This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.
“I remember coming to, waist-deep in the water, thinking I broke my neck,” Charlie Barrett says of a rappelling accident at Mickey’s Beach, California, on March 17, 2004. While assessing the damage, his eyes stopped at his feet. Bone protruded from his left heel while the other turned purple-black. He crawled onto the jagged rocks at the base of Mickey’s Beach Arête, a 5.13 sport route on the California coast. Eventually he made it to the trail, where he crept along on his hands and knees for 30 minutes until passing hikers found him and carried him to the road to wait for an ambulance.
Charlie had been working the route by himself on toprope. He’d nearly redpointed it in the rain a week before without the use of a chipped crux hold. “I wanted to do it the natural way,” he says. On the day of the accident, Charlie kicked off the wall while rappelling, then swung back in to clip a draw to a bolt. He planned on clipping in, pulling the rope, and making a second rap. Reaching out to clip, he came up three inches shy and accidentally let go of the rope. The last two feet slipped through his tube-style belay device, and with no stopper knots to catch him, he fell 35 feet onto the rocks protruding from the shallow water.
Despite a compound fracture to his calcaneus (heel bone), Charlie recovered and hit his climbing stride over the next few years. He established the difficult Wick’s Sit (V13) in Tahoe. He sent the highball So High Sit (V11) and the infamously hard Iron Resolution (V13), both in Joshua Tree. In 2006, Charlie climbed Father’s Day, an 80-foot 5.14a and one of the few trad routes at the bolted Star Wall near Tahoe. The following year he added a sport line to the granite crag: Time Warp (5.14b). In 2009, Charlie climbed the sit-start to The Mandala and followed it up the next day by ticking Spectre, both considered standard-setting V13s. In 2013, Charlie established Lessons (V14), a still-unrepeated granite compression problem at Rock Creek near Mammoth. But after sending many of the hardest problems and routes that California has to offer, Charlie’s climbing hit a speed bump.
The panic attacks started a few months after the Mickey’s Beach incident and became worse over the years. “It feels like you’re gonna die, or have a stroke or a seizure,” he says. Charlie remembers having anxiety as a kid, but nothing as intense as what he has experienced since his 2004 groundfall. “It was the first thing that was a traumatic experience [for me].”
“We saw the trail of blood,” says Kevin Jorgeson, Charlie’s longtime friend and climbing partner. Jorgeson had also been attempting the route and went to retrieve Charlie’s gear the next day. “It was a pretty gruesome scene. That definitely had a big impact on him.”
In May 2013, Charlie found himself stuck on top of the third pitch of Half Dome’s Snake Dike (5.7), a route he’d previously free soloed. This time Charlie sunk into the anchor, unable to move, as he waited for a party above. He tried to relax and breathe. He asked the climbers above if they could move faster. “Your head’s closing in on you. You can’t move. You can’t use your hands anymore,” he describes. “It’s something about being stuck.” Eventually, the party moved and Charlie climbed quickly through to the top.
That fear popped up again in January 2015 while driving from Jackson, Wyoming, to Bend, Oregon. With snow covering the roads, no pullouts, a semi in front of him, and cars behind, Charlie attempted to pass the tractor-trailer 15 miles outside of the town of Burns, Oregon. Going 80 mph, Charlie cut in front of the semi to avoid a collision when his wheels spun out on ice. He was uninjured but deeply panicked, so he drove himself to the hospital in Burns. This hospital visit was one of more than a dozen. “You calm down just knowing you’re in a safe place,” Charlie says. He’s admitted himself to hospitals in Mammoth, South Lake Tahoe, and Santa Barbara. At times, he’s been prescribed Xanax.
“The appeal to climb hard, especially in California, it’s hard to keep the psych around here,” Charlie says. “And the fear of a panic attack has basically stopped me from traveling.” Lengthy flights to places like South Africa, France, and Spain are out of the question.
While driving to Tuolumne Meadows late one night in 2004, Charlie’s car hit the side of the road and flipped. He suffered a torn MCL, ACL, and meniscus. Later that year, Charlie ran into a series of problems with the law. The stress of a dirtbag climber lifestyle, injuries, and legal trouble exacerbated Charlie’s anxiety, and probation kept him confined to the Eastside of the Sierra. While some of the legal stress and injuries are now behind him, anxiety still confines him. “Daily living has become pretty hard because of it,” he says, adding that he hopes to see a psychiatrist soon.
Charlie had his first climbing experience on the Santa Rosa coast at Dry Creek Sea Crag, where he attempted to climb a 5.10 in hiking boots. His friend’s cousin was a climber and had taken Charlie out. Rock climbing felt extreme for the 16-year-old, so a few days after his first time outside, he walked from his house to Vertex, the local climbing gym. A week later, his father bought him a membership. He was hooked and spent his second week of climbing on a road trip to the Owens River Gorge.
His formative climbing years were spent with a few local climbers, including childhood friend Ryan Smith, who had a car. The pair explored the boulders of Sonoma County and took weekend trips to Yosemite; the latter took some getting used to.
The teenagers were scared on the third pitch of Nutcracker (5.8), a six-pitch route on Yosemite’s Manure Pile Buttress. They silently looked at each other until one of them admitted, “I can’t lead 5.8. Can you?”
“The step off the ledge was so exposed,” Charlie says. “We slung the horn and rapped the hell out of there. We were too scared.”
The Santa Rosa climbing community embraced Charlie, and his antics became those of legend. In Bishop, he wrote PEN15 on a well-known porn star’s back, convincing the performer he was the 15th member of the People Enlightening No One Club, a fictional men’s health organization. A few years later while redpointing Vitamin D (5.12d) in Rifle, Colorado, Charlie downed two PBRs mid-send. Jorgeson and Charlie also worked together as routesetters at Vertex Climbing Gym, often pulling pranks on each other.
“It turned into Vertex history; we called it the Debacle,” says Jorgeson, who showed up to work one Monday and found 10 pairs of his climbing shoes suspended 30 feet up the wall. Charlie’s car keys ended up in the bathroom urinal. Then Kevin’s shoe was found on the roof of the house next door. Kevin apologized to the unamused neighbor, and an hour later, the shoe came flying back into the gym, thrown by the angry homeowner.
Bouldering around Santa Rosa or roping up at Trinity Arêtes, Charlie became a fixture on the NorCal scene. Friends remember his unique style choice: sweatpants, no matter how hot it was outside.
“I don’t think he ever took those sweatpants off for years,” says Santa Rosa climber Chris Summit. “I remember those sweatpants and his feet just swinging around, like a dance with the smoothest, most effortless technique.”
In 2000 Charlie dropped out of Santa Rosa High School where he was a sophomore. “School sucked,” he says. “I wasn’t doing well because I wasn’t smart, and I hated it.” A year later he returned from a road trip and got his GED. He traveled around California climbing for a while, then in 2002, Charlie moved to Yosemite to clean cabins in Curry Village. In the summer, he flipped burgers at the Tuolumne Grill. He climbed manically, focusing on routes like Cosmic Debris (5.13b) and problems like Don’t Make Me Kick Your Ass (V9) in the Valley.
“When he’s on, he’s on,” Jorgeson says. “There are those that do it all the time and those that have a gift for it. He’s just got that natural gift to be able to do it off the couch.”
During one winter in Joshua Tree, Charlie and his friends would practice coasting their cars six miles down the hill from the park entrance to the house they shared. They would creep along at 15 mph on the flats, then fly past park visitors at 60 mph on the downhill, never once touching the brakes. That same winter, Charlie flipped his car while goofing around in Ryan Campground. The rig landed on its side, and he crawled out. A passing driver helped him push the car onto its wheels. He then hitch-hiked to Hidden Valley and the car was towed.
“I didn’t really care. I was young,” Charlie says of losing his first $750 car. “Nowadays, I would lose my shit.”
In the last few years, Charlie has transitioned away from hard climbing, instead spending summers peakbagging in the Sierra and focusing on a new career path. Four years ago he was working at a sushi bar in Mammoth, and while out climbing at Hartley Springs, he thought about making a guidebook. The next day he borrowed a camera and bought a notepad.
“I had no fucking clue what I was doing,” he says, “but somehow it turned out.” He’s self-published two guidebooks already, one to the Mammoth area and another to Tuolumne, and he is currently working on a third. “I thought I was just gonna do the Mammoth book and that was it,” Charlie says. “There’s not that much money [in it]. I’m definitely surviving but barely.”
One guidebook turned into two when he tweaked his forearm on Colinator (5.14a) in Rifle. After throwing a quickdraw into the road, he drove back to California. Hurt and unable to climb, he started working on the Tuolumne book. “Like everywhere, Sonoma County, Tahoe, and Bishop, it’s all been the same,” he says. “I showed up on the tail end of most of the big development in all those areas. I would meet the people that were already doing it and hop in on all the groups. Tuolumne more so was finding new zones by myself.” Since the publication of Charlie’s guidebook, there has been a significant increase in the number of climbers there. This has led to more hard problems but also a greater impact on some of the sensitive areas in the park. “You don’t wanna be a holdout and not tell anyone ever,” says Summit, who has published two California guidebooks. “But you share too much and suddenly you’re a sellout.”
Currently, Charlie is living in his truck and working on a new Bishop bouldering guide with Wills Young and Ian Cotter-Brown. It’s a place he’s intimately familiar with since his first climbing trip there in 2000. “Sixteen years ago, I was right there,” Charlie says. “The only thing that changed is the Vons [grocery store] moved. And more people showed up at the boulders.”