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A cavern of rippling angles, undulating shapes and lines. A gaping rictus, the mouth of God. What the hell is that? Ribbon Falls, in Yosemite, had broken down into basic geometry and color for the onlookers: Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman, Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, and Billy Westbay. Of course, they were tripping on LSD.
“We were staring up at the apex of the arc. We were seeing how our minds construct the rock. … I was looking into heaven.”
Bullwinkle turned to The Bird and then gave Westbay a glance. None of them could believe what they were seeing.
Jim suggested they look away, embarrassed and ashamed of confronting such beauty. Three, two, and, one: They all turned around simultaneously. Some things aren’t meant to be understood.
Things have changed over the last 50 or so years, but our sport’s culture was conceived by iconoclasts. People who knew the difference between societal ideals and a truly idyllic life. People who lived in cars and tents. People who climbed with primitive, often unsafe gear and who ignored the people telling them that our sport was ill-advised and crazy. People who climbed for themselves: the reward was their own because there weren’t sponsorship dollars or Instagram to keep their bellies full or their egos big.
Naturally, drugs had to fit in.
Literature played a role in the popularity of psychedelic use. The Stonemasters all read and adhered to the prescriptions of Carlos Castañeda, author of several books which celebrated the power of hallucinogens. His work detailed his apprenticeship in Shamanism under the “Man of Knowledge,” don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian from northern Mexico. John Long, for his part, read The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, by British author Aldous Huxley. The Doors of Perception is an account of Huxley’s far-reaching and personal journey of psychedelic use. In a time where people were questioning things—big things like the war in Vietnam—climbers and hippies alike operated on the fringes of society traversing their own journeys to enlightenment.
“For our generation, and for the Stonemaster group, they didn’t believe anybody but themselves,” says Long. “They were like, ‘Well, we’ll be the judge of that.’ That was the general mindset. There was so much bullshit going around in society.”
Long first tried LSD the summer following his freshman year in college. LSD was the psychedelic drug of choice back then because it was easy to get, but shrooms, peyote, and even DMT were popular, too.
“Most climbers are curious people,” says Long. “They want intense, different experiences. And if it has to do with opening your mind in ways that you couldn’t otherwise imagine, then yeah, a climber by nature is gonna go, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’… I mean, that’s most of us, right?”
“You want to find answers, and this is one way to find them” echoed Fidelman.
Climbers weren’t exactly hiding their drug use. Magic Mushroom and Mescalito, both on El Cap and FAed by Hugh Burton and Steve Sutton, (the latter also by Charlie Porter and Chris Nelson), were inspired by the drug-fueled zeitgeist.
According to Fidelman, John Yablonski, although not the first ascensionist, was the first to unlock the beta to Midnight Lightning, paving the way for Ron Kauk’s eventual send—and he envisioned it, perhaps not coincidentally, while tripping on acid.
Long recounted their group’s free solos up to 5.11. Just crack routes, he says, and usually only on “small doses of acid. Mild, but enough to be tripping.” He climbed Washington Column on acid. Steve McKinney, John Bachar, Bridwell, and Long climbed Reed’s Pinnacle on acid as well. “McKinney and Bridwell were both really into the acid,” says Long. “I wasn’t that into it, and neither was John [Bachar], but we took it anyway.”
Not everyone was doing psychedelics, and very few used it when climbing hard stuff. At best, the dosages were approximations back then. Long remembered one occasion when Burton handed him a ladle-full of mushrooms, scooped from a large baggie. “That looks like quite a bit,” Long said. Burton described it as a “solid dose,” so Long accepted the ladle. “When he wasn’t looking, I spit out like 90 percent of it,” says Long. “And I ended up so hammered on that stuff that I thought my brains were going to melt out my ears.”
Bridwell, who passed away in 2018, told GQ in a 2016 interview that, “You don’t want to be climbing anything serious on acid—when you take LSD, you’re taken to a place that you really haven’t earned the right to be yet.”
Modern Drug Use
Ask, and you will find: climbers everywhere are still experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, but with much more sophisticated methodologies.
I first became interested in climbing and psychedelics after I heard several climbers at the local crag talking about their microdosing strategies. One friend blended his dried mushrooms with a coffee grinder and added something like 100 milligrams to his daily cup of Joe. Another used a dropper of LSD and took micro hits for long days in the alpine. Another sent hard boulders on molly.
Being, as Long put it, naturally curious, I started asking questions. What are the benefits for climbers? What are the short- and long-term effects? I had taken hallucinogenic drugs in the past—large doses of mushrooms and one helluva tab of acid, but never while climbing. Could these drugs have performance-enhancing effects, or even just enhance my overall experience?
The universe did me a solid: One day, while sitting in an ice bath at a sports recovery center in Denver, I found myself chatting to a local psilocybin expert, “JG,” who has been guiding people through microdose journeys since Denver decriminalized psilocybin several years ago. He grows the mushrooms himself and blends them with adaptogenic mushrooms like reishi and lion’s mane—mushrooms known for helping the body ward off stress and fatigue—before encapsulating the dose for administration and sale.
JG explained that for optimal performance enhancement, less is more. “We’re looking at somewhere between 50 milligrams and 100 milligrams as a starting place for the amount of psilocybin consumed on a microdose,” he says. A microdose should be subliminal and shouldn’t have any hallucinogenic effects. Once you’re above 0.3 grams of mushrooms, you’re likely out of that microdose range. For LSD, a microdose may be considered to be 8 to 12 micrograms.
Larger doses, of course, may have benefits too, but they make climbing itself increasingly dangerous.
JG gave me some samples. Naturally, I took the little brown pills.
Psychedelics have been used in indigenous medicinal traditions for millennia, but the modern history of psychedelics began with Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1938 and, famously, became the first person to ingest it five years later. The ‘50s and ‘60s were later referred to as the “golden age” of psychedelic research. More than 40,000 patients were administered LSD in conjunction with therapy. Thousands of scientific papers were published, and they demonstrated the promising use of psychedelics for treating depression, addition, trauma, and terminal illness.
The popularization of MDMA—also known as Molly and Ecstacy—came next. Although first synthesized at the start of the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1976 that Dow Pharmaceuticals chemist Alexander Shulgin discovered the effects of MDMA after dosing himself and sharing his findings with Leo Zeff, a therapist conducting illegal psychedelic therapy. Zeff in turn sent MDMA to an estimated 4,000 therapists, who gave it to as many as 200,000 patients throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
After the federal bans on research imposed in the ‘60s, it took decades of advocacy and education before institutionalized research efforts on hallucinagens resumed. Clinical trials with MDMA-assisted therapy showed the drug’s potential for treating PTSD, alcoholism, and social anxiety. Psilocybin and LSD clinical studies showed promise for treatment of depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as fostering creativity or enhancing spiritual experiences. The studies weren’t exactly being conducted on athletes, but it’s easy to see how these drugs could potentially uplift or enhance the mental resilience of climbers. Anecdotal evidence certainly points to that being true.
All the aforementioned benefits of taking hallucinogenic drugs have been well-documented. Luckily, the list of adverse short-term side effects is very short, essentially limited to the occasional GI upset and sleep disturbance. But there’s no getting around the fact that the mechanisms of the drugs’ actions are largely unknown, along with possible long-term side effects. Studies are underway, but in the meantime, all who wish to experiment should recognize there very well may be repercussions for the future.
John Smith, a longtime Front Range climber, began experimenting with psychedelic drugs as an undergrad in Boulder, Colorado. LSD and shrooms were readily available, so he began trying them recreationally while going bouldering.
“For better or worse I have been experimenting with climbing on LSD since probably 2009 and have used it extensively on big alpine rock routes, boulders, and sport climbs,” says Smith. “Mostly just for fun, but I’ve found with the right dosage and perspective it can trigger a kind of automatic flow state.”
Improved energy and focus, psych, self-confidence—those are just some of the benefits Smith elaborated on, and I couldn’t help but agree. He described sending Whispers of Wisdom (V10), in Rocky Mountain National Park, on molly, “not quite nailing the beta, but not really caring either and refusing to let go.” He spoke of climbing the neoclassic Hearts and Arrows (V 5.12b; 9 pitches), on the Diamond, on acid and molly and of feeling like the “Vitruvian Man” in Rifle Mountain Park.
Although less candid, many other climbers at local crags and gyms echoed the sentiments. They described feeling freed of their egos and of having lessened anxiety levels. Several described how psychedelics prompted proud ascents.
For me, the world didn’t break down into fractured layers of color and geometry. I didn’t meet God. The doses I experimented with while climbing were all too low for that, but things did seem a little brighter. Everything was simplified. The doubt and fear I’d normally have—it wasn’t there. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t overthink. I felt like a kid, adventurous and calm. There was a whisper from the back of my head, saying Your anxieties aren’t serving you, and I thought about my goals and existentialism. Later, I even noticed that my systemic inflammation—most prevalent in my fingers—had gone down substantially.
At the risk of promoting drugs, I have to say it’s been a transformative experience, one that I return to for fun and spiritual purposes above all else, but there’s no denying the performance benefits. Of course, dear reader, hallucinogenic drugs are still federally illegal.
Although he no longer takes them and doesn’t make any recommendations, I leave you with one final observation from Long: “[Back then] I had huge ambition—a bunch of plans and a bunch of projects in front of me, and I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I know I want to, but I’m not sure how.’ And then I took the acid and we went climbing, and I started having some revelations, like ‘Oh, this is how I do it. Okay, yeah!’ I remember those ideas came through my mind. …and I had clarity on things.”