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When you’re young, you’ll believe almost anything. For instance, I believed that the two dirtbag climbers I met in Penitente Canyon, Colorado, in 1990—“Gus Glitch” and “Alvino Pon”—were going by their real names. They were Southern boys, so it was certainly possible. Gus is a valid first name, though in retrospect Glitch was way dubious, as was the careful alliteration. Alvino, meanwhile, sounds suspiciously like Aveeno, the lotion brand, and I’ve never met another person named Pon.
Gus was stocky with a raspy smoker’s voice, a Marlboro Red perpetually burning down to cinders in one hand, and usually a Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other. He seemed to own a single pair of pants—torn, well-worn, and camp-stained pink Lycra tights—and had a permanent five o’clock shadow. Alvino, meanwhile, was skinny, had a frizzy blond afro, and sported similarly ragged attire. They’d come out from North Carolina, they told our small crew of visiting New Mexico climbers, to bolt new climbs in Colorado, and were working at local ranches in the San Luis Valley to make money. In 1990, the canyon was all but empty, and our crew became fast friends with these two, swapping beta and the usual shit-talk. Before Instagram and Sprinter vans and Partner Finder and climbing Meetups, you’d run into other freaks at the rock—most of us really were misfit weirdos—and just hang out, maybe even smoking some brickweed and drinking cheap swill around the campfire. What a time to be alive!
Personally, I was stoked on Gus and Alvino’s new climbs, as it’s easy to climb out Penitente, with its 40- and 50-foot micro-routes. One addition, Prick Pocket, was given 5.13a after their first ascent; I fired it one morning, mustering serious try-hard for its tweaky pockets on a dark-brown panel, but wondering, as I clipped the anchors, whether I’d in fact onsighted a 5.13. (The route gets 5.12b/c now on Mountain Project.)
“I’m not totally sure that’s 5.13,” I told Gus when I lowered off. “But it’s one hell of a climb.”
“Shit, kid,” he growled, clapping me on the back with a meaty, nicotine-stained paw, “maybe you’re way stronger than you think.”
At Penitente, Gus also put up a route he gave 5.14, Color of Devotion, on an alluring little finger of rhyolite at the mouth of the canyon.
It was, he told us, “full-gnar B2+ mono-tweaking to an epic pocket-pulling face.” Deterred by his heroic description, I never got on the route, but the opening boulder problem, if you avoid standing on a chimney edge/block out right, apparently clocks in at tweaky V7, and the upper face is 5.11+. At the time in America, 5.14 was a bold grade to propose, with probably 10 routes max of that difficulty. But Gus, in his brash way, seemed fine putting it out there and sending his ascent into the magazines. (The route gets 5.13b today.)
Unfortunately, perhaps because these guys were unknown carpetbaggers with fake-sounding names, Gus’s ascent wasn’t taken very seriously. A few other climbers poked around on Colors of Devotion, curious about the lofty grade, but I’m not sure any of them fired the direct start Gus had envisioned. For years, the route remained cloaked in mystery.
A Mountain Project comment from 2005 sheds more light on this enigmatic climb. Wrote the ubiquitous “Anonymous Coward,” a log-in option from the site’s early, ClimbingBoulder.com days, “The FA belongs to Gus Glitch … However, his ascent was unrecognized, because all the CO boys got spanked and figured no yahoo from NC could be stronger, plus his belayer was a mystery as well. I have climbed with Gus and his pal Coma from NYC, and although annoying, ugly, and usually drunk, [Gus] has pretty amazing strength and should not be doubted….”
Annoying, ugly, and usually drunk—hey, don’t put that on my headstone!
A second comment, from Tom Painter a year later, adds more context: “I was hanging in the canyon back in 1990 (I think it was) when Gus and his apparent mystery partner were lingering there … doing odd jobs on local ranches to make ends meet. His “mystery partner” was Alvino Pon. Gus and Alvino were very friendly amigos, but the more likely reason the FA was questioned was because Gus was chipping holds—he wasn’t too sly about it—the ping, ping, ping rattled up and down the canyon. Maybe comfortizing…?” (Note: Penitente and the nearby Rock Garden already had plenty of comfortized or straight-up artificial holds—usually drilled “bidoigts” made from punching two side-by-side holes into the rock with a 3/8” bit. The Southern boys weren’t doing anything abnormal for the era.)
Very friendly amigos—that’s much kinder. And in fact, as I would soon learn, these guys had my back.
One day, I hopped on a route next to Colors of Devotion called Colors of Emotion, a 5.13b up a stunning black-and-orange wall with lunges off tiny pockets into huecolike mouths. I could do all the moves, and I left my draws on Colors that evening to give it a redpoint go the next morning. However, when my friend Jeff and I walked around the corner the next day, my quickdraws were gone: all six on the lead bolts plus two at the anchors. At age 18, these eight bright, motley-hued, obnoxious, neon 1980s clippers were the sum total of my sport rack. I felt shock and disappointment—who the hell had done such a thing, and when? I’d been trying the route nearly till dark.
Channeling my rage, I borrowed Jeff’s draws and fired Colors, picking up some extra shifts back home in Albuquerque at my hot, miserable furniture-moving job (you’d be amazed at how many people keep loaded guns and vibrators just sitting there in their underwear drawers) to buy new clippers, writing off my old quickdraws as gone forever. However, they were to make a miraculous reappearance upon my next trip to Penitente, two weeks later.
“Matt, holeee shit, have I got a story for you!” said Gus Glitch, rushing over to greet us as we pulled into the scrubby campground. “Just hold on—I’ll be right back.” Gus went to his pickup, pulled something out from behind the seat, then sauntered back over.
“Here, dude,” he said, holding his hand out: “Your quickdraws.” And there they were, all eight of them, in fine, garish trim.
“Where did you find these?” I stammered. “I mean, they … they were gone!”
“Oh, dude, these punk kids from Del Norte were out here climbing a few days later,” he said, “and I saw them on one of the kids’ harnesses. Your hideous draws are pretty recognizable, eh, and I remember you telling me they’d been ganked.” Apparently, the kids had seen the draws on Colors and rapped down in the dark to steal them. The catch was, Gus had noticed my quickdraws when the kid was already up off the ground, getting ready to clip the high (20 feet) first bolt on Tanks for the Hueco, which climbs an easy ramp to the crux at a double-overhanging corner. Gus elbowed past the belayer and grabbed the kid’s rope, threatening to pull him off if he didn’t immediately descend and relinquish the pilfered hardware.
“That little fucker scampered right on down,” Gus thundered. “He was shitting his goddamned pants!” I could only picture the scene, this grizzled, perma-buzzed, barrel-chested good ol’ boy threatening homicide or at the very least grievous bodily harm to some clueless kid who either didn’t know about redpoint quickdraw etiquette or was even more impecunious than me, and had seen his opportunity to snag some “free” draws but instead would be leaving the crag terrified and in tears.
“Gus, man—thank you,” I said. “I was sure I’d never see my draws again.”
I’d like to think that freakball climbers like Gus Glitch and Alvino Pon are still out there (their names, I would later hear through the rumor mill, were pseudonyms allegedly adopted to avoid paying alimony back home), but I’m not so sure. The sport has become so big, so mainstream, so rock-gym-ified and influencer-saturated and pay-to-fucking-camp-everywhere and crowded and score-card-anated and sanitized that, even if true characters still survive among us, they’d probably get lost in the mix. Or canceled. I mean, Gus Glitch did threaten to straight-up murder a kid over a handful of banged-up quickdraws, even though it’s probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.