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Native American John Duran On Free Soloing 5.13 And Using Climbing For Communal Good

60, legendary Southwest climber. FA’ed thousands of boulders up to V10; free-soloed Fainting Imam (trad 5.13a; later 5.12c/d), Dreamscape (5.12a), La Espina (5.12a), Cochiti Mesa, New Mexico. Gifted skier, cyclist. Teacher, lives near Beijing; married.


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I’ve developed a climbing area in Beijing. My wife and I found it, driving up a tiny little dirt road. All of a sudden there was this gargantuan granite wall. In China, unless the local community supports it, you’re not allowed to climb. So I got the backing of the [village]. We were up there last weekend, and there must have been 50 people. Climbing is a real picnic time here, a family time—it’s a total hoot.

I was born in Alamosa, Colorado. My folks were teachers. My family is from Ignacio, from the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. My dad grew up in Telluride. His father was a hard-rock miner. My father is Taos Pueblo Native and Latino. My mom is Southern Ute and Navajo and Latina. She has a legal land allotment in the reservation from her mom.

My dad died 10 years ago .… I’d been teaching in Sedona. I moved up to Ignacio to help my mother, and when I went back there were no jobs. I started Montessori education online, and got a job in Warsaw for a year. I ended up in China to teach, and that’s where I met my wife, Liu Zheng. Her English name is Rita.

I started teaching in 1994 in Shiprock: K, 1, and 2 on the Navajo Reservation. The government was offering grants. No one was doing anything about it. I encouraged the teachers I worked with, and we got that grant, and then we had so many materials and programs, and got other schools to apply. I learned to really take people and help them work together as a team. I was the salesman. I had to convince [other teachers] they were capable. They didn’t have the confidence. In climbing, you have to have the confidence to do it. Climbing goes into your community and life, and you can use it—not just for yourself.

My grandparents were educated, my mom’s mother was a nurse, the first southern Ute Indian to become a nurse and have a higher education degree at that level. My father was a teacher, the first Navajo graduate out of UNM to get a university degree and a teaching certificate. My parents were staunch about the value of education. My father’s parents were hard-rock miners living day by day. My dad met my mom in high school. She pushed him to become who he was: a coach, teacher, and guidance counselor. They got their master’s degrees.

My parents taught me about education. You have to do this. Or you’ll be nothing. Or you’ll suffer … Meaning poverty and lack of opportunity.

My dad was athletic. We were always out skiing, hiking, camping, and fishing. I grew up doing football, wrestling, and track, and was a freak for weightlifting. I ran track and was a pole vaulter.

We had family discussions about politics and our upbringing: OK, you’re this person, you’re not the dominant culture, so you have to make your way as a minority to achieve what you want … Now I’m in China. I’m still the minority, but [laughs] I kind of fit in.

I learned to accept who I was … to use it and see the good points. I learned to be humble enough to say, OK, these are my talents; these are my weaknesses. We all struggle. I’ve had three DUIs; I’ve been married three times. You have these different identity crises. You’ve gotta accept yourself when you’re down, and keep going. I think [acceptance] came from my upbringing.

At Cochiti Mesa, we’d heard rumors of a Todd Skinner 5.13, the Fainting Imam [shown]. Todd was the only one who had done it. I led it and was solid, and thought, Oh, this is not so high; I could actually solo this. I toproped it a couple times and then got on it … I fell off halfway up and luckily I hit sod and dirt—15 feet, soft landing.

I cleaned my shoes and got back up and did it.

I was just in the place mentally to be able to get it done.

I had a real purist’s attitude. That mentality of if you’re going to be out here soloing, you have to be on your business. I learned to block out the fear: OK, you have to perform and get in that place, be in the zone, not worried, confident, you know where the crux is. You kind of break it down mentally. I was Catholic, and I would pray an hour with a rosary before my hardest climbs. I was calm. I needed to calm myself. The religious [aspect] was my foundation. Later, I transferred those skills from prayer into Buddhism. I could be so singularly focused: I have this goal, I need to get a job, I want to do this climb, I need to be a better person.

When I look back at my hardest climbs, there was a point of deep meditation for an hour or so before the climb. [Now] my daily meditation only takes me 10 minutes. Same thing as normal Catholic prayers or any other religion. We are all spiritual beings on a deep level. It’s a profound feeling with the environment. We’re part of it.