Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


Bruno imagines himself an insect as he swings through the door at Mountain Hut, an insect that can hunt and gather and consume, though he’s not sure if he should be a honeybee or a red ant today.

He used this tactic of being a bug when he climbed his very first big wall the summer before — ‘positive imaging’ his freshman partner Roger called it as they started up the easy trade route. They worked out the systems together, Bruno (a wolf spider that day) throwing his small frame off the wall to jerk the haulbag after him, slings floating up to his ears at times as if he were under sea and not in high air. On the second day, aiding 700 feet off the ground, a piece blew out and dropped him to the next solid one. He wasn’t hurt, but then, clipping into his lower piece, he suddenly felt expansive — light — and what he did not know was that deep in his body he had triggered a series of raw, chemical explosions. Endorphins and oxytocin and norephinephrine ripped through his bloodstream and then the center of his brain like ion chains, retrenching like cloud strike, to burn pathways that would not come undone.

Until that day he had a real job to return to, a credit card that wasn’t maxed out, a family in Chicago whom he loved and a girlfriend who said she loved him. But by the time he finished the route everything east of the Sierra Nevada had begun to fade.

Present partner in crime, Mr. Magoo, enters Mountain Hut a few minutes after Bruno and heads towards the climbing gear section. Mr. Magoo is the cleanest Bruno has ever seen him, both of them having snuck into the worker showers in Yosemite Valley that morning to get spruced up for their thieving. Mr. Magoo hides his tight muscles beneath a pair of nice, new, very loose climbing pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Magoo has been thieving for a while, and claims he will only ‘harvest’ from the big national stores. He looks today almost like a corporate weekender, which, he stressed over and over, is exactly how you want to look. Blend in — appear so common that they won’t notice you. That’s why he drove his white Dodge Caravan sixty-six on the way to San Francisco and didn’t speed in town. These acts of restraint will take their toll on Mr. Magoo, though, and he’ll need to howl in the grocery store later, or bare his teeth at someone’s kid, or expose himself to a postal worker again.

Bruno is dressed pretty much like Mr. Magoo, which means that he, too, is wearing biking tights beneath his pants and a tight polypro shirt beneath a looser flannel shirt. From inside these layers he pushes out his belly, giving himself a gut so he can later fill its thin hollow with the Gore-Tex jacket he has come to harvest. But they need hardware, today, too. A new wall hammer and baby angles, a bunch of sawed-offs, a full set of HBs, replacement copperheads, and some TCUs, which when stuffed inside the tighter clothes will hug so well that they can barely be seen. They plan to visit several stores this day, harvesting a few items from each one, though Bruno will only try for the jacket on this stop.

Bruno starts to head towards the clothing section, but then finds himself stuck before the shiny camping stove display, stunned by the simple thought that the route they want to do and its danger makes this stealing nothing — inconsequential — and suddenly he makes his decision: today he will be a dragonfly larva, gram for gram the most vicious predator in the animal kingdom.

And then he is unstuck and moving through the well-lit store. Its wide aisles are thief-friendly and the hardware and much of the clothing are for some bizarre reason on the backside of the indoor climbing wall and thus can’t be seen from the cash registers.

They have already agreed that when they are done harvesting they will leave separately and meet at the van, which is parked far away from the store. For protection they mostly count on their fast and wiry legs, cabled by long scree approaches and disc-crushing loads, but Mr. Magoo carries a nasty pepper spray to boot, like a stinkbug, Bruno thinks. Bruno carries nothing but his strong hands, loose and scabbed at his sides. He has broad, flat knuckles … but then he’s sure he won’t get caught.

On his fifth big wall, which was only his first with Mr. Magoo, Bruno finally made friends with what he thought of as a denser part of himself — a part that let him blow through his first two partners and all their pretty gear. “Adreno-freak,” one had called him, but it wasn’t really risky if you could just see the line between the risk and you. Then it was simply geometry, simply light. And in that light he could also see the shape of pain around him and knew exactly how many times each day he could swear out ‘motherfuckingpieceofshit’ with knuckles mashed the color of late twilight, knuckles the color of when he’d let himself stop for the day and regroup all the tattered lines and mixed-up gear about him.

What he’d also come to know after five big walls was that by the beginning of the last day he regretted everything — and that at the moment of topping out he regretted nothing. Not leaving his woman, not not-telling his worried family where he was, andnot not-finding a job that would steal climbing time away from him.

He’d never even considered stealing until he found himself broke and hungry and lost in the Valley the day after he’d come off The Shield. His partner, Rainer from Berlin, had flailed badly and said he would never do a wall again, and Bruno, with swollen hands and bruised hips, wandered alone past the Curry Village restaurants in a daze, unable to find anything he wanted to eat.

But then in the grocery store, still hungry and incapable of decision, Bruno caught Mr. Magoo stealing a few thousand calories worth of ice cream bars. They locked eyes, neither of them saying anything, but a few minutes later, outside, Mr. Magoo handed him a bar. They sat together for a moment, Bruno’s ravaged body drunk on cold sugar and fats and when Mr. Magoo nodded and asked if Bruno was looking to do a wall, Bruno nodded back.

The combination of Bruno’s focus and Mr. Magoo’s brute strength romped them up a few Valley classics, and then the itchy, 2,600 foot big wall Sargasso Sea, where on the third day the tattered chaise lounges they used in place of portaledges got caught hauling. One was torn up so badly that they had to send it spinning out over the valley floor, the two of them whooping together as it wheeled and tumbled on updrafts and shrunk towards the ground.


That night they reached camp four, at 2,200 feet, and had to share the remaining lounge, which was too small for one, let alone two. They didn’t talk much then, either, carefully opening cans of Spaghetti-Os, their legs and shoulders pressed together as they ate. In the quiet Bruno seemed to hear a roaring, a distant roar that could only come from the stars, or maybe from deep within the earth. He imagined himself a moth, his specialized antennae stabbing into space and then he fell asleep for a moment, the Spaghetti-Os perched on his knee, light pockets of air rising and absorbing him and fingering his T-shirt and hair to draw him awake so he could discover again his thigh and arm pressed hard against his partner’s acrid smell, his bare feet pressed down into the sky.

It was warm enough that night to sleep without bags, just in their fleece and shells, but they could only sleep fifteen on, fifteen off, both of them shaking pins and needles out of their legs like so many shooting stars, leaning away from each other with their heads wound in nests of slings and aiders and yards and yards of rope.

Bruno set off that last bright morning like the god of centipedes, all arms and hammers and locomotion as he nailed his way up a dicey seam, though his stomach stayed tight until he drove in his first solid pin forty feet out — his jaw not relaxing either until the sweet rising tones caught on the wind like gossamer.

That evening, in the twilight, he yelled, “Watch me!” just before he laid his weight, all ginger and spice, onto a creaky HB. It was too shaky to bounce-test and when it popped it sent him ripping through five pieces that could have been fifteen and which would have landed him on Mr. Magoo, 80 feet below.

In the almost-dark, after the jerk-and-fall, jerk-and-fall like buttons snapping off a shirt, his whole body felt rattled, as if someone had punched him so hard in the asshole it had gone clear through to his cranium. But he was the asshole — a big, stupid asshole — he thought just as the adrenaline sprayed from its glands and tore through him to create, for a blinding Bruno moment, the feeling that the meat of his body hung not upon his bones but from inside his hardened skin until he was only this hard skin, and then with a burst he couldn’t feel that or even any of the pain.

They were gone and in their place he felt a nausea rise within, as if the hard skin had melted and drained hot to his belly and then wanted out. He fought this down, still hanging in his harness, swallowing hard and then throwing his head back, the acid bite ripping the lid off the sky to reveal the first of the stars that had come out.

“You all right?” yelled Mr. Magoo again, worried and surprised by the fall after so many days of peerless climbing.

Bruno felt he could smell the fear in Magoo’s voice. Bruno felt on fire. “Yeah, I’m OK,” he said, not loud enough, “I’m just an asshole.”

“WHAT?” came the words, chattering with the wind?

“I’M A BIG, STUPID ASSHOLE!” Bruno hollered, his voice thrown down at the pale light of Magoo’s headlamp like a bucket into a well. There was a relieved laugh far below, and then Bruno seized the rope above him, hauling himself towards the last piece as Magoo took in the slack.

The heat in his belly was somehow clarified and cleaner and spread out into his limbs, and when he reached the piece that had stopped him he kissed it and the rock and then cranked up a little more and hooked into it. Hanging in darkness, miniscule and 2,500 feet off the floor, Bruno arched back as far as he could to see the Valley upside down, the thousand foot cathedrals across the way suddenly stalactites hanging from the cracked dome of meadow.

He felt stupid for leading the last pitch so slow, stupid for getting caught in the building darkness and not putting his headlamp on, stupid for rushing and not simply taking a deeper breath and doing his job better. Then, hanging in a back bend in the dark, his left eye tearing up, Bruno felt this stupidity go away. It wasn’t as if it drained away, but as if it were being pushed out of him, riding out of him on a wave of painlessness. Then he did take a deeper breath and, after righting the world, did fish his lamp out.

He could see in its flower of light that he had torn his jacket and also grated a 2-by-4 patch off his forearm though he couldn’t feel it yet, and then he saw-smelled-felt something drop from the lamp like a tiny bat diving. Not from the lamp. He reached up to touch split flesh in his cheek and found an oily smear around his eye and then saw his hand covered in blood. All he could figure was that one of the pieces had whipcracked him as he flew past, but he didn’t remember it. At the belay he wouldn’t even remember how he managed to finish the pitch or haul the pig up after him; he would only remember a glowing feeling, and later, all pain beneath bright stars.

When Magoo saw Bruno’s face he could only whistle. They were at a hanging belay, only one pitch from the top, both of them twisting and wrestling with each other and their gear. Bruno’s face was too slippery to tape up and Magoo had to cup one hand behind Bruno’s head and press the other from the front to staunch the flow. It took awhile — maybe a hundred heartbeats — and then, afraid to wipe the skin and start the bleeding over again, Mr. Magoo carefully licked both the drying and wet blood from his partner’s cheek, saying “Sorry, dude,” once when the wind blew him too close and lightly bonked their heads together, their eyelashes weaving for a moment into a tiny screen.

In the cool and carpeted Mountain Hut, Bruno pulls on one of the extra large jackets, as a decoy — as cover. It is far too big, but then, that’s the point at this stage of the game.

“Watch me at the hardware,” comes Mr. Magoo’s quiet voice from behind him, standing at a nearby hat rack, “One of them greenbacks almost got me when I snatched the hammer.”

Photo by Jonathan Thesenga


“You got it already?” Bruno asks, turning to see Mr. Magoo walking back to the climbing gear. Bruno also catches sight of the worker who is eyeing Mr. Magoo. He should sneeze loudly — their signal — as he watches her watching the wrong guy, but there’s time and instead Bruno takes his box cutter from his sleeve and gently works its razor around the lining of a medium, black and yellow jacket to free the magnetic tag. ‘Tumors’ Magoo calls them. He drops the tag to the carpet and then covers it with the medium jacket before finally sneezing to warn Magoo. Magoo has been examining a large piton and just as the worker approaches him from behind he hangs it back with the others.

“Can I help you?” Bruno hears, but then he can’t hear the rest. He watches. Her long black hair reminds him of his Ex. He could dwell on this for a moment because he sees Magoo’s body stay loose and easy but he doesn’t. He focuses on the worker’s posture and he stays focused on it until it gets loose and easy, too. His partner has said the right thing and the worker comes out of the climbing department smiling as she walks past Bruno, who is already busy, puzzling over the jackets again.

“Do you have any mediums in black and yellow? All I’m finding are extra-larges,” Bruno says too sweetly, to the folds of the black hair over the green vest.

“No, just what’s out,” she says, her eyes catching, then throwing away, the scar beneath his eye.

Bruno smiles sadly as he looks down at the jacket he’s wearing: “I really like this one but it’s just too big.”

“They’re great — my boyfriend lives in his,” she says, eyeing the shell on the floor, which lays folded lengthwise.

“Oh, I’ll hang it all back on the rack,” he says as his stomach tightens, following her line of sight, “I worked in a clothing store once — it’s a hassle, isn’t it?”

“Yeah … well, let me know if you have any other questions,” she says before, oddly, nodding once to him as she walks away. Her eyes are trying to be somewhere else — behind her — Bruno thinks. He stares at the back of her head, willing her to not turn around, and in his peripheral vision he catches the shape of Magoo looking around quickly and, safely, putting something up his sleeve.

With most other objects Bruno would be doing the same. Up the sleeve and then later, behind the kayaks or bicycles, from sleeve to pants. But the jacket is too bulky for the sleeve move and he has to get it in now while no one’s around, underneath the oversized jacket that will hide his movements. He turns to see where the workers are — as if looking for a mirror — and then, all in one easy movement, he picks up the jacket and wedges it under the tight inner layer that he’s wearing. It bulges a little beneath the red jacket he has on but he smoothes it all out, acting like he’s testing the pit zips as he walks toward the dressing rooms.

He doesn’t go in, but gauges himself in the mirror, zipping and unzipping the decoy jacket, testing the snow skirt and pockets until he’s sure that the stolen jacket isn’t showing. He takes the decoy jacket off and holds it up, all the while seeing how the jacket beneath rides on him. With his stomach sucked in it’s barely noticeable under the loose flannel.

Bruno is done. He returns to the rack and cleans up, hiding the empty hanger by doubling it up with the one for the decoy jacket. He nudges the tumor deeper beneath the coat rack legs and then he walks through the store to the exit. He sees the worker again and goes out of his way to walk by her.

“I’m going to look around town — see if I can find a medium,” he says loudly to her and she wishes him good luck though she stares at his face, and then, it seems, at his torso, before she turns around. She must know. Suddenly he must ditch the jacket, go back and tear it out and warn Magoo and flee from the store, running as hard as he can. There is a big worker by the door now who hadn’t been there earlier and his vest is somehow different from the others. Must be security. Must be on to him. Must get out of here. But from this panic he feels something swell and then burst and snap in him again to fill his veins and harden, and at the same time he feels that denser part that can stand anything, beat anyone. She doesn’t know, he thinks from this new energy: he’s just some poser to her. He is way too sly and she is way to slow.

He walks to the wood rack of Powerbars and takes two, knowing that buying trinkets will make him better look the part he’s played. At the cashier, about to take out his wallet, he catches Mr. Magoo out of the corner of his eye. Magoo looks a little shaky, a little nervous — plus he’s walking weird, as if he’s got an extra knee along with the five pounds of gear he stashed in his pants. Bruno notices that the big man is watching Magoo and he’s about to sneeze a warning when the cashier asks him if that’s all he’s getting. He nods, annoyed, and is about to sneeze again — and then he does sneeze, but for real this time and so hard he has a brief, soaring image of himself as a Russian doll, a smaller self condensing beneath himself.

Mr. Magoo nods at the big man by the door and begins to exit but from the side a manager with a nametag approaches him and takes hold of his sleeve, asking loudly if he’d like to remain in the store for a moment. Magoo is all eyes, all tension. He jerks his sleeve away and bangs the door open, spinning sideways through it as both the manager and big man lunge after him. Now they can arrest him Bruno thinks, looking back towards the cashier. But the cashier has gone, too — all of them heading out the open door to help the big man who has caught Magoo by the shirt again and is trying to bring him down.

A stiff Pacific breeze comes through the entrance and Bruno feels it fresh on his face — he can even smell Magoo’s fear in its folds — and he notices his muscles revving up, a bitterness in the back of his mouth, his body loose and his hands suddenly balled up so they are all knuckles and scabs, the weight in his stomach heavier but clearly expanding, in slow pulses, from inside to out.

Bruno moves from the register and heads for Mr. Magoo, but when he steps outside he is overwhelmed by this pulsing — by this build-up of energy as it travels to his face and his feet and his fists and then ricochets inward so that this time, too, it is first the ion lead, and then the lightning strike as he catches Magoo’s wild pupils in his own.

Their eyes are still trapped together when Magoo’s shirt pulls open and the pitons and the hammer and the can of pepper spray bounce pinging off the concrete, just before the big man slams him to the ground. Magoo’s eyes seem wet and torn open while Bruno’s gloss over with the hardness that is rising inside him.

He veers right and launches himself off the curb and onto the wide, black asphalt of the parking lot, casting away from those eyes and the three men who are holding Magoo down, the sounds from his partner’s throat fading.

Bruno can do nothing, say nothing. He is crystalline and taking off, fists balled now not to hit but only to clench these Powerbars. For two or three beats the pulsing inside of him comes in sync with his step but then accelerates to surpass him, increasing its tempo until it is so fast he seems to hum inside, shifting in pitch and weight to become, finally, a roaring.

He might still be in their sight, only halfway across the parking lot, but he releases the jacket from beneath his layers, flicking it open behind him, its folds expanding and contracting in one deep breath as he draws it over his arms and back, its black and yellow fabric erasing the four men left in his wake.

He need only get to the car and that key hidden behind the license plate. Then the other stores. He’ll find another partner, and if not, he’ll solo aid. Maybe something easy at first. He is roaring inside, a hardwired bad-ass, stoked and rolling and raging as he tears open the Powerbar and takes a bite, walking from the mayhem with long, flowing steps as he begins, in the same sweet rhythm, to chew.

Sean Toren is a writer living in Minneapolis with, to roughly quote Zorba the Greek, “ … wife, child, house — everything. The full catastrophe.” He has recently completed his first novel, “G,” and can be reached at sean_toren@yahoo.com.

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.