Wide Eyes, High Times and Hard Times, a Story of Climbing with Mark Grundon by Luke Mehall

Feb 19 • Climbing Culture • 722 Views • No Comments on Wide Eyes, High Times and Hard Times, a Story of Climbing with Mark Grundon by Luke Mehall

Say a prayer for those you love and everyone else. That’s what I’ve written on my sleeping pad, and the last words I read before going to bed. The first person I pray for lately is my friend Mark Grundon. Mark is twenty two years old and has cancer, or hopefully, by now, had cancer. 

Note: This story was originally published in the Mountain Gazette, and later was published in Mehall’s first book, Climbing Out of Bed.

I can vividly remember the first time I saw Mark on the campus of Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. He was leaving a class and I was going to one. I was admiring the fresh new faces on campus (checking out women). Somehow Mark stood out from the crowd with his wild appearance: six foot two, matted dreadlocks and wild blue eyes. 

Through the college’s search and rescue team, a fine group that is considered the best of its kind in the country, that also offered camaraderie in abundance, we met and became acquaintances. 

I can remember the first time I saw him, but in the next couple of years, maybe due to all the college parties, I don’t remember how much we hung out. But we were both climbers and passionate about it. Mark is the most motivated climber I’ve ever met. Like many college students, my passion surpassed my motivation to actually do something, so Mark was an ideal friend and climbing partner. 

When Mark and I first started climbing together he was working for the National Park Service, waking early, around six and getting off around dinnertime. Mark would motivate me to show him some obscure routes in a nearby canyon. We’d climb till dark and immediately, when the day was over, he’d be trying to hook me into more climbing plans, likely the next day after his long shift. This is Mark Grundon, an honest hardworking American, wide eyed, packing as much life into each and every day as possible.

The climbing adventures would continue, as would the parties and growing and learning as climbing partners, and more importantly, as friends. The winters around Gunnison are cold and seem to last forever (forever-ever), if you don’t keep yourself mentally and physically occupied. 

I was never prepared for winter, and the five winters I went through while going to college there, I suffered through each one. I’d hibernate and lose track of Mark. Mark, of course, didn’t sink into the denial of winter I had. He got himself a job at the nearby Monarch ski area, this while maintaining a near perfect GPA at Western State, with a double major in Environmental Studies and Recreation. 

His first winter, Mark was skiing up Monarch and fell, lacerating his liver. He was flown out by helicopter to Denver. They stitched up his liver and part of it was removed. I found this out the following season at a party at his house. Mark was never the guy who partied his college away. Plus, he couldn’t abuse his liver with alcohol like the rest of us. So while we’d take over his house, the only one we knew of in town with a hot tub (girls would always get naked in a hot tub), Mark would mostly be studying in his room maintaining that nearly perfect GPA, keeping his healthy perspective on life while the rest of us went on partying, acting like we’d be young forever. 

Occasionally, Mark would party, and I’d be drunk, trying to get him to drink. I’m sure I was obnoxious and one night I was giving Mark an unusually hard time about not boozing. My ladyfriend got upset with me about that, and then Mark would start to tease me about something, usually the girl, and we’d break out into a wrestling match. 

So our friendship was born and molded by rock climbing, partying and some good natured teasing. Another winter would come around, and by then I knew I had to do something to remain sane and avoid sinking into the dark depression of winter. The only thing I could come up with was to continue climbing. Sure there was the college climbing gym, but pulling on plastic can only build up physical strength. My mental health was what worried me. School kept me active as well, and girls would come and go. But I needed to climb, outside. 

My solution to combat the inevitable seasonal depression, cabin fever, whatever you want to call it, had one major problem. We were living in a place often referred to as The Coldest City in the Lower 48. Truth be told though, it’s not really a city, or technically the coldest, but it’s a relatively fair assessment. It’s not uncommon to wake up in the dead of winter in Gunnison to find it’s negative twenty out, or even colder. I believe it’s the combination of the high altitude, an open valley and the close proximity to the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Either way, it will chill you to the bone, and it comes as no surprise that less than ten thousand people live there year round. Some say there are more elk and deer than people in the region. Two and a half hours to the west, though, is a red rock sandstone desert at lower altitude, with some great climbing. 

We could wake up at seven, down a quick breakfast and coffee and be climbing in forty degree temps by ten o’clock. By noon, I’d forget I lived in such a cold place, and my spirit would be a little warmer, which was exactly what my cold, hardened soul needed. But who could I convince that driving five hours a day in the winter for a few hours of climbing was a good idea?

The first trip Mark and I made together was the worst. It was November, the start of the dreaded winter. It was one of those rare days when Escalante Canyon wasn’t a desert paradise, in fact it was snowing off and on with a wicked wind brewing. By the time we starting climbing, the wind was whipping and making us suffer.

Escalante is a quiet place where man’s influence is minimal. There are some cows, a river, and lots of dirt and rock. Up to the wall, where we would climb, there was no distinguished trail. We just wandered up the red dirt through juniper trees, and Mormon tea bushes, a green broom like, shrub with jointed stems. Ahead, red rock walls, a couple hundred feet tall, with cracks to climb.

Despite the fact that it was snowing and the wind was whipping, Mark was still psyched to climb. Without his motivation, I would have just given up and gotten stoned. He even wanted the lead. I agreed, knowing the climb we were preparing to do would work him good, but how long could it take?

The always hilarious Mark Grundon. Photo courtesy of Mark Grundon

The climb we were about to get on isn’t described in any guidebook; therefore, I cannot provide a name. Mark began up a perfect hand crack, which had no other features other than the split in the rock. He was vaguely familiar with this technique of climbing those cracks, quite different than our backyard climbs in Gunnison, but he slowly struggled up the wall. I’ve been trying for years to pen the joys and philosophies of climbing as it can relate to normal everyday life. My experiences with Mark this day slowly logged themselves in my brain. Looking up at Mark, it became clear this climb was much more than just a challenge. He lacked the training in technique, and prior experience to know how to do it. Yet somehow, inch by inch, in the cold and intermittent snow, he was reaching the top, jamming his hands and feet into the crack, accepting the pain of it.   

He used some techniques modern purist climbers might call cheating, resting on his protection pieces wedged in the crack, but with no one but myself and God watching, how could it be called cheating? 

Two men suffering in the wilderness. Mark in the physical realm, managing his way up the steep red rock wall. I was suffering in the mental realm, on the ground belaying, tending the rope, challenged by patience for being there for your friend. I did my best to send nothing but encouraging words up. Mark struggled on. The time came when I’d usually lose my patience, cursing myself for bringing a less experienced climber along and letting him lead. But there was something about his determination that kept me from anger. 

It was cold, it was November and I wasn’t depressed. Something about fresh air, wind, rock, and dirt that keep one from depression, a recipe that should be prescribed in moderate doses, to all who are sad. 

I was paying the dues for a climbing friendship that would grow and blossom and we were suffering together in the Colorado red rock wilderness. Though we’d been hanging out for years, it was a beginning. The start of our adventures in desert climbing. The start of being brothers of the rock and the road, away from home, away from the college parties, taking down some of the walls we all put up in civilization, to where we were just two young men, excited about life and willing to suffer to climb them walls.

We would make about thirty more trips to Escalante Canyon, our new winter climbing home, over the next couple of years. Mark was as fun to drive in the car with, as he was to climb with. He was what mountain folk would call always psyched. He had a childlike lust for life. I was an old, tired soul in need of a friend like Mark. He could get excited for the silliest of things, and his excitement was infectious.

The drive to Escalante is long for a day trip, so he would designate landmarks as we drove from Gunnison, through the towns of Montrose and Delta to Escalante. The more he tried to create landmarks, the weirder they became. It started with the Giant Boob, a Department of Transportation structure halfway to Montrose, that modestly resembled a fake boob, nipple and all.  

With pure excitement and a manic energy he would yell, “Giant Boooob,” each time we passed the structure. Just outside of Delta, headed west, we discovered a yard with odd alien lawn ornaments, a monster truck on top of a crashed car and even a boat on a pole.    

Mark was fun and he quickly improved at wrestling the sandstone crack climbs. One semester, Mark and I had the dream schedule at Western State, modeled after many Crested Butte skiers: class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with Tuesdays and Thursdays off. So of course we’d go to Escalante. My obligations were minimal: a part time dishwashing job and two courses at the college. Mark however, no slacker, was ski patrolling at Monarch, taking more than a full school schedule, as well as working on his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification. 

Escalante Tuesdays were the days. Mark provided the motivation to leave early, and I would provide the avocado and cheese sandwiches. We’d usually take his little Hyundai, only ten bucks in gas, there and back. And of course, there would be holidays, and he would be ready to climb on those days too. We’d climbed so many of the cracks within our ability level there by then, so we began to search for the Holy Grail of routes to climbers, untouched, unclimbed ones. The climbing in Escalante had been going on since the seventies, so most of the obvious safe cracks have been done. The leftovers from the golden age of climbing in the west were typically littered with some loose rock, but some were desirable. If your mindset was like ours, a strong desire for a first ascent, a little loose rock, or even a lot, wouldn’t deter you.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday of 2003, we found ourselves looking up at an unclimbed route, obvious that no human had ever climbed it because of the many loose blocks in the first fifteen feet of the pitch. One feature, similar looking to a snow bollard, a ball of rock a few square feet around, hovered above us, destined to meet with the ground as soon as we got up to it and knocked it off. Though it was clearly a dangerous climb, both of us wanted our hands on it. 

We eyed the line, with a hint of competition, like we were both after the same woman. Since I had more experience, and karma wise I’d spent lots of time belaying Mark, it was agreed that I would lead. I didn’t have the warrior like mental focus needed for steep, difficult climbing, and each move was a battle, made more difficult because of the unstable nature of the rock. I would reach up for a hold, and it would crumble away. When I’d step down with my feet, the same thing would happen. Any time I found a hold to move up on, I’d be afraid it would crumble and send me back tumbling to the ground. After ten feet of groveling through loose rock, I arrived at a ledge five feet left of the bollard feature. 

Once I arrived at the ledge, I was too chicken to traverse on my feet, so I simply crawled across it on my belly, as it was perfectly featured to do so. The scene was comical, but frightful at the time. Funny how climbing is sometimes the most joyous thing in the world, while other times it is a nightmare. I must’ve looked like a fool to Mark, but he stood there belaying patiently. I got to the bollard feature and karate kicked it off the wall, sending the three foot tall ball of rock just beside Mark. Finally, I’d reached the perfect crack. I used the same techniques Mark did the year before, weighting the protection I’d placed in the rock, while knocking down loose rocks trying to miss Mark. At a snail’s pace, some say rock climbing can be one of the slowest forms of human movement, I eventually finished the climb.    

Mark faced what I had with seeming ease. Moves that I had struggled with, he performed with delicate execution. I was witnessing the student growing closer to the teacher in ability. In climbing, all are equal, regardless what the ego says. I was not envious of Mark, his passion was shared. Quickly, Mark was figuring out the techniques to climb these desert cracks, and he reached my perch with grace. We called the climb, Living The Dream, to commemorate Dr. King, and to reflect the dream lives we’d been living that winter. 

The following week, we were back, hungry for another first ascent experience. While I was bolting the anchors on Living The Dream, Mark had discovered a perfect crack, right around the corner, that looked like it had never been climbed. Since I got to lead the previous week, Mark would get the sharp end this time. Mark started up the stunning crack, split in a corner, like an open book, jamming his fingers and toe tips in the crack, placing the mechanical cams as he went. Forty feet up, I heard some mumbling fearful chatter followed by an, “Oh shit.”

Before I even had a chance to think, Mark had fallen thirty plus feet, upside down. The rope had gotten caught around his foot, and he was now looking me directly in the eyes, hovering a few feet from the ground. A piece had popped from the crack, the rope stretched a little, but luckily his second piece held. If not he would have landed on the ground headfirst. For a second, I saw Mark more wide eyed than ever, and we went through some climber dialogue. 

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Holy shit dude.”

“I know.” 

My friend could have just died, had things gone slightly differently. If he had landed directly on his head, I’d be in charge of leading a rescue, and with no one around, it might take hours to get him to help. But, he was fine, and our focus would have to turn back to the climb.

What to do now?  Our gear was placed in the inch wide crack above us. All of it added up to a couple hundred dollars. We couldn’t just walk away. One of us would have to complete the seventy foot climb. The crack hadn’t exactly been friendly to Mark, but I geared up, and used the most conservative techniques I knew to climb a rock. I quickly saw why Mark had been spit out of the crack, green lichen grew on the edges, and the climb was perfectly vertical. We still thought it had never been climbed before. As I reached the place of his fall, I was resting on the gear. I inched to the top of the climb and disappointingly there was an anchor, a bogus sketchy chockstone at that, evidence we were not the first to climb the thing. But we were both alive and uninjured, and deemed the day a success. And we had a story to tell when we got back to Gunnison.

As always, winter turns to spring, the cold is forgotten, and the seed of dreams planted turns to reality. Eventually Mark and I were climbing at the same level. Being a desert climber means little in the grand scheme of things, and in a technical sense it basically means you’ve figured out how to jam your limbs into a variety of crack sizes. In your heart, it means a lot more. Climbing changes lives. Over a season in the desert, I learned to trust Mark with my life on the end of the rope, and together we spent many days in the car and in the desert growing.

The summer following our winter breakthrough, as school was done, Mark was off on another adventure to Alaska, spending his summer guiding helicopter/glacier travel adventures.  In the fall, when school started back up, I was living out of my truck, standard for any climber at some point in their lives. Mark invited me to park the truck outside of his newly rented home. It’s a situation many a climber has dreamed of, living for free, surrounded by friends, and having all the luxuries of a modern home. I stayed, living out of the truck for a few months until it really got cold.

Just before the cold set in, we planned a climbing weekend, starting with the nearby Black Canyon, followed by a day in Escalante. The Black in November is always a gamble. There was always the chance that we could be caught in a storm a thousand feet up on those intimidating granite walls.

And how to describe The Black? It has the tallest wall in Colorado, the twenty three hundred foot Painted Wall; a crumbly thing with pink pegmatite strokes that run diagonal across it. Driving towards the canyon rim, the landscape looks flat. Park the car at the primitive campground at the North Rim, where most of the climbing is done, hike a couple hundred yards, and there is the void. See the guardrail, stop and look down two thousand feet, with the ever moving Gunnison River roaring below. People have jumped off and committed suicide right there. Climbers have been on the wall and discovered body parts. I’ve heard that the Natives, the Utes, believed the place was haunted. Without a guardrail, it was probably spookier. The first time I walked up on that guardrail, I started to believe in evil spirits, and my stomach sunk deep down. But there is an equally empowering positive energy that one can access on the sheer gray walls, inching upward to the rim.

That morning in The Black, we were one of just two climbing parties, and the sky didn’t indicate there was a storm coming in. Even though winter was in the air, I was with Mark and he was psyched. I had done the climb once before, The Journey Home, named after an Edward Abbey book, with a most exciting initial section of the climb (long run out without gear for falls). We approached the climb, and stared up at the beginning of our vertical world for the day. I felt calm knowing Mark would be leading the first dangerous section. He climbed off, set a piece of protection, and then embarked on a long section without any pro for falls, not that difficult of moves, but sure to send all the adrenaline in one’s brain tingling down the body. I let out rope, and watched Mark weave his body along small edges on the dark gray rock, with swirls of pink and lighter tones of gray. The rope hung from his harness, mostly useless for now, as he danced his way up the wall. 

At one point, he knocked down a small chunk of rock, but managed to stay on. It was a good thing too. Had he fallen, it would have been to where I was standing twenty feet below. He was simply in a position where he couldn’t fall, and he didn’t. He climbed higher and secured good gear, a relief for both of us. The rest of the climb went smooth; each time we’d set out and climb a full rope length, two hundred feet.

On my leads, I remember staring off into the never ending vastness of the canyon, it goes on for something like fifty miles, feeling tiny and empty, and then eventually Mark would draw nearer. I’d notice those wide eyes, and soon after that, we were on the perch together, a ledge just enough to put our feet on, dangling almost a thousand feet above the canyon floor, just two people, but a closeness and enthusiasm that I’ve rarely found except when I was in the wilderness with a friend. And Mark was (is) the best of friends, and full of the purest energy and enthusiasm. 

The energy of climbing in the wilderness led us onward to the top of the wall, a thousand plus feet above where we began. Three other friends, from Western State, who had been the only other climbers in the canyon, were there to meet us with cold beers, a rare treat. Usually when we top out, there’s no one there or some curious sightseers, asking questions like, “ya’ll been climbing down there?” We were the only people there in the vast park, no surprise; we were on the heels of old man winter. The sun left us, and we cooked a humble meal in the cold night and then left the canyon for the season, for another favorite, where we always go when things get too cold, Escalante Canyon.

Escalante, no secret, no surprise we’d learned many lessons, survived the falls, and now it was an old friend. There was little, if any, mystery of what to do when we woke up. We ate some food and hiked up the hillside to a red rock sandstone crag. Once again it felt right to be in the desert. We would spend all day climbing different cracks.

In the Black Canyon, we picked up The Benson, a particularly funny young man from Gunnison. The Benson added an essentialelement to the day, humor, there’s never too much. Mark once described him as a teddy bear. As we were laughing, climbing, laughing, climbing, just as fast as the autumn fades to winter, the sun steadily leaves the day. Usually as the day is ending I lose my energy, but Mark sees the setting sun as an opportunity, for more life, for one more climb. I’ve learned I better bring a headlamp if I’m climbing with Mark, and we walked down the hillside, well after the sun had set. 

The winter soon came upon us, but by now we were too good of friends to just lose track of one another. Basically we were family now. One morning after a snowy weekend, I stopped by Mark’s house to say hello. 

“How was the ice climbing this weekend?” I asked. They’d been climbing near Silverton, Colorado, that weekend, a couple hours southwest of Gunnison. 

“Not so good, we had an accident,” he told me somberly with a look of despair in his eyes.

Mark and his roommate Scott Borden, and Steve Nigro, another climbing friend, had gotten hit by an avalanche, while they were well into the climb. Steve, who was leading, fellover two hundred feet to the base of the climb, while Mark and Scott were nearly ripped from their anchor from the force of the avalanche. They all could have died. They immediately went into rescue mode, and gothelp for Steve. He was rushed to the hospital in Montrose and spent the night there. Quickly, we made plans to visit Steve that afternoon.  

For the first time ever in the winter, we were heading west towards Montrose, not for the pleasure of climbing, but to visit an injured friend. We arrived in the evening to see Steve in a hospital bed, tired and injured, but alert andin good spirits. He was the reality of what could happen to you while climbing. I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t really much we could do. We gave him some food, and told him we admired him. Time was the only thing that would heal the wounds, which included injuries to the discs in his back and a broken sternum. We left, he needed rest, but I knew from surviving that kind of fall, that his body was as strong as steel, his spirit as strong as any other human’s I’d known.

Winter went on. Slow as winter does, as did the sadness that comes with it. Steve was healing slowly. Mark and Scott were mentally recovering, too. But life is sometimes like the avalanche; the hard times just keep coming down. I was at work, washing dishes in Crested Butte, when I received a phone call from Mark with the news. He’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer. He immediately needed a surgery to remove his testicle, and would have to leave in two days to Vermont, where he grew up. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know what to do. 

Mark’s surgery in Vermont was successful, and soon after, he returned to Colorado for radiation treatment and his final semester at Western State. Mark faced this challenge with the same determination and courage I had witnessed in his climbing. Never did he submit to negativity.       

His routine now didn’t leave him a minute of free time. He had six weeks of radiation treatment to do in Grand Junction, which meant getting up at 6:00 a.m., driving to Junction to do his treatment, and then driving back to Gunnison for school. This was what he had to do. Certain days he would challenge himself a little more. Many days he’d get zapped (his slang for radiation), and then head over to Escalante Canyon for a quick climb. Typically, he would climb more than whoever was along for the adventure. More than one person reported to me that Mark out climbed them, this from a guy being treated for cancer.

At first he was nauseous and couldn’t eat. He lost ten pounds. The medicine he received, along with numerous other pills of God knows what, didn’t help. The doctor gave him weed, or as they call it marinol, synthetic marijuana pills. It worked. Immediately, his appetite returned. Once his friends found out the marinol was helping, they began to offer all forms of marijuana products. One group of friends concocted some ganja peanut butter (peanut butter with weed in it). Mark, unlike many college students in Gunnison, didn’t care to smoke pot, so the effect was just like someone getting stoned for the first time.

One night after he had sampled some of the peanut butter, I stopped by the house to find him lying in the middle of his kitchen floor, laughing hysterically. Indeed, the unimaginable stress of being a full time college senior, while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer hadn’t gotten to his sense of humor.

Mark, already a respected member of the Gunnison community, was now a hero. At the college, a professor organized a ride system so that Mark would never have to ride alone. I went with him several times. Waking up at six in the morning was rough, how did he do this day after day?

At the cancer treatment center, they invited us to go back in the radiation room, with that big machine above Mark’s body to administer the radiation. It was freaky, and even more disturbing they had to put his privates in a weird metal cup. The doctor’s assistants explained the whole process, and we watched via a television outside the radiation room. This, day after day, and Mark never lost his cool. The only thing that upset him was the one cookie limit in the lobby, “These people are going through cancer, can’t they have more than one damn cookie,” he’d say. 

On the drive back that day we were talking about our usual topics: girls, parties, climbing, politics, the environment and girls. Scott, who was along for this trip, had been spending some time with a lady, and Mark started asking him about it, “So how did it go last night?”

Scott wasn’t interested in talking about it. “Not so good,” he said after a little prodding. 

“Well, what happened?” Mark asked. 

“Ummmm, I don’t really want to talk about it,” Scott said.

“Dude, you just saw my balls in a metal cup,” Mark added.

And, Scott told his story.

Over the course of his radiation treatment, Mark had earned my admiration and respect, and the same was true for many others. After the treatment was completed, there was a big party in his little house. His parents flew in from Vermont, and Mark did the MC Hammer dance like a wild man. It was an essential celebration, cancer, radiation, five hours of driving every weekday, none of it defeated his spirit. 

And continue on he did. He went back to ski patrolling at Monarch, back to climbing (he never stopped) and started planning for another adventurous summer. Sure enough, he scored an opportunity to be a summer guide on Mt. Shasta in California, which would be an internship to complete his Recreation degree. 

Mark had to try out for his position to be a mountain guide, so in his usual cramming as much life into every moment style, he did this just before his graduation ceremony at Western State. I just happened to be a few hours north in Bend, Oregon, on a climbing trip, so it worked out perfectly that we could drive back together. 

I rolled into Mt. Shasta City in the afternoon. It was foggy, and the mountain could not be seen. I found Mark’s new house for the summer. He got the job and had spent the weekend on the mountain and partying like climbers do. “I’m so tired of talking about climbing,” he told me. “It’s been a nonstop spray fest.”  

Indeed climbing is something that’s better to do and just keep quiet about it, which is easier to write than to do. So we packed up my truck with Mark’s climbing gear and headed east, back home. Mark told me about his future fellow employees and the crystal people that come to Mt. Shasta to charge their crystals, as it is one of the sacred seven summits. He told me about the breast cancer fundraiser that they did on Mt. Shasta. I’d been doing some solo traveling on the trip, and it didn’t bother me at all that Mark was talking nonstop. The constant presence of a true friend is no doubt appreciated more after solitude. We drove through the forests of Northern California which took us to Nevada. Poor, lonely Nevada, full of lifeless desert and casinos; Mark went on talking, and we made stops for gas and coffee.

The nighttime in Nevada, forever of nothing, but the white and yellow lines, and the truck powering down the highway. Then bright, bright, blinking lights on the horizon, an insanity supported by the gamblers. In Reno, there was no urge to stop. Gambling could be fun, but the prospect that we might have time to climb in the Utah desert called us. Nighttime driving meant one of us would sleep, while the other would put as much coffee in his system as possible. Mark actually stopped talking for a little bit. What he was talking about is gone to the past, but set to the rhythm of the road, and the hip-hop that played on the radio. 

We were both up at sunrise, as Nevada ended, one last big casino of course, on the state’s edge. Then Utah began and past the great lake, Salt Lake City came into the horizon. Oh, America and its duality. Nevada, home of prostitution and gambling, fades into Utah, home of the Mormons, of young adventurers like us, and I’m sure a lot of other kinds of folk too. Ah, to be young, low on sleep, high on caffeine, rolling into a city with no attachments, no real plan, the sun coming up, the city people getting going, the semi trucks on their endless journey heading out of town and into town. We arrived at the destination, and we had a friend in Salt Lake, an old college buddy, and we found his house so we could pass out.

As we show up on Adam Lawton’s doorstep, he was just getting ready to rise for grad school, “You guys can sleep as long as you want. I’ve got to go to class. I’ll be back in the afternoon.”

We slept for a couple of hours and woke to the most horrible smell of paint drying with none of the windows open for ventilation. Someone was painting the damn bathroom. Why did it have to be the morning we arrived? Though there was nothing we wanted more than sleep, there was no hope for it with the toxic state of Adam’s studio. We stumbled out on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Wandering across the city over to a market, what do we hear but “Let’s get wild,” an old college phrase that we used to say when we got excited. I looked back, and walking down the street was Adam. Goofy and intelligent, one of our people, with his wild blond hair flowing in all directions he proclaims, “We should go to this Tibetan buffet over by my house.”

Fed and then caffeinated, Mark and I make a quick trip to the library to get information about a climb and then head south to Moab, our destination for the evening.  Driving on so little sleep, I’m irritable, but more caffeine takes care of that. Mark and I barely talk, our brains are foggy, we’re leaving a city, and aren’t all cities a bit confusing after living in small towns for so long?

Though we don’t talk, I wonder what he thinks, and he seems to communicate with those wild blue eyes. Is he scared of death after so many close encounters with it?  But those eyes say to me, I’ve lived and died a hundred times before.

Driving across the United States, we’d seen the forests of Northern California to the desert of Nevada, and now we crossed from Salt Lake City headed south, desolate and lonely, to the red rock desert of Moab, the real thing, man. The real thing if you’re a dreamer, an outdoorsman, a climber, like us. If you’ve read Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey, and he planted dreams in your head of adventure in the forms of rock towers, red dirt, lone ravens, cactus, juniper trees and blue, so blue, skies.

Our destination is Castle Valley, home of the prettiest rock towers I’ve seen, some four hundred feet tall, and very climbable. We set up camp, which only means throwing our sleeping pads and bags in the dirt and getting some food in our guts. Mark wants to wake up before sunrise to get an early start, and who am I to argue?

Motivation for that desert high gets us up way early. The landscape we can’t see it yet, it’s still dark, but we know it’s there because we’ve been here before. We don’t hear much noise from the ten some climbers camping nearby. There is competition for these climbs, the gems of Castle Valley. It may have been what Abbey feared, the inevitable popularity and population of the red rock desert, but it’s really no big deal. We just have to get up before they do. 

We hike up to the Rectory, the first tower we plan to climb for the day. The sunlight replaces the headlamp and the towers, along with the nearby La Sal Mountains to the southwest are unveiled. Our legs are well conditioned. I’ve been on a three week climbing trip, and Mark, he’s always in good shape. Hiking is a pleasure when you’re prepared, and the suffering is little to none. The workout feels divine and puts our minds exactly in the moment. We find the base of the Rectory. Castleton is just behind us, a perfectly square four hundred foot tower.

Our objective in front of us is a four hundred foot series of cracks up red rock sandstone. The tower itself is slender. It is long, three hundred feet wide or so, and juts into the blue sky. On the boulders above the red dirt, we organize our climbing gear.   

I take the lead first, jamming hands in the crack, breathe, jam feet (bam), breathe, jam, breathe, a few times over for a hundred and fifty feet. What a way to wake up. Did we eat breakfast? I’m sure we did, but I don’t remember what. I hope that I’ll forever remember hanging on above the void, above my belayer Mark, striving to get higher and higher. Mark comes up to my perch, a nice little ledge, and sets off for harder climbing above, perfect style, the reward for our lonely days in Escalante. Not so lonely here, I look back and there are climbers approaching up the hills we climbed a couple hours before. It feels so divine to climb in good style, hell, good style or reckless struggle, look around and you’ll have a view to remember. Red rock is everywhere. Of course, a few lone ravens are up and about. In the distance is a winery, which adds welcome greenery to the surroundings. 

I clean Mark’s pitch, yanking the gear out while still hanging on. And then there we are, a hundred feet below the summit, still early as hell. Mark is rather excited and talkative. He’s here in his element, late spring in the wild desert, always a sense of reward for those who endured a cold winter. How good does it feel for a guy that spent his winter treating cancer in a hospital? Well I can tell you he was psyched and the excitement was building in his chatter. The guy likes to talk, loves to get excited.

We don’t hang out long, and soon I’m leading off for the summit pitch. Just because you’re near the top, doesn’t mean it’s over. Some sandy, exciting climbing begins the pitch. The sand makes me question my foundation; each foothold seems a little insecure. In the moment, at least I’m trying to be, Mark is still talking a mile a minute. I try to focus on the climbing. Mark is still jabbering about God knows what. The morning has packed in so much adrenaline, workout and joy. Quickly, I am entering a fearful state, and I need to concentrate as much as I can, “Will you shut up,” I yell to Mark.   

He doesn’t take offense because he knows the process my brain is going through. We are brothers of climbing. I’m inching up, the sandiness disappears, the quality of rock perfect again, the climbing harder and harder still, but protected by bolts, which all I have to do is clip ‘em with a carabineer. And there I am. Later there we are on the summit, and it’s still before noon. “Let’s get in another tower,” he says.

I was waiting for him to say it, and it’s decided. We rappel back to the ground. Our next objective is just around the bend, a route called the Honeymoon Chimney on the Priest formation. We hike over and have a granola bar lunch. We’re a little tired. Mark decides to do something about it and finds a good place to stand on his head, a yogic way of revitalizing energy. 

It’s Mark’s lead. He starts to wiggle himself in the chimney. With chimney climbing, you just put your whole body in the crack. Physically demanding, and mentally too, when the protection for falls is limited. He’s got a rock in the back of the crack slung with some webbing, clips a mediocre bolt, but doesn’t have it. Grunting Grundon, struggling and wiggling, not much progress, after a half an hour, “I don’t have it. Do you want to try it?”

“Well, hell no, if you can’t get it,” I felt good enough. The desert was alive within me, or at least I had that high. I know that feeling and it’s much better than exhaustion. Our day has been good enough. There’s no one keeping score in rock climbing. 

It’s a little past noon. We hike back down as the hills wind through red rocks and red dirt. The clouds are rolling in a little. We feel good. I feel perfectly content with The Rectory being the final climb of the road trip. Should we go back to Moab for lunch? It’s out of the way, but how good is a prepared meal when you’ve been eating camping meals? So good, but not good enough to use that much gas, that much time to go out of the way. Our way is east, back to Colorado, back to Gunnison. River Road, east, soon its I-70, soon enough Grand Junction; food, food, what else would we think of? 

Once he’s energized with a modest meal, Mark starts talking of more climbing for the day. I go along with the plan for a bit, but the comforts of home have already entered my mind.  I can try, but I usually can’t keep up with Mark. He’s disappointed I don’t want to get a couple of afternoon climbs in Escalante. I feel guilty and start to come up with excuses. There we are in Grand Junction, the center of our desert experiences; Mark always ready for more living, more climbing.

We drive in on Highway 50, which takes us home. Mark is about to graduate in a week. Immediately, he’s got a lot on his plate, but he’s used to it. He graduates, with honors, cum laude I think they call it. His parents, Cheryl and Steve, come back to town, and he takes them up a desert tower in Colorado National Monument, near Junction. He’s back in Gunnison for a day or two, then destined for California, to Yosemite for some big-wall climbing, up to Mt. Shasta for some guide training, back to Yosemite then to Colorado for a stop in Gunnison, then up to Estes Park for an eight day American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) training course.

After California and another drive across the west, he stops at our house for some rest.  He tells some stories, of a flood in Yosemite and climbing El Capitan with a random English guy he’d met in Camp 4, the historic campsite in the Yosemite. “Yeah we were four pitches from the top and my partner had to catch a flight back to Europe the next day. So we rappelled two thousand feet back to the ground.”

No sense of failure in his eyes or words, though. A few hours at the house, a nap, and he’s gone to Estes Park. Eight days for his AMGA course and the stories don’t end. Most of his climbing gear has been stolen, and that is just the start. When he arrives back in Gunnison, he calls me, “My cancer has come back.”

He found out while in Estes Park, from tests done a few weeks prior. My heart sinks. I must be with my friend. I’m homeless again, so we meet at a three bedroom apartment where five, maybe six friends are living. He tells me of his experiences with the AMGA course, and getting his gear stolen. His spirit not yet broken, if it isn’t by now, I know it never will be.   

The next day before leaving, he’s decided to cut his hair off, “It would fall off in chemotherapy anyways,” he told us. He leaves it half cut is some wild fashion, which makes all of us laugh at dinner that night at the new hip restaurant in Gunnison, called Bowlz. “Man, just when Gunnison gets cool I have to leave,” he joked. 

We all can forget, Mark too hopefully, if even for just a moment, that he has cancer and just enjoy each other’s company. The restaurant had just opened, it took hours to get our food, but that was just fine. So we all laughed, had a couple beers and didn’t talk of climbing once, which Mark and I agreed we had been doing too much of over the years. That night he even found a friend, Aaron, to drive back to Vermont with him, where he’d be doing the chemo, opposite of where he’d planned to be, California.

During his summer of chemotherapy, I talked to him several times, not often enough, but each time we talked I’d get nothing but positive energy, positive thoughts. He missed it so badly up here in the high country, God’s country. He seemed to never want to end the phone conversations. We’d talk for hours. He was doing the treatment in Burlington, which he called Girlington. Girls are indeed essential for a young man to have around, but I knew he just wanted to be in the mountains. 

Times are so great now in my life, but they can’t last forever. When they get harder, and things might seem overwhelming, I’ll think of Mark Grundon, a climber, Mark Grundon, a young man wise beyond his years. When times get hard, I’ll think of Mark Grundon, who knows hard times.   

Mark finished successful chemotherapy treatment in 2005. He is now a climbing guide in Yosemite, California and El Potrero Chico, Mexico. A shorter version of this story was originally published in the Mountain Gazette.

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