Mountain Passages: Art and Order in Japan

In his ongoing posts form the Land of the Rising Sun, Alan Stark


There are magical places all over this blue planet—then there is Japan.

As North Americans, and particularly as mountain people, we tend to thrive on chaos. Maybe it’s our weather that makes us a little nuts, or the mountain terrain or that dream that drove us to the mountains in the first place, but here in Japan it is all about order. Almost everywhere you turn there are examples of purposeful order, from the way Japanese interact with foreigners, to way food is served, to the gardens and architecture. And even in the large tacky cities where you would expect chaos, there is always order and often pockets of beauty.

People speak of the Japanese aesthetic. Millions of words have been written about this aesthetic. My words will add nothing to the definition. Save to say that if you watch a Japanese prune a tree you will see him use a small pair of clippers with which he will take off single pine needles at a time to attain the shape and texture that suits his aesthetic—or better yet, the Japanese aesthetic. North Americans use chain saws for tree pruning.

FullSizeRender-2Order is curious word that it can mean thirty other things including a command or a definable structure of things. Order in Japan seems to be an accepted mandate among a homogenous society just as a definable organization of things is an agreed upon aspect of Japanese life. I might have just gone off into a philosophical swamp here so let me give another example.  To my eye, the rows of raised beds in my Boulder garden represent order in spite of the fact that toward the end of the summer the tomatillos, tomatoes, and zucchini’s are a jumble of vines and leaves. I suspect that a Japanese would never let that happen, that under Japanese stewardship my garden would be neat and orderly throughout the season, not just in winter and spring when the ground is bare or when the seeds are just starting to come up in neat rows.

The large cities I’ve seen are perfectly in tune with North American chaos. Superficially, they appear to be totally unorganized as if the zoning department had been closed down early in the twentieth century. But if you look closely in the jumble of buildings you can find both order and small spots of beauty such as an open courtyard of stylized pine trees or well-tended plantings along the median of a street.

And the architecture? The inventiveness of Japanese architecture is something to see and marvel at. I just saw a building obviously modeled after the Taos Pueblo only much taller and larger. I note the architecture because of the building being done now in Boulder by architects who seemed to have been trained someplace in East Germany by blind people before the wall came down. This trip isn’t very much about cities except for Kyoto that will come at the end of these reports, but now on to some small, out-of-the-way places worth seeing in Japan.

We are on the Island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea that is essentially a contemporary art center, that is if you can call “contemporary art” ART.

Let’s not get me into a definition of art that will embarrass or possibly enrage some, or all of us. I’m probably among a minority who see contemporary art as a bit of a cosmic joke on those who build word piles of art obfuscating prose in appreciation of a stack of sticks in the corner of an expensive art space.

Here on Naoshima, take for example some of the work of Lee Ufan that involves large rocks and plates of steel arranged in a concrete bunker-like building. The building by Tadao Ando shows a great deal of imagination not to speak of ingenuity, superb design, and engineering with all sorts of curious angles and odd shaped rooms. Ufan’s rocks and steel plates, not so much.

At another bunker, James Turrell messes with our sense of perception but, to be honest, the installations felt like an elegant physiological psychology experiment. One room has semi-sloped walls leading to large square hole in the ceiling. That evening we came back to the room just before sunset and sat there watching the hole in the ceiling as light banks in the wall changed our perception of the color of the sky in the square hole.

“So what you guys do for cocktail hour yesterday.”

“We sat silently in a concrete room contemplating a hole in the ceiling.”

“And then what happened.”

“The walls and sky changed color.”


“Please don’t tell the boys and girls at Nederland Fire that I was staring at a hole in the ceiling for 45 minutes.”

The Teshima Art Museum on the island of the same name is memorable. This huge, flat, water-drop-like structureIMG_1102 of white concrete covers a football field-sized area. The structure, with two large ports for light, is a stunning piece of work unto itself. And then I noticed droplets of water bubbling up from the floor that randomly formed larger droplets that either snaked across the floor or became pools of water. The droplets and drops seemed to randomly move across the polished concrete floor. The effect was calming, contemplative, possibly transformative, but certainly magical.

“So what did you think?”

My friend Linda looked at me quizzically for a second.

“I was relieved,” she said, “The randomness of it all reminded me that all was not lost in the last election.”

Maybe contemporary art is at the crossroads of chaos and order.


We are due to for some travel tomorrow and will visit the sculpture studio of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American—more a citizen of the world. Then on to what may be tourist trap called Shikoku Mura where 19th century Japanese houses have been relocated and end with a walk through a formal garden in Takamatsu on the northern coast of Shikoku Island.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Bob Marshall: A Wilderness Original

A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall, 2nd Edition (Mountaineers Press, 2014)

By James M. Glover

Reviewed by Cameron M. Burns

My wife and I lived in Montana in the early 1990s, and I always wondered why this guy named Bob Marshall was so heralded. Not many people get a million acres of wilderness (fifth largest in the U.S.) named after them. Heck, I’d like to name a few million acres after people who deserve the credit but will never see it.

Well, this 2014 reissue of a 1986 biography—A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall—explains it. Bob Marshall was and remains arguably the biggest advocate for wilderness the United States has and will ever see.51MzbvhMWvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His feats in wilderness areas proved his obsession with the natural world. He explored the Brooks Range long before most, and studied the local population that lived there. He rambled in Montana’s mountains for three years while studying trees. And he had a massive thirst for hiking—up to 40 miles a day. When he was just a youngster, he and his brother George and Herb Clark were the first to summit all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet.

This book, first published nearly 30 years ago, tells the story of Marshall’s forebears’ move from Bavaria to New York in the mid-19th century and much about his father’s life, which ultimately influenced Bob’s (loving wilderness, community involvement, and no interest in the trappings of wealth, etc.)

When this writer’s family emigrated from Australia to the US in 1978, we landed in Syracuse. Some of my first climbing experiences were in Tasmania. Then, weirdly, starting in 1978, in the Adirondacks. My father and I did a 4-day tromp through the “Dacks,” and it was one of the best things I ever experienced.

This was Bob Marshall’s land. He loved (as we all do) and wanted to see it preserved as well as it could be preserved.

In 1935, Marshall formed the Wilderness Society with Benton McKaye to “battle uncompromisingly for wilderness protection all over the United States.” And the Society went on to do many great things in many great places.

This book is a fairly straightforward narrative—Marshall’s family history, his father’s devotion to wilderness and ethical concerns, and his academic and professional career—but what comes through and stands out in Glover’s tome is the unbridled love of wilderness that Bob Marshall had. As a youngster, he hated being outside after dark. But he pushed himself to go out and wander the forests near the family compound in the Dacks. If he’d only hiked 36 miles on a certain day, he’d often go out for an after-dinner walk to make it an even 40.

Although I call this book a “fairly straightforward narrative”—from a reader’s perspective—it has the three qualities that are a must to the art of biography and something that many biographies lack. One, the guy (Marshall) is a real character. Too many biographies are of the ilk that up-and-coming politicians write (“I’m here and this is what I believe” even though they haven’t done sh*t to deserve the public’s attention). Marshall’s definitely worthy of your eyes. Two, Glover’s writing is carefully crafted. I’ve read too many things in magazines and books where it’s quite apparent the author didn’t understand grammar, syntax, typography, and pretty much everything else (hell, I cringe when I read my own work from 30 years ago). And three, it’s an enjoyable story. In many bios the plot gets simply lost, as the expression goes, and a memorable character gets overrun by bad storytelling.

Glover, a writer’s writer, told me he hadn’t zeroed in one Marshall at first.

“When I was around 30 or so I was casting around for something substantive to write about,” he told me via email. “I was teaching college courses in outdoor recreation [at Southern Illinois] and was (and still am) an avid wilderness adventure enthusiast. Anyway, around 1978 or ’80 or so, I happened to read an article about Marshall in Backpacker magazine by Roderick Nash, and also read about Marshall in Nash’s famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind. So I began to dig around for more info on Marshall, with the vague idea of maybe writing a book about him. I didn’t realize, when I first began, quite what a compelling personality he had, and how important a historic figure his father had been, and how strongly committed Bob was to what we sometimes now call “social justice.”

Sure, Jim, his father was important, but mostly because he produced this great soul who was absolutely addicted to wilderness and willing to do everything in his power to preserve it.

It’s a remarkable tale about a remarkable man that, if you’re like me, has hovered in your hazy subconscious for years. This book brings him to light.

“I have to thank Marshall himself for making the book however interesting it is,” Glover told me. “He continues to seem to me one of the most compelling personalities in American history, even though he’s not well known outside environmental and wilderness adventure circles.”

No kidding.

Respect the writer, respect the subject, respect the words.

Read the book.

Mountain Passages: Even Bigger in Japan

The Mountain Gazette’s Alan Stark jets off to the Land of the Rising Sun… and promises to try to be good.


It’s a real effort not to be a jerk sometimes.

The jerk comes out with a little stress—in this case a couple of flights from Denver to Osaka.

As soon as the flight attendants closed the doors, I got just a tad bit cranky. Nope, it’s not fear of flying. I’m fine with hurtling through space at subsonic speeds. The crankiness comes from being stuck inside a composite tube with a bunch of strangers.

“Jerk,” Blue Eyes says

“I deny gumpy-ness.”

“You’re being cranky and grumpy.”

“I am not a character from Snow White.”

“It’s 12 hours to Osaka, get over it.”

Last month, I was on a flight from LA when this self-involved person took it upon himself to do a stretching routine in the aisle, occasionally hanging his butt in my face. Blue Eyes was across the aisle and rolling her eyes. I thought to pat him on the butt but Blue Eyes waved me off with her, “I-won’t-bail-you-out,” sort of look. If past history is any measure, she means it.

After the doors were shut a Japanese-American flight attendant leapt into the air to close an overhead bin on this 787. Seems like Boeing engineers could figure out that most flight attendants aren’t five-feet, ten-inches tall. The leap in the air made me wonder about the rest of the engineering on the plane.

We were up and out over the Pacific when dinner was served. It’s was a slice of old chicken in a goopy sweet sauce on a bed of ossified white rice with a side of boiled vegetables. Lunch was sort of a turkey sandwich and a carton of gelato.  Although it was mid-afternoon as we approached Osaka, they served a breakfast of nuked egg and potato. United Airlines should be ashamed of themselves.

The Osaka airport is a typical international flight experience where the locals have you walk through a maze of hallways and escalators and more hallways to get to customs where they make you wait. I take no offense, they have learned a great deal from American Customs.

I’ve just finished reading a modern history of Japan and come away thinking that all my preconceived notions of what it is to be Japanese were mostly wrong. That’s a good thing. I wish that the citizens of other countries had a better idea of what it means to be an American than what they see on exported American TV.

We are not Duck Dynasty.

But one of those preconceptions appears to be true—the Japanese appear to have specific jobs from which they don’t deviate. The sniffer dog guy at customs hit every bag as we crossed his territory, he didn’t miss one American which made me glad I left the brownie wrapper on the plane. There were three people at customs, the first document checker sent us to the document corrections person who then sent us to the customs officer who still found something wrong with our paperwork. Again, three people at the money changing concession the first checker, the window clerk who did the calculations and transaction and someone unknown behind a screen who hands the clerk the money. Change your money in Japan, the charge was minimal whereas most money changers I’ve encountered in the rest of the world are thieves.

Same thing with loading a bus—there was a ticket taker, bag handler, and driver all of whom don’t seem to multitask. The ride into Osaka was a about an hour of traffic. My first impression of the town was a tacky jumble of buildings and streets at all angles and billions of cars, busses, and trucks all rushing around with very little honking, all very efficient and polite.

IMG_0837This politeness seems to permeate this society, maybe the most important trait of the Japanese, certainly the most obvious. But under this politeness is regimented process. Think of a sailboat where the skipper has a place for everything and does everything in a particularly efficient yet precise way. Leave something lying around and he’ll put it back in its right place. Do something untoward and he’ll immediately correct you. The only difference between the average Japanese and the average sailboat skipper is that the Japanese will be polite about correcting you.

The reception clerk apologized that the room we booked was “under construction” and that we had been upgraded. After being hustled about for 15 or 16 hours an upgrade was meaningless to me, and somehow it seemed odd that she apologized for upgrading us.  I just wanted a clean, warm place to go to sleep. But when I saw the room—words fail. It was a perfectly designed 400 square feet with a wall of windows overlooking Osaka. There were switches and lights everywhere and a magical bathroom with a toilet from an electronics store.

The toilet had a row of switches mounted on the wall. From what I could discern through the fog of travel I could push a button and get my butt washed and then push another button and get that same butt dried. This is all stuff I’ve done for myself for a number of years. And while adventure is always an attractive concept, the thought of getting blown off the toilet buy a gush of water wasn’t all that appealing so I settled for a standard flush but remain intrigued by a multifunction toilet.

We are headed for  Naoshima and  Teshima Islands in the Inland Sea that are reputed to be contemporary art centers. I’m going to have to be good because I think “contemporary art” is sort of like free verse, lacking traditional form and structure this art can be anything the artist wants it to be. I never had much appreciation the pile of sticks in the middle of a room that you can sometimes find at a contemporary art museum. But part of this textile and crafts tour of Japan are some contemporary art installations.

Try to be good.

Try to be good.

Try not to be boorish and don’t make fun of contemporary artists.


Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Postcard: Bermuda barracuda

The barracuda, a long, sinister-looking fish commonly found in warm ocean water, meets its demise when its predator instinct lures it into biting a bait fish with a large hook inside it. Such was the case for these five fellas during a deep-sea fishing trip off the south coast of Bermuda this week. JR Bean, who captains Paradise One, sliced them into filets shortly after returning to land. As he did so, an old-timer walked by and began chatting up a tourist. “Every day is a good day above ground,” the Bermudian said, “but when you get out on the water, it’s better. You get away from all this madness, all this stress.” Man’s gain is the barracuda’s loss, I suppose.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: My Morning Work

Every morning the collie puppy and I go for a walk around Paradise Hill. It’s all woods out here, so he gets to run free—who knows where—sniffing game trails, poking into porcupine ledges, or romping aimlessly for sheer joy. I do somewhat the same. My habit is to take along a book of poetry—today it’s a new volume by my old pal Joe Mills—and, while the collie puppy is afield, I plant myself on one of the many erratic boulders strewn across this landscape. Perched so, I kill time reading in one of nowhere’s many middles.

I also carry a steel pen and a little notebook to jot down my bright ideas. Whenever the collie puppy spots me scribbling, he breaks off the chase and comes bounding over and jumps up on me. His muddy paws inevitably leave their mark, sometimes on the page. Thus he records, for the umpteenth time, his one bright idea: “Give me cheese!” Yes, the collie puppy is a far more consistent thinker than I am—and he does not require the services of a therapist, imaginary or otherwise.

The other day on our walk, I lost my pen. I’m forever losing pens. And sunglasses. So I’m always buying new ones. I finally gave up replacing the sunglasses. It got too expensive and I don’t live in California anymore. But try as I might, I can’t give up the pens. I know, some of you dearly wish I might try a little harder, but I can’t help myself from writing down words like these. It’s a compulsion that has cost me more than one good job, not to mention respectability.

Anyhoo, I’ve been looking for that lost pen for two days. My buddy Craig Childs gave it to me in Alaska a couple years ago, so sentimental value is at stake as well. That pen had to be somewhere along the path around Paradise Hill, a path that is mostly my doing. The collie puppy travels elsewhere. He does his free and easy wandering off-trail and out of sight. Today, though, he did something different.

He interrupted his romp in the wild woolly-wags to come sit down on the path a couple hundred feet ahead of me. There he waited. When I arrived he spotted the notebook in my hand and jumped up to express his one bright idea. He inscribed it across the front of my threadbare but freshly laundered field jacket. My critique of his muddy thinking was preempted by the glint of something in the drab leaves carpeting the forest floor. It was the lost pen.

So I picked it up and started writing these words. The collie puppy ran off barking happily after something or another. And enough time was granted to finish this.

The Peaks of Otter

Peaks of Otter

Finding a little respite in a Blue Mountain Lodge

By Katie Souris

When I was a little girl, I had good parents. On family vacations, more often than not, we’d go camping in North Georgia or stay in a little one room cabin at a State Park and I would tromp around hunting for salamanders and playing on a freshwater sand bank.

One year we decided to take a big trip. We loaded up the Pontiac with hiking boots, maps, a camera, a basket and tarp for rugged picnics, and a cooler full of yoo-hoo’s and deli meats. We were headed on a Southeastern road trip up the Parkway from North Georgia into Virginia.

I still love the Blue Ridge Parkway and dream of the times we had back when I was seven years old. One place we stopped to rest was Mt. Pisgah, another was Doughton Park. Both of these hiking hubs are marked by iconic lodges (or were, in the case of sold Bluffs Lodge) where travelers could stay a night or two, get a gourmet meal, and have the chance to get lost in the scene of the Blue Ridge without pitching a tent.

We didn’t make it to Peaks of Otter on that trip, although my mother wanted to. She loved Doughton Park because of the herds of deer and the quite misty mornings. She loved Mt. Pisgah for the skunks that visited the grass in front of the rooms in the night (my mother loves atypical things, which is a blessing). So this year, on her 69th birthday, we made it up to Virginia once again via interstate for most of the way and then weaved back South on the Parkway 80 miles from Charlottesville to the lodge nestled between two peaks in the valley of Otter Creek.

The main building contains a dining room, gift-shop, and the ‘Bear Claw Lounge’, which sells coffee and confections. There are three units that house guests, each two-storied and every room with an uninterrupted view of the expansive Abbott Lake that captures Sharp Top Mountain’s reflection, this time in brilliant autumn golds. In the rooms there are water saving tips and socially conscious reminders, like the program Peaks of Otter participates in by collecting leftover soap to be recycled, made new, and sent to communities in need around the world. In the shower, a waterproof stop-watch challenges guests to use less than the average 12 gallons of water per shower. I hit 11 gallons before realizing I’d been clean for at least the last 4.

Although typically guests book rooms for two evenings, we called and were able to stay for just Saturday. The winding expanse of hiking trails that leave directly from the lodge and lead to old settlements like Johnson Farm and geographic wonders like Balance Rock, made us wish we had more time. We did a short 1.8 mile loop trail Sunday morning, passing under a stone bridge and climbing gently across a soft green meadow and into a golden forest of flaming Hickory, Tulip Poplar, and Maple trees. At Johnson Farm the trail was marked with a few wooden placards that explained the history of what was once a thriving community nestled into the rugged mountains, and had a view of the lake and peaks below that made me long to stay awhile.

At the dining room the night before we had watched out the window as the day turned to dusk and the sun played its sharp rays of light off the mountains. The colors dimmed into muted orange and purple while we feasted on pecan encrusted trout and prime rib. Ducks bobbed up and down in the chilly water, searching for dinner. Walking back to our room that evening, a streak of tan caught my eye as one deer led the charge, joined by six or seven others: grazing and watching, grazing and watching, on the other side of a wooden plank fence.

Many lodges and bed and breakfasts close during the off-season, but Peaks of Otter will stay open on weekends during the winter and will serve a Thanksgiving Day buffet. Whether you stop by for a night’s rest, a meal, or a reverent walk around Abbott Lake, Peaks of Otter is a place to, “Come to unplug,” as guests are encouraged to do, and enjoy the panoramic accommodations of planet Earth.

Check out what the Blue Ridge Parkway Association has to say about Peaks of Otter by clicking here or visit the website directly:

Mountain Passages: Putting An Old Trail Running Partner On The SPOT

Dear Dan:

I can see and hear you as you open this SPOT unit.

“Jane! Bear sent me a SPOT unit,” you yell from the den.
“That’s nice.”
“You think he’s nuts?”
“Could be a message Dan.”

There are a number of reasons for the gift including age, friendship, and laughter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always surprised and frightened when I walk into the John first thing in the morning and catch the image of this greyhair in the mirror.

“Geesus, who’s the geezer?”
“You,” says Blue Eyes and giggles.

SPOT unit
Let’s face a fact that neither one of us is forty anymore. I quit doing the trail runs to the sky some years ago and stay closer to town on my routes today. No more leaving at eight in the morning and straggling back at dinner time looking like I’d been sorting wildcats. No more showing up at a friend’s house after a long run with him and then having his wife call us “junkies.”

So, brother, when you were training for ultra’s and out there alone along the Front Range and up into Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d worry a little about you and then trot out the old cliché about dying doing something you love. It’s a lame condolence, but to those of us who love the backcountry, it’s good enough.

But when I got the call that you’d busted your ankle on the Appalachian Trail last May and had to be carried out I really started thinking that maybe it was time for you to have a modicum of protection in the mountains.

I’m not a gadget person. I find the 5-watt handheld radios we carry on backcountry ski patrol semi-annoying, because we can often throw them farther than we can communicate with them. But when the Forest Service issued us SPOT units, this sort of Wylie Coyote balloon went up over my head and I thought, “What a good idea. If we actually got into the deep and brown at treeline with a snowboarder with multiple injuries, we could get help with a SPOT unit.”

This thing has a bunch of functions. Have Jane read you the instructions…slowly. Try not to move your lips while she is reading to you. But if you are really injured in the backcountry, the most important thing to remember is to punch the SOS button. The SPOT unit will transmit your lat/long coordinates to GEOS, the International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Houston, and they will in turn call the Boulder Sheriff, who will most likely send Rocky Mountain Rescue to haul you out at no cost unless you have done something really stupid.

So we’ve known each other for a while or certainly since we both had brown hair and sold textbooks. Do you remember the Trip That Ate Durango? I’m not exactly sure that much work got done on that trip, but man we ate well on our expense accounts and got some runs done, and maybe even a climb. But it is less about the work and more the really dumb stuff that happened to us over the years and the ensuing laughter that has made the bond between us.

You were leading something easy on Flagstaff. I think it was just a one-pitch crack and you had dropped in pro about every fifteen feet. I scrambled up cleaning the pro when I stopped for a moment and saw that you had dropped a nut right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy growing out of the crack.

“What are you doing?
“I’m clipping out around this poison ivy.”
“Don’t leave the pro.”
“I’m not reaching in that shit to get your hex nut.”
“Yank it out by the runner.”
“I’m not doing that either.”
“It’s my favorite piece of pro.”
“Geesus. what a baby.”

Back east where I grew up I used to get full-body poison ivy where I essentially turned into a giant blister for about ten days. But I’d come to Colorado in my mid-20s and never had a problem with poison ivy out here. Ten years later I figured I’d outgrown the allergy.


I pulled out the pro, racked it and finished the climb. Three hours later my right arm looked like Popeye’s forearm. It was huge and oozing and itched like crazy.

Your fault.

Or, how about the time in Boulder Canyon where I was working a dihedral and I got stuck reaching around the corner looking for a handhold? You were belaying from above and could see I was in trouble. Then I got sewing machine legs. I calmed myself. Sucked it up and made the move again. I missed and barely caught myself. Now I was really gripped. I looked up and could see you staring down at me.

“Dead is bad,” you said.

And then there was the Leadville 100. I was crewing for you from Winfield to Twin Lakes. You were bitching all the way up Hope Pass about your right toe. At the aid station on top I took off your shoe and saw this huge swollen big toe. I had a Swiss Army knife in a small fanny pack. I pulled it out and went to work on your shoe.

“No, Buddy you can’t do that.”
“I’m just cutting a hole above that toe.”
“Buddy, I love those shoes.”

You were wearing a half size smaller shoes than I was. I only had six or seven more miles to go and you had forty some. We switched shoes. We were running downhill and you were doing your typical down hill dawdle and talking at the same time.

“Real ultra runners can run and pee at the same time.”
“Damnit, those are my shoes.”
“Too late.”

So, the SPOT is a way of saying thanks for the friendship and laughter but it is also a bit self-serving on my part. It’s fine to die out there, most of us sort of acknowledge that it could happen. But if this little piece of gear saves you, it simply means that we’ll get more time and laughter together.

Alan Stark is a backcounty ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

Enlightenment on the Edge

Enlightenment on the Edge

Stuck in the fear zone in the midst of a fall-and-die climb, a  free soloist learns how to truly practice yoga

By Mark-Francis Mullen 

Photos by John Lloyd

I learned yoga on the side of a cliff. Oh, I knew all about “yoga” before that. I’d gone to countless classes and read countless books. Yet I truly learned it, lived it, and became it when I was solo climbing.  Good thing, too, I think

There I was, halfway up a serious route on a canyon near Boulder. I was frozen. Above me, the route looked difficult, extending to the sky. Instead of the minimum three points of contact climbers normally like to have, I had only two. Beneath me, everything fell away into a sea of sandstone. It was hundreds of feet to the miniature-looking trees at the bottom. Above me, the rock face extended into the sky, the top unseen. The holds? I didn’t see them. Maybe that indentation there…is that a microscopic horn above it? Would any of it hold my weight?

Too scared to go up, too scared to go down, I clung like a fly on the wall. The two holds I was on were rapidly diminishing into just one, at which point I would surely, eventually peel off.

I could taste it. I was far above safety, in the zone where a fall would mean death. My rope? It sat safely in my pack, waiting for the rappel off the summit. All that was between me and this looming death was a rubber toe lodged tentatively in a small crack and the friction of my two palms against the smooth cliff face. I had to move—soon—or I was going to become another statistic in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

On cue, the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, making the situation even more dire. I felt the strength going from my leg. Do or… die. My options were extremely limited; staying put was not one of them. I could feel the sick sweat of fear. I could almost see it all happening: Calling out “stuck” to my partner, who was ascending above me, I explained there were no holds. His soft, confident Southern accent carried down to me. “Aw, Mull, it’s riddled with holds up here… just go the left a bit, grab onto that horn, just above the bulge.”

Great. It was a hard move, across an outward-bulging wave of rock. It would be even more difficult thanks to the sketchy two-point stance in which I was stuck. It seemed… impossible. Still, I did not want to die, and I struggled to summon my strength and determination for the move. I’d have to dyne—put all my power into an explosive, vulnerable grab upwards. I would get just one try.

I took a deep, slow breath… and the the yoga began. I focused my concentration on the present moment, that square foot of rock above me. Breathe. Deep. Nothing else. Just me, the moment, the rock. All the rest simply fell away. I became focused and calm. B  reath swept through me like a broom, driving out fear and worries, and the rest of the universe.

That’s where my yoga began.

It wasn’t theoretical out here. It wasn’t in some studio with no real consequences. It was essential to my life.  Focus, breathe, let go. This wasn’t just the recipe for inner peace, it was the recipe for survival, for continued life. I gathered myself.

The rest of the climb was not without moments, but nothing close to that crux. After a few more scary and adrenaline-filled moments, we were on the summit, laughing about it, exhilarated to be alive, on top a pinnacle in the Colorado Rockies.

Still, as I looked down, I knew how close it had been. Without the practice of continually getting hold of myself in difficult or uncomfortable situations, I’d have never been able to pull off that move. Half-dehydrated, a couple hundred calories in the red, no longer a youthful, fearless climber in my prime, that move was almost impossible.

No, let me be clear; that move was impossible…for me, without yoga.

R_gtwzgoVfPoWRbuzW-gFLIdJiiGsugoHsPVAarAQNUSo there it is, yoga saved my life. No blue-colored, many-armed Hindu goddesses appeared above me and carried me to safety. No magic powers. I didn’t need to get my body in any special contortion for yoga to be there. In that one saving moment, I was yoga. I was the breath. I was the rock and the sky and the void below me. I was the wind blowing and the sun. Yoga helped me gather all these elements into one harvest. The harvest was not the dyno, the move itself. It was the letting go, the allowing the possibility for that move to exist and manifest in my life right in that moment.

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.”