Hope In The Desert (an excerpt from American Climber by Luke Mehall)

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Then, when all seemed like peace had been restored to my existence, 9/11 happened. I was out on a morning jog, something I’d added to my climbing training, and I was listening to the radio on my Walkman. The song on the radio was interrupted: the United States had been attacked, and the first World Trade Center had fallen. I went into the grocery store and ran into a friend. “We’re going to war,” he said.

by Luke Mehall, an excerpt from his memoir American Climber

Banner photo of Dave Marcinowski by Drew Ludwig

I gathered with all the other college kids in the student union. Everyone was shocked, and there was a major sense of confusion. Sadness was all about. I had lunch with a friend at The Firebrand; we talked about how we were going to war. I thought society was going to shut down, and, after lunch, I went to the grocery store and absurdly spent the remaining twenty dollars I had on ramen noodles. At work, we watched the TV coverage, and spoke to one another with the kind of care humans do after this sort of tragedy. That night, I drank beer with friends, and I fell asleep on someone’s floor.

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September 11th stunned America, and, in our remote mountain refuge of Gunnison, we felt it too. Of course, society did not shut down, and my feeling that it was going to shut down showed me how little I truly knew about the world and how it functioned. Our leader at the time, George W. Bush, didn’t seem to understand the workings of the world either, showing this by his inarticulate language and flexing of the military muscle in regions that had nothing to do with 9/11, while he lied and staked his case for war and set a course that I was saddened and confused by. With all of that going on, I was still determined not to sink into depression and to follow this new path. I’d already set sail on a new journey, and nothing short of death would stop it.

This world of machinery and war, it’s all too much, isn’t it? If there is a God who created us and is watching over us, God surely did not give us this life to fight so much, right? If I were still in Illinois, I know I would have sunk deeper into a darkness, given the coming war, but I had seen the light already, and the light came from the sun, and, if you were in the right place (nature) at the right time (sunrise or sunset), well, there was a certain beauty to it that made you believe. Believe in what? Hope.

And where do you find hope? Bob Dylan asked us that a long time ago in his epic poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” His answer, his hope, in the poetic way only Dylan can communicate, was in Woody Guthrie, as he lay dying in the Brooklyn State Hospital, and it was in the Grand Canyon at sundown. My hope was in the sunrise at Hartmans, as it awakened me every morning. It was in Yosemite, a place I truly regarded as a Promised Land that could save the lost soul. Hope was also in the red rock desert of the Colorado Plateau. Moab. Hope was in the desert.

We called it the desert when, in reality, Gunnison and my home at Hartmans was its own desert, a sagebrush-foothills sort of desert, but when you’re talking time and place, the time being the early 2000s and the place being the Moab desert, THE is where the emphasis is, because, when compared to any other desert for climbing, in the United States there is only truly one that stands supreme.

I’d had my first trip to the desert in 1999 over Thanksgiving. Caleb had invited me there and had given me some basic directions. I spent my first night cold, sleeping in my car at a quiet, frozen campground along the river. In the morning, I drove more into the canyon, and found a small dirt pullout where I would meet Caleb and his friends. When I hiked up to the wall, I noticed a climber seventy feet up a perfect crack, untethered from a rope. Not wanting to break his concentration, I quietly hiked past him. My naïve mind figured that was something normal, free soloing desert cracks.

When I found Caleb and the crew, I did the thing that I always do—I tied into the rope and tried a climb. Crack climbing is a masochistic art, and I fumbled and fought to learn how to insert my fingers, my hands, and my feet into the crack. Figuring this out was the hardest thing in the world, and, when I looked around at the others who had practiced and mastered this art, I was 100 percent sure I would never reach that level of technique and athleticism.

Mehall, the chuffer in 1999.

Mehall, the chuffer in 1999.

I arrived at the wall with my very basic climbing set up. I wore sweatpants and had a harness, a belay device, climbing shoes, and a fifty-meter rope. The innocence and lack of knowledge about climbing was oozing from my pores, mostly the sweatpants, and the gawking coming from my face. I knew what to do though—offer someone a belay, and later I would have a toprope set up.

One of the guys in the crew, who was British, wanted a belay; climbing is perhaps the best way to make a genuine connection with someone from another country. So I belayed. The climb was Fingers In A Light Socket, a finger crack, which finished at some desperate face moves, sixty feet up, and it’s one of the only climbs at the buttress you could actually use a fifty-meter rope on. He got to the crux, the difficult face moves, and hung on a cam. Eventually he figured out the moves, and, after a couple more hangs, he set up a toprope.

It was my turn to climb, but, just before I was about to tie in, the free solo guy emerged out of nowhere. He seemed high on adrenaline and wanted another fix.

He eyed our climb, and, after confirming we didn’t mind that he tried it, he climbed up, untethered to anything in this life, with only the tips of his fingers in the crack and the tips of rubber from his climbing shoes inserted into the wall.

Indian Creek is a crazy place, I thought to myself as I watched the madman climb alongside my blue rope, which was barely wavering from side to side in the light breeze.

He was fine for the first forty feet, and then he started to look shaky. Oh my fucking God, am I going to watch a guy fall to his death during my first hour at Indian Creek? I wondered.

My new British friend looked at me, not wanting to say anything but gravely concerned. Then, like it’s nothing, he gave up his free solo attempt, grabbed on to my rope, and then climbed down it, back to our perch on the ground. He mumbled something about how hard it was, and then disappeared into the day. Fifteen years later, as I write this, I’ve yet to see another person free solo in Indian Creek.

That next day there were some climbers, obviously Creek veterans, who were establishing a new route. I didn’t even really notice what was going on until they reached the top of the crack, and there were no anchors. So, they hauled up a power drill and swiftly drilled two holes, and then hammered expansion bolts into the wall. Most of the climbs I’d done had the same anchors, but this was the first time I’d witnessed a new route go up. Whoever said there’s nothing new under the sun was not a climber. For the rest of my life, I know there will always be new routes; you just have to know where to look. In the late 1990s there was more low-hanging fruit out in the Colorado Plateau than there is now, but the fruit is still ripe for the picking.

Flash forward a couple years, and we were just getting the taste for a desert fix.

I’d figured out the techniques, the basics, and spent plenty of time paying my dues, jamming every type and size of crack I could find. The adrenaline and endorphins that desert climbing creates is addicting, so much that we found ourselves returning as often as possible, striking while the iron was hot, and the nights were cool.

Tim was the ropegun, the energy I attached my climbing hopes and dreams to. He was a force to be reckoned with, and he was always the secret weapon we used as we climbed harder and harder.

Around this time, Tim became Two Tent Timmy. When I moved into a tent in Gunnison, Tim moved into a tent in Crested Butte, the epic mountain town 30 miles north of Gunny, where he was working at the time. Some friends went to visit him at his new home, a piece of real estate on National Forest land that he staked out by setting his tent up. What he did, that everyone thought was so memorable, was he put a tent inside another tent. The larger outer tent was where he kept his cooking supplies and other gear, and the inside tent was where he slept. Once the words Two Tent Timmy were uttered, it was a nickname for life.

This was perfect because there was another Tim. We worked together, and he was on the mountain rescue team, and he was interested in climbing. We struck a deal: I would join the rescue team and learn from him and his life-saving compadres, and we would teach him some things about climbing.

So, one day, Two Tent, Tim (the new Tim) and I were at Supercrack Buttress in Indian Creek, talking about what we were going to do the next day. A climber was eavesdropping, listening in to the process. He said, wisely, “You guys should check out the North Six Shooter.”

North Six Shooter. Photo: Keith Brett

North Six Shooter. Photo: Keith Brett

We inquired. Obviously we knew the formation—it was the most striking tower in all of Indian Creek: a slim crimson pistol that stood all alone, shot four hundred feet in the air and hovered there like a beacon.

We probably muttered some questions, asking about the crux and the gear, but what I remember most is his convincing statement: “It doesn’t get any better than the North Six Shooter.”

That night at camp, we looked through the guidebook, scribbled out a topo map of the pitches, and tried to hide our nervousness. Two Tent wasn’t nervous though. He lived for this stuff. It was like, at any time, he was ready to face his fears and try his hardest on the rock. I was usually in the opposite realm, unready to face my fear and hopeful that something would come up, so we could give up and get stoned, go back to the comfort zone. Secretly though, deep inside, I wanted to face my fear with confidence like Two Tent did. I wanted to live freely.

We drove Tim’s truck toward the mighty North Six Shooter. A few clouds hovered off in the distance, a storm brewing for sure. One of us mentioned cancelling the mission for cragging at the Supercrack Buttress again, but Two Tent’s persistence and vision carried us through the drive to park the truck, and we began hiking up. We totally blew the approach, and it took us two hours instead of one, often hiking on ball bearings, the point on a talus cone where the surface is unsteady, unpredictable, and you feel like you’re going to tumble down to certain injury if you slip.

Sweaty, already tired, confused, and disoriented, I looked up at the tower. There are only two main routes, and they are so obvious that a grandma with cataracts could point them out. Our intended line, the Lightning Bolt Cracks, shot up, and zigged and zagged back and forth, so divine, and perfectly shaped for the human fingers, hands, and feet, it was crazy to think they’d only first been climbed just after we were born. Since the gear, the camming devices necessary to protect cracks like these, was only invented in 1978, nearly every climb in the desert was done first in our lifetimes. (The ones that were done previous to this were mostly easy or dangerous endeavors, completed by pioneers that led the way to a golden age that is currently riding high.)

The other line, Liquid Sky, was a brutal overhanging squeeze chimney, even more obvious than the Lightning Bolt Cracks. I’d read about the climb in a magazine, and it had such a daunting reputation that a thousand people look at it, for every one that tries it. The major rumor was that you could become stuck in it, and, if you fell, you would fall so deeply into it, you could die, and they would never be able to retrieve your body. Rumors are rumors though. But I’ve yet to climb that thing, so I can’t confirm or deny.

Two Tent racked up with our meager selection of gear, though growing by the day. That’s something about climbing—your gear, especially if you’re a dirtbag, is the most expensive of your possessions. When you embark on a climb, you pool up all your gear, and it becomes one communal thing. Two Tent went up with everything and navigated his way through the first crack system, eventually pulling through an overhanging off-width squeeze. Then he slowed down.

Two Tent was rarely slowed down, and Tim and I noted the rope coming to a halt. We looked at each other and whispered what we were thinking. I was belaying and kept my focus on being ready for Two Tent to fall, and Tim had his eyes on the weather; the clouds were building and building, and he mentioned that a thunderstorm was inevitable.

It was, and, just as Tim suggested it, thunder started.

Exposure is a big concept in climbing. Sometimes exposure means two thousand feet of air beneath your climbing shoes; at this particular moment, we were exposed to lightning. The instinct is to get the hell out of there, but I was tethered to Two Tent, holding the rope for his belay, and he was facing a thin, blank section, trying to wiggle in gear, but nothing fit. We yelled back and forth, and he decided to down climb to a chockstone, wedged into the wide crack he’d just passed. The chockstone had some webbing around it, and he clipped a biner to it and lowered down to our perch. Thunder clapped all around, and, finally, it was time to book it.

We scurried off the hill, slipping and sliding, but making it swiftly back to the truck, while thunder and lightning erupted all around us. Just when we got back to the truck, it really let loose. The heavens were purple, with a hundred flashes of lightning going off at a time, thunder erupting so often, you couldn’t tell what lightning was connected with what thunder. As we drove away, we couldn’t have been happier to be in the truck, and the majestic desert was soon in the rear view mirror as we headed back to Gunnison.

This piece is an excerpt from Mehall’s memoir, American Climber, available in print and on Kindle. 

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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, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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