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Climbing and Darkness Can Be Flip Sides of the Same Coin

Addiction. Encounters with death. The weight of everything, including happiness. Here are five personal essays about the intersection of climbing and dark manifestations.

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Here, we’ve gathered five essays linked by a common thread: dark manifestations of the climber mind. Why? The reason is twofold. Firstly, it’s because I think many climbers face these issues, but cowed by the cacophony of the dirtbag-chic, free-wheelin’ climbing community, silence themselves. (This seems to be status quo especially with depression, a condition carrying the stigma of malingering and contagion.) Secondly, I think darkness and climbing can be flip sides of a coin. I won’t try to explain, and maybe this is one of those truths that blurs when stared at head on. In any case, five writers—Kenneth Long, Fitz Cahall, Majka Burhardt, myself, and Chad Shepard—have given it a go. As you’ll see, three of these stories also feature free soloing. It seems when things grow black, the rope, for better or worse, is often left behind. Draw your own conclusions. —Matt Samet


Illustrations by Chad Shepard

The Black Dog first came when I was 21. I had a college scholarship in Utah and found myself happy, getting good grades and climbing. Then, out of nowhere, came a feeling of darkness—of anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt so strong I knew I’d never be the same. I ran to a hospital, thinking that I was dying. The doctors could not help. I ran away—I ended all relationships and dropped out of school, riding my bicycle from Provo to Las Vegas, where I hoped old friends and familiar rock would ease my pain. I lost my scholarship and my fiancée. Eventually, I returned to school, disappearing to the rocks when the darkness came. In February 2007, after I lost my job as a prosecutor, the Black Dog returned. This time, he stayed. Last March, I couldn’t get out of bed; I couldn’t breathe. I could barely move for the pain. I decided to make it end at Red Rock, where I’d climbed all my life. A “climbing accident” would be easier on my mother, wife, and daughters than a suicide. On March 17, 2007, I drove west into the canyons. I parked my car in Willow Springs and shoed up. Ten feet up Ragged Edges, I paused at the imaginary line where a boulderer would stop, the crux still 60 feet above. Would I have the courage to let go? I wondered. I kept climbing, my forearms burning and the desert floor growing distant. Then, suddenly, 60 feet up, I felt something I’d not felt in months: elation. I breathed deeply, soaking in the beauty of the canyon, the exhilaration of climbing. And I started to think of ways to retreat. Perhaps I could downclimb or traverse way left. Or I could, as planned, just release the rock. Yet I didn’t. I clung tightly to Ragged Edges’ buckets, and then breezed through the wide-fists crux. Fifteen minutes after starting up, I scrambled to the top and lay down, the ice-laden sandstone sucking away what body heat remained. Twenty-five years ago, I’d lain near this exact spot, so full of life. I have survived cancer, high-altitude cerebral edema, decompression sickness, the deaths of my grandparents, father, and 19 friends and relatives—and depression is still worse. Never did I imagine this terrible reality. When I had cancer, no one said, “Snap out of it, stupid ass — cancer is a choice!” Yet the few people in whom I’ve confided about my depression seem to think that “toughening up” is the answer. If only it were so easy. Atop Ragged Edges, I turned to the right, walked off, and then swapped out my Ninjas for tennis shoes. Back home, I told my wife I’d been hiking. She served me cold fajitas on a paper plate; she knew I’d lied, but neither of us had much to say about it.

Disoriented and Alone With a Traumatic Brain Injury in the Eastern Sierra


Illustrations by Chad Shepard

I stacked training sessions atop classes at the University of Washington and part-time writing jobs, then, leaving only a cryptic note on the refrigerator door describing my whereabouts to my roommates, I’d disappear. I would return two or three days later limping and sunburned. My non-climbing friends dubbed them “freak-outs.”

True, it was getting harder to tell the difference. It wasn’t that my solo projects became riskier—it was that climbing alone had become the norm. Whether it was long enchainments on Washington’s granite wilderness peaks or a single, demanding pitch that I had rehearsed mentally a hundred times, these solos began as sudden, impetuous flare-ups that absorbed my thoughts until I finally rushed toward the mountains. When I arrived, chest heaving from running the approach, the anxiety eased and my breath settled into a calm rhythm. Once I laced up and twisted my swollen knuckles into finger cracks, I was never afraid. It almost always felt like I was in the perfect place and moment. Each highstep or long reach had purpose and meaning. Sometimes I backed off, but I always partitioned off my emotions. It was clear that I had a gift.

Climbing was no longer about having fun—it was about fulfilling potential. I was getting stronger, but my ability to connect to anything other than my own small world had withered. I had trouble sleeping. That razor-edged clarity I felt soloing eluded me in daily life. When friends tried to fix me up with a work acquaintance, I sat swirling my beer and let the conversation flow past like water around a cold river stone. I expected to find happiness on summits but instead discovered the obvious—by nature, mountaintops are lonely. I had fallen in love with something that could not love me back.

One evening while sorting climbing gear, I pulled out a slender cord, still wet from alpine snowmelt. My hands worked it into various knots until they came to the figure 8. I twisted the rope into its first “8,” and then followed it back through. In my hands sat an empty circle backed up by a powerful knot. I tossed the noose over the rafters. Let it sway until it went still in the stagnant air of the garage. I let it hang there like an open-ended question: what was I doing?

Becca and I were two people headed in different directions, or at least that was what we each told ourselves after a chance run-in. It had started years earlier as a simple summer fling. She was older, and after graduating left Seattle to chase snow and a career in science. Neither of us remember ever ending our relationship. There were no muttered apologies or worn-out excuses. One day we were together, and then the next, thousands of miles separated us.

It went on like this for a few years. Becca left Colorado, took a job in Alaska, and moved in with a boyfriend in Oregon. I spent six months in Australia, graduated, and moved to Arizona in the hopes that a change of setting might help me find balance.

That fall, Becca called. “I’ve left Oregon,” she said. “Can I come see you?” I stammered my approval. Three days later, Becca walked in with a winter wind licking at her heels and smelling like the promise of snow. A week later, she asked if she could stay.

With 2x4s and plywood, we converted a 1993 Toyota pickup into an extremely low-ceilinged mobile home. Together, we bumbled our way through our first big walls, in Zion. We dropped cams, wrestled haulbags, and tangled the ropes. At night, we sat cross-legged with our backs to the wall and washed down pre-made pasta meals with warm beer, until the stars appeared and the conversation and laughter reached a relaxed conclusion. Our ancient, hand-me down portaledge swayed ever so slightly in the desert breeze like a canoe adrift on an unseen lake.

Not Good Enough: Self-Worth, Anxiety, and the Pursuit of 5.14 Trad

Becca’s fieldwork often meant she was away for a few weeks at a time. Left alone again, I felt that manic energy creep in. I would rifle through stacks of topo maps, guidebooks, and handwritten notes. I’d think in the cold, scientific terms of efficiency and probability. Then I’d pack a bag with water and food, and slink into snowy ranges. Mentally nourished by my and Becca’s happy relationship, I picked away at goals that had been nothing more than daydreams—5.11 circuits at the local crag, link-ups of moderate alpine classics, and my first 5.12 solo—for me huge accomplishments that I instinctively omitted from our evening phone conversations.

A year after Becca appeared back on my doorstep, we found ourselves on the road. Becca and a close friend tiptoed their way up a 300-foot route at Lover’s Leap while I sat in the forest below, writing. I jotted down disconnected ideas until my mind dried up. There was a pair of climbing shoes and time to kill. Above me, Becca neared the top of the cliff. I curled my toes and slipped them into the tight climbing shoes. Lathered my hands in a thick layer of chalk and started up. Without the weight of a rope, I flowed, sinking my fingers around granite curves and latching onto flawless edges until the angle eased and I stood on solid ground at the clifftop. Becca and her friend had already topped out; I knew I’d catch them on the descent.

I followed the trail down until I caught Becca. When she turned to see me, we both stopped. I smiled nervously. She turned and kept walking. Beneath her thin, green T- shirt, I could see her slender shoulder blades heave and sag. When I placed a hand on her shoulder, she spun and slapped my hand away. I stood there mutely, a red welt forming on my left wrist. I coiled my arms around her, entwined my fingers until they fastened like a knot.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she said, her voice quivering with fear. “You’re climbing for both of us up there.”

I froze. I had avoided making that connection as long as possible. Every time a climber ties that knot, it’s a reiteration of a promise: I will catch you if you fall. I had untied from our shared existence. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, happiness came with its own weight—responsibility. It was clear I’d have to make a choice.

These days we exist amongst flat fields of western Oregon and pick our way through our respective careers. The weekends are tiny handholds that keep us attached to the mountains. After hours glued to the computer screen, ordering ill-behaved words into sentences, I grow a little frantic. I begin to scheme, like a wily adulterer consumed by aimless lust. I think about what I left behind. About all the potential summits, all the classic lines…and of the gift left unfulfilled.


Illustrations by Chad Shepard

In the end I wrote a neat, tidy article that no one wanted to publish. Now it’s four years later and four of those nine women I so meticulously interviewed are dead. Sue Nott, Karen McNeill, Laura Kellog, and Christine Boskoff all died in the mountains in 2006. None were guiding when this happened. You can say they were all pushing big routes, that all were taking chances, but when is climbing not taking a chance?

These women are not statistics. I have pages of notes from each. Quotes like, “Guiding? Me and guiding? Every time I think about it I realize I have a hard enough time taking care of myself,” (Karen McNeill). And, “My philosophy about climbing and guiding? You need to carry your weight, be a good psychiatrist, and learn how to let things go,” (Christine Boskoff). But those are words on a page and I’m not sure what to do with them anymore.

Close your eyes for a moment, take a breath, and think about death. Think about dying while climbing. Think about a hold breaking, your body pitching against the rock and slamming into the face. Think about pieces popping, factor 2s, that edge of granite that was once a foothold now a knife rushing up to meet you.

When I think of dying while climbing, my heart pounds, my palms sweat, and I can’t catch my breath. If I’m climbing when I enter this line of thought, I can barely hold onto the biggest jug and my foot shakes on the thickest ledge. Of course, you and I are not supposed to think about this when climbing. But what happens when we do? And what happens when my job is to altogether remove death from the equation?

It’s early September 2002 at Lumpy Ridge. After a long summer guiding, I’m out with my friend Jeff. We warm up on a 5.8, Sorcerer. On the second pitch, the crack disappears and a sticky face takes its place. Out on the sharp end, I cannot move—I cannot picture going up but only falling down and cheese-gratering on this low-angle 5.8 slab. I make a move, I come down; I make it again, I come down again. I regularly climb several grades harder than this. I regularly guide several grades harder than this with clients I don’t count on to catch me if I fall. Today, I cannot make it. I lower off and hand Jeff the rack.

“Too much guiding?” he asks

“How’d you guess?” I reply.

Jeff once was a guide himself and has climbed with enough other guides to know the glazed look when you finally let down and let it in. Maybe there is a limit to how many pitches you can do on which you’re putting yourself out there. Maybe there is a limit to how many people you can share a rope with. I’d had more than 40 clients that summer and I wasn’t even guiding full time. Each client, at some point, would ask me about soloing. “I don’t do it” I would say, “What kind of message is that sending to your family — that you need to climb so badly you’re willing to die for it?” I would say this to a person who just learned how to belay one day before, a person who understands gravity in theory but still lets go of the rope to scratch her ear.

It’s July 2007 in Eldorado Canyon. I’ve been traveling for two weeks and am back on the sharp end, guiding the perfect client. “5.10 all day,” he said on the phone. When he told me he regularly led 5.9, I asked if he wanted to swing leads up the easier pitches. “I’m on vacation,” he said. “No responsibility.”

What he is not saying but we both know is true is that I am the one who is being paid to be responsible. That is my job. I am supposed to take and manage the risks. I’m supposed to do this even though three weeks before, for the first time in my life, my foot slipped and I took a 25-foot fall on the Diamond, when slimy, green moss attached to my shoe sent me on a sideways swing. The same weekend another friend fell head first on the same wall, shattering a quarter of his teeth. The same weekend another friend helped carry a buddy with a shattered femur from a crag in Aspen. But none of this matters to my client. He signed a waiver. I am the guide. I am supposed to climb; he is supposed to follow. Nothing bad is supposed to happen.

This works… for two pitches. But soon I’m shaking on 5.10a. I’m placing a piece every three feet, climbing past it, reaching below to clean it and place it again, sweating off edges as big as truck stops. I know Jeff sees this. I wait for him at the next belay, and when he arrives I ask if he minds taking a break. I tell him about my fall, Pete’s fall, Jonny’s rescue. I admit to being scared. My client pats my shoulder and tells me it will be all right. And then, miraculously, it is… for that day.

Admitting we are scared in the mountains is never easy. It’s bad juju to talk about dying when you’re on a climb where you could die. But what about finally letting in the dark realization that you can always die climbing? I think about Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler watching that gully slide toward them, I think about Laura Kellogg rapping off her rope. I wonder if they were scared, and if they talked about it before the worst happened. Most of us don’t—it opens up the door of possibility to danger and so we beat down that doubting, scared part with an iron fist. We talk about it after the fact. This fall, I talked about death and risk for the entire descent off Astroman with a 19-year-old who then went and did the Rostrum highline leashless. I went home to Colorado and cried on toprope, again.

Maybe I need medication. Maybe it’s hormonal. It’s not a bad theory. I’m 31: by someone’s clock, I’m supposed to be having babies. Maybe this is my body priming itself to stop taking risks and to gestate. At the same time in life when I am striding out into my climbing career, I have to decide if I want to chuck it all and become a mom. And yes, I know you can climb and have kids—you can take everyone to the crag, the kid can play with a toy dinosaur and wear a cute, little chest harness and then out-crank you. But you can’t take a kid to sandstone towers in Ethiopia or plunk her down in the snow for eight hours while you do a quick ascent of Polar Circus. You can’t watch your partner send a chunk of ice as big as a file cabinet your way and feel like a responsible parent. Or, rather, I can’t. Or won’t. For now.

Part of the reason for my fear is that this community—this circle—gets smaller with every month. Twelve years ago, I used to tell my mother climbing was no more dangerous than driving. That was before I’d been to 10 different climber funerals in the same picnic area in Eldorado Canyon. That was before I’d spent one of those ceremonies watching the pregnant belly of a new widow, waiting to see her baby kick, as if that sign of life might make that moment seem OK.


Illustrations by Chad Shepard

But the meaning is the message. On the lighter side, we’re all pretty good at deluding ourselves: “Hey, climbing is good for you!” and “It beats shooting up!” and “Climbing is my religion!” Pleasant thoughts all, and probably true on some level. But I dwell in darkness: I climb because I have to. If I shut my eyes and trace the contour of my life past the boulder problems, ridgelines, ill-begotten sport piles, and razor-edged splitters, I arrive at a specific day, marked like an “X” on a topo map. It was the day a love for climbing turned to lust, a black day bathed in chemical self-loathing. That day, the energy went all sour and wrong, fueling a mortal urgency to climb that hasn’t since left.

1989: Hueco Tanks, Texas. Mesquite and cat’s claw tore at my legs as I walked with my friend Dave across the raspy folds of the Chihuahuan Desert. In my hand, I held a bear-shaped cookie, chocolate sandwiching a lardy crème. It tasted like death in my mouth—a stale, heavy brick. It was my fifth Fudge Family Bear. Dave and I noodled through the dust along the southern tip of Hueco Tank’s East Spur, our minds not right because—for one of a very few, regrettable times in my life—we’d taken a hallucinogen.

Aside from half-devoured packet of Fudge Family Bears, we carried some water and a chalk bag. Although most of that day has been whitewashed by time, I remember tearing the family apart, limb from limb, which provoked a terrible guilt. But it was the only food we carried: the massacre continued apace. We walked until we reached the Sandmaster Boulder, a lonely prow of iron rock at the Spur’s southernmost tip, exposed and beaten by waves of sun and sand and with a cave hollowed along its northern crest.

How the Worst Crag Dog Saved My Life

I slumped down onto a rock shelf beneath the wildly overhanging wall. Within that cave, my gob stuffed with Bears, I beheld an intimidating line of scalloped huecos—Sandmaster (5.12b)—defined by a couple of funky star-drive bolts that looked as if they might rip with a climber’s weight. I look beyond those, parsing an iffy fixed Stopper, and then above that, another bolt or two: Calling all the Heroes, a Todd Skinner 5.13d, then one of the hardest routes in the country. In the harsh, drug-fed light, it looked evil—a forest of razor blades on a shimmering plaque. 5.13d—who climbed 5.13d? Me, ever… never? Did it really matter? Somehow, I knew in that instant that I’d never complete this route. I would never measure up to a Five-Thirteen-D.

In AA, recovering drunks recite the mantra “One drink is too many, and 100 is not nearly enough.” Without the correct words, I had stumbled upon that truth. I looked out across a future teeming with caves and boulders, cracks and overhangs, and realized that no matter how many routes I climbed, I’d never quite measure up. One climb is too many; one hundred is not enough. I realize now it’s the same yawning emptiness that drives all addicts. My stomach grew heavy and hot, chewed and dismembered Bears clawing back up my craw.

Dave, meanwhile, sat on a rock munching Bears, his eyes glassy and red. I wanted to leave, I told him. I wanted to leave that cave.

We exited, the cave’s riptide of unholy energy pulling thickly against our faltering steps. We looped around West Mountain and leaned into a wind that skimmed the dam’s gravel lip. The End Boulder, a house-sized dollop of chocolate brown, cradled against the tapering southern flanks of the Front Side. There, in a pair of threadbare Converse Chuck Taylors, I surged into a V0 on the right, a jug ladder to cool the hands, feeling the rough crystals along the crest of some lips but also the smoother bevel of its older holes. A car emerged from the chaos, the black American luxury sedan creeping to a halt at the tip of the End Loop.

The windows cranked power-smooth down the doors. A clicking—camera shutters; I started, awash in visions of El Paso gangbangers come for an initiation sniping. An elderly couple—tourists—unfurled their bones, to stand on the pavement. They began to bicker about the camera. They stopped bickering to watch me climb. I held onto a hueco and looked their way, at their flickering and crenellated pie-holes, agape with unmerited awe. I climbed because there was nothing else left to do.

They clapped when I topped out and snapped more photographs. What I had done was not so very special—a 15-foot nothing on concave ledges—but they clapped nonetheless, the sound carrying across the wastes like Spielbergian thunder. The man and the woman could not know that I felt naked and obscene, awash with Fudge Family Bears. They couldn’t see that this climb lay beneath me, an aspiring “radboy.” They had no way to peer behind my Wayfarers to see that my mind had been commandeered, and that their clapping only drove home daggers of self-hatred. (Lose some weight already! Climb harder! Stop with those bears!). They could not know that their clapping sickened me.

As the late-winter afternoon sun paled behind a strip of cloud, I saw myself in that aging couple. In some distant year, I, too, would be 80, standing outside my newly waxed Buick LeSabre, bickering with a wife I’d hated for well nigh a half-century. I too would age, wither, and die. No rock or mountain anywhere could change that. Climbing itself would prove meaningless—I could have been free soloing Wyoming Cowgirl, an overhanging 5.12 just 20 feet to the left, and garnered the same applause. It was as if the desert had conjured these demons simply to remind me of what I’d already learned below the Sandmaster—to confirm, once and for all, that there was no escape.

After all these years, climbing is still the only thing I consistently care to do. On the surface, I know that I’ll never have time to do all the climbs I want, though secretly, I hope I will. I carry the sickening surety that even if I onsight an entire crag in a flurry of Legrand-esque dropknees and Sharma-like kips and battle cries, the minute I drive away, some mad developer will add one more line—perhaps the hardest one — and I’ll have to return to scuttle up the route. I know that one climb is too many, and 100 never enough, but I climb anyway. There is no choice.


Illustrations by Chad Shepard

I’ve been cyclically depressed for as long as I can remember, but the highs and lows seem to become more pronounced as I age (I’m 32 now). I remember being high-strung at a young age. I first contemplated taking my life when I was 7, growing up in a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It was autumn, and the fields were ablaze, smoke plumes rising like mushroom clouds. (Burning fields was a common practice, to revitalize the soil between crop cycles.) The sun filtered weakly through the curtains of my bedroom window, and I sat with a dull hunting knife poised at my stomach, a red welt developing where the point pressed skin. I was crying, scared about how painful it was going to be but angry for hesitating. Back on Cathedral Peak, I sit and tuck my fingers into my armpits. The occasional gusts cut through me; they carry up the faint butterscotch fragrance of the Jeffery Pines. The pale light of the waning moon just begins to touch the summit above, rolling the jagged shadow of the adjacent ridge back from the peak, as if exposing the mountain for some private unveiling. Events have compounded over the past couple weeks, leading to this impasse. Each problem, be it financial, work, relationship, or health-related, is manageable, but taken together, they overwhelm. This cascade is not entirely random—it is more of a pattern. Something triggers the cycle, and then the pattern unfolds. It’s taken all my energy to keep up appearances; on the phone with family or friends, I feign false optimism, possibly to avoid fumbling attempts to explain the unexplainable. I begin to loathe questions like “How are you?” Several hundred feet up, my problems have followed. The past: I see mistakes and regret. The future: hopelessness and fear. I look farther forward for meaning. In some sort of metaphysical twist, I begin to see the world in geologic time: the Cockscomb splinters and topples. The nine Echo Peaks slough into the abyss. Unicorn Peak crumbles into a nameless heap. I lie back and roll to my side. The position of my body on this ledge—it’s darkly familiar. I responded to a climbing accident here four years ago, on this route I’ve probably done 200 times. The guy had fallen 80 feet and lay in a cascade of blood, looking out dead-eyed. I roll my head into that same position, to complete my tribute. A half-hour later, a glimmer catches my eye: moonlight has overtaken the face. The rock is reborn in the delicate light. I climb again, tracing intimately over familiar stone, granite known as well as a lover’s form. Hundreds of feet up, I allow an indulgence in the moment, a pure right-now instant ropeless on perfect glacial patina.


I do not look to climbing to cure who I am, but seek rather to make it a sustainable part of a depressed life cycle. Tonight, I am here for clarity of mind. In my darkest moments, I will find no happiness, but I can find peace in the mountains. Near 3 a.m., I stand on the summit.


The climber and artist Chad Shepard calls Tuolumne Meadows, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, his seasonal homes.

11 Articles About Mental Health and Climbing