The expenditure of energy on a trip of this sort is massive and one only has so much of this energy. Energy that is accumulated as a person becomes stronger physically, that is called endurance. But the energy that is of such great importance to me is called magic energy. Everyone has this magic in one form or another and mine comes from love and experience in the mountains. If you are open to their powers, you can grasp, save and use some of their wisdom.
—Tom Pulaski, journal entry: Mount Logan, Canada. May 26th, 1980
Growing up hearing stories of my “Crazy Uncle Tom” climbing massive rock walls and mountains around the world in the 1970s certainly set the tone for my own life as a climber. A fragment of a story, some old black-and-white photos, and a journal were all I had as a youth to paint the image of my superhero uncle who lived his life completely immersed in the art of climbing. The mystery of my uncle left an impression on a boy who was searching for a path. What was all this magic he was talking about? Uncle Tom grew up in the same small town in upstate New York that I did, but somewhere along the way, his path diverged from the norm, and he found his way out west and became a world-class climber.
Story by Adam Ferro, published in Volume 16, now available. Banner photo of the author in the Black Canyon, Colorado.
“Did you know, Adam, that Uncle Tom once spent five days sleeping on the Painted Wall?!” my mother once proclaimed as if she actually knew what that meant.
“Look at this picture of your uncle climbing in Peru!”
“Your uncle lived in a tent…a tent!”
The bits and pieces came in throughout my young life, yet I still had no idea who this guy actually was. I mean, I had never even met him, and he was already my hero. I remember poring over a journal he kept during a 28-day expedition to climb and ski Mount Logan in 1979. I must have read that thing twenty times. Because I was an impressionable youth, his journal served as my bible, and I didn’t even know why. He was filled with passion and romanticized the life lessons learned while pushing yourself in the mountains. He was enamored with the beauty of finding one’s mental and physical limits and how climbing was the most beautiful medium in which to do so.
From an early age, I wasn’t sure how, and I wasn’t exactly sure when, but I knew I was going to leave my small-town upstate–New York life and find myself in the mountains, just like he did in the early ’70s.
Before I ever became a climber, I almost became a climber. My first glimmer of hope came when I was eighteen, and I saw climbing for the first time. I remember being overwhelmed with excitement when my skateboarder bro proclaimed that he had found it.
“Climbing!” he exclaimed with his chest puffed and his arms crossed.
“Sick, dude,” I responded, still hazy from the recent bong-hit session.
“Climbing,” he said, calmer now, with the confidence of a seventeen-year-old who’d just figured out life.
“Yeah, man, my uncle in Colorado’s a climber. I’m stoked. Let’s do it!” I responded.
I wish I could have seen the look on my face as my bro and I parked the car and stepped foot into a disgusting, undersized dungeon with hordes of sweaty dudes in muscle tees, all trying to pull on the same tiny pink holds.
“Climbing, man…climbing!” my bro said.
“Dude, I don’t know what this is, but this isn’t climbing! What my uncle does in Colorado, man, that’s climbing. This is stupid. I’m going home.”
I had no idea at the time how important my comical rant would be to the future of my own climbing. When you grow up hearing war stories of multiday adventures on the Painted Wall, it’s no surprise when you’re seriously disappointed to see the current rendition of what was considered to be climbing.
In 2008, when I finally did move to the fabled land of Gunnison, Colorado, I found exactly what I was looking for. What Gunnison lacked in muscle tees and pink climbing holds, it made up for with the Black Canyon and real, raw adventure.
Arriving in a small town where my uncle was (and still is) a local legend certainly set the tone for the climber I hoped to become. My uncle was such a badass, and yet here I was, a young, scrawny kid in goofy board shorts trying to figure out how to control my chaotic stoke. My uncle, always the quiet, stoic one, simply said to me one day, “Just go to The Black, Adam.”
And with those simple words, my path became infinitely clearer.
Understanding the magic my uncle had written about was starting to take hold of me. I was beginning to experience what he was seeing in the early ’70s, and I longed for more.
Even ten years ago, climbing still seemed to be somewhat counterculture—at least in Gunnison—and I loved that about it. I came from a skateboarding background but had become disillusioned with the sport and its newly excessive ties to media. It seemed that people didn’t even care to skate unless there was someone taking pictures of them. The purity, in my eyes, had been lost.
Moving to Gunnison was a breath of fresh air, and I immediately loved that climbing was an amazing athletic pursuit, and no one outside of the climbing world really cared. Climbing films were still rudimentary. Instagram fame didn’t exist yet. The world didn’t know who Alex Honnold was, and the president surely didn’t care that a couple dudes climbed a hard route on El Cap.
Ten years later, I now realize that climbing in 2008 was quite a bit different than it was in the ’70s, but in Gunnison at the time, our experiences didn’t feel that far-flung from our predecessors. We climbed predominantly on gear, we obsessed over the Black Canyon, most of us dreamed of the big mountains, and we lived to climb. I wish I could have seen the look on my mom’s face during a routine phone call, when I proudly proclaimed to her that I had moved into my truck indefinitely and was going to devote my life to rock climbing.
“What do you want me to tell my friends, that you’re homeless?” she asked.
I had always been a bit confused—a youth wandering around aimlessly searching for a path and now it was laid out perfectly for me, and I had never been more excited in my entire life. The Black Canyon would lead to the mountain ranges of the Lower 48, which would lead to the greater ranges of the world. The process was so simple, and for the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Life in those early climbing years was so simple. I lived in my truck or tent in a beautiful place, and when the weather would get too cold in the Gunnison Valley, I would simply leave and go somewhere warmer. I was passionate and had finally found something that I thought was worth devoting my life to. Most importantly, for the first time in my entire life, I was truly happy. Whereas my family thought I was a homeless bum, I knew I was on the right track, and this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I vividly remember conversations with friends from back home:
“Yo, Adam, where you living these days?”
“Well, umm, so I spend the summers in Gunnison, Colorado, then in October or so, I go out in the Utah desert for a few months, then I’ll go farther south for the winter, then usually back to Utah for the spring season in Indian Creek, and then back to Gunnison. There’re so many routes I’m trying to get done in The Black this season!”
Which was always followed with a blank stare of confusion.
“Dude, I don’t get it. Where do you actually live?”
It seemed that the climbers were the only ones that understood the magic of climbing, and everyone else just thought we were homeless. Every year my love for climbing and the life it provided grew immensely, and every spring my travels would ultimately lead me back to the place where it all began, the Black Canyon.
From the early days of learning to multipitch climbs in The Black, I always knew that with enough time spent there, I would amass the skill set to climb in the greater ranges of the world. The carrot dangling at the end of the string: do well here, and you can climb anywhere. I was hooked. The Black was my second home, the place that would shape who I am to this day. Some of the greatest—and most dangerous—days of my life were spent on those walls. Just as I had planned, the Black Canyon led to the mountain ranges of the Lower 48, which eventually led to three straight winters in Patagonia.
In December of 2016, Brian Prince, Vitaliy Musiyenko, and I were granted the Mugs Stump Award and were given the funds to attempt a massive unclimbed wall in the remote Brooks Range of Alaska. Everything I’d done as a climber led me here; this would probably be the culmination of my alpine-climbing career, and I’d never felt so ready for something in my entire life.
Being dropped off by a Cessna in the middle of northern Alaska with twenty days of food was an experience that I will truly never forget. The Arrigetch Peaks offer world-class rock climbing objectives to those motivated enough to endure the extreme remoteness of the area. Bravery—as I would come to find out—is a lot harder to summon when you are five hundred miles away from the nearest hospital and rescue is pretty much impossible.
Major rains prior to our arrival led to swelled rivers that we were told would be “ankle deep and easy to cross.” Upon arrival, we quickly realized that the “little trickle” we had to cross was actually a raging river, and before we even began, we all silently wondered if we would ever make it into the mountains. Brian, our fearless Alaskan, was left to decipher the route we would take from our drop-off point on the Alatna River to our base camp high up in the Arrigetch Creek Valley.
“Once we cross this stupid creek, it’s five miles to base camp,” Brian proclaims.
Easy enough, right?
Hiking up the Arrigetch Creek drainage hours after our complicated and dangerous river crossing, we finally get to view the mountains that we’ve been dreaming of for years. They are bigger and more beautiful than we could ever have imagined. Ten years ago, when I first tied in to a climbing rope, I always knew that with enough hard work and dedication, I would end up in this exact situation. The adventure along the way has shown me beauty that I never knew existed and introduced me to people that I never knew I would meet; but all the while, I knew, I just knew, that I would end up right here. This was the adventure of a lifetime, one that I’ve been dreaming about since my childhood days spent reading my uncle’s words in his Mount Logan journal.
Twelve hours into our “five-mile hike,” we realize the error in our ways. We misinterpreted our map and grossly underestimated the scale of the mighty Arrigetch Peaks.
“Well…I guess it wouldn’t be a real Alaskan adventure if we didn’t sandbag the shit of ourselves on the approach!”
Two days, fourteen miles, and five thousand feet of elevation gain later, we finally set our eighty-pound packs down and admire the alpine playground that we’d call home for the next two weeks. Perched high above the valley floor is a perfect place to attack our objective from, yet constant rains over the last few days dampen our ambitions of doing a first ascent on Mount Xanadu.
“The West Face is soaked.”
In the mountains, the weather gods are the ultimate direction, and the West Face of Mount Xanadu is plastered in a thick arctic funk and is completely unclimbable. Two days spent hiking up the Arrigetch Creek Valley, though, we couldn’t help but gaze at the massive south-facing wall, standing proud at the head of the valley.
“What. Is. That?”
“South Face of the Albatross.”
Having had no intentions to climb this particular mountain, we make a dynamic decision and refocus from the cold and wet West Face of Mount Xanadu to the sunnier and dryer southeast face of Mount Albatross.
Doing first ascents in the mountains has provided me with some of the best, most adventurous days of my life. The beauty of the unknown was instilled in me during my early apprenticeship in the Black Canyon and has been the focus of most of my climbing ever since. I dreamt of these days, these opportunities. My whole life has led me to these mountains, and here I am…amazing.
The precarious summit of Mount Albatross is a special place that has only been visited by a few people. (We were the third team to summit Albatross.) Three days after Dirk, our bush pilot, dropped us and our mountain of gear off on the Alatna River, the uncertainty is breached, and we have just climbed a beautiful new fifteen-pitch route on one of the most outrageous mountains the three of us had ever seen; the trip is already a success.
Between two days of hiking into the mountains and one day of climbing a new route on Mount Albatross, our minds and bodies are tired and in need of rest. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has other plans, and sound weather in the forecast dictates our immediate future.
Six months prior to this day, the Mugs Stump Award had given us the funds to attempt the West Face of Mount Xanadu—our time had come to make that attempt. Climbing the Albatross was wonderful, a bonus of sorts. What we came for, though, loomed off in the distance, hidden by the clouds, standing mighty in the shadows, waiting. Knowing that stable weather in the mountains can be brief, we pack our bags and make the four-hour, two-mountain-pass approach from our base camp to the foot of the West Face of Mount Xanadu.
A massive blank canvas looms overhead, completely unaware that we nervously await the courage to cast off into the void. Pitch by pitch Brian, Vitaliy, and I cautiously inch our way up an unclimbed route on the towering West Face. The climbing is superb, clean cracks of golden granite flow from one to the next. Farther into the unknown we go, all the while, the weather is quickly going to shit.
The weather gods dictate your every move in the mountains, and today they allow us to get just far enough into the void to make retreating off the wall and back to base camp a long and arduous process. Hours of rappelling and hiking later, Vitaliy, Brian, and I finally stagger back to our soggy tent in awe and appreciation of the full-scale Alaskan beatdown we had just received. After being on the move for the better part of four days in a row, we are all thrilled to know that the weather will remain bad for at least one more day, and we are finally forced to rest.
A day of rest and relaxation in one of the most beautiful places on Earth can do the body, mind, and soul wonders. The days are long and silent here in the arctic; the sun barely sets; the days barely warm. The overwhelming beauty of the Arrigetch is staggering; I can’t believe I am here. The beauty of alpine climbing, though, is one of stark paradox. We are not here to simply sleep in a tent and gawk at pretty mountains and flowers. We’re here to test ourselves on massive, scary, unclimbed walls in a remote mountain range that requires absolute perfection to travel on. The three of us keep the mood light; we tell jokes, laugh at each other, share stories, talk about life, anything to keep our minds off the fact that our 1:00 a.m. alarm will come way too soon and we will be heading back to the West Face well before we are fully recovered from the previous day’s battle, deep in the Alaskan bush.
Five in the morning in the frozen, remote Brooks Range of Alaska is a difficult place to find bravery, yet that’s what we need right now. The foot of the West Face of Mount Xanadu is familiar to us now, yet this comfort is wildly overshadowed by the immensity of our situation: we are so out there, and it is so damn cold. The views in one direction are of the most beautiful and vast mountain range I may ever see, yet every time I gaze upward, I’m reminded of why we are here. The massive west wall of Xanadu looms overhead, and I’m scared—a genuine fear that I’ve never experienced. For ten years, I’ve wondered what this exact situation would feel like.
Vitaliy, Brian, and I sit below the mighty West Face, waiting. Words aren’t needed; we are all dealing with the inevitable fear that looms over a cold, hard alpine first ascent. In the mountains, you make the most of every “good” weather day, and today is barely good enough. Knowing that our “good enough” weather (freezing cold and windy) could go to shit in the blink of an eye, as it did two days before, we tie in and start up the first pitch, yet the lingering fear never leaves my mind. I don’t like being this scared.
Brian and Vitaliy climb wonderfully while I can’t seem to find my rhythm. High on the wall, it’s my turn to lead; it is so cold—I can’t feel my fingers or toes, and, goddamn, the climbing above looks hard.
Sometimes the best way to deal with fear in the mountains is to just start moving; so that’s exactly what I do.
Move by move, I nervously inch my way up the flawless granite of Mount Xanadu, yet my mind never seems to relax; I’m genuinely scared, and that’s no way to climb in the mountains. I need to focus like my life depends on it, because in our current situation, getting hurt is just unthinkable. Climbing scary 5.11 has never felt so scary. Vitaliy belays me from a sleeping bag while I’m paralyzed by fear 30 feet up the hard and committing 5.11 pitch.
“I can’t do this, guys; you can lower me,” I say.
I wasn’t expecting that.
The beauty of a great team is that when one person can’t summon the courage, someone else often can. Vitaliy decides to try the pitch while I take over belay duty from our pathetic sleeping bag. As I watch Vitaliy onsight this complicated and dangerous pitch, I’m proud of myself for backing off. It takes a certain level of maturity to climb untethered to an ego while taking big risks five hundred miles away from the nearest hospital. I’m proud that today I can recognize this. The day never warms, but my persistent fear subsides as Vitaliy and Brian climb brilliantly on the steep and relentless West Face of Mount Xanadu.
The coldest rock climbing of all of our lives leads us into a thick Alaskan fog that eventually sees us traveling an unclimbed ridgeline to the actual summit. The views could be amazing. Every few minutes, the fog parts just enough to remind us of what we could be seeing, and yet it doesn’t matter. We are here. Today, out here in the Brooks Range, we risk everything, and today we climb a beautiful first ascent and are the fourth team to stand on the summit of Mount Xanadu, and I couldn’t imagine being there with anyone but Brian and Vitaliy. The near-hypothermic climbing conditions we endured only a few hours ago are silently replaced with the joy of the present moment, and this will always be remembered as one of the best experiences of my life.
I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect on the journey that led me to the summit of Mount Xanadu in the Brooks Range of Alaska. For ten years, I understood what my uncle meant when he romanticized personal growth through the art of climbing big, unclimbed walls. For ten years, I climbed with the fire that once burned bright in my uncle, and I knew it made him proud every time I came home from the mountains with war stories of new routes we’d succeeded (or failed) on.
When you’re young and wildly ambitious, climbing big, scary terrain is just easier; you’re still ignorant to the realities of pushing yourself in the mountains. As you grow and become more experienced, your skill set broadens, yet your understanding of the risk associated also becomes heightened—an odd paradox.
We all have a certain amount of armor that protects and allows us to climb confidently on dangerous terrain, but somewhere along the way, though, things start to happen—it’s inevitable: friends die in the mountains; you see a horrific accident; a huge rock whizzes by your head while you’re strung out in the alpine; it all adds up until, one day, you’re left armorless on the side of a massive, unclimbed wall.
My fire will always burn bright for adventure, yet at some point along the journey, I became too aware of the realities of risky climbing. Years spent in the mountains led me to realize that it’s not a game of if something will happen, it’s a game of who will be the next to go.
For ten years, I wondered what my limit would be, and on the West Face of Mount Xanadu, I found exactly what I had been looking for. While many people continue to push lighter, faster, and higher with no end in sight, I knew from the summit of Xanadu that it would be my last climbing trip into the big mountains. When the fire inside begins to dwindle, some people frantically try to rekindle it, and some people just sit back and appreciate the gift that was given to them. As always, the future remains uncertain, but climbing has shown me how to move forward with the wisdom I have gained from the past, and now I finally know what it feels like to be completely content with my life as a climber.
Adam Ferro lives in Durango, Colorado, where he works as a firefighter and EMT. He is a shitty millennial, and despite his trad roots, he does pull on plastic from time to time. You won’t find him on the big cliffs, but you’ll probably find him heckling people at any of the numerous small crags in Durango. He was featured on the cover of Volume 1 of The Climbing Zine. His uncle, Tom Pulaski, still lives in Gunnison, Colorado, and remains one of his best friends and greatest life mentors.
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