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Read This: Devils Kitchen and the Near-Death Fall

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The following story is an excerpt from Luke Mehall’s upcoming memoir, American Climber, which is now on Kickstarter

The author, Luke Mehall, during his first trip to Indian Creek, circa 1999. 

After the climbing bug bit me on Devil’s Tower, I had it once and for all. I also tried to see what else could give me a similar feeling. There’s always a need for a new drug, and the next one I tried was kayaking, and then skiing, then ice climbing, but nothing did it for me like rock climbing.

I also, finally, had something to write about, and it poured out of me in the form of poetry. These were the best of times, the purest of times, and the poetry wrote itself. That memory of Devils Tower stood out above all other memories, and, back at college, in our library, I wrote out a poem. Nature complemented with education is a powerful force. When I was writing, as the great rapper Rakim once penned, “I was trapped, in between the lines,” and I escaped when I finished the poem.

Writing is never finished and neither is climbing. The summit as a final page is an illusion. We are always writing that next poem and planning that next climb in our minds. This was a time of great romance and mystery, a time before every climb was recorded on the ether of the Internet and before there was much information available, other than books for climbing. My path was not set in stone, but, rather, the stone set my path.

Tim moved out that fall, and I felt the confidence of his presence, combined with my second year ever at a college. I decided I would study what inspired me—Recreation and Environmental Studies—and my path would unfold as it should from there.

Climbing with Tim changed everything. At first we were equals; our climbing ability remained the same once we both knew the basics. Then, all of a sudden, his abilities shot out like a rocket, and I was left holding on with one arm as the rocket blazed through space.

Two Tent
Two Tent Timmy climbs in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Luke Mehall

I followed Tim to granite all over the state, from our backyard climbs to Turkey Rocks in the South Platte region. I was amazed as he honed his abilities. He could dance on tiny holds, while he held on to finger locks, calm, cool, and collected. Sometimes I would have to remind him to place gear; he was just so confident he forgot. That was my role in those days: keep Tim alive, and keep myself alive.

Our circle of friends had grown by now—we were both working at restaurants, and I’d joined the college’s rescue team. We had a crew. We did the usual things 21-year-olds do, but, always and forever, the mission was climbing.

Tim had two jobs, so often I’d have to solicit other partners for climbing objectives. Jerid was a wide-eyed Colorado kid, who oozed passion and put climbing above everything else. He lived in the dorms, and a sticker tagged on a window as you approached his room read, “Climb Now, Work Later.”

Bed Crash Pad
Using an old mattress as a crash pad back in the early days at Taylor Canyon, Gunnison, Colorado.

One day, he suggested we check out some climbs in the backyard of his boyhood home of Grand Junction. Even if the trip was an epic failure, we could visit his best friend Josh and eat food from his parents’ cupboards.

Colorado National Monument, where we went, was like something out of an old classic cowboy movie, full of red sand and stone. Jerid told me stories about how he and Josh would go climbing before they owned any proper equipment; they would just go out and climb and somehow emerge unscathed. Listening to those tales, I felt grateful I’d been given some proper instruction before I took the sharp end.

We found our way to the Devils Kitchen, a series of freestanding red rock formations rising seventy feet in the air, with some crack climbs here and there. We each had a couple of Camalots. My grandmother had just given me two for Christmas a couple months before, and I was eager to use them. The three of us stared up at this crack, which started with hand jams and then moved left into a roof that had another crack running through it.

Somehow I ended up being the one who would lead it, so I racked up with all the gear we had. I climbed up the first thirty feet, jamming my hands and feet in the crack, and then moving left into the overhanging roof. As I hung from the roof, I had a desperate feeling that I needed to get some gear in. My last cam was fifteen feet down and five feet over to the right. The more I thought about my situation, the more I was losing control—that is what you need in the vertical, control, mastery, a feeling that you have a grip on the situation. I was hanging there, almost horizontal, and moved my hand out of the jam, and then I slipped.

Death winked.

The end.

No control.

It happened so quickly. I was flipped upside down, and, in one brief instant, I hurled face first toward the ground. And then I looked to my belayer, Jerid. I was hanging five feet above the ground and looked into Jerid’s eyes. I quickly flipped my self back around, and Jerid lowered me down to him. I looked at Josh and instantly hugged him. I cried from fear, but I was uninjured.

Hartmans Solo
The author solos Electric Lightning, Hartman Rocks, Gunnison, Colorado.

I flipped upside down because the rope was behind my legs when I moved into the roof. I’d made a very beginner mistake. I should have placed protection in the horizontal crack before moving into it. I was doing what many beginner climbers do, learning by mistake. But the mistakes in climbing are always attached to living or dying. I only lived out of chance, luck. Perhaps there were spirits looking after me, or perhaps I placed that cam at just the right location. A few more feet lower and I would have landed head first on the ground. Instead it was a thirty-five footer into the air. I never did tell Grandma that her Christmas gift saved my life.

Check out American Climber by Luke Mehall on Kickstarter to buy the book and support the project.

American Climber Luke Mehall Memoir