Kelly Magelky’s Quest to Produce Both Award Winning Films and Race For Gold

It’s 1:30 pm on September 5, 2014 — one day before Kelly Magelky defends his title at the Winter Park Epic 50 Mile Marathon Mountain Bike race – when I enter the 34-year-old’s office in Golden, Colorado. He’s so engrossed in his work he barely notices me.

The Epic 50 – located 60 miles west of here in Fraser Valley – is a single-track 25-mile loop with four aid stations three to six miles apart. Solo category is two 25-mile times around the course.

It’s Magelky’s last race until the Solo 24 Hour World Championships at Fort William, Scotland in a month on October 10-11 and his chance to take gold from the favorite Jason English.

Photo by John Lloyd
Photo by John Lloyd

Magelky and his wife Rachel Sturtz live in Denver but he commutes to Golden for quick access to the mountains. His office is tucked up against an alleyway adjacent to a Mexican restaurant. Low indie music is playing in the background. Production cameras and computers with oversized double monitors are lined up along a series of narrow desks. Magelky’s brown, wavy hair sticks out from behind a 36” screen in the far back corner of the office.

Even though most days Magelky rides for two to three hours, he spends six to eight hours editing film. “You have to pretend that there is a gun against your head [when you’re editing]” he says. He not only wants to be the ultra mountain bike world champion, he wants to make award-winning films. Even he admits it’s a hard balance.

He’s planning the short-release of his upcoming Country feature-film with the working title ‘They Called Us Outlaws’ with legendary stars such as Kris Kristopherson, Willie Nelson – three one and a half hour films –in two weeks at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Also while in Austin he’ll shoot an interview with country star Marcia Ball. Then it’s back to the editing board.

“It will be a feature film trilogy (3 – 1.5-hour films). I’m a producing partner on it. Our director, Eric Geadelmann, is here this week while we knock out a short version – mainly as a creative exercise for us to explore the feel/pacing of the film. The ultimate deadline is June 2015,” he said.

Four or five transcribed books lay open on his desk; he’s mid-edit on film clips and finishes up a few tasks and steps away from the screens.

Magelky runs Filament Productions, which opened its doors in 2003. Today the company works with a contractor group consisting of editor Ben “Franchise” Turner and two shooters, David Grauberger and Luke Askelson. They specialize in short format programming and feature-length films. In the last 11 years Filament has filmed in India, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Spain, Jamaica, Israel, Colombia, and the US and worked with brands such as Trek Bikes, Sony, and Universal, and with musicians Fray and Big Head Todd & The Monsters. The Feature-length documentary Magelky co-produced and edited called ‘Dave’ was Official Selection and Winner at 18 film festivals.

The War Room

We cross the house and sit down on two cotton couches, in the “war room,” as he calls it. One couch is black, the other white. The walls are all white too, except for a lime green wall where he has a clear dry erase board.

“It’s my favorite thing in this whole place,” he says. “It’s for throwing out ideas, coming up with plans. Being creative. It’s funny, you can see all of the movies in our trilogy all lined up.” He takes a sip of mint tea from his favorite mug.

He’s in slim dark blue jeans, black cotton shirt and zipped open hooded sweatshirt. I comment on his well-worn mahogany wingtips. “I’m a total shoe guy, actually,” he says, laughing. “These are my favorite shoes. I’ve probably had these seven to eight years.”

I ask if he’s concerned about the balance – after all, his world championship race is in a month, and he’s deep in video deadline-land. He repositions himself in his seat. “It’s hard to be a pro mountain biker and a pro filmmaker. They don’t scream security,” he says.

He tells me how he’s so wrapped up in projects that when Rachel offers to show him a two-minute YouTube video he declines. “It’s a big enough distraction to slow me up,” he says. [I] wake up in the morning thinking I have this and this and this to do and I just want to get right into it. “

His mind floods with questions. “Will I get sick? Will I get up early enough and have the energy to work all day? And vice versa with the work. I’m training so hard. To be so tired — will I be able to be a good filmmaker, you know, and not just push buttons?”

Two Days After the Epic 50

Kelly checks in over email and fills me in on the results of the Epic 50. Despite mental fatigue, which he credited to his previous races, he had a strong lead for most of the race. But, after two hard crashes and damaging his hands in the process, he ended up losing to Carter Shaver by two seconds. One of his hands is still hurting and he’s hoping he doesn’t have a fracture. Otherwise he’s in good spirits and feels prepared for the win in Scotland.

Early Career

A week after graduating high school at 18, Kelly moved from Dickinson, in southwest North Dakota, to Keystone, Colorado to become a ski bum. In 1999 he enrolled at Red Rocks Community College, then spent a year studying engineering before changing direction. In 2001 he enrolled in CU Denver/Colorado Film School.

Kelly and the author riding in Golden, CO. Photo: John Lloyd
Kelly and the author riding in Golden, CO.
Photo: John Lloyd

He got his first taste of filmmaking during his junior year in high school as a skate rat in North Dakota when he and close friend David Ebeltoft “decided to throw a video together using two VCRs and a CD player,” he said. He credits David with giving him confidence and motivation to pursue film as a career. “He talked me into pursuing something I love, filmmaking. I still owe him for that. He’s also still one of the best people I know.”

In the movies, he and four friends perform slide outs and heel flips down a flight of stairs. They made their video during the middle of winter and had to wear oil field work gloves to protect their hands from the cold.

After skating he turned to car racing. His stepfather, Gary, provided Kelly and his three year older brother, Tracey, an opportunity to build and race a stock car. “It was an amazing experience and one that I draw from to this day,” he said. At 16 he and Tracey, with whom he was fiercely competitive, built a car together and traded weekends racing it. “Eric went on to become a great champion. In fact, two weeks ago he won another season championship up in Mandan, ND.” Tracey will be supporting him in Scotland.

Then came skiing and finally biking.

Once in Thornton, Colorado, friend Micah Pelton turned him onto mountain biking by taking him out to a steep technical area at Apex. “I live for technical climbing now, but back then I had no idea what I was doing. I also felt like my lungs were going to explode — I didn’t know how steep it got because I ended up vomiting 20 minutes into the ride. I was so defeated.”

Dry heaving by the side of the trail he watched someone fly by him while on the downhill. It was then he knew he had to make it to the top. Undeterred, he got his first suspension mountain bike, a second-hand, purple, Specialized Rock Hopper for $200.

From then on, “I was soaking up everything. I kept driving out here [to ride] and that’s what made me fall in love with Golden,” he says. “I met Olympians, champions, pros – and most of them just went out of their way to help me and [they] took me under their wings.”

Magelky began competing in 2003, went pro in 2006, and joined the Trek/ Volkswagen team in 2008.

“I just don’t want to stop working. I love what I do but it can get stressful. I worked until 2 am last night.”

Twice Magelky finished second in the national championships in 2009, 2010. And second in the world championships in 2007. He’s over being Mr. Second.

His Pit Crew

Magelky’s race support consists of his direct and indirect family members from North Dakota including his parents, brother Tracy, aunt, uncle, and “my main man Nick [Howe], who runs the show.” Nick funded his first world championship and was Magelky’s only pit crewmember. And George Mullen – “the ‘Mayor of Cycling Town, I call him – has been the same way for me.”

Magelky competed in several 24-hour races, and once duked it out with ‘legend,’ Tinker Juarez for 22 hours – just the two of them up in front — earning him second place by a mere two seconds. He’s confident to win because experience and his physical therapy is on his side, he says.

Ruptured Disk

Kelly pauses, leans forward and tells me about an injury he received two years ago to his back caused from prolonged periods of sitting while editing film.

His understanding is that he has a ruptured disk and a tear in the other. “The disk material went into my sciatic nerve from sitting and it cut off movement to my left leg,” he said.

The injury occurred in 2012 when he was training for the world championships. When he couldn’t walk for more than five minutes or stand for 10 he saw the doctor. Once there, Magelky showed the doctor how he couldn’t lift his body up on his left toes which indicated severe nerve damage. The doctor told him he may not be able to race professionally again, and would likely need surgery. Magelky was forced to cancel his seat in the race.

To avoid surgery he tried a new technique called dry needling.

Dry needling, or intramuscular stimulation performed with hollow steel needles, triggered the nerves in his back and dramatically helped with the healing process. Before receiving that treatment the backs of his calves were numb. “I came back swinging,” he says.

“I’m better now,” he says, except for random cramping in the back of his legs, or “shadow cramping,” as he calls them, which may go away or may not.

Physical therapy has been incredibly core intensive, and has given him extra strength and confidence.

Why He Thinks He’ll Win

He recently blogged about racing the Badlands in North Dakota winning the 100-mile race just shy of nine hours at 8:56.

Leaving the 3rd aid station, I let the idea of a sub-9 hour day enter in my head. I started calculating the time it would take and it looked like it would be close. I told myself to limit bathroom breaks (if I could!) and to start taking some more risks. This is where I started to feel the fatigue. I started riding a little harder and I had a couple small crashes (one in front of the photographer). That’s when I had ‘the talk’ with myself. I wanted nothing more than to have a straightforward finish to the race. I’d been out for nearly 9 hours and didn’t want to suffer and stress all the way to the line.

“I feel really great. That’s the other thing in my court. I can’t say that I think I’m going to win, but I’ve set my self to do it. It’s racing, so you never know. When you add pro in front of mountain biker it gives you an excuse to ride every day. I love it.”

Adapt And Overcome – An Interview With Skiy DeTray

Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took a whipper, got a concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure Western out here!”– Skiy DeTray via text from mid-way up El Capitan’s Native Son (VI 5.10 A4).

Skiy starting up the crux  pitch on Reticent Wall (VI 5.10 A5)
Skiy starting up the crux pitch on Reticent Wall (VI 5.10 A5)

I met with Skiy DeTray one week before receiving this text to learn more about his drive for climbing the most demanding and dangerous big wall routes in the world. In 2011, he spent 22 days on the side of Great Trango Tower, a 2,625-foot wall topping out at 20,623 feet in northern Pakistan. I also wanted to ask him about two other things: His work as a US Air Force Pararescueman in Afghanistan, and partnering with disabled athletes climbing El Cap.

We meet outside my office under cloudy skies in central Boulder. 38 year-old Skiy steps out of the car, reaches back inside for a six-pack of beer and we head inside. On the way in he tells me he’s packed to fly out to climb Native Son on El Cap in the morning. Dressed in a blue Patagonia synthetic jacket, loose blue jeans, a cotton T and what appears to be bedroom slippers—which he assures me are not just for wearing around the kitchen—Skiy’s at ease and relaxed. He has a light beard and dark blue eyes. He folds his 6’3” frame down in the wheeled office chair behind me, leans back and takes a sip off his Levity Amber Ale and talks about aid climbing.

“Aid climbing,” he says, “as you know refers to the struggle of high stepping in your aiders, making long reaches, and pounding in pitons. You let go of everything. All that holds you in place is a #1 head, or the point of the hook in the stone. The wind on El Cap at your back and the swifts around you. You just kind of float up the wall on copperheads and hooks. Then there’s all the mastery of technique and efficiency of systems and adventure. And there’s the necessary pain of it. Aid climbing has a roughneck work side of it. It’s delicate yet physical.”

From 2009 to today, he’s successfully climbed El Cap over 30 times, setting speed records with various partners on routes like Tribal Rite (VI 5.5 A4) in 19:48, and Shortest Straw (VI 5.7 A4) in 12:23.

The Pararescue Life

During his early twenties in Montana, Skiy ice climbed in Bozeman and took several trips to Yosemite to free and aid climb. In his mid twenties. tired of dead-end jobs and wanting to save money for Chamonix, he tried out for the Air Force special forces, undergoing two years of so-called ‘Superman School’ and was selected as one of the branch’s elite Pararescuemen.

“It turned into a job I loved,” he said. “There’s band of brothers watching each other’s back. Plus,“everyone skydives, scuba dives, are paramedics, and mountain rescue experts. I did that from 2001 to 2007.”

Skiy says one of the things he learned during his time there is the importance of teamwork. He credits his time as a Pararescueman, or PJ (Pararescue Jumper) to helping him become a better overall climber.

“They beat it into your head to adapt and overcome every situation you encounter. Complete the mission at all costs.” He takes a long breath and leans back in his chair. “It was two years of training where 90 percent of people don’t make it. It’s insane. And then four years operating with the teams with real life, high-risk civilian and combat rescue operations. We did civilian operations in Iceland and Tucson and Alaska and three tours in Afghanistan.”

He explains how he flew into the high mountains near the Pakistan boarder and recovered injured personnel under enemy fire: “I was basically special forces in Afghanistan. But there’s nothing basic about it.” He lets out big laugh. He makes a look like his eyes are bugging out of his head, looks at me hard and lets out another laugh. “It was A4+, A5. Ha, ha.”

After six years of active duty, he realized that he needed to make a change in his carrer that would allow him to climb. In 2009, he joined the National Guard, which allowed him to spend several months each year working in Alaska as a Pararescueman and six months on YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue).

Veterans Chad Jukes, Mike Kirby and Skiy DeTray enjoying the summit of El Cap on Sept. 11. Photo Paradox Sports
Veterans Chad Jukes, Mike Kirby and Skiy DeTray enjoying the summit of El Cap on Sept. 11. Photo Paradox Sports

Present Work, Medic

Today, Skiy works as a flight medic in West Africa. His schedule is 60 days of work on, and 60 days off.

“It’s nice,” he,” says. “But, my climbing has paid the price this year which I why I can’t wait to quit my day job. One more stint and I can take a few years off.”

Having free time from work gives him the flexibility he needs to spend a week or more on the side of a big wall. Like the time he  climbed El Cap with two disabled military vets through an organization called Paradox Sports, based in Boulder, Colo. The team, including vets Chad Jukes (below the knee amputee) and Mike Kirby (partial foot amputee), successfully completed Zodiac (VI 5.10 A2+) on September 11, 2013. Skiy talks about a moment of adaption and overcoming, which occurred during their first bivy up on the wall.

“Mike, a prior army vet, dropped both of his shoes. We’re thinking the climb is over, we have to go down. Then the wheels started turning. We can make shoes out of sleeping pad material and duct tape and still get to the top of this thing. It just exemplified that no matter the challenge that if you adapt you can overcome any situation. It captured the whole Paradox spirit. War has left a lot of us with mental and physical disabilities. But through a positive adapt and overcome attitude anything is possible. Including still having an amazing life. It breaks my heart every time I hear a vet has taken his or own life.”

Andy Hoeckel and Pierre Ollson at a portaledge camp at 17,000 feet on Great Trango Tower. Photo: Skiy Detray
Andy Hoeckel and Pierre Ollson at a portaledge camp at 17,000 feet on Great Trango Tower. Photo: Skiy Detray

 

I ask Skiy if kids were in his future.

“Hell no… well, at least for a few years. I want to mix climb, rock climb, and ski four to five days a week and that’s kind of it. I can’t wait to visit the Moose’s Tooth in Alaska. I want to inspire people in a place and time where I was when I was young and impressionable.”

I ask if he’s a nihilist. After all, the aid routes Skiy seeks out are the hardest, most dangerous ones, such as Plastic Surgery Disaster, Reticent Wall with the rating of A4 and A5, which means serious injury or death in case of a fall.

“I’m quite the opposite,” he replies.

I asked what his childhood was like, how and when he got into climbing and why he joined the Special Forces. He grew up in Spokane, Washington. His mom worked at REI and due to her work she was able to expose him to rafting, camping, and climbing when he was only 8.

“There were all these climber hard-core dudes who worked at REI when I was a kid,” he says. It was climbing that grabbed him the most and he hero-worshiped the stars in climbing movies. “I feel like those videos inspired me set the tempo for that fuel to push yourself and always squeeze out what you have and the body you have,” he says. “To this date I can recite literally every line from those movies.”

He laughs slowly as we talk about what it was like getting his start top roping and bouldering at age 8 at the local Spokane crags called Min E Ha Ha. To reach the rocks located 12 miles from his home he’d have to persuade his mom to take him, or whoever he could get to take him there. He’d often bring his bike along, and ride the 12 miles home after he was done climbing, which he did generally alone. In the third grade, he started lifting weights and joined the cross-country team. He started leading routes at age 12. Climbing, running, and competitions were the main driving forces in his life from age eight to 16. While a member of the Mead High School Cross Country team in 1995, Skiy ran a two-mile race in 8:58, and was beaten by his teammate by 1/100th of a second, earning him second place in the country.

“If I just leaned in a little bit more,” he said, “I could have earned first.”

Skiy won a scholarship to Montana State for his excellence in running. There, his love for running was overcome by his desire to climb rocks. “I lost the plot and started rock climbing. I loved it.” He continues. “In my thirties, I could have worked a full time job and put money in the bank and put money in my retirement. Instead, I moved to Yosemite to become a granite climber, a speed climber and an aid climber.” “I was on YOSAR for four summers. One summer in Tuolumne, three seasons in the Valley. Those were the four best years of my life.” He sums up his climbing career: “So far: 30 years. Still alive,” he says. He free climbs about 150 days a year.

Travels in Pakistan

The Great Trango Tower. The Norwegian Pillar ascends up the middle of the formation.
The Great Trango Tower. The Norwegian Pillar ascends the middle of the formation.

I asked him about his experience traveling through Pakistan and his time on Great Trango Tower.

“For 77 days, I traveled through Pakistan with Andy, a hard core, bar fighting, rough neck and Pierre Olsson, a Swedish Special Forces sniper. I felt between the three of us that we would be able to at least make to the base of great Trango. I think all climbing in Pakistan is worth the risk of getting to and from the climb because the mountains are that incredible. It’s the Wild, Wild West. You have to go there prepared to do anything.”

Great Trango’s height of 4,400 feet dwarfs El Cap’s 3,200. He described their attempt on the Norwegian Pillar as, “1,400 feet of 5.10 to an office sized ledge. Then 3,000 feet of aid climbing.”

The team had clear skies for the first seven days of the route and make strong progress. Then the clouds came in and they settled into their hanging camp located at 17,000 feet.

“We basically got to the ledge and a nine-day storm came and it snowed three feet. We knew that in order to reach the summit we would have to climb through the storm. So we quested in storm conditions. We were Jumaring in 20-degree temps, and aid climbing with beaks in a storm. It was insane.”

Days passed this way until they reached a ledge below the upper headwall, which stretches for the final 1,200 feet. They made 800 feet of progress.

“Then we got the call on our two way radio that another storm was approaching,” he says. “We were running low on food. We’d have to go without food for seven to14 days.” He laughs. “And we’d already lost 20 pounds each. I wish I would’ve taken food for 40 days.”

They retreated. Skiy plans to go back, but this time he’d like to make a four-day blitz up the wall to avoid being pinned down by a storms.

Skiy alpine climbing in Alaska
Skiy alpine climbing in Alaska

“I want to take my climbing from big wall, to high altitude objectives that require El Cap technique and finesse, plus gritty hard-core alpine endurance.”  Then he adds, “But in a minimalist lightweight style.”

“How do you know when to draw the line of dreaming and staying alive?” I ask but don’t get an answer. A week later I get a series of texts from Skiy from the side of El Cap:

Thursday August 29: “Fucking awesome!! Swifts, King Cobra, and red granite streaks! A bit spicy, loving it!”

Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took wiper, got concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure western out here!”

Saturday, Aug 30, 8:52am: Andy is a little shook up, but ok. Sometimes the wall tests your mettle, we drive on.”

Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman: Action, Nudes and Art in Motion

57-year-old photographer and climber Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman has been a fixture in the Yosemite and Joshua Tree, California climbing scenes off and on since the early 70s. Fidelman, aka Bullwinkle, earned his handle back in the ‘70s because of the way his afro hair resembled two antlers on either side of his head like the goofy cartoon Canadian Moose from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Dean, customarily dressed in blue jeans, a cotton-T and sticky approach shoes, keeps a closely trimmed goatie, and has brown hair in a ponytail extends down and over the back of his neck. He has a slight build.

He makes a living developing and selling his art on his terms and has been producing black and white Stone Nudes calendars for the past 15 years, primarily of women, amongst the boulders and landscapes. As a teenager he discovered his passion for photography and climbing and he’s been doing it ever since.

stone mastersHe’s published the books Stone Nudes – Art in Motion, The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, and The Valley Climbers: Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution. He’s currently working on Iron Age, containing photos and stories from climbers in Yosemite in the 50s.

Over the years I’ve recruited nude models for Dean’s projects. He’s only produced one nude mens’ calendar, which he admits didn’t sell well. But the women calendars sell well enough to keep the business running. Fidelman explains it as: “It barely pays for itself and I kind of like that. If I make a calendar, I barely have enough money for next year. We only make a few thousand a year. Eventually I hope they will be in museums. “

I moved to Yosemite in 1995. When my peers were all signing up for college I knew my calling was in the Valley. I’d read about the Stonemasters, the great big wall climbers and cutting edge boulderers who all spanned time there. I also knew then that I wanted to write for a living – someday – in the meantime, I wanted to live amongst the subjects I would some day write about rather than getting my education in a traditional classroom. I’ve known Fidelman since he returned to Yosemite in 1999.  I was one of the models. As someone who’s respected his art for some time, I felt pleased to be included in his project.

The other models and I have always found it to be in a compliment to be included in Dean’s work and in front of his medium-format camera and other classic cameras.

The year was 1970 when Feldman, who, at the time was enrolled in a high school photography class, and ended up with a teacher who also climbed. The teacher asked him to photograph at nearby Stoney Point. Following instructions, Dean rode his bike ten miles with his bulky camera dangling around his neck to the unknown-to-him but well-known-to-climbers Southern California bouldering area to take landscape photographs. Once there, sweaty and panting, he saw a woman climbing, a rarity at the time, and was mesmerized.

He’d never climbed before, and, inspired by what he saw — how her body flowed over the rock – he had an immediate interested in bouldering himself. And photographing woman bouldering. Ideally in the nude.

valley climbersLater that day, after taking photos, Fidelman tried his hand at bouldering. Immediately he felt a connection to the activity and felt a knack for it.

He’s primarily lived the “climber lifestyle,” and has resided in the boulders, a cave or his van, since he was 16. In contrast to finding his bed under a damp hard rock, he’s also lived in New York and Milan while working as gritty fashion photographer. He’ll be 58 in December.

His chosen lifestyle may not make him much money – he told me how much but I’d rather not say — but living the way he does allows him to follow his art. His home is amongst the climbers and he moves with the changing of the seasons.

Over the phone he explained he’s chosen a challenging lifestyle, and being tight on money certainly wears on him, but he sees great rewards in the path he’s made for himself.

A few days ago, I lined up an interview with Fidelman to learn more about him, his art, the status of his next project, and what’s next.

I called him from my quiet apartment in Golden, Colorado at 5pm on a Monday in late October. As I sat at the keyboard writing down what he said, he talked to me from my old home, Yosemite Valley. I imagined he was near the Lodge Cafeteria, the heart of the Valley floor, under tall pine trees, with the highest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls, now dried up for the season behind him.

We started the interview by him telling me how PayPal couldn’t verify where he lived. It’s a point that shows how off the grid he is, which poses problems when it comes to things like getting paid.

The interview begins below.

There’s no record of where you live when we Google you, they said. There are no utility bills, etc. it just says that you’re a photographer.

I don’t pay rent. I use my mom’s place and I live out of my van. I have no problem with that. I’m basically homeless; I go from climbing area to climbing area. My canvas is climbing and everyone in it. My canvas doesn’t stay in one place anyway.

When my friends stay in one place their art reflects that. I have to be in Colorado, Europe, etc., to be in other places in order to make pictures. I don’t make enough to rent an apartment with my art. I may make enough for three to four months of rent and that’s it.

What I want to do is what I’m doing — I made my art part of my life. You don’t separate those two. It seems to work out really well.

When I was 16 I graduated high school. I met these guys out of J Tree that were climbers and they were going to Yosemite. The day I graduated high school I split to Yosemite and spent my first summer up there on 20 bucks, that kind of thing.

I met some of the early would-be Stonemasters. I met John Bachar and got him out to J Tree and introduced him to John Long and those folks. We were kings in our little slum in Camp 4 [in Yosemite]. [These would become a rag tag group containing some of the finest climbers of the era.]

I continued making photographs of Bachar and of soloing. The 70s really set that stage for when I came back in the 90s, when I brought art into everything that I did. When I started making Stone Nudes, I was simply showing and sharing that experience. I always liked mixing my love of bouldering, landscape and nudes. This is why I stayed with it for 15 years, and haven’t stopped.

In my mid to late 20s I pursued fashion photography.

As an artist it’s very hard to make original work. Stone Nudes is just that. Nudes have been around forever, action and nudes and art in motion, as I call it, really works because it’s different and original it hasn’t gotten as popular as I wanted it to be.

I can tackle these crazy projects [finding the right women for his calendars, spending time with climbers of today, and tracking down climbers from various eras] because I don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain. That’s how I’ve lived my life for a long time.

I look at my stuff as contributing to the community. I provide art. Climbing is many different people from all over the world, different lifestyles; practicing their art and their spiritual awareness. The climbing has to have some depth to it. It has to have those great stories, to see where you came from and to know that history. I don’t know if all climbers see that, but it’s there and it helps shape us [and our community].

I knew immediately that I wanted to make climbing photography. I supported myself working in photo labs. That was a good outlet for me because I could print my own work. I would do that in late spring and early fall. Then I would leave that, and come back to Yosemite.  I did that until photo labs died out. By that time I was making photographs and making it as a photographer.

I moved to New York and Milan as a fashion and portrait photographer. I noticed almost immediately that it felt like I was almost with climbers for a while, as everyone was young and doing their thing. I liked the people enough but the stuff in front of my camera wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be shooting climbers and to be climbing.

If I came back into climbing photography I knew had to have a goal. I needed to show straight forward photographs, with a little bit of what I had that would push it on a different view than that was out there. I continued to do black and white. When I came back a lot of the young climbers had heard of me. I ‘d hung out with the top end climbers since the 70s and I knew then that the top climbers made the best art.

I then traveled with [climbing’s top talent including] Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell for a while. And traveling with an original Stonemaster from the 70s, Lynn Hill.

It got to the point I was doing ads for various companies. I realized at that point that if I kept in that direction, I would blend out my art a little bit. The photographs had to fit that mold. That’s when I started doing Stone Nudes in 1999.

006The first book I wanted to do was Stone Nudes. I’d also been talking with John Long about making a book about us in the 70s. He wasn’t psyched on the project for many years. One late I got a late night call from a drunk Bachar who said I needed to make this book. I called Long and he didn’t give me the time of day. The next day Bachar forgot he called me.

Later, Long called me and said we needed to make the book and that we needed a publisher.

I said we had to self publish it in order to keep it authentic. It took us two years to bring it together. I went through dusty boxes of slides, some still in the carousels all dusty and crackly. Many were in garages and I would go to people’s houses to sort through them and sleep in my van. I would scan images, give them a disk of what I made and went on to the next person.

Once I went to the late Sean Curtis’ house to look through slides. He and I started climbing together. He died three years before I started the book, in 2005. I met his sister. She never got to know him and she ended up with a large milk crate was boxes of Sean’s pics. There were also CD’s of his music. He was a talented musician and climber. He died of alcoholism and all that was left of his life was in that box. I scanned the images and put everything back. I started showing her pics on the computer and told her about her brother. And in the end she was crying. She never knew her brother. She never knew anything in his life other than he died alone. She now says he had all this talent. When that happened I realized this project is much bigger than me.

At this point I had $1000 left and was looking for a designer for the book. Tom Adler, he made Glen Denny’s book, Yosemite in the 60s. He looked at my stuff and thought it was brilliant.

He wanted to get started right away. I gave him my last money and he got me a draft a week later. It went through five to six drafts. Then he said he needed more money. He picked up that I didn’t have much money, or any money.

He went to Patagonia and they bought 1500 books in advance and that attracted Mike Graham and that started Stonemaster Press. It ensured that the work would be really strong.

The best artists I know are the most honest of the work to themselves. They also know what it’s not. That when they look at other people’s work they can see it honestly and see the beauty in it.

When John and I started our book we were going to use my photos. In the end I only ended up with twelve to fifteen of my photos. The book held 118 photos. I paired it down from over 500. That was so many different photographers. We have fifteen to twenty different photographers’ work in there.

After stone masters we made Stone Nudes. Bruce Weber noticed my work. He really liked the Stone Nudes calendars. He bought a bunch of prints for himself and his friends and he was supportive of my book. He was one of those photographers I always admired. When he noticed my work and said the same thing about me meant a lot to me.

Then we did another book called The Valley Climbers that was from the 80s to the present. It was a little too modern for my tastes.

Right now I’m working on the Iron Age. That’s basically climbing in Yosemite in the 50s. The book contains stories of the first ascents of the first big, most significant climbs in Yosemite. We also bring together a lot of the characters that were there in that period. Everything leads up to the first ascent of the Nose [on 3,000 foot El Capitan] in 1958.

I met up with Allen Steck in Berkeley. Then Jerry Gallwas who was involved in the first ascent of Half Dome.

I enjoyed their company so much; you’re talking about the lifestyle and what these men and women did. It’s very counter to what was considered right in the 50s. They were these beatniks on the rocks. They had a strong dichotomy inside themselves, as they were expected to be family men. That will color what the photographs will look like in those days.

Climbing is all about your word. If not being honest, at least being pretty transparent to some extent. That’s why I like working on these projects.

The Iron Age is being pitched to Patagonia. The problem with Stonemaster Press is we didn’t have any money for marketing. Patagonia is a better solution. I’m also working on Stone Monkeys with James Lucas and Cedar Wright.

You can buy books here:

Stone Nudes – Art in Motion 

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Valley Climbers: Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution

I will keep doing this project until the pictures aren’t getting any better. I might give it up for a year and get back to it. The idea is to see how good you can get at it. That practice does not make perfect. Perfect is a by-product of learning from your mistakes. That’s basically the truth. If you learn and are honest than that’s what gives you mastery of something.

Paul Gagner — Training for Aid Climbing by Bouldering

Meet at “The top switchback just above the Y-traverse,” read Paul Gagner’s (pronounced Gan-yay) text giving directions for Flagstaff Mountain, located above Boulder.

Twenty minutes later Paul pulls up to the boulders in his gray Prius. It’s 4:10 P.M, Tuesday September 3.

“I haven’t been up here in quite a bit. I usually go up to the Satellites if I’m going to come up here,” he said.

It’s my first time in the area.

He steps out of his car, throws his military-green, thrashed crash pad out of the trunk and onto the ground and opens his clear blue Nalgene water bottle coated in gray duct tape with a green one-inch climbing sling fastened to the side, and takes a sip of water.

He’s dressed in gray rip-stop mid-thigh shorts, pine-green cotton tee, and narrow frame Ray Bans with brown lenses. His demeanor is low key, relaxed, steady.

JL_PaulGagner-02We exit the parking lot and move to the nearby boulders. He slips on his red climbing shoes. I get a whiff of the familiar climbing shoe stench– for a moment it reminds me of being in a climbing gym.

“How old are you?” I ask, starting the interview.

“53. Too old,” he says. “I don’t know what happened. I used to be 19. Then all of a sudden I got old. I don’t feel old, though.”

“I’ve got most of this stuff…” he drifts off, then adds, “you know,” but doesn’t finish his sentence. I can tell he means he’s been climbing on these red sandstone boulders for a decade or more. I comment on how ingrained and smooth his movement is on the rock. “I haven’t done most of this stuff since March,” he says.

The discussion turns to climbing 3,000-foot El Cap in Yosemite. He watched a team firing fireworks off their portaledge from across the wall during the late 90s. I reminisce about a time I witnessed the same thing during that same era. “We had a casual ascent, like five nights. Took our time,” he says of the route New Dawn.

He jogs up the next problem. Then another.

He sits back on his pad placed over a light tan rock and proceeds to air-climb on his back like a turtle. He’s talking about the time he popped his knee out of alignment. It was when he was 26. The injury “put the kibosh on that trip to Alaska,” he says.

He grew up in San Jose, near the cragging areas Castle Rock, Goat Rock, Pinnacles. He started climbing at seventeen. Two years later he climbed El Cap for the first time. It was ’79.

I say I was two years old. We laugh. He’s 16 years older than I am.

He drags his pad across the dirt and sits back on the upward slope so the pad acts like a couch. He talks about soloing Colorado 14ers in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. On the solo he completed a few weeks earlier he “got all jacked off route,” but was able to regain his composure, get back on route, and finish the ascent.

Clouds form overhead cooling the air.

JL_PaulGagner-01I confirm some family statistics – his daughter is eight and a half. And “On Friday I’ve been married 11 years,” he says.

He explains that runs the outdoor division at Nite Ize, a producer of outdoor accessories and hardware. As long as he can remember, he’s worked in the outdoor industry.

He moved to Boulder in ’90, moved away for 10 years before moving back, and has been here ever since.

“You’ve climbed El Cap, what, 30-40 times?” I ask.

“I wish,” he replies. “More like 20.” He cruises up the next boulder.

I’ve met up with a Paul a few times over the past few months. We share a lot of similarities – we love all aspects of climbing, and have spent a great deal of time aid climbing the Fisher Towers – an area of slender muddy towers up to a 1,000 in Utah, and on the impeccable granite found on El Cap in Yosemite.

He first climbed in the Fisher Towers in the 80s, then  “forgot about them for a time,” he says. “If I can’t get to Yosemite I can go there and take advantage of new routes.”

On our previous interview at his spacious house in south Boulder, he said he uses his relaxed, focused mindset, which he engrains on the boulders, highballs included, and applies that mind space to hard aid routes.

This topic became the focal point of today’s interview. I wanted to know what he meant.

To qualify as a hard aid pitch, there really has to be serious consequences in case of a fall; like whipping 80 feet into a body-crumpling ledge; a ground fall, all the while moving tenuously on technical, body-weight only gear placements like hooks, copperheads and pitons. “Death of serious injury can occur in case of a fall,” or so goes the saying.

“My analogy to aid climbing to bouldering,” he says, “As crazy as it may seem — bouldering is all about an economy of moving and precision. Aid climbing is the same thing – [especially] when it’s more tenuous aid. When you’re bouldering something hard you want to remember to breathe. I make sure to make myself breathe to keep calm. Otherwise I get on edge and that’s when you tend to make mistakes. You want to keep calm on a highball problem.”

Falling from a highball – problems with nasty landings or towering above heights of 20 feet or more — also means serious injury or death.

“Walls have a lot of heads-up spots. There are a lot of routes with little ledges to hit. I’m amazed more people don’t get hurt aid climbing. You might not die, [but it may be a] big ankle sprainer/ankle breaker.”

He starts up a highball.

“What is this V6?” I ask as he palms, rocks over his feet as he moves up the rock.

“V12,” he says, pauses, looks out from the rock and gives me a big smile. Then finishes the arête. He’s joking about the rating, but I still have no idea how hard the line is.

Raised in San Jose, California, Paul began climbing in 1977 at the age of 17. By 19 he established his first, and only, first ascent on a big wall in Yosemite. A route that’s “likely unrepeated,” he says called A Joint Adventure on Liberty Cap (height 955 feet).

“I did the first one day solo of Mt. Watkins (2,000 feet) somewhere between ‘85 and ‘87. “Yeah, that worked me…I was so hot I couldn’t down any food. I had some breakfast and did the whole thing on a bag of Skittles.”

I ask him about expeditions. “That was the thing,” he says. “When my buddies Steve Schneider and John Barbella were doing new routes on El Cap, I was doing expeditions to Baffin, Patagonia, Garhwal in the Himalayas, Alaska.”

“I never had any down time in 35 years [of climbing] except injuries,” he says. “I’ve sprained my ankle tons of times bouldering. The rockfall on my head on the Steck Salathé (Sentinel Rock, 1,500 feet, 5.9), but that wasn’t [much of] a set back.” He has a strip of stitch marks on his head but it’s been so long he forgets how many of them there are.

He talks about trying to make a first one-day ascent of El Cap’s Tangerine Trip (1,800 feet, mixed free and aid). The first time they were going too slow and rappelled from about 600 feet off the ground. The next time he dropped all the hooks while fumbling with them in the dark forcing them to rappel to the ground from about 900 feet up the wall. Both times he ended up rappelling off a single bolt, which had been placed by a film crew for a Star Trek scene; the bolt was rumored to be half-inch wide, and five inches long.

He continues: “I tell you getting old is weird,” he says. “I’ve lived the life I’ve wanted, climbing, drinking.” He points out that his lifestyle hasn’t had negative consequences. He’s fit, healthy and climbs like big kid, but one with decades of experiences under his harness.

He’s perched on the edge of a boulder, legs crossed, arms outstretched for balance and leans forward as he tells a story of a recent road trip where his friend and passenger fell asleep. His friend’s throat started clicking and he wouldn’t wake up. Paul gets all animated as he acts out how he tried to roust him awake. At the time he thought his friend had died; it turned out he was fine.

He gets up from his perch, asks the team of boulderers next to us if they don’t mind if he climbs over their pad and heads up the next problem.

He’s logged perhaps 10 problems so far. It’s 5:25 P.M. and the sun is cresting behind the clouds above the Rockies once again cooling the air.

He talks about climbing at an area called Avalon, which he’d revisited with his friend Alan Lester. It had been so long since he first visited the area he’d forgotten that he’d climbed there.  “It’s great as you get older,” he says, “Everything’s an Alzheimer’s Point. It’s always an onsight — doing it for the first time,” he says.

We wrap up the interview and head back to our cars. For a moment we stand by our vehicles awkwardly. I was planning to head home, but he convinces me to go out. We agree to go to the Southern Sun for beers and burgers.

Once there the conversation continues and we begin lining up our next climbing plans. In a few weeks he’s headed to Yosemite and knows there’s a chance he may need a partner. I’m interested, but we have a hard time coming up with an objective on El Cap that piques our interest, and one that neither of us has completed. I hope we can find a suitable objective; it would be great to spend a week on the side of El Cap with Paul.

An Afternoon with Rock Climber and BASE Jumper Hank Caylor

It’s 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in June when I meet up with 44-year old climber and BASE jumper Hank Caylor. We agreed to talk at 3:30 but he showed up fifteen minutes early to the Windy Saddle coffee shop in Golden, Colorado.

Before running into him at Neptune Mountaineering during a slideshow a few weeks earlier I’d only known of him through videos like Front Range Freaks, The Sharp End and from an article in Rock and Ice magazine. I heard he was originally from Austin, Texas. I knew at one point he’d crashed through a half-inch glass window during a BASE jump gone wrong, having to take the elevator down while his body was dripping blood.

hank_2I’d also heard he’d climbed hard on runout routes like Sheer Terror (5.12c X) in Eldorado and taken a ridiculously long climbing fall down the south face of Half Dome’s route Southern Belle (1,500 feet, 5.12d R/5.11X). Word is he got off route, plunged nearly 40 feet into a sharp dyke breaking both ankles, then slid another 40 feet onto tiny gear. His partner Alan Lester helped orchestrate the self-rescue.

The list of his grand successes and gruesome accidents is much longer than the ones mentioned above but the point is he’s always gone for it and hasn’t always gotten away with it.

That’s not entirely what made me want to interview him.

He’d posted open, honest questions to the community on the climber’s website SuperTopo.com ranging from sobriety to marriage which showed that there was a living, breathing person with feelings behind his larger-than-life antics. Plus, he lived in Golden and visited the same café as I did. Meeting up with him and chatting would be convenient for both of us.

Let me tell you up front – Hank didn’t hold anything back when we talked and much of what he said can’t and won’t make it in this article. Over two and a half hours he made non-stop animated motions, adjustments and gestures; gripping the latticework table like it was a climbing wall or extending his arms in a human-bat position like he’d do when flying through the air in a wingsuit. He rolled from one story into the next.

At the start of the interview he wolfed down an egg and cheese croissant while complaining that the establishment didn’t offer “basics like ketchup.” Cars rushed past us as he talked. Girls in bikinis walked by from nearby Clear Creek.

HANK AND BUN BUN“Four or five times a year I do something or end up somewhere really glamorous,” he said. He fidgeted with his sky blue tank top, and pulled it up by the strings around his neck. “I was offered a job at EPIC TV; it looks like I live the life. But five days a week I wake up at 4:30am, feed the pugs and go put on a tool belt and do electric work, just like a regular schnook.”

“Fiscal responsibility,” as Hank calls it, has been instilled in him since a young age. “I always wanted a job/trade that I could be proud of at a party. Everybody needs electricians. Plumbers and electricians do pretty well for themselves. It’s not hard on your body. I drive a fancy new truck and own a great house with my wife in Golden. I gotta have a real job for all that stuff. Being a hardworking, middle class, semi-pro Wildman is harder to pull off than you might think.”

When Hank’s not training or planning for his next freak-out, he’s an electrician for Titan Electric and a Brand Ambassador for Go Fast Energy; both Denver based, and is the official Go Fast high angle rescue coordinator for most BASE events globally.

Though he’s climbed hard and runout routes since his teenage years, these days, “Climbing hard is only a priority a few times a year. The rest of the year I BASE jump and organize Base-jumping events in other countries and participate in adventure races.” Next month he’s doing the Llama Race.

“My wife and I have no kids and very fulltime jobs. Any downtime is important for us,” he says. “We’re always looking for something weird and scary to do that is different. A few sports have stuck but I’m always up for most oddball things.”

“44 years old, this is the first year I sort of feel it,” he says then points out that he’s “on deck to being old,” like a batter getting ready to step up to the plate. Despite some scars on his body and a receding hairline, which he kept exposing when he’d obsessively rearrange his white baseball cap, he looked about my age (mid 30s). He says he runs six miles a day in the surrounding hillsides. “I’ve done a lot of triathlons. Those are just entertaining ways to burn off steam and keep the fat monster away.”

Then we talk about his younger years.

“I’ve had a boner for crazy shit since an early age. The earliest memory is watching my dad float down in a parachute.” At the time his dad was in the 82nd Airborne stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Hank’s mom insisted he was too young to remember anything at that age because Hank was only two. “That memory fired my imagination for life,” he says.

In the sixth grade he learned the basics of rappelling through an Austin, Texas YMCA Summer camp. In the eighth grade his dad offered him the chance to order whatever he wanted from the REI catalog, which was merely a pamphlet at the time. He ordered two ropes, a handful of carabiners and blue Asolo shoes called Chouinards.

“Before I went out and killed myself my dad wanted to see me rappel out of a tree.” Having setup the rope in his device the wrong way, “I fully burned my hands on rappel. He didn’t notice and I was released to do as I pleased.”

Dangerously underprepared and motivated, he set out to the rocks and started stealing gear out of the rock at the local crags called Barton Creek Green Belt. He wasn’t motivated to take the gear by greed, but rather by curiosity.

“I started stealing pitons – I saw shiny things in the rock and thought they were left behind.” It wasn’t long before “climbing legend,” James Crump noticed him, owner of Yahoo Climbing Guides — Texas’ oldest guide service – picked him up and drove him home to his parents. His dad, employed as a CPA (Certified Public Accountant), decided that Hank needed proper climbing lessons and paid Crump a “large check,” recalls Hank. It was for three weekends worth of climbing lessons. After the lessons, Hank moved on from merely rappelling, which now seemed trivial and not exciting compared to real rock climbing.

climbingHank took climbing seriously, practiced daily and developed the upper body and crimp strength of a modern climber. His physical strength combined with his restless and bold attitude helped him quickly ascend up the climbing grades.

On Hank’s sixteenth birthday, he jumped out of a plane with an army parachute, twice. “Back then you could sign your minors rights away so sixteen year olds parachuting was legal,” he says, but it wasn’t until many years later that he would jump again.

Motivated by the heavy hitting Colorado climbing scene, at seventeen he moved to Boulder and worked on a 7-Eleven on Baseline and 29th during the graveyard shift. In 1984 he swapped leads on The Naked Edge (5.11c) completing an onsight, no falls ascent. Though cams were barely on the market, he and his partner could not afford them and they completed the route using the comparatively primitive hexes and nuts for protection.

His success on the rocks aside, it didn’t take him long to realize he was going nowhere and that climbing rocks was not going to pay the bills. At age eighteen, he joined the Army and the 82nd Airborne just like his dad, trying to figure out life.

He stuck with climbing, though, and by his early twenties had developed a reputation as a hard, bold climber. “I’m great at the fear routes. And great at getting pro where you wouldn’t think you could. I use my sport-climbing strength. It doesn’t bother me to fall 40 feet on a bolt,” he says.

Hank started BASE jumping in 1996. His crash through the 21st floor of the Embassy Suites building in Denver October 1, 2000, was his seventy-second jump. Today he’s completed 800 BASE jumps and “thousands of skydives.”

“Someone who has base jumped since ‘96 is kind of an anomaly,” he adds regarding the risk of the sport. “I jumped hard until 2004 at jump 500.” He burned out after seeing many of his friends die and get injured. “I was drinking a lot and got sort of fed up with the sport. I sold all my gear.”

Though he’s taken breaks from BASE jumping, he never stopped climbing. “Climbing’s the best for a long term high,” he says. “There is nothing better. However, the sheer immediate thrill of BASE jumping blows climbing away. Each BASE jump is a thrill that has to be replaced more quickly after you do it.” He makes the motion like he’s shooting up like a junky getting his fix. “But climbing is a more — a good climb satisfies you for your life.”

“I have the fear and safety aspects of BASE jumping compartmentalized mentally, each time. I’m gonna make a jump with my wife and we’re gonna walk away. Happy is the plan, so plan like your life depends on it, because it does… every time!” he says.

Hank and his wife Jackie have been married since August 2008. They have an Athlete Page on Facebook, Weenie and the Butt. It’s where they put all their videos and pictures from adventures around the World.  During our interview he referred to her as Punkin’. They met at the Southern Sun Brewery in Boulder. He saw her from across the bar, went up to her and bit her. “I was going to get kicked out but she stopped them.”

A few days after chomping on what would become his future wife he saw her again. This time it was as he was driving through Eldorado Canyon and almost crashed his car when he saw her doing pull-ups on her ice axes while wearing a bikini. “Instant attraction!,” he says.

husband and wifeHis wife is from Logan, Utah. She holds a Masters in Environmental Engineering. “We both have a license from the state of Colorado saying we can do what we do,” he says.

“My wife and I are a party unto ourselves. We like making each other happy and are thoughtful. She knows my weird little things — we somehow niched it out. “

I ask him what his fears are.

“I hate monkeys. Not in a funny way either. I don’t like that part of the zoo. I don’t like their cold dead eyes, all close together and black.” Then he flutters his hands vigorously with disgust. “Once one gets on you, they all get on you. They go after your extremities.”

Monkeys aren’t Hank’s only fear. “I’ll never kayak. I think mountain biking and snowboarding both seem as dangerous as BASE. It’s all relative to each individual.”

Today Hank and his wife BASE jump every chance they get, which equates to a few times a month. He compares it to the thrill of robbing a bank. He loves it, but he also admits “The fear of doing something that dangerous with the love of your life can weigh on me.”

“I don’t care if I blow the sequence and get pitted but nothing bad can happen to Punkin. We’re a little like Bonnie and Clyde,” he says.

44 years old obviously means different things to different people. What I saw in front of me over those two hours during that hot day in Golden was someone who has the same level of energy as a teenager because that’s how he’s chosen to live his life. He has managed to gain that seemingly impossible balance of play and work. He still gets the same rise out of life as he did when first rappelling out of that tree over thirty years ago. In eight years from now, when I’m 44 I hope I can feel the same.technical landing

Steve “Crusher” Bartlett Talks Desert Towers

It’s 10am on Tuesday at climber and author of Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s house. He’s cooking up sausages and bacon at his spacious home in downtown Boulder. His kitchen has turquoise tile countertops with an orange stroke around the edges. The walls are tall and white and windows surround us. The humming of the fan mixes with the sound of crackling grease. He pours coffee beans into a red grinder.

“One of the lessons you’ll learn from me is the advantages to getting up late,” he says. Then he pours a few chopped up potatoes into the gray skillet and replaces the lid.

grand viewWe talk about desert towers, his forté. He’s summited 142 towers, and 37 previously unclimbed towers. It seems no matter which tower or route I bring up he knows who put it up, what year and in what style.

“Since October 1976,” he says when I ask how long he’s been climbing. “The number keeps changing, it keeps going up. “Yeah, that was in northeast England, Northumberland. I took to it right away. I loved it. I was at college there so I joined some clubs. I could have been a caver but the van broke down so the next weekend I joined the climbing club. I just loved being high up on the side of a vertical cliff,” — he extends his arms – “and seeing the earth far below.”

“The situations you get into climbing — I’ve always liked that. When aid climbing in the desert you can get to places no one has ever been before. It’s a rare thing in this world to be able to do that.”

He sits down and digs into his breakfast. He quiets down, looks about, takes fast bites of his food, and a swig of his coffee.

“That’s a big part of why I got into towers. It’s also really exciting doing new routes. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a tradition in climbing that forces you to do things ground up because there’s no other way to get to the top.” The empty sausage pan, burner now turned off, continues to sizzle.

His wife Fran walks down the stairs and asks Crusher if he’d still be interested in going climbing during the next weekend. I ask what he plans to do. “I have no idea,” he says. “We’ll probably figure it out Friday evening.”

“I didn’t do much in the desert until 1988 when Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock book came out. I bought a copy of that as soon as it appeared. Strappo [Hughes] and Simon Peck and I went out to the Fisher Towers [outside Moab, Utah], a place we never heard of before. Page after page the guidebooks showed these really impressive towers with A3, A4, and A5 routes like you see in Yosemite. But it was of course nothing like Yosemite. The rock is really dark and intimidating and there’s mud dribbling down the sides of all these things. Spooky place.”

“We did this route Phantom Sprint, named after a little English car. It was put up by Jim Beyer and he thought it was really easy and straightforward.”

“So Simon, who is a good aid climber, starts up the first pitch, and suddenly falls off and disappears. It turned out he’d fallen 60 feet. He fell upside down but he was not hurt because he didn’t actually hit the ground. So I went up there and did it slowly and carefully.”

“And I started leading the second pitch and kicking loads of mud on their heads and they decided they didn’t want to belay me anymore. So we bailed and I was not happy. I went back a few weeks later with a guy called Bill Roberts. [We made] the second ascent.”

“I soloed the Sundevil  Chimney [on the 1,100 foot Titan] in 1991 in February and it was bitterly cold. Before going to bed I would lay out bread and cheese on the picnic table. This way I could eat bits of sandwiches and put my hands back in my bag again [he also slept on the table]. Once I got warmer I headed out to the Titan.”

“Getting to the top [of towers] is just fantastic. The really good moments — you would think the good moments would be getting to the top. Sometimes getting back down is a really good feeling. When everything is off the route and you can finally walk away from it — that’s really satisfying.”

Any tips for aspiring desert tower climbers, I ask?

“There was as phrase from an Eric Bjornstad to Charlie Fowler interview when Eric asked the same question. I liked what he said, ‘I like people that go their own way and follow their own path.’ I’d have to agree that if you just plug away at something, on one narrow field, it’s really nice to get good at it. That’s the great thing about desert towers. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, and just deal with whatever has to be dealt with. Convenience has never been of interest to me. The bigger the struggle the bigger the reward.” He takes a swig of water. “It’s nice to have some uncertainty.”
__

The author and Crusher climbed a tower with a David Levene, a reporter from the guardian, who made a the following video: Climbing in Canyonlands, Utah: ‘Whatever you do here you’ve got to do it on a grand scale’.

The Lighthouse Link-Up — Finding My Way Home

Lying in the wet gravel on the side of the road in the pre dawn doesn’t have the same allure to it as if I were two-dozen pitches up a big wall. With my girlfriend’s wet bike helmet butted up against my chin, one arm wrapped around her midsection like an alpine spoon, we shiver in the frigid conditions. The moist, icy air permeates my wool clothing. She turns, her helmeted head grazing against my chin, “We have to go,” she says.

Evie and I are halfway between San Geronimo Valley and Point Reyes in Northern California at 4am and on our way back home because of a dream I had started a year and a half earlier.

Back then I was at the end of another failed relationship. I was pondering the outcome with a dark beer in hand, in a depressed stupor with my head face down on a wooden table at some dopey bar in a less-than ideal town in Colorado at 4:30pm, thinking ‘this is not me.’ ‘I used to climb, write, ride, and travel.’ ‘I used to reside in tents, caves and ditches, often climbing and biking alone throughout many states and national parks.’ Now here I was working for a web firm, trapped in the 7- 4 schedule, surrounded by people I had nothing in common with and watching life go by. I still climbed and biked in the evenings and weekends, often with office-cube mates, but it wasn’t enough. I put the beer down and I decided that I’d finally ride that century. Maybe even, someday, I’d add in climbing 50 boulder problems or roped climbs in that same day.

The goal represented more than just riding or climbing a certain distance. I wanted all these things back — the freedom of the open roads and walls, and working towards something bigger than the security of a steady paycheck. I didn’t like where the redundancy and complacency that cube life was taking me. I didn’t like having a body made stiff by too much time in an office chair, and seeing rolls develop in my mid section. To reach these goals some changes would have to be made.

I began riding more regularly and with more intensity. One course linked two bouldering areas together. It felt natural to clip shoes and a chalk bag to my back and head out for the day, just like I’d done 20 years ago when climbing and riding around Marin County, California.

On some of these new rides, I would ride up in the Rocky Mountains towards Estes Park to about 8,000 feet to a place that was similar to Tuolumne Meadows. The air was crisp, alpine lakes were still and few cars passed by. Tuolumne is where I’d spend summers working and climbing for many years and it felt right to be in a place that felt like home.

Sometimes during these rides I’d pop tires like crazy and snap tire levers, the sharp end of the plastic cutting my hands. Time and again I’d fail to reach the distance but each time I was getting closer.

As the rides continued I improved my gear. I replaced hole-prone racing tires with heavy, durable ones designed for distance. Riding playlists changed from dub reggae to short stories and suggested readings like The Happiness Project. The author had set out on her own quest just like I had.

Each ride I learned something new about myself and about relationships. Each ride through the woods and past lakes became longer and increasingly spiritual.

A few months worth of training later I dropped the desk job. I wanted to travel the world, climb big rocks and write about the experiences. It was time to take my life back from the system that was absorbing it. The new relationship with Evie was steadily progressing, requiring clear communication and a level of honesty I’d never shared with anyone. She’d been pushing me for months to drop the office gig and knew I was miserable there.

She found us a wooden boat on Craig’s List and we ended up a few miles from my hometown in Marin, California. I now worked from home writing and doing other freelance computer work. Now, these rides would take place where I’d first fallen in love with riding and climbing along the Coast of Marin County. I was getting closer to riding 100 miles, and hadn’t forgotten about the 100/50 plan.

One course in California was riding to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Built in 1870 and recognized as the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place in Northern California, the lighthouse juts 10 miles out on the tip of the Point Reyes peninsula. On the map it appeared to be 100 miles round trip from the boat.

Departing at sunset, I headed towards the lighthouse. On the final section towards the objective I passed historic farms with rusty trailers, along pot-holed roads and up an unrelenting climb capped with pocketed sandstone walls with frothing, pounding seas on nearly all sides. I finished the goal as the sun was rising only to discover that the course was five miles shy of 100.

One shorter ride I been frequenting was to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, positioned west of the Golden Gate Bridge and constructed in 1855. The goal now evolved to linking up both lighthouses for a distance far greater than the arbitrary number of 100. I wouldn’t want to go out and climb 50 easy boulder problems in a day, so why would I want to just ride 100 miles; I could do that on a track if that was really the goal.

I decided to link the lighthouses up at night – nine out of 10 times I rode at night anyway — rationalizing there’d be less traffic, less distractions and thus more time with my thoughts. Riding at night along the water was peaceful.

I liked the idea of heading towards the rhythmic light of the lighthouse, which would not be invisible during the day.

I replaced the chain, tightened the derailleur and filled my water bottles with a thick goo electrolyte drink. I packed a main light, a backup light, black wool arm and leg warmers into a hydration pack, and exchanged the worn spandies for a new pair.

Heading west at sunset, I left the marina in San Rafael towards Sausalito. I passed the docks where I spent my childhood, where my dad used to run a one-man boat business.

I headed up the coastal hills above Sausalito, past the patches of houses and their giant TV’s flickering blue through half closed shades. Then into a narrow tunnel once used by the military. Cracks in the tunnel dripped moisture and substances resembling tar and sulfur. Next came old military bunkers and buildings leading up to Point Bonita and finally to the iron door leading to the final point which shuts visitors off except during weekends.

Reversing course, I headed back through Sausalito, along a bike path and over to coastal Highway 1, past my first climbing partner’s house. As I was ascending to a ridge, the ocean came into view, while on the other side was the county of my youth. Then came the roaring descent. Carving along the fresh pavement, tightly following the yellow line, I approached the crags at Mickey’s Beach where 20 years ago I did my first lead climbs. I pulled over for a snack of sardines in the climber’s gravel  parking lot – also used by nudies who frequent the beach below the crags — as crashing waves startled me out of my world. Then I dropped down to the town of Stinson Beach and followed the coast up, past Dogtown and up to Olema junction. Pocked mud, like craters on the moon, reflected the light of nearby houses.

Nearing Olema the chill began to bite through my clothes. Pockets of warm air were gone, replaced by steady cool air. It was nearing midnight. Self-doubt began to set in. I wondered if I had enough layers to weather the night and the strength to ride out to the final destination; I had 21 miles to go to the lighthouse, along a barren and lonely road and then 21 miles back again, then another 15 miles back to the dock.

Home was to the right. I turned left, into the low-lying fog with even cooler air, towards the peninsula. A pumpkin moon began to rise over the bay and I pulled over to watch it. A car slowed and the driver asked if I was ok. “Yes, just taking in the moon,” I said. He double-checked. “Yes, I’m fine,” I said to reassure him. Cell reception would soon be gone.

Back on the road a bush loudly shook, startling me. Skunks crossed the road. The yellow eyes of deer reflected my bike light. The fire-orange lights of the City glowed in the distance. Waves crashed into the land below, leaving swirls of white barm.

Before the leaving the boat that day Evie agreed to meet me at Olema junction as I was headed back from the lighthouse. I liked the idea of meeting her out here, and for us to finish the ride together. Her text said she took off from the boat at 1am, thirty miles east of my location while I was still heading west.

Out at the Point Reyes Lighthouse I weaved through the chain link cage that led to the locked gate marking the entrance. The foghorn was deep, booming its signal every 30 seconds. I was overcome with a sense of urgency to leave. While refilling my water reservoir from the fountain my primary light went dead. I put on the backup headlamp and road slowly back, over the cattle guards and the now hard-to-see potholes. Handlebars shook so hard I’d had trouble keeping hold of them.

When reception came back her text came in “I’m headed to the lighthouse!”

At 4 am, cutting her way back and fourth up a hill I found her on her bicycle. We headed back to Olema junction while riding side by side. Once there we

snacked on fish, canned coffee, refilled bottles from the water bladder and got back on the road. Then fatigue set in. My eyes were forcing shut and I opened them while dreamily heading towards a parked road construction vehicle before jerking out of the way at the last minute. Exhaustion forced me to lie on freezing roadside, bivying like I’d done so many times on Yosemite’s big walls.

I imagined that holding her tight would keep us warm enough to wait it out until it got warmer. I thought of Bob Dylan singing, “The darkest hour is right before the dawn.” 15 miles from home and several miles past my goal, I had given up the struggle of forcing my eyes open and had let my guard down. ‘Just for a little bit,’ I thought.

Twenty minutes of deep snoring later Evie shook me awake. I was grouchy and wanted her to stop.  I tried holding her tighter, and threw my free leg over her hip. She continued arguing that it was dangerous to be so cold in the middle of nowhere. All I wanted her to do was let me warm us, fall back asleep and awake once the sun was out. She continued. Reluctantly I arose; heavy eyes were now staying open without strong effort but my arms and legs quivered like a calf taking its first steps. A chill overcame me but it dissipated when we climbed the next hill. I dreaded the chilly descents.

We reached the marina as the sun rose over the Bay. Our wheels rolled over the cricketing planks on the dock as we headed towards our boat. It felt wonderful to ride back with her that night.

Perhaps the 100/50 is a goal that is closer than it appears. Or it’s overly ambitious –guess I’ll find out one-way or the other. I’ll need to keep learning, be open to help, and develop thick calluses.

Chris and Evie, and dog Doodle Biscuit are now back in Golden, CO.

This Guide’s Life

 Jacob Schmitz spends over 200 nights a year in a tent and the rest of his time trying to drum up business as a pro climbing guide all over the planet.                   

By Chris Van Leuven


Jacob Schmitz guides so consistently he’s away from home in Bend, Oregon, for seven months or more out of a year. He recently finished his seventh back-to-back commercial trip, including his personal twenty-fifth summit of Aconcagua and six ascents of Mt. Vinson. He’s been pushing this pace for the decade that he’s been guiding, counting 85 expeditions on seven continents, and is ready to slow down. With the extra time he’s been working, Schmitz hopes to save up enough to buy a house—and actually spend time in it.

Recently, while Schmitz was in Puerto Natales, on the southernmost tip of Chilean Patagonia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, I interviewed him over Skype. We talked while he was in his hotel room packing bags with food he’d purchased, “the un-glorious parts of guiding.” He was preparing for Mt. Vinson, and would be leaving for Antarctica the following evening at midnight. He spent hours with me over the phone. I imagined him in his hotel room struggling to get his Skype call to go through while balancing his other obligations.

Seventeen years ago I met Schmitz in the Yosemite concession housing area called Boystown in the far end of Curry Village. Though we’ve stayed in touch, I hadn’t seen much of him until a recent wedding in Yosemite. He had just returned from Everest, and his arms were atrophied. He said he’d lost 10 pounds, and he was relatively quiet. Other than looking worn out from shepherding clients to 8,848m, he sounded as thrilled as ever for his next foray, this time to Antarctica.

When living and climbing in Yosemite Schmitz often said that work got in the way of his big-wall climbing. He was quick to bail if he thought there’d be a chance he’d be late. Sometimes we gave him a hard time when he did this, especially after blasting up the wall several hours before dawn only to retreat unexpectedly.

It didn’t take Schmitz long to head to the big peaks after he started guiding a decade ago. When one guide couldn’t make a big trip he immediately offered to fill the spot. He acclimates well and his success rate is high at 85 percent. He’s summited Denali 12 out of 14 times.

Schmitz’s seven-month work schedule usually includes a month in Antarctica, two months in Argentina, two months in Asia and a month in Alaska. He averages over 200 nights in a tent annually.

To make it work he’s talking with clients or potential clients all year. Schmitz has many repeat customers, saying, “When it’s a good trip and people have a lot of fun they get comfortable with that particular guide. And they want to do the [more peaks] with them.”

Many are very wealthy, but some he says, do what it takes like mortgaging a house to climb Everest. Schmitz noted that this client will likely spend decades paying off this debt. “For the most part we get white-collar business guys,” he says.

Others are on a quest to complete the seven summits (the tallest peaks on the seven summits). For example, three of the clients he had on Everest were repeat customers. One party is a group of Texas firemen who save money for two years, climbed one mountain and went back to work and saved up for two more years for the next peak. “They always ask for me, which is really flattering,” says Schmitz. “[I’ve] become passionate about these clients doing the seven summits.” Some clients he’s known for upwards of a decade.

Comparing guiding clients to regularly climbing partners he said, “Typically the clients are like-minded, active people. Every once in awhile you get some client who has signed up for something they shouldn’t be on or expected something else. Especially when they spend this much money and take a month [off of work]. Generally I have a great time with all my clients, [but] like everything in life you get a lot of different personalities.”

In the Puerto Natales hotel room, we picked up on a conversation we had started at the wedding in California. I’d never been to the Greater Ranges and wanted to know how guiding in the big mountains compared to what I knew best: climbing big walls.

Regarding packing for his trips Schmitz says, “You can’t carry too much fuel or food up the mountain. The big part of it is that we don’t [want to] have too much [of anything]. It takes years of experience and planning. Each camp I’m thinking of the next camp. It’s hard to carry a lot of equipment to 20,000 feet. On Everest it’s even harder. “

I asked him how he handles the risk. “With experience you can make better judgment calls,” he said. “It’s just being comfortable [and] being able to read your clients to see how well they are doing. You can’t climb too high too fast. And, like the rest of climbing, you assess conditions. You can play it safe. But that lowers your chance of summiting. The windows for summiting some things are small. It’s calculated risk [and] I always emphasis safety. I’ve never had an accident in the mountain. You think of what time of the day you’re traveling to reduce rock fall. But you can never eliminate the possibility.”

Some areas, he explains, like the Windy Corner and 16.2 Foot Ridge on Denali, the Lhotse Face on Everest and the Cantatela near the summit of Aconcagua are notorious. In those areas you have “very little control of rock, snow and falling ice,” he said, “over the past few years a few guides I know have died.”

I ask him about his scariest moments while guiding. “There have been some extremely bad winds on Aconcagua,” he said. “We were losing our tents; they were being broken. We were caught in a windstorm up high. The winds also cause frostbite.”

His worst moment was “on Aconcagua one season in November…. I wasn’t acclimatized but had 15 Aconcaguas under my belt. I decided to do the Polish Glacier in a day from Base Camp to set up weather ports, [otherwise known as] dining tents. [It has] 9,000 feet elevation gain. I left at 3 a.m. and summited. Not being acclimatized, I had acute mountain sickness and starting losing it between 19,000 and 17,000 feet.”

“On my way down after summiting I just had this weird delusional [experience]. I was kind of wandering around. I wasn’t really sure where I was. I saw this lady dressed in traditional Peruvian clothes. She said there was a hut on the north side; [but I knew] there is nothing on the north side. I think she was kind of screwing me over [laughs].

It was very, very cold. In what seemed like many hours I woke up with extreme pain in my heels. They were uncovered and freezing. [The temperature was] negative something; I was just lying on the ground with no bivy gear. [Finally] I went down to base camp. It was 27 hours round trip.”

“[The woman I imagined] reminded me of my first visit to an indigenous village. That was in 2001 when I was [near] Lake Titicaca (on the boarder of Peru and Bolivia). It was one of my early trips, and it really stayed with me. Those people had no electricity. The men fished and the women grew corn. A lady from that village dressed that same way as my vision. She had a big impression on me.”

But despite that experience, Schmitz is more afraid of climbing when he’s not guiding, when things are less structured. “I’ve been freaked out while rock climbing with my buddies [due to] rock fall. When climbing with Aaron Martin (his housemate; an avid soloist, alpinist and hard aid climber) in Patagonia it’s definitely sketchy.”

“I always tell my dad he doesn’t have to worry when I guide peaks. Guiding on these bigger mountains is generally safe. But in the back of your mind you worry about avalanches.”

As a freelancer, I frequently write about the climbing I do, but my work rarely affects the way I climb. I wondered if guiding for a living took pleasure out of climbing mountains for Schmitz. He answered simply: “no.” He has a “wish list” of other peaks he’d still like to climb, and he looks forward to cragging at Smith Rocks, doing solo missions in the Cascades and climbing in the Sierras. He said guiding provides him with incredible endurance that transfers to his personal climbing goals. In 2008, he soloed the north ridge of Mt. Stewart in 20 hours.

Between his relentless work schedule and non-work climb and ski trips, Schmitz is home so rarely that he says it is trying on relationships. He sees his old Yosemite friends maybe once a year.

“Every once in a while [I] meet an incredible woman,” he said. She thinks it’s amazing that [I’m] an Everest guide.” But they don’t stick around when he says he’ll see them in again in three months or more.  “In that time people move away [and] take different jobs. It’s a lot to ask to ask a woman to be on standby.”

Chris Van Leuven is a contributing editor at Elevation Outdoors and writes for Alpinist.