I started climbing in Durango, Colorado, a small and isolated burg on the edge of the desert and the mountains, pushing up against the mesa farmlands that run along scarce western rivers. All climbing called to me: Mini routes in the alpine above Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray scared the hell out of me with choss, but saw me smilin’ at the sunrise with a few hundred feet of couloir below.
(note: this piece is an excerpt from Volume 8, The Old School Issue)
I bouldered and made tiny solos at X-Rock and the Boxcar, trad climbed at East A, assayed frustrating fumbleproblems out at Turtle Lake, and made early forays into Sailing Hawks, back in the private-property days when it was said to be patrolled by a feller on horseback packin’ a six-gun.
Sailing Hawks is this rather large, densely treed area that sits on the edge of town and features a few hundred problems and an unknown number of routes, all of which are accessible via trolley from your favorite coffeehouse downtown and a short hike through the Ponderosa pines and a maze of highly featured Dakota and Navajo blocks. Today, it’s known as Dalla Mountain Park and is woven with hiking and biking trails and featured in a guidebook that highlights a number of problems in this nifty and very accessible area. But back in those formative wild west days (1993-200whatever), the bouldering community consisted of about four super-hard alpinists and maybe four dedicated pebble wrestlers. The vast spread of stone that scattered the valleys and mountains was fruited with low-hanging plums, ripe and sour-sweet. To find a new line just took a short walk and a good cleaning.
Back then, bouldering was a sideline for me. That era still kind of held a perception that bouldering was good training, but not all that good for much more, other than an excuse to have a beer in the sun. Maybe it might help you climb 5.13, if you were dedicated. The crew who showed me the ropes of no ropes was an interesting collective, with some esoteric views on grading. I just wanted to know what translated to 5.12 back then, but for grades, I got a rundown that went something like, “Well, okay…That’s a good warm-up. That’s a good harder one. That one is really hard. And that one hasn’t been done.”
It really shaped my outlook. Years passed by, and as I made my way through icy pitches with water running up my sleeves and plodded through never-ending desert splitters, always with a mind on some frozen spire in Yonderstan, I began to realize I’d rather be back where I started—I’d rather be bouldering.
From the moment I grasped climbing, I saw lines. I’ll never forget this day: We’d clambered up atop the Big East boulder at Turtle Lake in our half-dead skate shoes to smoke some grass. I guess I was sixteen. I’d always enjoyed the little flat summit, a white square patch floating in the scrub oak blanket that spread up bright in the blue sunlight of high, hot summer. Pale towers poke out of the hillsides that hem in the eastern edge of the valley, and cliffs hang higher on the skyline in tiers, hawks, breezes, and all. After floating atop this wide, cool-green swell for a half hour or so, we descended below the surface of the canopy and wandered trails through the bouldergarten ’til we reached the roadside block.
A lean fellow, heavily tanned and with long, dark hair, was casually cruising through each problem on the face, fluidly moving up through the sequences, hanging at the lip for, perhaps, twenty seconds, and then reversing the line with an absolutely equal effort. Yes, this movement, this poetry, this dance, this quiet moment of martial combat, looked so easy, but of course it was not, and still isn’t, to this very day. I don’t know that fellow’s name, and I never saw him again as far as I know, but that day, I grasped the concepts of line, movement, and was graced with a glimpse of mastery.
As I climbed through the established lines over a handful of years, I came across a group of holds with maybe a whisper of old chalk, or the hint of a brush’s pass up a run of tiny nubbins. In the early days, I could hardly pull on any of these wee edges and pebbles. Who could have done this? Could it be done?
That’s when I began to hear the unwoven snippets that fabricated the legend of Duran.
He was everywhere. Everywhere you found a hard line, John did it. Years ago. No pad. Solo. John did everything. John rides his bike to Shiprock and teaches kids on the rez and rides back to Durango in the evening to boulder alone by headlamp. Then he does it again the next day. Somebody found a group of blocks waaay up the hill from the blocs at the Hawks…“It looks like maybe a hold or two had been cleaned at some point,” was printed, witnessed proof that Duran had been there, done that, and in better style than you. It got to where we’d be in the most random faraway land of bushwack and find a pretty line, and we’d say John probably did it. And we’d believe it. It went on for years and weighted our experience in such a fashion as to prohibit the naming and grading of problems, leaving a deep-woods mess for anyone who wanted to tour the classics of the Durango area.
Who the hell was this guy?
Duran was the first Hidden Dragon I’d come across, and having been formed as a climber while practicing in such an isolated spot for so many years, his legend had a real affect on me. I suppose he was my first bouldering hero, in a way that made me consider what it was that made up a hero to me. Low key was the way back in the day, as half the time you thought you were trespassing. Duran was the pinnacle of low key. Back then, climbing V10 FAs would get you in a magazine. This guy was tossing off high-and-hard V9s (or Vwhatevers) across all the woods and hills I knew of and many I did not.
It was fifteen years of climbing before I met John, and personally, it felt like a clip from an Akira Kurosawa film, shot at Turtle Lake. We climbed together a bit, without introduction, and after a pleasant warm-up and very little chitchat, he introduced himself as John. “I thought so,” I said. “I’ve heard of you. I’m Chris.”
“I have heard of you,” the ninja said. I think a tumbleweed rolled by.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but I certainly lucked out. John is one of the nicest people I’ve met, with a reservedness and presence that’s rare in the world. We talked local history, problems, and projects. We touched very lightly on round ideas, hinting at a Taoist sort of philosophy, and fled at the instant hint of common ground, so as not to pollute ideas with words, or perhaps to not waste words with a discussion that ultimately doesn’t matter. We’ve since climbed together a little, not nearly enough, and I’m still inspired by his drive and dedication. It’s a treat to take a walk with someone and share new lines. It was impressive and enjoyable to watch John repeat my own lines with a fluid style that favored deadpoints and lockoffs but with core and laser footwork. It was most incredible to take him to lines I thought I’d FA’d and have him tell me I was right, he never climbed that, but hey, it’s really good!
These days, John is teaching first graders at an international bilingual school. He’s still climbing and still developing but in the faraway north of China. Great epic buttermilk-looking granite eggs and towers and domes are thrown about the countryside of his new home near Beijing, and little short notes share his new sport routes and boulders. It looks to be a land of endless lines and a whole new crop of folks to share with.
A legend, when finely woven, produces a saint and an inspiration: a yogi, a master who makes a positive impact on the community, who inspires someone in some way.
It turns out, everywhere you go has their hometown heroes. Low-key legends, folks who tow the line, clean the new, carry the local flag.
They send the old school test pieces, at least out of respect, and they do it at home and abroad. You run into ’em at places like Hueco, or Bishop, or South Africa, sometimes Switzerland or Font. You run into ’em doing their thing, which is nothing short of practicing their art. And as it is with the gifted, we benefit from their practice too. I’ve been lucky to come into contact with several of these adherents over the years. Each has a style of their own, but all are linked by the absolute excellence of what they do.
One of these heroes lives up and away between the mountains and the sea, under a dark evergreen canopy that cools the blocs and brightens the eyes for searching out the tiny nothings on clean stone. He’s mostly quiet, but animated with close friends. Well read and intelligent, he’s good for a conversation well beyond beta. He’s shopped at thrift stores for over twenty years, reusing, mending, passing on, wearing out. He drives Toyotas lovingly into the ground, crisscrossing the country. He got up one season and crossed the globe to ride a train and climb through India. He has camped and bouldered across Europe and beyond, always at the upper end of the scale. His FAs at home run from classic V0s to unrepeated V14s. There are many. He has literally run up through the numbers, in sequence, of most areas in North America.
He has shrugged off sponsorship for years. You can’t even give the guy a pad: no strings, no pics or video, which he tends to shy away from—just have a pad, man!
Instead, he works construction of sorts, and lives mostly in his car. Just goes along, pays his way, sees and climbs the world. We are so much the richer for his dedication to the life he has led.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some folks just passing through, en route to something other, something that for them has weight or meaning, and their volition is unsatisfied by the little riddles of climbing.
I got to watch one grow up fast, from soft little roadside V8s to his first V13s.
Personable but sometimes socially awkward, he was the type of nutty professor who would say with excitement “Hey! I did the thing the other day…what’s it called…they say it’s V13 or so…in the park…heel hook, tiny crimp up high…”
“Uh, you maybe mean Nothing But Sunshine?” (An iconic V13 at Rocky Mountain National Park. Everyone knows this.)
“Yeah! That’s the one!”
He was an overachiever. Hell, he probably still is an overachiever. “What are you gonna do when you grow up?” we’d tease. He’d just started school at CU-Boulder and made much of his dwindling time by filling the spaces between classes with gym sessions.
“Hmmmm,” he’d start, in a flat tone. “Save the world. I was gonna be an astronaut, but I’ve moved on from that I guess…I think…”
And move on he did. He went to every university you’ve heard of, from Princeton to MIT to Cambridge. He did a stint in one of those massive colliders in Switzerland that makes antimatter. He is a Pretty Huge Deal.
I don’t know if he’s still climbing, but before he left the Front Range, he’d climbed V14 and 5.14. He jumped on his bicycle one night and rode up to RMNP, hiked up the trail a couple more miles, and repeated a V13 test piece around dawn, turning around to hike and bike it back home for school. History is a great wheel.
For others, climbing and developing, exploring, brushing and crushing, it’s just a way of life they were born for. Some places have a culture that has been infused, decanted, and barrel aged with climbing: Chamonix, Sheffield, Fontainebleau, Elbsandsteingebirge, Grindelwald. The doers that live and climb in these great meccas walk hard by rote, and do it after an electrical install, helicopter-assisted sustainable logging operation, or fitting a new off-the-grid home into the five-hundred-year-old shell of a gutted granite-block rústico.
You can catch them sometimes, coming down the trail as you’re going up, just before brunch time. They are weathered and craggy with piercing eyes that could fell an eagle in flight, that could turn back the light of the sun, because they sent the line you wish you could project this morning, topping out sans whoop just as you did your morning Instagram whilst pooping. They worked a forty-hour week, too. Gotta earn in the off-season, between Patagonia or Baffin Island or western China or Fjordenburg or just a chill trip to Reunion.
On the old version of the excellent website bleau.info one could read, almost biannually, a report such as this in the news feed:
Monsieur Seaunseaux, a schoolteacher from (near Paris), has revealed a new area he has discovered some months ago. The beautiful zone, in the forest down the track from St. Eaux de Deuxdadé, has sixty-four problems to 7b and three circuits: white, blue, and yellow. And, according to Monsieur Seaunseaux, is ready to be enjoyed.
Full time schoolteachers opening, not a problem or two, but whole areas with circuits and little trails, in a spot where folks have already been climbing and exploring for a hundred years!
And it’s not just the secret army of developers of “moderate” areas. There is a random scattering of totally off-the-radar crushers who FA long-standing 8B bloc projects in thirty minutes. Or they repeat the newest new and, when pressed, give a quiet personal downgrade of some of the forest’s hardest problems. They sail the classic 8As and 8A+s like a glassy sea. You don’t know them from print or video, and the handful I’ve met don’t have much to say. They just like climbing.
For them, climbing is just part of life: a Way, a Thing You Do. They have their jobs and lives, but they do like generations before have in the home of bouldering: they climb. A kind Rasta roomie once shared this wisdom with me, “You have your Job, but then you have your Works.”
Sometimes we go out because we have to and sometimes because it’s too good not to. Sometimes the legends are not because of people and their desires, or weighty places and their histories, but because of a spirit. Some days it’s the moment, the feel. The wind is right, the shade and the cool dry. You feel the freedom from schedules, or needs, or wants. Sometimes we’re made the instrument of that dancing wind, and we’re carried up aloft to ride a whole day’s worth of perfection, measured out in terms of a force somewhat like gravity, maybe it’s relative, or old friend. What can you do for that other than to be thankful, to feel lucky?
How many blocs have been passed by or dug out from wild weeds, mosses, and done for the doing, knowing it’s in passing, knowing it’s for today, and the moment? How many lines were done for the day, for your best friends, for your empty, hollow self, for some Red-Tailed Bubbahawk wheeling across the sky, speaking down to you alone in some high, empty valley?
How many days of a certain kind of clean pleasure, finding and climbing, and just walking away, leaving it unnamed, ungraded, like a hidden garden up well beyond where folks will ever tread, but if they do, what luck for to be them on that day!
It was the magic.
It was the time.
And someday, it will be legend.
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.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine, and author of American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed.
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.Read More