• The Joy Pendulum, Swinging High and Low in Yosemite Valley by Lauren DeLaunay

    Apr 19 • Locations • 3432 Views

    As I listened to my boyfriend make his tenth phone call of the hour, I absentmindedly stirred vegetables and reflected on the events of the past month. Fuck this season, I overheard from the kitchen. Together, we had been stunned by a hero’s suicide and his partner’s avalanche burial, witnessed my mentor’s paralyzing accident, and now, this evening, we were learning of his close friend’s sudden death in Yosemite.

    by Lauren DeLaunay (banner photo of the author on Skull Queen, Washington Column, Yosemite. Photo: Pato Berra) 

    This piece is published on Volume 12 of The Climbing Zine, available in print and on Kindle. 

    Just a few weeks earlier, I had been the one making the impossibly difficult calls from The Valley. I choked back tears and left messages in between whirs of the helicopter while I sat nearby, waiting for information on Quinn’s condition. Three days earlier, I had been up there with her, laughing and joking and pulling all the same speed-climbing shenanigans. But before I knew it, there I was, mouth agape as my hero was plucked off the wall, telling our friends and colleagues back in Estes Park that I did not know for sure if she was going to be okay.

    I met Quinn a few years ago and immediately was in awe of her wide-reaching skillset. Park ranger, alpine first ascensionist, and speed-climbing aficionado. I tried to emulate her cool confidence and playful demeanor. So when she called last spring and asked me to meet her in the desert for a week of hard crack climbing and big wall lessons, I felt like I had been called up to the big leagues; nonetheless, I stopped what I was doing and drove to Arizona. Flash forward six months, and we’re two-thirds of the way up El Capitan, with Josie on lead, using Chapstick to moisten our dried-up lips. We’d been out of water for three hours and were giggling at our situation. There’s no way we could have known then what we’d know by the end of the week: that Quinn would never use her legs again. Devastating doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    Quinn Brett doing one of her infamous handstands on Fitz Roy, Patagonia. Photo: Quinn Brett Collection

    A month goes by, and Yosemite gets hit again. Niels had fallen and was gone, just like that. I hadn’t known him, but the calls my boyfriend made that evening were hauntingly similar to ones I had recently made. How do you break that kind of news? It had been a brutal month for our community, and we had all started to feel the jitters every time the phone rang unexpectedly. I hate rock climbing, I heard cried through the phone. I made a plate for myself, despite my lack of appetite, and coaxed my boyfriend to eat in between messages.

    Call me back right away. It’s important.

    I started rock climbing in 2011 after seeing Alex Honnold on the cover of National Geographic. I had grown up a long way from the mountains and had never even been camping, but I knew in an instant that I wanted to stand there, on the edge of space, thousands of feet above the ground. Before I knew how to belay, I had a goal: I would climb The Nose within five years. My sights were set on the greatest route in the world, but I started small, at my college’s indoor wall. Before long, I was making the five-hour journey every weekend to the New River Gorge, and I was as hooked on the physical challenge as much as I was drawn in by the people. I can vividly recall sitting around a campfire with new friends, telling competing tales of epics large and small. I couldn’t believe that this community of people—people just like me—existed, and within two years, I had moved into my car, bouncing from one seasonal job to another. Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Utah, I didn’t stop running until I landed in the home of that original dream, the ultimate climber’s playground: Yosemite Valley.

    Years later, I realize that I’ve met nearly all my closest friends through climbing, and it’s no wonder that a mutual obsession with the Big Stone brought my boyfriend and I together as well. As I bailed off El Capitan and wandered over to the meadow, he was explaining the logistics of big wall climbing to visiting tourists. This place had been as formidable to us as individuals as it was to our budding relationship. We spent the rest of the season riding our bikes around The Valley and sauntering up our favorite routes; I knew he was a keeper when he hiked pizza up to the bottom of the East Ledges descent after my first one-day push on The Captain. By the end of the season, we would see each other at some of life’s lowest points.

    Sometimes it seems as if everyone I know has made a life out of this shared addiction to adventure, jumping from one sunny spot to another; as one expedition ends, the planning for another begins. It’s nearly compulsory, our constant plotting and scheming and dreaming of bigger missions to come. We’re wondering how we can move faster next time before we even untie. I had never before questioned my life’s direction, but in light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “whys” of climbing, relating to anyone who has experienced the highs of alpinism, the exhausting satisfaction of big wall climbing, and even the smaller daily joys of a simple life spent in the outdoors. I knew that climbers could get hurt and had known friends of friends who had been stolen by the mountains, but this season, it really hit close to home.

    Of course, we all go to the mountains for the pleasure and fulfillment that we find nowhere else. We have tasted heaven on summits. We know no closeness akin to sharing a sunrise with a loved one, no stillness more illuminating of our true selves than the mirror of an alpine lake. We have found nirvana in the redwoods and know that Shangri-la is a hidden waterfall or a bright-blue glacier.

    And yet, as with everything, the pendulum swings both ways. By opening ourselves up to the beauty and joy of a life in the mountains, we must also accept the staggering blows. The mountains that give us so much do not hesitate to take everything away in a heartbeat, leaving us shocked, boggled, and gasping for air. We have widened our spectrum of emotions and, in doing so, accidentally allowed ourselves to feel the lowest of lows. Climbing El Cap in a day with Quinn was such a crowning high, I was left wondering if I had pulled my pendulum too far, leaving it no choice but to come barreling down just as forcefully in the other direction.

    In the days, weeks, maybe months, following these accidents, I swore never to return. As my sorrow peaked in its swing, acutely aware of my mortality, I refused to ever again risk so much. I looked out my window with resentment and drove past El Cap without glancing up. There were days when I was ambivalent and days when I was downright angry. I hung up my ropes, my skis, my boots, vowing never to go back to the places that took everything. Not only did I hate climbing but I hated being a climber.

    I hated that the moment the heartache began to dissipate, my dreams started to creep back in. Like it or not, I will always long to feel the last light of the day set on my cheeks, the weightless perfection of freshly fallen snow and sun-kissed rock. I will lie awake at night, reliving the memories of getting to climb El Cap with my longtime hero and friend, only days before her life-changing accident. I will remember taking the lead for the middle block of our push, moving slowly, making finicky aid placements one after another. Just as I had started to get into my rhythm, crawling farther and farther away from my partners, I heard snort-filled laughter erupt from below. I looked down to see Quinn in a perfect handstand on a ledge that would send most people into a panic just to sit on. Despite occasionally wishing I could be happy with a life farther from the edges, I fall asleep every night remembering what it is like to look down at The Valley floor from three thousand feet, great friends by my side, just as I had once hoped I would.

    Over time, I learned that we cannot have that highest of highs without the unimaginable lows, that yin begets yang, and that, whether I realized it at the time or not, I asked for this. I created this life, with all its beauty and all its sorrow. There’s nothing heroic about climbing. But I do think there’s something special about refusing to give up on the dreams that keep you up at night. I choose to believe that there is something important about putting yourself out there to live the life you were born to lead.

    As my boyfriend and I head out for Thanksgiving with our families, and the mountains fade in our rearview mirror, a hawk swoops overhead, circles our car, and continues its silent parade. We are hushed in admiration, and then he whispers to me—or, more likely, to himself—Isn’t it cool that Niels is a bird now?

    And that is how I know. I know that I will live out my life, however long or short, in the mountains, dancing with the birds, because it is the only way I know how. I know that I will endure as many pendulum swings as my life will allow, appreciating the highs and the lows and the slow-moving spots in the middle. And I know that just as the hawk doesn’t pause to question the necessity of its flight, from this point forward, neither will I.

    Since graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lauren has been on the accidentally never-ending road trip. She’s equally at home in the high peaks of the Rockies as she is in Utah’s red desert but knows that nothing is better than a granite hand crack and therefore currently calls Yosemite home. When not putting her International Relations degree to use in The New York Times Crossword puzzle, she can be found climbing, skiing, trail running, or binge listening to NPR in her 1997 GMC Safari named Bozarth.

    The author would love for you to consider donating to Quinn’s You Caring page.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

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  • One Year Sub. and One Year For A Friend

    Apr 18 • Dirtbagging • 52 Views

    The 1 year for you, 1 year for a friend is back.

    For $29.99 you can get two subscriptions: one for yourself and one for that buddy who just saved your ass on that recent epic.

    Here’s the beta, and thanks for doing the #1 thing to support The Zine: subscribing to it!

    https://squareup.com/store/the-climbing-zine/item/one-year-subscription-plus-one-subscription-for-for-a-friend

     

    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 five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

     

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  • The Enormocast: A Review

    Apr 17 • Locations • 137 Views

    Note: this piece was originally written for The Gulch, a fine, free magazine out of Durango, Colorado. 

    Enormocast: climbing’s favorite podcast

    Reviewed by: Luke Mehall

    There I was—in a rundown motel in Salt Lake City sitting across from Chris Kalous cracking my second beer of the afternoon. The lighting was dark, but the conversation was light, even uplifting; I was about to start my interview on The Enormocast.

    At the time The Enormocast was an increasingly popular climbing podcast, but not yet the phenomenon it is today. Just as we started talking I mentioned that I wrote poetry, and as I said that I cringed out of embarrassment.

    Like any good interviewer Kalous picked up on that and started asking questions, eventually digging up the fact that I used to write “too soon poetry” to the women I was courting, which basically never worked. He went on to tease me about it throughout the episode, and he also joked that he hoped my (then new) magazine, The Climbing Zine, would never be more popular than his podcast.

    The author and Kalous on a Ferris Wheel. Photo: Shaun Matusewicz

    Kalous was right, he won the popularity contest. The Enormocast went from being an obscure show where the number of beers drank on air matched the listeners, to, dare I say, the most popular form of climbing media out there.

    As a host Kalous has this endearing quality that he is your friend, and you are just eavesdropping on an engaging conversation. The format for the show slightly resembles that of WTF with Marc Maron (with way less commercials). In fact even Kalous’s commercials are worth listening to, as he adds a personal and humorous touch to them.

    Even though The Enormocast has become wildly successful, a listen to the early episodes shows that Kalous was not out to start something that appealed to a mass audience, he simply started the podcast with a deep dedication to the craft and a love for climbing and his fellow climbers. One of my favorite early episodes (number 26) was with Kevin Landolt, an ambitious young climber, who was being treated for leukemia. The episode was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Shortly after Landolt passed away, and most of the climbing world found out from Kalous, as he informed us on a later episode, in tears.

    The Enormocast has brought more humanity to climbing, and climbing stories. It also brings a new level of excitement that no book, magazine, or movie can do. Kalous’s conversations with climbing legends like Alex Honnold, Peter Croft, Tommy Caldwell, and Lynn Hill are amongst his best work. While their exploits are well known, something about the raw nature of the show, brings freshness to their experiences.

    Kalous also seeks out guests that are willing to discuss the more modern issues and challenges in the climbing world. His recent discussion with Shelma Jun, who runs the Women’s Climbing Festival, was one particular gem, and so was his discussion with Madaleine Sorkin, an openly homosexual professional climber. I hope in the future Kalous will have more people of color on the show, as the guests have been mostly white, and climbing is growing in its diversity by the day.

    Like any climbing experience, The Enormocast has had its lows as well. Usually, and dare I say, almost always, it is because the guest is less than engaging. Typically these are folks who mainly focus on the mechanics of climbing. From time to time Kalous will repeat a story of his (often his big wall solo climbs) but for some reason that only makes him more endearing.

    There have been nearly a hundred episodes since I was interviewed in that dank, dark motel. In our interview Kalous discussed the underground climbing media and who were the key players. Like I said he joked about how he hoped my magazine would fail miserably. It didn’t, and quite frankly neither did his podcast. He can confidently claim his throne as the king of underground climbing media. One visit to iTunes and a few downloads shows exactly why.

    Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine and author of American Climber. He was a guest on episode 42 of The Enormocast.

    Check out The Gulch online. 

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

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  • The Desert and The Dog by Luke Mehall

    Apr 17 • Locations • 160 Views

    This is the most beautiful place on Earth, but of course, like Cactus Ed Abbey said, every person carries in their heart an image of the ideal place, the right place. This is just the right place for me. But, right now, something is not right, and it’s pitch black anyways, no beauty to be seen.

    Chad and I have been rolling his little Honda box car all across these desert roads for hours now, searching for his missing dog, yelling, “Sheila…Sheila…Shelia,” only to hear the wind replying.

    Chad is a war hero; he lost part of his leg in service to our country in Iraq. He’s a climber with one full leg, a below-the-knee amputee. Later on he climbed El Capitan, and Mount Everest. This was before all of that.

    by Luke Mehall 

     (banner photo of Sheila by Chad Jukes)

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    Then, and now, Chad was just another climbing buddy to me. Most of the time, no disrespect, he seems incredibly normal. This moment, in the dark of the night, was normal, to us. Just a couple of guys, in the Middle of Nowhere, Utah, looking for a lost dog.

    Sheila may not have even made a full meal for a mountain lion. Surely, too small to be asked to join the pack of coyotes we hear but rarely see.

    I’m not even sure when the last time a mountain lion rolled through these parts. I’ve lived amongst the mountain lions for years, but I’ve never seen one. I can only suspect they are out there. The only things more mysterious than mountain lions are the spirits, the original inhabitants of this land, back when you could grow corn here. Come to think of it though, the spirits seem closer than the lions—why else would we be drawn here over and over again? Why else would something so meaningless as inching up maroon-sandstone walls become so meaningful?

    I crack another beer. The silence is deafening. “Sheila,” Chad screams, “Sheila…”

    He’s hard to read, but he’s worried. He probably feels guilty. He clearly loves this little dog. Earlier in the day, we climbed the South Six-Shooter, a desert tower that is the easiest and most popular in Indian Creek. A nub from certain angles and apparently a gun from others. Everything is about the perspective and angle here. Compared to most other desert towers, the South Six-Shooter is unimpressive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Sheila got lost somewhere between the approach and the descent, and we assumed she’d be waiting for us back at the car, like any smart dog would. Or, maybe us smart climbers should have done a better job keeping an eye on her?

    We gave everyone a ride back to camp and then returned to search. Camp was a good five country miles away, so by the time our search started, it was pitch black. The moon dictates the light at night here in the desert, where cell phones don’t work, and the campfire is the television.

    Lukewarm beers on dirt country roads have long been a favorite pastime. Sure, it may be technically illegal, but there will never be funding to police all the dirt country roads, so I think enjoying this pastime of beer and dirt is an American right. Dirt don’t hurt. Benign civil disobedience. This beer wasn’t so enjoyable. I was worried about Sheila and how the coyotes might treat her. Surely they don’t realize we are trying to live in a just, respectful country here—they are coyotes, and they don’t give a fuck about America!

    Thus, in our cars, we were trying to see out into the hidden desert world, and that world can never be seen from a metal box. This was all we thought we could do at the time, drive around and yell from a car. So American of us.

    Chad wasn’t telling war stories, or any stories really. I’ve heard his main ones. He’s a good storyteller, long and drawn out, like Grandpa. A slow draw. He’s a Jack Mormon, I guess; don’t let me label him. I just know he grew up Mormon, but he seems to live by his own rules now and interacts with the heathens, like us climbers.

    Chad is one of those people I knew I’d be friends with right away when I met him. Perhaps it’s because we both like the desert and beer, but I think it goes much deeper. He just has an openness to him, that you could have a meaningful conversation on every topic from deserts to mountains, from politics to pirates. And from climbing with him, I know he has this spirit of invention and improvisation; sure, the guy is missing part of his leg, but he’d rather figure out a solution to the task at hand than complain about it.

    I’ve heard the story about how he lost his leg a dozen times by now around the campfire. When forced with the prospect of amputation, he decided to go for it, that he’d rather use a prosthetic than have a useless limb. The decision seemed to pay off for him. He had a climbing leg, a running leg—shit, the guy even had a party leg: a wooden peg leg. One of his legs, I forget which version, even had a flask built into it.

    Chad was clearly affected by this, and by war. He drank away his sorrows, but shit, many climbers drank, as much or more than him, who never went away to war, so who knows. He seemed to have a small tick, barely recognizable. With long hair and a beard, he looked more like an attendee of Woodstock than a veteran of a foreign war. In a culture where weed is more prevalent than tobacco, a cigarette often dangled from his lips.

    All I remember was silence in the car and a hope that grew more distant by the minute that we would find Sheila. The crack of another Schlitz breaks the silence as we turn around and head back to camp. Fuck, man, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that dog again, I think.

    The road back out of there can be glorious at times, something about rubber on red dirt that’s just magical. But Chad’s car barely had the right clearance, scraping the underbelly of that little Honda box more than once. Just don’t hit the oil pan, I think. It would be messy and a long walk back to camp. But we arrived back, back to the Super Bowl, back to the crew, as they read the news of disappointment on our faces: Sheila was still missing.

    The next day, Chad went back out searching for Sheila while we searched for cracks to climb. His terrain to search was vast and desolate, a setting of surreal colors, plants, and rocks. If you’ve never been to this desert, Mars might be a good comparison, because no other place on Earth really compares to the Colorado Plateau.

    Chad Jukes rappelling off the South Six Shooter on a better day. Photo: Braden Gunem

    I didn’t go with Chad that day, but I know what he saw. Towering behind the South Six-Shooter is the North Six-Shooter, which was really packing heat, standing taller and prouder than its Mini-Me, a three-hundred-and-change-foot-tall pillar, the most singular and impressive of all the sandstone formations in Indian Creek.

    That’s the obvious formation, the one that will make the magazine cover or the Instapost on Monday. The subtle beauty is harder to see, and it doesn’t really care if you see it or not. It’s just surviving in the desert, like everything else.

    I’m no scientist—I’m just a fucking poet—but it seems like, from what I hear, the life depends on the cryptobiotic soil, that chunky black layer that lives on the surface and provides nutrients. “Don’t bust the crust” is what they say, and so we avoid stepping on that black gold at all costs. The cows, which usually outnumber the humans out in these parts, again, like the coyotes, don’t give a fuck about America, and they bust the crust all day long. That karma is on you, cows. But, we eat the cows, so I guess all crust busted by cows is crust busted by man as well.

    If I could be transported to any time period to see how people lived off the land, I’d like to see this landscape, a thousand or so years ago, as the Ancestral Puebloans saw it. When they could hunt big game, grow corn, and had access to clean water. When they created the rock art, the pictographs and petroglyphs that we still marvel at today. What lives did they lead, and how often did they smile? Were they free, and how did they talk? Were they as enraptured with this landscape as much as I am, or was it simply home? Just a place to survive?

    I don’t have that luxury, but I guess my imagination suffices. And, I think this engagement of imagination is one reason this land is preserved as it is. Well, maybe other land. Up until recently, this was just wasteland, Bureau of Land Management land or Bureau of Livestock and Mining as they say. Some say the national parks and monuments were “America’s best idea.” I don’t know what that means for this land of leftovers, with few protections or regulations.

    The ranchers and the miners were here before us. Miners searching for that uranium, to make a buck, so we could blow up the Japanese in World War II. I don’t know how much they found in Indian Creek; from what I know, there ain’t much as far as valuable minerals or oil. Just a wasteland of sandstone, cactuses, and wind. The ranchers seem to have had a better go of it, and long before any modern climber stepped foot on Wingate, they had set down their roots and made this a home.

    I’m trying to get an imaginary whiff of sage and juniper here to reminisce a little more. Trying to see the cactus flowers in bloom, when I know, as I’m writing this, they are not currently in bloom. Hearing the piercing screech of a falcon, protecting territory or their young, flying faster than any bird on the planet, damn near two hundred miles an hour. Stepping in cow shit, god dammit. Better than crypto. Don’t bust the crust, man. Not a bad mantra. It’s not how you leave your mark in this desert anymore; it’s how you don’t leave your mark.

    But I’m not one of these leave no tracers either—that’s bullshit, and all those folks drive their SUVs to the hiking trail anyways, leaving the carbon footprint that’s oh so hard to see. Our trace is inevitable; to err is human. We are a doomed human race right about now. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    For some reason it all feels right out there. The cell phone is turned off. Red dirt, red rock, and blue sky—a simple formula, to feel simple again. The mind isn’t racing with thoughts of presidential decisions, deadlines, or to-dos. The to-do is simple, and it is to be.

    Still, I doubt Chad was mesmerized by much of this, that day. I bet he just wanted Sheila to come back. To see that little pup come running, scared and excited, into his arms. But mile after mile, inch after inch of searching, led to nothing. Chad returned to camp that night again, with only a look on his face revealing the results of his searching.

    Sunday had arrived, and it was time to go back home, to leave our treasured sanctuary and return to the grind. Chad wasn’t giving up on his search for Sheila, but the longer Sheila was gone, the longer we knew that the odds weren’t in her favor. We heard the howling of coyotes at night, and we felt the late-November chill in our bones.

    The desert had delivered its promise I’d stored in the recesses of my mind though; I left feeling tired and depressed, and now five days later I left renewed. I’d played in the dirt, used my muscles, slept in a tent, and I felt like a new man. As we drove out of there, I would have been on cloud nine, but I thought of that poor little dog, surely dead, meeting an early demise because it got caught up in the world of climbers.

    The drive back to Gunny lasted into the night, turning from a pleasant cap to the weekend into deer dodging. Monday morning would come too soon. This was the truth. At least I would be sore and satisfied while I sat at my desk, I think.

    I showered, ate some pasta, and went to bed. Around midnight, my buzzing phone awoke me. It was a text. It was Chad. Just as he was getting ready to call the search off and head home that night, he’d walked back to his car. And what did he see? Sheila had crawled in—three days and two nights on the loose but now safe and sound. That, my friends, is the magic of The Desert.

    Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine and the author of American Climber. This piece is an excerpt from his upcoming book, The Desert, due out this year (or next year). He is enduring the Trump presidency by spending way too much time in Indian Creek, while also trying to be more active politically and socially on issues that are important to him. He recently quit his night job, so he hopes you subscribe to the Zine. 

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

     

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  • Going Out To Come Home by Stacy Bare

    Apr 9 • Locations • 522 Views

    The night was cold, and where the moon and stars shone around patches of clouds, they were incredibly bright. There was no ambient light out here. I was standing on a half-finished patio attached to a half-finished house in an otherwise empty summer-herding village. It was early March, months before the village would be occupied. I felt freezing rain instead of snowflakes on my face. It wasn’t cold enough. I was pissed off because earlier that day, out scouting terrain for possible lines to ski in the mountains near the village, I found myself, and the small group I had convinced to come out with me, in the worst avalanche conditions I’ve ever experienced.

    by Stacy Bare  (banner photo of Bare and Alex Honnold by Abazar Khayami)

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    As three of us stood on top of a twenty-eight-degree slope, we watched three natural avalanches trigger around us. I poked my way down by riding the top of a small, sloping ridge, and when I got to the bottom, the whole gentle slope collapsed with a whoomp. Conditions would not improve with the freezing rain. This ski expedition was over before I wanted it to be. We should have gotten out here earlier in the year.

    I was, however, having a hard time staying fully angry. A couple days earlier, I achieved a dream that even now, almost twelve months after we skied off the summit of Mount Halgurd, the tallest mountain fully in Iraq, seems improbable that we did it.

    Back on the porch though, I remember reflecting back on the previous few years of my life and could recount only one other time where I had been so upset and so elated at the same time. I’m typically an all-or-nothing sort of guy. Mixed emotions are rarely an issue with me.

    It was day eight of a climbing trip to Angola in 2015. I knew then I was likely at what, from the outside looking in, would be the high point of my climbing career, which had only begun six years earlier, just after my thirty-first birthday. My wife was back in the States, five months pregnant with our daughter. I was on a roadside outcropping of rock that looked as if it had been placed in the middle of the settlement by the villagers themselves. Thick smoke from a twice yearly burning of agricultural fields made the air hazy and had a heavy, unpleasant odor. I was deep into my own head, stuck in self-pity.

    For eight days I had been trying and failing to keep up with the other climbers. My hands and feet would not work together. My hips seemed magnetically repulsed from the wall. I was couched at the base of what should have been a fun, single-pitch traverse on the shadowy side of the rock, head between my knees, dreaming about freshly dried towels and the scent of fabric softener. It was a pathetic sight. What right did I have to call myself a climber?

    Alex, the Alex fucking Honnold, walked up to me and, laughing, waived a giant cam in my face. “I’m going to teach you how to French free, and you’re going to start having fun. This is a climbing trip; don’t bring it down for everyone else.” And with that, he taught me how to move the cam as a temporary, movable hold and got me laughing and smiling as I whipped around the traverse and then safely back to ground.

    Unlike what I felt in Iraq, this situation in Angola was the reverse. I was elated for finally having climbed something and completed a route but couldn’t shake the feeling of anger I had for my real and imagined failures up to this point.

    Back on the porch in the rain in Iraq, the howling of wolves coming onto a kill down the valley from where I stood pulled me out of my memory in Angola and back into the moment. I wanted to howl, turn tail from my friends inside, and join in with the pack of wolves. A pack of wolves, mind you, that had survived years of war between Iraq and Iran as well as dodging thousands of land mines on the border region where they lived.

    I reached out in my mind to touch that tangible wild and then slowly turned back inside to join the laughter, dancing, and hookah with my friends.

    Three days later, on the long flight back home from Iraq after a twenty-four-hour stopover in Istanbul, I felt elated about the ski ascent and descent we had just completed. I was excited to return to Utah where the winter of 2016–17 was one of the deepest in recent memory for snow, and I would be reunited with my wife and daughter. It was good to be a skier living in Utah that year.

    Somewhere in the back of my head though, a question emerged, perhaps brought on by my reflection in Iraq of that one time in Angola—could I still call myself a climber?

    There might for others though, just learning of my story, be a bigger question in the first place: why was I climbing in Angola and skiing in Iraq? A fair question.

    The author and Matthew “Griff” Griffin headed towards basecamp after their successful first ski ascent and descent of Mount Halguard in Iraq. Photo: Max Lowe

    I grew up on the western edge of the Great Plains in eastern South Dakota. My hometown high point was a covered landfill next to a window- and storm door–manufacturing plant. I spent my late teens and nearly all of my twenties doing one of four things: preparing for, participating in, or cleaning up after war, and playing rugby. The army spit me out at age twenty-nine after a year in Iraq. I was hovering around three hundred pounds of beefed-up-warrior archetype, full of anger, arrogance, and an attitude ready to suck the marrow from the bones of life. I didn’t see that last phrase as a metaphor. I took it quite literally.

    Two years later, after a stint in graduate school in Philadelphia, I took a random job in Boulder, Colorado, far from my graduate school friends and even farther from the army. I was suicidal and lost, bushwhacking through life, when a friend took me out rock climbing.

    Without a doubt, climbing saved my life. For years, I’ve reasoned that it was the intense focus climbing required of me that pulled me into the moment of the actual act of climbing. To be successful, I could not be fearful of my own past. I could not feel guilty about the fact that I had a future when others, who I reasoned had far more to live for, came home dead in flag-draped boxes. I had to be focused on the moment to be successful, and that act of living in the moment saved me.

    During those early months climbing, I was shocked at the depth of relationships I entered through the camaraderie of shared ropes and routes. The only other experience that produced similar results was war. The nowness, the immediacy of the task at hand to survive, to take care of your team, becomes all-encompassing and had, for me anyway, no use for other boundaries or labels that perforate our daily life, except for to enhance campfire or approach stories. These narratives, it turned out, didn’t fundamentally differ from those had during military convoys or after patrol.

    I didn’t, for example, care all too much about my climbing partners’ or fellow soldiers’ religion or political viewpoints during the action of combat or of belaying, being belayed, setting up anchors and rappel stations, moving safely up and down a route, or bounding away from mortar fire, or to successfully engage a sniper in a faraway tower, or move through a combined-arms and improvised-explosive-device attack that unknown and barely seen enemy combatants launched on our convoy.

    Instead, because of those actions, in the moments of silence after the action, at Formica tables in the DFAC (dining facility), crouched on rubble and logs, or staring at fires, I was more willing, excited even, to hear out and accept different viewpoints, life experiences, and ideas as valid and necessary for the world, and specifically the world of what was happening right now, to work.

    I summed up my early thoughts on climbing, just months into my own journey up the rope, while sharing a belay spot with a stranger, now a friend, during an ice-climbing event in Ouray. “The world would be a kinder, more understanding place if everyone climbed.”

    That was in the early winter of 2010, and my belay buddy, Luke Mehall, agreed.

    In the springtime of 2010, Nick Watson, another military veteran, and I founded Veterans Expeditions. An organization that existed to capture the positive aspects of being at war through climbing: camaraderie, a shared sense of purpose, a specific known goal, physicality, and oftentimes the training and skills building required to achieve the goal.

    Without the means, know-how, or even realization that I could dirtbag and prioritize climbing fully in my life, I instead focused on sharing climbing with others like me. Shockingly, it became my career.

    As I spent my time trying to find ever-impactful and efficient ways of connecting first veterans and, later, all folks to the transformative power of the outdoors, through a position with the Sierra Club, I began to dream about what it might be like to go back to the places where I had served in some capacity as a tourist seeking adventure versus a soldier at war or a civilian intent on cleaning up the debris left behind.

    What would I find out about the country, its people, and its landscapes? What would I learn about myself if I went back? If I could return as a climber or a skier, could this sort of exchange, even if it was unidirectional at first, help build some sort of improved or more lasting peace?

    In my head, the answer was, and still is, a resounding yes.

    My Great Aunt Mildred, who served in the Pacific Theater during WWII and was stationed for a time in Papua New Guinea during the war and later, lived in post-war Japan for four or five years at the conclusion of the war, returned to both places in her eighties. I was inspired by her thirst for adventure and understanding. More so, I think was inspired by her fearlessness to leave the comfort of her Minnesota farmstead at what seemed like such an advanced age to explore her past and learn how things had changed where she had once been. I was also fortunate to have her visit me twice while I was stationed in Germany from 2000–04.

    But I didn’t want to wait until I got to my eighties. After a few brief conversations with brand sponsors in the winter of 2013–14 about a return visit to Iraq, ISIS launched a full assault on the people of Iraq. I hoped then that at least by the time I was eighty I could return.

    Despite that setback, the dream of returning lingered. More so, the belief that adventure and, ultimately, adventure storytelling could serve a diplomatic purpose stronger than conventional methods of peace building was beginning to grow larger in my mind.

    Why not at least dream of a better world?

    Why not, I kept asking myself, take at least some small step to make that dream a reality?

    ISIS wasn’t everywhere, so I came up with a dynamic criterion for where I should visit in my quest to return. Sadly, there are a lot of places around the globe that have been devastatingly impacted by war in just my lifetime. I decided I would start with those countries where I had been to war, cleaned up after war, or was supposed to go to war. Vietnam, Panama, and Somalia were out. Bosnia, Iraq, Angola, and the former Soviet State of Georgia, specifically the breakaway province of Abkhazia, were in. I also added Afghanistan, because I came down on orders twice to go for the army but never went. I was also told during my time as a civilian Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician—why I lived in Angola and Abkhazia—that I would be sent to Afghanistan. Somewhat ironically, it was because I got called back to the army out of my civilian life doing land mine clearance that I ended up not going to Afghanistan with that company.

    I also added in Russia, specifically Siberia, to make it an even half dozen. Why Siberia? Growing up as a child of the Cold War, I was routinely frightened by the image of bloodthirsty commies coming to snatch me away from my warm basement and throw me in a Solzhenitsynesque work camp in deep, dark Siberia.

    A question that still lingers is what role I should take in spending time on the Sioux Indian Reservations in my home state of South Dakota, a state that saw some of the absolute worst atrocities of the near-genocidal action the US government waged against Native Americans.

    Bosnia presented itself as the most likely option. I began to make plans during the late months of 2014 for a return in the spring of 2015. My plan was simple: go back and split time between climbing with local climbers and learning more about how everyday people responded to the end of the war and genocidal actions that took place in Bosnia throughout the ’90s and the continued hostilities stretching well into the current century. I figured I’d take a few photos and write a few blogs.

    That all changed at a fundraising event I attended for work in January of 2015. Alex Honnold was the evening’s speaker. My work wanted me there because they felt I was the only “real climber” they had to offer up as potential company for Alex. After he was done, we chatted about mutual friends and upcoming projects.

    I mentioned the Bosnia project and my larger vision of going back to all the places where I had fought—and he seized on the Angola trip. There had been a Belgian outdoor filmmaker who had been pestering Alex about making the sojourn to Angola for a couple of years, and Alex asked if I would want to put together an expedition to go climb.

    Strangely, I didn’t immediately say yes—I also wanted to spend some time surfing in Angola, but then I realized that one should always say yes if Alex Honnold wants to go climb with you.

    The trip came together and was relatively quickly sponsored, because of Alex, by The North Face, VICE Sports, and Goal Zero. In September of 2015, we flew back to Angola before I could really think of any larger framework for my personal project I now call Adventure Not War: world peace and understanding can best be attained through adventure travel versus military engagement.

    One would think the invitation to climb with Alex would kick in an intense desire to train hard and elevate one’s own climbing ability. One would be correct in thinking that.

    However, desire and action are not always married. Before I met Alex, my wife, Makenzie, and I bought two tickets for a delayed honeymoon to Norway for July of 2015.

    We planned on spending a lot of that time in the backcountry and maybe even putting up a few pitches in the local alpine. The training for Norway would serve as the training for Angola.

    That spring Makenzie got pregnant. We were overjoyed, but our training suffered. We boarded a plane to Norway at the start of Mak’s fourth month of pregnancy. We had a brilliant time, tromped around Norway’s tremendous alpine hut system for a week, sea kayaked in brilliant-blue fjords, found Makenzie’s ancestral homestead, gorged ourselves on lingonberries and strawberries. It was a tremendously fine honeymoon!

    The author and his wife Mackenzie on their honeymoon in Norway.

    I recommend Norway to anyone, but maybe don’t go a month before an international climbing expedition with one of the best climbers in the world and a couple of his friends unless you plan on, and actually do, go climbing in Norway.

    I remained, however, ignorantly confident for the trip in the same way one feels overconfident for a test at school, only to be wracked by anxiety and why didn’t I? as soon as the paper is placed on the desk and one reads the first problem. As I roped up for the first climb of that trip and stared up, I immediately questioned at some deep, fundamental level if I could even call myself a climber.

    Earlier that spring, as the plans for Angola, a country still plagued by land mines, and our jaunt to Norway were coming together, a country still awash in land mines, I decided I should get a life insurance policy. I had to fill out a long questionnaire about my background and past behavioral choices. Two things I put down on that survey indicated both that I was a climber and that I had sought treatment for alcohol and substance abuse in the last five years. This combination of risky behavior, I was told, would block me from coverage.

    I called to complain.

    Over the phone, an annoyingly polite insurance adjuster told me, “Stop climbing, and stay sober for five more years, and we might be able to offer you a policy.”

    I thought she was joking or hadn’t heard me correctly earlier in our conversation. I tried to slow everything down for her and repeat what I had said a little bit louder:

    “The reason I am sober, the reason I chose to seek treatment…and the reason I have stayed sober…is because I. Am. Rock. Climbing. If I quit climbing…I’ll quit being sober.”

    “Well,” she said cheerily, “that may be true, but you’re too high risk.”

    I should have lied.

    Fast-forward to the day-eight story of the Angolan expedition I told earlier. Despite my good time on the French free, I could not shake the doubt that I did not belong on the trip and that maybe I did not belong in the climbing world at all. In my shaky self-confidence, I felt like the little brother who simply did not belong.

    On the second to last day of the trip, I ended up leading the first pitch on one of the few existing sport routes in Angola in an area called Pedras Negras. Feeling strong at the bolts, I asked if I could continue the lead. This was my chance at redemption. Alex graciously said yes. I immediately went wildly off route. The rock was similar, though not as clean, as the cobbled rock in Maple Canyon, Utah.

    I was lost in a sea of loose cobbles. A fall would not be caught before I shattered my body at the small ledge that housed the first set of chains or if I fell even farther down to catastrophe. Fuck it; I want to meet my daughter, I thought. Much later, I pulled over onto the top of the rock and released a flood of tears that mixed with my own laughter for a truly horrible sound before bringing Alex up to the top.

    As we began our rappel down, a news crew had come out to watch the action. News crews had followed us around most of the time we were in Angola, climbing and high-profile foreign visitors like Alex traveling outside of the capital being a rarity.

    When we were both safely down on the ground, along with Pablo, our cameraman from VICE Sports who was along to film the trip, we pulled the rope. The camera crew started rolling film and asking questions:

    “Why did you climb up there? Were there special herbs or fruit on top you were looking for? Animals? A nice place to sleep?”

    “No,” I responded. “Maybe a decent place to nap, but we didn’t.”

    “Then why climb?” the newsman asked exasperatedly.

    He didn’t let us answer, and along with his sound guy, the cameraman walked off. Recognizing we were all headed in the same direction and at roughly the same pace, we hung out under a shade tree to give them plenty of space and avoid further awkwardness.

    Three days later, after Alex was required to climb a few stories on the façade of a hotel in Angola’s capital, Luanda, in exchange for free rooms, we all landed in La Guardia and headed for the different gates that would take us all the way home. It was a warm good-bye filled with hugs and laughter.

    I got home and dumped my gear in a heap in our extra bedroom and did laundry. It stayed there for a couple of weeks, unused due to an infection from grime or bat shit that had worked its way into one of the many cuts in my right leg, which was dramatically swollen and hid my ankle from view. Thankfully, several hot showers and repeated scrubbing of the wound back in the relative cleanliness of my house, along with a course of antibiotics, brought my leg back to normal in two weeks.

    In late October, I came home from a bitterly disappointing climb in Jackson, Wyoming, where I couldn’t find my way through the second pitch of a 5.11 and lowered off. My gear was banished from the extra bedroom into the corner of our cellar. I stared at it angrily. Clearly it had been my gear, not my lack of preparation or execution that had foiled me in Angola and later in Jackson. Without a backward glance, I walked upstairs to dote on my wife and prepare the home for the arrival of our little girl and ski season.

    My daughter was born. My life changed in all the ways people told me I’d never be able to fully articulate. It was wonderful and joyous and maddening all at the same time. I’ve never had a better winter.

    Our daughter, for me anyway, was a dream baby. I skied when she napped. I’d come home to her just waking up, groggy and wanting to play a bit before she reattached herself to her mother and waved me back into the mountains.

    Then the snow melted, the rivers were running, and I spent a few weeks that summer in big rubber boats bouncing around in the water. I’d look up, see natural lines to climb, and dip into fond memories of clinging to vertical rock and frozen waterfalls before adjusting my oars and floating on.

    When I came home in between river and work trips, I didn’t want to leave my wife and daughter. We went on short hikes. We played in wildflowers, and I watched, awestruck, as bees just bounced off her chubby hands as she grabbed for some tiny bloom. Neither feared the other.

    Despite the magic, 2016 was a brutal year for me personally. So many people I knew died. I lost more people close to me in 2016 than I did during my twelve months in Baghdad in 2006–07.

    In the summer of 2016, with ISIS on the run, the idea that it was time to go back to Iraq returned to the forefront of my mind. My wife encouraged me to go. Now, more than ever, it seemed necessary for me to go back to a place that housed so many of my horrors and, no doubt, horrors Americans visited as part of the collateral damage of war on the Iraqi people. I had to go back to come home.

    I also felt that in so doing, maybe if we made the movie just right, we could show people back in America that the folks living in Iraq weren’t so different from us and just as deserving of our love given our incursion into their country and homes. This began to play out as my country was heading toward the election of a president who didn’t agree with my viewpoint on this or many other topics.

    Thanks to a great many people and brands, I and fellow veterans Robin Brown, who as a company commander and Kiowa helicopter pilot had been shot down over Iraq in 2003 while returning back to base on a mission, and Matthew Griffin, a US Army Ranger and founder of Combat Flip Flops, along with filmmaker Max Lowe, were the first-known team to ski up and down the full length of Mount Halgurd. It was an epic journey. We were joined for the majority of the expedition by Dutch mountaineer and guide Jan Bakker, filmmaker Mack Fisher, and local Kurdish Iraqi guide and aspiring mountaineer Reband Ibrahim, who supported us getting to and from the base of the peak in partnership with Omar Chomani and his generous family.

    It was with this triumph in my mind, trying to balance it out with my disappointment that we could not ski in what I felt like was more challenging and aesthetically beautiful terrain, that I found myself out on the half-finished patio of the half-finished house in an otherwise abandoned village with freezing rain in my face, thinking about Angola before the wolves howled.

    My coming home from Iraq was very different than my coming home from Angola. The ski season in 2016–17 was all time in Utah. Though tired when I returned, there were weeks, months of shredding the gnar and ripping pow that waited for me—and I took full advantage.

    I didn’t make it back down to the cellar until it was time to gear up for rafting season and a four-day trip through the Gates of Lodore on the Green River. Bent over and rummaging around looking for the various components of personal gear needed to pilot a boat, I saw my climbing gear in the deep corner of my cellar. I looked away, ashamed and embarrassed.

    It was like running into an ex you never actually broke up with but just ghosted at a party. I began to stammer out an apology, as I fixed my gaze on my Grigri, before I remembered that nothing on my rack or harness could speak back. I hung my head down in shame, threw my raft gear into a dry bag, and headed up out of the cellar and into the light of my backyard.

    I had a moment of panic wondering if my daughter would one day find my old gear and ask if I knew how to use it. Would I have that fancy life insurance policy by the time she found an old cam or alien? As it is, I’m still on trip-specific insurance.

    It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

    I had stopped climbing, rock climbing anyway, and unlike what I had told the insurance adjuster, I had stayed sober. How did that happen? Could I still call myself a climber? How had climbing, that one thing that swooped into the middle of my life and absolutely exploded it with goodness at the very moment I was thinking of ending it all, be relegated to the dark, musty corner of my cellar?

    For a brief moment, I felt cut adrift from who I was, who I had become after the last time I was cut adrift from who I was, who I had been as a soldier, a uniformed warrior. Climbing was, in my mind, what allowed me to replicate the best parts of war.

    Was it perhaps that though climbing saved my life, skiing now sustained it? After all, the whole Ski Iraq expedition was mind blowing. We left weeks after the president had attempted to implement a poorly thought out, largely racist and Islamophobic immigration ban that directly impacted the country of our travel. The day we flew out to Erbil, the starting point for our destination, Iraqi government forces backed by the US launched what would become the final bitter battle to oust ISIS from Mosul, only fifty-three miles to our west.

    We were met only with generosity and joy, even in refugee camps, some of which had been there since the Iran-Iraq War. We were determined not just to be tourists, so we, through our friends at the nonprofit Tent Education, helped build outdoor classrooms in a refugee camp for people of the Yezidi religion. The people we met were, by and large, as excited about our journey and return as we were, if not more so. So what was it? What was missing, or perhaps what had climbing truly replaced that maybe now was being taken care of by skiing?

    A few weeks after that first river trip, I was supposed to attend a conference in Moab. The conference got canceled, but we headed to southwest Utah anyway. It was a cold, rainy weekend. During one break in the weather, we threw the baby in the backpack and hiked up toward the towers of Castle Valley. As they came fully into view, my daughter began jumping in the pack as she pointed toward the tower and waived her hand in their general direction, excitedly gurgling, “UPUPUPUPUP,” as she smiled around the words.

    It wasn’t climbing. It wasn’t skiing. It wasn’t even replicating the good parts of the war.

    In the midst of the wild red-rock desert spread around us, it was, I realized, when I heard those wolves howl and wanted to join their pack, when I felt so relieved when I recognized that, in spite of the war and the stupidity of man, wildness, wilderness still reigned, at least in part, supreme.

    This is what climbing gave me that first time, not just the power of now but a way to access my inner feral, beastly, goodly self. An opportunity to be, at least for the moment, connected to the wild that climbs or swims or sails or burrows or runs or thunders across a landscape, or lies still in the sunlight or hunched against the cold and rain. No less an opportunity to touch that essence of humanity, for which, when we’re cut off from it, is so damaging and painful.

    Climbing, time outdoors together, does not replicate the positive aspects of war. Instead, I’ve come to know that war, the need to dominate another people, to offer them a choice of death or acceptance of any proposed “one true way” is, instead, a corrupted, vile, and fearful attempt to if not control or cage, to at least touch the beast inside all of us.[1]

    Time outdoors then, climbing for me, and now skiing and rafting, and maybe something else for you, is that which allows us to embrace our beast and approach it with acceptance and love for not just who we are but, more critically, for how we’re meant to be as a species: wild and free, as echoed perhaps in the spawning of salmon and the springtime grunts of the waking bear.

    So am I still a climber?

    I think the answer is yes. I dream about climbing, think about climbing, and I still get out and climb—but am I the climber I want to be? I don’t think that question for me at the moment really matters. I’m the climber I can be, given the other constraints on my time I’ve chosen to undertake. Beyond that, I think we are all, in our own ways, climbers, rafters, skiers, ramblers, outdoorsmen and women because of our essential relationship with nature. What’s more important than being a climber is indeed the relationship we have, we develop with ourselves and the broad world around us. The relationship I’ve come to define as taking care of, perhaps even becoming, my inner beast. Climbing put me on that path, but climbing won’t necessarily keep me, or even propel me farther down that path—I hope it does, but there’s a list of variables a mile long and not being a climber, or not actively climbing, may bring about guilty pangs of consciousness and sweet memories of past climbs. Hopefully though, it won’t push me back into the dark abyss I inhabited before finding my way to a vertical rock wall.

    I’m also not naïve enough to think that time outside never causes problems or can’t send someone into the abyss. That’s a whole other story to write, but there is a lot of pain in our outdoor community, in our circles of climbers that we so far have yet to fully engage in or even discuss.

    Like all of us who’ve been kicking around high places, fast rivers, and big mountains long enough, I’ve buried friends from injuries sustained in the pursuit of outdoor dreams and seen other friends pursue objectives like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the exclusion and detriment of everything else. Dangers do lurk in those faraway hills and in the minds of those who go off to explore, but so do unspeakable delights.

    Unfortunately, too many of our leaders, in this country and around the world, are so afraid of what they could find in their humanity and in nature, or so drunk on the lucre that can be rooted out of it, that rather than expand access to freedom and beauty, they enact policies and procedures that cage us all.

    It is, I think, one of the predecessors of war, the being caged—which in no way lessens the desire to be connected to nature. It instead has the opposite effect but without the knowledge of what nature contact can bring. So the beast is enraged toward war versus adventure, and we build out the false sense of equivalency to all those good things I discussed above that can be found in purity in nature but only in reliance of violence against fellow men and women in war: camaraderie, sense of purpose, and a mission. But to what end?

    When I came up with the idea to ski in Iraq—just as when so many other people first name their object of adventurous desire—I was greeted by many skeptics who called me crazy.

    There were others though who believed I had a chance. The believers didn’t encourage me to run in all willy-nilly but, instead, spoke frankly about the risk and the reward for going back and helped me measure and mitigate objective and subjective risk.

    But even after all that, I realized I was really only following the hunch I had years ago that going back to the places I fought or cleaned up after war or was supposed to go to war as an adventurer versus a soldier would do the world and me some good.

    So I went and I’ll keep going. If I don’t, I’m not sure I’ll ever come all the way back home and, in the process, maybe I’ll help bring us one step closer to peace in a world gone madder than normal.

    Keep climbing.

    [1] Recognizing that there are times where war is necessary to protect and defend those who have been unjustly attacked or harmed, I do believe war can be justified, especially in response to a brutal wrong. Even then though, war corrupts and damages not only the people who serve in it on either side but also those who support the war fighters, and I believe time in wilderness, which can and should be defined by the individual and is not limited only to climbing, skiing, or even requiring a return to the scene of the crime, is fundamental to the healing and rehumanizing process required for many after time at war. Perhaps like a vaccine, some of the virus (war) must also be injected to protect from future catastrophic outbreak.

    In his day job, Stacy is the National Director of Programs for The Phoenix, a national organization using the outdoors and exercise to support sobriety and recovery from addiction and defeat the stigmas surrounding recovery. He dreams of spending 365 consecutive nights out under the stars. He’s an average skier, a mediocre rafter, and an even-worse climber, but he can carry a lot of gear and likes to cook, so you should invite him on your next expedition. He’s at home in Salt Lake City with his wife, daughter, and a giant Hemingway cat. He’s convinced this is the year he climbs Indian Creek.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

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  • Fall on Rock by George Perkins

    Apr 4 • Locations • 678 Views

    I clipped her to the anchor, untied her knot, and pulled the rope through the gear.

    “I need more time.” Jessica whispered so weakly that I had to lean close to hear her.

    “We don’t have more time. We have to get help,” I replied.

    “What happened?”

    “You fell. You broke your arm and leg.”

    I didn’t tell her about her face. I wasn’t going to be able to do much if she had a serious head injury anyway. “We need to get to the hospital. Let’s go.”

    There was blood all over the fucking place. All over her, all over me. Her face was a mess. Blood covered her cheek, and her swollen and black right eye stared emptily back at me. Jessica was quiet and five years younger than me; because of her reserve, I still didn’t really know her all that well. But she and I both liked rock climbing, so we’d gotten along wonderfully over the last couple of years.

    “I need more time. Wait.”

    We were clipped to old bolts on a tiny ledge 130 feet up. Even though we could see Albuquerque to the west, we were four miles from the nearest road.

    “We don’t have more time; we need to get to the hospital. You’re hurt,” I said.

    “What happened?”

    Her shinbone was sticking out the front of her leg, three inches above the ankle. I pivoted her foot so as to align her bone back inside her leg, if only so I wouldn’t see it, and wrapped it tight in her pants with slings. She had pulled off a bowling-ball-sized rock and had fallen sixty feet on the second pitch of Rainbow Dancer, an eleven-pitch 5.11 on the Shield, the biggest cliff in the Sandia Mountains. When she fell, the rope had slipped through the gear in slow motion as though unencumbered by the weight of a person. When she stopped falling, her body hung limp in her harness, and the moan she made was not a noise from the living.

    “Jess! You fell. Your leg and arm are broken. You lost a lot of blood. We need to get you to help.”

    “I need more time. What happened?

    She didn’t get it. There was no more time.

    “I need more time.”

    Her words haunted me. I had PTSD for months. I tried to talk through it with my wife and friends. Their platitudes were hollow. No one could relate, so I became quiet. After a few weeks, they stopped asking. I had flashbacks almost every night. I’d wake panicked, with hallucinations that my one-year-old daughter was falling off a cliff and I’d try to reach out and catch her. Or, I’d yell audibly in my dreams at Jessica, “We have to go!” When I’d wake, the sheets and my body would be soaked in sweat. Drinking helped some, but it made the restlessness worse and bad dreams more lucid. And I couldn’t drink enough to numb my mind, as I had to get up for my daughter. I was often unmotivated and distracted at work and became detached and emotionally distant from my family. It wasn’t just for lack of sleep. In those months, the day-to-day life just seemed so insignificant.

    by George Perkins

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    Sympathetic initially, my wife eventually lost patience. In addition to my problems, our young child was challenging and demanding. There’s little value in sharing the details of a failing marriage…most people have a sense of how hurtful it is when a family disintegrates. We kept trying to make it work because neither of us could face the regret of having given up and then explaining that to our daughter.

    After a particularly painful argument, I called in sick to work on a sunny Wednesday morning in June. I drove back to the Sandia Crest without a partner, looking to feel something, anything, by returning to the mountains that had sent my mind into free fall. Could I stick my hand back in the fire? I hiked away from the empty parking lot and the radio towers, following the faint climbers’ trail under the Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, through the thin white Madera limestone bands, to the grove of aspens, above the eight-hundred-foot wall called Muralla Grande. I rambled down the couloir of scree and thorny bushes to the base of a classic 5.9. Although I’d only occasionally soloed over the years, I was solid at the grade. Heading up a big wall alone without a rope felt unreal at first; however, it soon became comfortable as I found the flow after half a pitch. By the time I entered the crux in this sea of orange granite, I was seeing only the positive edges with their slightly darker varnish, the coarse crystalline texture on the sloping footholds, and the sequences of movement linking them that would lead to the next stance large enough to rest.

    Photo courtesy of George Perkins

    The Sandias have loose blocks, and holds occasionally crumble, so I’d pull a little more lightly and ease onto footholds before committing to standing on them. Had I been roped up, climbing this route again would have sparked memories of my previous climbs on the formation—of my climbing partners and my life situation at those times—or I’d be mesmerized watching the peregrine falcons circling in the updrafts. But on my own, I was too focused and moving too quickly to stop and reflect. I didn’t notice the light wind picking up when I’d reached the exposed headwall, with its perfect cracks splitting the immaculate auburn face. For that hour, it was as if time had stopped, just for me. Stop. Look down for feet. Step up. Another small edge, but I was always in balance, always solid. It wasn’t liberating, nor did it feel unsafe or scary. I had skill, balance, and strength acquired over the last fifteen years. I topped out feeling proud but still partly empty. There was a feeling of recklessness about the whole endeavor. I didn’t want to risk dying; I had a little girl to take care of. In the back of my mind, I knew that any block or flake could have pulled off, just as it had when Jessica fell. Perhaps, in tempting fate that day in the Sandias, I was seeking to understand: “Had Jessica fallen because she grabbed something loose that she should have seen, or was it just something that had happened?” I didn’t find any answer, and by a few body lengths up, I had forgotten all about why I came.

    Open to the idea of more, I contoured southward along the base of the limestone band and slid down the talus to the start of my favorite climb in the Sandias, a 5.10 called Mountain Momma. I put my shoes on but reconsidered. Once you commit to Mountain Momma’s overhanging finger-crack crux on the third pitch, you need to climb without hesitation and throw your left heel up over the lip and mantel. Could I pull through quickly enough that my arms wouldn’t tire? Prudence triumphed, and I descended farther down the valley to the Thumb’s thousand-foot 5.5 ridge and made my way up. The Thumb looks down on half a million people living below in Albuquerque, none of whom have any idea you’re up there. I sat in the sun on top for a few minutes and tagged the summit register (I miss my girls). Until writing this, I told no one what I’d done that day, embarrassed by the selfishness of it and distressed that it left me feeling as lost and empty as before. My highlight memory of that day wasn’t even the climbing. It was seeing a bear in the approach gully on the way down to my first climb. It was fifty feet away, and it’s funny to me now how irrationally nervous I had been about getting mauled. “Go on, bear. You do what you need, and I’m going to do what I need to.” It let me go by. In retrospect, the whole day seems like a dream. Unfortunately, dreams don’t expel inner demons.

    When my daughter was three, our marriage broke. Everyone tires at some point. Maybe, with more time, we’d have worked through our problems, but we didn’t know that parenting would become less demanding as our child got older. At least the divorce went fairly smoothly.

    The next woman came into my life too soon after I’d moved out. I knew better but did it anyway. Excitement over something that felt like love with someone new worked pretty well to hide the scars of trauma and a failed marriage. She was younger than me, and I knew that she’d want me to be someone other than who I was. But that was all right—I wanted to be someone else, someone without emotional damage. I was still somewhat detached and never even tried to talk with her about what I’d seen; she mistook my restless sleep as being from other things. After two years, I hadn’t quite had the time to heal. A second person that loved me had decided they’d be better off without me.

    “I need more time.”

    “Let’s go. We have to get out of here.”

    Jessica was in shock, confused, with a broken arm, broken leg, and who knows how many other injuries. I tried to lower her to the ground, but she got stuck on a ledge and tangled the rope in bushes.

    “Wait! Stop! I need more time.” It was barely loud enough to hear.

    I tied her rope off to the anchor, rapped to her on the trail line, and tethered her to my harness with slings. With the weight of both of us on the thin rope, the rappel device became very hot, burning my hand, and I almost dropped us to the talus. But we were down. Thank god. Off the cliff. Disoriented, she started to walk on her broken leg. I tried to carry her out. I made it fifty feet and set her down on a partly shaded granite boulder, under the lowest of the three large ponderosa trees at the base of the Shield. Albuquerque isn’t as close as it looks; there was no way I could get her out on my own. Half a million people down there, four thousand feet below, and not a single one knew you needed help. Neither of us had our phones. Damn! I wrapped and slung her bleeding arm and further stabilized her leg with sticks tightened over the wound with my long-sleeve shirt. After a few minutes and a sip of water, she had regained some coherence but was still in shock and confused.

    “I’m going to go and get help. I’ll be back really soon.”

    I don’t know if she understood what that meant. And I didn’t know how soon I’d return, but I didn’t know what else to do. I looked back; those next steps were the hardest to take. I was leaving her to die alone on that rock.

    “Dad, try to think of something happy. You seem sad.”

    “I’m happy, Cora.”

    “I think you’re sad about your life.”

    “My life around me is beautiful.”

    My daughter, Cora, had seen my eyes shift away again, and she gave me a hug. But I still believe those words I told her were true. Being single after fourteen years of having a partner had provided time for introspection. My life oscillated between meditative and depressed, but I had become aware of, and comfortable with, this pattern.

    A six-year-old now, Cora would tell me her thoughts and needs but hadn’t learned to hide things from me so as to not hurt me. She always needed my complete attention. All I could see was that bubble around the two of us, and I put little emotional energy into anyone else. It was like being twenty feet above your last piece of gear on hard climbing. Remain calm, because losing focus can start a cycle of irrationally increasing stress that can end in disaster. The state had determined that Cora would spend half her time with me; so, for half of my life, I was a typical divorcée. We’d read together and play imaginary games. I’d teach her to swim and bake cookies and watch her do cartwheels.

    The author on Death Drives a Stick at The Dungeon. Photo: Gary Parker

    Cora and I would often hike to our closest climbing area, the Dungeon, where she’d eat raspberries she’d picked along the trail, splash in the stream, and, screaming with glee, swing on the ropes hanging from the roof sixty feet up the overhanging gray rhyolite. The Dungeon was an oasis among the charred mountains from the forest fire five years ago. Canyon wrens nested in pockets in the cliff, and pink-chested hummingbirds and bright-yellow swallowtail butterflies flittered above the gurgling waters of the tiny stream. Sheltered by its rocks, the Dungeon and the plants and life in its immediate surroundings had remained unchanged.

    The other half of my duality was a routine of climbing with every spare minute. At the Dungeon, I’d warm up on Gangland, a 5.12b I’d climbed hundreds of times. I knew the choreography and subtle body position of every move. Pull up. Cross over to undercling with the right hand, reach high left to the pocket. Place the outside of my right foot flat in the hole, reach high with the right hand, bump again with the right to a side pull, stem, reach high left, to the jug. Start the technical crux, cross over with the left hand, make the tiny high right-hand crimp, bump it to the baseball, hit the tooth with the left, and shake with a drop knee. Then sprint: left hand straight above, match with the right, left, then right again to the three-finger pocket, bear down for the hard clip, make a long reach left to the diagonal edge. Go far with the right hand to the square edge, left hand straight up to the crimp, match on it, and roll over left to the rest. I knew most of the other Dungeon climbs almost as well. Most of the time, success or failure was reflective of how I felt on any given day, whether I was able to summon up the effort to try hard or keep focused at the crux, but sometimes it would still surprise me when I climbed well or poorly. With just the right positioning, I could feel secure on the smallest edges, thinner than I believed I could. After climbing, on the occasional darker days, I’d drink too much in compensation for a lack of direction. On the good days, I’d work out more, motivated to do the 5.13 I was projecting up the middle of the cliff. Climbing three times a week at the same place wasn’t particularly exciting. I just couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time.

    Every now and then, I’d remember when Jessica and I used to climb there together, back before the accident five years ago. Back when we were younger, when climbing was what we cared about more than almost anything else. Gangland had been her hardest lead. In addition to innate talent, Jessica had always been optimistic and pushed herself. If she were here, she’d probably have been showing me how to do the crux on my project. Or she’d have been lying on a rock in the sun…those days seemed like a long time ago.

    Days into weeks into months. I returned to the Dungeon so often that I’d feel the seasons and notice the subtle changes around me. Every new burnt tree that had fallen down or the stream level that tracked with the monsoon rains. The raspberries along the trail would be ripe one week, the purple and yellow asters flowering the next, the aspens turning gold the next. For me, this place had become so much more than just another concrete-colored cliff where I climbed a few routes after work. I knew I’d be going there frequently for years ahead, over which I’d witness the forest regrowing from the ash and the aspens growing taller each year. Yeah, I think I ought to be able to find peace with this.

    The Dungeon eventually became too snowy, and my routine got put on hold until March. That winter break, my work was closed, and Cora was with her mom and new family. Not wanting to stay in my lonely house for the holidays, I was happy to head to Canyonlands with a friend. His old truck slowly carried us around the White Rim, a hundred-mile jeep trail used by prospectors hoping to find uranium six decades ago. Like them, I’d hoped that I too would find something in the stark desert and return whole again. There’s nothing quite as cleansing as the pure effort you have to put into sustained desert cracks, the adventure of carefully testing loose, sandy blocks and old, sketchy fixed gear, and the reward of tiny, seemingly unreachable pinnacle summits high up in the perfect blue desert sky.

    The excitement started on our first climb, Chip Tower, on Christmas Eve. Looking up from the highest rivet on the smooth last pitch, I was surprised to see a shallow, eroded hole—was the last bolt missing? I stood on the hanger, reached high to a half-pad edge, and folded my thumb over my index finger. I slapped the arête with my left hand, smeared, bumped higher up the arête, placed my toe on the edge, and lunged for the lip at the top. We kept a regular cadence—one desert tower every day, for five days in a row—and still forgot which day it was. We’d camp in the frigid temps with twelve hours of darkness mostly spent in sleeping bags in the back of the truck, silently drinking tea and reading. We would wake to the snowcapped La Sals over Monument Basin and the pink Wingate strata, and we would sleep with Orion rising over Taylor Canyon’s towers. Other than the desert bighorns, we were the only souls out there, in the Island in the Sky. But after rappelling down from Moses, I drove for ten hours straight back to the same life and the same psychological scars that were there when I left.

    “Dad—is God real?”

    Oh shit, this wasn’t in the parent manual.

    “Well, Cora, what do you think?”

    “The other kids at school believe in God, but Mom doesn’t.”

    “What do you believe?”

    “I don’t know.” She looked at me intensely, as though I knew a genuine truth. I paused.

    “The other kids probably believe what their parents told them. They might not even be thinking about it. What do you think I believe?”

    “Don’t know, Dad.”

    “I don’t know either, Cora. I can’t answer that for you. But I’ve seen some stuff that’s hard to explain.”

    She listened intently as I let my eyes drift off. The memories of turns of fate and eternity that could have gone otherwise started flowing…when I was eighteen and fell soloing slippery terrain on Little Bear in late-October snow. A microwave-sized block had pulled off, taking me with it. Somehow I caught myself after fifteen feet rather than tumbling down to the tarn below…the avalanche debris I crossed over on my way back from Castle Peak, which hadn’t been there on my way up earlier…being fifteen hundred feet up the formation Isaac in Zion, when the rope dislodged a block that hit my partner. Out of my sight below me, he gave a moan like the one Jessica had made. The rope didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity, then he kept on climbing…on the overhanging right side of the Diamond on Longs, watching the blocks of ice falling behind us from the top, splattering on Broadway and the chimney we’d climbed by headlamp an hour earlier…another time, just after topping out the Diamond with a high school kid, the sky opened up with cracking thunder followed by a deluge of hail. A small overhang provided a minimal amount of shelter from the icy waterfalls around us, and the storm passed before we got too wet and cold. After it cleared, we continued on to the summit, watching the swirling mists…waking up to perfect bluebird skies after an open bivy on the sandy ledge nine hundred feet up Howser Tower in the Bugs, on a climb where I was too young, and my dad was too old, and we were both too slow…seven hundred feet up a wall in Zion, hoping to move half a body length higher, committing my weight onto a marginal small cam in a sandy pin scar, with a series of tiny brass offset nuts wedged in the overhanging seam splitting the perfect pink sandstone below me…

    One memory I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my six-year-old. My partner and I were a few minutes down a popular trail in the Sandias, with nervous excitement to climb a 5.11 with thin gear. Hiking with his daughter, a fellow in his fifties collapsed in front of us. A dozen people helped to do CPR, but he spent his last moments there in the sun. He was fit and hadn’t shown any symptoms for a heart failure or stroke. My partner and I both silently thought about our potentially dangerous route and contemplated the inequity of fate.

    Most of the time fate gives you a pass. The climb is too difficult, or the weather turns bad, so you leave some gear, rap off, and walk back down to your normal life. But every so often, it lets you know that control is illusory. All it takes is one loose rock or a storm moving too quickly. Sometimes the outcome of a day in the mountains isn’t what you’d planned.

    Out of time, I ran downhill from the Shield toward Albuquerque, through the scrub oak and the piñon toward the Sandia Foothills trailhead. I was shirtless and covered in blood. Three miles below, I met two hikers to whom I frantically relayed what had happened and Jessica’s location. They went down to make the phone call, and I headed back up. When I returned, Jessica was awake on the flat granite rock under the ponderosa tree. The bleeding had subsided. Her eyes fixated in the distance; she was hardly talking anymore. Jessica had always been a quiet person as long as I’d known her. She was still breathing but in a transitional state between two worlds. I knew there wasn’t much more I could do to keep her alive. Just hope and wait. I silently watched her condition, wondering what would happen when she stopped breathing. How long could I do CPR knowing it couldn’t change the outcome and undo the injuries that caused her body to shut itself down in the first place? Would it be better to make her last living moments in a beautiful place comfortable and peaceful? Jessica had said she felt cold, but the rock she reclined on was now warm in the full sun. The bees hovered around us. Thinking her blood was nectar, they’d light momentarily on her crimson-colored clothes, then fly off disappointed, only to return seconds later.

    The Black Hawk helicopter and Albuquerque Mountain Rescue arrived a few hours later and lifted Jessica off to a sterile place. As it turned out, the impact had damaged her lungs. This injury—tension pneumothorax—caused each inhalation to force a small amount of air into her chest cavity rather than her lungs. Every breath was just a little bit shallower than the one that preceded it. Had the helicopter arrived much later, she would have used up all her space to breathe.

    On the drive home from the hospital the next morning, I stopped at the gas station at San Felipe Pueblo and picked up a cup of coffee and my first can of Copenhagen in a decade. People there gave no second thought to my bloodstained clothes. My injuries were emotional, and at that time, I had no idea of their severity, how long the scars would last, or how much my life was about to unravel. People would tell me I was a hero, an angel—as if I had saved my friend’s life. At the time, I thought it was just luck.

    Jessica spent weeks in the hospital with tubes in her chest and limbs. She was held together with astonishing amounts of metal and no recollection of the accident. She would fully recover and finish up her degree, travel the world, fall in love, and do so many things other than climb with a singular focus. When her path would lead through New Mexico, we’d catch up with each other and go cragging for a few hours. Other climbers would sometimes ask her about the four-inch-long curving scar on her right arm, just above her elbow. Jessica’s response would simply be, “I fell,” and her eyes would meet mine. It was good to see her healed and moving on with her life.

    It took me over five years to recognize that on that day in the Sandias, Jessica wasn’t talking to me. Her disoriented prayers and questions were meant for other ears, and she’d gotten the time she asked for.

    I still haven’t answered that question from my kindergartener. I don’t know what Jessica saw in that space between life and death or what’s controlled by luck, fate, or some higher power. I’m not sure it matters. When I reflect on my life after my daughter was born, it hasn’t gone how I’d hoped it would. But now, six years later, I remember most the details of individual moments of love and laughter, of fear and excitement, and of those that hurt. I smile as I recall those perfect sequences with my girl, with people who love me, or in the mountains with my friends.

    I’ve changed. I’d like to think my demons are finally gone, and the only remaining scars are the rope burns at the base of my fingers. I’m no longer as hurried; I’m calm and accepting as I tie the rope to myself once again. I know that, after I step off the ground, I will be in that focused and aware mind-set where I can see precisely the crystalline roughness and the small edges of what’s immediately around me. Time will again slow down, just for me.

    George Perkins is a sandbagger living in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with his lovely daughter, Cora, 7. He enjoys cheering for his kid at gymnastics meets and appreciates dogfights at his local crags. Soon after this piece was completed, he finally sent his first 5.13. He asks that those who enjoyed this story kindly donate to the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council to help save someone’s life.

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  • On Fear, Climbing, and Depression by Sonya Pevzner

    Mar 29 • Locations • 1548 Views

    Trigger warning: This article discusses topics of depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety. For some, the content may be triggering. Please use your own judgment, and if you feel that you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

    With my feet planted firmly on the belay ledge halfway up the rocky face of Mount Shuksan, I took what felt like my first full breath since leaving basecamp on the Sulphide Glacier eight hours ago. Around me, the other women adjusted their seats on the precipitous rock, giving me space to squat, my back pressed against the wall behind me. With only one pitch left until we were back on solid ground, I felt a nervous relief—the rappel down had been nerve wracking. I had only climbed outdoors a handful of times, so scaling Shuksan’s 9,131 feet had been a stretch, to say the least. I half grinned. I had been too busy focusing on rough sections of the rock face to pay attention to my adrenaline-charged heartbeat. Climbing scared the shit out of me, which was good. Scared was alive. Scared meant I didn’t want to die. It hadn’t always been this way.

    by Sonya Pevzner (banner art by Rhiannon Williams

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    There was a time, a few years back in upstate New York in my early twenties, when I fantasized about how I might end my life nearly every day. Severe depression had followed me through almost every year of my life, starting with my early teenage years. As a self-preservation mechanism, I convinced myself that when I grew up, my depression would disappear. But it didn’t disappear.

    For some people, a hard childhood can lead to depression, self-hatred, and self-destruction. For others, it’s a traumatic event or a military service that leads to PTSD and trouble slotting back into society. Divorce, death, being cheated on, going bankrupt, surviving civil war—all of these seemed to me like reasons that people fight with depression and suicidal ideation. However, I had not struggled with any of these things; I didn’t even really have any self-destructive habits that make for great Hollywood redemption movies—no alcoholism, no drug habits, no self-harm. I don’t want to idolize or romanticize any of these things. But stories like these have a clear bad guy. It seemed to me that people with real problems had a reason to be depressed.

    I had no such reasons. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to live. Compounding on the isolation of depression, it’s embarrassing to struggle with depression when you’re not sure why you’re struggling.

    When I hit my twenties, the stress of my high-paced restaurant job, combined with uncertainties about the future, triggered an intense anxiety. Coupled with my own insecurities, the reality of mental health struggles that weren’t going away, and deep shame about never being good enough, my depression spiraled out of control. It felt like I wasn’t the right candidate for anything—not even depression. At night, overworked and stressed on my drive home, I entertained long, elaborate dream sequences: smashing my car into trees along a narrow country road; driving off a bridge into icy water, where I’d be trapped inside the car; slipping off a cliffside trail and scraping down the side of a mountain.

    My fascination with violent car accidents started young. When I was an infant, my beloved father was killed in a violent car accident that claimed two lives.

    It was a bright flame, extinguished too early. In his early twenties, my father had been an accomplished mountaineer and respected leader in the mountains. Although I did not grow up climbing in the mountains, I held the love for the mountains as the ultimate form of love for my father.

    Although my family doted on me, my framing of the world from the very beginning was defined as a place where someone was missing. In childhood, I would become agitated when adults drove with what I perceived to be unsafe behavior. As a teenager, driving with friends gave me anxiety. And when my depression became unbearable, the fascination with my father’s life turned into a fascination with his death. I became convinced that I would die young, probably in a car accident, just like he did.

    But this was not that. This was early August 2017 in the North Cascades.

    I had decided to summit Mount Shuksan in October of 2016. As my depression intensified, so did the feeling of finality—if I was going to stop the obsession with cars and death, I would have to find the only other thing that defined my idea of my father: mountains. If I was going to not only survive my depression but thrive, I was going to have to climb mountains.

    There were ten months to prepare. I got a membership to the indoor-rock-climbing gym and started learning. The first few climbs went okay on the way up but left me shaking and breathless with fear at the top, clinging to the final plastic holds for dear life. The next few climbs weren’t much better. The fact that ten-year-olds were happily topping out all around me didn’t help. Turns out that learning to climb in Boulder can really shake up your confidence. I started noticing a pattern—while I was close enough to the ground to survive a fall, I could breathe. But it’s like there was a magic line across the wall, the height after which I perceived a fall to be fatal—that had a paralyzing effect on my climbing. I dreaded the moment when I would cross that line, when I realized that falling from this height without a rope would mean death. I dreaded it because it made me want, in a desperate and visceral way, to not die. And not wanting to die forced me to choose wanting to live. I felt somehow cheated out of my depression.

    It was August of the following summer when I climbed Shuksan, and intense fires in British Columbia had blanketed most of Washington and Oregon in a thick fog of smoke. During the drive north from Seattle into the town of Sedro-Woolley to meet the rest of our team and guides, the landscape resembled pictures I had seen of rural China—hazy, hilly, rolling farmlands. Wildfire smoke hid any signs of the mountains I had heard were there, sticking to everything with grim determination. Once on the mountain, we camped at the base of the Sulphide Glacier, and with visibility at half a mile, we were blind to the world. It felt at once isolating and comforting. When I looked out across the valley, the light reflected and mixed with the smoke particles, giving the air a glow that matched the mood—blush pink and yellow in the morning, oppressively orange and hot at midday, warm red in the evening, ice blue at night. The moon, when we could see it, shone dimly like a lamplight on a damp evening. We couldn’t see the mountains until the third day, when the smoke shifted slightly to shyly reveal a ridge of jagged ten-thousand-foot peaks.

    When I climb a mountain, I don’t want to conquer it—I want to understand that I was given a chance to do something hard and then come home. Depression, for me, has been a lot like that. Leading up to the Mount Shuksan trip, I was really hoping that there would be a moment of epiphany. There was a childlike faith in the restorative power of the mountains and the connection that I would feel to my dad while I climbed. Just like I did when I was a teenager, I was hoping that I would come back cured.

    Naturally, it didn’t happen like that. I forged incredible relationships and spent time with a dear friend. I found out that I could shit in a plastic bag and that freshly melted snow tastes great. I discovered that coffee makes me jittery at eight thousand feet just like it does at five thousand. Some of it was, honestly, boring. Hiking with a fifty-pound pack for the first time was hard. The view at the top was supposed to be amazing, but instead everything was blanketed in smoke. I texted my loved ones to tell them about the successful summit bid. It was still amazing.

    In other words, climbing a mountain was just like the rest of life—some ups, some downs, and you end up having done something. And while it’s tempting to keep drawing analogies and parallels between climbing mountains and struggling with depression, that was really it—there was no aha moment. Just a lot of sweaty hiking uphill in the snow and a lot of ragged breathing while rappelling down from the top.

    The author on Mount Shuksan. Photo: Sonya Pevzner collection

    Truthfully, the North Cascade Mountains scared the shit out of me. Sitting on that ledge on the side of Mount Shuksan, I looked at the smoky monolithic mountains and remembered how closely I had flirted with the idea of death during my depression of the last few years. Someone next to me sighed in gratitude at the view in front of us. Someone else said something about the beauty of the mountains and the grace. I said nothing, remembering the rappel down, the way the empty air had felt behind me, below me, all around me, while I held on to the rope and prayed that the knots would hold. It had been easily fifty feet to the next ledge. Falling would mean meeting the air every inch of the way down. Falling would mean death, real, horrific death—the kind where your body goes splat on the rock and your blood pools and reflects the mountain that just killed you. Or at least that’s how I imagined it. Just like the top of the wall in the rock-climbing gym, the first moment of each rappel gave me a jolt of adrenaline. My life was literally on the line. I really, really didn’t want to fall.

    It occurred to me on that second-to-last ledge that, on the wall, death suddenly felt very personal. In earlier years, it hadn’t. Back then, driving the forty-five lonely minutes home in the dark from work each night, I’d casually imagine the ten different ways I could die. It was clinical, cold. Dissociated. A morbid fascination with dying the same way my father had. I’d imagine the news report the next day: 2007 Subaru, red, found smashed along Route 245. Driver appears to have lost control of the car and careened into a tree. Fatality: one. I didn’t imagine the moment when my car would hit the tree, nor the moments right before when I would lose control, skid into the rail, when everything would go black. Looking back, I realized I’d always considered it from afar, as though someone else were steering my grotesque imagination.

    By contrast, taking the first step on a belay down felt unsettlingly personal. My body, weighting the rope above me. My knots, the ones I had just learned to tie and trust, attaching my harness to the rope. My back, exposed to the cold morning air. That first second of weighting the rope felt like a closer conversation with death than any I’d had while driving. You can’t hide from fear when it’s dragging your body down to the rocks below.

    Back on the ledge, we were all giddy, in that exhausted way that follows a 3:00 a.m. alpine start. In front of us, the glacier rolled off the side of the mountain down to the lake, which was still covered in a sheet of smoke. To our right, Mount Baker presided from 10,781 feet in the air, all rock and snow, and clearly unperturbed by my awkward fumbling with life. I only knew this: I didn’t want to die on this mountain, or that mountain, or any other goddamn mountain.

    Sometimes, the thought that my father would have given up so much to live the rest of his life with me makes me ashamed to be suicidal—but it also keeps me alive. I’m not religious, but I think someone has been keeping me safe in cars for the last twenty-five years. There have been many times that I should have wrecked my car, should have been killed, should have been hurt—and somehow, I’ve never gotten in a car accident, not even a fender bender.

    Sometimes, I think that my father’s greatest gift to me was dying, so he could keep me alive.

    Someone next to me voiced her gratitude for a safe summit and an almost completed descent. I was also grateful and said so. I hadn’t always felt this way. I thought about my father and how he would have been proud of my climb. I had gone into the mountains to chase a connection with my father, but he wasn’t there. Maybe that’s exactly the point—there are no easy answers to tragedies like death and depression.

    I want to tell you that I am cured, that depression no longer plagues my thoughts. But that’s not true. I am going to keep climbing, despite the fear and lack of clear answers. Actually, scratch that—I am going to keep climbing because of the fear. I am going to keep chasing mountains because I’m not sure what else to do. Sometimes, stories don’t have a tidy ending. Sometimes, you go climbing, and then you come home safely. To me, right now, that seems enough.
    Sonya Pevzner is a storyteller based in Colorado. She enjoys strong coffee, dark chocolate, and making grown men cry. You can find more of her writing about mental health, diversity, and the outdoors on www.pevzdispenser.com and in various publications. Come find her—she’ll put the kettle on for tea.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

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  • Icons In Danger and Desert Medicine by Birch Malotky

    Mar 27 • Locations • 1735 Views

    Joshua Tree National Park is a refuge. I don’t know if I’d decided this by then, sitting folded into the crook of Cyclops Rock, but I felt it.

    The stone bench was smooth, from water and wind and hands and feet and seats, narrow enough to let our legs dangle over the edge, leaning back into the rock behind us. It was Valentine’s Day. It was our last night here. It was windless.

    by Birch Malotky (all photos by Madison Brandt)

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    From above, the desert looked still and quiet, but I’m sure that had I pressed my palms against sand still warm from the day, I’d find it pulsing. The spaciousness of the land and depth of the sky couldn’t help but swallow the calligraphic movement of sidewinders, the click of grazing jackrabbits’ teeth, the tiny whumph of a leaping kangaroo rat. Needled desert plants breathed openly under a Milky Way gleaming as if to defy the nearby metropolis.

    Across the way, Hidden Valley Campground was a moving mosaic. Fires burned the base of mythic granite formations; moonlight cooled their tops. Hollow metal frames slept with tires sunk in coarse desert sand, bodies at rest within them. Feet traced the path to the outhouse; hands jammed nighttime solos; faces leaned close into ruddy heat, eyes smiling and tired.

    We studied the long view—bare rock and flatlands, a horizon impaled on the prayerful arms of Joshua trees, dun plains embroidered with the bayonets of smaller yuccas. The landscape bristled, resilient and uncompromising.

    Photo: Madison Brandt

    This kind of landscape is medicine. It is an actualized self, an accommodating openness, a freedom of expression. Here, space swallows and enables the individual, as life vies for its place. Such landscapes can teach strength, provide nourishment, and inspire dreams.

    J Tree inspired me to dream. Its name was first spoken to me on a belay ledge in the Gunks, by reverent pilgrims who had been rained out of The Creek and found respite in the Mojave. Then, it was the storied sister of the Voo’s Sherman granite, which had forever marked my crack mentor’s hands. My final year of school, it was one of the parks I researched for my undergraduate thesis in conservation science and policy.

    The idea of parks fascinated me. They protect some of the greatest wilderness we know, with careful fencing, well-maintained trails, ticket booths, a contingent of rangers, and exorbitant concessionaires. Until very recently, they were the best conservation tool people had, were even called “America’s Best Idea.” But their fences and rangers can’t keep out climate change. This fact somehow gave shape to the scale and severity of what I, and other conservationists, was up against.

    I wanted others to realize this too. As an eager steward of this good Earth, I thought to pummel the unfeeling masses with my ominous truth: nothing is safe. Maybe that would shake their aplomb, curl their stomach with dread, hit them, as it were, where it hurts. By way of illustration, I aimed to discover if climate change was likely to drive any iconic species from the parks that protected them. Could Redwood National Park lose its redwoods? Saguaro National Park? Joshua Tree?

    These questions landed me in a windowless lab at Brown, in dreary, climbing-bereft Rhode Island, inputting climate data and occurrence points into an array of screens, hour after hour. I languished, mainlining the Enormocast and dreaming of graduation. I made myself promises, looking at the little green square that was Joshua Tree National Park. There, I was sure, the weather was mild, the climbing superb, and the life simple and free. That was the dream.

    Yucca brevifolia. I typed the name as an invocation, calling on the powers that would bring me to this desert idyll. As the season and my research progressed, I typed the name more fervently, watching my code spit out smaller and smaller range maps for this mysterious tree. Yucca brevifolia. It began to feel like a eulogy, one I didn’t feel prepared to write. I needed to get to J Tree.

    Photo: Madison Brandt

    A year later, I was five months into the dirtbag circuit, cozy as all get out in the bed of my truck and falling for my climbing partner. We rolled into J Tree late, found a campfire, cracked a beer, and swapped stories with the fire’s grimy citizens. In the dark, the land was a dreamscape, bulging with promises of mild weather, superb climbing, and a life that was free and easy.

    The next morning, we woke to a girl singing and swinging from the tree above the picnic table. Over the rise came a friend from The Creek looking for his Hula-Hoops. Our site mate gave us the rundown on the area, lent us a guidebook, and sent us to the Wonderland.

    My dream was becoming reality, and I fell in love effortlessly. From the Joshua trees to the palm oasis, the dirtbags to the Winnebago drivers, the coyotes to the stars to every granite absurdity laughing on the valley floor, J Tree inspired. The landscape was a union of miracles. Whole, defiant, and indisputably alive, it was a community that I wanted to be a part of, and wanted even more to save from fragmentation.

    On edge: I eye the bolt above, stalling. A sea of granite separates it from me, perfect edges bobbing in between, each one slim, sharp, and chalked white as a crescent moon. My toes begin to protest. I refuse to back down.

    Life in the desert is constantly on edge, battling high temperatures, food scarcity, and lack of water. Plants grow waxy, tough leaves that resist desiccation while animals take to the night and learn to metabolize water from a diet of dry seeds. Like the resilience of a dirtbag, desert resilience is the result of adaptation to the environment. Under certain conditions, however harsh, life can thrive. But conditions are changing.

    I launch into the sea of edges, delicate on the wall. I breathe desperate, deliberate breaths. I wonder if I could deck.

    One of the main threats that climate change poses to life is loss of suitable habitat. At the extreme, this manifests as the inundation of low-lying islands or the melting of polar ice. More pervasive, however, are changes in temperature and precipitation patterns that accumulate to make parts of a species range uninhabitable.

    For example, the fossil record shows that approximately 11,700 years ago, widespread warming made large portions of the Joshua tree’s southern range unsuitable for growth. While new territory probably became habitable at the same time, the Joshua tree was unable to expand into it because its primary disperser, the Shasta ground sloth, went extinct at that time. A rapid contraction of the Joshua tree’s range followed. Now history seems poised to repeat itself.

    I reach a small bulge below the bolt; all that separates us is a thin mantle and a lot of air.

    Already, researchers have noted that Joshua trees are germinating only in the most northern parts of the park. Models of future climate change, even those using conservative emissions estimates, predict a severe decline in suitable habitat for Joshua trees. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Joshua tree’s current range may become uninhabitable, and there’s not much to be done about it.

    When I finished my thesis, I was angry, because like so much of the change our burgeoning population has caused, the loss of Joshua trees felt senseless. And I was sorry, on behalf of my own consumption, the wanton hunger of my society, and the selfish power of my species. My anger and guilt demanded redress, but it was too late.

    People, we, I, had set into motion a loss that couldn’t be stopped or recouped even if we changed our hearts. That stark fact terrified me, and I wallowed in fear of helplessness, nearly lost.

    I went to J Tree looking for hope and hoping for answers. I sat atop Cyclops Rock on Valentine’s Day and played out a silent movie of loss on the skyline, each Joshua tree succumbing to fire, rot, or desiccation. I watched the last one uproot, and as it turned to walk over the horizon, I begged it to look at me, begged it to tell me what to do.

    There are a whole slew of problems in the world, some of them minute and heartbreaking, some vast and seemingly inexorable. In their midst, it’s hard not to tread water for lack of understanding the currents. Conservation work feels a lot like having no idea where or how far land is but kicking off anyways, on the utter faith that there is land, and wherever it is, it’s better than drowning at sea.

    I steel myself to pull the mantle, heart pounding. In my fear, I am humbled by the vision, boldness, and spirit of those who came before; theirs was a far different age of climbing than the safe, strong, and swelling generation that I am a part of. So too, the J Tree that nourished them was far different from the one I visited decades later, and far different from the J Tree of any other time but its own.

    The reality of change is unavoidable, even as I resist it. J Tree is a breathing history of all the forces and lives that have shaped it. It is the diving of plates beneath others, the melting of rock and its slow excavation, the colonization of those rocks by fierce desert plants, by First Nations, by pioneers, by climbers. It is Joshua trees as fodder for sloths the size of bears, sandals underfoot, corral posts around the first cattle, fuel for the first mines, and witness to first ascents. It is a park that may lose its namesake but not its promise, a landscape that may lose an icon but not its capacity to heal.

    Dwight Pitcaithley wrote in The Hour of Land, A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, “The National Park Service is not a preservationist organization. It is an educational organization. We preserve these sites because they have stories to tell and we have something to learn from these stories.”

    We are constantly learning.

    I pull over the bulge and find myself at the anchors, awash in adrenaline and relief. I look out and see a spare landscape that doesn’t have the capacity to support the timid or lazy. Climbers, like all life in J Tree, need mettle to drink the desert’s medicine. I stand triumphant, not because I had sent, but because I persisted through doubt, uncertainty, and fear. As the adrenaline subsides, elation takes its place.

    I can’t stop the climate from changing. I can’t will a Joshua tree’s delicate flowers to bloom, can’t tell its seeds to drop, can’t love the seeds into sprouting. Even so, J Tree’s crystal sands and needled green are the land I swim toward, because it’s better than drowning in helplessness. Love is the difference between hope and despair when we realize that nothing can last.

    I look down from the anchors; the ledge I’m standing on is limed with bird droppings and dirt from spring runoff. The route, however, is Solid Gold. It is a gift from the past, an homage to the life and landscape it was born from. The J Tree of the ’70s may be past, but it isn’t gone as long as its routes continue to tell their stories.

    I won’t presume to tell the story of the Joshua trees, simply my story of the Joshua trees. Resilience is in continuity through change; I preserve continuity through remembrance. My memory of J Tree is of a place where the weather is mild, the climbing superb, and the life simple and free. I remember a landscape that is whole, resilient, and indisputably alive. I remember the taste of desert medicine, and I remember Joshua trees raising their arms against the setting sun.

    If they go, I won’t let them go quietly. We need their memory as a reminder of our capacity to change the world. We need their memory as a refuge, in which lies the land’s medicine. We need to love them fearlessly and lose them fiercely. Without love for landscapes like J Tree, I might despair. With it, I believe the whole damn world is worth fighting for.

    Birch Malotky is on track to dabble away her twenties around the country, which she’s fine with, as long as climbing is involved.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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

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