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.
I’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.
“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.
Hank 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.
“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.