twinkle in his eye, and unsure if he was serious, I asked, “Can you even open a plane door in flight, and if you could, wouldn’t it destabilize the plane and make it crash?”

    by Josh Smith. This piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10. Art by Rhiannon Williams. 

    Jeff chimed in on Kennan’s side, “I think it will work, and it’s a great idea! I once pitched bags out of a plane when setting up resupplies in Alaska. Of course, the planes in Alaska had the doors taken off—and we never found one of the bags—but if we don’t try, we won’t find out. And I know just the pilot.”

    Thus began our quest for the first free ascent of the Pope’s Nose.

    In the mid-1990s when this story took place, Kennan and Jeff were both well-established names in the climbing world but newcomers to Durango, and they were in the process of exploring the area’s potential. Several old timers from Durango’s small climbing community had told them enticing tales of a thousand-foot dome of white granite hidden deep within the moist folds of Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. This schnoz-shaped gem was called the “Pope’s Nose,” and it had never seen a free ascent. Five multiday aid lines wound their way up its face, but the fourteen-mile hike, the difficulty of the climbing, and the intensity of the summer monsoons had so far denied a free climbing prize. The lure was irresistible to them, and although I was a climbing neophyte, I took advantage of a long friendship with Kennan to shoehorn myself into the adventure. It was the chance of a lifetime to tag along with two such experienced masters. I had only read about first ascents, and there was a mythical quality about them that I longed to be a part of. I wanted to see how an ascent was planned and maybe even contribute to something that would become a permanent part of the sport.

    We shopped for supplies in City Market with an optimistic disregard for the weight-conscious precision that usually governs the selection of backpacking food, gathering canned meats, blocks of cheese, peanut butter, and other luxuries that might survive a fall from an airplane. Jeff departed for home to continue his personal packing while Kennan and I sorted supplies into three small piles and one big one. The more we tossed into the haul-bag pile, the more dubious and curious I became. Kennan and Jeff, both veterans of many remote wilderness adventures, seemed to feel that the drop would work, but it was becoming clear to me that it was not exactly common practice.

    However, Kennan had good ideas: pack compressibles with noncompressibles; put the tent near the top so that it would stream out and act as a parachute; pack such that the goods inside would explode out the top, releasing energy upon impact. He said that he was confident that the haul bag, which was about two feet in diameter and five feet tall, wouldn’t rupture upon impact. This was the first haul bag I’d seen up close, and it looked tough, but I wondered how a tube of nylon could withstand a terminal velocity impact with, to pick a random example, a talus field of jagged granite boulders? I posed questions as a novice but raised no objections, partly because I didn’t want to display my ignorance too openly, and partly because I was dying to see how events would unfold.

    When we finished, the haul bag was packed to the top, and the slick, brown tube weighed nearly one hundred pounds. “Are you sure we can push this out of an airplane?” I asked.

    “We’ll just have to see what our pilot says,” Kennan replied.

    The author.

    The next morning we met our pilot at a Durango coffee shop. To my apprehensive eye, he looked very young, a little hung over, and not rested enough to be allowed near the yoke of an airplane. My experience with small aircraft was at this point purely theoretical, and I had been hoping he would be a grizzled veteran with decades of experience rather than a newly minted aviator who wished to add to his forty hours of flight experience without having to foot the bill for plane rental and fuel. His manner, however, was winning and intelligent, and I found myself liking him quite a lot.

    At the Animas Air Park, I got my first glimpse of our aircraft. The aging, tiny Cessna appeared incapable of carrying two people, much less four men and a haul bag the size of a water heater. Chained to the runway next to our battered ride was an identical-looking Cessna that was clearly grounded for eternity. Its prop was bent backward from plowing into the ground, the wheels were wrenched backward, and strands of brush hung from various crevices around the nose and wheels so that it looked like a cow that had died with a mouth full of grass.

    “Does that happen very often?” I asked, trying to get a sense of just what we were getting ourselves into. I liked our pilot, and I could even forgive his youth and good looks, but forty hours didn’t sound like much flight time, and, boy, did our plane look small. And old. He said no, then asked our weights and the weight of the bag, and began the preflight checks, only to say he didn’t think that we’d be able to get off the ground with all of us and the bag. I volunteered to stay behind if need be, but when he checked the fuel level he said that with the tank that low, we should be able to get airborne. I wrestled internally with that statement for a moment before letting my desire for adventure trample any latent timidity.

    “How do we do this?” the pilot asked. Kennan and Jeff decided that because I had never been in a small plane, I should sit in front for the best view and be responsible for opening the door. Jeff and I would push the haul bag out on to the wheel strut and then off into space.

    “How fast will be we going?” I asked.

    “About 120 miles an hour.”

    “And I’ll be able to open the door, right?” I looked at it and pictured the pressure I felt sticking my hand out a car window on the interstate. The door seemed flimsy, as if it might fold in half against plane-speed wind. Jeff brought up the effect of an open door on flight characteristics, and when the pilot said yes, he’d have to compensate for that, I was relieved to see that he had considered the implications and thought we’d be able to get the door open.

    The pilot looked at the strut below the door and said, “If the bag gets caught on that, we’re going down.” To minimize the risk, we secured all the straps near the top of the bag with duct tape so that it ended up looking like a turd with a tin hat. Kennan and Jeff piled in the back, and Jeff took the monstrous bag on his lap. It brushed the roof, completely obscuring his forward view. The pilot fired up the plane, which rattled and roared and shook as if it were trying to tear itself apart. Inside, the plane didn’t look like any car rental I’d seen. The seats and siding were of a style and shade of vinyl that was popular in diners in the 1970s, surfaces were worn smooth of paint in places, and the handles were loose. The door pocket on my side was stuffed with napkins, as if someone had just been through the drive-through at a fast food joint.

    As we taxied and turned into the wind, our pilot spoke to us through our earphones, telling stories about the unique and often challenging crosswind conditions that affect Animas Air Park. “If you can learn to land here, you can land just about anywhere.” That explained the dead plain chained to the runway—and now I was worried about the return as well.

    As we accelerated down the runway, the plane rattled and roared louder and louder, stumbling forward like a game but geriatric sprinter. I looked back to where Jeff was compressed beneath the haul bag. Kennan grinned huge at me. The pilot pulled the plane into the air, its wings wobbling. Within moments, we were over the river, going up rather than down, and then like magic, we were aloft in the sky above Durango. Minutes later, city streets turned to mountain roads, and we passed over Vallecito Lake, which marked our trailhead. The pilot navigated by suggestions from Kennan and Jeff, and we soon entered a secondary valley. Beneath us, fractured clay-colored cliffs were replaced by white granite, and more rock out appeared. On the right side of the plane, a waterfall jetted off a cliff face, making a shimmering silver line in the morning light. My nervous stomach warred with a tremendous sense of wonder at being up in the sky in this tiny aluminum shell.

    Suddenly, we could see the Pope’s Nose itself, a massive rock face dominating the landscape. The interior of the plane was alive with religious, sacrilegious, and anatomically unlikely commentary on the magnificence of the rock. How could such a thing exist so close to Durango yet still remain relatively pristine and unknown? The pilot flew us perhaps one thousand feet above the top of The Nose, which was still below the level of the mountain ridges forming the valley. The pilot announced, “Ok, pick a spot to drop the bag.”

    “That clearing!” shouted Jeff, pointing to an open meadow that looked tiny and oblong, but was directly in front of The Nose.

    Oh no, I thought, how could we possibly know when to push the bag out so that it would land in the meadow? And when it landed in the trees, as it inevitably would, how could we possibly have a prayer of finding it? We circled at the head of the valley, and the pilot said, “Ok, open the door!”

    “Josh, you yell go when we’re ready to release!” Kennan said. I pulled the door handle on the plane and shoved. The door opened six inches, fluttering on its hinges, and the wind roared in with grasping fingers.

    “I can’t open it!” I shouted. Jeff shoved the bag off of his lap and up against the door. He pushed the door with his foot, achieving much better leverage than was possible for me in the front seat. The door opened eight, ten, fifteen inches, and the bag began to emerge from the door. The plane suddenly tilted radically, and the pilot said, “Wow!” and played with the controls. We righted, but the wind was screaming into the cockpit, and the enormous haul bag was jammed in the partially open door. Jeff and I shoved, and the bag came to rest on the strut. We were rapidly approaching the clearing.

    Kennan said, “Josh, say go!”

    “I can’t see anything beneath us!” I dithered.

    “Go!” shouted Jeff, giving the bag an enormous shove. It slipped free of the plane, which suddenly swung the other direction.

    The pilot pulled the plane around hard, yelling, “Look for it!”

    “Got it!” Exclaimed Kennan, then Jeff, then me. The bag was a tiny tan plug in the air. It fell for an impossibly long time, dropping so perfectly in front of the Pope’s Nose that I was sure it would hit the cliff, and then when it missed the face, the slabs at the base. Still it kept falling as the plane pulled around. Tracking it was somewhat akin to trying to follow a tan golf ball in flight, yet more difficult and weird, since we were moving in three dimensions, the bag was moving in three dimensions, and both had as a backdrop the convoluted mountain landscape.

    We saw it enter a grove of trees just north of The Nose. “Oh, that’s going to be easy to find!” I exulted.

    More realistic, Kennan said, “Well, it’ll look a lot different from the ground.”

    “How high do you think we were?” Jeff asked the pilot.

    “We were about 2,500 feet off the deck,” the pilot said, “I was afraid to go much lower because I didn’t know how the plane would handle.”

    “Good idea.”

    We all talked about how perfect the drop had been, but in truth, luck was strongly on our side, and it was only after we circled again to mark the spot in our minds that I began to wonder what would have happened if it had landed in a stream or in one of the ponds we could see. A colony of beavers might suddenly feel that they’d been transported to a war zone.

    On the return flight, I tried to reflect on what we had just done but had considerable difficulty putting it into perspective. The entire flight had been completely outside the realm of my experience, and I couldn’t begin to know if it was unusual, dangerous, funny, illegal, stupid, or magnificent. Mostly I felt triumphant. Jeff must have felt the same way because he said, “It doesn’t really matter what happens next. This trip is already a success!”

    I myself was both thrilled with the ride and the drop and eager to follow Kennan and Jeff into the next phase of the adventure. We landed back at the Air Park, thanked our pilot profusely, and ceremoniously kissed the ground before leaving for the trailhead. Our hiking packs were filled with less impact-resistant food and gear and weighed fifty-five pounds each, which is still a substantial load. It was 3:00 p.m. We had fourteen miles to hike up an unfamiliar drainage, and our tent was in the haul bag. The seesaw of my optimism banged to the ground with a thud as Jeff and Kennan set off up trail with the rangy, mile-eating strides of experienced mountaineers. I trotted along behind, doing my best to imitate their effortless speed.

    The trail was wide and flat and led past fields and then a massive horse stable. Both history and movies convey the integral nature of the horse to the spirit of the American West, and I appreciated the authenticity they added to ambience of our adventure. Soon, however, I felt that the elegant and noble equines would be better housed piecemeal in Alpo tins than in their comfortable paddocks at the gateway to the wilderness. Ironshod feet had widened the trail so that the three of us could comfortably walk abreast, and fragrant piles of biscuits squished moistly underfoot at each step. As we gained altitude, the ground became saturated, and we began to wade through ankle-deep pools of soup composed of three parts honest mud and one part processed hay.

    Several hours in, I was certain we wouldn’t reach the valley before dark. Kennan and Jeff refused to even consider the possibility of an open bivy and charged up the trail, plunging heedlessly through turbid pools of foul muck, buoyed by an optimism that I wasn’t sharing and that made me wonder if I was cut out for this adventure stuff. Then it began to rain. As the slow summer evening settled in, we branched off of the main river valley and began to climb steeply into the side valley that held the Pope’s Nose. Kennan and Jeff got farther and farther ahead. My thighs were burning, but I pushed as hard as I could to keep them in sight. Eventually, we entered a meadow and spied the top of the rock formation through the trees. Even from a distance of more than a mile, the rock face was impressive: sheer, steep, and shrouded with clouds. With a sinking feeling, I thought, We’re going to climb that monster?

    The forest closed in on us as we climbed, becoming richer and lusher. Mushrooms sprung from the ground in a startling variety of sizes and colors. Amanita, the death angel mushroom with its brilliant red, white-spotted cap grew to sizes I’d never seen. Huge brown mushrooms the size of dinner plates grew in profusion. “King boletus,” Jeff exclaimed, “excellent eating!” He collected several as we hiked along.

    As we drew near the Pope’s Nose itself, we began to look for the grove of trees that marked our best guess as to where the haul bag had landed. The valley was larger than it looked from the air, and at least to my eye, there were several groves that might hold the bag. Kennan and Jeff, however, quickly came to agreement upon the most likely search area, and we dropped our packs at a suitable camp spot and grabbed our headlamps and forded the rushing stream. I didn’t bother to remove my shoes, as immersion could not make them wetter, and any change in state would make them cleaner. On the far side, what had appeared from the air to be a beautiful open field was in fact a dense hell of alders fifteen feet tall. Tucked in and about the alders were numerous marshes and beaver ponds. If the haul bag had fallen directly on our target, it might have lain there undiscovered for centuries, an enigmatic nugget in a mossy Colorado bog.

    I clawed through the alders, snapping branches, grumbling and crawling over clumps of vegetation on my hands and knees. By the time we reached the more open far slope, it was growing quite dark, and we split up to speed the search. I spotted a body-sized tube of tan off in a talus field, but it turned out to be a log. Kennan and Jeff had headed up the valley, and I lost track of them in the growing darkness. I stuck my head into the bushes, traversed up and down, and tried to guess where the bag might have landed. The search was beginning to seem futile.

    Then I heard a distant shout, and I supposed that Kennan and Jeff were calling it a night. It promised to be a cold one. I traversed the slope in the darkness, reluctant to turn on my headlamp and loose the adaptation of my eyes to the darkness as I kept hoping that I’d stumble across some sign of the bag.

    “We found it!” Kennan exclaimed.

    Jeff was even more enthusiastic. “How do we rate?!”

    “Look uphill where it hit,” Kennan said. The bag had plummeted through an opening in the aspen canopy, missing anything that might have slowed its descent. It had hit a particularly innocuous spot on the steep slope, scattering soft loam in a three foot wide crater, then bouncing about forty feet downhill from the impact point, shedding its contents on the way. The bag appeared undamaged, but I couldn’t imagine that it would have fared as well in virtually any other scenario.

    “Whose bright idea was it to put food in the haul bag?” asked Jeff as he began to extract supplies from the bag.

    “That would be me,” I said, adding defensively, “I double bagged everything,” realizing as I said it how silly it was to think that two Ziplocs would be any better than one in this situation.

    “What is this?” Jeff asked, and I winced as he pulled out a sleeping pad covered in alfredo noodles, rice, and miscellaneous dried foodstuffs, all held together by a viscous matrix of something brown.

    “You threw peanut butter out of an airplane?”

    The sixteen-ounce jar of peanut butter had discharged like a shotgun shell, spewing chunky glop into the contents of the haul bag with astounding thoroughness and force, coating everything.

    “You put tuna fish in here?”

    “That was Kennan’s idea,” I said quickly. The can of tuna was horribly distorted but unbroken, much to our relief. Most of the goods were usable, but we were missing a collection of pitons, which Jeff said could be critical to a successful climb. At the bottom of the bag, we collected half a pound of miscellaneous dried food thinking that the noodles, powdered sauces, spices, peanut butter, and bits of forest debris might potentially make a good soup.

    The next day dawned cold and overcast, and we were particularly happy to have the tent. It was drizzling, and the Pope’s Nose was lost in clouds. I put on clean socks and hung my boots near the fire in hopes of drying them out a little. Despite all the washing they’d received the day before, they were still remarkably befouled. Mid-day, we headed back to the haul-bag landing site and spent a long time looking for the pitons. I expressed concern at not having them, but Jeff said once again that with any reasonable yardstick, the trip was already a resounding success. I was surprised by his attitude, having assumed that both he and Kennan would single-mindedly pursue the first ascent and that the rest of the trip was merely window-dressing.

    Back at camp, we waited for the Pope’s Nose to break out of the clouds, which eventually it did. Using binoculars, Kennan and Jeff could identify a couple of the aid lines from photos they had seen, and they discussed the merits and drawbacks of different new lines on the face. I quizzed them about planning first ascents, and they said they generally just picked a line, started up, climbed to the top if they could and came down if they couldn’t. That was annoyingly obvious, of course, and I figured it meant I was asking them to articulate something that couldn’t be put into words. I did know why climbing is usually learned as an apprenticeship; real lessons come from having someone patient take you along and show you the way, and that’s what I was hoping for. The weather, however, was wetting down my self-improvement strategy.

    The next day dawned rainy as well, and we heaved a collective sigh and cooked a leisurely breakfast. The valley was beautiful, but I had little patience with the weather. I had found a fishhook in a tree near the creek, so I borrowed some dental floss from Kennan’s emergency kit and cut a stick of alder to serve as a pole. There was an abundance of worms in the rich earth, so I stripped off my shoes and headed for the creek. I worked up and down, with no success. It was difficult to fish in the stream because I could only stand in the current for short periods of time before my feet grew numb. The chilly air dropped a light, intermittent rain.

    At the edge of a pool, I stood on a spongy bar woven of twigs and branches stabilized by sand and tossed the dental floss into the current. Wham! I had a ten-inch trout on the line. I moved downstream, hooked another fish. Excited, I moved farther down and climbed out on a boulder that extended into a pool. The rain-slicked granite held less traction than my bare feet needed, and I suddenly found myself plunging over my head into the shockingly cold pool. Gasping with cold, I extracted myself, collecting several scratches in the process, and grabbed my fish from the bank and hurried back to camp to warm up. That night, we feasted on poached trout cooked with garlic and king boletes and had a cranberry cake with cream cheese icing for desert. Kennan reveled in the quality of the food and echoed Jeff’s line.

    “Is this trip a success or what?!” Full and content by the fire, I could see his point.

    The next day, my last, dawned clear, and we waited impatiently in camp for the most obvious of the water streaks to dry before heading up the hill. At the base of the rock face we walked back and forth, looking for the line that was most likely to go free.

    Kennan and Jeff focused on a series of obvious cracks that led to a large roof. The line looked difficult but doable and didn’t show up on their topo. At the right side of The Nose, we found one of the previously climbed lines. Bolted anchors were visible up to a height of about four hundred feet. The Durango climbers who had put up the route had pushed it all the way to the summit on aid but had given up on the free attempt after three pitches of 5.12. I was impressed with their audacity. It was the most obvious line on the face, but also the most obviously difficult, following a series of thin cracks and shallow dihedrals to the summit. Given the time of day and the conditions, we decided it would be best to do the first few pitches of that route to get a feel for the rock and then call it a day. Weather permitting, Kennan and Jeff would come back the next day and begin on the line they’d picked out, and I would have to give up on participating in their attempt at a first free ascent. That was a bit of a bitter pill, but starting up an unknown line at midday didn’t make sense.

    I started up the first pitch, which was varied and 5.10-ish and led to the 5.12 pitches. The protection was a bit strange, consisting of gear, a few bolts, and some odd wires I’d never seen before that had metal heads bashed into creases in the rock. Jeff said they were copperheads and generally used just for aid climbing but that if I fell, one might hold me. I climbed carefully and examined the copperheads with interest, wondering how such an unlikely and horrifying innovation had begun. Jeff followed the pitch, and from the belay we could see that weather was moving in. Kennan said he would stay on the ground to give us more time to climb, and Jeff offered me the next lead because it was my last day. I looked up. Like a capricious Roman god, the summit ducked in and out of the dark clouds, trying to decide whether it was worth pausing to smite the mortals below. The cracks that we could see were seeping from the night’s rain.

    “Fair is fair—your lead,” I said, handing over the rack. Jeff moved quickly through the 5.12 terrain, pausing only a little at one section; that kind of competence was why he was a pro and I was tagging along and picking up tips. I top-roped the pitch, and when I was twenty feet from the anchors, it began to rain in earnest, and we headed down and back to camp.

    It was still raining the next morning when I packed up, said good luck and thanks to Kennan and Jeff, and hit the trail. It had been a stimulating and exhausting few days for me, but on the long hike out I had time to ruminate. Both of them seemed willing at each point to remain positive to adapt to circumstances, and maybe one of their “secrets” to being successful mountaineers lay in that flexibility. It was clear to me that when the weather cooperated, they would apply the same high level of energy and creativity to the actual climb and that would likely lead to their first ascent. I chewed on that thought as I examined my own attitudes and on the large number of novel experiences I’d just had; the airplane ride and the haul-bag drop, the high-speed hike into the mountains, and even the alfredo—peanut butter explosion. It became clear that even without the first ascent, the trip had been an unqualified success!

    Postscript: Kennan and Jeff stayed a couple more rainy days. They didn’t climb again. However, several weeks later, they went back and climbed the line they’d selected. It went free at 5.11+, with the crux below a large roof at the top. I continued working on my skills and then went back myself the next summer with another friend. We climbed one of the aid lines up the middle of the face and then climbed a new aid route of our own on the left side of the formation.

    This story is published in Volume 10, The Raw Issue, available in print and on Kindle. 

    Josh Smith has spent the past twenty years looking for new cracks to fall out of. He recently took up bouldering and has discovered that it’s just as much fun to fall on top of your friends. He lives in New Mexico, which offers plenty of novel opportunities for both.  

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (six issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • Going It Alone by Vic Zeilman

    Aug 19 • Climbing Culture • 1396 Views

    At some point in my early to midtwenties, I came to the conclusion that life is not about rock climbing. There’s just too much other crazy shit happening every day on this beautiful clump of space dust. The older I get, however, the more I realize that climbing is most certainly about life. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical about it all, for me, a demanding multi-pitch route feels like a microcosm of life itself (a concept that others have explored long before I ever brought it up). A lengthy alpine or big wall route is an encapsulated experience filled with an array of emotions, from joy to pain, and suffering to elation, which has the ability to bring to the forefront feelings that shape how I view the world well after the summit has been reached.

    by Vic Zeilman, Senior Contributor. The full version of this piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10. 

    We are all on some sort of path in life, and the future is ultimately unknown. And just like that greater path, the events of any given climb can never be foreseen until you’re right in the middle of it all. Committing can feel scary, and making decisions along the way can be stressful. Sometimes you have to put your trust in your partner or teammates to make it through some sort of impasse, and sometimes success or failure rides solely on your abilities alone. But either way, once you begin, it’s all action and reaction, cause and effect. Up or down, you keep moving, evaluate your options, weigh the risks, listen to your instincts, and in the end, you make the choices that will determine if and when you complete your objective.

    Sometimes the obstacles are known, but oftentimes they’re not. Each pitch takes you to a different vantage point, and each rope length marks your progress, like months in a year, or years in a decade. Like many before me, rock climbing has provided valuable life lessons about setting goals, being prepared, adapting to adversity, and of course, all that cliché motivational poster stuff about teamwork—except the team is small, and the consequences can be huge. In climbing, as in life, sometimes things just don’t feel right. Pressures build, fear creeps in, motivation ebbs and flows, and there are difficulties at times for no apparent reason. It is often in these moments I feel the strongest urge to simply unplug, or at least turn down the volume, step away from the crowds, and go it alone for a while.

    Everyone has their coping mechanism. For me, I have learned that solitude can be a powerful rejuvenator of the soul and a catalyst for truly appreciating the relationships that matter most in my life. As much as I enjoy the company of family and friends, there are times when I prefer individual pursuits—a lengthy trail run, a ski tour at dawn, even sitting behind the wheel on a long road trip—time to reflect on my existence in this world, and to let my own thoughts speak louder than the white noise that engulfs our culture.

    Ranked highest amongst these individual pursuits is solo climbing. Not free soloing, but rather rope soloing. This is usually aid climbing, and if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, multiple days of it in a row. Slow, laborious, unnecessarily terrifying, completely exhausting, but surreal and meditative, like spending a weekend getting your ass kicked in a Buddhist monastery. I have joked with friends over the years that aid climbing is only good for three things: climbing El Capitan, summiting obscure desert towers, and going on vertical camping trips by yourself.

    Let’s face it; aid climbing is a dying concept these days. When I was first introduced to rock climbing, being a “climber” meant focusing on the holy trinity of skills: trad, ice, and aid. Aid climbers still got cover shots in all the mags. Things have changed though. I mean, who even knows how to effectively rate an aid route anymore? It’s a lost art, like reading Latin, or making a sweet mixtape for your middle school girlfriend using only the record button on your stereo and a handful of radio stations. That said, soloing a big wall definitely has its attractive qualities. It’s a lot more satisfying than most people give it credit for.

    Unlike climbing a wall with a partner, you are not forced to hang at an uncomfortable stance (or lack thereof), chain-smoking Luckies and eating cured meats, while you painstakingly feed rope through your belay device at a rate of one arm’s length every ten minutes. You don’t have to claw your eyes out while your buddy bounce tests each piece of gear (spread a mere eighteen inches apart) on a C1- pitch of perfect nut placements (which is probably 5.11b). You see, when you’re alone, there’s no time for cigs or salami. You are always the one spending an absurd amount of time leading, then rappelling back down, then ascending the pitch again as you clean the gear, then hauling the bag (then going back down when it inevitably gets stuck), then reracking the seventy-three pounds of shit, stacking the ropes, and doing it all over again. Sounds like infinite bliss, right? Plus, there is no one within earshot to tell you that you suck at aid climbing (which pretty much everyone does).

    Anyway, the point is, I have found multiday solo climbing to be the closest thing to a transcendental experience that I’ve ever had. It provides a Zen-like existence where one is forced to remain immersed in the task at hand for hours on end, constantly moving along a completely self-centered wavelength, making slow and steady progress that is often demoralizing to measure. The solitude and the prolonged exposure have an uncanny effect on the mind. The nights are long and provide ample time for personal reflection, often tapping into the far reaches of the subconscious that harbor our most sincere ideals, goals, and plans for the future. All it takes is lying in a portaledge to make one keenly aware of gravity’s pull into the inky abyss below, as you contemplate the metal studs and nylon that hold your existence in place. Life is fragile, and it shouldn’t be squandered. Sometimes it takes climbing to remind me of that.

    As much as I value the experiences I’ve had in the past, it’s never easy for me to commit to another solo climb. The stars need to align, so to speak. Enough time has to pass for me to forget about the measure of suffering I’m about to sign up for. I have to convince myself that it is a worthwhile objective and, more importantly, that I’m truly psyched to see it through. I mean, at the end of the day, who really wants to aid climb anything? Then it’s the planning, the logistics, the Rubbermaid bins full of random gear. Usually I’ll end up soloing a wall when I feel the pressures of everyday life putting the squeeze on me or if I’m losing that sense of inspiration that climbing has always provided in my life. Whatever the reason ends up being, it’s safe to say that there is usually some sort of metaphorical dragon at the heart of the issue that needs to be taken care of.

    In the fall of 2013, I began to realize, this time around, the dragon I needed to face was my own fear and mental weakness. At some point during the summer, I had become afraid of the exposure and potential consequences of rock climbing. I was having trouble leading pitches in the Black Canyon that I had led numerous times. I was absolutely gripped thinking about falling—on bolts, bomber cams, or even top-rope—what if my belayer didn’t catch me? I was nervous about being hit by rock fall, of rescuing an injured partner, of a dozen other morbid thoughts. In short, I was scared, and I didn’t really know why.

    These feelings boiled over during a trip to Indian Creek that October. I didn’t want to lead any route that wasn’t well within my ability level. I didn’t even want to struggle on top-rope. At the anchor, I was petrified of being lowered, of not being in control. The wall was steep, and the exposure was getting to me again. What the hell was going on? Sitting amongst those sandstone blocks in the Utah desert, I contemplated the rest of my fall climbing season, or rather if there was going to be one. I had already been planning a trip to Yosemite in November, but nothing was concrete. Soloing a route on El Capitan was definitely on my bucket list, but I had never climbed a Grade VI alone, and I questioned if I was mentally ready. By the time my Tacoma’s tires hit pavement, I had decided that I needed to slay some dragons if I was ever going to get my mojo back.

    I’ve often heard the phrase “the devil is in the details.” I’m not sure that I fully understand the reference, but I can say that successfully climbing El Cap is in the details; the rest is just suffering, and learning how to poop in a trash bag while squatting precariously on a hanging cot. The amount of time spent planning on the front end of a big wall climb can mean the difference between success and failure. I’ve learned this the hard way on more than one occasion. Not only is gear preparation paramount, but it is also important to be realistic about your time frame and your objective, and how many pitches you can get done each day without getting burned out, leaving wiggle room in your schedule so you don’t have to bail if you’re moving slower than expected.

    I rolled into the Valley on Halloween with my haul bags packed, ready to step out of the truck and start shuttling loads to the base of The Captain. No Camp 4 scene, no yard sale of gear, no grocery shopping in Curry Village, and no booze-fueled costume parties to attend that evening. I was on a mission, and it had started nearly two days prior when I left Colorado. The climb I had selected was Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2), and although it was technically the easiest aid route on El Cap, I knew that easy was a relative term. The lower portion of the route was steep and sustained with few natural ledges, and the upper half provided unique challenges with difficult hauling on less than vertical pitches, culminating in hundreds of feet of fourth-class slabs to reach the summit.

    I once had an instructor who used the phrase “humble confidence” to describe how we should approach situations in the search-and-rescue world. It’s a phrase that I’ve adopted over the years as a motto in life. To me, it means that you should have the confidence to face intimidating circumstances, but for god’s sake, be humble enough not to set yourself up for failure. I had climbed bigger routes on El Cap with partners, and I had aid soloed harder pitches than anything on Lurking Fear, but I had never tackled a two-thousand-plus foot rock climb alone. In the end, I needed to be honest with myself.

    Not only did Lurking Fear seem like an achievable goal but I had unfinished business with this particular climb, and it was high time to settle the score. Years earlier, my good friend Adam and I had first attempted the route. As a couple of big wall gumbies, we had gotten our asses properly handed to us, an all too common initiation for many parties first attempting the Big Stone. We were naive and overzealous, with lofty expectations of cruising the line in a seventy-two-hour period. After all, I only had four days off from work. Who cares if I had only climbed a couple of shorter walls in Zion, and Adam had no idea what an ascender was. We borrowed some gear from a buddy in Bishop, which included a mangy haul bag and a pathetic triangle-shaped portaledge dubbed “the social platform,” and we were off. We got this.

    A day and half later, we were basically at the top of pitch five, maybe six, having just watched a party start at the bottom that morning and reach our high point in less than three hours. What’s that phrase? Big hat, no cattle? Clearly that was us. We had spent a miserable night cuddling in the fetal position as the nylon fabric between the three bars of the social platform lost all rigidity, slowly transforming into a sagging wall hammock resembling a ball sack. By early afternoon the next day, we apprehensively bailed, nursing our bruised egos with the rest of the Johnnie Walker, which of course we had carried with us in the glass bottle, as any big wall gumby would.

    I laughed to myself remembering that trip as I trudged uphill along the western flank of that mile-and-a-half-wide monolith of granite. This was familiar terrain, but I had not laid eyes on it since Adam and I slogged downhill, tails between our legs, all those years earlier. With each gust of autumn breeze, I could almost hear redemption calling. Three separate trips, and six hours later, I had finally shuttled all my gear to the base. I sat in silence amongst the trees, already high above the base of The Nose and the valley floor below, completely isolated on the far left shoulder of this unearthly formation. In less than a week’s time, I hoped to be standing on the top.

    The first few days passed quickly, the way time usually does at the beginning of a long trip. I had been shooting for three pitches per day, and thus far I had been on schedule, inching my way up the lower face of Lurking Fear. But there is an interesting phenomenon that starts to take hold the longer a person is completely alone, and it seems to be intensified by the stress of existing in a vertical environment. For ten pitches I had mostly been moving from one fully hanging belay to another, carefully organizing my rope systems without as much as a small stance to easy my troubles. I was physically spent from jugging and hauling and mentally wrecked from the unrelenting exposure. The repetitive cycles of upward progress were now on autopilot, allowing the less task-oriented portions of my brain to go on the proverbial walk about, meandering in and out of rational thought. When I was on the move, I would fixate on bizarre fragments of dialogue or music, which played on a continuous loop in my head, quotes from the movie Tombstone, for example.

    “Doc, you oughta be in bed. What the hell you doin’ this for anyway?”

    “Wyatt Earp is my friend.”

    “Hell, I got lots of friends.”

    “I don’t.”

    By late afternoon on the fourth day, I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. I had only completed two pitches, and the next one happened to be an enormous, left-leaning roof that looked intimidating as hell. I hung there at the top of pitch eleven, forcing my weary mind to weigh my options. I could set up the portaledge on this fully hanging anchor for a third night in a row, I could push through the next pitch and surely finish in the dark, or I could rappel forty meters down and right to a small natural ledge just off-route of Lurking Fear. Nothing mattered more to me at this point than standing on some semblance of solid ground. I was starting to wig out—that much was obvious. I would rap to the ledge with my haul bag, jug the line again in the morning, and haul the same stretch of wall for a second time. I hoped that I was making the right decision.

    That night I lay awake, mind reeling as I sorted through a kaleidoscope of intense thoughts and emotions. I considered the events that had shaped my life and led me to this exact place in space and time. How did I get here, ultimately? How easy would it have been to be a completely different person altogether? I was bruised, battered, and starting to have my doubts about making it to the top. Half a dozen times I turned my headlamp on and examined the topo. The massive roof directly overhead, labeled as The Grand Traverse, was causing me severe anxiety. I questioned my tactics for getting back to the anchor once the pitch had been led. I was beginning to see this feature as a threshold of sorts, which if I crossed, I would surely make the summit. Sleep eventually came, as I tossed and turned on that narrow granite shelf, waking occasionally to the sensation that I was falling into space.

    As Americans, most of us are fortunate (more than we often realize) to live comfortable and privileged lives, but that doesn’t mean that everything is easy, or that hardship isn’t part of the process. It is often in these moments that family and friends provide the necessary support in countless ways, motivating us to keep moving forward and to believe in ourselves once again. I wasn’t feeling any of that support as the sun rose on my fifth day climbing El Cap. After a thousand-plus feet (which I had covered twice) there was no doubt in my mind that I had satisfied the impulses that had led me to that mountain alone. I had cohabitated with my dragon for days on end, and I was still fighting the good fight—now I wanted to be finished. I missed all the mundane bullshit that forced me into this position in the first place.

    And isn’t that the crazy thing about life? So often we are convinced that changing our circumstances or our environment is what we need to bring us happiness, but in the end, it has less to do with that and more to do with our outlook on life in general. No matter our circumstances, there is always something left to be desired, something you gave up, you regret, you’re still missing, or that intangible thing that is just out of reach.

    I lay in my sleeping bag, cold, sore, and completely exhausted. I figured I was a day behind schedule now, meaning I was probably a day short on water as well. Eventually I sat up and forced my aching claw-like hands to manipulate the knobs on the Jetboil. Thankfully, someone had left a questionable, sunbaked plastic jug of water hanging from the anchor. I took my chances, heating just enough to mix a coffee packet and down a healthy dose of ibuprofen. I stuffed the rest of the water in the bottom of my haul bag, just in case. From this bivy ledge, I could see around the corner of the wall to the base of The Nose. I sat there in silence, watching a party on the lower pitches, half a mile away, the only other people I had seen in a hundred hours of solitude. Despite complaints from my inflamed joints and tired muscles, I packed my belongings and jugged the fixed line.

    As I stepped into my aider and weighted the first piece, I glanced between my legs at a thousand feet of God’s blue sky between me and the base of the cliff. My mind felt calm. I placed some stoppers, clipped some less-than-inspiring upward-pounded pins, made some moves on cam hooks, and soon arrived at the anchor. I had made it through the roof with relative ease, but I was still nervous about cleaning and hauling the pitch. For the next hour or so, I slowly executed a dozen steps I had meticulously organized in my mind while lying in the darkness the night before. When the haul bag finally reached the top of pitch thirteen, I could no longer contain my excitement. From somewhere in the trees below, my friend Ian watched my celebration through binoculars, later telling me that he could hear my shouts of elation from the valley floor.

    The next few days passed in a series of fuzzy snapshots as I slowly trudged onward and upward. I had stopped checking my watch, and the way I saw it, time didn’t much matter at this point anyway. Moving faster didn’t seem like a viable option. The upper half of Lurking Fear had a different aura altogether than the clean, exposed wall that comprised the first dozen pitches or so. Above the roof traverse, the route wandered onto the western shoulder of El Cap, following lower-angle cracks and grungy, moss-filled weaknesses. You could no longer see any roads or hear any signs of life, except perhaps an occasional raven or the voice of an imaginary friend. The days were spent in the shadows, cold, isolated and lonely on the dark side of the moon.

    Although the pitches felt easier (moderate free climbing intermixed with short sections of aid) the hauling was a nightmare, as advertised. I pulled every trick out of the bag just to get my gear to the anchor each time. By the end of day six, I was overjoyed to arrive on the plush terrace known as Thanksgiving Ledge. I took my harness off and cracked the seal on a pint of Jim Beam, which I had carried with me for just this occasion. Without getting too overconfident, I knew that things were looking up. Only pitches eighteen and nineteen remained, along with an endless amount of slabs that were sure to be a blast with a haul bag, portaledge, and boat anchor of a rack. Nonetheless, my spirits were high. By tomorrow afternoon, I should be arriving on the summit.

    The most audacious plans in life usually involve turning a blind eye to certain logistical issues. In some ways, it has to be this way; otherwise we would never attempt such lofty objectives. For nearly a week, I had been solely focused on climbing Lurking Fear; I didn’t waste much brainpower considering how I was going to get myself (and all my shit) off the top of El Capitan. It took me three trips to get everything to the base. Granted, I had ditched nearly all my water, food, and that twelve-pack of IPA I had started with, but could I really get off this big ass rock in just one trip? I still must have a hundred pounds of gear. These questions began to fade away as the whiskey warmed my aching limbs and soothed my restless mind. I lay there untethered on a sandy patch of dirty, a thousand miles away from any living soul on Earth.

    I woke to a dull headache and a parched throat. My water to bourbon consumption ratio had been poorly executed. Of course, I had little water remaining anyway, so perhaps it was for the best. I poured some of the old, plastic-flavored swill from the bivy ledge into the Jetboil and fired it up. Some would argue that making coffee when you only have a few liters of water left (and an undetermined amount of suffering to undergo) is perhaps not the wisest decision. Fortunately for me, I am not one of those people. After some moments of personal reflection and the enjoyment of a brand new wag bag, I organized my gear for the final push. As the story goes, God rested on the seventh day. And although that was my original plan as well, I spent day seven on Lurking Fear grinding what was left of my battered self into a puddle of bloody pulp.

    The final pitches proved to be some of the worst hauling on the entire climb, followed by endless slabs, ledges, and windswept, barren slopes leading to the top. The hours of backbreaking toil were excruciating and unrelenting. My water was soon gone, along with my knees. I used my ropes as hand lines on the exposed slabs, shouldering my heavy haul bag and leapfrogging piles of equipment. By the time I reached flat ground in the early evening, I was in a zombie-like daze, stumbling madly. Loops of rope were clipped to my harness, dragging behind me in the dirt as they attempted to snag on sparse vegetation. I dropped my bag at the first of many summit bivouacs, where previous climbers had built wobbly windbreaks of stone.

    I’m not sure how long I sat there. Maybe a minute, maybe a year, but I just sat there in silence, marveling at Half Dome as it peaked over the horizon line of El Cap’s summit like a rising moon. My body felt broken, and my throat felt scratchy. It was as if I had sweat every last drop of moisture from my pores. I felt pure joy, and I felt relief, but I also felt something else. Utterly alone. And I was tired of being alone. With light fading, I finally stood up and dug around in the pack for my headlamp. I was completely out of water, and although I would never make it to the valley floor tonight, I needed to contour the top of the cliff in search of any containers that others might have purposefully left. I didn’t even want to think about what my descent was going to entail the following day.

    And that’s when I heard it. It was a full sentence, but my mind only registered the first few words before I damn near leapt out of my skin. After a week of isolation, the sound of a human voice crashed through my twisted reality like a brick through a plate glass window. I spun around to see my friend Ian, all smiles, laughing at my reaction. “There’s better bivy spots farther that way,” he repeated. Shock did not even begin to describe what I felt. I knew that Ian was in the Valley with his own objectives for the week, maybe he had even checked on my progress, but I wasn’t expecting any company on the summit that night.

    “You scared the shit out of me,” I finally managed to say, stepping forward to give him a hug.

    I still wasn’t completely sure that this figure standing in front of me—my good friend Ian—wasn’t some sort of figment of my imagination who appeared like an apparition with an extra gallon of water, offering to help carry my gear off the summit. It seemed far too convenient a solution to my problem. It was even more symbolic that Ian had been on that Indian Creek trip a few weeks prior when I decided to embark on this journey. This trip had come full circle in a way that felt metaphysical. I soon learned that Ian had, in fact, watched my progress these last few days, he had even communicated with my wife, Heather, and he had decided to make a few extra bucks by hauling some provisions to the top of El Cap for some other climber. Maybe he would run into me as well. Clearly this rendezvous was not as surprising for him as it was for me, but my tattered mind was short-circuiting. After so many days alone, this heartfelt gesture had me on the verge of tears.

    And isn’t that the beauty of life itself, not knowing what’s around the corner? That’s what I meant by climbing being a microcosm of life. The moments of joy, the moments of pain, the clarity of thought, the tribulation that leads to triumph…all that other bullshit. And although I would argue that these elements are magnified to a greater degree when you walk the path alone for a while, for me, that experience is not sustainable. There is no substitute for sharing life with those who matter most. As much as I value individual pursuits, there are times when I prefer the company of others—a lengthy conversation with a close friend, sharing a bottle of wine with my wife, sitting around the table with family—time to reflect on what my existence in this world can mean to others and to voice my thoughts so that they may help shape who I am, and who I wish to become.

    Lying there in the darkness, on top of the most iconic rock formation in the world, I listened to the sound of Mitch Hedburg’s voice coming through the speakers on Ian’s iPod. “I wanna open a McDonald’s and not participate in anything. I wanna be a stubborn McDonald’s owner. Cheeseburgers? Nope. We got spaghetti! And blankets!” I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting conclusion to my weeklong odyssey. As I drifted to sleep, I considered the ways in which this trip had already impacted me and what I imagined it would mean in the future. There is plenty of adventure out there in the world; we just have to decide how much of it we want from time to time. Complacency is easy to embrace, and although life may not be about rock climbing, life is fleeting, and it shouldn’t be squandered. Sometimes it just takes climbing to remind me of that.

    This story is published in Volume 10, The Raw Issue, available in print and on Kindle. 

    Vic Zeilman is a Climbing Ranger at the Black Canyon. He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and one-year-old son, Finn. He can usually be found on the North Rim, trying to tick off obscure desert towers in the Colorado Plateau, nerding out on climbing history, or planning a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra. His new guidebook—The Black. A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—is available in select gear shops nationwide.

    “The Black” by Vic Zeilman  (via Kevin Daniels publishing)

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $17.99 a year for two issues, and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Where to Find The Climbing Zine – Independent Outlets

    Aug 16 • Locations • 448 Views

    The Climbing Zine and Benighted Publications pride ourselves on independent distribution. Below is a list of our beloved retailers where you can find our zines, books, and merchandise. Don’t see your favorite shop/bookstore/gym on this list? Give us an email at luke@climbingzine.com or check out our online store. 


    Babbit’s Backcountry Outfitters (Flagstaff)

    Bright Side Bookshop (Flagstaff)

    Flagstaff Sports Exchange (Flagstaff)


    Coyote Corner (Joshua Tree)

    Juicy News (San Francisco)

    Nomad Ventures (Joshua Tree, Escondido, Idyllwild, Temecula)

    Mammoth Mountaineering Supply (Mammoth Lakes)


    Climb On Squamish (Squamish)


    Backcountry Experience (Durango)

    The Bookworm (Gunnison)

    Chop Wood Mercantile (Crested Butte)

    The Firebrand (Gunnison)

    Gardenswartz Outdoors (Durango)

    Lithic Bookstore (Fruita)

    Magpies Newsstand Cafe (Durango)

    Maria’s Bookshop (Durango)

    Neptune Mountaineering (Boulder)

    Ouray Mountain Sports (Ouray)

    Pine Needle Mountaineering (Durango)

    The Rab Store (Denver)

    Sky Store (at Fort Lewis College in Durango)

    Summit Canyon Mountaineering (Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction)

    Townie Books (Crested Butte)

    The Wanderlust Hostel (Gunnison)

    Wilderness Exchange Unlimited (Denver)

    Wolverine Farm Bookstore (Fort Collins)


    Brooklyn Boulders (Chicago)


    Miguels (Red River Gorge)


    Brooklyn Boulders (Somerville)


    Midwest Mountaineering 

    New York

    Brooklyn Boulders (Brooklyn/Queensbridge)

    Inquiring Minds Bookstore (New Paltz)

    Rock and Snow (New Paltz)


    Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe (Bend)


    The Crash Pad (Chattanooga)


    Desert Rat (St. George)

    Dolly’s Bookstore (Park City)

    The Gear Room (Cottonwood Heights)

    IME (Salt Lake City)

    Moab Gear Trader (Moab)

    Pagan Mountaineering (Moab)

    Second Track Sports (Salt Lake City)

    West Virginia 

    Water Stone Outdoors (Fayetteville)


    Mr. D’s Food Center (Lander)

    Wild Iris Mountain Sports (Lander)

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  • The Burnout by Luke Mehall

    Aug 9 • Locations, Uncategorized • 574 Views

    It was many, many years before I realized that this environment in The Desert was the ultimate. I just didn’t see it. The climbing was too hard, too painful, too demanding. Perhaps I just had to get through the fire, the burnout, before I fell in love.

    I remember a beer run to Moab early on. I figured I’d get some more cigarettes; I was getting low. I was running on empty for some time in that late 1990s era, and the pack of ciggies I smoked every day was the constant metaphor and reminder that my life would never be shit. I’d taken off from home in the Midwest in the most dramatic of fashions, suicidal and thinking that life was about to be over. If only I’d known then that that was only the beginning.

    by Luke Mehall (This piece is an excerpt from his fourth book, Graduating From College Me, A Dirtbag Climber Grows Up)

    Well, the beer run was the longest of my life, a full two hours there and back. I remember the twists and turns at that one hairpin curve, and how after that point, it was a different world—no longer just cows, deer, sagebrush, and juniper trees. There were crimson walls of glory with the most unforgiving crack climbs you’ve ever seen.

    I recall camping at the lower Bridger Jack campsites, sites that are now closed off. I recall the older climbers talking of bigger objectives, and mostly, I recall a statement that one of them made about forgetting what month it was. There was a kind of brilliant, beautiful absentmindedness to this lifestyle. I remember how they would use their old juice bottles as their water bottles. I remember when the trip was coming to an end, all they would talk about was when they would return. They all lived up in Laramie, Wyoming, and it seemed crazy that they would drive two states away just to climb some cracks. But I didn’t know then what I know now.

    Five years and a bachelor’s degree later, I was starting to get it. In fact, it was all I got. So, I was on the road and living in my brand-new tent in that same Bridger Jack campground where I’d seen the preview of my life unfold, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, which of course we rarely do.

    I was off the cigarettes and off those delusional thoughts of suicide and turmoil. I was tuning in to the belief that life had something to really offer, but I’d still hadn’t found the balance yet. I was climbing with random people when my buddies weren’t around, but most of the time, I did have friends around. The climbing life isn’t much without good friends. The random encounters can lead to lifelong friendships, but they can also expose the risk, danger, and vulnerability that is climbing, and ultimately, the lack of control we have in putting our lives in someone else’s hands.

    So it was my friends, Dave and Tim, that laughed their asses off when we came back to camp one day to find that my tent had been destroyed, some of my carrots in the cooler had been eaten, and several beers were crushed and drank.

    My heart sank when I saw the sight. My brand-new tent, trampled and crushed to oblivion and the contents of the cooler spilled out into what appeared to me was an act of vandalism. I looked around to find the culprit. Then, I looked to the ground and saw hoof prints. Horses. It was horses.

    Dave had an extra tent that he’d scored as booty on Denali the previous year. It was known as the Shit Tent. A client had had some unfortunate bowel occurrences in the tent and left it behind. Dave, being a proper dirtbag, rescued the tent, cleaned it out, and had it as a backup for a situation like this.

    Living in the Shit Tent. No wonder I wasn’t getting any action during this era. Can you imagine? “Well, would you like to come back to my Shit Tent?” Doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue, does it?

    The desert can build your spirit up and knock it down. And then, when you’re down, it might kick you, as the horses kicked over my cooler and drank my beer. At least there was still beer. And there were still friends. And campfires and stars. The lonely life of a climber living in nature still always has its companions, even if it’s just rocks, on the ground and in the sky. This whole planet is just a rock anyways, right? Is it an illusion that we aren’t always alone?

    In the morning, you’re supposed to be excited to climb these cracks again, right? Like that’s what you’re living for, right? That’s what living the dream is? That’s what you dreamed about in Outdoor Recreation class when you stared at the teacher and four walls, just waiting to get outside and hit the open road.

    Climbing a crack like it’s your job becomes a very hard job. These cracks make you feel pain, and they make you bleed, especially if you refused to use tape, as many of us did in those early, stubborn years. “Tape is cheating…tape is aid.”

    An ideal experience of climbing a crack in the Creek means you gave everything you had, and you were scared and in pain, and when you got to the chains, you’d completed an epic battle; at the top, there would be endorphins flowing through your body, and you’d breathe that fresh desert air, and when you lowered back to the ground, your team would be there to congratulate you on your go, your mojo.

    Take the passion out of that equation, and it’s a grim picture. When you don’t have the strength to do what you’ve been doing nonstop for the last month. When that desert sun feels like it’s beating down on your soul and you’re past the point of recovery and you only need a rest day or two, you are burnout, my friend.

    That’s when it’s time to leave. It was hard to accept then because I was never looking beyond the climbing day. What would I do for the summer? I guess I’d go back to that same dishwashing job in Crested Butte and live in a tent again. New tent for sure. I’d get a new tent.

    Did I really want to work hard and live in a tent, just to come back to this desert and live in a tent? This is what they called “living the dream,” huh? Was I missing something? Why wasn’t the desert beautiful and inviting again, like when I arrived? When did the desert become so inhospitable? I would have spit at it had I not been cottonmouthed and burned. Once, the rocks were comforting and inviting, and now all I saw were the sharp thorns of cactuses and horses out to get me.

    I would describe the sight in my rearview mirror that hot late-spring day when I left, but I doubt I looked. The only thing in the world that I knew was that I wanted out of the desert, out of that Shit Tent, and back into the mountains, where there were flowers and girls and mountain streams that I could bathe in and sage I could smell deeply and all sorts of other nature comforts that the desert was no longer delivering.

    Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. Graduating From College Me, A Dirtbag Climber Grows Up, was published last fall, and is available in print and on Kindle. 

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (five issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • Granite Trinity by Michelle Dedischew

    Aug 8 • Locations • 370 Views

    One thousand twenty-seven.

    One thousand twenty-eight.

    One thousand twenty-nine.

    My head is lost in some sort of vortex. I’m not sure if I was I counting the steps from the parking lot to the base of this ocean of a wall…maybe it was the rhythm of my pulse. Blood leaving. Blood returning.

    by Michelle Dedischew 

    This piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10.  Art by Rhiannon Williams. 

    Coming to, I look up. It’s endless. Ethereal almost. With these thoughts circulating in my head, I am wrapped in an analytic blanket. Finding myself where I am at, I am suddenly overwhelmed by a weighty presence. Whatever is here is as old as this rock is tall. Reminiscent of the heavens. Spiritual in a way that forces pause. Though I would not describe myself as particularly religious, I would say I am intrigued by faith.

    Where I stand now is undeniably celestial. I can see the feminine etchings that can only be explained by some powerful female force. A goddess, perhaps. Scanning further, her strength is met with masculine gashes…my mind wanders to manufacture some mythological explanation as to why this rock exists as it does. And, why I am so called to experience whatever encounter these deities lived.


    There is rock everywhere. Under my feet, against my hands, towering above me. And, I’m so very tiny.

    There have been moments in the past—ones void of inspiration—where I’ve asked the climbing gods, or the universe, or whoever is out there, to inch something gripping into my path. Something worth losing sleep over. Something worth fighting for.

    Like a dear, dear friend in a dark moment asking for an ear to listen to her story.

    Here was that inspiration. Pulling out my harness and rack, my adventuring soul turns, coming to terms with the possibilities towering hundreds, thousands of feet above me. With a chance at expansion. Because sometimes, all we need is one chance. And here, standing below waves of newness, I exhale silently. Dizzied, deciding to jump in fully or step back.


    I’m racking up. No one is speaking. I feel the sun pruning and peeling away thin layers of skin on the back of my neck. Down the ridges of my shoulders.

    The rope is contorting its way around the hard points of my harness. I keep counting, though I still don’t know what. This time, maybe the small beads of sweat patterning my temples.


    First piece in. God, I feel small. Granite walls might as well be the Greek Goddess Hecate in material form. She is evanescent. Full of magic and ghosts, she represents crossroads. I watch her fingers wind their way up thousands of feet. They’re long, splitting fissures. Some suddenly end; others snake back for what seems like miles, to her home.

    Second piece. Well, that one’s shitty, and I feel uncomfortable. Double it up…better. I’m greeted by one of Hekate’s fingers. My hands slot somewhere between her knuckles, and we shake hands for what feels like hours.

    by Rhiannon Williams

    Upward movement sets in. The drum of my hands scraping and flexing along the granite’s coarse lines resonates in the hollow parts of my body. Hekate and I, for a moment, move together. We embrace for just a second. She reminds me, though, there is a chill about her, and she seems to consider letting me go every movement.

    Third, fourth, fifth pieces. I quickly survey what’s ahead. I listen to my belayer shift her stance, reposition the rope.

    I come to a place where Hekate’s fingers are splayed wide above me. I have no hope of continuing to learn the curves defining her hands. She trails off horizontally, vanishes in some places, leaving space for my mind to connect her dots to when I see her reappear many feet away from me.

    And, once again, I realize how small I am. For a moment, I consider how alone I might be.

    Above me, where Hekate departs, I find Janus, God of new beginnings, endings, passage, and time seated, smiling. He is a gaping adjustment to Hekate’s slender sea of hand cracks. Janus sits; he is empty space. Larger than Hekate’s delicate lines but still too small for any option other than stacked hand jams or barred elbows.

    “Dammit,” I exhale. I’m not ready for this. It was not a consideration, in the many thoughts I had walking up to this wall, that I would come across a moment in which I had to completely surrender. The granite did not seem to boast anything outside of my comfort zone. Now, seeing it here, I have to let go. My mind writhes back and fourth, do I decide to jump in fully and fight or step back?


    I lean in to the notion that Janus is never truly concerned with your willingness to embrace newness as a number 4 inches itself to the back of Hekate’s uppermost reach. I watch every centimeter it walks along her.

    Look up.

    Janus disregards me. Though I demand acknowledgement, he refuses. His space is truly only a few feet, though it feels expansive. More presence than he should have.

    I commit.

    Grunting, swearing, I press my feet against the essence of the granite’s lack of concern, and I pray.

    For a moment that last number 4 crosses my mind.

    Don’t look.

    Never down. Always up.

    A flood of unspoken thoughts crosses my mind. The ones that make up climbing and the larger ones that have no reason to even exist in a moment like this. I seize, considering everything from falling, to my daughter, to the pain in my joints, to wondering why I do this to myself in the first place.

    I shut them down. Vulnerability is more dangerous at this point.


    Twelve feet. Fifteen feet. Seventeen feet.

    The number 4 walks away. Janus heckles as I negotiate his offerings.

    I’m shaking. Shivering? No, it’s eighty out…my lips are slightly open, pursed and forcing a slow stream of air out. Get out.

    I squint.

    Pro for a .5 appears. All of those thoughts return—the climbing ones, the existential ones, the ones with no space to truly exist. My lips pry apart for more air. Maybe it will carry me up. Closer to wherever Hekate disappeared to.

    My .5 feels cool against my marred hands. It joins a trinity of protection. I press my cheek against the wall. So many scores of feet up, Artemis, Goddess of the hunt, of the wilderness, holds me here. She gives me space to rest. A moment to tie off my fight to unpeel my shoes. To turn around and see where I actually ended up.

    Somewhere in her world. In a space between familiarity and newness. A moment between fear and loss. Considering the risk associated with committing fully and being willing to surrender to the possibilities, I am surprised. Why do I put myself in these situations? Ask for them? Seek out conflict? Perhaps, because it is an indirect compliment for resolution. I wonder.

    Between thoughts, I catch, “That’s me.” My belayer’s words bounce away on the echoes of Janus’s chuckle. Returning to the cerebral expanse, I wonder if the emotional climate exists in the same way for her as it does for me.

    Likely so, I want to tell myself. But, I’d never ask. Somewhere in the back of my mind it seems inappropriate to go there. Though, I’m sure some sort of gods, or the universe, would tell me otherwise.

    The expanse lends itself well to silence. The absence of noise. Finally, the absence of thought. This is a sanctuary. Whatever story mythology actually played out here remains incarnated, petrified. Though, climbing reveals hints, I know to respect it. To let Hekate, Janus, and Artemis keep their secrets. And I, mine. Granite somehow knows how to be so welcoming and so very cold at the same time.

    Getting lost in the mountains has made up a large portion of Michelle’s life for the last 13 years. When she can’t sneak away to get schooled on big walls, she enjoys sport climbing and working on her business and blog: The Climbing Connection and www.climbingparents.com. Michelle currently lives in California with her partner and two-year old daughter. 

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (five issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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  • Dirtbag State of Mind Hats by Peter W Gilroy

    Aug 1 • Gear • 790 Views

    We always wanted to make some Zine hats, we were just waiting for the right design. Years of waiting led to this design, the “Dirtbag State of Mind” hats, created with metal work from Peter W. Gilroy.

    We’re proud to announce these are finally available for the Summer of 2017. Here’s a look at the design. These can be ordered for $38 in our Store. 

    Dirtbag State of Mind

    In progress in the lab of Peter W. Gilroy

    The Dirtbag State of Mind hats. 

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (five issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • Return of The Dirtbag in Crested Butte, Colorado

    Jul 29 • Uncategorized • 387 Views


    Tuesday, September 5th 

    6:00 p.m.

    Townie Books

    414 Elk Ave.

    Crested Butte, Colorado

    The dirtbags are coming! As Bob Dylan once sang, “The vagabond who’s knocking at your door, is standing in the clothes that you once wore”.

    This Tuesday, at Townie Books author Luke Mehall returns to Crested Butte to discuss dirtbagging in mountain towns, and the place that the dirtbag has in these communities. He will also examine the many connections between the beatniks, the hippies, and the dirtbags. It will be Mehall’s only book tour presentation of the year, as he is currently writing his fifth book, tentatively titled, The Desert.

    Mehall moved to the Gunnison Valley in 1999, a halfhearted Deadhead looking for a chance at a new life. In “The Valley” he found his community of people: climbers that often used creative means to spend as much time on the rocks as possible, and working as little as possible to achieve those means.


    Mehall also attended Western State College where his interest in writing was encouraged and nurtured by his professors. There he began honing his craft of poetry and storytelling, and serendipitously started chronicling his dirtbag climbing adventures. In 2010 he started The Climbing Zine, an independent publication dedicated to the niche of creative climbing stories. He now lives in Durango, Colorado.

    The evening is presented by Chopwood Mercantile, and there will be a raffle with all proceeds going to Gunnison Valley Climbers. Mehall’s books and zines will be available to purchase as well. As usual “there will be typewriters” with writing contests throughout the presentation.

    Those looking for a glimpse into Mehall’s work should check out his short film “Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag” created with filmmaker Greg Cairns, and his memoir, American Climber. The author can be contacted directly at luke@climbingzine.com.


    Return of The Dirtbag on Facebook

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $17.99 a year for two issues.

    About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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