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Were We Humiliated by Honnold or by Ourselves?

What do you get when you give two inept teenagers two huge boxes of Snickers bars, drench them in protestant work ethic, and plop them down in a sport climbing crucible like Rifle, Colorado? (Hint: it’s a less successful formula than it sounds.)


In July 2006, the summer before our senior year in high school, my friend Scottie and I spent five days climbing—or, in my case, falling off—Rifle, Colorado’s easiest climbs.

Scottie was one of those preternaturally developed high-schoolers, big shouldered, red-bearded, an Ivy-bound acer of the SAT who’d just been elected student-body president of our rheumy New Hampshire boarding school. For those five days in Rifle Mountain Park, I watched him climb more and better than he’d ever climbed, while I—his short, plump foil—whipped off everything.

We stayed at the La Quinta down by the highway in town, chaperoned by my mother. On our last day in Rifle, after I’d punted yet again off my warm-up, Eighty Feet of Meat (5.11b), and my project, Pinchfest (5.12b), and my sub-project, Choss Family Robinson (5.11c), Scottie somehow sensed that if I was going to remain a climber and therefore a viable friend, I needed to leave having finished something. While I crammed my gear angrily into my backpack, he leafed through our Dr. Topo printout and found a climb he thought I could send.

Located in the weedy talus right of the Ruckman Cave, Pellet Gun (5.10d) was one of the very few sub-5.11 climbs in the canyon back in 2006, and its rock was a rare combo of chossy and polished, varnished to marble by climbing shoes grinding silt onto the holds.

And I couldn’t do it.

Each X-marked loose block looked the same. Each mirror-bright smear felt similarly untenable. Scottie and my mother looked on, flinching and covering their heads, as try after try I yarded through the choss and fumbled the clips, pssat-ing like Sharma, only to pump out again near the chains. Between attempts, I rent my hair, drop-kicked my chalkbag, threw my shoes, quit climbing, and moped by the stream. By the time I finally sent—after four or five loud goes—I couldn’t feel satisfied. The universe was huge and pointless, and I but an insubstantial speck who barely climbed 5.10.

Steve Potter with his Honda Element and the infamous roof rack, Mount Evans, Colorado, in 2007. Photo: scottie alexander

Founded in 1879 and nestled in the southern hem of the White Mountains, Holderness School is an anachronistic place. Imagine a brick-walled boarding school under crisp white pines and you’ve got it right. Students are drenched in values like hard work, competitive athletics, humility, community, God, and the liberal arts. (Science? Math? Rationality? Behold the coldness and be skeptical.) Boys wear coats and ties, closed-toed shoes, belts. Girls wear dresses or skirts or khakis. Underclassmen bus tables, serve food, and vacuum classrooms while upperclassmen haughtily police them. Everyone attends chapel twice a week. Everyone participates in sports. The school’s unofficial motto is (or was) “Cut corners now and you’ll cut corners for the rest of your life.”

Holderness is also 11 miles from Rumney, the schist mecca that in the early 2000s had produced Dave Graham, Luke Parady, and Joe Kinder. And it was at Holderness, between autumn 2004 (when we met as sophomores) and spring 2007 (when we graduated), that Scottie and I endeavored to become “professional climbers”—a term that, for us, was synonymous with “strong dirtbag” or “rock monk,” someone who, by sheer virtue of their untarnished devotion, attains the life-vindicating zenith of their craft.

The problem? As boarding-school students in the era before smartphones, MoonBoards, Beastmakers, Lattice, and YouTube, we were isolated from any real training know-how. We had no money to buy magazines, nor access to coaches or commercial gyms. Holderness had an outing club that went toproping in Rumney four afternoons a week, but the head of the club, who’d been climbing since the 1960s, believed avidly in the old “Leader doesn’t fall” adage and beheld the athletic components of our climbing ambitions with a hesitant bemusement. He let us lead, but only to set up topropes for the outing club’s less-obsessed mainstream. We ran hundreds of laps on 5.8s and 5.9s, and the occasional 5.10, which was fun but wasn’t going to make us into mutants. That was something we’d have to figure out for ourselves.

Scottie and I lived in a chalk-rimed room in Hoyt Dormitory and did 100 pull-ups per day, six days a week, on a greasy, old hangboard. We watched and re-watched Autoroute, Dosage, and Pilgrimage, memorizing beta so we’d be ready to try the iconic climbs featured. Weather permitting, we’d rise at dawn on Sundays and commute to Rumney on “borrowed” bikes—whatever rusty-chained contraptions were lying out unlocked on campus. During the week, we climbed on the school’s vertical woody, housed in an oversized storage closet next to the girl’s locker room. Some holds were cement. Some were bolted-on river stones. Some were slats of window trim painted black. We traversed these ancient grips, crimping like hell, wondering if we were stronger than the nameless and already graduated fanatics who’d built the wall.

When we were juniors, we convinced the administration to invest in an upgrade: a 33-degree overhanging woody, 12 feet tall by 12 feet wide. I set a simulator of The Swarm—a V6-ish version—and took it down after an intense semester of effort. Scottie simulated the crux of Biographie, but it was too hard for us (V7ish), so we never managed it. We tried not to reflect on the fact that our version was four V-grades easier than Biographie’s actual crux sequence—which itself sits above the chains of a 5.14c.

Meanwhile we adamantly believed—as the young so often do—in a number of questionable things. We set problems with heel hooks and toe hooks and drop-knees rather than straightforward power, erroneously convinced that our strength outstripped our technical skills. We also (and more problematically) under-ate, conflating lightness with strength, and might have eradicated meals altogether if we’d had the willpower. A bowl of cereal in the morning. A bare salad for lunch. A slab of boiled chicken for dinner. A slice of banana bread as a reward. We kept the heat off in our room because shivering burned calories. Once, at an advisor meeting, I caved and scarfed down two slices of pepperoni pizza at 9:30 p.m. Back in our room, feeling ashamed, I confessed to Scottie, who said, “Shit. OK. Do some pull-ups. Quick. Do 100 pull-ups.” And I did.

It was a very Holderness approach, a very Protestant approach: Walk the straight and humble path, cut no corners, regard thy labor as thy life, and you can become that gleaming, haloed entity of which you dream.

Scottie Alexander (left) and Potter—the “Snickers Boys”—at the campground. Photo: kiff alcocer

In spring semester of our senior year, 2007, Scottie and I wheedled the school’s administrators into letting us climb at Rifle, Colorado—for academic credit.

It was Scottie’s brainchild, the result of years of clever sycophancy. In addition to being the student-body president, he was valedictorian and was working on a senior project about “sports psychology” that ostensibly required gathering “data” about how we (and especially me, a verified basket-case on the rock) dealt with the mental and emotional task of sending limit projects on the road. Scottie informed Mr. Durnan, lord of senior projects, that for his experiment to work we couldn’t just linger at Rumney (which, incidentally, was an icy mess that time of year). Instead, we needed to be somewhere distant and iconic, where success would require singularity of purpose, a fusion of life and work. In his journal, Scottie would document (he said) our thoughts and actions, what we ate, when we slept, with the understanding that the more fully we subordinated ourselves to that single imperative—climbing hard—the more capable we’d be of doing exactly that.

“Fine, great, brilliant,” said Mr. Durnan, with a knowing gleam in his eye. But then he looked at me—I being decidedly not the valedictorian—and was troubled. “What about you? What are you going to do, Potter?”

I said (reciting) that I intended to write “A classic academic treatise on dirtbags and road trips, juxtaposing my own experiences against the expectations for those experiences established by the works of Steinbeck and Kerouac and Wolfe.”

“Have you actually read those authors?”

I began to answer, but Mr. Durnan, who in hindsight had been young once too, cut me off. “Read them,” he said.

Then he winked.

Potter on Dumpster BBQ (5.13+), which appealed as much for its high grade—making it OK to fail—as for its relative obscurity. Photo: Scottie Alexander

March 2007. Do you remember it? Dark ages. Stone tools. Bush is in power. Realization and La Rambla are the only verified 5.15s. The iPhone is only three months old, Twitter not even a year. Alex Honnold is just another lonely crusher living in his van.

On March 1, departure day, going off the MapQuest.com estimate of a 34-hour drive to Rifle—and not wanting to arrive at night, so stoked were we to climb—we just sat around, delaying our departure for 14 hours. We kicked a soccer ball with Scottie’s little brother. We studied weather reports on TV. We studied our atlas. At 8:55 p.m., we got into the car. Scottie got all mystical about getting the trip’s first song lined up on my iPod (“Changes” by Tupac). I put my Honda Element into gear. Only when the clock struck 9 did Scottie press play.

I have never felt so enthralled with life as I did in those first unremarkable hours on the road. It was snowing up north, by the Great Lakes, so we set cruise control to 63 miles per hour (manually calculating the optimal speed to maximize gas mileage was a pastime of Scottie’s) and routed south through the grimy sprawl of New York City. We stopped to piss. We stopped for gas. We slowly memorized the lyrics to Atmosphere’s “God Loves Ugly” and Don McLean’s “American Pie.” All night long, as we crawled west over the Appalachians, it rained in the valleys and sleeted on the hilltops. We drank cup after cup of cold, burnt coffee, refilling at truck stops, learning that there’s no true night on the road, no true emptiness, that the semis keep rolling and the truck stops serve as grim little facsimiles of the day. Everywhere we went, liquid shards of headlights and taillights intermixed on the wet pavement.

At sunrise, we switched to Red Bull and traded Appalachian rain for high winds and stubbly corn. We tailgated semi-trucks, drafting to increase our gas mileage, whipping past the Midwest’s endless porn shops and Bible billboards. That night, after 24 hours on the road, we tried to nap in a Starbucks parking lot outside Kansas City. But we’d packed the car so full that we couldn’t recline the seats. Our breath fogged the windows and froze in swirly patterns. People kept coming and going, slamming doors, yelling. When our alarms went off at 10 p.m., we hadn’t slept. We bought four grande coffees (no sugar, two drops of skim milk) and lumbered off into the dark plains.

Somewhere on I-70, in windy Kansas, Scottie’s body rebelled against the caffeine. He went unresponsive in the passenger seat, abdicating his job as co-pilot, nauseous, exhausted, heart racing. I drove on alone, relying on Eminem and Dr. Dre and the 20-degree air pouring through the open windows to keep me awake. But, with time, they proved insufficient. The road came alive with dreadful, shifty creatures that kept lunging into my path and telling my brain to “Swerve! Swerve!” I gave out in the slate-grey dawn, somewhere in the iced-over hell of eastern Colorado. We sat there on the side of the highway until Scottie decided he’d recovered enough to drive. His face was a weird green color. Every few minutes, as he drove, he checked his pulse in his throat.

We’d been on the road for 34 hours but were still hours from Rifle. Turns out MapQuest doesn’t take naps into account. It also assumes its users are driving the speed limit, not five to 10 miles per hour below.

The Rifle mainstay Lee Sheftel cruising Pump-o-rama (5.13a), the Arsenal, a cave where denizens gather in the evening to do enduro laps, often while swigging beer. Photo: Philip Quade

Though we’d been to Rifle Mountain Park before and technically knew that the climbing sits in a riparian zone at 7,000 feet, we hadn’t pondered what it might mean about conditions in early March. We wanted to go to Rifle, so we gathered information that supported that desire, consulting historical weather reports for the town (which sits 2,000 feet lower) and listening to crusty New England tradsters describe the West as a balmy land, always warm and dry, so long as you climbed in the sun. Then we drove past the New and the Red. Past Obed and Little Rock City and Rocktown. Past the Flatirons, past Eldo, over the Continental Divide, and down the other side … and arrived, after 43 hours in the car, in a place every bit as wintry as the Rumney that we’d left behind.

There was snow on the ground—two feet of it. And fresh snow in the trees. And big knives of ice hanging from the canyon rim. It was 4 p.m. The sun had retreated to the trees at the top of the cliff. Everything was dim and still and empty. The temperature? About 25 degrees. The only climbers—the only people—were two ice climbers, and they were packing up to leave.

But we were Holderness kids; we were from New Hampshire; we could handle the cold! We parked at the Ruckman Cave and postholed over to some snow-coated slab, a dismal, seldom-climbed 5.7, going for the “slow warm-up method” we’d read about in this very magazine. I kicked a platform in the snow and shivered while Scottie—having “won” rock-paper-scissors—quested above me. He blew snow off the handholds. He balled up his sleeve and wiped snow off his footholds. He dried his fingers on his pants and warmed them on his neck. “Jesus, fuck,” he kept whispering. The sky turned purple. The contrails turned pink. We didn’t have a tarp, so the snowy rope kept freezing in the Grigri. The canyon’s shadows blended together. My breath crystalized on the collar of my coat. It was closer to dark than light when Scottie lowered off.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Fucking heinous,” he said.

I tried the climb on toprope, but about 10 feet up, with my toes bricked-out in my tight Testarossas and my fingers wooden, I bailed.

In a foul mood, shivering, exhausted, we drove down to the Walmart in Rifle, where after getting lost in its cavernous bowels, we finally found a snow shovel, tarp, and jugs of water. Then we drove back up into the mountains and set up camp in the Corral, a stone-ringed parking lot in the open range, just 10 minutes from the canyon entrance. It was a grim place, with last autumn’s beer cans and bottlecaps frozen in the mud, but it was free. Finally, around midnight, after something like 65 hours awake, we emptied the Element and lay down in the back, Scottie’s toes in my face, my toes in his. But I didn’t sleep right away. I was troubled. I’d just bailed on a single-pitch 5.7 sport route, on toprope … what did this imply about my dreams of going pro?

Alex Honnold at the Project Wall, Rifle, in June 2007, one month before his fateful discovery in the road—one that promptly drove the author and Scottie Alexander out of Rifle and off to Maple Canyon, Utah. Photo: chris weidner

For 17 glorious days we didn’t shower, swim, or read. For 17 glorious days, we lived like monks in the snowy mud at the Corral. We slept in the Element, keeping our gear outside under a tarp at night, and climbed five days on, one day off. Some nights, to keep warm, we sipped thimble-sized servings of Strawberry Stolichnaya stolen from my parents’ liquor cabinet, amazed at our rebelliousness and daring. Valuing ourselves according to our toughness and devotion, we refused to turn our clocks forward with daylight savings because arriving at the Meat Wall’s warm-ups at 7 a.m. sounded more extreme than 8. The canyon and Corral soon felt like our own little sanctuaries. We saw almost no one and were proud of that. We alone were out there. We alone possessed the requisite passion, the requisite devotion. Our present privation was proof of future glory.

On our rest days—all three of them—we did nothing physical. We believed that unnecessary perambulation would make our legs too muscular and therefore too heavy, a belief we’d inherited, stripped of humor and irony, from Ben Moon—or was it Boone Speed? Or Jean-Baptiste Tribout?—who in a probably apocryphal story was so worried about the size of his legs that he made his girlfriend carry his gear to the crag. If only we had girlfriends! Scottie and I lamented. But weren’t girlfriends a distraction, too? Could you climb hard and find love in the same life? It was all so confusing.

We instead huddled in the Starbucks by I-70 in town, where we wasted hours watching and rewatching Daniel Woods sending The 7 PM Show on woodsfamilyclimbs.com. I worked hard to commit his beta to memory, half-convinced that when we returned in the summer (as we were already planning), I’d be ready for 5.14.

Not surprisingly, meals were a struggle. We didn’t know how to feed ourselves, and we remained borderline anorexic. We had four goals for our diet: The first was to lose weight. The second was to not gain weight. The third was not to get sick, which meant not relying on anything that required refrigeration. And the fourth was to subsist on less than $2 per person per day, because the more we suffered, the more deserving we’d be of a reward.

We tried pancake mix without the milk and butter. (Don’t try it.) We tried SPAM. (Don’t try it.) We tried hot dogs for protein only to realize, with horror, that a hot dog has less protein than a slice of whole-wheat bread. We tried Power Bars—those malleable plasticky ones—but they messed with my stomach, thereby breaking diet goal three. Replacing Power Bars with Snickers, we settled on an unvarying diet: oatmeal and brown sugar for breakfast; two Snickers bars each for lunch; a can of black beans each, flavored with Morton’s Seasoned Salt, for dinner. When we invariably grew weak from hunger in late afternoon, we drank Red Bull till our hearts slammed against the thin fabric of our throats.

I’d just bailed on a 5.7, on toprope  ... what did this imply about my dreams of going pro?

Returning euphorically to Holderness, I hacked together an obtuse replica of On the Road while Scottie sheepishly informed Mr. Durnan that our aspirations toward hard climbing had been hamstrung by the weather. The first few days had been frigid. But then, once things warmed up, the cliffs started seeping. So after trying The Beast—an impressively polished 5.13a on the blue panel at the Wasteland—for just one day, we’d spent the next two weeks in search of dry rock, climbing without agenda in the sun, enjoying ourselves on 5.11s and easy 5.12s. 

Mr. Durnan shrugged and grinned. “Sounds terrible,” he said. Immune to irony, and valuing results over measly inanities like joy, we agreed.

Then we went about graduating and training and raising money for another trip. For most of May and all of June, we worked on my parents’ farm in central New Hampshire, painting fences and flailing fields and driving 90 minutes for long evenings at Rumney, where I sent my first 5.13a. Then, in early July, we took our earnings—$500 each—and fled west.

We’d learned from some of our mistakes. Before leaving, we went to Costco and bought two 48-packs of Snickers, several packets of black beans, and a four-pack of Morton’s Seasoned Salt. Total food cost: $160 for a six-week-trip. To avoid having to unpack the Element every night to make our beds, we also got a roof box, which allowed us to quickly access often-grabbed items like climbing gear and Snickers.

But again, we misunderstood the season. In summer, the Corral had turned into a scalded and desolate wasteland. 95 degrees, maybe more. No shade. Flies everywhere. The surrounding desert quavering with heat. We’d expected it to be warmer down here than in the canyon—but hadn’t anticipated this inferno.

We stood there, shocked and grieving. Some malevolent soul had dumped a half-ton of garbage where we’d previously set up camp, so we parked on the other side of the Corral. That evening, at dusk, I found a dead pig lying in an arroyo not 15 feet from where we’d just Jetboiled our beans. No visible cause of death. Just a gigantic black-haired creature, its eyes eaten away, its bloated body hardening in the sun.

Scottie and I lived in a chalk-rimed dorm room and did 100 pull-ups per day, six day a week.

Question: What happens when you take a pair of privileged, existentially ambitious kids out of their solipsistic vacuum and plop them down in a sport-climbing crucible like Rifle Canyon in summer?

Answer: They fail to thrive.

Our goal for this second trip was to “send hard.” We spent the first three days warming up, repeating favorite moderates, acclimatizing. Then I threw myself at The Beast—except now that I’d sent the grade, I’d emotionally demoted it to a mini-proj. My plan was to dispatch The Beast in a try or two, then move on to something important, something that, when I accomplished it, would get me one step closer to rock-monk status.

But there were complications.

Complication No. 1: Rifle in summer is not Rifle in March.

One benefit to training in a knowledge vacuum is that you can convince yourself to do whatever you’re psyched to do regardless of how useful it is. Another is that you can believe you’re strong, bound for sponsorship and stardom, because you’ve never seen just how fucking strong people can actually get.

During both previous visits to Rifle—first with my mother, later in March—we’d somehow avoided learning one important fact: Rifle in summer is teeming with people, both sponsored and not, who climb hard. Like 5.14 hard.

In fact, in Rifle Mountain Park, hangdogging your 5.13a project often means getting in the way of the random crushers who consider it their warm-up. And that’s just the random folks. Imagine me watching an anointed soul like Andy Raether onsight, with ease, Blocky Horror Picture Show—a 5.12d that Scottie and I had both tried and given up on. Imagine me watching Dan Mirsky drink six IPAs in two hours and then send Sprayathon—a pumpy 5.13c on which Scottie, who was stronger than I was, couldn’t do all the moves. Imagine me watching the not-yet-famous Alex Honnold run a casual warm-up on the endless micro-crimps of The Eighth Day and then head elsewhere because he’d already sent every single goddamn climb on the Project Wall. (Back then, the hardest route was 5.14a.)

Complication No. 2. I couldn’t send
The Beast. Mini-proj, my ass. Even after I’d found every speck of micro-beta and begun to trust the slippery feet, I kept falling, without any real understanding of what to do differently.

Each morning, I’d wade through the crowds beneath the Meat Wall warm-ups, full of dread, wondering if today would be send day—yet sensing, fatalistically, that it would not. (Scottie and I were obsessed with trying to read the future into our warm-ups. We believed that feeling good on a climbing day was like some blessing from above, unrelated to psyche or conditions, diet or sleep: You had “good days” and “bad days,” and you could never predict which. It was a classically Calvinistic setup.)

A week went by. Then another. I was about as close to sending on my fifth day as I’d been on my second. Even then I knew that the pressure I put on performance was perhaps my biggest inhibitor—that in order to succeed, I had to de-emphasize success. But I couldn’t figure out how. To fail on a route day after day isn’t easy when your life is organized around climbing well on that climb. So The Beast became a grind. Indeed, life became a grind. After three weeks of identical meals, our carefully concocted diet began to feel boring, with even our beloved Red Bull and Snickers turning acrid in our mouths. Meanwhile, the Corral’s austerity wore on us. The July heat was inescapable. Everything was dry and dusty. Each morning, gigantic flies, probably full of dead pig, infiltrated the Element and danced around on our faces. Each evening, returning from the cool canyon, we’d find the heat lingering in our water jugs and in the canned beans we kept under our tarp.

Hardly anyone else camped at the Corral, just a few occasional stragglers who never stayed more than one night. Indeed, on learning that we were staying there, people flat-out told us we were stupid. “For five bucks a day, you can camp in paradise,” they said, referring to the campground up in the canyon. But it was the idea of comfort, not the cost of camping, that we couldn’t afford. Because if we weren’t sending hard, suffering was the next best proof of our devotion.

As the summer progressed, we gathered a kind of silly fame among the canyon’s denizens, mostly centered on the fact that we lived off Snickers Bar

Scottie and I avoided socializing with Rifle’s regulars. We tried to pick less popular climbs for our projects or to climb the classics at off times. But we were as unsuccessful in anonymity as we were in everything else.

Gradually, as the summer progressed, we gathered a kind of silly fame among the canyon’s denizens, mostly centered on the fact that we lived off Snickers Bars in the desert and couldn’t remember to close our roof box.

Seriously, it was a problem.

Time and again, we’d be driving along and then a hat or a chalk bag would tumble away in the rear-view mirror. Or a pedestrian would wave their hands and point. Or an oncoming car would honk or flash its lights. And Scottie and I would curse and stop and go pick up whatever we’d lost while the onlookers laughed. “Those fuckers did that exact same thing yesterday,” they surely told each other. “I saw it.”

I learned years later that most of the Rifle crew assumed that we were stoned—a deduction that, though understandable, gives us too much credit. We were Holderness kids, honor-roll idiots, sheltered and ambitious and idealistic: Neither of us had ever once smoked weed.

But what was more impressive was the fact that when Honnold fell, he didn’t care. He pulled back on, figured it out, and went to the top.

One day, while I was sitting in the Wasteland trying to convince myself to try The Beast again, Alex Honnold and Rob Pizem (at the time, more famous than Honnold) strolled up and proceeded to heckle each other mercilessly while Honnold tried to onsight Espresso, an insanely technical-looking 5.12d that I’d never seen anyone try. I stood there, astonished, while Honnold, hanging draws, kneebarred his way up the damn thing, casually peering around for unchalked holds, all while firing jabs back down at Pizem.

“Hey, hey, hey! No kneebars,” Pizem said.

“I thought they were OK if they were above your head?” said Honnold.

“And he calls himself a traditional climber.”

“Only when I’m sport climbing.”

But what was more impressive was the fact that when Honnold fell, he didn’t care. He pulled back on, figured it out, and went to the top.

I couldn’t handle it. I pulled my rope, packed up my shoes, and walked toward the car.

“Wait, aren’t you going to give The Beast one more go?” Scottie asked.

“Not with them here,” I said.

I should, of course, have been ready to learn from the Rifle hardcores—should have noted that maybe one reason Honnold was so much better than me was that he was having fun on some undignified 5.12+ rather than simply picking the hardest climb he could possibly imagine for himself and then dicking it down.

But I—in the grand human tradition—preferred ignorance. Rather than watching and learning, I turned everything back on myself. I looked at them and imagined what they saw when they looked at me, measuring the disparity between this image (a “stoned” teen gnawing on a Snickers bar) and how I wanted to be seen (a future legend of the sport). In their company, my dreams felt fraudulent.

That same afternoon, returning to the Corral, we caught a man (tattoos, red eyes, meth-worn teeth) casually loading our gear into his flatbed truck. It was the excuse we needed: After a brief standoff, we retrieved our things and then moved up to Rifle Canyon to pay for a more pleasant camping experience.

And you can probably also sense why I reacted with mortification when it was none other than Alex Honnold who found that 48-pack of candy bars lying in the road.

I finally sent The Beast, my fourth 5.13a, after six or seven days of oscillating between psych and despair, and immediately retreated into an even harder project: Dumpster BBQ, a burly little 5.13+. I could barely do the moves, but Dumpster is off by itself, where no one could see me flail. What mattered was that now I could be halfway comfortable telling people what I was trying. And, more importantly, I could be comfortable with my own inability to send. It was 5.13+. Sure, I hadn’t sent it yet, but I would “soon”!

But I didn’t get to try Dumpster for very long—two or three days, max—because one afternoon, about three weeks into our trip, something happened that forced us to flee.

By now, you probably have an idea of what it was: roof box open, our untouched second box of Snickers skittering out on a corner, Scottie and I driving on, oblivious, “stoned,” our gazes fixed on our rock-crushing futures.

And you can probably also sense why I reacted with mortification when it was none other than Alex Honnold who found that 48-pack of candy bars lying in the road.

Let’s play it back:

It’s a bluebird day in late July, and there’s Honnold on a rest day, tooting up-canyon in his white Ford van, when what should appear before him but a five-pound box of Snickers in a halo of settling dust. He probably laughs, knowing how the box got there, but he’s a nice guy, so he stops to pick it up. In the campground, he parks at his site, then saunters over to ours, where we’re brewing coffee and making peanut-butter-and-Snickers sandwiches.

He gestures with the box. “Hey, so, I found this in the road.”

“Jesus, fuck,” I say.

Scottie laughs. Honnold laughs. Neither seem to understand my mortification at the fact that Alex Honnold, who will go on to solo Moonlight Buttress the following year, can see a box of Snickers lying in the road and know exactly where it came from.

“Thanks,” Scottie says. “We’re idiots.”

“Yep,” says Alex Honnold, in his blunt Honnold way.

This time I try to laugh, but it comes out as more of a shriek. “W-w-want one?” I ask.

“What?” says Honnold.

“A Snickers bar. Do you want one?”

Perhaps Honnold can hear the desperation in my voice. Perhaps Honnold senses that we’ve slid into a blurry land of coded meaning and metaphor. Perhaps Honnold, as a burgeoning rock deity, realizes that to refuse a Snickers would somehow unravel my own imagined future of rock-climbing greatness. Or perhaps Honnold sometimes just enjoys a candy bar.

“Sure?” he says. But he hesitates, looking worriedly between the Snickers sandwiches on the table and the unopened box in his arms. “Think you can spare one, though?”

“Oh sure, yeah, fine, we’ve got plenty!” I shout, sprinting to fetch two more bars from the already open pack on the roof box, feeling around for the ones that have melted the least.

“Sweet,” he says. Honnold slides the bars into his sweatshirt. Then he shrugs. “See you around,” he says, slouching away into whatever life celebrities live before they’re celebrities.

Grinning, the farmer gestured at the Snickers box lying between us in the road. “These yours?” he asked.

But Honnold wouldn’t see us around. Not if I could help it. I was too embarrassed. By the absurdity of our Snickers diet. By my inability to meet my own impossible expectations. By the fact that we’d gained a reputation for being exactly what we were: inept, fumbling teenagers.

“Pack your shit,” I told Scottie.

“What?” said Scottie.

“We can’t stay here. Not after that.”

“After what?” said Scottie.

That evening, and despite Scottie’s many protestations, we decamped to Maple Canyon, Utah, where we spent the remaining few weeks of our summer trip trying to ignore the death-stench of the Sanpete Valley’s vast turkey farms and beta-frigging cobble climbs that, unsurprisingly, we didn’t send. (I should note that Scottie, now a neuroscientist living in California, maintains that several days elapsed before we fled, and that “fled” is the wrong word entirely; but Scottie, unlike me, is impervious to shame, so I consider my own scarred recollections more trustworthy.)

What we both remember, however, is this: Two or three days after our arrival, we left the roof box open again. We’d agreed to “take a break” from Snickers and instead “experiment” with PB&Js. We were driving to the gleaming metropolis of Moroni, Utah, intending to provision ourselves with jelly, when a flatbed farmer’s truck, bound in the opposite direction, flashed its lights at us.

Getting out to close the roof box, I looked back up the chalky dirt road and saw two things. First, that the rear of the farmer’s truck was full of dead turkeys, 80 or 100 of them, victims of disease or heat stroke or something. And second, that the truck had skidded to a halt next to what was, unmistakably, our battered box of Snickers. We turned around and pulled up alongside the farmer, a rail-thin man with a weather-savaged face and white straw hat. As we spoke, I did my best to hide my nausea at all those poor, dead birds.

Grinning, the farmer gestured at the Snickers box lying between us in the road. “These yours?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said, getting out to fetch the box. “Want one?”

He made a face and put his truck back in gear. “Naw,” he said. “I don’t eat that shit.”

Steve Potter is a digital editor at Climbing. In summer 2008, he returned to Rifle and psychologically demoted Dumpster BBQ to a mini-proj, sieged it for a tantrum-ridden month, and finally sent.