When I’m not writing, I’m often doing something climbing related. Last week I went out for a day of ice climbing with my friend Joe Klementovich, an awesome North Conway-based photographer. This morning he sent me this:
CONWAY — How does a guy in a wheelchair climb the biggest cliff in the America? Pull-ups. Lots of pull-ups.
Enoch Glidden may have been born with spina bifida, but that doesn’t keep the 37-year-old Western Mainer from rock climbing. Paralyzed from the waist down, he got his first wheelchair when he was 4. But his birth defect didn’t diminish his passion for adventure, and this month, Glidden climbed the largest granite monolith in North America: El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley.
“It was definitely a pretty awesome experience,” Glidden said in a phone interview from somewhere in Colorado (he was driving back to Bethel, Maine).
Glidden and two partners — climber Christian Cattell and climber, artist and filmmaker Craig Muderlak — set out from the valley floor on Oct. 4. Their goal was to climb Zodiac, a well-known route on El Capitan’s steep right-hand flank.
Zodiac ascends 1,800 vertical feet of sheer rock up mostly overhanging terrain. It requires nights as well as days on the wall, and most teams have to haul camping gear, food, water, even a collapsible hanging ledge to have somewhere to sleep. It can take anywhere from a handful of hours to days to ascend.
Glidden and his team planned on five days. The three were scheduled to start out on Oct. 5, but it turned out that a woman from Italy, who was also an adaptive climber, was set to begin the same route on the same day, so Glidden and his team opted to launch their effort early.
As in any such expedition, theirs was not without complications. Eleven volunteers met Glidden, Cattell, Muderlak and a fourth team member — climber and guide Gary Dunn — in the meadow below El Capitan early on the morning of Oct. 4. It was 30 degrees F., but soon everyone was warmed as they took turns carrying the 130-pound Glidden strapped in a litter over a mile of trail, rocks and boulders to reach the base of the route.
“It was exciting to see and be part of it,” said Joan Veilleux, a Mount Washington Valley guide and nurse at North Conway’s Memorial Hospital, who was on Enoch’s support team.
Once they reached the base, Cattell and Muderlak started up Zodiac. Then it was Dunn’s turn, whose job would be to support Glidden throughout the climb.
But a short way up the first section of the cliff, Dunn injured his shoulder. Still close to the ground, it was clear he couldn’t continue. He came down, and suddenly the team of four was down to three — of which one member couldn’t use his legs.
Muderlak and Cattell descended, and along with Glidden considered their options. They decided to see whether anyone back at camp would take on the job and had suitable experience.
But their search was fruitless, and a few hours later, Muderlak and Cattell returned to start up with Glidden as a team of three.
“That kind of started us off a little unsure,” Enoch said, but they were determined to give it a shot. They developed a system: Cattell would go up first and set the ropes, which included a line for Glidden to climb. Glidden would start up, doing pull-up after pull-up using specially rigged rope clamps that would allow him to ascend to the top anchor, while Muderlak would set out from the low point to clean any gear Cattell used in climbing. Cattell, meanwhile, would haul the bags of overnight gear, food and water to the high anchor.
This meant Glidden was without the planned support person to help should there be complications. While Cattell and Muderlak concentrated on the rock and the gear, Glidden hung, twisting and swaying on the rope, hundreds of feet above the valley. There were definitely moments, he said, when he thought, “Why am I doing this?”
It was scary, when the wind caught and spun him, he said, but it was also why he was there: to challenge himself, for the sense of exploration and adventure.
With the adventure, of course, came times of doubt. “Just using the bathroom was a total chore,” Glidden said.
Muderlak agreed: “That was the most stressful part of the day.” It was forced intimacy, something nobody was comfortable with. “But we got better at it.”
The project had begun two years before, and Muderlak had been to Yosemite with Enoch in 2015. “The more work is manageable,” Muderlak said.
The biggest challenge was pushing Glidden, “but not pushing him too far.”
Glidden said he was definitely pushed.
“Most people would think (the hardest part) was the 4,000 pull-ups,” he said, “but it was the mental challenge.”
Five days on the wall is wearing; 1,800 feet of sheer rock is wearing. Day after day, with no ground beneath you gets wearing. When it came to pull-ups, “I actually wasn’t that sore,” Glidden said, “I guess I’d put in enough time at the gym.”
Despite his undeniable fitness, “there were definitely thoughts of maybe I should bail,” he said.
Like at the top of the seventh section of climbing, the point where the route becomes too steep to retreat easily. That had Glidden thinking hard about returning to flat ground. But he kept going up.
And five days later — and thousands of pull-ups later — Team Glidden reached the top.
Glidden is modest, not a talkative guy. His reminiscences about summit day are subdued. He’s the kind of guy whom you ask, “How was it?” and he’ll reply, “Cool.” Or “Fun.” Or “Hard.” A journey of a lifetime squeezed into a single word.
But for those who worked with him and witnessed his determination, this was not just another mountain.
“This was so much more than that five-day climb,” Muderlak said. This was the culmination of two years of planning, training, effort and setbacks.
For Veilleux, who met the team at the top to help them descend, it was an emotional moment. “I just lost it,” she said. “It really was amazing. I’m still coming down from it.”
But the top, as every mountaineer knows, is only halfway. After five days on the wall, the hardest part was yet to come. It took another day and another team of 12 to make it off the top of El Capitan and back to civilization.
By all accounts, the descent was grueling and took until well after dark.
But on the way down, strange things started happening. People showed up, started helping, assisting with the litter carry and donating food, water, fresh headlamps. “All these climbers were coming to our group to meet Enoch,” Veilleux said.
In truth, Muderlak said, that was the real magic of Enoch’s ascent: “The climb isn’t really the story. The real story is the moments in between. The real story to me is the community of people.”
Enoch’s determination, his drive, was moving, Muderlak said. “He is what inspired people.”
Muderlak captured it all on video, filming the climb and the lead-up. He plans to release a movie on Glidden next spring, giving everyone a chance to see what determination and adventure really look like.
Glidden, meanwhile, hasn’t slowed. He reached the summit, but it looks to be just one of a string. “The next day, we were talking about doing Rainier,” he said, referring to the hulking 14,410-foot volcano that dominates the Seattle skyline.
It’s a different kind of ascent, one that will require him to pull his way over crevassed glaciers. He’ll probably sit on a ski, he said, and use a rope to pull himself along.
“I’ll definitely be training for that.”
This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.
Two years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.
I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.
Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.
A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.
A few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”
We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.
But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.
Jimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.
From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.
There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.
It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.
There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.
I have an idea.
It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.
Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?
I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.
I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.
I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.
But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.
And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.
The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.
But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?
Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.
That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.
That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”
He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.
But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.
“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”
Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.
But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.
Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.
I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.
So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.
I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.
Not every project goes down easy.
Sometimes a route takes two tries. Or three. Sometimes more. Sometimes it’s days, or weeks, or months.
Then there are those that take years.
I remember the first time I read about Astroman. I was 19, only a handful of leads under my belt. I’d never been to Yosemite, or anywhere really. I’d grown up climbing on scrappy crags on the coast of Maine, made my way to the Gunks and Adirondacks and now was out in Colorado for my second try at college. But the plan was really to climb—Eldo and South Platte rock, ice in Ouray and Vail. School was an excuse to play in the Rockies.
That’s where I first I read about it, “The best rock climb in the world.” 12 clean, hard pitches up the steep east face of Washington Column. The Enduro Corner. The Harding Slot. First ascent by the Stonemasters. Freesoloed by Peter Croft. This was the land of legends.
I, meanwhile, climbed 5.8. I carried around a rack of hexes like cowbells, and if there wasn’t some kind of sling running bandolier-style across my chest I wasn’t leaving the ground. My rope had never seen a leadfall. Astroman was a dream, a myth shrouded somewhere in the distance. I had no idea what such a thing truly meant.
15 years, however, has a way of changing things. Some projects, afterall, take years.
My first swing at the legend was six years ago. My partner Jim was an old school hardman, the kind of guy you want on an over-your-head mission. I’d climbed a lot of Valley moderates, long free climbs up to 5.10 or those with short 11 cruxes, and put few walls under my belt. Now I wanted the prize.
We warmed up, got ourselves reaquainted with the physical nature of Yosemite climbing, and then got on the Rostrum, the supposed training-wheeled version of Astroman. The route went, with Jim and I onsighting pitch after pitch of perfect crack. The 11c crux fell quickly, a few pulls on fingerlocks. The only ugliness came on the offwidth, which I grovelled up pulling on cams. It was a good reminder that in Yosemite the wide is often the crux.
We topped out and over pizza made plans for the main event: rest, then Astroman.
If only things always went according to plan…
We started early knowing the route might need a long day. Jim strung together the first couple pitches. Soon we were below the Enduro Corner, a shimmering dihedral of overhanging thin hands. I racked up.
It started well, I felt solid on the jams, stuffed gear as I climbed. But the Enduro doesn’t relent: 40 feet later I was still in small hands, then still 30 feet after that. Then it pinchs down. The feet were small, the rock so clean it felt like glass.
I fell. I fell again. And again.
Soon I was aiding, so gassed I could barely bare to shove my fingers into the crack. I was miles from the anchors. I shouted “Take!”
Make a move.
Make a move.
And again. And again. The pitch felt went on forever. Barely a jam or a stance revealed itself anywhere.
Astroman. The stuff of legends.
By the top I was dry-heaving, my skin was in tatters. My tremendous rack was gone. I built an anchor and just sat down, dejected. This would not be the day.
When Jim made it up he looked at me. “Let’s do another pitch or two and get out of here,” he said. I nodded, still too tired for a discussion. We climbed two more pitches to the base of the Harding Slot and bailed. The greatest rock climb on earth would have to wait.
Fast-forward six years: February 2016. A group of friends are planning a climbing reunion. We met climbing in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and Georgia, and now our Armenian host was coming to the States to sample American rock. I called my friend Andre: “Yosemite. Will you meet me? I want to climb Astroman.”
It’s funny how an idea can endure, how it can stick in your brain through tremendous changes and come out unscathed. Barely out of high school, more a hiker than a climber, I first fell across Astroman, printed myself a rudimentary topo. Now 15 years later, just off trips to Cuba, the Caucasus and Scotland, I was itching for another swing. This, I figured, was my shot.
We met in Indian Creek, started the tour with sandstone splitters. From there I took a detour to Castle Valley and a quick run up the North Face of Castleton, then on to Red Rocks, where the Armenian (his name is Mkhitar, which he helpfully shortens for Americans to MAH-heek) and I ran up the nine-pitch Texas Hold Em. Things felt good. Astroman was waiting.
But the Valley is not the desert, as Yosemite would soon remind me.
We crossed through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley at midday. We were packed and ready: I wanted a shot at figuring out the Enduro Corner moves, to treat it like a sport climb almost, so at 2 p.m. we started up.
It was hard, but not impossibly hard. I found feet, and rests, and places to jam. But I still took. A lot. The pitch would go, but it would be no easy feat.
The next day we came back, Andre wanted his shot. We were fired up for the top; after the rehearsal the day before we thought it might go. But it was to no avail. The Enduro spit Andre out, left him as smoked as it had left me. We climbed to the Harding Slot and descended.
No big deal. We had time.
A few days later we were back. We eschewed the second rope, got an early start, sprinted up the first few pitches and were soon looking at the Enduro once again.
“Go,” Andre said. “You’ve got this.”
I started up. The jams felt solid. I dropped in a cam, climbed, then dropped in another. I punched it, placing less than I’d like but enough to be safe. The clock was ticking. The first rest was 40 feet up, a handjam with a stem. I had to get there. So I went.
Over our repeated missions I’d discovered enough jams of substance to know I could hop between. It meant running it out a bit, but cams in amazing granite kept it safe. I jammed, placed, then punched it. Again. And again. Soon the end was in sight.
Then my foot popped. I was off, flying through the air.
“CRAP!!” I yelled as the rope came tight. “I wasn’t even pumped!”
It was a lie, I was pumped, but I wasn’t out of gas. Inattention that caught me, poor technique, not a lack of forearms. I yarded back to my last piece, got back on route and climbed to the anchor.
Andre was next to me a few minutes later. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to do?”
“Keep climbing,” I said. “I want to send that pitch, but we might as well keep going up.”
The fall, however, broke my resolve. We climbed to the Harding Slot, which I started up, but when things started turned physical I backed off.
“I want to send this thing for real,” I told Andre back at the anchor, “not hangdog my way up it. I want to go down and come back later.”
“Later?” Andre said. We had one day left, and neither of us would be in shape for another go tomorrow.
But some projects take days; others, weeks; others, months. And some last years. The best climb in the world would have to wait.
“Later,” I said threading the rappel.
There’s something about the road.
It doesn’t matter how many times people write about it, how many times people say it, the truth of it always resonates: There is something about the road. Maybe it’s the unsteadiness of it, the unpredictability. It cracks people open, leaves them vulnerable, open to spark and tangents. It pulls us in unforeseen directions, leaves us with fresh perceptions. There is something beautiful about it. Something primal.
I was outside just after dusk last night. 100 steps from the house was silent, dark. Then a flash of green, and another. Slowly they multiplied, a sea of beacons blinking around me: fireflies. The first of the season? I couldn’t tell. I hadn’t noticed them before last night, but was that because they weren’t there, or because I’d been distracted? I don’t know. But seeing them was like magic.
How much to we forget to see? How often do we look at the world as mundane because we have grown accustomed? And once we’ve stopped seeing, how do was see again?
That is the gift of the road. It brings us back to our senses, to our sense of wonder. The things that we grow accustomed to at home become new again in our absence. The fireflies regain their spark.
I hit the road in a few days. A week of freediving in the Florida Keys, then out to California for some friends, diving and climbing, then up the Pacific Coast to surf, climb and explore the Pacific Northwest. From there I catch a flight to Belize where I’m working with high school students on a service-learning project for three weeks, then diving for a week. Then it’s back to the PNW, and who knows, maybe more climbing, maybe Canada, maybe drive east.
But as much power as the road has for revealing the richness of our existence, I’m still caught among a mixture or emotions. It’s strange to be preparing to leave again. Today marks two weeks since I got home, barely time to settle after two months of climbing, diving, surfing and friends, adventures that began on one coast and ended on the other. It’s been two weeks of family, friends, oceans, rivers and lakes, cliffs and mountains, coffees and laughter. There are so many things that make life rich, and adventure is but one of them.
Adventure, however, is the one I know well. My heart can throw itself into lost wandering at a moment’s notice, barely a change of clothes in hand. When I was 15 I started carrying a toothbrush, a towel and a fresh pair of underwear with me everywhere I went. I wanted to be ready to wander, always. It’s a habit I’ve only built on over the last two decades.
But there is another version of adventure, a kind that doesn’t require plane tickets and mountains; an emotional kind, a personal kind. It is standing in front of a roomful of people and speaking honestly about something that scares you. It is taking the stage to sing, talking to a friend and admitting you were wrong. Saying “I don’t know” in a roomful of colleagues. It is revealing your heart, your beautiful raw self, with openness and vulnerability, being your true you in a crowd. Those are a different kind of adventure, the kind that build build bonds not just to ourselves or to one another, but to society, to community. They are nature, but not as we normally seek it. They are us in our natural state, us as us.
Those, I find, are rarer on the road. They may be there with one person, or with a few, but to throw ourselves into the depths of our community and be our richest, rawest selves, we need society. We need a critical mass of humanity. We need room to be among the members of our tribe.
That is not the adventure I’m known for. That is the adventure of musicians, artists, dancers, not those we typically call “adventurers.” But it is in the same spirit, lives within the same reckless heart, that someone takes to the stage for the first time to act in a play. To climb a mountain is no more daunting. This is the full spectrum of “adventure.”
My life of late has been full of the mountain kind. It has been full of rope and remote places, plane tickets and passports, oceans and overhangs. Some call it “Living the dream,” but lost along the Pacific Coast Highway is only one kind of adventure, and many versions call. The Dream includes every version of risk.
The Road. That is one thing, and I will soon be back on it. It is a course I can easily take—my bags are still always packed. But the other version of recklessness—the vulnerable human kind—calls too. And to access it takes more than plane tickets, more than wandering. It takes people. It takes community. It takes a crowded room. It takes a willingness to cut through the mundane, to reveal things normally kept hidden. It takes a bold heart, one poised for emotional destruction, not just physical.
And just like wandering the remote enclaves of nature, there is tremendous beauty hidden on these adventures, moments full of richness and light. But they are seen together, shared, not lived alone.
There is something alluring about that. As alluring as the road.
I fail a lot.
Yesterday, for example, I climbed Heather, 12b trad. Or more accurately I fell off Heather. A lot. After the initial crack things get thin, the protection gets small, and I started flying. I jammed so hard I took chunks out of my pinky and ring finger, left blood in the crack. I eventually pulled through the first crux on gear after repeated whippers on a slotted microstopper. The jams were so painful they left my knuckles aching. Onto the second crux, a series of sport climbing-esque slaps up an overhanging wall above a fixed pin—I backed up the pin with another microstopper, but on my first whip the rock around it blew. The stopper and quickdraw scurried down the rope to my hanging waste. The pin held, so I yarded back up and placed something else nearby. I took a few more whips and then lowered.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the finish in me. It was that I was finished. I’d hung enough, my head was spent. I was just tired of being scared. I wanted to stand on flat ground. I was over it. I’d failed.
That was yesterday. Two days before I lowered off Confederacy of Dunces, a crimpy “sport climb” that requires as much gear as quickdraws. Earlier in the day I’d fallen off Promise Land, a route I’ve climbed a bunch before.
Before that it was Astroman, the classic Yosemite 11c. I’ve been up there four times with two different partners, and everytime I’ve retreated. Even the Steck Salathe, a long Yosemite 10b, I had to hang on this trip.
Coyne Crack. Sanctuary. Mean Streak. Fat Lady. Flesh for Lulu. Tight Rope. The Prow. Women in Love. White Eye. The last pitch of The Underground. There are more routes out there I’ve fallen on or backed off of than routes I’ve sent. A lot more.
I fail a lot. A lot a lot.
The last few years this has been particularly acute—my drive to push has ebbed and surged in waves. One day I’ll be fixated on a route, and the next I won’t care about climbing at all. Until I’m standing at the base, until the route is towering overhead, I have ZERO gauge on where my head will be.
Yosemite, for example, three weeks ago: I was feeling lukewarm about the huge projects I’d set out for myself, Astroman and a one-day ascent of the Nose. But then we came through the tunnel and I saw the towering bulk of El Cap. We pulled over, parked with the rest of the tourists, and snapped a few photos. I could feel the excitement rising from somewhere deep inside me. Suddenly I was jumping up and down, eyes wide, my hands on my partner Andre’s shoulders. “Let’s do this!” I shouted, energized, alive. “LET’S CLIMB THAT BEAST!”
We didn’t. We failed. We tried Astroman three times but never reached the top. Even climbing the Sentinel was a close one. We never even got on the Nose.
I remember as a beginning climber backing off everything. I could practically downclimb as well as I could ascend; almost every route wound up including a retreat. The first time I tried the Whitney-Gilman Ridge I backed off three pitches up; I had no idea where to go, and I was too afraid to get stranded. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, the sense of adventure required, to continue. It was the same feeling that came flooding back yesterday.
I also remember when I stopped failing, stopped always backing off stuff and started getting to the top. It felt like a victory, a gaining momentum, like I’d crested some hill and the battle that had ragged for years was finally turning in my favor. Call it confidence, call it whatever, but there was a tipping point and it allowed me to start sending. The foundation was built and it was now time to climb.
There is a power in possibility, power in believing in yourself, believing you are successful, can succeed, power in believing the next hold WILL show up, the next piece of gear WILL be bomber. There is Truth in that. And yes, you might get stranded, there may not be any gear, but most times it will work out. Climbing has the power to get you killed, but when you climb with openness and possibility, when you ask the question “How do I use the holds before me?” rather than “When will the holds get good?” the best of us shows. We meet the challenge with our all. And suddenly you find yourself at the top.
But that doesn’t happen every day. Not in climbing, or elsewhere.
I fail a lot. And not just in climbing. I tried writing a book once, a guidebook to Western Maine rock. I never got past collecting topos and building a website. My “career” is a handful of fits and starts, nothing to write home about, a small town writing gig that keeps going with some adventure on the side. And I was married once. That didn’t work out either. Life has a way of handing us failure, adversity, reminders we are imperfect, routes we can’t seem to get to the top of. Our best efforts of the moment aren’t enough to crest the hill. The summit might just be out of reach. Life has a way of reminding us of that.
I failed yesterday. A lot. It came at the end of a week marked by failure, and a trip marked by failure. At the end of a few years marked by failure.
And in the midst of those lessons on failure the failures can compound. They can transform from a single moment to a storyline, from one climb to climbing, from event or sequence of events to a life narrative.
But each of those moments are single moments, blips on the screen, instantaneous and individually inconsequential. “Failures” in name only.
As I bailed off Heather yesterday my friend Pat walked past on his way to Airation, a Cathedral finger crack. I’d seen him working the route a year ago, but he’d fallen at the crux.
“I’m getting back on it,” he said. “I’ve still got to send it.”
Not a failure, an ongoing challenge.
Life does a lot of smacking around. It is about mistakes and missteps, confusion and corrections. Climbing is a stupid, pointless way to spend the weekend. And I love it. It has a tendency to mimic the rest of existence, remind us of the challenges we face every day.
Today my fingers hurt. And my abs. I’m thinking a bike ride, or a trail run, fits more than climbing; I’m thinking I need a mental break from falling, fear, and visions of failure.
But yesterday as I walked down the descent trail after retrieving my gear I turned to Nick, my climbing partner. “Thanks man,” I said, “today couldn’t have been more fun.”
He smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “that was awesome.”
Failure can still be worth it.
And I’ll be back. I’ll be up there again, fingers jammed to the bleeding-point, gear smaller than I want disappearing below me. No matter how many tries it takes me it won’t truly be a failure, just an ongoing challenge, just one more route I have yet to send. And there are lots of those. I’ll never send them all.
What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?
For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.
But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.
“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.
Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.
“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”
That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.
“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.
“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”
He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.
In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.
But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.
“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”
The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.
“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”
He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.
“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.
But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”
The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.
But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.
That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.
But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.
“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.
And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.
“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.
But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”
The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.
This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.
Last September I took a flight from Boston to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a country I had barely heard of and knew even less about. Tucked in between Turkey, Iran and a handful of former Soviet republics, it is an arid plain with a history of invasion and cross-invasion.
It is also home to the Lesser Caucus Mountains, part of the mountain range that divides Europe from Asia. I was there on an American Alpine Club climber exchange, teamed up with Americans, Armenians and Iranians climbing our way across Armenia and Georgia, everything from single-pitch sport and trad routes to alpine snow and ice up 5,000 meter peaks. It was a tremendous three weeks, one full of new friends and meaningful connections.
One of the mountains we climbed along the way was Mount Aragats, the tallest peak in Armenia. (Historically Mount Ararat was the tallest peak in Armenia, but it’s now part of Turkey, and the border is closed. This is a painful fact for Armenians.) Aragats has four distinct summits, the north being the tallest at 13,420 feet. Climbing it means clambering over loose shale and boulders to windswept ridges. Most of the mountain feels unstable, like stacked blocks barely held together. There was one small patch of snow tucked beneath the southern and western summits, but otherwise it was dusty, dry and hot.
Historically, however, the snows of Aragats have held through the summers. They have kept creeks flowing in hotter months. Prior to escalating global temperatures, Aragatan snowfields would last through the year and provide a stable source of water through dry times.
Today, however, high temperatures melt things quickly, leaving the valleys flooded in the spring and parched by fall.
This short documentary by Armenian filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan lays out what is happening, and what local scientists are trying to do about it:
Yep. Thermal blankets. Several of us noticed them on our descent—white mounds squirreled away beneath the south summit. We didn’t realize what they were, that they were an attempt to save Aragats’ last few patches of snow. I remember discussing them when we got back to camp, but no one could tell exactly what they were. Now we know.
Blankets. Is that the solution to global warming? For now, the answer in Armenia seems to be yes. But it’s a lot of pressure for a few swath of fabric. What if the blankets insulate too well? Or not well enough? How many do they need to makes sure there is enough water? Do they have to cover the mountain? What happens if things don’t last through the summer?
These are complex questions, ones previously left to nature to ponder. But lately her answers have left Armenians parched. Now it’s up to Armenian scientists to see if they can do better.
When we were there in September our team didn’t know the difference. We didn’t realize we were walking over fields usually covered with snow. We scrambled the bare rocks unaware they normally would be entombed by snow.
To us Armenia was just dry. Now we know why.
I woke up this morning and felt the call of the woods. After six weeks of climbing, of slowly working my way westward from the beaches of North Carolina to the Southern California Pacific, I wanted to run. I wanted to watch trees dance past in a blur, feel the spring of soft earth beneath, splash through streams and feel the sweat trail down my forehead. After weeks of ropes and harnesses the occasional wetsuit I wanted unencumbered movement, raw movement. Something animalistic, tribal.
That’s running. It’s pair of shorts, Vibram Five Fingers and a four-legged trail partner tearing down the steeps of the White Mountains. After six weeks of wandering I was home again, and running called.
But while running pulls at me, lures me in, I’m easily distracted, and climbing owns my soul. Sometimes I just can’t get out of the way.
I drove to the cliff, the air still cool with morningness, my run on my mind. The trail begins at Cathedral, then winds its way over to Diana’s Bath, up the back side of Whitehorse and then down the south slopes before climbing to the summit of Cathedral and back to the car. It’d been a while since I’d run that loop, my regular loop. In fact, it’d been a while since I’d stood below Cathedral Ledge at all and just arched my neck to look up at it. If there is a center to the universe, a place the world might have been born from, it is Cathedral. The earth spilled out of her cave. From the Central Wall in winter to the Prow buttress in summer to the trails surrounding it, it calls. Rain, wind, snow, sun, it doesn’t matter, it is always whispering to me. Sometimes I forget, wander away for a week, a month, a year, but when I see the towering granite it pulls me back in. I can’t get around it. And If I could I’m not sure I’d want to.
I drove slow. If I were running I’d drive to the winter gate and park, the very end of the road before it starts climbing. But I was barely to the kiosk when I pulled over. The cliff was calling, louder than the run. A different kind of run.
I parked, pulled out rock shoes and dug around in my trunk for a chalk bag. I changed into shorts—not the lightweight running kind, but durable canvas, the kind built for scraping over granite. I slipped into my flip flops and started up the trail.
There is no such thing as smart soloing. Or maybe there is and I just haven’t happened onto it. It’d been nine days since I’d touched rock, nine days since I’d climbed 16 pitches of immaculate Yosemite stone to the summit of the Sentinel, the outstreached palm of Yosemite Valley, but the Funhouse to Upper Refuse circuit is one I know well. It would be like falling into conversation with an old friend again—I would know when to hang back, when to push. Right?
The cliff towered above. In the sun the morning coolness was burning away. I laced my shoes at the base of the first corner, taking deliberate breaths to slow my heart rate. I could feel my nervousness blending with excitement, all blending with an elevated pulse from hiking in too fast: Solo climbing is not about speed. It is about slowness, about deliberate movement. It seems fast by virtue of its simplicity, but if you’re rushing, breathing hard, scared, you’re in danger. I closed my eyes and exhaled, working my way back to that.
Then I started climbing. The sun pushed hard from above. The rock felt slick but familiar. I wrapped my fingers into cracks they’d brushed countless times. The trees danced in the wind behind me. I began to sweat. I patted my hand in my chalk bag, grabbed the rock holds, looked at the polished feet and moved upward. My body recognized the process, the unencumbered movement. It was running only slower, with a chance to fall, to die. I stuck my hand in a crack, jammed, focused on my feet and moved again. Hand. Hand. Foot. Foot. Hand. Foot. I flowed over the rock, a deer in the forest, a brook down a mountainside. The movement: There it was.
But if the movement was there, my head wasn’t with it. It was full of noise, choked with errands and assignments and things to do now that I was back in town. My hands wrapped holds, my feet pressed edges, but my head was caught in its own dance.
But I kept climbing. And as I moved upward the rhythm took over. Gravity pushed the thoughts aside, and I kept jamming, grabbing holds, moving my feet up, one more twist of the body, one more offset movement to regain balance. The noise of life bled away. I began to notice the grain of the rock, the sound of the trees in the breeze, the subtle shifts in temperature as the air moved. I came back to myself, the climbing pulling me along.
By the top rock was flowing effortlessly beneath me. I crested Cathedral and wrapped my hand around the cool metal fence. I exhaled, safe on horizontal ground, pulled off my rock shoes and slipped back into my flip flops. My tee shirt was damp with sweat, but the sweat of movement, of deliberation and concentration and presence, not the sweat of fear. I trotted to the descent trail, the rest of the day before me.
I was home. And there was still time for a run.