• Approach As Pilgrimage by Tim Rogers

    Jul 11 • Locations • 315 Views

    Journal entry from 10/15/2014

    Zion is the word. Despite all of our differences, to so many people the meaning of Zion remains the same: a place of refuge, a utopian ideal of peace, unity, and freedom. We may not be religious pilgrims, but even as travelers, as climbers, as humans, when anyone asks where we’re going, we tell them Zion, and without having to explain why, they understand.

    by Tim Rogers (note this piece was originally published in Volume 8, The Old School Issue)

    Climbers are travelers. We are movers and shakers, dirtbag wanderlusts, traveling the globe in search of cracks, crags, and mountaintops. We are adventurers of the alpine realm, voyagers of the vertical world, but despite our powerful, and sometimes spiritual, experiences on the sharp end, it’s often times the spaces in between our climbs that give us the most opportunity for reflection and inspiration.

    Horizons call to us. Open roads beckon. We push ourselves to the point of exhaustion, driving all night in order to pull into an empty trailhead or packed campground early in the morning. The climbing road trip is a right of passage, a checklist we are all compelled to complete. We can’t consider ourselves members of the tribe until we’ve experienced each pitch of our friends’ and mentors’ triumphs and horrors for ourselves. But so often the climbs themselves blur into one long pitch of painful fingers, bloody toes, and terrifying triumphs, and the truth is that the climbing is just one small part of an unbroken chain of movement across the land known as the approach.

    But what is the approach, and what exactly is it we are approaching? The top? The end? When does the approach begin and when is it complete? For climbers and adventurers, the approach may be best defined as a path, not in the literal sense but one more analogous to the Taoist “Way”—a style or method we apply to all things. In this light, we are always part of the approach, always moving toward the goal, whatever that may be. Even after we tie in and begin climbing, if we are approaching the top of the climb with flailing surges, pulling on gear, cursing the rock, and fighting the process, we are in disregard for the experience, and the only thing we are approaching is another missed opportunity to understand ourselves, connect with our partners, and be present in the moment. The approach as we know it is no different. Rushing through our lives to get to the wall only shorts us of the myriad connections and opportunities that exist along the way, but in a world saturated with speed, it has become all too common and easy to ignore the opportunities that exist in every precious moment of our journey.

    Send Train! Photo: Tim Rogers

    It’s early in the afternoon, and my muscles are thick and slow. In front of me, the road shoots straight ahead like an arrow for miles: unwavering, unflinching, agonizingly straight. Behind me, the valley stretches on for miles and miles: open, uninhabited, and breathtakingly beautiful. I pull my bicycle onto the soft shoulder, and walk toward the remnants of a burned-out building on the side of the road. Liz and Amos are close behind, and we quickly set up a small picnic, brewing coffee and cooking grilled-cheese English muffins on our single-burner stove. Tired but satisfied, we each lay and nap, draw, or journal a few lines about the morning before carrying on for a few more hours. We’re two weeks, four states, and seven hundred miles into what will become an eighteen-day, thousand-mile, human-powered pilgrimage from Washington State to Zion Canyon.

    At what point I crossed the threshold, I can’t exactly remember. People ask me why I made the decision to live without a car like it was a moment, like it was something conscious or deliberate, and maybe it was. Maybe, at one time, I was thinking constructively about my life, about my climbing and mobility, and made the deliberate choice to forgo the automobile in place of a bicycle. But if that moment ever happened, it’s been buried behind miles and miles of pedaling through mountains and deserts in search of my climbing dreams. More accurately, this was just an idea, a wild one I shared with a partner as crazy and adventurous as myself, a wild idea like the late-night campfire induced delusions of soloing the nearest crack naked, or deciding to quit your job and take off for three months to climb in Thailand.

    A wild idea, for sure, like the ones that end up being the best. 

    Whatever the reason, it no longer matters. After four years of relying on my bicycle to take me to crags, trailheads, and on road trips, why I started doing this matters little compared to why I’m still doing it, and for that I have no better explanation than that it just feels right. It makes sense. It’s the most fun, the most challenging, the most rewarding way to live.

    Climbing has given me so much in life; it has taught me humility, patience, strength, determination, and discipline. It has taught me to be wild and free, to not put all my stock in instruction and education, whether it be the beta of a route’s topo, or society’s urge for me to go to college, get a job, and live an institutionalized life. For these lessons, I’m forever in debt, but it’s the good kind of debt, not the type I pay out in a check every month but the kind that encourages me to bring my best to each climb, to keep climbing as a central but balanced part of my life. Through this I have learned that the more I put into my climbing, the more I get out of it; the more patience I put into my gear placement, the better I feel about climbing above it; the more discipline I put into training and conditioning, the more fluid and calm my climbing becomes. But nothing has had such a profound and transformative impact on my climbing, and life, as my reconsideration of mobility, my approach to the approach. By using a bicycle to access climbs and adventures, my climbs have become less of a tick list and more of a lifestyle, part of an unbroken chain of who I am, what I believe in, and what I hope to stand for.

    My hands are tired and raw, but my body is strong, and as I reach above for another jam, despite the trickle of blood coming from my knuckles, I feel powerful. I look down and feel the rush of air beneath my feet. I reach the anchor, a rusted star bolt and Zion’s ubiquitous drilled piton. I disregard the weathered tat and quickly rig my own simple system. With Liz and Amos on belay, I yell at them to start climbing, and I rest a moment while taking in my surroundings. We’ve been climbing in Zion for almost two weeks, and the goal has become to climb more pitches than days we’ll travel. As we run through pitches and discover new climbs, I sometimes have to remind myself how I got here, how far we’ve come, how many miles we pedaled to reach this big wall sandstone mecca. I look down to snap a few pictures of Liz and Amos as they work their way up. The sound of the Virgin River is all but lost in the wind. Far below, the road winds alongside its twisting banks. A bus slowly makes its way up the canyon, tourists packed inside, gawking at these ancient sand dunes. For over half the year, Zion Canyon is closed to automobile traffic, but while pedaling through this magnificent canyon might give you a better appreciation of its size and scope, you don’t have to shut out all the cars to understand—Zion truly does mean a place of refuge.

    If I told you I was doing this all for me, I’d be lying. As much as I cycle to pursue my own climbing goals and dreams, the level of satisfaction I receive from cycling to climb has motivated me to encourage others that this is a path all climbers can, and should, pursue at least once. This is a hard reality for me to acknowledge—would I have found the bike, found this path, if not for the sad state of our environment? I’d like to think I would still be doing this even if the message didn’t matter, even if our world was fine, but it’s not, and the truth is everything has its time and place, and I have come to accept the fact that I might not be anything more than a product of the times. Our world continues to become a chaotic mess, and for decades, climbers have escaped this reality on stone walls and mountains all over the globe. But although the political and religious struggles still dominate the headlines, the traumatic and intimidating reality is that humanity is badly damaging Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere with our unrelenting consumption of fossil fuels. True, climbers are minimalists, and for the most part, our meager use of gasoline for transportation probably has little impact. But as climbing surges in popularity and we all set off on our landmark road trip, every tank of fuel adds up, and it becomes harder and harder to distance ourselves from the world we don’t believe in, while silently buying into its systems.

    I’ve always thought climbers are in a unique position. We live simple lives structured around large amounts of time outdoors and away from civilization. We can survive and thrive, on very little, and we value goods and services produced locally and sustainably. But more than any of that, it is our unrelenting drive for authentic experiences that encourages us to travel untrodden paths and live an uncomplicated existence. When I look to the future of climbing, I don’t have a clear vision. Do I see a culture of adventurers using bicycles to access each and every climb? No. But in the era of a warming climate and diminishing resources, I also don’t see a fleet of Sprinters lined up at every crag and trailhead. As a climber, I’m proud that we’re some of the best stewards. I hold myself and my community to the highest standards and expect us to set the precedent for a more socially and ecologically sustainable future. Can I live up to this expectation? Honestly, I don’t know, probably not always, but I’ll continue to do my best. What I do know is that, for me, there’s no turning back; climbing and cycling have taken hold, and I’ll continue to encourage my friends, my partners, and my community of climbers that if I haven’t found the way, I’ve at least found a path, one we can all travel with a sense of purpose.

    Climbers often distance themselves from the materialistic religion and the dogma of mainstream society, but climbing too has its own faith and spirituality. Call it what you want, but there is something that keeps us all returning to the vertical world, something that bridges the gap between experience and action, and we’re all pilgrims of this faith. But like any devotion, you can’t cheat your way to enlightenment, and for us to continue to chase our dreams and goals without consideration of our impact and place in the larger world is little different than mindlessly consuming the ideology of society’s materialistic culture.

    Amos getting back to his roots on Monkeyfinger, Zion. Photo: Tim Rogers

    I look down and see Amos dangling in space hundreds of feet above the valley floor. A single strand of rope is all that connects him to this world. He reaches above him and gets back into the crack, slowly inching upward as he unlocks the sequence of jams and locks in the thin crack. Except for his shoes, harness, and helmet, Amos is naked. His white thighs gleam in the harsh desert sun, and somewhere far below, we hear a series of hoots directed at his white ass. I wanted the group to do a naked mile somewhere out in the desert on our long ride here, but it never happened. Instead, we’re here, watching Amos pull down on the Monkeyfinger Crack in his birthday suit. It’s our last day climbing, our last day in Zion. Far below, automobiles have once again flooded the canyon after the restrictions were lifted for the winter. We knew it would happen, and for us, it was an ironic and mournful day, having experienced the canyon in silence and solitude for so long. Tomorrow, we’ll start the 350-mile ride home, pedaling north along the highway back to Salt Lake City. Amos comes off again, and I offer some words of encouragement. Eventually, he tops out and joins Liz and me in the Monkey’s Den, naked and spent. Amos slips his pants back on, and we climb the last few pitches before rapping the route in the moonlight and stumbling back to our bikes in the dark. The ride back to camp is all downhill, and as we coast alongside the river, I take my hands off the handlebars and let the breeze hit me square in the chest. I look up and see stars framed by the towering sandstone cliffs. I think back on the day, on our climb on the Monkeyfinger, most likely its first involving a human-powered approach from any farther than Springdale. I think about the ride home and the road ahead, and wonder how many days we’ll be pedaling. I’m overcome with love for my partners, friends of the thickest thread who are crazy enough to walk this path with me and help me illuminate it’s hidden corners. As we pick up speed, these thoughts melt away, and I put my hands back on the bars. We race through the dark, and the sound of the river echoes off the boulders beside us.

    Just like life, climbing has its contrivances, its ways of making things easier or harder for no apparent reason. But the point of us cycling across the country to climb a wall is not to make it more difficult, not to hold it over anyone as an accomplishment to be celebrated. Again, we did it because it felt right, because to us, in this time and place, it makes sense. Climbers will never cease to be adventurers, and traveling will remain in our blood. I have hope for our future not because I think we can persevere or save ourselves with technology and innovation, but because deep down I know that what bonds us as a community is our shared experience of the moment, an experience that has taught us strength, honesty, and humility, traits we’ll need to see us through our troubled future.

    How often are we guilty of some sort of disrespect or disregard for our approach? How often do we practice paying full attention and respect to each step of the path? In the face of fear or adversity, how easy is it to place blame or call out a weakness? I know all too often I have failed to observe patience and understanding and have consequently neglected my partners, my approach, my experience, and thus myself. Even our personal relationships have no clear separation from our approach, for how we set about our friendships and climbing partnerships is no different than how we attempt our climbs, or our lives. If we are capable of applying mindful intention to our climbs, to come to the wall calm, open, and prepared to move forward with strength, grace, and resilience, can we not do the same thing with our friends and partners? Is the natural world not in fact our greatest partner and teacher, not some inanimate obstacle to be conquered? If we observe these simple points in our climbing and our lives, both may be met with the success and love that they are truly capable of.

    Tim Rogers is a climber, skier, and cyclist based seasonally in Alta, Utah.  You can follow his musings and adventures at www.natureofmotion.com.

    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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  • The Mom Crux by Mallory Logan

    Jul 9 • Locations • 305 Views

    Many a metaphoric parallel can be drawn between climbing and motherhood, and it’s plain to see neither activity makes the other any easier.

    by Mallory Logan, originally published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 6

    Countless others who have already made the journey will offer their beta and guidance in kindhearted earnest, but in the moment of truth there is only you. Wide-eyed and confident, you step into the unknown to find your own way. Whether on lead or cradling a precious babe in your arms, balancing your life as a loving momma who still craves the send will always require a new approach. So cheers to you, climbin’ momma, for playing hard, loving harder and leading the next generation of dirtbags by example.

    Mallory Logan is the Art Director for The Climbing Zine. She lives in Gunnison, Colorado where she runs RoShamBo, and is a newly elected City Council member. 

    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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  • Effort and Folly on Mount Waddington by Drew Thayer

    Jun 30 • Locations • 338 Views


    The cam lobes slide in the fissure as I test it, useless. This dark, metamorphic rock, tortured entrails of a bygone continent, is too slick and brittle for our modern hardware. As if the old recognizes the young: Who are you, whippersnapper, with your eVent fabrics and C3 cams? Come up here as your forebears did, with alp-hammer and pitons, and we’ll talk.

    by Drew Thayer

    Note: This piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10. Photos by Craig Muderlack 

    I consider pounding a knife blade, but the seams all face downward…best to just keep moving. Taking care not to break the snow loose underfoot, I begin a rising traverse toward a break in the rock band. At each step, eight inches of wet snow sloughs off down the snowfield, entraining more snow with it until it pours over the lip of the crevasse. I picture Craig at the other end of the rope, hunkered beneath the dripping bergschrund as four hundred pounds of slush puppy cascades in front of him, and then drive the image out of my mind. Got to keep moving. Finally my picks reach featured rock, and I focus on the relative security of dry-tooling to a safe belay stance. It looks like one more pitch of shattered stone to the next snowfield, where we’ll find out how badly the seracs we scoped from below are threatening our path.


    “Dude, that thing’s hollow.” From the intensity of his eyes, I can tell I don’t need to check for myself. Damn…I thought the ice bridge looked solid. I’m too committed now, so I gingerly place my picks in the frozen foam and kick ever so softly…the tight report of a timpani drum answers. I know I shouldn’t look down right now but do it anyway. Ten feet, then the bridge thickens. Step, pause…step, pause…the drum keeps beating, and we place our trust in ice.

    Jukebox Hero

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned: I’m not hardcore. I’m not going to be the strongest, fastest, boldest. I’m not going to set records. My dramas unfold for an audience of one. On the road bike, on the plywood wall in the garage, sometimes at the local crag, I get to be the hero, the guy on the magazine cover, cool focus in his eyes and a world of peril beneath. I’ve learned the tricks of self-deception, and sometimes it feels good.

    So what am I doing here, scratching rotten rime from this fractured stone, searching for a pick hold, half a rope length up a tower on top of a mountain, and we both know we can’t climb this before we lose visibility to storm and darkness? I just always needed to know what was beyond the horizon. As a kid, I’d go running in the afternoon, always chasing the view from the next ridge. The ridges kept coming. I rarely made it home before dark.


    I awake in the same position I fell asleep shivering in, spooning the curled bulk of Craig. I can tell without asking that he hasn’t slept. I listen for wind but find a silence so thick it smothers my senses, like trying to swim in a bowl of gravy. Snow. Still snowing. The patter of flakes on the tent is just audible. The silence is like a pause between waves, a haven: in this moment, all is calm. In the next, who knows?

     The Weight

    By now, each small step feels like the mountain itself. Muscles from the ankle to the gut contract to pull my heaving chest once more upward. One more increment of progress. One in a hundred thousand. Each step we haul our bodies, our armor of clothing, the heft of our packs.

    Why is each step so hard? It’s not just our packs we carry, our rations and clothing and protection, the pair of rock shoes we brought optimistically. Ibuprofen and tape. GPS, radio. Three dice for entertainment if we get tent-bound. Sleeping gear and six days’ food and not enough fuel. This load we carry in our skeletons, lift up the mountain with our muscles. But it’s the other loads that drag us when the rain pelts down, that laden our bodies as the wind whips lariats of ice crystals across the bare glacier. Will the weather hold? Can we trust the forecast? I keep the rope tight as Craig probes ahead of him, seeking safe passage across the umpteenth crevasse, and doubt creeps in.

    White Noise

    We shake the tent and emerge into the day. There are precisely three things to see in this new world: a snow-dusted tent, the faint outline of a serac, and a haggard man staring glumly out of a soggy raincoat. Senses trade—I close my eyes and open my ears to a roar: this isn’t the sharp silence of clear distance, but the collective whisper of a billion snowflakes settling like a blanket on the Coast Range. This was supposed to be our weather window.

    We contemplate the white noise like television static after the last program; somewhere in there are scenes and plot devices, the arc of our characters, climax and resolution. The magic bridge through the crevasse field, the hidden jug above the chockstone in the summit chimney. The moment we get to succeed. All there, in the noise, the uncertain future. What is real now? My knees shiver. The stove sputters, running out of fuel.

    Siren Song

    I’ve been staring at this skyline for the last five months on a photocopy pinned above my computer screen. So perfect, so clean, a serrated knife slicing blue sky. I inscribed these jagged lines in my retinas, eyes closed and thighs screaming on the elliptical trainer, lungs bursting on the forest trails, the hot burn at the apex of a hundred sit-ups. At work, my eyes lost focus on a blinking screen littered with matrix algebra, and I saw this skyline floating behind the math: Combatant, Tiedemann, Asperity, Waddington.

    Here they are now, in front of me, below me. Floating in the subarctic twilight like I could reach out and touch them. Golden like the crags of my dreams, but as we watch, nightmarish lenticular clouds gather in the mounting wind. Across the gulf of the Tiedemann glacier, those summits seem in another range altogether. The space between us is beyond reckoning, seven thousand feet down to a river of ice, then back up the scythed ridges and battlements of some forgotten Mordor. Those peaks, the gentle crest of ridges between them, tower above a vertical mile of pure crumbling chaos. Standing tantalizing before us, the skyline is still so far away. I want to be there. I want to go home. I want warm hands. The light dims, and the wind picks up, and it’s time to find shelter, probe out a safe zone, pitch the tent. Desires and fears and flesh and folly tucked into one nylon envelope on top of the Coast Range, waiting till morning.

    The Ridge

    By now, the massive bulk of the mountain is beneath us. We kick steps up a rising crest of white, bury one picket per rope length for good measure, and bury axes after that to keep our momentum. With each step there is less above, more below. The world begins to exist beneath, snow-draped peaks spreading to each horizon, the sharpened teeth of the world. Somewhere out there lies the eternal stretch of the Pacific and its legions of clouds, the source of all this moisture. The wind that stings our faces has hit no other thing, a clean breath careening off the world’s largest ocean. This is what we came for; this is what we’ve earned from all this toil, if just for one day: to walk in the sky.

    Drew Thayer recently moved to Denver, Colorado, and despite the demands of grad school, he cannot contain his fascination for the physical and mental journeys we travel in the vertical world. He explores these pursuits through climbing and writing and remains committed to pursuing type-two fun on objectives that seem a little too big. He records musings and images of his ventures at www.carrotsandpb.blogspot.com.

    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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  • The Prince P (in memory of Phil Schaal) by Cyrena Lee

    Jun 23 • Dirtbagging • 646 Views

    It would have been hard to write about Phil Schaal even if he were still here—here meaning still alive. Alive meaning still breathing and walking. With anything that involved Phil, he would have been critical, demanded better, demanded the best.

    by Cyrena Lee, Senior Contributor to The Climbing Zine. This piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10.  Banner photo of Phil Schaal by Joshua Pestka. 

    It’s even harder to write about Phil because while he’s not physically here, the force of his character remains. The memory of him has a stronger will than most. For anyone who crossed paths with Phil, it’s certain that he made an impression, good or bad. He was unforgettable.

    Phil was born into a legacy of international greatness—the Schaals. His German grandfather, Eric Schaal, was a famed photographer for LIFE Magazine, who captured portraits of Salvador Dali, Einstein, and more. His father, Andi, was Swiss, an Olympic-level skier from whom he inherited the incredible focus that helped propel Phil to achieve his own accomplishments in bouldering: Jade, Ode to the Modern Man, The Book of Bitter Aspects, and many, many more.

    You could spend hours lost in the Internet archives and relive and watch so many of the impressive feats Phil chronicled on his Vimeo page and on his blog. But what made Phil so legendary wasn’t simply his insane crimp strength—it was the sharpness of his unique character that was able to penetrate every person he interacted with.

    I first met Phil a couple of years ago when I started working at Brooklyn Boulders, where he was the director of route setting. The first day Phil and I spoke, he asked to borrow a portable charger since he was going on a hundred-mile bike ride, or something equally insane. We became friends quickly; I was freshly heartbroken, and Phil was a great friend to go out with and fill the gaps of loneliness with booze. We’d drink Negronis until four in the morning, getting up to no good and forgetting the pain of feeling alone.

    Schaal climbing in Red Rocks, Nevada. Photo: Joshua Pestka

    Phil was the high-functioning self-destructive type; his days of intensive setting and managing the setting teams were fueled by a steady stream of coffee and cigarettes, perhaps supplemented by a pastry or half of a sandwich. He was the type of person to stay and help out to do the thankless jobs nobody else wanted to do, cleaning behind the walls late into the night or choosing to help move heavy mats when he had to be doing computer work.

    He was fiercely loyal to his friends and family and would often give me harsh advice about work and love, even if I didn’t ask for it. He was vain in an endearingly open manner, always asking the office if he looked good in his new A.P.C. jeans. He knew the value of when to work and when to take a break just to enjoy life—he often convinced his friends, with their heads bowed down to the daily grind, to take a break and go grab a cup of coffee or sit with him while he smoked. He was always complaining about some heartbreak over some girl or bragging about his Tinder conquests, and while he was sometimes so obliviously blind to how he obsessed over inconsequential things, he always gave really good advice to others who did the same thing. He could be a real dick to some people who crossed him or who had betrayed friends of his; it was thoroughly painful to be on the receiving end of his wrath but thoroughly enjoyable to watch when he was fighting on your side. He was many things to many people; Phil never fit into one specific category and was able to hold a conversation with anyone, no matter where they were from.

    I remember Phil used to tell me that he was going to outlive everyone that he knew—he said it with a somewhat defeated and sad tone, as if he could already feel the pain of living while everyone he loved had gone. He reiterated it again to me last spring after the death of his father.

    It’s painfully ironic that Phil left so early—the circumstances of his death are murky, exact details blurry because they were lost in the confusion of night. Drug poisoning is the briefest explanation, but there is much more meaning to extract from Phil’s death rather than dismissing it as a horrible accident. It’s important to examine the pathway to how somebody gets to such a sketchy underworld of Brooklyn where it’s possible to fall so badly in the first place.

    Is climbing an addiction? One could consider adrenaline cravings and sacrificing all other activities for climbing as signs that point to yes. Climbing is certainly an intense way to achieve a sense of focus and meditation that can alleviate and even temporarily obliterate the daily humdrum stresses of life. When I met Phil, he hadn’t been climbing professionally for a while. It was hilarious for me to see videos of him climbing in his prime, with long shaggy hair and baggy Moon pants. He looked like a completely different person from the guy who had to spend more than a few minutes sliding into his tight jeans and was so particular about his fancy Chari & Co socks.

    Maybe he traded in his climbing addiction for coffee, cigarettes, and late nights of drinking. Maybe Phil was really lonely on the inside, and his prickly exterior was a self-defense mechanism, hurting others before they could hurt him. Maybe no matter the addiction, even a generally healthy one, like climbing, it’s not enough to sustain you. Maybe even if you’re climbing your hardest and you send an insane project, it’s meaningless if you feel a lack of a real human connection. Maybe climbing, without balance, is just another way to avoid how you’re really feeling, to avoid confronting loneliness, and to avoid asking other people for help. Maybe we would all benefit from self-reflection, if we examined our own inabilities to stop doing something, anything, especially if it’s to our ultimate self-detriment or preventing us from connecting to other people.

    Phil’s death is still surreal, and I know I’m just one of many who knew him, who miss him, and my memories of him are just a small slice of the person he was. I wrote him a few letters while he was in the hospital and will leave this last note dedicated to him and anybody who’s hurting or missing.

    It’s been months since you left now. Since your chest stopped heaving, your heart stopped beating, and you stopped breathing without the help of a machine. Maybe you, wherever your consciousness was, left days before you had on the hospital gown you would have hated. It’s been even longer since I saw you in real life last, weeks since we texted, and days I didn’t count since the world slightly changed with your departure.

    The worst part of waking up and doing only the things you have to do and none of the things one loves to do, for me, is the lost days, the blank pages in my notebook. All I’ve been writing are notes to you, wherever you are, and the last one since you left: even if you were a ghost now, I’d come running to you in the dark trying to hug your lonely soul.

    Cyrena Lee is a proud Barnard College graduate and likes to write and think about how to live, technology, social commentary, and how to bring letter-writing back. She is fond of hot pot, traveling, lucid dreaming, reading, and learning new languages. Climbing is mostly jumping, as she has a negative-three ape index. You can read more of her work at www.cyrena-lee.com.

    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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  • Review: Mammut Smart Alpine and Petzl GRIGRI + (belay devices)

    Jun 23 • Gear • 333 Views

    With more and more options for a safer belay, The Zine got its hands on two of the most innovative devices, The Mammut Smart Alpine and the Petzl GRIGRI + (Plus). Let’s start with the Smart.

    Mammut Smart Alpine 

    Retail: $49.95

    I first noticed this belay device hanging off the harness of a friend who runs a local climbing shop. The first thing that struck me was how big and clunky it looked. I wouldn’t have given in a second thought if it was some random climber, but this guy gets to see all the gear that comes on the market, and he chose the Smart as his preferred belay device. So, I knew it was worth a closer look.

    The first thing he mentioned was the lock off feature for both belaying and rappelling. This was similar to the Edelrid Mega Jul , a device I like, but didn’t feel was all that smooth for rappelling. Once I borrowed a Smart and felt how useful and smooth it was on rappels I immediately bought one. After all rappelling can be the most dangerous part of any given climbing day.

    The rappelling option is my favorite feature of the Smart. It locks off as a prussik would and basically eliminates the need for one. I find the Smart to be the safest rappel device I’ve ever used, and is not as jerky as similar devices that will lock off in rappel mode.

    Friends have referred to the Smart as an “alpine GRIGRI”. Though it certainly doesn’t feed rope out as smooth as a GRIGRI that’s not a bad and simplified way to refer to it.

    The device does automatically lock off when weighted for lead and top rope belaying. Though this model is rated for ropes that are 8.7 to 10.5mm, I’ve found it to be jerky when the rope is 9.8mm or thicker, especially if its a well used rope. For top ropes it works great, just as well as a GRIGRI.

    Lastly, the Smart is also a great device for belaying followers on a multi-pitch climb. It works similarly to a Black Diamond ATC Guide or a Petzl Reverso—one beaner clips into the anchor and another beaner clips into the rope.

    All in all, the Smart is a game changer—and if I had to only pick one device on the market to use for all the types of climbing it would be this one.

    Mammut Smart Alpine on backcountry.com 

    Petzl GRI GRI +

    Retail: $149.95

    I always carry two belay devices to the crag: some version of what we refer to as the ATC (obviously from the above review it’s currently The Smart) and a GRIGRI. So naturally, I wanted to check out the “new” GRIGRI+.

    I found the GRIGRI+ to be smoother than the GRIGRI 2, especially when feeding out rope in the lead mode. (The Plus has two modes: lead and top rope, which can be changed using a switch on the back of the device.) The lead mode was designed to feed rope out quicker to a leader.

    There’s a noticeable improvement by adding a steel plate to where the rope runs over the device when lowering a climber. Anyone who has an older model of the GRIGRI can surely notice wear in that area.

    The anti-panic feature in the Plus is the major difference in the Plus versus the GRIGRI 2. If the user pulls too hard on the handle, the anti-panic function brakes and stops the descent. I think this will be especially helpful for those new to using GRIGRIs.

    Another improvement worth noting is the Plus can handle ropes from 8.5 to 11mm, the widest range yet of any GRIGRI. It is also worth noting the Plus is slightly heavier than the GRIGRI 2.

    All in all, these subtle improvements have created another refined GRIGRI, building on what was already a unique and irreplaceable device.

    GRIGRI Plus on Backcountry.com 

    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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  • The Hand Jam by Brendan Leonard

    Jun 23 • Locations • 517 Views

    Do you know what a perfect hand jam feels like? Do you remember the first time you really nailed one, as well as your first kiss, or your first time getting to second base? You should. Because it’s that important.

    by Brendan Leonard, of Semi-Rad.com . This piece was originally published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 7. 

    In the days of yore, I’m sure it was no big deal. But for some of us later-generation climbers who learned to crimp before we learned to chimney (if we learned to chimney at all), the hand jam might not be so instinctive. You get desperate for a hold, you paw around looking for something, anything, to curl your tips around—not a crack. Holy shit, those things are useless.

    But maybe someday you start getting interested in traditional climbing. You like the problem solving of fiddling with gear, or maybe you just like carrying a bunch of widgets up a climb. Maybe you like multi-pitch routes, which in the United States, are mostly trad climbs. Maybe you’re like me and don’t like to train, or fall, and realize how much easy terrain you can access if you just learn how to build a proper trad anchor.

    However you get there, at some point, you’ll have to learn to hand jam. For me, it was a years-long process. I would avoid the jam, trying to gaston past the move—which everyone knows is exhausting, insecure, and stupid, but seems like a good idea when you’re terrified of jamming. I would try to find trad-protected face climbs to do instead of splitter cracks.

    Gradually, I wore down. I found some fingerlocks somewhere, maybe Kim at Vedauwoo. I sank my first fist jam somewhere. I even found an elbow jam. I tried out hand jams on easy terrain, never quite trusting them 100 percent, but trying them just the same, like riding my bike with the training wheels on for weeks before I got up the nerve to try it out without them.

    Then one day, I was leading the fourth pitch of Kor’s Flake, where it gets steep, and I was hyperventilating a little bit at the thought of pulling through the next few moves to the next rest, and all that air under my ass made the fall feel even more scary. I realized the pump clock was ticking a bit, and I only had a couple seconds to get through the steep section. I lunged at the crack, throwing my hand thumb-down at a hand-width spot in the crack. It stuck, and I pulled on that thing with confidence that could only come from adrenaline and knowing I had no other option. It was perfect. It was my first fully-trusted hand jam. Where others had slipped, it locked. It was exactly like everyone said it would be, bomber.

    Here is where I could make any number of lewd comparisons to a young man’s first sexual experience but will not, instead implying that my first real hand jam was a more high-quality outcome.

    Since then, I have seen the light. The handcrack is a place of refuge, a safety net when I realize I am getting pumped hanging on small handholds. If I see one on a route, I will find a way to make it work. I do not care if it is the beta or not. I have hand-jammed on sport climbing routes in Switzerland, which the guy next to me said was bad style. I did not care because I have no style in the first place, and I love hand jams even in Europe, because they remind me of home. For a second, I’m in Lumpy Ridge or Boulder Canyon, I will find the hand crack in your climbing gym and leave my skin and blood all over it. Then I will immediately go to the restroom and wash my hands because I’m worried about picking up some sort of disease from it.

    The hand jam is a beautiful thing, as you may already know. If you do not, please let me be the next person to recommend it to you. It will open your mind and your climbing. If you live in America, you will notice that many of our rocks have cracks in them. If you want to climb those rocks, you’ll find a hand jam will be very useful. Think of it like a taste for fine wine: There are crimps and jugs everywhere, but in order to appreciate the perfect handcrack, you must have an attuned taste. Try one today.

    Brendan Leonard is a writer and climber based in Denver, Colorado. More of his work can be found at www.Semi-Rad.com.

    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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  • Flirting with The Nose In A Day in The Valley of Stone

    Jun 22 • Locations • 5247 Views

    “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”


    I grew up in the traditions of western science and puritan pragmatism. Success is earned through work, luck is the sum of preparation, a penny saved is a penny earned. Claims that the universe provides if we ask, attributing benevolence to the cosmos, the nebulous idea of oneness, all this neatly fell under the new-age label. Experiences in my journey as a climber are forcing me to challenge that paradigm.

    by Drew Thayer, Senior Contributor

    (spoiler alert this is an excerpt from Volume 5, The Dirtbag Issue, now out of print, but still available on Kindle.)

    Waking up in Camp 4 in Yosemite the morning after climbing and descending Half Dome, I pulled on slippers and a puffy jacket, staggered to my bear box, and huddled in a lawn chair nursing a mug of coffee and a bowl of oats. Still exhausted from the Half Dome mission, I was aware of basic sensations, my chilly hands welcomed the warm mug, my back was a sore slab of meat, my thighs throbbed from my knees to my groin, tenderized by the five thousand feet of vertical ascent and descent the previous day. I stared blankly at a squirrel sniffing at the lid of my food box that I’d failed to properly shut.

    The sonic soup of Camp 4 bubbled all around: the hiss of propane burners, the clink of aluminum, garbled voices in English, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, German, the drone of motorcycles, dumpsters slamming, and garbage trucks backing up. In the middle of it I soaked and took stock. I had accomplished a few goals. I was tired and I didn’t have any partners or any real plans. The prospect of another week in Camp 4 spent hovering like a raven around campsites and the message board scavenging for partners didn’t seem very enticing. Maybe it was time to move on; after all, I had food, wheels, and some cash still. I could pack up today and leave for the solace of the road.

    But in my gut I knew I wasn’t quite done. There were things I came here to do, goals built upon four years of dreaming.

    In the midst of these thoughts my compadre Jim wandered over with a cup of coffee, wondering how Half Dome went. Before I could respond, we were joined by a European looking man, who I vaguely recognized. He greeted us in familiarity, but I could not recall his name or where we’d even met him. As conversation unfolded I started connecting the dots, a brief exchange in the parking lot, talking beta on Half Dome and The Nose on El Capitan. Standard fare. A question shattered my thought bubble, thickly accented, vaguely German, “And you, what are your goals?”

    “The Nose in a day or Astroman,” I heard myself say.

    Anton (ah! that was his name) introduced himself. His partner had just returned to Sweden, and he had another week or so in the Valley. Anton was entertaining the same goals that I was. Soon we had topos out, discussing beta and tactics. “Have you short-fixed before? Me neither. A Dolt Tower run would be a good idea, to see how we work together.”

    Unfortunately the sky promised rain the next day and regardless I was too sore to walk further than the bathroom. We agreed to rest and maybe do a little free climbing together tomorrow, weather permitting. A clever idea flashed in my mind. I asked Anton if he had climbed The Moratorium? It’s a fun 3-pitch crack climb, not committing. I had a score to settle with that route and had been trying in vain to rustle up a partner for two weeks.

    The Moratorium

    The next day, despite tender legs and a sporadic drizzle, Anton and I climbed The Moratorium. I felt solid, psyched to finally send the crux, until I got to the glassy corner and found the key fingerlocks seeping wet. I understand some people can crank through it in this state but I’m not that strong.

    Getting on the rock with Anton was promising. He is a strong crack climber, and we grooved well together. A taste of hard free climbing excited something within both of us too. Hiking down in the drizzle we agreed that after much time monkeying around on big walls what we really wanted was some good pure free climbing, so we tucked The Nose onto the back shelf and began to focus on preparing for Astroman.

    I still harbored doubt that I could climb Astroman, but I committed to taking the preliminary steps. My friend Chris Barlow, who regularly sends 5.13, warned me, “Before you even think of climbing Astroman, you need to crush the Rostrum. I mean top out and want more.”

    Returning to the Rostrum would be a logical step; besides, it was unfinished business. Anton had also climbed it once and fallen several times, so we quickly agreed to rest a day and return for a redpoint attempt.

    The Rostrum, North Face

    It was one of those days that remind me what a whimsical gift it is to be a living breathing human being in this wild world of cliffs and trees and sky. Once off the ground we hit a rhythm and flowed through the route’s demanding features: the delicate second pitch step-over, the sustained corners and the powerful finger crack crux. Soon I was racking up beneath the off-width that had shut me down so hard several weeks before, and neither of us had fallen yet. I knew if I could send this pitch we’d have it in the bag; in the midst of the wide gash I was firing hard to stay in, and I simply refused to fall. Perhaps it helped that Rob Pizem, a prolific desert crackman, and author of many inspiring routes, just happened to be in the party ahead of us and cheered me on from above as I cranked heel-toes and arm-bars up the off-width.

    Reaching the anchor, only two steep pitches remained. Anton, following, also sent the off-width pitch, earning him massive bragging rights over his Swedish cohort at Camp 4. I blasted up into last headwall pitch riding a cresting wave of confidence. I wish everyone on earth could share that experience. Cranking up overhanging fingerlocks and hand jams with eight hundred feet of air whistling beneath my legs, the cliffs saturated in the crimson glow of the setting sun. There was no question of falling. I was a creature that moved upward.

    As dusk fell Anton led the final off-width and I followed him to the summit, where we high-fived after a quality ascent and were surprised to find that we weren’t spent at all, in fact, we were jonesing for more. Basking in the elation of our team send, I remembered Chris’ words and a shiver trickled up my spine; we were ready for Astroman. I gazed at the darkening horizon, mountains fading into obscurity beyond, unknown.


    The Harding Slot

    I tend toward the analytical approach in my climbing, but while analysis is productive during rest and preparation, it becomes an obstacle during the flow of movement. Preparing for Astroman, I accepted two things: that I had the physical ability to climb it flawlessly, and that if I let my mind drift into its usual pitfalls, hesitation, focusing on fear and seeking comfort, I would fall. I knew that regardless of the confidence of preparation and the doubt of intimidation, once on the rock I had to let go of both fear and expectations and let my body flow. We decided to break the climb into blocks favoring our respective strengths. As the Western crack climber, I would lead the Enduro Corner, the Harding Slot, and the fist crack high on the route. Anton, representing European face climbing prowess, would lead the Changing Corners and the final infamous runout pitch. Thus, prepared, there was nothing to do but begin.

    Looking back across innumerable days past, the day Anton and I climbed Astroman stands out like a single shaft of sunlight in a forest. From the moment we left the ground we moved upwards with purpose and belief. The climb unfolded before us, offering exquisite cracks around every turn. The climbing was consistently hard, but manageable and intriguing, right at the cusp of the comfort zone. I thrive in this mental space of calm focus, but I’d heard enough harrowing accounts of this climb to expect it to last; in the Harding Slot, I took the plunge past comfort into the realm of real fear.

    The famous Harding Slot.

    The Harding Slot is guarded by a relentless lieback crack capped by an overhanging flare which offers few holds and little purchase beyond the slick walls themselves. After whipping out of this fearsome feature and dangling breathless on the rope, on my second shot I managed to jam, flail, and desperately thrutch my torso into the flare, where I squirmed up the narrowing squeeze chimney until I got stuck.

    I couldn’t gain an inch of ground, despite exhausting myself in the effort. I couldn’t even turn my head, but in my peripheral vision I could just make out the rope dangling freely from my harness toward my last gear, dozens of feet below. I knew enough to recognize that I couldn’t retreat, there was no other option, I had to free climb out of this thing.

    I hit a point of hopelessness. It was so damn hard. I was straining every muscle and couldn’t gain an inch, or I’d gain one and slide back down toward the light below and a fall that I could not hope to sustain un-injured. I felt like I was at the brink of despair. I moaned in desperation, I bellowed in rage, the Slot didn’t care. Its iron indifference to my anguish was terrifying. The cold granite, slick with my condensing breath, felt like a tomb. My pulse throbbed in futility against the walls and my raw shoulders stung and after so much useless thrutching, I finally accepted that I could not do this on my own.

    Stuck in the Slot, I rested and surrendered my ego, my will to conquer. I surrendered to the crack. “You win. I am weak. Compared to my flailing life the stone is eternal. I am a small blink in its memory, but I burn with the heat of blood and breath.”

    On his solitary ramblings, John Muir recognized that as grand as they are, the mighty stones here yield to an even more constant force, the river Merced, the river of mercy. Sweating and breathing in the dark cage of the Slot, I asked for mercy from the spirit of the place, “I am weak. May I pass?”

    Through my narrow view of the sunlit world I watched two ravens drift past on some invisible thermal, imperturbable. I surrendered to the spirit of the valley and started moving upward in half-inch bursts. Where before I could not move with all my effort, I could now make progress. Somehow I recognized that it was not my strength I was using. Obviously it took energy, the conversion of glycogen to ATP in coordinated contractions of muscle fibers in my legs and back and arms and chest, but it was not my strength. The movement flowed through me, from the valley to the sky, like a wave that I was suddenly shown how to ride.

    I repeated my request as a mantra, “valley of mercy, have mercy on me,” when I stopped moving to rest I spoke this and kept moving. In half-inch increments, whispering this prayer, I gained two inches, then six inches, a foot, two feet, until the Slot widened and I could get a chicken-wing, move my limbs, and surge upward into sunshine. I’d relaxed my iron grip on ego and let something bigger move through me. I became a vessel. I was allowed passage.

    Somewhere in those eleven hundred feet of steep cracks I encountered each dimension of my raw self: stamina, fear, joy, love, rage, despair, and hope. At the end of the day, Anton styled the final pitch, boldly pushing through the runouts, and we stood on the summit of Washington Column watching the sun set over El Capitan. We free climbed Astroman. Content, we watched the light fade over the valley, savoring the last sips of our water before beginning the descent.

    The Nose in a Day (NIAD)

    The next morning I rolled out of my tent, stretched, and felt the leaden soreness of my back and limbs. I surveyed the daily Camp 4 hustle and let loose a thick, contented yawn; I was done. I had now accomplished everything I came here to do. I ambled over to the Swedish camp with a mug of coffee and joined Anton in cooking up a royal breakfast, entertaining the Swedes with harrowing tales of Astroman and basking in the revelry of our ascent. I began to think of moving on. I had only four days left before visiting my family on the coast. I was sore and depleted from a week of hard climbing, and felt generally content about my Valley season. I half-heartedly organized my food box, tinkered with sorting gear, but something was nagging at my brain, preventing me from packing up.

    I have never been successful at fooling myself. Passing a Big Walls guidebook lying on the picnic table I knew what was still missing: that elusive gem, The Nose in a day. When John Long, Billy Westbay, and Jim Bridwell first accomplished this goal in 1975, it rivaled the greatest climbing achievements of all time. Since then a NIAD ascent has become such a benchmark of big wall competence and stamina that it has become a well-recognized acronym (as if climbers needed to become more cultish and nerdy). The first dozen or so NIAD ascents were done by only the world’s elite crack climbers, but as gear, tactics, and general skill base has improved over the past 37 years, hundreds of recreational rock climbers have managed the feat.

    Still, I did not seriously consider myself ranked amongst the NIAD class of climbers. It’s just so damn big! Staring up at El Cap from the meadow and thinking about ascending that vertical ocean of granite in just one day seemed ludicrous. After all, it had taken Jim and me three days to climb it before. Granted, we were hauling, we were both free climbing, yada yada, yada, despite all the things that made our ascent slow, I still couldn’t visualize climbing all that terrain in one day. The goal of NIAD hung just over the horizon of possibility, like a peak beyond the next ridge, something to admire, to daydream about, and make small preparations for a serious effort next year.

    Once the seed of a wild objective takes root in the malleable tissues of my brain, nestled amongst Spanish verbs, constellations, trig equations, the location of my car keys, the minor pentatonic scale, mineral classifications, daily reminders to floss, it nudges for attention like the rest of its neighbors.

    NIAD is big, but not in a realm completely beyond my experience. In the Black Canyon of the Gunnison I’d pulled off a handful of Grade V free climbs in the realm of two thousand feet, all within 12 hours or so. Those were big days, tiring for sure, but not unmanageable. For NIAD we would use speed tactics too, methods I had yet to learn, but I could put in some time learning to short fix, maybe make a few training runs up sections of the route, and build towards a one day ascent next season.

    I resumed packing, contemplating a long-term training plan to gain the skills and stamina for a future NIAD, when my phone rang with Jim on the other line.

    “Brother, you wanna go for Nose in a day?” he said.

    I froze. Seriously, what was going on here? I gave him some noncommittal reply about resting a few days and strategizing.

    “Naw, we gotta do it tomorrow,” Jim said convincingly. “I’ve gotta get to the Bay Area by Friday. Just rest real hard today, you’ll be fine. You down?”

    I stared at the phone. I was sore and exhausted from the most arduous rock climb of my life the day before, not to mention four other strenuous climbs in the past week. My body needed rest, a couple days of lying in meadows and eating and full nights of sleep. I’d never short-fixed, just examined diagrams. I’d rope-soloed only once for a few bumbling hours. I didn’t even know if I could physically do that much climbing. This was ludicrous.

    I have always held great respect for rock climbing’s pioneers. Today rock climbing is a mainstream sport. It can be completely safe. With Supertopo guidebooks, beta sprayed all over the internet, cams of all shapes and dimensions, cell phones, satellite communication, bolted anchors, etcetera, a party of intermediate climbers can control all the variables in a rock climb except for their own performance, effectively reducing the level of adventure to background noise. With prior knowledge, plentiful modern gizmos, communication, and escape plans, we can box an entire two thousand foot cliff conveniently into the comfort zone, scaling it in security before sunset and returning to the order of daily life. We’ve learned how to turn adventure into a workout, and while it fits well into a calendar, there’s something essential missing.

    The NOse

    The climbing pioneers are set apart because they were willing to launch upward into chaos. They engaged in adventure, really coming face-to-face with fear of the unknown. The first generation of Yosemite Valley free climbers were teenagers and college dropouts, who were willing to risk injury and sometimes death to test the radical new idea that a human body could free climb these granite cracks. Layton Kor, Ed Webster, Earl Wiggins, Jimmy Dunn and crew spearheaded the era of “a rope, a rack, and a shirt on your back” in the Black Canyon, rewriting the rules that said you needed fixed ropes, ascenders, and several days to climb those formidable walls. These climbers all had their epics and close scrapes, but they had the courage to push forward into the unknown, again and again, just to see what’s up there.

    The phone was still sitting in my hand, “Drew, you there?” Jim asked.

    Would the pioneers have waited until their preparation, training, and strategy guaranteed success so completely that they had nothing to be afraid of? There had to be something to be said for just stepping out in faith. After all, human beings didn’t make it out of Africa because we followed the example of other apes at a safe distance.

    “Aw hell, let’s go for it.”

    “Nice, I knew you’d be good for it. Let’s meet this afternoon and talk strategy. Eat your bananas.”

    I brewed another mug of coffee and sat heavily in my chair.

    Our strategy was simple. We’d lead the same blocks we did before in order to be familiar with the terrain. We pared down the rack to essentials and gathered a handful of bars and gel packets, while debating the virtues of four versus five liters of water; neither would be enough but we couldn’t carry more. We scrutinized Hans Florine’s Speed Climbing! book, discussing where we could use each other as counterweights through the pendulums, a strategy that looked good on paper but we’d never practiced. After a brief discussion we decided to take just one rope; a second rope would allow us to bail from any point on the route, but we both knew we climbed better when committed. Would Jimmy Dunn bring a second rope? Hell no. That night our gear sat ready next to the tent, alarms were set for 3:00 in the morning, and I tried in vain to sleep. I haven’t been kept up at night before a rock climb since my days of cutting my teeth on multi-pitches in Colorado. The hulking mass of El Cap loomed over me in the stuffy tent, oppressing my thoughts. What the hell was I trying to do? Who was I to attempt such a massive goal? The image of us dangling from our single rope on the upper ramparts of The Nose at night, dehydrated, depleted, and helpless, plagued my mind until the alarm went off at three o’clock and it was time to shut up and pull on the man-pants.

    There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of scrambling up to the base of a rock climb in the close silence of night, not knowing what the day will bring, but beginning it with a full head of steam anyway. The rhythm of short fixing and rope soloing is very enjoyable; we remained in constant motion for hours at a time. Somewhere about midday, as I climbed familiar terrain towards the base of the Great Roof, it dawned on me: we can do this.

    Thayer leading on The Nose. Photo: Tom Evans

    Thayer leading on The Nose. Photo: Tom Evans

    A Russian team let us pass them on the Great Roof pitch and I hauled up Jim’s gear on my ladders, tied off the rope at the belay, then launched into free climbing up the Pancake Flake, intent on keeping momentum despite the full heat of the day. My second lead block continued through the Changing Corners; we had 4 strenuous pitches to go but my energy was wilting under the intensity of the sun. At a gear exchange I pulled up our backpack to snag a goo packet and a few gulps of much-needed water and continued up. After scrapping up a handcrack on what felt like my last reserve energy, I mantled onto the Camp 6 ledge dry, panting, and totally worked. I fixed the rope for Jim and was relieved to be forced to wait a few minutes for Sam and Will, the other party doing NIAD that day, to climb the Changing Corners. At four in the afternoon, huddled in a scrap of shade on Camp 6, is the most exhausted I have ever been on a rock climb. I had only one more lead in my block. You can always do one more. Jim jugged up onto the ledge, handed me a goo packet and started racking me up. Despite an overwhelming desire to lie down, once my fingers and toes were on the rock, my reptilian brain took command and I was leading again, flowing up the rock like this is all I knew how to do; I was a skeleton and a nervous system that ascended, I had no other identity, no past or future. After a sun-dazed blur of motion I clipped the anchors, fixed the rope for Jim, and collapsed in my harness.

    Jim jugged up to the anchor and unleashed the energy he’d been saving for the last 11 pitches, firing up the strenuous 5.10+ lieback despite his fatigue and sending it clean. I relaxed into belaying and jugging mode as Jim took us up the remaining pitches through a glorious sunset and into the night. Jugging the final free-hanging pitch felt like the hardest thing in the world, but I pulled onto horizontal ground and stumbled up to the tree atop El Capitan in a tangle of rope at nine thirty, high fived Jim, Will, and Sam, and indulged in the amazing luxury of sitting down.

    Thayer selfie

    Despite little familiarity with speed techniques, fatigue from a week’s worth of climbing, and several major rope-cluster incidents, we climbed The Nose in 16:45, roughly what Long, Westbay, and Bridwell accomplished 37 years ago. We had done what I thought was impossible merely days before. After sharing the last Clif Bar, we shouldered the ropes and gear and began a three hour descent down slabs, thickets, and fixed ropes towards the cache of water, pretzels, yogurt, and malt liquor we’d deposited on the valley floor, on the other side of a long, long day.

    Drew Thayer blogs at Carrots and Peanut Butter. He is a Senior Contributor to The Climbing Zine.

    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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  • Where to Find The Climbing Zine – Independent Outlets

    Jun 20 • Dirtbagging • 242 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)

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

    Mammoth Mountaineering Supply (Mammoth Lakes)


    Climb On Squamish (Squamish)


    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)

    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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