Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated

Landed in Cuba, Bear explores the crumbling beauty of Havana, enjoys the country’s fabulous people, and ponders how such an ineffectual government can work. By Alan Stark.

“It’s complicated,” A Cuban says with a half-smile on her face.

Blue-Eyes and I are on a cultural tour of Havana and the western mountain region including the town of Vinales. We signed up for to the trip about three days before President Obama announced a thaw in US and Cuban relations. There was nothing prescient about this, we just wanted to visit Cuba. The Euros and Canadians who have been coming here for years are now all pissed off. “We wanted to see Cuba before the hoards of Americans arrived,” a Canadian said.

What the hoards are going to see first in central Havana is a city that appears to be crumbling before their eyes. Most of the buildings have had no maintenance in fifty or sixty years and are literally falling apart, brick by brick. The streets and sidewalks are in ill-repair. In a way it feels like you visiting someplace in Eastern Europe just after the end of the World War II.

A couple days ago, an architecture professor from the University led us on a walking tour of the buildings around the Park Central. Architects have the unique ability to look at a perfect dump of a building and talk about interesting features, and often ramble on endlessly about the original builders and owners, the period in which the structure was built, the construction materials—in short—more information than anyone save an architect, would want or care to know. Our professor stayed true to form. She would point at a crumbling building over her shoulder and she would say, “And this beautiful buildings…” We looked at thirty or so buildings in our tour, twenty of them were wrecks; some interesting wrecks, but wrecks none-the-less.

CrumblingBeyond the buildings that are falling down, a full a third of the buildings in central Havana, beginning with the National Capitol are “under restoration.” But many of these restorations looked like the crews were pulled off to work on something else shortly after they got started. It is almost like there are a hundred crews working on a thousand restoration projects. So some plumbers are working on one building and across town a water main breaks,  the plumbing crew gets pulled off the restoration to fix the water main and after that they are rotated to an entirely different project, because the government runs almost everything…badly.

The crews that I saw looked like they were really working, but this is a communist country where everyone is paid the same salary, somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five dollars a month. The local cliché goes something like this, “They pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work.” It was explained that most everyone has a second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal. Before you get to scratching your head about the salary, realize that everything in Cuba is subsidized, or as one Cuban said, “We have nothing, we have everything.”

Once into the more modern part of the city to the west Havana looks like your average Latin American city, or Anchorage, where there is only one zoning official for the entire town and she spends most of her time sipping espresso in a café and laughing. Central Havana needs some work.

singerThink of that laughing zoning official and you see how the average Cuban thinks. There is the GOVERNMENT that is omnipresent and clearly oppressive and then there is the important stuff like my family, my friends, my neighborhood, eating, drinking, screwing, laughing, singing, dancing and maybe my work.  The Cubans are proud of the Revolution that made for a much better and more equitable society but they don’t appear to give much of a shit about the government. They simply tolerate it.

Cubans are fabulous people. I stopped on the sidewalk to let an older man on a crutch pass in front of me. As he passed he looked me in the eye, smiled, and with  his free hand patted me on the belly. That momentary connection with a stranger is the way Cubans interact with everyone.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking Cubatas that are much better than Cuba libres, because they are made with dark rum instead of bar rum. The band was having a grand time as we were. Another crowd came into the room and started Salsa dancing as they moved to their tables. It was a sight to see…one, two three, pause, five, six seven, pause. Damn, Cubans can dance.

I’m writing this on a table in the back of a Chinese bus in the mountains outside of Vinales. The guitarists, and singer who were playing during our lunch, got on the bus to ride with us back to town. The bus is filled with song

P1000253As mountain people, we think of ourselves as laid-back, maybe even pride ourselves on being pretty relaxed about most everything. But compared to Cubans we’re like MBAs in a bank vault. Cubans are relaxed and happy in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be the climate or the culture but I think it’s the GOVERNMENT. When all your basic needs are met by free services and subsidies, worrying about providing for yourself goes away. The GOVERNMENT will provide everything, plus twenty-one dollars a month.

So here in Cuba, you have the center of the national capital basically falling apart due to good intentions, overreaching, bad planning, underfinancing, and unmotivated workers. And yet this government has created possibly the highest quality of life for almost all of its citizens that can be found anywhere in Latin America.

And you have happy people on what appears to be a verdant island having a wonderful time with one another and anyone who visits. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious; they just light up a room when they come into it. But at the same time they speak of the collapse of the Soviet Union and say things like, “And then there was no one to take care of us.“

mojitoCubans expect all these services from the government but have absolutely no motivation to work for the Government. However, it is these same unmotivated people who work like crazy for their second incomes and start small business subject to ridiculous taxes. Some of these Cubans would leave this wonderful island in a heartbeat if they could figure a way to do it without taking a long ride in a small boat.

It’s complicated.

Alan Stark is a wordsmith who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

This is the second in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

Postcard: Valdez, Alaska

I don’t think it’s possible to call one place the best ski zone on earth. There are simply too many radical places to ski. However, if someone put a gun to my head and threatened to pull the trigger if I didn’t vote for one and only one, I would say Valdez, Alaska. And I would feel good about it. This shot happened by chance a few years back around this time of spring. I was standing on a peak and saw this guy start arcing down a different peak across the way. No idea who it was. But I wanted to be him and I still kind of do.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Confessions of a Non-wanna-be Guidebook Writer

The tale of the old Old Green Beast or the horror (and occasional joy) of a climber who became a guidebook writer. By Cameron M. Burns

When I was a young climber, I never ever, ever wanted to write a guidebook.

Never ever.

I hated them.

As Steve Roper so famously wrote in a classic guide to the Sierra Nevada: “kick the cairns over and let people discover it all for themselves,” or something like that. I agree. I’ll always agree with “Ropero,” as Layton Kor called him.

It came about in a silly way. In 1988, a bunch of my high school friends were starting to bolt (by hand) routes at a crag in New Mexico. We all got in on the act, spending hours hand-drilling bolts in the iron-hard basalt. It was horrendous work. But a few months later, a few members of the local climbing club, the Los Alamos Mountaineers, wanted information on the routes. So I stapled together 18 pages, gave them to about six blokes who corrected a few things, Xeroxed twenty copies, and set them on the desk at the local “climbing” store. They were gone in a day.

Hmm. That was that, I thought. Done with that crap.

 

Within six months I was cruising the Sierra Nevada with Steve Porcella (see Alpinist 48).

After 65 routes the summer of 1989, we thought a new guidebook (to just the fourteeners) might be a worthwhile project. Roper had revamped an old edition of A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra for the Sierra Club (about the 4th or 5th edition, several of which had different titles (Hervey Voge’s 1954 edition had the same title, but the 1972 edition, for example, was simply called Mountaineer’s Guide)), and the route descriptions and grades were interesting, to say the least. In the summer of 1990, we headed back into the Sierra, the Whitney region. Somehow, we timed our trip with one that Dave Wilson and Galen Rowell were planning, and we decided to do a sort-of foursome. We met in Lone Pine the night before the hike in.

Over dinner, we got to chatting about a possible guidebook to the fourteeners.

“You know how Steve graded all those routes, right?” Galen asked while skewering a lump of potato (he’d known Steve since the fourth grade in Berkeley). “He flew over the range with a pair of binoculars and declared, ‘that can’t be a Class 5. I’m calling it a Class 4’.” The story seemed completely plausible because the stuff we were climbing in 1989 had grades that were quite outta whack with what was in the guidebook.

On the East Face of Whitney, Steve and I watched from 200 feet away while Dave and Galen finished off a route Galen and Kike Arnal had tried the previous year—Left Wing Extremist—named for the chicken-winging they did on the climb. (We failed on our new route.)

In 1990, Steve and I wrote a 450-page guide to California’s 14ers with about 150 routes in it. I remember just printing out the Word document was more than anything I could ever afford. But we also knew no one would want that—it was mostly boring climbing history. With fourteeners, people want to just bag summits, not know about some incredibly obscure 5.9 lying 15 miles from a trailhead.

CA14ers(1e)We pared it down to 92 pages—the easiest route or voie normal on each peak. We sent it to a half dozen publishers and none of them wanted anything to do with it. So we self-published California Fourteeners (Palisades Press, 1991, 92 pages), 5,000 copies done at a print shop in Great Falls, Montana under the auspices of our own company (Palisades Press). It was a funky little purple book, that to this day is one of my proudest achievements (then again, eating a six-egg omlette is a massively proud moment for me).

Four years later, George Meyers of Chockstone Press approached us and gave us a publishing deal for the 92-pager—20 percent of gross sales because it was selling so well (something like 4,000 copies in four years). George’s was the second edition: (Chockstone Press, 1995, 92 pages).

(In 1998, the Mountaineers Books republished a much bigger version: Climbing California’s Fourteeners: 183 Routes to the 15 Highest Peaks (1998, 272 pages). Like the first version, it went into a second edition (Climbing California’s Fourteeners: The Route Guide to the 15 Highest Peaks (2008, 272 pages). The full 450-page version remains like garlic to a vampire—appropriately untouched.)

While all these books were happening (1991–95), I’d moved across the west chasing various journalism jobs. My girlfriend Ann and I ended up in Aspen when I got a job at the Aspen Times in 1992, thankfully, with subsidized housing. After three years there (and having payed off my student loans for architecture school), we got married, and I headed to Patagonia with two English climbers. We climbed a handful of routes, and I came home in early 1996—completely stinking broke. Not two nickels to rub together.

After landing at Denver International, Ann took me straight to George’s place in Evergreen, Colo. Several hours of talk ensued, and I walked out of his garage with four book contracts in hand: a Colorado ice climbers guide, a guide to Independence Pass, a guide to Escalante, and a guide to climbing in the Telluride area. Luckily (for both me and climbers everywhere), I was smart enough to realize I knew very little about three of those areas, but I had been doing quite a bit of ice climbing. We chatted on the phone, agreed both of us would tear up the Escalante, Indy Pass, and Telluride contracts—but I thought I could pull together an ice guide pretty easily because I really did know most of it.

The only issue, I soon learned, was Jack Roberts. He’d started in on a Colorado ice guide, but George explained that Jack’s progress was glacially slow, and, in all honesty, he didn’t think Jack would actually ever finish it. Jack, of course, was doing all sorts of wild routes in Alaska and other places, so that was completely understandable.

I went back to Aspen, and took up a job shoveling snow off roofs in Snowmass Village—I had to earn a buck.

 

COiceIn late March 1996, George and I talked again. He wanted a Colorado ice guide manuscript in three weeks and Jack was on another climbing trip, or generally unavailable. I quit my incredibly lucrative career as a snow shoveler, jumped in my truck, and spent a week driving around the entire state, taking photos of well-known ice climbs that—since it was early April—were coming unglued and falling to pieces. Three weeks later, I’d finished the manuscript, crappy as it was, to the first Colorado ice guide—“The Old Green Beast,” I’d later call it. It was about 40,000 words—no big length because words seem to flow out of me like some kind of puss. We used to do easily 12,000 words a week at the Times, sometimes more, and my editors would often complain I’d written too much.

Jon Klusmire, a friend who worked at the Times, recently noted in a Facebook post: “As one of those Aspen Times editors, this is how I remember describing Cam’s approach to writing: ‘It’s like crapping in a tub. Back up and let ’er fly.’” Grusmire (as we used to call him) is always spot on.

In the fall of 1997, The Old Green Beast came out. It was less a point of pride than I would have ever imagined. In fact, throwing a guidebook for an entire state together in three weeks, with one week of on-the-ground research (even if I knew most areas), was sort of like performing brain surgery for the first time using Brain Surgery for Dummies as your guiding light.

Not a great idea. I was scared when anyone picked it up.

 

In the winter of 1997–98, climbing with Jesse Harvey in the Fisher Towers, we ran into three young climbers from Crested Butte sitting around a campfire. We talked climbing.

“So you guys like the Fishers?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said. “But we’ve got the new Cam Burns ice guide and we’ve been doing a lot of ice lately.”

My entire scalp rotated 30 degrees back on my skull, eyebrows lifting as if hauled toward the sky by an invisible crane. I waited several moments, then asked, “Is the book any good?”

The kid shrugged: “I think so, although we’ve only done a dozen routes in it so far.”

Jesse leaned over, and held the back of his hand up against his mouth so, ostensibly, the lads couldn’t hear him. But being a cheeky bastard, he said it loud enough so they could: “Cam, didn’t you say you wrote that book in two weeks?”

One of the Butteans looked at us curiously. He heard part of the wonderful commentary by my best climbing partner at the time (a somewhat cherished position at the time, since I led everything).

Thankfully the lad from the Butte hadn’t quite heard the entire comment. I swung an angry foot at Jesse, then announced it was bedtime as we had to get up and fix a few pitches in the morning. Oh, yes, and I had to go take a piton hammer to my friend’s head.

 

Over Valentine’s weekend in 1998, my wife and I hiked into a climb near Lake City. Three other climbers ahead of us were standing at the base of the route we wanted to do, and they were scouring the Old Greener. I did a quick 180 and told Ann, “We’re leaving. Run. Run!”

“What? We just got here.”

I bolted along the post-holed trail, gear clanking like an Indian dishwalla.

“They’ve got the Beast,” I yelled back at Ann. “Run.”

She tripped over the rope, now flopping around her feet, and gave me a stare that would’ve melted an ice climbing guidebook—even one with some bad mistakes. We got in the truck (also green), and buggered off to Ouray.

“Well, that certainly was fun,” Ann said as I drove. “What if we run into some ice climbers with a Tolstoy or, God forbid, an Ed Abbey?”

“Shsssh.”

 

A year or two later, Jack Robert’s Colorado ice climbing guide came out. It was really, really well done. But at a trade show, a good friend, Brian Litz—the publisher of Jack’s book—told me he’d been over to Jack’s Boulder home one day and found Jack at a keyboard with The Old Green Beast open, and Jack copying the Green Beast ver batim. Brian flipped, he told me at the trade show, and explained to Jack that you can’t do such a thing in writing. (If you study the mistakes in The Old Green Beast, some of them are repeated in Jack’s first book—like, for example, a route in Redstone that Duane Raleigh pointed out was horribly incorrect in the Beast (“In your own backyard,” Duane appropriately and correctly chided)).

But I didn’t mind the situation. Jack’s second edition was far, far superior to the first two books out there, and Jack and I later climbed together at Lincoln Falls.

Ice climbing with Jack was like watching a gazelle outrun a cheetah in the Serengeti. Ice climbing with me was like watching a sanitarium patient fumble with a walker. Besides, Jack was a real climber. I was oozing puss.

K&KForget the Beast. I was already onto several more books, including the second guidebook to Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide (The Mountaineers Books, 1998, 176 pages); Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest (The Mountaineers Books, 1999, 240 pages); 50 Hikes in Colorado (Norton, 2003, 208 pages); and later, Kilimanjaro & East Africa (The Mountaineers Books, 2006, 240 pages).

As well as several books of stories, chapters of books for other people, ghost-writing material for people, magazine articles and columns, gear companies’ material, and much more.

 

What strikes me looking back is that while writing all this stuff, I kept a full-time job the entire time. Research was done on vacation time, and it was always go, go, go—mostly on weekends. Mistakes are inevitable, as I’ve read in some of the not-so-friendly comments online, but I’ve always told critics, “hey, if you don’t like it, try writing your own. I’m sure it’ll be much better anyway.”

The Old Green Beast, though, was special. It came during one of those moments in life when you’re just living for the climbing, not giving a damn about the next buck but needing one anyway. Surviving any way you can. And seeing the world.

And Jack was always giving me story ideas for the UK magazines I wrote for. I scooped everyone on the news of Jeff Lowe’s Octopussy because of Jack, and later won a Colorado Press Association award because of that story. I never had a chance to thank him.

I miss his warm smile, his humble demeanor, and his friendliness when I’d show up at Gary Neptune’s shop. He was always good value, top shelf, as were his books. Well, his second edition, at least. The first had a bit too much of the Old Green Beast in it.

Mountain Passages: Cuba Libre!

Our erstwhile reporter jets off to Cuba with a headful of politics, art, music, and questions about what it will be like for an American to travel in a nation that has been closed off for so long. By Alan Stark

While we are waiting at Miami International Airport (MIA), a number of thoughts rumble around my head regarding Cuba. I’m wondering which of them will prove to be true when I get there, and if any of them will prove to be utter horsepucky. That and the knowledge that “MIA” means something entirely different to me, and I hope it’s not the case during our 45-minute charter flight to Havana.

My thoughts revolve around politics, the arts, and the people of Cuba.

As soon as I think about Cuba, Castro’s iconic shaggy appearance just looms in my mind. It is as if Castro is to Cuba like the Pope is to the Catholic Church. Odd that I don’t think of an island nation with a speckled history of freedom and oppression, but I instead think of one banana republic dictator who has always appeared a little larger than life, in a John Wayneish sort of way, as he ranted from a podium for hours at a time.

cuba apartmentsNext I think of the pre-Castro Cuba that was essentially a Mafia colony—a sort of island Las Vegas. Next come thoughts of the highly courageous, clever, and ultimately successful guerrilla war that toppled Batista. This was in many ways a case study for overthrowing a dictator.  And then, finally, the Cuban missile crisis comes to mind. At that time, my family lived close to the DC border in Maryland, not far from Bolling Air Force Base. On that October night when it seemed the world was about to blow up, I watched a great number of planes in the pattern and landing at Bolling—many more than usual. I was just a kid, but I remember thinking that maybe they were bringing in troops to protect the Capitol. Now I think those planes were really there to evacuate political leaders and their families—odd how you get more cynical with age.

It’s alleged that Castro isn’t much of a commie, rather that communism was a dogma of convenience to him. Brother Raul, who is now in power, is the serious communist. But Raul, since taking power in 2011, has overseen a great deal of common sense politics. This isn’t a place for a political rant, but a dictatorship is a dictatorship. It is the American reaction to Castro’s control of Cuba that makes me crazy. Embargoes are one of the worst ideas since Comcast. The people in power aren’t hurt by embargoes, but everyone else in the country is. I travel to Cuba with the belief that our embargo of Cuba has been a very bad idea.

Guban SingerTrying to explain how Cuban music sounds is like describing individual pieces of a puzzle without being able to see the image of the completed puzzle on the box. The Denver jazz station KUVO will occasionally play a piece from Cuba that I often find intriguing enough to stop fiddling with whatever is on my desk or workbench and listen. The music feels like fun—it draws you in and makes you feel like you would want to be right there, standing at the bar, toe tapping with a drink in hand, and watch and listen to the musicians playing.

So I travel to Cuba thinking I’ll very much like the music that I hear. That I’ll buy a stack of CDs long before it occurs to me that we may not have a CD player in The Creak House anymore. Meaning that the only place I’ll play them once or twice is in the car that also may or may not have a CD player. I should have checked this all out before I left.

And art? If you look around The Creak House where we live in Boulder, there are objects sitting in alcoves, on tables, and hung on the walls, done by artists and craftspeople (sometimes not the same) from all over the world. A bowl from Japan filled with round pebbles from a beach in Iceland would sort of give a clue about our artistic tastes. I’m the last person in the world to discuss ART— Joan, my neighbor, and former gallery owner, bristles whenever the word comes out of my mouth. When it comes to describing my artistic taste I’m tantamount to a pirate turned loose in a palace—if something catches my eye I then decide whether or not I like it. And then I move on. If I really like it and can afford it (often two very different scenarios) I sometimes come back and buy the piece. But, in our relationship, it is Blue Eyes who usually buys the art that we have agreed on.

We agree on our art purchases in the following manner:

“You like it?”

“Nope.”

“I do.”

“Okay, but no foul, no penalty. Right?

“Right, we should both like it…too bad all your taste is in your mouth.”

“Foul.”

But every once in a while, Blue Eyes asks the question, and I immediately see what she sees in the piece and wink at her. A Hopi mudhead kachina we found in Scottsdale, of all places, now sits in an alcove in the bathroom. He has his own little light above his feathered head, and sometimes on a cold winter’s morning, I turn on the light and look at him and smile. Sometimes Mudhead smiles back.

Will we come back with any art or crafts from Cuba? I doubt it. While Blue Eyes says there are plenty of places left in The Creak House for displaying more pieces, we have both agreed that we need to get rid of some of our stuff. But that’s an entirely different story, most likely delusional and not worth telling.

cuba streetsweeperI’ve been told the Cuban people dislike our government and love us as a people. That’s a thought I can get behind and it is not one unique to the Cubans. This isn’t a place to rant or justify our government but this, and the next few notes from Cuba will be an opportunity to make some comparisons and maybe take a guess as to what will happen next in Cuba.

Join me?

This is the first of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is wordsmith who lives with this blue-eyed person and her dog in both Boulder and Breckenridge.

Postcard: Trailblazer

Swiss avalanche guru Manuel Genswein swung through Colorado last week, and we got out for a ski tour just north of the Continental Divide. It’s easy to forget how insignificant each of us is, size-wise, until you venture into country much bigger than that which exists in our towns and valleys. Here, Genswein feels out the snowpack at 13,000 feet in search of cold, dry powder to ski. Much of this zone had either been cooked by the sun or blasted by the wind, but there remained just enough sheltered snow to send us home sated.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: What’s Happening

The same old news. I turn the radio off and take a long walk with the collie through empty woods. Melting snow and dying hemlocks. Robins and red-eyed vireos warming up their voices. Downy woodpeckers drumming up a racket. Vultures clearing leftovers from winter’s table. Back home, I shovel off the last pile of ice from the back deck. Think about the news, and maybe putting the screens back in the windows. Late in the afternoon, the sump pump in the basement comes back to life, first time since November. Today: not quite when “sumer is icumen in,” but it would have sufficed. Tomorrow is another day.

Postcard: Arkansas River

On a warm spring day at 10,200 feet, we decided to head lower and maximize the temps. We drove to a BLM campground just outside of Salida, Colorado, on the Arkansas River. We drank suds around the fire, grilled meat and vegetables, and talked about everything and nothing at once. The next morning, the fish didn’t bite. But it was OK. We sat in the sun and let its rays warm our skin. Then we drove home to the snow and the rest of the ski season.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Beautiful or Ugly

You tell me. While exploring Robbers Roost Canyon in Utah last week, we flipped over a rock to use it to hold down a tarp or something benign like that and found this guy. I found it to be rather beautiful. His green extremities, black body, and he was backed up into a small opening in the rocky slope. My wife found it less amusing and admitted it might not bother her so much if it wasn’t so poisonous. Anyone know what kind of scorpion this is?

Postcard: Tortola, BVI

The British Virgin Islands are pristine for a number of reasons, most of them natural, but my favorite is the territory’s restrictions on who can buy property. You have to be a “BVIslander” (the senior status) or a “Belonger,” which is complicated but designed to prevent too many outsiders from buying into the islands then rarely visiting. My old Little League coach is a Belonger, which is how he ended up buying the land from which this photo was taken above Cane Garden Bay. Every winter about this time in Colorado, I long to be on his deck, staring out at this scene, wondering which open-air beach bar I’m going to drink boat drinks at that evening.

Tortola photo by Devon O’Neil

The Hermit: New Mexico’s First Mountaineer

The mystery of Giovanni Maria Agostini

By Cameron M. Burns

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of history is that it tends to repeat itself. And the greatest people who do remarkable things during one era are generally forgotten by those of the next. Paul Simon said it best, and simplest, when he sang: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

The story of Giovanni Maria Agostini is a case in point. Born in 1801, in Navaro, Italy, Agostini was the son of a nobleman, and an incurable wanderer. According to legend, Agostini killed his cousin during an argument, then devoted the remainder of his existence to atoning for the dreadful deed. After roaming around Europe for almost ten years, Agostini sailed to Caracas in 1838, then proceeded to wander the length and breadth of South America. He traveled throughout the Amazon Basin, up and down the Brazilian coast, amongst the Chilean Andes, and as far south as Patagonia.

One strange element of Agostini’s wanderings was his parallel lifestyles. Although he spent a great deal of time as the guest of the rich and powerful, he also sought out remote settings. According to historians, he was interested in pursuing a life of abstinence; he wished to repent for his murderous act. Thus he spent much of his life living in the wilderness, usually in caves.

Not surprisingly, Agostini also earned a reputation for being a holy man and was constantly healing the sick and comforting the poor. In 1863, after being removed from a cave on El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, Agostini arrived in New Mexico. He promptly took up residence in a cave near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was soon administering to the needy. Although Agostino sought only solitude, his own reputation made him a rather hot item, and people came from miles around to ask for his help.

Eventually, seeking only peace, Agostini moved to a cave at the top of El Cerro del Tecolote. The mountain later became known as Hermit’s Peak. In his new abode, Agostini carved trinkets and crosses, which he sold in Las Vegas for a pittance, just enough to buy cornmeal. Agostini’s notoriety grew, and before long the villagers were climbing the steep face of El Cerro de Tecolote just to seek the alleged saint.

The hermit’s most renowned miracle was performed when a group of villagers built a wooden shelter to help him endure the harsh mountain winter. Because he was very old at the time, Agostini consented. The group built the cabin to the Hermit’s plans; it was small and windowless, and had a low door that required he get down on his knees to pass through it. He also had the cabin builders rim the doorway with sharp wooden spikes. Obviously he embraced pain as much as he embraced solitude.

According to legend, while the townsfolk were building the cabin, they ran out of water. Not eager to see them suffer on his account, the Hermit scratched the ground with his walking stick. To the surprise of his followers, fresh water gurgled forth. Agostini had produced a spring where previously there was nothing but dry earth. Although the story sounds pretty tall today, the spring is the only water to be found on a totally dehydrated mountaintop.

In 1867, in search of a more fulfilling solitude, Agostini, then 66, wandered toward the southern part of New Mexico. In 1869, his body was found in a cave in the Organ Mountains; he had been stabbed to death.

Agostini left behind a wealth of legends, the least of which was an unsolvable murder. However, he also embraced a lifestyle that went beyond any mountaineering achievement. His life was spent as a part of the mountain itself.

This piece, written by Cam Burn in 1989, has never been published (until now).