• A Venture Backward, Inward, and Upward by Rhiannon Williams

    Jan 14 • Locations • 270 Views

    In Memory of Towyn Williams (1926 – 2016)

    I associate much of my childhood with a little white farmhouse in the Welsh countryside. My roots are firmly planted there. Planted between the rows of strawberries and the tunnels of raspberry bushes.

    by Rhiannon Williams

    (note: this piece is an excerpt from Volume 9, The New School Issue, available in print and on Kindle.) Banner photo of Amy Lipschultz by the author. 

    My feet are planted in the red carpet, right in front of the fireplace where we gathered for tea or telly. I can picture my grandma balancing out a huge tray filled to the gold brim with dainty porcelain cups, announcing “Teeeeea-tiiiime” in a corralling singsong, and like the chickens at feed time, we’d all come running to the beckon of her call.

    After tea, my grandpa would sit in his armchair and watch the news, patiently allowing one or more of my three sisters and I to sit in his lap or decorate him with sparkly plastic hair barrets. I was usually the one climbing up his sturdy frame like it was a jungle gym. Grandma would set to work on a crossword puzzle, inking the daily newspaper with rounded lettering, persevering until every square was filled. I often sat in the window that jutted out of the house turning it into a sauna-type space. Dead flies and butterflies lined the bottom of the window. I used to look at them curiously, and Grandma would collect the butterflies and pin them onto a framed board, preserving their legacies behind the glass. Now, I’m back in that living room on an unexpected deviation of my ’round-the-world climbing trip; the red carpet has faded several shades. My grandpa is in a hospital bed in front of the same window.

    The trip I’m on is technically a climbing trip but has transformed into a quest to explore my roots, both physically and metaphorically. I’ve had time to explore what drives me and time to figure out what’s important to me, but it’s a quest that’s evolving with no tangible answer, and I’ve come to terms with that. This “climbing” trip has molded into a thing of its own, a thing that questions and pokes and prods and gnaws, a thing that gives me a glimpse into the scale of things. A scale beyond my comprehension, which makes me take a step back and laugh at how seriously I take things like climbing sometimes. I’ve found expansion and rhythm by stepping back versus forward. When my friend Amy and I planned this trip, I saw it linearly. Yet, this trip has been anything but linear. I’ve looped around, tying in loose threads along the way. Synapses are connecting, and bigger pictures are transcending. Frayed, unfinished ends of past memories and experiences are weaving together. And now I’ve found myself on the farm where I learned to love and play and climb. Where my story started. But this story started high up on the granite walls of Yosemite.

    On an exposed pitch near the top of East Buttress of El Capitan, I have a moment of panic as I get to an awkward move on a flaring groove. I am distrustful of my gear in the slippery flare and am scared to commit to the next move, not knowing if I can complete it without falling through vapid space. I eventually go for the tricky maneuver and pull through with shaky legs and over-gripped forearms, glancing back at the ghastly fall I would have taken if I hadn’t been successful. In that precarious moment, I pulled from a confidence that has often been out of grasp for me.

    I want to ground it before it flies away, and so, building off the buzz we’ve cultivated on this climbing trip, Amy and I start talking about planning something bigger. It starts with some hypothetical words put out there into the space between us. Not yet a fully fledged idea. Not quite literal. But once the words are out, they linger in the air, hanging in dead space, and then gaining momentum, they edge into conversations more frequently: first as a joke, then as a question, and then metamorphosed into a real plan, actualized with the clicking of a rectangular button with the word BUY. We quit our jobs and are going to go on a trip, starting in Spain with no real plans for destinations or end dates.

    The span between buy and fly soars past in a kaleidoscope of memories, and I try to grasp the dry-desert sunsets and late-night roommate chats. I hold on to the translucent moments where my sisters and I let down our barriers and cry and laugh in raw honesty. And then the kaleidoscope comes full circle, and I’m in New York with Amy and her family, preparing to fly to Spain. A day before we leave, we run around a bitterly cold New York, frantically buying things we think we need and playing the in-and-out game with gear and garments. While our packs are only sixty liters, they are almost splitting at the seams and grow tall above our heads, creating a slightly crooked profile. I feel comforted by the idea of travel; this is to be my second long-term trip. The first I took was several years earlier where I grew more than I knew was possible at the time. Transitioning out of a long-term relationship, I had turned to surfing as a way to process my thoughts and insecurities. What started as a surfing trip in Indonesia, ended as a climbing trip in Thailand. Climbing is different than surfing but is the same in the way that it simultaneously challenges and connects me. It has taught some of the biggest lessons in my life.

    After a long flight, we are picked up at the Barcelona airport by Amy’s friend Jonny, a charming Brit with rosy cheeks and an infectious spirit. He inaugurates us to the best climbing areas in Spain, and we travel around Catalunya for the next month, exploring steep limestone walls and little Spanish towns. We sample tapas, take over eighties nights at seedy clubs in off-kilter towns, and practice paragliding in ground school while we watch our friends soar off cliffs into the blue sky that ends where it meets the indiscriminate ocean line. And we climb. We climb with heart. I climb until my arms are solid. I can almost see the lactic acid swirling around my forearms, angry but satisfied.

    I take huge, flighty whippers. It seems that I have adopted the habit of always taking that fall that you don’t want to take. You know, the one where you follow the line from the ground and think to yourself, I wouldn’t want to fall there—right at the generously spaced bolt, or the ghastly pendulum. It’s my new thing, I guess—hopefully, a passing trend. While I don’t necessarily love flailing through the air like an unwieldy grasshopper, I like what it stands for.

    Women are often described as being calculated and calm in climbing, but women can also be bold and hearty. Like my grandma who, as a teenager, legendarily beat all the village boys in a sprint race, much to their disbelief and confusion. She didn’t hold back to fit a mold. Amy climbs with mastery. While she’s the stronger climber, I rarely notice because we see each other as equals. Climbing partnership isn’t about who’s the strongest, it’s about stepping in when the energy is dwindling and stepping back when there’s an opportunity that will empower your second. Partnership is about laughing the jitters off before you start on an intimidating multi-pitch and understanding that everyone gets hangry sometimes, especially when you forgot the food bag and are eight pitches up. That’s when you share the emergency granola bar that you stashed in your pocket so you can finish the climb together.

    Before long, we find a rhythm. That’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, when all of a sudden you find yourself in a groove without knowing how exactly you got there. It’s like climbing in the Creek; at first, it’s awkward and painful, and then at some point, you’re chopping up cracks and hanging off jams with smooth rapport. The daily routine begins with morning yoga (and acro-yoga attempts) and is followed by copious amounts of French press coffee drinking and crepe making. The hikes to the walls are winding and gorgeous, often following rivers and always boasting stunning vistas. After pulling on pockets (or tufas) all day, we make pie. Mushroom pie, sweet potato pie, soft, flaky handmade crust (always adorned with a cute center cutout). We are pie-making machines. This too reminds me of making blackberry pie with my grandma. We’d scour the brambles for berries, staining our hands and lips a dark purple. Then we’d prepare the crust from scratch and follow her instructions: a pinch of this, a dash of that. In the interim between pie time and bedtime, we dedicate time to learning something new, knowing that life’s complexities reach far beyond our climbing microcosm. We read articles about social justice and politics, and then, if we have the luxury of Internet, we throw in a few cat videos for good measure.

    We choose Margalef to spend the remainder of our time in Spain. It’s a town nestled among endless pocketed caves and cliffs. There’s a village store run by Anna, who always greets us warmly and kindly and entertains our attempts at Spanish. We adopt a pet that we name Silky Kitty, although she’s really half silky, a quarter muddy, and a quarter matted. She has a temperament on the unpredictable side, but she slowly lets us see her inner softie. The climbing style in Margalef is powerful and often requires dramatic gymnastic-like moves. At first, we’re completely destroyed after just a few turns on the endurance routes, but after a while, we notice we can hang on a little longer, and then just a little longer. I go through a grueling process of ego bashing, which I quickly learn to let go of in order to preserve my sanity. I climb with the intention to learn, and that is all. I let go of expectations, and my climbing improves. Through these subtle revelations, I realize that the great growth I desired at the beginning of this trip is transpiring in subtle and intricate ways, ways I could never have planned for. The lessons float to the surface and magnetize from somewhere deep in my psyche, revealing connections that were at the tip of my tongue.

    On our last day in Margalef, Amy and I both get thrown off of our projects on the last move. Over and over again, we get rejected by the wall, and I imagine it grinning from ear to ear as it propels us into the air. I’m one move away from sending a grade that I didn’t know was even possible for me six months ago. While it’s frustrating, it’s also true to the style of this area, and it almost feels good…almost. Really, it just sets the hooks in deep, and I know I’ll be back. We hitchhike out of Margalef, getting picked up by some climbers who are kind enough to tolerate our massive bags engulfing the limited back seat space, squishing strangers together in an awkward tangle. We have a few days to play in Barcelona while preparing for the next leg of our trip, which is in the UK.

    Of all places, climbing in Great Britain intimidates me the most. My opinion is based off of Internet videos featuring terrifyingly runout trad, exposed sea cliffs with finicky placements, tiny, slick footholds, and crazy Brits who somehow find the humor in it all. Climbing grades have names like “Hard Very Severe” and “Extremely Severe.” The descriptive names evoke grave mental images, but luckily, we come to find that the Brits like to exaggerate (just a little). As a child, I was oblivious to the looming sea crags and rich climbing history that surrounded me. Instead, I found trees and barns to satiate my desire to climb higher and higher. I later discovered that my dad used to scale the local quarries, boldly unroped. This doesn’t really surprise me since he was always the parent at the park that was precariously balancing along the top beams of the jungle gym frame while the rest watched in amusement from the safety of the benches. I am excited and nervous to explore my homeland in a new way.

    The author climbing the Old Man of Stoer in Scotland (sea stack) Photo: Amy Lipschultz

    We start by spending a week in Sheffield, a British climbing hub. We are lucky enough to have places to stay with people we have met along our adventure thus far. It rains, but we climb anyway. This seems to be the culture of climbing here. When it rains at a rate that even scares the Brits off the grit, I adopt one of Amy’s favorite pastimes, scouring thrift stores in search of the coziest and cheapest sweaters. In the constant gray drizzle, it turns out that a soft sweater and a cup of tea help you turn a blind eye to the weather. When the sun finds its way through the gloom, we climb at Stanage on the infamous velcro gritstone. We learn the twin-ropes system to account for the rope drag since the climbs are often longer sideways than they are tall. We tick off some classic routes and solo some easier ones. To call it soloing is a stretch though, since the height of the walls can’t be much taller than Buttermilk’s highballs.

    We wind all over Wales, following jagged coastline in our friend’s white VW van. We spend a week climbing the limestone cliffs in Pembroke during one of the hottest weeks of the year. The rock is sweaty in the sun, and it makes the climbing much more precarious, almost soapy. Armed with a mishmash of wires scrounged up by our friends, it takes time and patience to master the placements, fishing the wires into awkward openings and slotting them down, hoping they won’t wiggle through the undulating rock, as they often do. Yank it once well, then once more just in case. It’s a game of patience. A process that can’t be rushed. The ocean is fantastically blue, rushing in and out of the rocks below. I struggle with moments of panic when I become frustrated with the gear, whispering to myself to stay calm, relax your grip, find a solution, and there always is a solution. I learn to trust my gear more than I have before, growing confident in my capabilities. It feels so satisfying to get out of my comfort zone and to be encouraged to do so by the people I surround myself with. In the past, others have discouraged me to climb bold or scary routes. I question whether this would have happened if I were of the opposite gender. We deep-water solo over the freezing waters. At one point, I look down to see the biggest pink jellyfish I’ve ever seen, bobbing calmly below. Its ethereal tentacles flow in and out of the glassy water, making me smile; we are both in our element.

    I take time off from climbing to visit with my grandpa, who has been struggling. It’s the moment in the trip that catches me off guard and wrenches me backward, reversing that linear plane in which I understood the world to work in. I’m back in front of the window in the living room with the red carpet. I spend time sitting with my grandpa, just holding his hand to let him know that I’m there. His hands are softer than I remember. They used to be weathered, slightly swollen, and patterned with abrasions. I used to stare at them, intrigued. These days, my hands look like that. I have the hands of a farmer. The hands of someone who isn’t afraid to get dirty or work hard. In college, my hands didn’t fit in with the manicured, lotioned hands of my Florida friends, but I didn’t mind, because I knew that a person’s hands tell a story, and I wanted mine to be unabashed and weighty.

    Being back home floods my senses with images and smells. The house is still smoky, like an incense you can’t decide whether you like. I decide now that I like it. Picture collages on the walls are gathering dust: my family in matching gold-and-white striped sweat suits, my sister and I with matching bowl cuts, festive Christmas days filled with tinsel and smiles, and my parents on their wedding day, yellow roses in my mom’s red hair.

    Wandering into the garden, I spy my favorite tree, which is rotten now, just a few nails evidencing the old fort my sisters and I built. We thought we were so clever when we made a pulley system between the branches, sending notes back and forth, then pails of “food” (different concoctions of flowers and sticks and sap). Eventually, we figured out how to pull ourselves up to the highest branches by attaching a milk crate to a rope and hoisting ourselves all the way up to the tippy top. Once, I fell out of the tree, hard onto my back. Wheezing for air that refused to fill my lungs as it should, I thought I might die. As I reflect on my dirt-crusted, tree-climbing self, I can trace the evolution of my growth in climbing and my need to explore and adventure.

    Moving on from Wales is difficult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. I’m not sure if I’ll see Whitehall farm. I somehow know that this will be the last time that I see my grandpa. Driving down the bumpy farm road away from the white house, I hold back tears, remembering when I was twelve, and we left to move to Florida. My sisters and I cried a chorus of blubbers and wails as we looked out of the back window of the car and waved at my grandparents, who were slowly shrinking from our vision. Dust from the road masked their melancholy faces. I wrestle thoughts in my head to try to make sense of everything. There was a lot of love at Whitehall farm. It’s a sense of love that doesn’t leave when everyone else does. I find it in the quiet moments bivvying under sky of stars or wandering around the woods. I find it when I talk with my parents and sisters, noting how they’ve absorbed the gentleness of my grandpa and the vivaciousness of my grandma into their own identities. Those years on the farm have affected my family in immense ways, and we’ve inadvertently integrated and preserved their legacy in complex ways. For me, climbing has been a way to connect back to the spirit of the farm and the lessons from my grandparents. But while climbing is a central part of the itinerary, it’s not the most important part of this trip. I climb. But that’s not who I am. Instead, climbing is a catalyst for exploration. It helps me to see the important stuff: How I treat others. How I treat myself. How to love myself. How do I love myself? It pushes me to chase the scary stuff because I know what falling and failing and trying again give me. And it reminds me of myself as a six year old, dressed up in my very best party dress, only to sit in the deepest puddle I could find, blissfully unaware of the beautiful contradictions that I was making.

    As a kid, Rhiannon Williams was an out-of-control tornado child whose immense energy made her parents shudder. Luckily, she’s figured out how to harness this energy into climbing, art, and yoga! You can see more of her art at www.rhiannonklee.com.

    Art by Rhiannon Williams

    Volume 9 of The Climbing Zine

    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. Check out the FREE preview


    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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • The Pain (of the desert) by Luke Mehall

    Jan 6 • Locations • 164 Views

    The other day, on the Internet, I read about a climber whose fingertip broke off in a crack when he fell. Fingers in a Lightsocket the climb is called, and it’s always had a reputation for being fierce, a finger crack that increases in difficulty right up until the last few desperate layback moves. The tag on the story, posted by Mountain Project, was “don’t read this at lunch.” I’d just had surgery in my mouth (a gum graph), so my stomach was already primed, and I wasn’t going to be eating lunch that day anyways because I was on a no-solids diet for a couple days, so I went ahead and looked at it.

    by Luke Mehall (note this piece is an excerpt from his book, Graduating From College Me, A Dirtbag Climber Grows Up, which was published last October.) Banner photo of Kristina Weyer on Big Guy, Indian Creek by Shay Skinner. 

    It was a nightmare come true to us Creek aficionados who jam our limbs in cracks for fun. The climber ended up having part of his finger amputated. The silver lining was that the best big wall climber in the world, Tommy Caldwell, also had a similar injury, losing part of his finger in a home construction accident. So, hopefully this climber will find some inspiration and motivation in knowing he’s got an affliction that only briefly slowed down the famous Mr. Caldwell.

    There’s a derivative of pain, which somehow enhances the experience of a good Indian Creek crack. I’ve heard and used the word masochism, but still I don’t think that encapsulates exactly what the feeling is. It’s just a touch of pain, but you don’t want the pain to win, just as a boxer might accept some punches, but he or she does not want to get knocked out; they want to be victorious. We want to be victorious. When you clip the chains after a good fight, you don’t feel much of the pain—you feel the glory; the pain has been transcended.

    A proper enthusiast prepares the body before battle. Off-widths demand the most protection: tape over every exposed section of your hands, high-top shoes that protect your ankles, pants and a long-sleeve shirt, and cams that are bigger than your head. Once you’ve spent an hour prepping all of that and borrowing cams from everyone at the crag, the battle is the slowest form of free climbing that could be possible. And most stout off-widths rarely have any relief or good rests. It’s a full-on battle to the finish.

    My “moment” came a few years into a fiendish pursuit of the wide. The full body challenge of a good off-width was hard for me to say no to for a while. The feeling at the end of the battle was so glorious, and the struggle had a seasoned sensation, which elevated every moment into something stupid hard and special.

    It was the Big Guy that got me. To the unseasoned, Big Guy is a monster of a line—with eighty-some feet of continuous o-dub climbing, only slightly wavering in width. As every guy or gal who climbs in the Creek knows, there’s no generic way to describe a crack; the “size” of a crack is personal and how it corresponds to your body. Problem is, the “normal” way to describe a crack is by the default “man hands”—we refer to climbs as “thin hands” or “a fist crack” based on the average-sized hands of a dude. Getting back to the matter at hand though, Big Guy is a relatively “moderate” off-width for Indian Creek standards, and it’s big enough that it’s off-width for everyone, unless you were like Shaquille O’ Neal or something (probably thin hands for him); it’s one I’d climbed a few times previously, while I worked up to my goal of climbing Big Baby, which is a little bit more difficult.

    I knew it would be a hard fight, but I knew I had it in me. Plus, I knew the key was climbing efficiently enough until I could get my knee in there. Of the jams one uses in the Creek, the knee is the most surprising the first time you get it. You can almost rest on it, hooking the toe of your foot on the outside of the crack while you weight your entire body on that knee. Before you get the knee, it’s desperado—hand stacks and heel-toes—but once you get that knee, it gives you a chance to breathe.

    So there I am, jamming along, getting worked, but making slow upward progress, and then I try to move and I can’t. I breathe and try again. Nothing. After a minute of this personal panic, I yell down to Shaun, my belayer, “My knee is stuck.”

    “I was wondering what the hell you were doing up there,” he jokingly yells back, while I’m trying self-talk to keep calm.

    The panic pulses like my heartbeat, leaving me momentarily and then coming back, making me think bad thoughts. The paranoia ricochets and reverberates between these two thoughts: my knee is stuck; I must free my knee. I’m looking to Shaun for some guidance, but there’s not really much he can say. “Did you try moving it upward? Does it feel looser?”

    I mumble something back each time, and with each passing minute, I’m getting more scared. I’d heard about a woman getting her knee stuck in Escalante Canyon a little while ago, and she had to be rescued out of there with a pulley system, resulting in some serious knee injuries. A stuck knee was the last thing I had in my mind when I went up this climb, which was supposed to be routine.

    Then, for what seemed like an eternity, I moved my knee in a different direction and it slid out—just like that. I aided my way to the top.

    A year later at a book signing at Mountainfilm in Telluride, I met the woman who had to be rescued out of S Crack in Escalante Canyon, a place often described as Colorado’s Mini Indian Creek. It was also one of the places I cut my teeth as a trad climber, a seemingly haunted but stunning little canyon, carved into an otherwise desolate landscape.

    She told me about the rescue, of the hours that she hung there, the subsequent removal of her knee, and the aftermath of the injury inflicted upon it. She was embarrassed by the incident. I tried to explain how I could understand, but a few minutes with a stuck knee is nothing like having a rescue team come to your assistance.

    You just kind of think that thing is really never going to happen to anyone. You also think that you’d never lose a finger to a crack, but these things happen, in the inviting yet unforgiving place we simply call The Desert.

    And, now all I can think of is that guy’s fingertip, still possibly up there in the crack, waiting for his buddies to come along and pluck it out.

    Graduating From College Me (on Amazon)

    Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, and author of Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. 

    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. Check out the FREE preview


    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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Reflections in The Black by Vic Zeilman

    Jan 3 • Locations • 595 Views

    The following is Vic Zeilman’s piece “Reflections In The Black”, written for the recently released Volume 9, The New School Issue.  Zeilman is the author of the recently released, “The Black”, a comprehensive climbing guide to Black Canyon National Park. 

    The black-and-white photograph is small and square, half a century old, showing my grandmother posing in front of the dark, mysterious walls of the Black Canyon. As I study the image, I quickly realize that she is witnessing a time period in 1961 when there is not a single documented rock climb of any significance in a fifteen-mile stretch of vertical wilderness. She is looking at the largest cliffs in Colorado, and they are still completely untouched.

    The author's grandmother, Dotty Zeilman at the South Rim of the Black Canyon in 1961. Photo: Zeilman family collection.

    The author’s grandmother, Dotty Zeilman at the South Rim of the Black Canyon in 1961. Photo: Zeilman family collection.

    The vintage photo takes me by surprise. It is indeed my grandma, frozen in time, preserved in faded ink. She is twentysomething, very pregnant, standing with (what has to be) my toddler of an uncle and unborn father at one of the overlooks at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Western Colorado. This is my home turf. I would recognize it anywhere.

    I’m sitting cross-legged on the carpet with a half-empty, lukewarm beer, thumbing through boxes of old photo albums. The June heat in rural Ohio is oppressive, and for miles around me in every direction, vast fields of corn and other crops extend to the horizon line, as far as the eye can see. We have traveled from across the country to say good-bye to my grandmother, the matriarch of our family. She is sick, and this time it doesn’t look like she will be getting better. Sadness hangs in the air as thick as the Midwestern humidity.

    I examine the photograph again. Printed on the right edge is the date AUG – 61. I knew that my grandparents had lived in the Gunnison Valley in 1961, when my grandfather worked for a brief stint as an art professor at Western State College. I remember hearing about his stories of Gunnison back in the day, when they might change the price of gasoline for those with out-of-state plates on their cars. The town epitomized an East Coast perception of the Wild West. There were ranchers, rodeos, and saloon-style buildings on the downtown main street, the same piece of earth that infamous cowboys, outlaws, and lawmen had once passed over.

    An aerial shot of The Black Canyon. Photo: Vic Zeilman

    An aerial shot of The Black Canyon. Photo: Vic Zeilman

    An ambitious railroad and prosperous mining industry had long ago seen boom and bust, and an eclectic mountain culture of adventurers, dreamers, and artists was taking root. The pristine waters of the Gunnison River had not yet been dammed, creating what is now Blue Mesa Reservoir. There was no ski area in Crested Butte. No one was mountain biking. This was a cold, isolated cow town in the Colorado boonies, and Black Canyon National Monument was on few people’s radar.

    I think about the past three years, how I have been working diligently on a new climbing guidebook for the Black Canyon, and now this photo seems to strike a chord somewhere deep. It is hard evidence of a family connection to this inspirational place, decades before I would ever lay eyes on it myself, or stand at the bottom of those massive cliffs that would ultimately change the course of my life forever.

    I lean backward on the carpet, stretching my legs, and sip the dregs of the bottle. I wonder whether I would have discovered the Black Canyon in the same way if my grandparents had never been in Gunnison. Would I have eventually stumbled across this place, which means so much to me now, if some shallow roots had never been planted there decades before I was even born? I have always believed that so many events in life seem to have a strange way of coming full circle. Like portions of our history are written for us before we ever take our first breaths.

    The author of Diagonal Will. Photo: Jonathan Schaffer

    The author of Diagonal Will. Photo: Jonathan Schaffer

    Most climbers only know the Black Canyon by its frightful and unwelcoming reputation—an intimidating big wall climbing venue, alpine in nature, with stiff ratings, traditional ethics, and terrain challenges that are as unique as the landscape itself. Chossy rock as old as time, marred by thick bands of loose pegmatite, steep approach drainages filled with poison ivy thickets, vampire-like ticks, chupacabras, and god knows what else. Death-defying runouts, bushy cracks, hellish heat, and a phenomenon that only happens in the vicinity of the Gunnison River—regardless of the time you start climbing, you will finish in the dark, guaranteed. The lucky few that escape the canyon’s clutches each year will spread the word and warn the others. At least that was my impression of the place when I first heard about it years ago as an impressionable and novice climber.

    Like any good big-fish story, the epic tales of the Black only seem to get better with time. Yarns are slowly spun into the finest and most colorful of recollections, best delivered around a campfire or postclimb cocktail hour. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that climbing in the canyon is easy, or always safe for that matter. It’s not. However, the Black is much more than the sum of its stereotypes. There is something for everyone, regardless of his or her ability. Oftentimes, it feels as if the canyon is a living entity, pulsing with an energy that is fluid and ever changing. It can be beautiful and awe inspiring, yet fickle and wickedly moody. But I have learned, like many others, that if you approach your climb with humility and respect, the canyon is inclined to grant you safe passage. As human beings, we are often intimidated by things we don’t understand and have yet to experience, especially if those things have reputations that are larger than life. Such is the case with the Black Canyon.

    I still remember the first time I drove down that dirt road to the North Rim, weaving between deep potholes and gawking mule deer, staring dully with sleepy eyes. I had just turned twenty-one, and my friend Abe and I had been enthralled with the idea of climbing in the Black ever since we both transferred to Western State College a few months earlier. The objective was Escape Artist (III 5.9+), a standard introductory climb that was serious enough to make my palms sweat throughout the long, winding drive from Gunnison. The night before had been restless, followed by an unnecessary predawn departure from campus.

    As a young, inexperienced climber, I let the nervous butterfly sensation in the pit of my stomach trump the obvious need for a breakfast meal. I filled this empty hole with cup after cup of black coffee from a large, dented thermos, occasionally interrupting my rhythmic consumption of caffeine to roll another cigarette. Blowing wispy smoke through the cracked passenger window, we negotiated the hairpin turns on Highway 92. Arriving on the North Rim at last, we racked up in the empty gravel parking lot at the ranger station. It was a chilly, midweek morning in the early fall, and the sun was just cresting the canyon rim.

    The walls of the Black Canyon had loomed so large in my imagination that when I actually stood at the base of the Comic Relief Buttress for the first time, I had the naïveté to think, That’s it? It’s so short. Partway through the second pitch of Escape Artist—a long, left-leaning traverse with mind-bending exposure—I had changed my tune…and I was trying hard not to have to change my skivvies. The uncomfortable mixture of fear, bitter coffee, and vertigo had churned my empty gut in knots. Clawing my way back to the rim many hours later, I knew I was hooked. My eyes had been opened to the possibilities of this wild place. It reminded me of the East Coast climbing areas where I had cut my teeth leading trad—Linville Gorge, Looking Glass, Rumbling Bald—but on a much grander scale, raw and untamed. From that day forward, the Black Canyon would exhibit a gravitational pull on my being. It was the beginning of a complex love-hate relationship that will surely last until the day I leave this world.

    Once again examining the details of my grandmother’s photo, I imagine what the National Park, then a National Monument, must have looked like fifty-something years ago. What would it have been like to know that every stretch of wall you examined was literally unclimbed? I wondered if my grandparents even thought about the possibility of rock climbing on those sheer cliff faces—some of the tallest in the country, in fact—when they were first introduced to them in 1961. There were certainly others just beginning to recognize its vast, untapped potential.

    Layton Kor arrived on the scene in the early 1960s and took the Black Canyon by storm. Along with a small group of climbing partners, he managed to scale nearly every major formation by the end of the decade, hungry to establish Colorado’s first Grade VI rock climb. Generally speaking, these were extensive aid endeavors that focused on prominent crack systems on virgin walls. The 1970s saw a shift in tactics, moving away from aid climbing to refocus efforts on free climbing old and new lines alike. The 1980s built on this momentum, producing some of the hardest climbs anywhere in the United States at that time. By the 1990s, the bar had been set high in the Black with many serious Grade V routes that embraced the staunch, old-school ethic of ground-up ascents with minimal bolting. Everyone knew that climbing in the canyon was the real deal. It wasn’t for everyone. In those days, route information was limited, unconsolidated, and often spread by word of mouth. It was well understood that you were on your own once you stumbled into that ditch.

    The new millennium brought with it a new guidebook and the inception of climbing websites dedicated to route beta. People got better at rock climbing. Cams got bigger, smaller, and lighter—able to protect a vast array of crack sizes. Rubber got stickier, and ropes got longer. In short, a new generation of climbers was becoming more confident in their skills. Climbing in the Black Canyon was now obtainable for a greater demographic. By the time I discovered it for myself, I was disappointed to hear from some of the old guard that the Black had simply lost some of its magic. It would never be the same, and forty years of route development had surely left the walls more or less explored. The Golden Age of splitter lines on virgin buttresses was a thing of the past. At least, that was my impression of the situation when I finally made it back to Western Colorado and took a job working at the Black—forty-eight years after my grandparents first visited the South Rim.

    Sometimes the things we accept as truth are not really true at all. It’s just a matter of perspective, and once that vantage point has shifted, bringing with it all the clarity you previously lacked, you can never view the world through the same lens again. Even if you wanted to.

    I had been at the Black Canyon for nearly two years when I first laid eyes on the cluster of buttresses sitting across from the Painted Wall to the south. I was almost certain there were no more formations of that size left in the park that had not been climbed, but low and behold, here they were. The collection of walls that would later be known as the Dark Star Buttress and Shadowlands Towers shimmered in the late-summer heat like an unclaimed treasure. My vantage point had shifted, and the Black had tipped its hand, displaying the magic that I had always known to be present.

    Of course, the canyon proves magical in different ways to different people. I am sure that my grandparents must have experienced this sensation in some way because August of 1961 is not the only time they visited the National Monument. I think about the circumstances that brought me back to Western Colorado, to be so fortunate to stake a claim and make a living in a place that affected me so deeply as a college student. I felt the magic back then and was incapable of dismissing it.

    Finding a new passage up an untouched, unnamed, and unknown formation was the one intimate experience with the Black Canyon that I had been longing for since I returned to Western Colorado in the summer of 2009. I knew that with enough time and effort I could put up a new route in the Black, but to stumble across an entire area like Cedar Point Gully surpassed my greatest expectations. After months of recon, slogging up and down gullies, jugging lines, and determining an approach, my good friend Ryan Rees and I racked up in the empty parking lot at Cedar Point. It was a cold midweek morning in the late fall of 2011, and the sun was beginning to crest the canyon rim—just as it had on my first trip to the Black.

    Although I was now a more seasoned climber, the sense of excitement and nervousness that I felt was as fresh as the first time I ever set foot in the canyon. The feeling of commitment built with each wobbly step down that god-forsaken drainage of loose rock and ivy. Unlike my initial trip to the Black, when I held a crinkled photocopy of the Escape Artist topo in my hand, Rees and I now stood at the base of a colossal blank canvas holding nothing more than an arsenal of gear, pins, bolts, and a hammer…and a hope and a prayer that we were tough enough to make it to the top.

    Over the years, I have found that first ascents bring out the best in my climbing. Maybe it’s the fact that you don’t know whether something should be “too hard” or “too scary” for you to lead, or maybe it’s the comfort of knowing that you can always pound a piton or drill a bolt if things get hairy. It requires an ability to read the rock and listen to your instincts, often swallowing your fear and tackling the steeper, cleaner, and more intimidating features rather than an easier, subpar path. Whatever the case may be, climbing new routes in the Black forces me to rise to the occasion, like it or not. That October day would prove to be no different.

    Reminiscent of my first climb in the canyon, once again it was the second pitch of this brand-new line that had my gut in knots. Perched in a terrifying limbo, fifteen feet out from my last bomber piece in a string of marginal pro, I shifted my weight precariously on sloping footholds, endlessly hand-drilling a one-and-a-half-inch bolt hole in ancient stone. Tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap. Rest. Forehead pressed against the wall, sweat stinging my eyes, calves screaming in pain, with nothing but a Zen-like focus and a girth-hitched runner around a three-eighths-inch drill bit (seated a mere half inch into the rock) protecting me from a lengthy plunge, one that I most definitely did not want to take. Some of the longest minutes of my entire life eventually gave way to upward progress.

    Now five hundred feet up our new climb, with twice as much terrain between us and the rim, we began to feel the flow, moving up the wall in a steady and confident fashion. As one beautiful feature led to another, the wall appeared to relent, showing signs of weakness. We scanned the horizon for safe passage like worried sailors navigating a cove of treacherous reefs. As the sun began to set downriver of the Painted Wall, Rees blasted through the final pitches, leading up the headwall to the railing overlook at Dragon Point. In the thick, inky blackness, we sat by the well-worn tourist trail at the brink of the abyss—ecstatic, exhausted, and relieved beyond measure. Content to simply stare at the blanket of stars in the night sky above, I soaked in every last bit of magic left in such an unforgettable day.

    In astronomical terms, at least theoretically speaking, a “dark star” is a virtually invisible star, composed of dark matter particles with a gravitational pull that is strong enough to trap light—to remain hidden, enigmatic, mysterious, powerful. For me, the first ascent of Dark Star was like the discovery of such an elusive celestial form—somehow hidden in plain view for so many decades. Who in this day and age still gets to explore anything on this vast planet that has not already been seen, touched, or meticulously documented?

    Sprawled out on the carpet, mind in a surreal daze, I think about my own life, my family, my home, now seven seasons into working at the Black, with my own son on the way. I realize that one of the things that strikes me so deeply about this picture is that my wife, Heather, had just recently posed with our unborn child at one of the overlooks on the South Rim, over half a century after my grandmother stood in that nearly identical spot. I imagine the vivid experiences I’ve had in the Black Canyon bookended between these two memorable family photos.

    The Black is and always will be a special place for me. I’ve climbed more pitches in that gorge than anywhere else in the country, probably combined—surely an anomaly of sorts within the climbing world. I’ve trekked through dizzying heat, thunderstorms, and snow literally hundreds of times to reach the bottom. I’ve slept next to the river, fished, and floated portions of its waters. I’ve seen bear, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, elk, mountain lion, bobcat, and river otter. It’s where I asked my wife to marry me. Cedar Point at sunset. A picnic with wine, the four-word question delivered through quivering vocal chords, and the much-anticipated “yes.” An engagement ring of silver and turquoise, and a commitment for a lifetime.

    The Black is where I’ve developed some of my greatest friendships, my fondest memories, and have experienced the camaraderie of the rope a thousand times over. I’ve climbed in the canyon in every month of the year, conquered some of my proudest objectives, my hardest leads, my most intense moments. I’ve been scared out of my wits, euphoric, electrified…but always astounded, time and time again. These were things that my grandmother never could have known when she posed at that overlook so many decades ago.

    That morning in Ohio, I had shown my grandma the rough draft of the Black Canyon guidebook, which I had just recently completed. In her weak state, she did her best to study the content and ask questions, but I knew how difficult it was for her to process the information. The sadness that I felt was overwhelming. I had many fans along the way, but she was one of the biggest. To be able to show her the end result of what I had been striving for, for so many years now, was a special moment. I knew that when I stepped foot on that plane back to Colorado, I would never see her again. At least not in this lifetime.

    I put the empty bottle on the stone hearth of the fireplace and slip the small, square photo into my shirt pocket. Tomorrow I’m heading home, back to Colorado, back to my own family, and back to the Black Canyon.

    As I board the jetliner bound for a layover in some middle-of-America city, I place the black-and-white image between the pages of my completed draft of the guidebook. It is the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one, like a bookmark between the written and unwritten pages of my life. I am once again reminded that so many events in life seem to have a strange way of coming full circle. I doubt my grandparents truly understood what their trip to the Black Canyon in 1961 would mean someday. But I do, and so will my son.

    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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Fear and The College Try (in the Black Canyon)

    Jan 2 • Locations • 432 Views

    When my college crew began climbing in the Black Canyon, topos were scribbled out on beer soaked napkins, during big nights at the Alamo bar in Gunnison. Well, on at least one night they were.

    by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Climbing Zine and author of American Climber. This piece is an excerpt from the new guidebook to The Black Canyon, titled, “The Black” by Vic Zeilman. 

    We started climbing in The Black in the early 2000s, just before the Robbie Williams guidebook came out, and it was Williams himself who wrote out that napkin topo that led to my friends’ benightment on their very first route – three grown men resorted to spooning on a cold dark autumn night. I wonder how they settled on who would get to be middle spoon?

    Recalling my own list of mistakes and failures, which includes a couple unplanned bivouacs on those crazy walls, the experiences seem distant and surreal, like they happened in another lifetime; like I’m trying to recall when I was born, or recounting my first psychedelic experience.

    In those early days, coming of age in life and climbing in Gunnison, Colorado, the memories are like those of a love affair. We were truly in love with climbing, doing everything for love, and never for money. Dirtbags could be written off by society for being smelly, dirty and irresponsible; in reality we are just too in love with the climbing experience to notice routine details of life.

    Like the psychedelic experience, a certain mind state must be kept to enter the depths of the Black Canyon, and if you can keep your calm and carry on, like Winston Churchill said, the rewards are deep and vast. Bite off more than you can chew, and this place might send you away, forever. Starting humble and small is sage advice for an aspiring Black Canyon aficionado. The canyon makes us all feel humble and small sooner or later.

    My old friend Brent Armstrong was the first Black Canyon climber I knew, and his intensity and possible insanity matched the character of the chasm. He was one of the original climbers who did the Hallucinogen Wall in a push, and in 2001 during spring break, while his homies were all off in Indian Creek or other warm locales, he soloed a new route called White Devil over a total of nine days. Years later during an interview Armstrong recounted a meltdown a week or so into the climb, pushed to the point of tears, when Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 album on his Discman brought him back to reality, and gave him the confidence to send and push on to the top. The doctor would have been proud.

    Like a true friend Brent believed in me, and told me I could do anything I wanted in climbing. Problem was I didn’t believe that. However, there were breakthroughs. Shit, the simple act of descending a poison ivy filled gully by headlamp and spending all day clawing up a pegmatite layered wall only to top out in the dark is a breakthrough for the modern climber.

    The Black Canyon taught me to be humble, and it taught me that I would never be more than a 5.10 climber. While I have climbed harder than 5.10 elsewhere, a true measure of what you can climb is circumstantial. Dehydration, fatigue, and fear are ingredients to every climb in The Black, and how you can perform under those stresses define whether you will be successful there or not. Can you climb 5.10 when your last piece of year is twenty feet down, or when there’s no gear at all? Or when the next section involves navigating a peg band filled with prickly bushes? Or when you haven’t slept for the last 36 hours?

    Success in The Black always came in the form of an enhanced state of mind. Often, we would make mistakes and our ascents would be much slower than we envisioned, occasionally leading to the dreaded benightment and obligatory spooning if there was enough room. Running out of food and water pushes a man to the brink, and it also leads to a greater appreciation for the simple things. After surviving a long battle in The Black the water (and beer) have never tasted so good, the sky has never seemed so blue, and the brotherhood of rope has never seemed so real.

    I could probably wax poetically for thousands of more words on this unique canyon, but The Black is a place to be felt, not to be eulogized. It is a treasure we share, a place that could never be owned, or be conquered by man, and in modern times we need a place like this more than ever. A place to make you feel proud, like Armstrong penned in the original Williams guidebook, “Even if it is just the product of a hallucinogen (wall that is)”.

    “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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Rasta, A Wise and Crafty Crag Dog by D Scott Borden

    Dec 25 • Locations • 1980 Views

    Editor’s note: Longtime Climbing Zine contributor D Scott Borden wrote this piece for Volume 7, and sadly as the Zine was going to press Rasta passed away. Our thoughts are with you and your family at this time Scott. Thanks for such an inspiring piece! -LM

    We have all seen some cray-cray stuff when it comes to pets at the climbing crag. Like the time I was passed on the seventh pitch of Half Dome’s Snake Dike by Dean Potter short roping his little dog behind him as he soloed the route. Or the lady that brings her cat on a leash to the boulders and sends V7 while that fur ball watches disapprovingly. (Why are they always so hard to please?) Or the dog that ran off in Utah’s deserts and when hope was lost she returned 12 days later without a scratch. Or the time I saw a guy with an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder crushing 5.13 cracks in Indian Creek. (Though come to think of it, it may have been Halloween.) However, none tickle my biscuit better than the story of Rasta Dog. Of course, being my dog, I may be a little biased.

    by D Scott Borden, Senior Contributor

    Looking to keep my relationship intact with my high school girlfriend, we decided to adopt a puppy at the local grocery store. Adopting that puppy turned out to be one of my better mistakes. A hippy with long flowing dreads had a litter of puppies and a sign that read ‘to a real home’. He had hitchhiked through the Colorado Rockies when his dog gave birth to this litter. When I first saw him, he was sitting on the local corner with a guitar singing a song that went, “They won’t let me sing my song, they won’t let me smoke my bong. They won’t let me sing my song, they won’t let me smoke my bong…”

    After the third excruciating and ear numbing time I heard this line I snatched up a puppy from the young man figuring I was saving it from the danger of dying of a patchouli oil and weed smoke overdose. The puppy was only four weeks old and fit in the palm of my hand. He was completely reliant on me for everything. Being in college and climbing every possible second, like so many young men with too much responsibility, I was in way over my head. Just for perspective: I ate a strictly vegetarian diet mostly from dumpsters around town, lived in my truck, refused to wear shoes to class, owned one pair of pants and showered once a week. I could barely take care of myself, what the heck was I going to do with this adorable dog?

    I would venture to say that thus far, this story is probably a dime a dozen. How many lost climbing dirtbags do you know that live in the back of their car and have a dog?

    Rasta Dog would go through the inevitable stages of a crag dog. Young puppy stage: where he would bark uncontrollably and annoy everyone not matter how much attention you gave him. Middle aged stage: where he would demand a good hour of stick throwing and then wander around the crag for hours alone but always end up back at the car at the end of the day just in time to head off. Old man stage: where he would be happy just to get to the crag and chill out. “What a good, cute crag dog,” everyone would say. Well, they didn’t put up with his crap for 13 years prior did they?

    I guess it wasn’t what Rasta Dog did that was story worthy, but perhaps more what he created. When I finished college I wanted to travel. So I left Rasta in the capable hands of my most responsible friend, Taryn. Now Taryn wasn’t just responsible, she was the president of the student government at our college. We had co-founded (with several other friends) an environmental group. She was an ass-kicking environmental activist with the looks to match.

    Of course, I wanted nothing to do with her romantically. She was the type of girl you take home to Mom and I was looking for the type of girl you snuggle with in the back of your truck. You know, the truck you’re living in. She was too serious for this man on the run, but she sure would take good care of the Rasta Dog.

    And so it went, she took Rasta while I travelled the world climbing and after a while I came back to the same town. Rasta and I were reunited and she noticed how happy he was to see me. She asked if I would take him back since we seemed so content. So I did and after a while I got that wandering itch again and pleaded to give him back. She obliged and I headed to climb internationally again. It was then that we made an agreement that whoever was most stable would take the dog. At that pivotal moment the three of us became a pack, separated only by distance.

    Four years later, Taryn called me on the verge of tears. I was living and working in Yosemite National Park and she needed to give Rasta up because her work required her to travel constantly. I agreed and we made plans to exchange him. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, she changed her mind. She decided her lifestyle was unsustainable and that Rasta was the only thing stable. I knew that feeling all too well and could appreciate her reluctance. In the meantime, she needed to go to Saudi Arabia for some work and needed someone to watch him, so I happily volunteered.

    She came to drop him off and we talked about times of old and new. We walked in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias and when we got to the Kissing Trees (two trees that intertwine to unimaginable heights) I leaned in and kissed her.

    I wasn’t sure what I was doing but I knew I was no longer afraid of her grown up demeanor. I knew she was everything right in the world and I wanted to be a part of it. I was no longer the young dirtbag and Rasta was no longer the young puppy. Our pack had grown up.

    Rasta's dream come true.

    Rasta’s dream come true.

    Two years later we were wed in the Big Meadow of Yosemite National Park. The story of how Rasta created a perfect ‘parent trap’ was told during the ceremony and he was the official ring bearer. When Taryn and I were announced as partners he barked loudly as everyone clapped and laughed at what could only be described as Rasta’s abundant joy. We have since moved to the United Kingdom, and of course Rasta flew here with us. As we anticipate the birth of our first child, Rasta sits at our feet (now 14) and seems very content with the new addition to our pack. Since the pack was reunited, whenever we go climbing he sits quietly at the crag with an odd look of contentment.

    As if……maybe……just maybe, he was planning this union the whole time. While we will never know his true intentions, one thing I am sure of is that he is truly a wise and crafty crag dog, if I’ve ever met one.

    The Climbing Zine Volume 7, (Dirtbags, Crag Dogs, Hyenas, and Free Solos) is available on Kindle and in print.

     Scott Borden just moved back to Gunnison, Colorado. He has been contributing to The Climbing Zine since our very first issue. 

    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. Check out the FREE preview


    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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Old Becomes New in Indian Creek by Chris Schulte

    Dec 24 • Dirtbagging • 400 Views

    I’ve bouldered in the Creek now for near twenty years. When I first arrived, riding shotgun before a trailer of dirt bikes and lugging a rack of singles, it was hard to believe that no one was out on those blocks. No one had cleaned and climbed any of the arêtes and faces. Rock was everywhere, and in most every way, the blocks were more solid and attractive than my home bouldering area.

    by Chris Schulte (note: this piece is an excerpt from his essay, Reading Between The Lines, Old Becomes New Out at Indian Creek, in Volume 9, The New School Issue.) Subscribe here.  

    (Banner photo of the author on Boy With Apple. Photo: Chris Schulte collection) 

    I’d never been to anything but what I’ll call Regular Climbing Areas, with sport and trad climbs side by side, even a boulder or two on the way in. Of course, I hadn’t been anywhere then…I thought all climbing areas were full-tilt, get-what-you-can Climbing Areas, where all disciplines and pursuits could be expressed. All the things had to be climbed, yes, “Because it’s there,” to quote Hillary, and “because the climbers are there,” to quote LeCarré.

    Chris Schulte, The Wolf AKA Air Wolf V?, Indian Creek, UT

    The author on his problem, Air Wolf (ungraded) Photo: Andrew Burr

    Hell, I’ve seen a crag with a practice rivet ladder, a boulder with a seam that folks would practice traversing tied-off knifeblades. I have to remind myself that that was in the halcyon years of absolute noobdom, where I still held that if someone was a climber, they must be a cool person, and we had lots in common. That climbing in the sun was a good idea. That I’d want to bring pitons to Yosemite. Soon enough, I learned that there were Big Wall areas, Ice Climbing areas, Sport Climbing areas, Bouldering areas, and Crack Climbing areas. “Indian Creek is a crack-climbing area,” a mentor explained to the untutored twenty-year-old me, confused, agape at wasted potential. It was like looking out over an orchard of ripe peaches rotting on the branch; his explanation was like my mother trying to explain faith to the six-year-old me: thin skin of substance, bones of dogma. Zero muscle. This is how it is, because it just is that way. The lure of sacrilege was too great: I headed out in the fields to go bouldering after three routes.

    Intermittently I returned, always en route: a pause from the long strip of road between Colorado and the Buttermilks, a rest for skin worn thin and crimp-split by Joe’s Valley sandstone to the north, a dose of sun, and warmth, and dryness after a long winter in Font or the Front Range. I never had a lot of pads, never with enough gear to get back up onto the vertical jogging of the skyborne splits, never taking more than a day or two to sun up before returning to the mountains for the season opener or ender. I was a boulderer, exclusively, and for nearly fifteen years I was too bored with or scared of the things that the Creek had to offer on a rope, and too scared and lazy to assemble pads, drop ropes, clean up, and climb the stunning, ginormous boulders that are everywhere out there.

    Years passed in this fashion until another midpoint stop after a winter trip to SLC. I’d told enough tales to spark some interest among Durango friends Mike Vice and Richie Hum to whet their appetites for sunny sandstone slopers and techy arêtes. Several seasons hence, and with the love and vision and turbo-overstoke of folks like Kyle O’Meara, Connor Griffith, Nate Davison, Wes Walker, and more, there are over 250 problems flung way up side canyons and over the plains and many, many more to find, clean, and climb. I’ve had to impose limits on myself for the boundaries of exploration: This is Indian Creek Bouldering. This is just more Random Desert Bouldering, ’cause wow: don’t worry; the desert is Big. Indian Creek is but a fraction of the wealth of the desert Southwest, if you like the stone.

    Last winter, I spent 120 days in and around the Creek. Based nearby, I roamed mostly solo, climbing and exploring up and down the valley, in and out of the canyons, walking the ramparts and the gulches, feeling the flow. Eroding like the drainages. I found a rhythm, found myself at home, found myself comfortable. I found myself looking up at the cliffs. I began repeating boulders I’d opened, climbing slower, pausing for the imaginary clip, wondering how it would feel to climb V-blahblahblah after a length of splitter, or before, or by itself with a .75 Camalot waaay down around the corner. I visited far-out crags with little traffic; no one walks out this far, not with the hipness of the ol’ standbys and that newnew collection of hushhush cliffs the “locals” call secret, but you can see from the car. A while back, I put up my first anchors in the Creek, twenty years after my first visit, and TR’d the line with difficulty. This season, I tied in and did some 5.11s on the Cat Wall, kept it cool. Ennobled, I came back and sent the project: Moonlighting (5.12?), a left-facing fingers to tips in a black corner that peters out into edges and stemming before a wide lurp to a jug up top. It was my first trad FA in fifteen years. Wow, let me tell you: I was hooked on Indian Creek all over again.


    Read the full piece in Volume 9 in print or on Kindle. 

    Chris Schulte has been on a weird vision quest for over twenty years, one of those where you’re not sure if you’re on the right track, but then suddenly it’s wide and easy and opens up to one hell of a view.

    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. Check out the FREE preview



    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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Review: Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Parka

    Dec 23 • Gear • 247 Views

    If you’re a climber, you have a puffy coat.

    That’s a given—the best climbing days usually give way to cold nights and mornings. I tend to run on the cool side, and for years I’ve been trying to find that perfect puffy, one that both keeps me warm, but is also easily tucked away when the temps rise and I quickly strip down to a t-shirt.

    Retail: $449.00

    Enter the Patagonia, Fitz Roy Down Parka.

    I got one of these coats in the late fall, just as sending temps were getting perfect, and the nights were getting chilly. As I often do in my gear reviews, let me give a disclaimer that I’m just a good old fashioned rock climber, and I rarely set foot in the alpine. So, for the extent of this review I wore this coat in the Indian Creek desert, and around my little mountain town of Durango, Colorado.

    The first thing I realized about this coat was the minute I put it on my friends knew exactly what coat I was wearing—as with many Patagonia products the reputation proceeds itself. Enough said, right?

    The second thing I noticed about the coat was the warmth to weight ratio. The Fitz Roy Down Parka uses 800 Fill Power Goose Down, and checks in at 19.2 ounces.

    Note: the jacket uses traceable down to ensure that the material is not live plucked, and the geese are not live fed. It’s also third party certified.

    The other incredible feature, for alpine climbers and rock jocks alike is how compactly the coat packs into a stuff sack. I imagine this would be handy on the namesake peak of Fitz Roy, but its also practical for climbing at the crag. More than once, I found myself packing this coat into my backpack for the end of the day, or a cold belay.

    Speaking of belays, I couldn’t imagine a more ideal puffy. The baffled hood fits perfectly over a helmet, with a single pull adjustment, and an internal heat-locking, high-loft chamber on the back of the neck. It’s easy to wear over the harness, with a convenient two-way zipper. There are also high hand warmer pockets.

    Materials used in the coat are: lightweight and durable 100% nylon Pertex Quantum fabrics throughout, a high-sheen Pertex Quantum built with Y-shaped filament technology on the hood, and the shoulders and arms have interlocking Y-shaped nylon fibers to enhance durable water repellent (DWR) performance.

    All things considered, this is now my go-to puffy. It keeps me warm when I need it, whether I’m belaying or chillin’ at camp, the materials are ethically sourced, and it packs away nicely when the days warm up. In short, a perfect puffy.


    The Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Parka  (on backcountry.com)

    In the vertical world, quality gear is as important as good weather or the right partner.  At the Climbing Zine, we review gear that we put to the test in our personal climbing pursuits, over months of use. If we like it we’ll tell you, and if we don’t we’ll tell you. That’s our policy…If you have gear for us to consider for a review please contact us at luke@climbingzine.com. 

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $17.99 a year for two issues, or $34.99 for two years, and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. Check out the FREE preview

    zine_cover8 (5)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: American Climber, Graduating From College Me, A dirtbag climber grows upThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Last Thoughts On The Dirtbag from Cairns Film on Vimeo.

    Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, A Short Film

    Dec 12 • Dirtbagging • 1283 Views

    Two years ago I pitched an idea about a film I really had nothing more than a spark of an idea for to Greg Cairns. I’d seen Cedar Wright and James Lucas’s “The Last Dirtbag” and felt compelled to offer something of my own to this “conversation” about dirtbags and whether or not any real ones exist anymore.

    by Luke Mehall

    Of course the question is bullshit, people still live in the dirt, out of bags, we have just entered a new era, one where technology can take away a lot of the mystery of climbing, and it is getting harder and harder to make extended stays on public land.

    In the end the question did not matter. What mattered was how I felt about my time as a dirtbag. I ended up structuring the piece I wrote to go with the film similarly to how Bob Dylan structured “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie“. Climbing and the characters I’ve met along the way mean everything.

    In the end I don’t care about the word dirtbag, it’s just a word. And our film, it’s just a film, but we labored over it in love, and I have a lot of love for our community. And I wrote this piece from the heart, and as a writer that is all I can aim for. I hope you enjoy it, as much as we enjoyed making it.

    Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, and author of American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. 

    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. Check out the FREE preview

    zine_cover8 (5)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 three books: American ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    No Comments on Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, A Short Film

    Read More