• The Light and Dark Sides of Free Soloing by Alexa Flower

    Mar 23 • Locations • 2321 Views

    I’ve heard some describe Yosemite as a vortex, and so is the culture that comes with it. I am sucked into soloing like a teen trying their first sip of alcohol.

    By Alexa Flower, Senior Contributor. This piece is an excerpt from Volume 7, Crag Dogs, Hyenas, and Free Solos.

    Subscribe here.  

    One afternoon in the valley, Jon, Mike, and I are relaxing at the picnic table at Camp 4 along with some other friends.  We are feeling the aftermath from last night’s shenanigans and the motivation to go climb is slowly escaping us. Jon suddenly perks up.  He looks at Mike and I inquisitively, revealing his idea.  Jon, my trusted friend and climbing mentor, says with no doubt I can do it.


    We’ll take a rope just in case.  You’ll be psyched! And he’s right.  The route is easy, he says, I’ll show you the way.  You’ll cruise this!  And he’s right.  Two hours later we stand atop Royal Arches in Yosemite howling at the world beneath our feet.  I savor my first taste of this new kind of freedom and ecstasy.  I rely on myself alone, mentally and physically, and I am enough.  I am seduced.  We have yet to see the darkest depths.

    Like my favorite beer, I keep coming back for more.  I like the taste.  A fear that once paralyzed me is now under my control.  I stare death in the face and yet have never felt so focused and at peace.

    A few times, however, I’ve found myself biting off more than I can chew.  Continuing up the finger crack, it soon disappears into a blank face before me.  A black crow cries overhead and my stomach is stricken by the intensity of the moment.  My instinct is to panic, but my brain knows better.  I try to breathe and calmly search for the hold I haven’t realized is there, all through the inner turmoil.  An alarming thought pulses through my veins- a fear that I may not make it out of this one.  I continue on and the holds reappear.  Better holds than before.  The air in my lungs respires and I exhale. Once again, I am proven wrong in the best sense possible.  I feel safe and in control.  The morbid thoughts continue to linger, but they are distant now.  As I complete the climb, I am shaken, yet stronger, and quickly put it behind me.

    In a way, soloing gives you a sense of invincibility.  Indomitability. Being capable of focusing, despite the heaviness of possible, extreme consequence is self-empowering, and brings a meditative-like state.  It presents a new challenge with bigger stakes.  A gamble wagering your self-control, your mental and physical strength- your ability to find peace within, amid extreme pressure.

    My good friend Alix’s birthday approaches and she wants to do a group solo.  The six of us head out with high spirits to traverse Mathes Crest and summit Cathedral Peak.  It remains one of my most memorable days living in Tuolumne Meadows.  We complete the link-up blissfully, and later head to Lembert Dome for a final solo beneath the high Sierra sunset.  The sun paints strokes of fiery orange, brilliant red and yellow amidst the blue sky before kneeling out of sight.  The camaraderie and utter joy is unshakable. We share endless moments of happiness that come with living.  In a unique way, we are the same, and we understand one another.

    sunset alexa

    A week passes and tragedy strikes on Mathes Crest.  Someone who I do not know personally has paid the cost that I know nothing about.  Someone who has years more experience and skill than I.  I can’t help but feel pained for his loved ones as if they are my own.  As I head out the next week for another solo, my mind wanders uneasily.  I wonder how much is knowledge and true acceptance, and how much is ignorance.

    Beginning my solo on a climb I know too well, my mind doesn’t journey to that peaceful, meditative state.  I am not focused on the imminent moment, but instead picture my beautiful mother.  My sister and my father.  I picture the man whom I have not told I love yet.  I think about what I would take from them if a hold did break, or if my foot did slip.  I had always thought soloing to be a very personal experience, but now feel inconsiderate and tentative holding that belief.

    I mention my thoughts lightly to a few friends.  They express that when soloing, they go out accepting the possible consequence of death.  For myself, I cannot say I agree.  I solo knowing it is a safe bet with high stakes.  I don’t want to die, and I go knowing I won’t fall.  I wonder if that man on Mathes Crest ventured out with the same mindset as me.  In Mark Twight’s novel, Kiss or Kill, he writes, “we are willing to play for more than we can afford to lose”. I understand more and more.

    I have always been one to push my limits in all aspects of life.  I know that humans are capable of so much more than they allow themselves to be.  I know that we can let fear reign over us, if we allow it to.  I fight that as if it will be the death of me.  I know that fear of life takes away from living.  But to what extreme is this enduring truth?

    Is it selfish of me to solo?

    If I choose not to, am I succumbing to that fear of failure and letting it control my decision?  Am I choosing to not live life as fully, and contradicting what I have always lived by? Or am I weighing the decisions and understanding that this is not just about me…

    Today, I am torn.

    Alexa Flower is a Senior Contributor to The Climbing Zine. 

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


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

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


    No Comments on The Light and Dark Sides of Free Soloing by Alexa Flower

    Read More
  • Old Becomes New in Indian Creek by Chris Schulte

    Mar 22 • Dirtbagging • 1113 Views

    November is closing in fast, and on this turn around the fireball, we reach a strange and interesting milestone in American rock climbing. Forty years ago, Earl Wiggins shouldered a rack of hexes and set out on the FA of a smooth and parallel-sided crack situated just up the hillside above a small cattle ranch in southeast Utah.

    by Chris Schulte (note: this piece is  from Volume 9, The New School Issue.)

    Subscribe here.  

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

    A decided push, a scratchy bit of 8 mm footage, and Luxury Liner, aka Supercrack, was on line. In the following years, anchors would sprout high and low, spring-loaded camming devices would open the gates of the desert wide, and the Creek would burn sweet and dry on the palette with a juniper finish, hints of wood smoke and horseshit. Over a thousand lines would trace the weaknesses of the clean-cut cliffs, and still folks stream from the four corners of the globe to the Four Corners of the American Southwest for a taste of the coyote-and-roadrunner life, tape gloves, sandy burritos/butt cracks, and absolutely perfect splitters. After forty years of exploration and development, of stewardship and traffic, of grade-chasers and vision-questers, Indian Creek has become The Best Crack Climbing in the World.

    In the hours leading up to that pivotal and visionary ascent, almost no mention is made of what that party of adventurers did with their time.

    Deep breath, trad crusties: apparently, they went bouldering.

    Let that out slow.

    Camping just down the valley from Supercrack Buttress at the Fringe of Death Canyon, the merry band awoke, warmed, and stretched fiber and sinew on a collection of blocks that season the sage slopes and flats just outside of Canyonlands National Park. This stock of tilted roadside blocks is still an obvious attraction, with whispers of chalk beckoning. It’s the only place cited when I ask the springtime hordes that split the seams of the Donnelley parking lot if they’ve ever gone bouldering in the Creek. “Oh ya, we go, like, on a rest day, take a six pack…sometimes your gobies need a rest!”

    Jimmie Dunn feeling the vibes and Stewart Green sampling some bouldering in the Fringe of Death Canyon, Indian Creek, circa 1976. Photo: Stewart Green collection

    Somehow that morning’s motions, performed to calm the mind and lighten the spirits, went forgotten for decades, interred without ceremony beneath tangles of budding history, overshadowed by the ascent of a perfectly parallel crack once thought to be unprotectable. Oddly, today we say “visionary” and mean a splitter handcrack as obvious as a slap in the face, and not one of the subtle, balancey, powerful, flowing test pieces that enrich the valley floor. It was the question of protection that helped make the ascent of Supercrack so very visionary. In a time where American climbing was focused on Yosemite and still battled with the use of pitons as removable protection, one of the greatest concerns was whether the pro would hold in the soft Wingate. It was a bold, face-melting, determined lead, heavy with possibility and hexes and the whole of the future.

    1976, and Indian Creek was new school as fuck.

    Only two years later, cams changed the desert game, and folks flocked in to follow splitters to the sky while hawks wheel, and crows caw, cows moo, and the neck cranes upward. The pioneering crew of Wiggins, Webster, Becker, Green, Dunn, and Jackson carried on far beyond Supercrack, and new faces scribed their lines up leaner and longer splits. Hong. Porter. Savelli. Rodden. DeCaria. Bigwood. Leaner, longer, tougher cracks sprouted anchors on walls ever farther from the road, and plums ripened round the campfire and in sleepless nights were picked, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. Kinda out of the blue, Steve Petro (“The potential for new routes is truly unlimited.”) lit a spark when he opened Let ’er Buck (5.12b) with Lisa Gnade and Gordon Douglass; I remember hearing the scandalous chatter that went about still, even a couple seasons later: “Someone’s definitely gonna chop it”; “this is a crack-climbing area.” I like to think that the route remains, on one hand, as a gesture of respect and, on the other, as a testament to the route’s quality. Nice intricate climbing, reads one Mountain Project comment. Some of the best arête climbing I have ever experienced, says another. Really, really fun, great change from tight handcracks

    So, what happened? There is an endless supply of cracks out in the Creek and an arête to pair with nearly every one. Nigh on twenty years passed after Luxury Liner before Let ’er Buck went in, and another decade before the next overt proposals blurred the implied lines of demarcation. Pat Savageau opened an extension to Swedin-Ringle (5.13R), dubbed Air Swedin, that carries on up the arête before rejoining the crack above for a hundred-foot pitch. Cedar Wright’s Half Man, Half Alligator Shark (5.13-) went in just a few feet down the line. With a span out a steep roof to a balancey arête sequence protected by fixed knifeblades, HMHAS was a bit of a bell, tolling out a reminder for some that this is a rock climbing area, after all. Hayden Kennedy upped the ante when he opened another Creek benchmark with questionable pro, the Carbondale Short Bus (5.14-). The trick is: you switch cracks. This is the technical crux; the redpoint crux comes with the sideways dyno at the top (again, where the crack stops), flying away from a pair of fretfully placed Black Diamond #000 C3s (the “Gray Ghosts”) toward a big, sloping jug on…the arête. Will Stanhope later added Down in Albion (5.13R), a wild and runout climb up an arête feature that links to Ruby’s Cafe, a heinous crack in its own right. The Creek was new school again, with the trappings of trad to maybe help you forget you’re arête and face climbing.

    Chris Schulte, The Wolf AKA Air Wolf V?, Indian Creek, UT. Photo: Andrew Burr

    I grew up skateboarding, you could say. New school was the word at the beginning of the ’90s: flip tricks, switch stance, huge pants, hip-hop. Old school was dropping boneless down the Biology stairs and railslides. That shit was had. Old school bro featured hair like Def Leppard and a leather motorcycle jacket. Wore shades indoors, holey jeans, and Chuck Taylors, smoked Reds and schwag. Smelled like Jack Daniels in class. But he was kinda cool, just a bit of a joke…his time was past, and in his revelries, he maybe just sounded a little funny, waxing on in what was likely a refined appraisal of the finest highlights of yesteryear. We’d giggle and humor this remnant, sifting through the bullshit for some occasional pearl of great value, some timeless ethic they’d impart through the smoke.

    And yet, just a few turns around the sun can bring even dinosaurs back to life, and suddenly, anything can be cool again, if the timing and the proper analogous placement are considered. Old school became cool. Serpico. Cowboys, Pall Mall clubs with leather and libraries. Funny thing is, nowadays old school stays cool. Grandpa’s hat, loungey jazz, and martinis. Old school came also to mean tougher, rougher. Mobsters. Spies. Cedarwood dove-handled short-barreled Peacemakers. Or, V neck sweaters and pilot shades. Vespas. Pirates. Pool halls. Those 1950s 5.8+ offwidths that were easier in boots became hard in modern climbing shoes and easier in approach shoes again. Kids rock hair with sides shaved cuz dudes in WWII movies look cool. We did too, around 1985, but I think it was because of Depeche Mode, who probably resurrected it from WWII-era photographs or Andy Warhol.

    The usage of style is a social tool, a language. Style in climbing is an act often indistinguishable in any way other than through the imagination: e.g., toproping vs. soloing. It can mean taking a pause from evolution and progress, a step back from forward motion when moving forward begins to mean moving for the sake of moving on. Style often means looking back and appreciating the roots in a new light. The traveled city kid comes home to the farm just dying for Momma’s cooking, though sometimes Mom’s cooking sucks. Mom Shorts aren’t cool, and neither is Dad Bod. Some people shouldn’t have handlebar moustaches. Fixies are kind of unpleasant to ride. We recombine, refit, refine, like Mr./Mrs. Potatohead, looking for the essence of whatever it is we’re looking for that’s us. Old and new school are an interchangeable process, which tells us everything about the guts of a trend, and our guts…I wander…point is, nostalgia is the flavor of old school. It is often fortified with irony.

    “Isn’t bouldering just practice for Real Climbing?” the bearded, taped, and Carhartt-armoured Real Climber once inquired, smiling and valiant behind his PBR shield. The crew laughs.

    “Ah, sure?” I reply a bit sheepishly. “The bouldering scale starts at 5.10; what are you getting into today?” The crew laughs harder, and we head uphill to Coyne Crack. When I boulder up and down the first twenty feet in my approach shoes, a Real Climber declares he’s going bouldering this evening. The rest of the crew makes plans for tomorrow, mentioning a pint of whiskey.

    Eh. Close.

    Apropos of nothing, Splittervision is a malady that affects desert climbers after a while, making it impossible for them to see gigantic features or holds just a couple feet outside of the fissure before them. I suspect the defect can cause complications that can extend to other forms of climbing. It also works in reverse. I know of a V13 having been downgraded to about V9 when someone went ahead and used the lean locks at the back of the slopers.

    I’ve bouldered in the Creek now for near twenty years. When I first arrived, riding shotgun before a trailer of dirt bikes and lugging a rack of singles, it was hard to believe that no one was out on those blocks. No one had cleaned and climbed any of the arêtes and faces. Rock was everywhere, and in most every way, the blocks were more solid and attractive than my home bouldering area. I’d never been to anything but what I’ll call Regular Climbing Areas, with sport and trad climbs side by side, even a boulder or two on the way in. Of course, I hadn’t been anywhere then…I thought all climbing areas were full-tilt, get-what-you-can Climbing Areas, where all disciplines and pursuits could be expressed. All the things had to be climbed, yes, “Because it’s there,” to quote Hillary, and “because the climbers are there,” to quote LeCarré. Hell, I’ve seen a crag with a practice rivet ladder, a boulder with a seam that folks would practice traversing tied-off knifeblades. I have to remind myself that that was in the halcyon years of absolute noobdom, where I still held that if someone was a climber, they must be a cool person, and we had lots in common. That climbing in the sun was a good idea. That I’d want to bring pitons to Yosemite. Soon enough, I learned that there were Big Wall areas, Ice Climbing areas, Sport Climbing areas, Bouldering areas, and Crack Climbing areas. “Indian Creek is a crack-climbing area,” a mentor explained to the untutored twenty-year-old me, confused, agape at wasted potential. It was like looking out over an orchard of ripe peaches rotting on the branch; his explanation was like my mother trying to explain faith to the six-year-old me: thin skin of substance, bones of dogma. Zero muscle. This is how it is, because it just is that way. The lure of sacrilege was too great: I headed out in the fields to go bouldering after three routes.

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

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

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

    You’ve heard that tired, old phrase about “taking the skills learned on the boulders/cliffs to the cliffs/big walls,” and it rings true here in the desert. Once again, the broad promise of the future is all around us, for the Creek has new runout routes that abandon the cracks and quest up grips and geometry. The Creek has 5.15 arêtes and 5.11 slabs. I confess, I went out looking for a sport climb to bolt, something perfect and in the backcountry where it could go unmolested and outside of scrutiny, laying up a stock of merit through reports from repeaters and so armoring it from the depredations of the uninformed and uninitiated zealot. I ended up finding one that fit the bill, and it ends up going on gear, which is just dandy. The Creek still provides, and that lifetime of crack climbing is now paired with another lifetime of arêtes, maybe another of faces. The finds are getting harder, weirder, scarier. Gritstone-style headpoints and multi-pitch tradventures to the rim. My kettle of bouldering projects simmers on the back burner where I can throw in the occasional dash of spice or hunk of meat. I scan cliffs now, looking for hanging blocks and seams offset just enough. I scroll through a bank of project pics on my phone on cool Colorado nights, zooming and scrolling, wondering if the yellow X4 would go in that seam, feeling like all the climbing I do now is just keeping busy ’til the desert chills out.


    Bouldering has become Practice Climbing for me. In the words of Darth Vader, “The circle is now complete.” Maybe soon it’ll be new school to be well rounded, even out here. Which is, of course, old school as fuck.

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

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



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

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

    No Comments on Old Becomes New in Indian Creek by Chris Schulte

    Read More
  • Walmart Parking Lot (a poem) by Georgie Abel

    Mar 16 • Locations • 1150 Views

    by Georgie Abel (photo by Dylan Hightower)

    I was this close

    To forgetting what it feels like

    To sleep in a Walmart parking lot

    Somewhere in between totally fine and


    Rock bottom


    But probably rock bottom because

    You’re totally fine

    Listening to Radiohead and eating barbecue chips

    With the covers kicked off


    Because it’s Wyoming, because it’s August

    Look at you, your hair’s getting long,

    You’re moving without thinking about it for three days straight

    (That’s a charming new development!)


    The summer’s buzz

    Was loud enough to drop you down

    Into your body

    Like you’ve wanted for so long

    And now that you’re there,

    And you’ve quit telling yourself that you should really meditate and stretch and

    Save the whole world

    You can be totally fine

    Sleeping in a Walmart parking lot


    And come to think of it

    That’s all you’ve been searching for all these years

    To sing with the chorus




    Loud enough that someone might even tell you to keep it down,

    Because it’s past midnight,

    And there are other people trying to sleep

    In a Walmart parking lot

    Georgie Abel is a contributing editor to The Climbing Zine. She has recently released a new book of poetry called Go West Young Woman, available on Amazon. 

    Her blog is called Movement

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


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

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


    No Comments on Walmart Parking Lot (a poem) by Georgie Abel

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

    Mar 14 • Locations • 793 Views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    No Comments on Fear and The College Try (in the Black Canyon)

    Read More
  • Review: Grivel Stealth Helmet

    Mar 14 • Gear • 194 Views

    Climbing helmets have come a long way in the last few years—mostly by shedding weight and becoming ultralight. I’ve realized that the really light helmets are not for me, they smash and get banged up too easily. Thus when I got my hands on the burly looking Grivel Stealth I hoped this was one that would be up my alley—the fact that it also was lightweight (190 grams) was a huge bonus.

    Retail: $99.95

    The first thing that every climber has to consider with helmets is how they fit on your head. I’ve noticed over the years climbers seem to be loyal to certain brands because of that, and I have as well. I’d never worn a Grivel before, so I wasn’t sure.

    Right away I noticed the webbing system for the Stealth was different than most helmets I’ve seen. The strap that fits around the back of your head is a piece of webbing that moves closer to your head than most helmets I’ve had. Rather than attaching to the back of the helmet like most are, it can be adjusted to snuggle right along the back of your head. When putting the helmet on for the first time this seems awkward, but after a few times I got used to it. Eventually I really grew to like the fit, and I also realized that, yes, this style of helmet fit my head well—something I can’t guarantee for everyone because of the nature of helmets.

    Now that the first hurdle was cleared—a good fit for my head—the more obvious features needed to be considered. The most striking thing to me is that it checks in impressively light (190 grams, with an inner foam made of polystyrene, and a polycarbonate outer shell) and also can withstand some banging around. (For reference the lightest helmet out there, the Petzl Sirocco, due out in July, is now down to 170 grams).

    Another important aspect of a helmet for me is coverage. The Stealth has more coverage in the back of the neck than most helmets, always an area I’m worried about hitting in the advent of an upside down fall. The ventilated sides ensure a coolness on warm days, and I’m sure those vents help shave a few ounces off the weight as well. The headlamp clips work efficiently and can be clipped into quickly.

    For me this is the kind of helmet I’m looking for. It’s not the lightest, but in the end I’d rather have one extra ounce of weight, versus a helmet I can’t bang up without cracking.


    The Grivel Stealth on Backcountry.com 

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

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

    zine_cover8 (5)About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

    We have also published three books: American ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    No Comments on Review: Grivel Stealth Helmet

    Read More
  • Review: Grivel Salamander 2.0 helmet

    Mar 13 • Gear • 59 Views

    The Grivel Salamander 2.0, while designed with zero frills to keep operation straight-forward, is a versatile helmet with a few highlights as well as drawbacks. Designed for alpine, rock and ice use, the 2.0 comes in three colors – white, yellow, and black. The Salamander 2.0 is an improvement over it’s predecessor, the OG Salamander, though ultimately, in my testing, the 2.0 disappoints in a few categories.

    Retail: $69.95

    Reviewed by Al Smith III, co-founder of The Zine

    You’d think with an updated version that a few tweaks, especially in specs would result. Not so entirely with the 2.0. The weight of the helmet, sized to be adjustable between 54cm and 62cm, still weighs the same as the original Salamander at 13.58 ounces. While the overall look of the 2.0 is sleeker, as evidenced by the head lamp clips and shift away from the bulk of polystyrene foam, Grivel made few improvements – in my opinion.

    First placing the helmet on my head, I had a quick learning curve to understand the suspension adjustment system – thin webbing with two small pull tabs. As I stated before, this helmet is adjustable between 54cm and 62cm, so it can fit a variety of head sizes, and figuring out exactly how the adjustment straps works is a breeze. A positive about this is the reduction of extraneous parts, thus making the 2.0 worry-free, as compared to other helmet manufactures suspension systems, which rely heavily on plastic click wheels or sliders to adjust.

    Climbing with the 2.0, I did find that with a bald head, the helmet easily slid back and out of place as I looked up the rock pitch. Not the most inspiring thing to have happen – feeling as if you’re helmet is about to slid off while trying to figure your next good rest or piece of pro. Climbers with hair may find the fit to be a bit more inspiring, and for this bald tester, I was unimpressed with the fit and security of said fit on my dome. There is a reason I love my Black Diamond Vector – the fit on my head is like a glove, and the adjustment is fairly easy to dial-in snug.

    The author in action.

    Overall, things I liked about the Grivel Salamander 2.0:

    • Updated look – modern for the industry compared to the OG Salamander
    • Suspension system – pull tabs on thin webbing make for quick adjustments with minimal plastic parts to break
    • Head Lamp clips – secure a lamp no problem

    Overall, what I feel detracts from the Grivel Salamander 2.0:

    • Weight- it is an updated version, and it still weighs the same
    • Price – it is more expensive then helmets of typical construction, and if I’m paying more, I want better features and/or specs, which the 2.0 does not deliver
    • Fit – not great for this bald head; haired users may have a different perspective

    Would I use this helmet in certain applications? Yes. I do find that as a single pitch instructor, this helmet has its advantages over closed-cell foam, and if I can wear a beanie or buff underneath, then no problem in keeping it poised atop my bald dome.

    Grivel Salamander 2.0 on Backcountry.com

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

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


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

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

    No Comments on Review: Grivel Salamander 2.0 helmet

    Read More
  • The Long Way Back by Mike Reddy

    Mar 6 • Locations • 461 Views

    “Oh you feel and you taste it and you want to go higher. So what do you do? And so you peak into the mountain where your desire goes. Spilt blood on this place it only echoes true all through the days. And so you peak into the mountain where your desire goes.”

    The Mountain by Heartless Bastard

    I used to spend a lot of time focusing on whether June 30th, 2009 should have been my last day of life. I have debated endlessly in my head whether or not surviving my fall and subsequent rescue was the best outcome for all involved and often wondered if simply letting go might have been the easiest way to deal with what has proven to be the single most important life-changing event in my life. In the end, I found this internal debate all rather pointless, as the fact of the matter is that I survived. It’s been the road back to recovery that has proven the far greater challenge.

    by Mike Reddy 

    banner photo of Mike by Zuzana Svitek

    My life as a “normal” ended that day in the Snake Couloir on Mt. Sneffels just outside Ouray, Colorado. I never saw it coming, but the events of that day changed my life forever in ways I am still discovering. Upon receiving the preliminary diagnosis of a spinal cord injury, my heart sank and I truly believed my life as I knew it was over. That much was true, however what I didn’t know then and what I have come to realize since, is that I was starting down a new path, one filled with ambitious new goals, challenges to be bested, and opportunities to be realized. I have come to appreciate the preciousness and fragility of life- a form of self-awareness and purpose that comes only through risking one’s own life, especially when engaging in dangerous activities such as climbing mountains. It is that realization that compels me now to share the story of my many “life days” since my fall.

    June 30th was a bluebird day in the San Juan Range, perfect for an acclimatization climb. Sneffels was to be the first of three objectives my long-time climbing and mountain biking partner, Arne Bomblies, and I had planned for what had then become our annual climbing trip to Colorado. In the weeks leading up to our trip, we had discussed taking on the Snake Couloir and summiting Sneffels as a warm-up for what we thought would be a far more challenging climb- the Cross Couloir on the Mt. of the Holy Cross. An ascent on Mt. Sneffels first seemed like a logical choice given the similar elevation gain and conditions we expected to encounter on both mountains. Waking early to a bright, clear morning full of anticipation, we embarked fully expecting the climb to be a good test of our mountaineering skills and physical endurance. The striking beauty of the surrounding mountains did not go unnoticed by either of us as we set off from camp that morning. Our enthusiasm for the natural beauty of the landscape was matched only by our contentment to be climbing together again in the mountains of Colorado.

    Upon approach, the Snake appeared totally within our grasp- a relatively easy ascent up compacted snow in crampons and ice axes, conditions for which we had trained and felt fully competent. We rapidly made our way up the couloir past the remnants of rock fall and evidence of previous ascents and descents including a lone, lost ski pole. Arne paused to rest at a convenient snow bench, located just below a constriction in the couloir at about 12,500 ft. As I approached, I noted an ominous sign- water freely running under the snow just next to where I was planning to step and pivot in order to grab a seat beside my resting partner. I remember thinking to myself that I should plant my next footstep just to the left of the patch of unconsolidated snow. I also clearly remember Arne pointing out the loose snow and mentioning to avoid it just as I was preparing to sit down. Those were the last words I would hear just before my crampon grabbed what appeared to be solid foothold and then immediately slipped out from under me as my weight transferred to my right foot. I desperately attempted to self-arrest. Unable to do so, my crampons caught and I was flipped upright and thrown on my back. The violent torque of the crampon “catch” shattered my right ankle and badly sprained the left. On my back, out of control and rapidly picking up speed, I was unable to gain purchase on the 45°+ slope. I slid on my back nearly 150 feet, hurtling downslope with no feasible way to slow or stop my descent before colliding with a boulder that caused a burst fracture of my L1 lumbar vertebrae that would drive bone shards into my spinal canal and result in my worst dread- a spinal cord injury and paralysis.

    Mt. Sneffels. Photo: Arne Bomblies

    I impacted with the boulder and was knocked out briefly, but came to, much to my surprise, as I had calculated in the moments of my descent that the impact would be fatal. I regained consciousness only to feel the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced radiating from my lower back. So much so, that I couldn’t even feel the pain resulting from the ankle fracture which had contorted my right ankle into a most unnatural angle. After a few moments, I was able to catch my breath and utter some incoherent yelps to my partner. With the recognition I was still alive, a rescue rather than a recovery was launched. My initial rescue was facilitated by the heroic efforts of Arne, Joe Ladowski and Steve Durbin. Joe and Steve happened to be climbing the same route and were taking a break very near to where I had fallen. They provided invaluable assistance before, during and after the courageous rescue superbly executed by the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team. To be perfectly frank, while I would like to say I remember the whole rescue, the pain was such that I am certain there is much I don’t recall. That is a story to be told by the folks who put their lives on the line to save mine that day.

    Mike’s rescue on Mt. Sneffels. Photo: Arne Bomblies

    The rescue took about nine agonizingly long hours from the time of my fall to when I was placed on a helicopter to be medevac’d to the local hospital in Montrose, Colorado. It was there that my ankle was re-adjusted, CT scans were conducted and I was made aware that immediate surgery was required. Once stabilized, I was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado for the spinal surgery to be performed the following day. Bone fragments were removed from the spinal canal and a titanium brace spanning my several vertebrae was placed in my back to fuse the vertebrae and support the fractured L1 vertebra. A bone fragment was removed from my ankle and six supporting pins were placed in the area of fracture. I lost nearly a third of my total blood supply during the course of the surgery.

    As a consequence of this injury, I suffered a permanent, incomplete spinal cord injury that initially left my left leg paralyzed, with significant damage to my sacral nerve that has resulted in a reduced sensation in my lower extremities. After approximately ten days of post-surgical recovery in Grand Junction, I was transferred by air ambulance to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, for intensive physical and occupational rehabilitation. I remained in Seattle for about a month before returning to Connecticut. It was during this time I learned how to manage the basic functions of life after an injury of this nature, such as how to transfer myself into and out of a wheelchair. I endured extreme pain, mixed with the relief of having survived a near-fatal mountaineering accident and sorrow brought on by the sobering reality that my life was forever changed.

    After completing a three week stay at the UW Medical Center, I returned to Connecticut with my girlfriend Zuzana Svitek. There are few words that adequately express the tremendous depth of love and support Zuzana has shown me throughout my recovery. I can say this with absolute certainty- without her unconditional care through the many ups and downs of my recovery, I would not be here today to document these events. She has seen me at my very best and worst and never wavered in her support of my goal to return to an active, fulfilling life. I owe her more than I can ever repay in love and good will and for this I will always be indebted to her.

    Within a few weeks I returned to Yale University to continue my PhD dissertation research on the mosquito vectors responsible for transmission of malaria in Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa. Restricted to a wheelchair and the confinement of a back brace for the first eight weeks of recovery, I came to lab each day to work as best I could given to my limited function and the tremendous amount of narcotics I was taking to get through the days. Pain and fatigue were my constant companions and upon reflection, I am still shocked any coherent research was accomplished in those early days of my recovery. After eight weeks, my leg cast and back brace were removed and I was able to move out of the wheelchair and onto crutches. I quickly regained significant function in my left leg and my right ankle healed to the point where I could walk several steps without the aid of crutches. I still suffered debilitating, chronic pain, however this pain was nothing in comparison to the overwhelming sense of loss of function and identity I suffered as a result of my spinal cord injury and ankle fracture.

    About six months after my injury, I began to struggle with a deep depression resulting from my incapacity to perform the simplest of physical tasks. I had literally gone from climbing “fourteeners” to being unable to climb a staircase. In one instance, I dragged my lower body up the stairs in order to get to the only shower in the house, located on the second floor. I spent much of my “free” time alone, not wanting to engage in even informal social gatherings. Watching the winter Olympics on TV was a soul-crushing experience as I came to the realization that I would most likely never again be able to engage in the types of athletic activities I loved so much, let alone competitive sporting events. I contemplated dropping out of my PhD program due to my own doubts as to whether I had the capacity or motivation to complete the goals set forth by my dissertation committee, my research funders and myself. I felt like nobody understood what I was struggling with since my accident, especially with respect to what this injury had done to my sense of self-purpose and relevance. I seriously questioned my ability to contribute in any meaningful way to society- scholarly, athletic or otherwise. It was extremely difficult for me to express these sentiments, and I tried hard to put up a façade that this injury would not define my capacity as a productive human being. This injury had brought me to my knees both literally and figuratively speaking. There were many moments, where I would without hesitation, have given ANYTHING in order to feel “normal” but for a single moment. I was left feeling broken, defeated and lost. Suicide seemed like the most reasonable solution to what seemed a hopeless situation, and thoughts of ending it all were constantly on my mind.

    Through the slow process of healing, I’d come to the realization that even though my body and spirit had been badly damaged, my desire to pursue an active lifestyle remained intact. Climbing, mountaineering, cycling, international travel, scientific field research- these were just a few of the many activities I engaged in before my fall and I desperately wanted to believe I would be able to do them once again. My medical team was cautiously optimistic about a recovery, but climbing mountains was not in their opinion, part of that equation. They were not enthused, to say the least, at the prospect of my taking up the same types of sports that had nearly killed me. I was left with the feeling that life as I knew it, as a “normal” was over and grew despondent over the idea that I might not ever pursue any of the same activities as I did before my fall. That all changed with my introduction to fellow “gimps” and “normals” that comprise the Paradox Sports community.

    The first of many “life days” came in February 2010 with the visit of U.S. Army Captain Dennis (DJ) Skelton to our local climbing gym. DJ, along with pro-climber Timmy O’Neill formed Paradox Sports, a not-for-profit organization of athletes and volunteers that works to enable people with “disabilities” to live an active lifestyle in whatever form they envision. It is an organization that developed out of an idea to get wounded veterans and disabled folks in general engaged in human-powered sports in the wake of trauma. DJ is an active duty soldier who, while serving in Iraq, lost his left eye, a portion of his mouth and partial function of his left arm and right leg as the result of a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his platoon. Despite these injuries and numerous medical procedures performed to repair his battered body, DJ’s desire to live an active life remained undiminished. DJ’s determination to pursue an active lifestyle that included climbing despite extensive traumatic injury, in many ways, mirrored my own situation. Within moments of meeting DJ and throughout the rest of our time together that day I realized I was in the company of an extraordinary individual who represented an extraordinary organization.

    An active climber before and after his injuries, DJ sought to share the excitement and exhilaration of climbing with his fellow wounded warriors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center by any means necessary. That meant developing or re-designing rigging systems designed for “able-bodied” climbers to be used by amputees, paraplegics and otherwise impaired individuals. Working together with Timmy, they were able to bring the joy of climbing to a group of folks who might otherwise have been overlooked by the “normal” outdoor sports community. Thankfully, through DJ and Timmy’s efforts and the Paradox Sports family of athletes and volunteers, the “gimp” tradition of challenging the status quo when it comes to athletic endeavor is alive and well. Paradox athletes routinely defy and re-define the conventional notions of what it means to be an athlete engaged in human powered outdoor sports.

    For me, DJ’s visit represented an opportunity to re-learn how to walk and then hopefully climb again. To put it plainly, I was doubtful this would ever be the case, as I was barely able to hobble around on my crutches without losing my balance, let alone walk independently at that point. My doubts slowly began to erode as I took my first independent steps that day, in my climbing harness that was attached to a pulley running along a static line above me. I was able to do this in large measure because of the support and confidence of DJ and everyone at the gym that day. I found the inspiration to push beyond what I thought possible that day and rekindled my passion and belief that I too could pursue an active lifestyle once again.

    This feeling was further realized with the visit of Paradox’s Executive Director Malcolm Daly in mid-April of 2010. Mal is a below knee amputee who lost his leg and several fingers to frostbite as the consequence of a mountaineering fall in Alaska in 1999. Mal came to the gym at the invitation of my good friend Nate McKenzie, then co-owner of our local climbing gym. Mal was invited to run an adaptive climbing clinic for the staff and myself. Within moments of meeting Mal, I recognized I had met a kindred spirit and a fellow “gimp” that shared my love of climbing and the outdoors. Mal happened to be in Connecticut visiting family, but had made a special trip to New Haven to lead the clinic. The skills I learned that day would be integral for my re-integration into the climbing life. I eagerly volunteered to be the guinea pig “gimp.” When it came time to put into practice what we had just learned, instead of putting me on the Wellman rig, Mal sized me up and simply said let’s just “try” to toprope on belay without the use of any adaptive equipment. Silently doubtful that this would work, I dropped my crutches, put on my harness and tied my first figure-8 knot in over eight months. Soon I was climbing, not elegantly, and not without several falls, but I eventually topped out on a 5.7 route. I was climbing again, not even a year after my injury! None of my doctors or physical therapists were the slightest bit optimistic I would ever climb again. I had even convinced myself that I wouldn’t attempt climbing for at least another six months. And yet, there I was, 35 feet off the ground under my own power. It is hard to express the range of emotions I experienced that day, but elation was probably the most evident based on the smile I couldn’t seem to wipe off my face.

    Soon after Mal’s visit, I was toproping outside at Chatfield Hollow, a local crag, using Mal’s SideStix (an all-terrain variant of fore-arm crutches) to hobble my way on approach. Later that summer I even went trad-climbing at the Gunks for the first time since my accident. Both of these climbs represented a personal triumph of will to once again live an outdoor life. Since then, I’ve ridden my road bike around Wooster Square Park, travelled back to Central Africa to visit my field research site, presented at an international scientific meeting and defended my PhD dissertation in the spring of 2012. Each of these events is seared in my memory as yet another milestone on the road to recovery. In March of 2011, I would experience yet more “life days” when I went ice climbing for the first time ever in North Conway, New Hampshire with Chad Butrick. Chad, a “disabled” veteran, then the Director of Operations for Paradox Sports, had made a trip to the Northeast specifically to scout out potential opportunities for Paradox to expand its operational capacity beyond Colorado. Chad’s enthusiasm was infectious, and with his and Nate’s encouragement and guidance, I quickly fell in love with ice climbing, an activity I didn’t think I was capable of even before my accident. The feeling of topping out on ice was the same I felt the day I took my first steps with DJ and Nate and the day I climbed with Mal in the gym- pure joy. A few weeks later at the Paradox Sports-sponsored adaptive ice climbing event, Gimps on Ice in Ouray, I would yet again feel the same sense of awe and inspiration watching other Paradox athletes experience that feeling of empowerment as we climbed the fabled icefalls of the Ouray Ice Park. Watching and supporting my fellow “gimps” as they experienced the same exhilaration I experienced was incredibly humbling and inspiring.

    I am deeply indebted to my loved ones who were there for me when I needed their love and support in order to re-commit to a life of outdoor sports and activity. I am equally indebted to the inspiring folks at Paradox who showed me that an active lifestyle is not restricted to only those who consider themselves “normal” and prove it everyday through simply living their lives in the most intentional of ways. It is with a full heart and calm mind that I look to the future with the knowledge that it is not a matter of if I will climb mountains again, but when.

    A version of this piece was originally published for the Life Days section of the Paradox Sports website. This version was published in Volume 4. 

    Mike Reddy continues to recover from his injuries incurred on Mt. Sneffels in 2009. He defended his PhD in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale University in early 2012. He currently works for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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


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

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

    No Comments on The Long Way Back by Mike Reddy

    Read More
  • The Secret Spot by Joy Martin

    Mar 1 • Locations • 278 Views

    If these rocks could talk, they’d tell a hell of a story: one of nature and development, of perseverance and triumph, of mountain lions and men.

    by Joy Martin, Senior Contributor. Banner photo of Rush Linhart by Ben Brashear.

    This piece is from Volume 9. Subscribe here to support independent print media.

    This tale is set in one of Durango’s playgrounds, where the bones of an ancient forest creep around a labyrinth of wildly complex ninety-seven-million-year-old Dakota Sandstone boulders strewn along the western foot of Animas Mountain. The largest chunks are bigger than houses, pockmarked by wind and water, implanted with corals and brachiopods, hosting tufts of grass, lichen, and tiny trees.

    Wildlife migrate between these conglomerates, and it’s not uncommon to see a deer carcass draped, gaping-mouthed, over a fallen log—remnants of a cougar dinner.

    The Southern Ute, early Animas City dwellers, and modern-day explorers have also left their fingerprints here, with chiseled goat petroglyphs and painted bear paws, campfire char, and chalk dust contributing to the mottled textures.

    To be so close to civilization, this place is superbly wild, a quiet reprieve at the flanks of a tilted plateau away from the buzz of Durango. This place knows no closing time, no season better than the next, no judgment on any who enter—and any can enter because this place is protected open space.

    Like most things free, it’s easy to take this place for granted, a place with a half dozen names: Junction Creek Boulders. Jacob’s Cliffs. Dalla Mountain Park. Sailing Hawks. Loiterland. The Secret Spot.

    Cowboys, Indians, miners, and hobos have their own tales—and names—of this place from a time when everything was open space. But those days are long gone. As the city grew and outdoor recreation became more popular, a need arose for protection of The Secret Spot, and by the 1990s, someone needed to speak up for these silent stones.

    The Sacred Traverse

    Linhart swinging around on the Sacred Traverse. Photo: Ben Brashear

    In the 1970s, there were no restrictions on driving to the top of Animas Mountain. Why wouldn’t a wily bunch of teenage climbers explore to their heart’s content? Thus, the rowdy forays and curious feet of some of Durango’s original dirtbag characters led to the winding trails of Sailing Hawks, trodden by the hope of endless possibilities.

    “They were the ones who were driving their four-wheel-drive vehicles up into those areas for parties and climbing exploration,” says local climbing legend John Duran.

    A Spanish Indian from Ignacio, Duran first tagged along with this rogue bunch in 1975. His comrades described him as strong, quietly confident, inspiring, ahead of his time, and silent—oftentimes bouldering barefoot. He quickly earned the nickname “Ninja of Sailing Hawks.”

    “It was the period of old-school ethics,” says fifty-four-year-old Duran. “Pure movement was the norm. We could create problems that were not there originally or repeat the existing ones and add our variations when we were stronger. I really loved the simplicity of it back then. This was our Golden Age.”

    It was during this Golden Age that Duran encountered the most memorable rock in all of Sailing Hawks: the Euro Boulder. In those days, the problems were “futuristic,” says Duran, recalling one traversing line in particular that the gang labeled Bullshit.

    “People would just walk up and stare off at its size and say it was too big to climb,” says Duran. “So most people just played around on the easiest portions and scrambled to the top to party.”

    But Duran saw Bullshit differently. He admired it as an entirely doable one-hundred-foot-long 5.13B/C traverse.

    “I have a high-life condition,” says Duran. “So I believe in myself. Back then, I believed that if my climbing mentors could do seemingly impossible ascents, then why not my friends and me?”

    As Duran innovated, the next generation of climbers poured into the scene. The laid-back native enjoyed introducing the young guns to the rocks he knew so well. On a rainy day in 1997, twenty-five-year-old Pennsylvanian Rush Linhart joined Duran for bouldering at Jacob’s Cliffs. Duran recalls Linhart trying to heal from a recent breakup: “She broke my heart,” says Linhart.

    As Linhart bemoaned, Duran sent Bullshit. Linhart was awestruck. He’d never seen anything more sacred.

    “I was beside myself, humbled and bummed, because I knew I wanted to do that,” says Linhart, who was climbing 5.10/5.11 at the time.

    “I remember Rush coining the term Sacred Traverse,” says Duran. “I think he felt a spiritual connection with it.”

    But Bullshit was so much more than a spiritual connection for Linhart. The problem morphed into the sole focus of his being.

    “When I saw him do the Sacred Traverse, I was like, holy shit, it’s going to take a lot to get this strong.”

    For the next two and a half years, Linhart poured every bit of his energy into the Sacred Traverse. Through multiple injuries, gut-sucking diets, disciplined fasts, the determination of an ox, and the heart of a lion, Linhart finally sent it.

    “That rock changed my life,” says Linhart, who sometimes refers to himself as Lionheart. “It was—and is—my greatest teacher.”

    After celebrating his hard-earned send of Bullshit-cum-Sacred Traverse, Linhart got back in the saddle and moved on to his new goal of the Triple Crown: three traverses, back and forth and back again, in one go.

    “At the time, I was camping there, too,” says Linhart. “I would hear drums while I was falling asleep. I could feel the past.”

    While Linhart was spending days and nights perfecting his craft, sleeping under the cliffs of The Secret Spot and Junction Creek Boulders, he wasn’t the only one there. These woods also served as the perfect hideaway for squatters, and trash was rampant. But this wasn’t their land to destroy. It wasn’t Linhart’s either. It belonged to Jake Dalla, a developer who’d built the neighboring subdivision called Sailing Hawks.

    Dalla didn’t mind that folks recreated on his property, but the non-paying dwellers frustrated Dalla to no end. He threatened to fence up Loiterland entirely if the refuse and abuse didn’t get under control, and he even had a bulldozer carve a chunky road through the enchanted forest.

    “As I was working on the problem, I would have nightmares of Sailing Hawks,” says Linhart. “There’d be a house built around the Sacred Traverse, and I couldn’t climb it.”

    Beyond Dalla, another force reminded Linhart of the land’s ultimate possessor.

    “Sometimes in my dreams, mountain lions were coming toward me, stalking me,” says Linhart. “One night, I heard one scream, charging the tent. The next day, I took the tent out of there. I knew it wasn’t right anymore to use the land that way. I knew it was the lion’s territory, and it was my job to preserve and protect it.”

    “That animal told me to take action,” says forty-four-year-old Linhart. “Because the mountain lion is a symbol of leadership.”

    As Linhart meditated in The Secret Spot, seated on a big boulder (what he calls an “antenna for wisdom”), he uncovered the magic of Sailing Hawks:

    These rocks actually do talk.

    “It was super quiet,” says Linhart. “Nobody was there. I realized the only way to save The Secret Spot was to sell it to the city. The land told me to write letters to Jake Dalla. The Sailing Hawks told me, the mountain lions told me, the trees told me. So I wrote to Jake, You have to sell it to the city. This is what the land tells me to tell you. Signed, From The Land. Then I’d put them in his mailbox.”

    “I just didn’t want him to associate it with another person telling him what to do,” says Linhart. “I just wanted to plant the seed.”

    While Linhart was busy scribbling anonymous letters, Trails 2000 (Durango’s nonprofit trail-maintenance entity) was also engulfed in the mounting Sailing Hawks drama.

    “We recognized the value in the Jacob’s Cliffs area,” says Bill Manning, former director of Trails 2000. “The recognition came from the property owner warning that maybe the public wouldn’t be welcome here anymore.”

    “Some of us had heard that the landscape would be extra expensive to develop because of the geology,” says Manning, who worked with Trails 2000 from 1993 till 2006. “So that resulted in a little bit of hope that the landscape might remain an open area.”

    In 2005, after much negotiation, Dalla finally agreed to sell the 178 acres to the city for a cool $4.6 million. It is one of the highest prices paid for a single acquisition in Durango history—and one of Durango’s most historically significant purchases.

    “Sailing Hawks drove the effort to obtain a dedicated sales tax for open space,” says Manning.

    After the transaction was complete, Dalla made nice again with the users, showing up at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

    “Jake loved that land,” shares Linhart. “He told us how, as a boy, he and his friends would climb a feature there called Jacob’s Ladder, a route up the cliffs that they viewed as a stairway to heaven. When I saw him that day, he stuck his hand out to shake. He said, ‘This heaven is yours now. Take care of it.’ Then he left us with a big smile and disappeared into the veil.”

    Open Space

    Digging this? Subscribe today.

    “There’s this wonderful place that’s so close and so natural,” says Manning. “This is magic right next to home, and now it’s in public ownership. It made our Durango community that much more special.”

    Nowadays, multiple well-signed access points make Sailing Hawks a go-to for bikers, hikers, scrunblers (a combo sport of trail running and boulder scrambling), and their dogs: each happy in their personal rambling pursuits through these landslide leftovers, crunching juniper berries or fresh snow underfoot beneath the boughs of butterscotch- and vanilla-scented ponderosas.

    And then there are the climbers who deem Sailing Hawks as some of the greatest bouldering in Southwest Colorado. These folks forego ropes, shouldering a mattress and their world of hurt or drive or whatever force simmers under their skin and courses through their nature-struck veins.

    Some come to flex, while others come to find solace.

    The mountain lions, meanwhile, come to find camouflage in Mother Nature’s finest fashion: an all-night rain, dripping into a spring morning; a summer evening, flickering golden light through ochre-colored hardwoods crisping to fall; bewitching winters that melt back to green, once again revealing an adventure land of unbridled, whispering rubble.

    “All communities have land that is held as valuable,” says Duran. “We have a sense of responsibility to preserve our resources and protect the planet and all life forms. It is everyone’s mission to become educated and get involved personally, locally, nationally, and globally. Every area has a special place if you open your mind and heart to the people, the land, and the history.”

    For Linhart, deemed the Mayor of Sailing Hawks, it was his duty to make time to listen to the land—and then speak up for it.

    “When you love places, stand up for them,” says Linhart. “You can help things along. You can make a park before the land gets developed. The dreams came to me to do something, and I’m so glad I did. It could’ve been another outcome. So follow your dreams.”

    And for this man who’s poured his heart and soul, his animas, into the refuge, reset button, and escape plan that we run to when the world gets too loud or painful—this place is really not a secret spot after all.

    “The key is not trying to keep it for oneself,” says Linhart. “Everyone should come enjoy it—and treat it sacred.”

    Basecamped in Durango, Colorado, Joy Martin survives as a freelance writer who occasionally guides, ski instructs, delivers flowers, and whatever else it takes to maximize time outside. She’s partial to road trips, alpenglow, Nick Martin, and Jameson on the rocks. More about Joy on www.joydotdot.com.

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


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

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

    No Comments on The Secret Spot by Joy Martin

    Read More