Silent Partners by Luke Mehall

Nov 13 • Locations • 361 Views • No Comments on Silent Partners by Luke Mehall

I know he knows. Adam Lawton is proud. In every group of adventurers, there is a leader, and every great leader must be a visionary. Adam dreamed the dreams for the entire crew. He found excitement in little breakthroughs, like the time I got a job dishwashing at Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree—he couldn’t have been more stoked. I was elbow deep in suds when I heard his voice on the other end of the line. This was still in the days before everyone had cell phones, and the manager told me I had a phone call in the middle of a busy Friday night. There he was, full of admiration. I was living the dream, and he called me to proudly announce that.

by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Climbing Zine. This piece is published in Volume 11, now available. 

Banner photo: Adam Lawton in Indian Creek, circa 2011

I was “living the dream,” but sometimes living the dream feels like living the nightmare. To LTD can be lonely AF. And, what was the dream? Adam knew long before I did, and he was right. I was on the path to freedom: the freedom to climb and move about, the freedom to think fresh thoughts and to envision a life that was our little version of the American Dream. Before he died, Adam articulated to me his vision for our group of friends—it was simple: in each and every adventure town in the West, someone from our crew would live, and we would do all the adventures, from hopping trains like hobos to first ascents on desert towers. And everywhere we would go we would have a couch (or at least a floor) to crash on.

Adam is gone now, well, gone in the sense that he is no longer living in the flesh with us. “In the flesh” is a strange phrase, isn’t it? I still feel his presence, or the memory of his presence, all the time. I don’t try to act like I know what happens to us after we die—I don’t think anyone really knows except the dead.

Adam was killed in an avalanche. His motto was “ski fast; take chances,” and he lived up to it, right until the end. I never skied with Adam; most of our shared adventure time in the outdoors was spent climbing. We had future adventures planned, as all friends do, waiting for that time when something synched up, and we would have The Greatest Adventure Ever.

As a climber, I came of age with an ethic to seek out adventure. We sought the best of times—times that have nothing to do with the grade, only the challenge our abilities. To adventure is to enter some sort of unknown. To emerge successfully from an adventure ideally means that there has been some sort of growth in your soul. To do that with another human being ensures a bond is created, often lifelong friendship. My climbing memories are the best of times with the best of friends.

I like to believe that Adam shares these experiences with me, that somehow he knows. The day he died, I felt his spirit so strongly, so strongly it confirmed my belief in a higher power. I feel like he’s guided me, to the climber and writer I am today.

Digging deeper into the recesses of my memory, I am reminded of the many who have influenced my path. No human is an island; the interconnectedness of our paths runs deep. As climbers, we owe much to many, from the first climber who pounded a piton to the brave soul who tied a hemp rope around their waist with a bowline and set off into the unknown.

I can place my climbing partners in three categories: those who are no longer living, those who are still climbing, and those who no longer climb. It is easiest to stay in touch with my friends who still climb. We’ve stayed the course, on the path. Climbing is still one of the most important aspects of my life. I need climbing. I need that connection to the outdoors, the physical activity, the adventure, and the camaraderie. There are a couple of partners though who seemed to abandon “the path,” or they diverged from it, taking a fork in the road and ending up at a destination that designated our friendship to the past. That happens. I think climbing is an unusual glue that forges friendships in a very strong way. But when climbing is taken out of the friendship, two people can easily drift apart.

I haven’t talked to the first person that took me climbing in well over a decade. I met Caleb in high school, back in Illinois, and I sought him out because he was an obvious member of a counterculture. He wasn’t labeled as a dirtbag though; it would be years before I’d hear that word. He was a hippie. There were two hippies at my high school, and I was determined to make friends with both.

Like so many things in high school, it was an awkward friendship to start. We both had visible anger and angst. He could get away with smoking weed in his basement, so I’d go over and smoke weed there. I’d ask him questions about the Grateful Dead. He saw the very last Dead show in Chicago. I got turned on to the Dead a week before Jerry Garcia died, and for years I thought my true life path had been denied. Following the Grateful Dead around the United States seemed like the coolest existence ever. In fact, it seemed like it was my life’s purpose that had been altered by fate (or Jerry’s drug addictions). Oh, the dreams of adolescence. If Jerry had lived longer and The Dead continued to tour, I could easily be serving time on a drug sentence somewhere.

Caleb was a climber, and he mentioned it from time to time. It would be a couple years down the road before he ever took me. Eventually we went to Jackson Falls down south, and to our local gym. He had a cargo van and waxed poetic of van life before it was ever a hashtag.

We were friends of circumstance and interest. In many ways, I owe it all to him, this life I get to live now. I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe in karma. I’ve since taken a few hundred people climbing for the first time, during my days as a guide. Climbing is this light that we share, a torch that must be passed, if only to one other person.

I can’t even really say why our friendship parted ways. There wasn’t a big falling out. We just seemed to lose our camaraderie when we climbed together.

I pride myself on maintaining friendships, but as I mentioned earlier, when climbing is the glue, it’s a lot easier to stick together. I guess we all have someone like that in our lives, someone that formed who we became but didn’t join us on the journey.

Occasionally, I’ll drop by that old gym; it hasn’t changed much in nearly twenty years. I never climb there; I’ll just leave a zine or a book I’ve recently published. Sometimes the past is simply the past; it’s not nostalgic. And, sometimes the feeling of absent nostalgia is sadder than nostalgia itself. The torch of climbing was passed to me while I was in a deep darkness, and I did see the light, I really did, and I still see it today. So for that, I owe Caleb everything, but I know that everything is something I need to pass on to someone new.

Jerid was a wild man. He had the crazy eyes. We met on a mountain-rescue-team training in college. I wanted to be friends with him right away. Without any conscious effort, Jerid seemed to embody the essence of searching for adventure in climbing, what would now be considered old school but then was just normal. His tale of starting climbing was like something out of the 1960s. They bought a rope from a hardware store and climbed without protection, trying to lasso features, a reckless male teenager way of learning to climb which probably rarely happens anymore in the States. Insanely stupid and dangerous, and when he described it, it sounded awesome.

Jerid’s best friend Josh, a bold climber himself, died within the first year of our friendship. I had been suicidal the year before, and this death wrecked me. I barely knew Josh, but that death cut, and I finally learned the purpose of crying.

I don’t know how Jerid coped with that loss. To lose your best friend at twenty-one, goddamn. They were those two best friends who seemed to speak another language, the talk of madmen; they reminded me of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. They shared an insane enthusiasm for life itself. Jerid’s grieving period seemed to last the length of our time in college together, as if Josh were the one person in life who truly understood him, and now he was gone.

We carried our adventures into the sky together after Josh was gone. Misadventures seemed to be the rule, half-completed climbs, following the mantra of “if you go down, you can always go back up.” I think that’s a good motto.

I recall being scared shitless by the exposure on Castleton Tower. I recall Jerid’s fondness for sideways-placed nuts and hexes, pieces that were the definition of bomber and took some time to clean. I recall how slow we were as a big wall duo sometimes; I don’t actually think we were ever successful on a wall together, but we learned to bail, which is an invaluable skill. You never see photos of people bailing with haul bags in magazines, yet knowing how to do that will save your ass.

What we lacked in big wall skills we made up for in enjoying the car rides, smoking the devil’s lettuce, and blasting Led Zeppelin. I remember one time he rolled his old Ford Ranger on a dirt road by our local climbing area and didn’t want to call the cops, so we didn’t. Luckily, that thing landed right side up, and we easily towed it to a friend’s house.

Jerid had spent a summer in Yosemite. So Yosemite was always on the backburner as a conversation topic. One time, we loaded up a haul bag that weighed way too much and set off for Washington Column. Like usual, we were a shit show of astronomical proportions, probably didn’t even learn the lower out, and rather, just swung over violently into space like a chuffer. For some reason my biggest memory of that climb was one of his leads that took hours, and I got hungry. Peanut butter was our only food left, and it was at the bottom of the haul bag. I remember being almost upside down digging for that peanut butter and finally grabbed it. For the rest of the belay, I greedily ate peanut butter with my fingers until I heard, “Off belay.” Then we bailed.

Success feels the best in climbing, but I’ll never stop climbing with someone because we are both shit shows and don’t succeed. If the camaraderie is right, I’m always down. Laughter is success, and I know Jerid and I laughed a lot together. Success in other aspects of life has always been more important to me than success in climbing. So it wasn’t our failures that drew us apart; it was something else.

Jerid had a fondness for the booze. It’s hard to tell who has a problem, and who doesn’t, when you’re in your younger twenties. Basically, everyone who parties hard in college seems like they’re a candidate for alcoholism.

Jerid seemed to sink into drinking, and when he came to visit me in Joshua Tree one winter, it was very apparent. I picked him up at the airport in Palm Springs, and he promptly bought a bottle of whiskey and a guitar. An odd combination, I thought, to start a climbing trip, but hey, it is J Tree—I’ve seen weirder shit. These were the days when climbing was a number one priority, and I was in the best health and shape of my life. Jerid seemed more interested in substances than climbing, and I was annoyed by that.

One night, I checked in early to the tent. Jerid asked me if I had any weed, and I did, but I wasn’t in the mood, so I told him no. He started playing the guitar loudly, and I asked him to quiet down. Then it was real quiet.

In the morning, there was no trace of him. He was just gone. I was bummed and shocked. I was looking forward to climbing with my friend.

I didn’t have a cell phone and rarely checked a computer in those days. Some time later, I’d learned that he hitchhiked into J Tree, went to the J Tree Saloon with aspirations of playing his guitar, and then ended up hitching back to Palm Springs to catch a flight back home to Oregon. And we’ve never really hung out since.

Some time later, I heard that he got sober. I think he got more into biking than climbing. I got more and more into climbing, and thus the friends I am closest to are my climbing friends. That seems a little shallow to write, but it’s the truth.

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about how an adult only really has room for four or five friends in their life. I think, for many, the peak of having a lot of friends is in college, and then it slowly goes downhill as free time dwindles. Part of the magic that is being a climber is that we never close that door on new friendships. And once we tie in with someone, it’s different than just a normal, casual friendship.

We all have people we’ve lost touch with, and we’ve all lost people close to us, or if we haven’t, we will. Those who we failed to remain close to make us appreciate those we have stayed close with. And those we lost, well, I like to believe they are right there with us when we tie in, embodied perhaps as the lone raven in the sky, freer than we are, but still close.

Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. He is the author of four books, including American Climber. In 2018, he will publish his fifth book, The Desert, and release his second film, Just A Climber, with filmmaker Greg Cairns. More of his writing can be found at lukemehall.com.

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

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

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