Publisher’s Note: As this issue was going to press, the coronavirus began to ravage the United States. This issue is slightly delayed because of the virus, but we got it out as soon as we could—because we know everyone is hungry for good stories.
The Zine would like to offer our condolences to anyone who has a loved one who is sick or who has passed away from this virus. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone as I remain at home and do my part to curb the spread of coronavirus.
This piece was written after the outbreak. We hope that you enjoy it and find some solace in the words.
Sitting Here In Limbo
by Luke Mehall (published in Volume 18, the new zine, now available)
“I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train”
—Grateful Dead, “I Know You Rider”
It takes an experience like this to remind me just how difficult writing can be. Where can I find the right words to articulate what is happening and how I’m feeling? Is this fear, grief, or something in between? Who will be safe, and who will lose everything?
I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I just have stories. Let’s go back in time a few months first—let’s go back to Thailand.
I’d wanted to go to Thailand for some twenty years now. I remember first hearing about some climber friends going there. I was straight outta the Midwest and new to Colorado. When I heard a group of fellow students had traveled to Thailand and climbed for a month, I was blown away. You can just go to this paradise and climb all month? I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
Over the years, it was backlogged in my head as a place I would love to travel to, but in the end, I’m simply not a big traveler. Am I scared to leave my comfort zone, or do I see the perils of globalization? Too many people that I know who are environmentalists seem to be jet-setting back and forth across this globe in metal birds.
My old college buddy, a brother from another mother, Greg Pettys, lives in Thailand. A couple years ago, he got married there, and he invited me. At first I said I’d come, but then at the last minute, my finances wouldn’t allow it. As the recovering Catholic that I am, I felt guilty, but as a small-business owner, I am obsessed with keeping my dream of The Climbing Zine alive, and I can’t ever afford to be reckless with my spending.
Two years went by, and as I saved my pennies, I realized the time was right for a trip this winter. My girlfriend, who was soon to be my fiancée, wanted to go as well, so after some clicks and a lot of research, we were getting in a metal bird ourselves, to travel farther away from home than I’d ever been.
Amber is a veteran of world travel, and in the three years, we’ve been together, she’s traveled to Haiti and Tanzania to volunteer as a nurse. I’ve never even experienced jet lag.
Greg lives in Northern Thailand, but he agreed to fly down and meet us in Southern Thailand. We originally wanted to climb up north and visit the organic farm where Greg lives with his wife Ramphai, but Crazy Horse, the main area up by Chiang Mai, was closed down.
We met up at Krabi Airport, then set out for an island called Koi Yao Noi. The next week is a bit of a blur in my mind, mostly due to heat exhaustion and food sickness. Amber nearly got heatstroke and almost passed out one evening. As an educator who takes high school students all over Asia, Greg has seen this before, and he took care of us. While we wanted to be climbing nearly every day, it was a good five days before we even touched rock.
But sometimes it’s nice to slow down, isn’t it? Is climbing really as important as the value we give it? In this moment, in the midst of this COVID outbreak, I’ve been forced to reckon with this question.
Though it’s prime-time Indian Creek season, I haven’t put a body part in a crack in two weeks. By the time you’re reading this, it may be two months. But who fucking cares? I’ve got work to do on The Zine, a loving fiancée who is on the frontlines of this crisis, and I’ve got a hang board. Oh, the hang board, my current savior. Plus, my project in The Creek is patiently waiting—the ravens that have the intelligence to recognize human faces must wonder where we went.
In the introduction of this issue, which was written before the outbreak in the United States, I write about my own need to climb. Though I am not as obsessive as I used to be, climbing is very important to my mental health. I’ve suffered from depression in the past, and a steady diet of climbing is like my own personal Prozac. I haven’t popped a pill in over twenty years now. But, I’m realizing that although I may have thought it, I don’t need to climb, at least not in times like these, when an injury or accident might put me at higher risk and place an unnecessary burden on our already-overwhelmed healthcare system.
I do need to keep climbing close to my heart, and I need to plan on climbing, eventually. The finger crack that’s my project lives in my mind, and I visualize it before going to bed and while hanging in the garage on the trusty hang board. With the knowledge that I will climb again, I am okay.
Greg isn’t a climber, but rather someone who climbs. In Volume 1 of The Zine, he wrote a piece called “A Non-Climbing Climber’s Perspective on Climbing.” He sure does understand climbing and climbers, even if he’s not one.
Greg has been published in The Zine twice. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “Back,” published in Volume 2, which shows his insight into our world: “In no uncertain terms, climbing healed me. Placing yourself willingly into life-or-death situations with stone creates a bond I feel few people in today’s world of concrete jungles and fake plastic trees experience. And high on the limestone crags of Tonsai, The Mother returned and pulled from me a sickness, of which I realized had stemmed from fear and doubt. And although I may not get off on the fears climbing inevitably places you in, the results of overcoming these vertical obstacles, along with international friends who relate in the peculiar ways of stone, strengthens much more than your forearms. It strengthens the heart.”
After we got used to the heat, we made some plans to get out climbing. The hazy days in between were filled with the highest humidity I’ve ever experienced, the most adorable, lazy cats, delicious pad thai, and amazingly helpful and friendly Thai people.
Climbing on this island is logistically complicated, but after days of texts, calls, and emails, we arrange a boat ride with eight other climbers. The morning we’re scheduled to get out and climb, Amber is sick from food poisoning, so she stays back while Greg and I head out.
The climbing is beautiful, but sweaty. I’m getting pumped out of my mind on a 5.10a and profusely dripping sweat. Greg is a little more used to the climate, but he hasn’t climbed in a couple years. We eat sticky rice and mangos. It’s one of those climbing experiences that becomes better immediately after it happens. I love climbing with Greg, but even more, I like the conversation—when your friend lives seven thousand miles away, it’s that much more precious.
After a week on this island, we just can’t seem to hit our stride, so we book a boat ride to Railay Beach to try our luck there. And there, amongst the tufas, monkeys, and tourist madness, we finally find a groove to our vacation.
The climbing is what we dreamed of. Probably the most fun 5.10 sport climbing I’ve ever experienced. We get into a flow of waking up early, climbing for a few hours, resting during the day, and then climbing in the evening. A cool breeze, a rising tide, and the woman of my dreams—all other previous misadventures fade away, and we fall in love with the experience.
The good days pass all too quickly, and suddenly it’s time to travel home. When we’re dropped off at the airport in Krabi, our taxi driver recommends we get a mask. “There’s a lot of Chinese in there,” she says.
We debate: was she being racist or cautious? The first case of the virus arrived the very same day we did, and now it’s spreading. We are disciplined and wash our hands vigorously.
After two long days of travel, we arrive back home. I’m more worried about coming back to winter than the threat of the virus. A month goes by, and soon the virus is a hazard to these United States. Trump famously says that it will go away like a miracle.
Obviously that idiot was wrong. I can’t help but wonder if we had more responsible, educated leaders, if we could have gotten a handle on this situation with vigorous testing and more proactive actions, like they did in South Korea.
As I’m writing this, the first confirmed cases are being reported here in Durango, where we live and where Amber works as a nurse. I am sheltering in place and doing my best to be a responsible American. I am encouraging others to do the same. As climbers, we are known for being independent and nonconformist, but now is the time to get in line and conform, to seclude ourselves for the greater good of humanity and our already-stressed medical system.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. He looks forward to seeing everyone on the other side of this pandemic. If you need to see his face right now, you can look for his daily “Message from Mehall” on Instagram and Facebook.
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 six books: The Desert, Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .