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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Thursday, October 31, 2013


The scariest part of climbing is not bad rock, bad gear, bad weather, poor belayers, severed ropes or falling rock.  All of those things will either kill you outright or pass, in time.

The scariest part of climbing is the rest of the world, of that crazy thing called "Life" that goes on, eternally, as we lose ourselves in the moment of climbing.  It is only when the endless moment is broken, or the ascent complete, that the things we fear come rushing in.

Fear, true fear, comes to me now; standing here on the razor-thin divide, decades vanished in a blink of compressed experience and scars, between the present and the bad-assed, dumbass youngster who chased his dreams out onto the open road with just a backpack and a duffel bag of assorted gear, who wrote from the heart and lived in the moment and could power through anything except getting his foot out of his mouth. 

I feel the whisper of self-doubt and despair as I stare into the mirror at the opinionated, beat-up, increasingly disillusioned and cynical grizzled old man who somehow took that kid's place, a curmudgeon who feels the weight of three decades of watching this fringe sport go "mainstream"; mourned the resulting death of individuality and increasing hordes of environmentally-blind gymbies with little or no empathy for the spirit that moved us, the old guard. 

I feel the miles and trials of two years of living on the road, often hungry, unemployed and homeless, with my wife, who has battled Multiple Sclerosis for the last decade and more, trying to find someplace where we could make a home for ourselves, and failing. Feeling the fire that once raged in my belly, dawn to dawn, slowly dying in a deluge of personal tragedies and struggles, even as the hunger sharpens with regret and reminiscence. 

I rage against the loss of strength and focus in myself, and against the growing apathy, entitlement, and self-satisfaction I see in the climbing world and its many advocates and organizations. 

I fear the day I lose my beloved wife, or the day in which I can no longer love and care for her, this amazing person who has come to be everything to someone as self-centered and inverted as I can be, who loves my faults and forgives my sins, gives meaning to my days and stands behind me against any crowd of detractors or critics, beside me through the worst storms life has thrown against us.  

Every run-out, every crap face, every sketchy piece of gear whispers "Is it worth it?  Is this really worth the chance of losing a life you dreamed of for so long?"

And every moment away whispers, "You're losing the edge, getting soft, getting old.  This is a youngster's game, and you are no longer young."

And so every day is a battle, a struggle of inner tides, a balancing of the things that make me who I am, the man my wife fell in love with, and the man I will someday be; older, perhaps alone, sight fading, muscles devoured by the years, courage drowned in the caution of brittle bones and longer healing, adventure lost to the narcotic lure of the known and comfortable.

We have been told that the only thing to fear is fear itself.  But fear tells us that we are alive, reminds us that we are sane, in the face of steep odds and personal danger.

I do not fear the fear... I fear the point at which I can no longer address its causes, at which it drags me down as surely as gravity ever did.

I do not fear falling... I fear simply letting go.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A walk down memory lane

Took a hike in Germany Valley, yesterday, to stretch our legs and enjoy the fall colors.

We picnicked on cheese and bread, chocolate muffins and fruit, washing it all down with power punch, gear spread out on a huge flat rock in the center of the river, watching eagles and buzzards, hawks and ravens soaring on the updrafts around the North Fork cliffs and the numerous crags that dot the western slopes of the valley between Seneca Rocks and Smoke Hole Caverns.

After an initial hand washing in the cold river water, Cindy wandered around barefoot, like the child she is at heart, looking at interesting rocks and fossils and watching native trout and bass with the avaricious eye of a fishing woman denied.

After a pleasant hour spent in leisure, without a single human sound save our own voices, we packed up and headed back upriver, to see some old lines on the adjoining parcel of private land.  Imagine our surprise when we found fresh chalk and evidence of several recent visits by climbers unknown.  No surprise... private property counts for little or nothing among the climbing community's members in this present age, and the landowner was fairly affable- the chance remained, no matter how slim, that these folks had, like me, actually asked to climb on private land.

Back in the Day: Working on the steep, thin start of "Steppin' Razor", a 5.10 of mine, bolted ground up on hooks.  This was shot during the first ascent by my lovely wife, Cindy.  I discovered early on that having her behind the camera kept her from screaming when we took long falls.

Finding sign of intrusion into this private little corner was a slightly sad experience... I have been climbing and developing climbs here for well over twenty years, some with my incredible friend and climbing partner Mike Fisher, and in all that time, only a handful of folks had ever found the spot.  As far as I knew, no one besides me had ever bothered asking the landowner for permission or even considered that something in West Virginia that had huge trees on it and a river running through it just might not be Public Lands.

Whoever the visitors were, they weren't well-behaved.  My rope had been unwrapped from where it hung under a steep project and left to lay in a tangle in the dirt.  chalk had been used to write obscenities on the rock adjacent to one of my favorite lines.

While erasing their chalked graffiti at the base of a tall, overhanging and slightly run-out 5.9 I bolted almost 20 years ago, Cindy was struck at by a copperhead, one of the largest we have seen this year.  Her new heavy boots diverted the blow and the reptile slithered off under the leaves while the human screamed, beat the ground and made a hasty retreat and her mate experienced a deep wave of deja vu.

I have to hand it to my wife... for someone that spent a week in hospital (and almost lost a leg) from a copperhead bite, and that within the last five years, she handled it amazingly well.  In her place, I might well have ran shrieking from the forest; pack shed, arms waving, frightening forest creatures and small children for miles around.  As it was, we both spent several minutes pushing along the old trail, through new-fallen storm debris which made every step a likely encounter with another specimen, eyes darting and hearts pounding.

Back down at the old road, we trudged the last mile or so back past the gate to the car in relative silence, stopping once for a smoke to calm still-dancing nerves; five minutes that passed in silent introspection and memory.

Once in the truck, we laughed, again, and all the tension drained away as we held hands and smiled into each other's eyes.  Snakebites, crazy landlords, corrupt powers of government, silly climbers, and insane employers... it all fell into perspective.  Fall colors fell in showers of red and gold through the afternoon sunlight, squirrels and chipmunks dug madly through the leaves preparing for the coming winter, geese flew in staggered V's across the clear skies of West Virginia, and Cindy's hand was warm in mine.

All was well with the world... as well as we could make it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Hypocritical Oaths

Today, I read an article online about how the talented young climber Joe Kinder had removed two juniper saplings in the course of putting up a new route.  That some concerned observer had taken a picture of the saplings after removal and posted the pics, event, and Joe’s cell phone number on the Internet, provoking an avalanche of feedback and criticism.

I know… hard to believe, right?

Joe apologized to the outraged public, paid a fine and went above and beyond to show his remorse.  I truly believe the guy genuinely regretted the action, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Is Joe in fact sorry because he is now convinced that it was somehow wrong to be more concerned about the safety of his fellow humans than the uncertain fate of two junipers growing in a crack?  Or is he in fact simply pissed at himself for doing this without hiding the evidence and then having to take so much grief and humiliation from a huge community of hypocrites?

Alpinist magazine congratulated itself on having an article about vertical gardening while nodding sagely at the wisdom and importance of environmental sensitivity when establishing new routes, and the nobility of Joe’s admission of error and efforts at restitution.

But is it all, in truth, just so much self-congratulatory delusion?

Don’t get me wrong- I have built and repaired a LOT of trail in the last 34 years; stopped erosion and cross-cutting and landslides in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia and back here in West Virginia, at my own home crags, under lines I did and did not develop.  

And I have cut saplings and cleaned moss and loose soil out of cracks and pockets to produce new first ascents and climbing routes.

I wrestle with this.  I have hiked to interesting outcrops with fun looking lines and decided against development or even sharing their locations, based on the dense profusion of life and the variety of micro-cultures thriving there. 

I have spent every day since the placement of my first bolt and the lead of my first trad FA practicing and preaching stewardship; the concept that the route developer is responsible for the trails and impact of the crag.

But while I am shouting into silence, the Access Fund and its corporate partners, the climbing equipment companies, are creating climbers by the hundreds with huge social events,  Learn to Climb clinics, and promo tours, all of which, BTW, have a gigantic impact on the climbing venues in which they are held.

(Sorry, but you can’t put upwards of three thousand people anywhere outdoors without a lot of water bottle tops, tape, rope ends, human waste and trampled vegetation.  I cleaned up after three Phoenix Climbing Comps.  End of story.)

To round out the picture, membership in the Access Fund will now get you a discount on one of the finest 4 wheel drive vehicles in America, to allow you to go anywhere you like off-road to practice your LNT views and hone your shiny new skills with a drill, as you righteously retro-bolt classic run-outs into safe sport routes.

Which is perfect, because we need to go back to that crowd calling for young Joe Kinder’s blood over the desecration of two junipers; the online experts and forum ninjas, the cyber judges of unknown and unproven provenance, the members of the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund and the faceless, vocal hordes of entitled climbers of middling experience and skill: The Climbing Community.

This is a unique culture with a number of people across a wide range of ages and origins, genders and physical challenges, doing truly incredible and impressive things, some of them even admirable as human beings.

But, increasingly, they are technocrats of suburbia; living in apartments and condos and houses built on what was often open farmland or second-growth forest, structures that are only “green” by definition, requiring just as many resource consuming, impact-creating humans as ever to assemble and complete, and producing just about as much waste in transportation and construction, if not manufacture.

The new environmentalists come and go from these idealistic illusions of home driving vehicles that no matter how environmentally conscious are still made of thousands of pounds of refined substances that do not simply melt away in the sun at the end of the vehicle’s life.  It has been this author’s experience that most of them are SUVs that typically arrive at their destination carrying one or, rarely, two people and, more often, up to five dogs, where they will park on vegetation as necessary to get to the Scene happening around the latest Destination Crag, no matter how many cars and vans and hybrids are already lining the roads.

Once they have trampled all the tiny new growths on the trail, texting all the while on their improved 4G network or shooting footage on their GoPro while their unleashed companion chases deer and squirrels and kills the occasional wood mouse or chipmunk out of sheer fright, they will invariably stop somewhere near the center of the trail adjacent on of the more popular lines, usually the one with the biggest crowd, where they will ignore the traffic jam they are creating as they break out a pack full of aluminum and nylon, two of the most high-impact substances ever created.  The second substance will also comprise most of their apparel in some form or another, although not one in one thousand will have any idea of the means or methods and impact of recycling either product, short of weaving a rope rug or putting biners in the corners of your truck bed.

While half a dozen of the chosen top-rope the same handful of moderate lines on which they have been falling at the same crux for most of their outdoor climbing careers (usually a period measured in days, not years), other groups not of their local tribe will pass hopefully back and forth, since the lines now under siege will inevitably be the only routes in that grade at the crag, and the ropes draped upon them will remain until the last light fades from the sky and all the chalk bags run dry. 

Meanwhile, the dogs of these paragons of environmental activism and sensitivity will carry on with their program: digging comfy holes in the middle of belay areas, running off to the parking lot to pee on other people’s tires and get bitten by copperheads or rattlers, chasing deer and crossing property boundaries and, in between all of this, pooping out interesting piles and logs of artificial color and ingredients along the trails.

As evening falls and even the strongest cell phone batteries begin to fade, the tribe will all waltz off, in separate cars of course, to meet in some trendy bistro with a carbon footprint the size of Rhode island, there to update their Facebook status and upload to their blogs and spurt their GoPro onto You Tube, none of which has any environmental impact or carbon footprint because the Internet is maintained by a mystical force without physical location that runs on Tesla Zero-point generators that create power from nothing in a parallel dimension.

It’s true… I read it on the Internet.

As the worthies of the Fund and the Conservation teams drive away to their just reward and adulation, behind them, just out of sight across the horizon, carefully avoided and never mentioned (save during valuable sound bites on Earth Day) are the hundred acre parcels of national forest and BLM land being clear-cut of all timber, their micro climates and biodiversity destroyed as heavy diesel machinery pushes logs and waste across the forest floor, leaking hydraulic fluid and fuel and oil, choking streams, burying rock outcrops and cliff lines, all at a tidy profit for the Federal government (yes, the same government that fined Joe) and for the timber companies, who pay as little as $1 apiece for one hundred year old trees…

… while climbers cheer as they sit on Ikea in their green homes and watch “Chainsaw Wars” on cable-fed big screen TVs, which also has no environmental impact, because we just push satellites into space with big sling shots, like on the Road Runner, and big screens are made of sugar so they just dissolve in hot water when you need to recycle them.

While climbers are exchanging email addresses and blog sites at the next Rendezvous, there are toxic chemicals seeping and men dying in the coal mines of southwest West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, communities poisoned and buried by the mountaintop removal that has destroyed well over two hundred mountains of the Appalachians and Alleghenies in the quest for cheaper methods of “extraction”, a process that more resembles war than mining.  The coal extracted goes most often to produce the electricity that in fact powers most of the cities in which these climbers live and in which their advocacy groups make their homes.

In Arizona, the Resolution Land Swap has failed again, but corporations, like dragons, only slumber, and meanwhile mining rigs drill night and day, their lights and machine noise now despoiling the silent desert stars of Apache Leap, a 200-foot tall escarpment of historical importance that could be destroyed if plans to mine just behind go forward.   Led astray by groupthink and corporate spokesmen once revered as rebels, climbers have done an amazing job of turning their backs on Queen Creek, Oak Flat and Devils Canyon, places that for over a decade were the center of bouldering and outdoor climbing competition in the desert southwest.

But climbers have more important things to worry about these days.

After all, there were these two trees in a crack not one person in a thousand could ever climb…

We do need to be environmentally conscious when producing lines, when climbing them, and when travelling to and from the crag.  But we need, as well, to maintain a sense of perspective, because the sum total of the impact created by climbers is a pale echo of the massive corporate destruction being carried out on our public lands, activities from which our government makes millions, and big timber and coal make billions, while sacrificing lives and communities.  We need to hold our advocacy groups accountable for making deals with these companies, and for failing to speak out to this government.

Otherwise, mission statements and oaths to Leave No Trace are at best a demonstration of  ignorance, at worst nothing less than denial and hypocrisy.

It is not popular to criticize the Access Fund or cast aspersions on revered publications like Alpinist

But truth is the only exception to the rule that things that do not change, die. 

Mister Kinder, I’m not a numbers climber, not a V12 boulderer, no big shakes on the Scene… but I would probably have done the same thing in cleaning a new line.
 I have before, I will again, and even the critics just seem to keep climbing my lines… and that is a truth all its own, in the end.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tour de Force

What a week and a half can do...

One day, you are completely wrapped up in trying to get your hillbilly landlord to just finish the apartment you live in, return a call, or adhere to the conditions of the lease in any way, trying to support yourself and a disabled wife by working at an ancient, decrepit hotel, originally built by slave labor and housing a restaurant that was obsolete by the beginning of the Reagan Administration.  When not immersed in the day-to-day folly and frustrations of a decaying southern city filled with and run by corrupt politicians and  inbred dynasties struggling to hold life back to the age of The Waltons, you spend a lot of time and effort trying to teach a pig to sing; trying to introduce fresh food and new ideas into a stagnant culture, all while surrounded by the oxymoron of cafeteria-style "fine dining", created by an owner/manager with delusions of grandeur and more mental issues than a lifetime subscription to "Psychology Today".

Life and crisis laugh at planning and routine.

All the tedium and petty annoyances seem precious and golden in the hindsight of sudden, traumatic change.  you long for the simple challenges of dealing with crazy, as opposed to the helplessness of facing life and death with no option but to sit and wait, to hope if you must and pray if you still can.

Instead of blowing up balloons and wrapping presents in preparation for her 27th birthday, we instead spent the end of last week with our daughter in the hospital; separated from home, husband, and a two month old daughter of her own.  Life went into that sporadic stop-and-start of a bad European film; sleepless nights, early morning, changing schedules and plans while still trying to live a day-to-day routine of necessity.

Friday night, our lass was stable enough to return home, and Saturday, her mother watched the bouncing baby while the exhausted parents relaxed and I prepared coconut shrimp and "drunken" beer-battered tilapia, steamed broccoli and baked potatoes for a small birthday dinner.

Rain soaked the weekend, interrupting the Columbus Day holidays of scores of visiting NoVA and D.C. hikers, mountain bikers, campers and rock climbers.  Carloads of timeshare victims slogged past in long lines on their way to musty condos in Canaan and hunt cabins up the North Fork, while tour groups stared out at soggy leaves and rolling clouds atop Dolly Sods and Spruce Knob.  Friends who had planned to wed atop Seneca spent the weekend eating at local restaurants and climbing wet rock at Secret Crag #7.  Boaters stared in frustration at a river still too shallow to do more than wet the hull between hundred-yard portages.  The fall foliage season's promise of economic boon once again faded, settled to earth in a slow sigh of red and yellow leaves.

Monday, stir-crazy and getting creaky from sitting watching the weekenders and the dog hunters and the rain, sorting gear and reading sci-fi, Cindy and I tossed packs in the truck and went to hike a fire road in Germany Valley that we knew would be good for a hike up onto the Allegheny Front, with the added attraction of a short side trip from parking to check on some old crags and climbs.  I had a rope hanging there, unfinished business on a steep route from back in 2006 that had I had become determined to finish before the holidays.

After the brisk hike along the shoulder of the road, eyes and ears tuned for the sound of onrushing tractor trailers, we slowed the pace and relaxed; stretching out slowly, adjusting lighter packs as we walked the muddy gravel road in new boots, conversation wandering among our recent troubles and old friends, past travels and crazy settings in which we had camped, cooked, and climbed.  Fall was there around us; quiet, muted in the mists and rain, but still gorgeous in her own right, a different sort of beauty from the bright splash of chorus girl colors that attracts throngs of tourons to Seneca and Smoke Hole, the Skyline Drive to the east and the Blue Ridge parkway to the south.  Bright crowns of fallen leaves decorated beds of ferns and hung throughout the underbrush of spice bush and red oak, laurel and juniper, while Virginia creeper blazed red where it hung from golden hickory trees.

The road climbed steadily, bringing a burn to disused leg muscles as we wound up through the ancient forest, traffic now far away as the sound of birdsong and the occasional distant dog's bark became our soundtrack.  Occasional rifts in the low-hanging clouds revealed deep hollows dropping away on one side or the other, tiny cabins nestled at the base of threads of wood smoke, dreaming above mossy tumbling streams.

Two hours later, we found ourselves at the foot of walls that were impossibly dry after three days of mist and rain.  Fox grapes, creeper and poison ivy draped routes soaring 80-90 feet, all of them overhanging to the point that rain was not really an issue.  My fixed rope still hung on the steepest line of them all, a wall 80+ feet tall with an overhang of more than 25 feet from top to bottom along the line I had chosen.  Recent massive deposits of chalk indicated that either we had seen newcomers, or one of the three or four parties that know of the area had returned for a brief visit and taste of two of the best lines in the cirque.  Chalk on several other spots told a tale of exploration... and of hasty retreat in the face of steep, thin, run out lines on somewhat intimidating terrain.

No shame there... some of this stuff scares the crap out of me, and I bolted it.  Discretion is the better part of valor.

We clip open one of the trails leading directly to the good stuff and head back to the car and a supper of stir-fry and wild rice, cold brews and anticipation.

The next day we are back early with food and gear, drill and bolts and a determination to climb and move the rope up the old project.

"Rock of Ages" is an incredible line; a 5.9 with a high first bolt that gives the climber clear and early warning of the commitment required to lead this line.  A 20-foot dihedral leads to a ledge, above which a steep, sparsely-protected panel offers scattered buckets and an off-balanced mantle move onto another ledge.

From here, over fifty feet above the base, you cast out into steeper and steeper territory, cranking pockets and edges past three more bolts in 30 feet to a final incredible rail clip stance that you reach through a mandatory step out onto a pocket with 80+ feet of air under your heels and the river roaring away another 100 feet below that...  massive exposure as compared to the average WV bolted line anywhere except the New River.  When you lower off the anchors, the wall falls away from you immediately, and your touchdown is several yards from the base.

We ran a couple of laps on this line, with Cindy climbing impressively and reaching a new high point, fighting through to a final stance almost to the anchors.  A snack and a smoke and we sorted gear and lined up on the project, placing a 4th bolt above a good rest stance (finally!), retrieving the old fixed rope and lowering out to land ten feet from the base... and that's just from the 4th of what will undoubtedly be 9 or 10 bolts!

A serious slog out, with heavy packs and trembling legs that required three rest stops in what is normally a slow unbroken march back to the car.  Hot food and cold brews led to calls confirming the next day's arrival of Doc Goodwack, primed to send.  I sorted my pack and we segued into an early night and dreamless sleep.

Crawling out of bed the next morning, I wondered what I had done, exactly, planning on climbing with the original WV madman after a day on some of the tallest, toughest lines on which I had ever put bit to stone.  Cindy answered a "grandma call" and went to babysit the grandchild and help out around the house, leaving me to keep up with the new, streamlined version of Mike Fisher making its debut at our crag.

Mike was out of the car, pack ready and coffee in hand when I rolled in, a hand rolled twist burning in the corner of his mouth as he shook my hand and smiled.  We shouldered loads and headed up the hill to warm up on some moderate moves before Mike stacked his rope under the steep broken maw that is the start of La Machina, a line he had bolted back in 2010 and had been working on sporadically ever since.  Like the rest of us, Mike's plans had run headlong into the roadblock and detours of Life, and it had been a long fight to finally narrow the crux to three specific areas of contention.

He worked through the moves as always, powerful  sequences interspersed with self-deprecating humor, inventive terms like "Parkinson's pop-lock" and "evolved T Rex hold" exploding between long pulls and titanic effort on small holds.

All too soon, I had to run away to work, but promised to return the next day.  Mike hiked down to grab his bivvy gear, his plan to throw down at the foot of the wall for the night, as he had many times in the past.  I went off to fry wings and burgers and try to make a living in the nadir of employment that is Petersburg, WV.

The next day I was back, after initial technical difficulties, with Cindy in tow and a bag of hot, fresh, homemade breakfast burritos in the top of my pack.  A grateful Mr. F chowed with gusto as we tossed down packs and climbed into harness.  We warmed up on his moderate Second Rule, debating the relocation of the final bolt for better clipping, reminiscing on the first ascent, enjoying the morning with just the three of us and a sky full of broken clouds.

Mike took a burn on his line, but fell at the fourth bolt.  he rallied and sent the rest of the route, then lowered for a rest.  Cindy and I ran up the newly-rebolted "Thieves in the Temple", and the new moves and bolts were just as enjoyable as they had been the week before, grateful confirmation of my decision to slightly change the line for reasons of safety as well as aesthetics.

Later in the afternoon, Mike pulled on his shoes, and put paid to a project he has been working on for the last two and a half years.

We celebrated in the small ways that three friends will, enjoyed a little more climbing and a few more hours at the crag, then hiked down the hill and went our separate ways with hugs and handshakes and smiles all around.

Today it's back to the grind; incompetent local bureaucracy, inconsiderate neighbors, idiot landlord, new job, worries for aging parents and step daughter and grandchild, uncertainty and frustration for that colony of imbeciles running our nation into the ground in D.C., watching my hairline and muscle mass recede, fighting old age and pushing through the dross and drudgery of day-to-day.

Until next time...