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If you pull on something hard enough, it breaks. For the late, legendary alpinist Mugs Stump, who almost became an NFL football player, that thing was the body itself—in his case the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. When strained by 485 pounds of force, the ACL is stretched twice as tight as a piano string. Slowly, at first, the ligament’s millions of tiny collagen fibers begin to fray. The individual breakages increase exponentially until the ligament explodes with an audible “snap.”
The town of Glenrio, sitting astride the boundary of Texas and New Mexico, is a model of confliction. With a surveyor’s mistake in 1859, Glenrio was cleaved down the middle by the border. Even its name is a pastiche of half English, half Spanish that means “valley river.” But unassuming Glenrio (pop. 30)—or a nearby border town, depending on which of Stump’s contemporaries you ask—was the scene of a significant moment in American alpinism. On a raw spring day in 1972, Terry “Mugs” Stump pulled his Ford panel van off the road, his bald tires pawing for traction. The day prior, he’d departed Aspen, Colorado, after a winter of ski bumming. Just over the horizon, crews were laying the blacktop for Interstate 40, which, in bypassing the unincorporated community, would reduce Glenrio to a ghost town by year’s end. Stump, a muscular 23-year-old with shaggy, dark hair, climbed stiffly from the driver’s seat, bent at the waist, and massaged both knees. After a long night’s drive, it was time for coffee—and to make a decision.
Mugs Stump would become one of America’s most visionary climbers, spearheading a fast-and-light approach to alpinism during the 1970s and 1980s when siege-style expeditions were still the norm. His style was a form of artistic expression: He sought purity through simplicity. Examples include the first ascent of Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face, a breakthrough climb on Mt. Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress, and a speed solo of the Cassin Ridge on Denali (see “The Big Four,” below). This kind of idealistic vision, combined with restless determination, let Stump accomplish much in a brief career. Though he made significant achievements in the mountains, Stump described his life not as a calculated rise to greatness but as a “dream-like wandering.” These peregrinations took him from the gridiron to the mountains—football, in fact, was Stump’s first passion.
As he sat in that nearly empty café, listening to the West Texas wind rattling the grimy windows, Stump pondered his next move. He was heading east, to try out for the Dallas Cowboys, closer to realizing a boyhood dream than he’d ever been. But the retreating Rocky Mountains tugged at his heart as well, with their promise of skiing and climbing. As he sat in that nowhere diner, Stump drank cup after cup of coffee, trying to decide in which direction his path lay.