A Campfire Tale With The Old Man In The Desert by Stewart M. Green

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The sun’s last rays glance across the underside of a cloud-swept November sky as it sets south of the La Sal Mountains’ pointed peaks. The light, poking through a swath of blue above the horizon, sets the cloud bellies on fire, creating a tapestry of orange and gold and pale gray, and bathing Lost World Crag, a long sandstone cliff escarpment rimming an unnamed mesa in far western Colorado, in an unearthly glow.


by Stewart M. Green (note: this story is published in Volume 14, now available) 

Banner photo: Fred Beckey and Eric Bjornstad after the first ascent of The Bride near Moab, Utah. May 1971. Photo: Eric Bjornstad Collection


Two men sit in unfolded chairs, watching the show. Eric, his chair pulled against his portable plastic picnic table, holds a black mug filled with Franzia red wine. Brian sits to the side of the fire pit, legs crossed, his black-and-white dog, Easton, curled against his feet. I walk toward them, holding a chilled bottle of Fat Tire from the ice chest on my truck’s tailgate and a camp stove to make burritos.


“I’m going to make some burrito supremes,” I say.


I fire up the one-burner Coleman stove and turn the flame low. I prepare the first one on a cutting board. Rosarita refried beans fresh from a can, extrasharp yellow cheese, and sliced tomatoes all heaped on a tortilla. Shove it in the fry pan and let it simmer.


“Would you like the first one?” I ask Eric. “I can put it in your bowl.”


“Oh, thank you.”


“Do you want a beer, Eric?”


“No, I’m fine. I’m going to have wine.”


I walk over to Eric’s old white Ford Explorer and pour some wine in his black mug at the back of my truck. Back at the campfire, I hand it to him, saying, “Only the finest box wine—Franzia.”


“It has fewer calories than any other wine,” Eric says, looking into the mug. “God dammit, Stewart. Fill it all the way to the brim! I like it full. I don’t want no candy-ass glass.”


I walk over and bring the box to the table. “There, Eric, you can fill to your heart’s content.”


I first met Eric Bjørnstad in late March, 1973. It was spring break at the University of Colorado, and I sped over with Kurt Rasmussen from Colorado Springs to meet up with Jim Dunn and Douglas Snively, two climbing buddies who were roaming about the canyon country on a month-long expedition. They had already climbed a bunch of towers, including the first ascents of Castleton’s North Face and The Hindu. Our sights were set on doing the second ascent of Moses, a proud five-hundred-foot-high tower that thrusts above Taylor Canyon in the remote western half of Canyonlands National Park.


Eric, along with Fred Beckey and three others, made the first ascent of Moses in three days a few months prior in October, 1972. Now Eric was going to drive us back to Moses for our attempt. Jim said, “You got to meet Eric. He has this really cool teahouse in Moab.” So, after greeting Jim and Doug up on the River Road, we caravanned down to Main Street, Moab, and stopped at the Tamarisk Tea House.


The place, on the west side of the street opposite today’s Eddie McStiff’s brewery, had a twenty-four-page menu, over a hundred varieties of herbal teas, and a big brass espresso machine with an eagle perched on top. It was quite out of place for Moab in 1973, then still a rustic back-roads town not far removed from the post–World War II uranium boom and bust. But a teahouse in Moab—amazing! Eric knew how to do things right though. He knew about running a teahouse. At night, candlelight glowed on all the tables at the Tamarisk. Fresh flowers also adorned every table because, as Eric said, “I gave a phosphate to the local kids if they would bring me a bouquet of wildflowers every day. It cost me a nickel to make a phosphate, so I had fresh flowers every day. I also played only classical music, low. It was a neat place.”


Eric fired up the espresso machine and made us steaming cups of thick black coffee. We all sat down, and Eric fired up our imaginations with his stories of Moses’s first ascent, about how he and Fred Beckey had discovered it during an aerial reconnaissance of Canyonlands in 1970 with the express purpose of finding some good unclimbed towers. Their route, up dead-vertical cracks slicing the north face, reminded Eric of both grim walls in the Canadian Rockies and the slender spires in Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation to the south. In those days just before the popularity of clean climbing and nuts to protect cracks from scarring, the pair hammered their way up flared cracks by pounding metal pitons of various sizes into the cracks; clipping a carabiner through the piton eye; clipping the rope, which snaked down to a belayer who paid out slack or held it taut, through the carabiner; and then making vertical progress by standing in four-rung stirrups fashioned from one-inch webbing.


Eric Bjornstad hand-drills a bolt ladder at the Valley of the Gods about 1970, UT. Photo: Eric Bjornstad Collection


In the spring of 1973 when I met him, Eric, only thirty-eight years old, was already a legendary climber. After moving to Seattle from California in the 1950s, he assembled an impressive résumé of first ascents, including the North Face of Mount Howser in the Canadian Bugaboos, the first winter ascent of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies, the North Face of Mount Slesse, Mount Seattle in the St. Elias Range in Alaska, the second ascent of the fearsome West Peak of The Moose’s Tooth in remote Alaska, and the Zodiac Wall, a wild grade VI route on the sheer two-thousand-foot-high granite face of Squamish Chief outside Vancouver.


In the sixties, Eric developed a passion for Moab and the desert southwest, scaling lots of tottering sandstone spires that most climbers these days would shudder to think about climbing then, given the primitive gear, the lack of information, and the area’s utter remoteness from civilized America. Eric, partnered mostly with pioneer climbers Fred Beckey and Harvey Carter, amassed a first-ascent tick list of wild and spooky desert climbs—Echo Tower in the Fisher Towers; The Middle Sister, Eagle Rock Spire, Jacob’s Ladder, and Chinle Spire in Monument Valley; Echo Pinnacle and The Bride outside Moab; and Moses and Zeus in Canyonlands National Park.


Brian Shelton and I drove over from Colorado Springs to the Lost World Crag a couple days before. I was checking out Lost World and nearby Atomic Energy Crag for the revised second edition of my book, Rock Climbing Colorado, which came out in 1995. We camped the night before at Atomic Energy and spent the day scrambling around the cliff, making notes about a few new routes and then climbing a couple bolted lines. I thought Eric planned to meet us at the Atomic Energy campsite, right off road EE22, the evening before. He was under the impression that the meeting site was below Lost World. Crossed wires and crossed purposes.


But now we’re here. A fire, fueled by a stack of piñon pine and juniper wood that I collected and broke into manageable logs, roars against the boulder face. Brian sits back, a rum and coke in hand, and listens. Eric, fueled by a half-full box of Franzia, talks about the strange twists and turns of his life, about his guidebook writing, about his loves and coffeehouses and jobs and adventures and climbing partners.


Now, of course, Eric is a bit of a curmudgeon. Well, not a bit, he is a curmudgeon, but he’s old enough and experienced enough to have earned that accolade, to rest on those cranky laurels. Heck, when a guy gets old enough and has put up with enough crap in his life, he can proudly call himself a curmudgeon. Eric’s earned that title.


“I had my seventieth birthday last year,” he says. “October 23. So I just turned seventy-one a couple weeks ago. I laid low this year. But I had a big party on the seventieth. About sixty people showed up. Joe Slansky, Jim Beyer came by, Charlie Fowler, and all kinds of notables. It was a great party. I did take out my little book and they all signed in so I could go back and read all the names.”


Eric, like me, has written a lot of rock climbing guidebooks. His original Desert Rock book, a guide to everything worth climbing on the Colorado Plateau in the 1980s, was the first guide to routes, rocks, and towers in the canyon country. The book, published in 1988, is now a prized collector’s item. Ads appear on eBay, selling the book for hundreds of dollars. Other requests for copies are found on web forums, pleading for someone to sell an elusive copy.


Even Eric owns only a couple copies now. One he marked up with prodigious notes carefully scratched by red pen. “The only good copy I have left,” he says, “was signed by David Brower, Fred Beckey, and I can’t remember who else.”


Later at the fireside, Eric says, “That Desert Rock book took me three years. Eight thousand hours of my life. I went through anything ever published about climbing in the desert. I got a hold of several climbers in Jackson Hole and the Tetons. I made numerous trips to Boulder, numerous trips to Salt Lake. I did a lot of traveling to research it.”


“What exactly defines a tower?” I ask. “That’s the million-dollar question. Some of these ones people call towers are really just pillars leaning against a bigger face, or they’re semidetached from a mesa.”


“There are hundreds of towers,” says Eric. “Hundreds. I don’t even have a definition of a tower. I just have to decide what a tower is. I’m starting with all the obvious towers. And all the stuff on the Navajo lands, The Totem Pole, Chinle Spire. That stuff. But with strong warnings because so many of those climbs are illegal. There’s still an ordinance at Window Rock with a ban on climbing at the reservation, but a lot of the individual Navajos don’t pay any attention to that. They give permission if you ask. I don’t think people are climbing Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly though. Spider and Shiprock are sacred. You’ll never get permission.”


Eric is a longtime Moab local. For years he lived in a house trailer on Powerhouse Road at the entrance to Mill Creek Canyon on the town’s east side. Lots of climbers stopped by his trailer to say hello, to garner information on routes, to meet the legend. Eric keeps a logbook for everyone to sign, date, and scrawl comments. Some of the notables, as Eric calls them, include the late, great German climber Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, John Roskelley, John Long, and Bobbi Bensman.


Eric Bjornstad at his trailer on Powerhouse Road in Moab, UT. August 1997. Photo by the author.


He also has a paperback copy of The Eiger Sanction from when he worked as a rigger and stand-in for Clint Eastwood when it was filmed in Monument Valley in 1974. Both Eastwood and George Kennedy signed the frontispiece. “God dammit,” Eric says, holding it up for me in his trailer. “I wish I had it in hardcover. This goddamn paperback is falling apart.”


Eric once told me, with a touch of pride in his voice, that he had never cleaned or swept out his trailer. It looked it too. When the wind blew in March, it seemed that small sand dunes appeared before your eyes along the crack below the door. I always told him that the inside of his trailer was like a third world country. In late 2005, however, Eric got word that he was being evicted from his home, that the whole area was going to be razed and luxury condos for rich folks were going to be built on the site.


“The trailer park that I’ve lived in for sixteen years has been bought by a developer,” he says. “Twenty-four units are being kicked out. There’s a real crisis in housing in Moab. Fifty-seven percent of the people that live in Moab are below the poverty level. A lot of second and third homes are going in there. And the people that live there can hardly afford it anymore.”


He found temporary digs in a small trailer park off Kane Creek Road near the Colorado River on the west side of town. Eric had to desert his big trailer, pack up “eighteen feet” of books and stash them in Joe Slansky’s basement, and buy an eighteen-foot trailer to park as a temporary living space. He’s on Moab’s list for rent assistance. “I’m sixth on the list, although I have to find a house that will let me keep two dogs.” Six months later, Eric had moved to first on the list. An opening came up for a house trailer in central Moab. He took his dogs, packed up again, and moved in.


So Eric, after all these years, can rightly be considered a Moab local. Eric wears the distinctive look of a true desert rat—the kind that prowls around in all the scrappy corners of hidden sandstone canyons; the kind that knows where to find the best rock-art panels left by the Ancestral Puebloans over a thousand years ago; the kind that can tell you about remote seeps that drip clear drinking water; and the kind that can identify all the native plants and weeds and trees and flowers. He sports a shaggy gray beard, and his receding hair sweeps back off his forehead. Deep lines crease his sun-weathered face, and crow’s feet radiate from squinting his eyes in the bright desert sunlight. I usually tell folks that the best way to describe Eric’s appearance is to think about some old historic photograph from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection with a caption that might read: “Civil War veteran prospecting in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains, Utah. 1875.”


Eric—his full name is Reginald Munger Sullivan Bjørnstad—is an anachronism, a man out of time. And while I know he likes modern conveniences, it seems that he lives with one foot in this century and one in the nineteenth. But he does like television and, of course, his beloved classical music and opera. In January 1999, I stopped by Eric’s trailer on a cold morning. A low fog hung over Moab, riming skeletal trees with crystal ice. Eric, working away on glass ornament etchings, which he sells for extra cash, sat on his couch, amid piles of books, papers, and photographs. In the corner sat two small televisions stacked atop a larger one. Each played a different program, but the sound was muted. Instead, an opera, something by Verdi I think, boomed from his stereo system. Eric simply said that distractions made the work go faster.


I stoke the fire with a long stick.


“Do you need anything, Eric?” I ask.


“No,” he replies. “I’m fine. I got my wine right here.”


“Okay,” I say, adding more wood onto the blaze. “Just let me know. Oh, when did you first come to Moab?”


“Well, I first came to Moab in, I think, sixty-nine,” replies Eric. “I would come and spend a month at a time, camped out at Linn Ottinger’s rock shop. But it was sixty-nine that I sold my coffeehouse in Cincinnati, The Epicurean on Mount Adams, and came here with Lucia. Then I got married and divorced to Lucia, who just inherited thirteen million dollars, and I’m not in touch with her. That’s a bad deal!


“In the early seventies, I started the Tea House Tamarisk in Moab. I owned that when I first met you and Jimmie, before you guys went and climbed Moses. But my best coffeehouse was Queequeg Gallery Coffee House, same name as my dog, in Seattle. I had live entertainment every night. I hired only out-of-state folk singers. The music was broadcast live on KLXM-FM radio every weekend. Had a big stage with a big on-the-air light, and there was a rotating art gallery. Had a gas torch out in front. It had marble tables. The marble tables I confiscated with a friend one late-midnight hour from the deserted Seattle jail. They were dividers in the urinals. They made beautiful tables. Twenty-four of ’em. And I had two chess masters who played there all the time. Two grandmaster chess players. I had a GO board set up and chess. God, it was a neat place. I ran that ’til my lease ran out in sixty-seven.


“Before that, I had the coffeehouse Eigerwand a block up University Avenue, and then I opened a place in Tacoma, Washington, thirty miles south. I had three coffeehouses going at once. But the moneymaker was the Queequeg Gallery Coffee House. It opened with Jesse Fuller. Ya ever hear of Jesse Fuller? A blues singer. Very famous back in the sixties. He had four albums out. The best songwriter of the San Francisco Bay blues. When I opened the Queequeg, I invited all the media, magazines, newspaper, radio, TV. At the pre-opening, they all came, and there were just dozens of great articles written about it. Jesse Fuller played for two weeks, and every night I had a line up to a block long to get in.”


“So after that, you got out of the coffee business and moved to Moab?” I ask.


“No,” says Eric. “Then I moved with Karen to Warrensburg, Missouri. She was a go-go dancer and wanted to go back to school. She had gone to Central Missouri State College in Warrensburg for a semester and wanted to go back. I sold two coffeehouses and closed the Queequeg. So I moved to Warrensburg with her and opened a coffeehouse there that is still operating. The lady that I sold it to in the late sixties still keeps it open. Right on Main Street. It’s called Coffee House Eigerwand It’s a moneymaker for her, I guess.”


“And Karen, I heard from her a couple years ago,” he says, laughing. “She called me from Okinawa, Japan. She had become a PhD English professor. And she started as a go-go dancer. She said, ‘Hello, Eric.’ I immediately knew it was Karen even though we hadn’t been in touch for over thirty years. I said, ‘Karen, how did ya know that I was in Moab?’ She had camped with us when Fred Beckey and Harvey Carter and I had done the first ascent of Echo Tower in the Fisher Towers. She knew I liked Moab, so she just looked my name up and found my phone number and called me.”


She had a couple Japanese students who wanted to visit America, so she thought perhaps she would send them over to Moab and let Eric take them around for a week. “So she sent a thousand-dollar check. I got them climbing lessons. They camped at Big Bend. I went there every evening, sat around the campfire, and told stories with them. Got them on a river trip and a four-wheel-drive trip. They had a great time. Then two months later, I got another call from her. She was in Idaho or Montana visiting relatives. Said she wanted to come down and visit. She said, ‘I get in on the train in Green River at four in the morning; you don’t have to pick me up then.’ But I was there to pick her up. She stayed ten days. It was kinda neat seeing her. She went from go-go dancer to PhD.”


After four years in Missouri, Eric broke up with Karen. She moved in with Hans Kogie, a “Nazi guy who was in Hitler’s SS,” who taught romance languages and had received a million-dollar divorce settlement. One day Eric put the boxing skills he learned as a young man to good use. “I went over to settle things with Karen, and he came to the door and said, ‘I’m taking care of Karen’s business from now on.’” Eric, surprised and angry, slugged him in the face. “He just dropped to the floor. I didn’t know if I had killed him or not. I ran back to my van and took off. I drove around for a long time and then decided there was no avoiding this; I would have to go to the hospital.”


Eric got twelve stitches and a shot of penicillin at the hospital and had a severe reaction to the drug. “They wanted to hospitalize me,” he says. “I refused that. So they said, ‘You better take your temperature every half hour, and if it goes up one degree, you’re going to die. You better get back here fast.’”


Back at his coffee shop, Sarah, a local librarian, “saw my hand all bandaged and took sympathy and started washing my dishes. Kinda helping me out.” She had just gotten a divorce from a local disc jockey and wanted out of town, so Eric moved with Sarah to Cincinnati, and he opened The Epicurean. “Neat coffeehouse. I lived in a penthouse apartment, drove a Jaguar XK-E, and had a huge, huge Great Dane. Its head stuck out one side of the XK-E and its tail stuck out the other side. Lived in my penthouse apartment above the Ohio River. Great days. I would take long vacations and come west and climb. But then I broke up with Sarah and moved to Moab and opened the Tea House Tamarisk. And I married Lucia.”


Eric ran the Tamarisk for five years, selling it in 1975 when he divorced Lucia and went to work for Harvard University as a researcher in an air pollution lung study. “It was a good job for a climber,” he says. “A perfect job for a climber. I did that for ten years. I was my own boss, but between 1975 and 1985, I had to move every four months. They paid me so much money I couldn’t quit, and we only worked eight months out of the year. It was called the Harvard Lung Study or the Six Cities Study.”


During these years, Eric developed a new love interest. “I dated a lady in Knoxville named Judy Gaston,” he remembers. “I’m still in touch with her. We still exchange birthday and Christmas presents even though she’s married now to a professor. She was a weaver. She owns the Emperor’s New Clothes, an art and clothing store in Knoxville. I would spend my Christmas month with Judy and do a lot of hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. She would come up to each survey site for a week or ten days, and we would play tourist. Eat out at all the fancy restaurants. See all the tourist sights in each place. She taught me weaving, so I took up weaving, mostly rug weaving. I bought a little spinning wheel and spun my own yarn.”


After spending a week at the beginning of summer with Judy, Eric would pack up and head back to Moab to climb and guide climbing. “I would usually climb a few desert spires,” says Eric. “Then I would fill my thermos with espresso and drive nonstop to Seattle to meet Fred Beckey. It would take exactly twenty-four hours driving straight through. Fred and I would drive to Alaska or Canada and climb the rest of the summer.”


In the summer of 1984, Eric learned that a couple of guidebook writers were amassing material for a desert climbing guide. That, he says, “was finally the catalyst I needed to resign from the study. I phoned in my resignation January first in 1985. Came back to Moab and moved in with Linn Ottinger in the back of his rock shop. His wife had just left him, so he was really happy to see me. I became his housewife. I did all the cooking. I did all the laundry. Did all the dishes. I got free rent. He had a big round table in his trailer, so I put my electric typewriter on the table and wrote the guidebook there. Later I gave the electric typewriter to Charlie Fowler, and I got a computer. But the original Desert Rock was written on that electric typewriter.”



Eric dives into his second burrito with his fork. I ask, “You did a lot of climbing with Beckey and Harvey Carter, didn’t you?”


“Yeah,” Eric says between mouthfuls, “I did a lot of climbing with Fred Beckey. He was always one of my main climbing partners. Fred told me this year, a couple months ago, he said, ‘I’m going to miss Moab this year.’


“He almost always came and visited me in Moab. He was on his way to Zion. Called from Salt Lake. He’s still living out of his car. Amazing. Born in twenty-one, I think. He’s eighty-five or pretty close to that. He’s still climbing. Harrrumph. He often just travels around with some young jock, and they do the route and he Prusiks up. And he’s slogging up some snow peak every now and then.


“Harvey Carter and I are real close friends too. I’ve known Harvey for many years, but he’s like Fred Beckey. He’s not a person you want to recommend to your friends. He can be a difficult person to get along with. But I never had a problem with Harvey.”


“Yeah,” I say, “I talked to Harvey not long ago. I met him at a coffee shop in Manitou Springs.”


“He’s hard to get a hold of,” says Eric. “I guess Harvey lives up behind Pikes Peak on his property, but I need a mailing address. He probably doesn’t have email. I need to send him a bunch of the stuff about towers he’s done and see if he has answers. I heard he’s still having big problems with his back. I don’t know how old he is but he can’t be eighty. Nah, I can’t believe he’s that old.”


Fred Beckey, Harvey Carter, and Eric Bjørnstad, the three cranky musketeers. A lot of classic desert towers were climbed among the three of them, together and apart. Some pretty proud first ascents like Moses, Beckey Buttress on Shiprock, Chinle Spire, The Bride, and lots of other wild rides. One the three did do together was the first ascent of Echo Tower, a narrow six-hundred-foot-high rib of fluted Moenkopi sandstone topped by gargoyles formed like frozen-meringue sculptures, in the Fisher Towers. The Fishers are one of those strange, unearthly places commonly found on the Colorado Plateau, a grotesque assortment of fins, towers, and lumps caked with dried mud smeared into vertical grooves and colored with a rainbow of brown hues. The trio ascended Echo’s North Chimney, a steep, open chimney filled with grit and grime, over five days in mid-October, 1966.


“That route had some pretty wild climbing,” recalls Eric. “Five days. Five hundred and fifty feet. Two bivouacs. Seventy-one bolts. Remember that lady Karen I was telling you about, the go-go dancer who’s now a PhD? She camped with us during that climb. We were up there on the second pitch early in the morning, and she was sitting around a fire down at the base. It was colder than hell. Fresh snow on the La Sal Mountains. It was really, really cold. She had this huge big coat on with toggle switches. She had her back to the fire and was reading a book, then her coat caught on fire. She was running around in circles screaming.” Eric laughs.


“The rock was really steep, so we could see her when we looked down between our legs, running around below us. We shouted and finally convinced her to lie down and make a hole in the sand. She did that and put it out. It was a close call. She was trying to get the toggles off, and of course, she couldn’t undo even one in her panic. We felt helpless a couple hundred feet in the air. That was the first ascent of Echo Tower. Third climb ever done in the Fishers. Harvey had been on the first ascent of the Kingfisher, which was the second route done in the Fishers.”


The following year, the trio, along with Montana climber Pat Callis, did the first ascent of Middle Sister in Monument Valley near the border of Arizona and Utah. The tower, one of The Three Sisters, lies on the Navajo Reservation and is currently off-limits to climbers.


“It was in April, 1967,” says Eric. “Harvey was leading; he was up there hammering away. Drilling a hole for a bolt. He was hammering so fast that the drill bit broke. Then he started hammering the broken drill bit, and he hit his hand. There was blood streaming down the rock, but he wouldn’t give up the lead. I wanted to lower him off, but he was up there cussing like a madman. Then he tore off the bottom of his shirt and wrapped his hand and finished the lead. He was a tough SOB.”


That same year, 1967, Beckey finally received permission from the National Park Service to climb the Great White Throne, the biggest, baddest wall in Zion National Park in Southwest Utah. The 2,500-foot face, one of Zion’s landmarks, was the sandstone equivalent of the big granite walls being climbed in Yosemite Valley during that golden age.


“Fred applied and finally got written permission for Great White Throne,” says Eric. “The climbing party was going to be Fred Beckey, Galen Rowell, myself, and Pat Callis. To climb it though, we had to have a rescue unit standing by.”


Eric laughs. “We had to put together a rescue team. I’ve got copies of all these letters to the Zion superintendent saying who was on the rescue team, which was a whole bunch of very famous climbers. Warren Harding was on it. What other notables, oh, what’s his name that started North Face. Susie was his wife. Doug Tompkins. He started North Face, and then he sold it and started Esprit. Esprit was the first clothing company worldwide to gross a billion dollars. Now Tompkins lives in South America down by Patagonia. He has a gigantic, huge nature preserve. It’s enormous. Incredible size. But he was an early pioneer in Yosemite.”


“Harumph, Stewart,” Eric says after taking a long sip of wine from his plastic mug, “we’re in the wrong business, writing goddamn guidebooks. I’ve never been much into making money anyway. It would be nice. I saw in Outside magazine that Yvon Chouinard grossed 155 million last year. I climbed with him back in the sixties, and he didn’t have any more money than I had. We did the seventh ascent of the north face of Liberty Ridge on the side of Mount Rainer, and I bouldered with him at Stoney Point in California.”


After getting permission and putting a rescue team together, Eric had to bail because of other appointments, leaving Beckey, Rowell, and Callis to make the first ascent of the longest sandstone climb yet done in the world.


“Oh,” says Eric, “I finally met Huntley Ingalls not long ago. That was really neat. I saw him at the Utah Open Lands dedication at Castleton Tower. He came out because he did the first ascent of Castleton Tower with Layton Kor in 1961. I had, of course, talked to Huntley on the phone, but I had never met him. I took him out to breakfast in Moab the next day, and we had a good visit before he went back to Boulder. I’ll get him to write something for the desert towers book. He discovered so many of the towers, and he also did the first ascents of all the best ones. He was a geologist. He discovered Castleton and Standing Rock. I wonder if he gave it the name Standing Rock? It’s called Totem Pole on the Park Service plaque at Grandview Point. The national park calls it Totem Pole. But he did a lot of first ascents on the towers. North and South Six-Shooter. The Titan. Castleton. And I think one other desert tower. First ascents. Oh, Standing Rock.”


Eric laughs and counts them off on his hand. “Pretty good record.”


The fire burns down. I get up and throw a couple juniper logs on the coals. The dry bark flares brightly. Heat radiates off the boulder wall. We sit and watch the flames as the logs catch fire.


Eric gets up and plods over to the table with his empty mug.


“Plenty of wine here if anyone’s interested. Good for the blood.”




Eric passed away on December 17, 2014 at the Canyonlands Care Center in Moab after a long illness. He had suffered a severe hip and lower back injury in 1986, after falling onto rubble and almost tumbling over a thousand-foot cliff. Eric lunged for a fixed rope and grabbed it, saving himself from certain death.


“That was the only serious climbing accident I ever had,” he later told me, “but I damaged my sciatic nerve.” That problem lingered with Eric for the rest of his life, eventually hobbling him. He spent the last years of his life bedridden at the care facility with a view of the Moab Rim. I visited him a couple months before his death. We talked and then looked out the window at the setting sunlight shafting across his beloved cliffs and spires.


Eric, besides writing about desert climbing, also worked on his autobiography. He gave me parts of the book, as he wrote them, for comments and suggestions. It was an intriguing manuscript that detailed his climbing career, which began after he was trapped in a cave as a teenager. I always encouraged Eric to work on the book, but he was often distracted by glasses of wine, writing poetry, and taking his dogs to the river every day. Unfortunately, Eric crossed to the great desert in the west before the autobiography was complete. Perhaps one day it will be resurrected as a tribute to the man and the red land of standing rocks.


Stewart M. Green, a photographer and author of over 40 books, began climbing in Colorado Springs as a 12-year-old kid in 1965. He made many early ascents of classic desert towers and help discover, with his climbing partners Jimmie Dunn and Billy Westbay, the potential for crack climbing at Indian Creek Canyon. He still resides in Colorado Springs, putting up routes on Pikes Peak and heading west to hidden corners of the canyon country.


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