My friends are gettin’ older,
So I guess I must be too.
Without their loving kindness,
I don’t know what I would do.
—Greg Brown, “Spring Wind”
This story can only begin in one way, and that is with tears. Whether they were the tears from heartbreak, loss, or just from when John Hiatt or Greg Brown come on the radio and I’m alone, it doesn’t matter for now.
It was a season of tears. As much as I cried, as much as we all cried during this strange, tragic time, the desert remained dry.
This essay is published in Volume 21, now available
Banner image of the author on Delicate Flower (5.12+) Cave Wall, Indian Creek by Dane Molinaro
For years now this place had been growing on me, like a love affair, moments of brilliance and moments of stillness. Moments of defeat, of burnout, and then those moments that were so sweet that they make you understand the importance of nature. Defeat and burnout are necessary parts of climbing; how else will you know you still have the fire without those moments?
I needed this experience now more than ever. My life that I had built was falling apart. The relationship that was supposed to last the rest of my life was failing. The world that we knew before no longer existed—for better or worse—and now we were facing a new reality. In this modern age of hyperconnectivity, we were all disconnected from what existed before.
Friends had died without proper memorials. Delusional American terrorists had stormed our Capitol building. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of humanity, nature taking its course as we overstay our welcome on this planet. I hoped not.
I hoped not because I was still in love with living, in love with climbing. In love with this place, this wash, in Bears Ears National Monument. A place that, at times, felt more like a home than my home in Durango.
When everything is falling apart, where do we go? I was grateful for my dirtbag instincts—those that encourage me to call a friend and pack up the truck—yet I’d still been susceptible to all the loneliness of the modern world. The sadness of staying alone in a hotel room. The understanding that I let someone down in a profound way. That I was both heartbroken and a heartbreaker. The layering of grief, sadness, solitude, and guilt.
So yeah, there were tears. Tears coming down my face as my truck descended into my place of refuge, before the crowds arrived. Solitude, but so much solitude it can be a little frightening. As if there weren’t billions on the planet. As if it were a lonely, distant planet.
Though I have spent plenty of time alone in wild places, I’d always prefer to have a team out here. Perhaps it is the necessity of the climbing, or perhaps it goes deeper—all the way back to how humans originally grouped themselves together. One thing that’s for sure, I feel grateful that even in my forties I have a roster of friends that I can count on—from February to June, my spring Creek season.
For years it was my monkey brain that was such a concern. The hundreds of emails, texts, social media updates, and other pings that go ding, ding, ding, in this modern existence.
I understood the benefits of getting away from that to this land that didn’t yet have cell service. I lament that someday that might not always be the case. I wonder if a nonprofit has been started to address that, in addition to wilderness and protecting land, we also need cell phone–service-free areas, for our brains and our hearts.
The pings and the dings are still an issue for me, though I took a lot of comfort in technology when what we called shutdowns and lockdowns took place. My business thrived as more people stayed home to read. I kept a routine, and I was already an at-home worker even before the ’rona.
Now with life as I knew it in shambles, I had a new need that I asked this place and my friends to provide: starting over and finding hope.
What I knew I needed and what I’ve learned about myself is that I am the happiest when I am in a routine and I have structure. For some, this might sound counterintuitive to dirtbagging and adventure, but I find the greatest creativity and adventure happens within a structure, a plan. The most satisfaction comes from home.
The desert and nature always deliver honesty, and it is up to us to honestly look within. I knew I was hurting inside. I also knew I needed something positive to focus on. And I looked to the crack climbs that have defined my climbing for the last decade.
In February, it’s a different scene in the place that we refer to as Indian Creek. The peregrine falcon closures are not yet in effect, and hardly anyone is climbing. The nights can be long and cold, yet the days give bursts of sunshine and stillness so that even a hurting soul can find the positive energy in the day. I knew my first trip of the year was what I needed. Every weekend. The conditions were predictable. The variable was climbing partners.
That’s why we have community. We usually need more than just one or two solid partners. Life happens, and the older we get the less free time we usually have. Families get started. Some drift away from The Creek, usually because of the crowds, and/or the pain that the climbing inflicts.
The Creek is the only climbing area for me where I have many friendships and partnerships that have begun and played out at this massive landscape. Our friendships are united by belays and jams, beers and campfires. Cracks and camp croquet games. Wind, cams, and sand. Sometimes friends turn into lovers.
Sometimes the plans are set weeks ahead of time with anticipation. Other times these friends emerge seemingly out of nowhere. We pick up where we left off. How many years has it been? The time does fly, we always seem to say. Now, what wall should we go to today?
I love people, but, while climbing, I have to be away from the crowds most of the time. I need to hear the silence; plus this rabbit hole of an experience is leading me somewhere. Not just to remote places but places within the heart.
This window, in February, was one to explore the main canyon, those walls that seem to go back in time, this time of year. It’s amazing how all the fitness for crack climbing seems to go away during the off-season. I always tell people it takes two or three trips just to get reacquainted with the pain and technique of cracks. Sure, there are people who train on homemade cracks, but I always like to give myself two or three months to take a break from the crack—to give the fingers, hands, hips, and feet a break. For yours truly, that’s when sport climbing and bouldering come in, the yin and the yang of my personal climbing experience.
And that’s the beauty of climbing, isn’t it? It’s so personal. And if you love it deeply, as I do, you can build a life around it. A personal journey. Something that can save you from yourself.
But climbing can get you in the deepest of trouble. Or as Neil Young wrote, “The same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end.”
Soon after these February days, I’d have three troubling experiences: a cut rope, an out-of-control truck on a snowy road, and a ground fall where I came inches away from serious injury. They say things come in threes, and I’m not superstitious, but when I have things happen to me, I take note.
My worried mind turns off when I am at my limit in climbing. Early season, my limit is somewhere near 5.11+ or 5.12-. Grades that later in the season I might be able to float, but early on, it’s a battle in the ring with a tough fighter.
I face myself in the ring on this 5.11+ crack at the Reservoir Wall, a Jay Smith route. Finger Food. Jay’s name on a route commands respect. He’s an artist with first ascents. He has “the eye.” He also was in his prime in an era of low-hanging fruit. When a five-star first ascent was just off the highway. These days you’ve got to hike much more, look farther, deeper. You’ve got to want it, really bad, as I do.
Finger cracks have been my jam ever since I came across a dream, queen line way, way out there on the edge of the Indian Creek corridor. It forced me to dream. It forced me to train. It’s led me to believing in myself more, and all the byproducts are that this believing can bleed into the rest of one’s life. Don’t tell me not to get all dreamy and romantic about climbing; that is who I am, and that is my soul. My true self.
I combine all this dreaming with hard work. Hard work in due time, within a routine, a commitment, and intention. My intent is to pour positive energy into this place, the climbing, and my friendships to balance out the dread of what is falling apart back in my other home.
I step into the realm of the finger crack. Eric is on the other end, belaying me; he’s getting back in shape after years away from The Creek. He’s all nostalgic and sentimental about this place—my kind of human. He’s been away for some time, but he’s realizing, in February, you can always go back home, to The Creek.
Battle ensues; fingers jammed in the crack are punches landed. Equal parts violence and yoga. An extreme exercise. Just punch it to that next rest, I tell my mind. I scream, let that out, jam, and I’m at the rest. Take a look at the harness to see what gear is left. There’s enough, as I rest on the tiny perch like a statue. A few more finger jams and delicate face moves, and I reach the anchor. The work is done. Clipped in, lowering off, endorphins flowing. This is what it means to be climbing and alive. I am momentarily free.
The rest of the routine is rooted in leisure. A couple happy hour beers, the peace pipe, croquet. No one around but myself and my climbing partner, for miles. Climbing is too crowded, the crusty old-timers often say. I say the early bird gets the worm, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
A campfire is lit as the nighttime is upon us. Campfires, in these times of wildfires, are no longer a given, but this time of year it’s legit and needed for warmth and something to do. Of course we always extinguish the fire before going to bed, with water or dirt.
Plenty of time for sleep in these dark days. I love sleep. After a few days in a tent or in the back of a truck, I’m ready for a bed back home. And ready for a shower.
Just as I have to face whatever climb is in front of me, I have to go back home to face reality. The water is getting low, and the food and beers have been consumed. Yes, it’s time to go back home. Eric is content to stay, to go on whatever journey of solitude his mind and heart will lead him to. Probably remote washes, in search of petroglyphs, pottery, and homes of the Ancestral Puebloans. Respectfully of course, taking nothing but pictures, stating intentions of only witnessing and absorbing before arriving.
The tears come back on the drive home, brought on by music. Sometimes I have a hard time identifying their source. Is it my heartbreak; is it grief; is it the state of the world? I don’t wipe them; I just let them flow through me. Like the cracks and the open desert, they are leading me to where I need to go.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine
This essay was published in Volume 21, now available.