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


But Teachable.

Call him youth-at-risk, juvenile delinquent, mad, malcontent, morose, a kid with ADHD or maybe a touch of autism? Dyslexic? Poly addicted. Addicted to Poly. I was once hooked to Susan. Usually what is connected with addiction in psychotherapeutic lingo is co-dependency and rescuing. From a climbers view we are co-dependent — “On Belay!” — and in need to rescue other alpinists on occasion, or be rescued from time to time. Sometimes we are the dumb ass! To any Tom, Dick, or Harriet, looking at my friend back then, in time and place, he was going to hell, an adolescent devil, demon possessed, gawd awful truent, into the cults or occults, reading too much Carlos Castenada and chewing peyote like candy (he didn’t dig LSD, too synthetic, now magic mushrooms, yahoo), and __________ (fill in the blank with your choicest words).

He was wild, an untamed member of the human race named Jack Ass, a mule headed dope who smoked too much dope. On courses he was like a llama that, if he or she didn’t like you they’d spit huge loogies in your face. His parents thought he was a criminal, a little terrorist who was kicking porta potties over instead of kicking the bucket (his folks point of view). At halloween my student was the brutal pumpkin murderer smashing in that cute orange gargoyle head. His saving grace, for us his instructors, he had no intent to do bodily harm to self (suicide ideation) or others (assault, rape), no arson priors, no animal cruelty on his rap sheet. However, his M.O, with his friends, would be to roll a big truck tire (off the rim) up the steep dirt hill / road, way up to the top only to turn around and aim down the middle of the lane toward the target pins (yellow cones), like they were bowling; that monstrous rubber and steel belted ball that could create total mayhem if that object of fun now releasing kinetic energy, going thirty mph, hit you and took your head off. No consideration of unseen consequences.

It is true, he was anti-social, had behavior problems, was incorrigible (a different set of the medical ABC’s), depressed, dis-eased, and disobeyed everybody. In other words, he was the right kind of kid for us. He was like a rookie rodeo clown in training, he knew where he needed to be, highly intelligent, when on the crags he was all business and was learning, but making a lot of mistakes along the way.

Call this boy the black sheep of his family, full of juice but not tame. No crack to put his hands in. No mare to harness his cosmic potential. He needed a twitch, no not a switch, look it up in Wikipedia. Maybe a shot of bute (equine pain killer), for his inner anguish. He had a screw loose, could of been a girl with two screws loose, or how about just plain screwy. He could of been an Appaloosa with a goat head thorn up his snout and he can’t sneeze it out (therefor he irritated others, too). Or if he was a wildlife in Africa, a Zebra, maybe a bot fly larva or a tsetse fly maggot got in his brain and was eating up his gray matter. There is a song by the 1980’s rockabilly band, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, “He was a dingy dude in a dingy mood, to act crazy like that you had to be a crazy cat . . . In an IQ test he tried to do his best to jab those pencils right into his chest . . .” He might of been locked up for a long time if the sheriff caught him and the judge and jury convicted him, or he didn’t have us as a diversion program. Our (emphasis on OUR), jails and prisons are full of good youth-at-risk who done something bad to society and are paying, hobbled for a bit

I was once close to being hobbled for a while. My two college buddies and I faced felony counts of Federal breaking and entering and other property damage. The locale, Zion National Park. The year, about 1978. There was a gate at the entrance back then, and at 2 AM there was a winter storm slapping us in the face. We were in no mood to be penned up outside the promised land and the Virgin River (gate locked), so we dismantled the thing and drove through, only to meet the ranger in the tunnel. He was very mad! But he saw that under our scruffy coats and long matted hair we were good souls, with well thought out intent poorly executed. Mr. Park Ranger made us put back together the gate and sleep on the ridge in the howling blizzard as our punishment. He never investigated for the case of beer in the van. Looking way back on this episode, and a little less far for Jack Ass, we three went on to develop our outdoor skills and safe teaching ability, and my

I am writing this yarn not to talk about me or social misfits in general or hoods in the woods in particular, but about Mike, AKA Jack Ass. This long, lanky, mustang of a boy who stood then about six feet tall (about 18 hands in horse jargon), smoking Marlboro’s like a fiend, was a looker — not handsome but a skinny scoundrel, unpredictable as hell. When we tried to teach him the ropes we wondered how to control such ferocity. If Mike was a pinto we needed a horse whisperer. We had none. What would Todd Skinner and Paul Piana, both Wyoming cowboys, do? We just had us. The saying goes, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, so we didn’t. My dad used to say when teaching me to fish for trout in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, when I hooked a whopper brown, “Don’t horse ’em in.” So we didn’t horse Mike and his friends in. We gave them slack, played them safely for all we were worth, all they were worth.

Michael played us, too, bucked our rules every chance he got: stealing the car keys and borrowing (?) our staff rig in Joshua Tree National Monument when Will and I walked away to do a few more short climbs close by (he didn’t have a license, suspended). And I had that day taken him up the Exorcist route (5.10) — still had demons in him, or was it anger and a need to take life to the limit and risk what was on the other side? At the base of the East Face of Mt. Whitney (12, 500 feet), the day before my sidekick Gale and I were going to take Mike and Mark up the east face route (IV 5.8, we planned to spend the night on top at 14,500 feet). What kind of an outfit were we running? Some professionals would say we were enabling him to continue in his belief system and behavioral antics. We saw something that compelled us to keep him on our line.

Mike was still a long way from today, but by the completion of his Mt. Whitney vision quest / right of passage ordeal / developmental task, he could read a topo map including the one inside his head, use the various gas stoves we brought with a chef’s panache, no risk of of blowing himself up anymore, and he was looking out for the dangers of moving over stone. This paint could now run, and walk up a cobbly trail without stumbling. Mike was on his way to being the prized mule, trusty burro who complained not, loved by mom and dad.

Michael Cohen, graduated from California State University at Humboldt with an art degree. He learned to run rivers from Dan Bolster and has now paddled all over California, Oregon and throughout the Southwest. Mike was a manager for the Naturalists at large outdoor education program out of Ventura, CA, and now runs Santa Barbara Adventure Company. Visit: for more info.


I saw Mike the other day, twenty years after Will and I had him on 28 day courses and other events such as the fast times at Joshua Tree high school, rock climbing for P.E. Mike earned a B.A. college degree, had spent summers running a dozen different California and Southwest rivers as a guide, was solid as granite, a Clydsdale and truly handsome, managing his own successful wilderness outfitting program. No more Marlboro Man, no more bongs, no more hiested rigs. Now he is trying to break other dumb asses and get their inner map in order.

The author, David Sweetland.


How did I come up with the horse analogies? I live on a ranch outside of Flagstaff, Arizona (as I write this, October 4 / 5, the first snow has dumped on San Fransisco Peaks, up to near 13,000 feet), the boss lady is an old time horse woman and cattle pro, has done the rodeo circuit. Doris is a gem with soft hands. Around the fire she often tells working stories, including tales of her dog Azul, a Queensland Healer (right at her / my feet). Some of my mountain bike buddies are horsemen, when they flat they say “I threw a shoe.” My ex wife, Lynlee, is a horse woman. We once lived on another ranch in the mountains east of Eureka, California. Lyn was the only person who could handle the Arabian stallion, named Flash for a really good reason. And I have always enjoyed the rodeo, especially the bull and bronch riding — as a kid growing up in the chaparral foothills outside of Los Angeles, I would dream of being a rodeo clown, being funny yet serious, helping the rider get to safety.

Get to safety. That is what we climbers do, and that is what we do when we have students in tow.

So for the country western reader who can appreciate my horse $_it (I love the smell of manure in the morning), I say good ride, cowboy. And for the laddies, cowgirl up!

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.