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This story first appeared in Ascent.
I looked in the mirror. Soul patch. Unibrow. Face about to either sneeze or cry. I said to my reflection, “Why do we climb?” then quickly turned away. This existential crisis was sheer torture!
I picked up Ed Whymper’s skull, which I had recently acquired in Chamonix, in an auction organized by the Guide de Haute Montagne to raise 4 billion euros to reconstruct the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru.
Suddenly, the skull began speaking to me.
“Why we climb isn’t some unexplainable enigma too profound to articulate. It’s simple. We climb to live, you dumb ass!”
Did Ed Whymper just call me a dumb ass? Whatever…
I returned to my candle-lit desk, placed Whymper’s skull beside my MacBook Air, and began typing:
Climbing has the power to take lives. The Steck-Salathé took Derek Hersey (36). Denali’s South Buttress swallowed Mugs Stump (42). Leaning Tower took Todd Skinner, four days before his 48th birthday.
Thousands of others have died, too.
In a sport that basically invented the phrase “inherent risk,” death is so common that it can begin to seem banal.
Yet for all the stories about lives lost to climbing, there are many, many more lives that have been saved by climbs.
This is a story about one of those lives and one of those climbs. This life isn’t particularly special, and the route isn’t hard or great. But through a set of circumstances that only seem pivotal in retrospect, Otto’s Route entered my life at a time when I needed it most.
Here in Aspen, I was the guy with a broke-down Sentra and a demeaning restaurant job in a town of trust-funder ski bums, sex-crazed cougars and oil barons from Texa$. Sure, I had the rippled washboard abs of a desert commando, but I was also renting a 10-by-10-foot basement room with no windows. I spent a lot of time in the deficiently fenestrated quarters, watching “Zoolander” and drinking my way through a case of port wine that I’d obtained (legally) for free.
Sometimes I went out. When I rolled up in “da club” it was like this: matted climber-hair tousled like I don’t care, same prAna sweatshirt, head bobbing to music only I could hear. People were like, “Who is that inchoate Taoist?” Yet at the end of each whiskey-soaked night, the reality remained that I had no friends, no girlfriend, no direction—only the laconic swagger of an “Andrew Bisharat.”
OK, I had some friends. There was Chris, the bartender at a Mexican restaurant where, several nights a week, I ate my dirtbag dinner of complimentary chips and bean dip. Chris had a pixie cut of strawberry-blonde hair and the winsome face of a “girl next door.” Her gawky arms held a cocktail shaker over her head and she jiggled it. Holy shit, did she not shave her armpits? Turn on!
Was I lonely? I suppose. I guess I had a crush on her. I also had a crush on the following: any female nice enough to speak to me. Ever since graduating college, a year and a half earlier, my carnal senses had lain volcanically latent as I roamed the sexual wasteland called the American Climbing Circuit. In order to climb full-time like all of my heroes, I’d left a girl in Boston. She wasn’t a climber, which seemed like an irreconcilable flaw on her part. But only after spending enough time chaining it up with all the Lost Boys of Yosemite, I considered the possibility that I had made a mistake. Is this what you robots would call “being in love”?
This period of my life was one of ubiquitous impermanence and facsimiles of the “real thing” around every turn. Everything was replaceable, nothing meaningful.
My only real friend was Dave, my college roomie. Dave had grown up in the nearby city of Grand Junction, and now lived in the adjoining farming town of Palisade, where, post college, he had become a winemaker. A most unusual twist, I thought, but cool. Occasionally Dave came up from Drunktion to Ass-pen to party. When Dave rolled up into “da club,” he was like this: natty dandruff hair, same Champion sweatshirt, swaggering steps with arms flapping by his sides like he was dribbling an imaginary basketball between his legs.
I was better at climbing than Dave, but Dave was better at everything else. I mean, he taught himself enology (winemaking) in a matter of weeks. The only level playing field for our enduring but friendly rivalry was chugging beer. One night Dave and I were at the Mexican bar, eating free bean dip and flirting with Chris by telling her how fast we could drink beer.
“You guys think you can drink fast?” Chris asked.
“Drink-fast is literally the only thing we’re good at,” Dave said. “Well, I am, anyway.”
“No one can beat me,” I said. “Especially not Dave.”
Chris pirouetted on a single foot, her skirt twirling around her pencil-thin frame. She opened the fridge, excavated three bottles of Budweiser and said, “Follow me!” as she jogged out the door.
“Don’t you need to stay here?” I called out, confused. But she was gone. The door was swinging shut and I heard her yell, “Hurry up!”
Now we were outside in the chilly summer night and she was ahead of us, running across the street with the beers. I loved this woman! About a block away, we entered a sketchy building and went down some dark stairs that led into a steak restaurant. Standing behind a bar was a guy who was a dead ringer for Jaws (Richard Kiel), the 7-foot 2-inch henchman from the James Bond movies who could bite through metal.
“Meet Burt,” Chris said. “He can drink faster than anyone I know. If you can beat him, I’ll be very impressed.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” Burt said. The blunt, ugly object that was his face opened its orifice in what I assumed was meant to be a smile. A pipe organ of copper-colored teeth protruded from his lower jaw.
The chance to impress Chris sent a jolt of electricity into my nuts. I wanted to win! But the brute with the Frisbee-sized maw standing in front of me gave me pause. Would he drink the beer or just chew up the bottle?
“OK, ready, set, go!” Chris shouted.
The camera angle of this story suddenly becomes a horrifying perspective of a beer flowing out of a bottle, something akin to riding Splash Mountain. We see the agitated brown liquid cascade rapidly out of a tunnel and suddenly drop into Burt’s tonsil-twitching gullet.
The deglutitive art of chugging beer isn’t just about “opening your throat,” as many noobs believe. In college Dave and I had shared our techniques and ideas about drink-fast in the kind of democratic, free-thinking environment that you’d expect of any prestigious liberal arts university—i.e., we were in a frat house with puke-covered floors and music blaring these lyrics:
You’s a big, fine woman, won’t you back that ass up?
Call me Big Daddy when you back that ass up.
Now the camera angle switches to an animated split-screen showing cross-sections of our three pharynxes and their harried peristalses. The CG (computer graphics) animation is capturing the realistic flow of a frothy alcoholic tincture splashing down these three impressive human throats. The rendering clearly shows that Dave and I finish our beers at the exact same moment, but Burt had already won by a single epiglottal flap.
“Ohhhh, so close!” Chris exclaimed gleefully.
“That was pretty good!” Chris said. “OK. I’m impressed.”
“Yes!” Burt said, belching loudly. “I am the king! I will chug you faster than you can say, ‘Jim Bridwell Does the Dance of the Woo-Li Masters!’”
“Jim Bridwell Does the Dance of the Wool-Li Masters!” I said as fast as I could, but Burt had already finished another beer.
“See?” Burt said, wiping his mouth with a beach towel. “Told you.”
“Whatever,” Dave said, then turned to me. “This guy’s a douche. You wanna hit up da club?”
Suddenly, hip-hop music that only we could hear came on and we bobbed off into the night in super-sweet slow mo.
We never went back to see Burt about a rematch. I never saw Chris again, either. In fact, not long after that night I packed up my Sentra and left Aspen for good, thinking I’d head back to Yosemite.
Never Never Land.
If all else fails, you can always go live and climb in Yosemite. Forever. And that’s just what I had planned to do.
But I never made it past Grand Junction.
Dave’s 4Runner kicked up a dust cloud as it ground to a halt. The graffiti on the red sandstone boulder in front of us read: “Bang dat ass.”
We stepped onto a dirt parking lot containing broken glass, and pulled crash pads and beer out of the truck.
In order to gain access to these bullet-riddled roadside rocks at the outskirts of Grand Junction, we had to watch a video, similar to the one the Texas State Park Ranger makes you watch before you can get into Hueco Tanks.
The narrator of the video begins: “Just south of Grand Junction lies one of the most important natural asylums for the homeless and meth-addled. This anonymous collection of boulders creates a unique, natural architecture perfect for collecting rainwater and hiding stashes of Mormon pornography.”
Now the video—uncannily—shows me and Dave sitting on our crashpads beneath a 45-degree boulder riddled in jugs, as if we’ve always been there, as if we always will be there, as if our story is the story of all climbers. We are struggling to finagle our fingers into the pull tabs of our climbing shoes. We’re both wearing our token sweatshirts with the hoods up, our heads bobbing as if hip-hop is playing somewhere but only we can hear it.
“Dude, what are you even doing with your life?” Dave asks.
“I’m going, going, back, back to Yosemite,” I say, invoking the lyrics of Biggie Smalls, my hand scratching an invisible record.
“You should work with me at the winery,” Dave says. “Stay with me at the house in the vineyard.”
The imaginary music stops and the camera shifts to a closeup of my face. I raise a single eyebrow.
“Sounds totally lame,” I say. “Whatever.”
“Do you think that you can climb this problem, pull a beer out of your pocket, open the can and chug it all while hanging from just one arm from the lip of the boulder?”
The video climaxes with a sweeping panoramic shot of me hanging by one chiseled arm from the finishing jug, shirt off, abs rippled, lats flexed, and I am totally chugging from a can of PBR in the glorious golden light. Music crescendos. The camera sweeps past the boulder and pans out to Independence Monument, a free-standing 400-foot tower of sandstone that’s home to Otto’s Route (5.8), the site of this discursive narrative’s grand denouement. We see some climbers standing on the summit, high-fiving, the sun etching their silhouettes violet.
INTERLUDE: A Superguide to Otto’s Route
WHAT: Independence Monument is a 400-foot sandstone tower. Head on, it looks paper thin, but as seen from the side, it actually has a wide, broad body, like a fish.
WHERE: The Colorado National Monument, just south of Grand Junction, is a beautiful tawny-colored canyon of towers, buttes and buttresses.
SEASON: Spring, fall, summer, winter. Basically, year-round, except for the days when it’s too cold or too hot.
A ROUTE FOR THE EVERYMAN: Otto’s Route is perhaps the easiest, most moderate climb to the summit of a desert tower in the world. How is it so easy? Because it’s completely manufactured!
8A.NU COMMENTS: Poor/mainly chipped. Piss Easy. Second Go.
OTTO, THE PATRIOT: When John Otto moved to Grand Junction in 1906, he discovered he loved three things: America, building trails, and the red-rock canyons just south of town. In 1907 he wrote: “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”
Otto was part lonely recluse, part eccentric visionary. He collected petitions, raised funds and sent a stream of letters to Washington, D.C., to protect his beloved canyons. When he rolled up into Monument Canyon, he was like this: fat mustache, pick-axe in hand, making trails and bobbing his head to the national anthem. Newspapers called him “The Trail Builder,” and “The Hermit of Monument Park,” and sometimes “The Hizzmit of Monument Pizzark.”
He lived in the canyon full-time with his burros, Foxie and Cookie, and gave all the towers patriotic names. After spending so much time looking up at these walls, he began thinking the thoughts of a climber. Can you stand on top of the “impossible” Independence Monument?
WHY DO WE CLIMB? Climbing was originally about getting to the top to see the view. But in doing so, people discovered that the real purpose of climbing was that it offered the best view for them to see what was inside themselves.
THE FIRST ASCENT: 1911 was, perhaps, the most significant year in John Otto’ s life. On May 24th Otto’s efforts were rewarded when President Taft signed a proclamation that established the Colorado National Monument. Otto was hired, for a salary of $1 per month, as the park’s first custodian.
On June 20 John Otto married Beatrice Farnham, a Boston artist. Their ceremony took place on a large flat rock in the shadow of Independence Monument.
Meanwhile, Otto had been working toward a first ascent. Devising his own solutions for how to scale something so sheer, tall and intimidating, Otto drilled holes and banged in pieces of pipe to use for hand- and footholds. Wrapping his legs around the lower pipe and maintaining a precarious balance, he’d drill overhead. (The pipes are long gone, and today free climbers use the remnant boreholes.)
The Grand Junction Daily News reported on his efforts: “He will be the first man, white, red, or black, ever to set foot on the great obelisk, and it is doubtful if many will ever venture to the summit, even when the ladderway is completed.”
As Otto toiled away building the most important trail of his life, Beatrice bided her time by diligently carving the Declaration of Independence into the large flat rock in the shadow of Independence Monument. (These people really, really loved America.)
Fittingly, on July 4, 1911—Independence Day—John Otto made his summit bid. He climbed without a belay, only occasionally anchoring himself to a pipe with a short hemp rope. Near the top, in one overhanging section, a pipe pulled out, nearly causing him to plummet to his death, but he held on, recomposed and forged ahead. He reached the summit and erected an American flag. I would imagine it was by far the greatest moment of his life.
As with any big send, though, the glory was ephemeral. Shortly thereafter, just a few weeks after the wedding, Beatrice left John. He was a dirtbag climber with a dollar-a-month job, which seemed to her like an irreconcilable flaw. She wrote: “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it; I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
Otto eventually made his way to California, where he put his chipping skills to use as a miner. He died a pauper’s death on June 19, 1952, at the age of 81.
REST-DAY ACTIVITIES: Take a winery tour in nearby Palisade.
In college Dave and would go bouldering every Friday during fall semester. I’d cut class, and we’d drive from Boston down to Lincoln Woods.
Everything back then was all about intensity. How much? How many? How big? How fast? These were the only questions that mattered. Ditching school on Friday continued into the winter. Alpine starts. Three hours north to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Ice climb Huntington’s. Ski Tuckerman’s. All day. Then back to Boston.
Dave would drive. He’d tell me that I “needed” to chug three (or however many) beers before we crossed the Massachusetts border, usually when we were only five miles from it. So I’d have about five minutes to do it and, yeah, I did it, whatever. Then we’d get back to campus and party all night. This was 24-hour single-push college-style. Total commitment. On the nights you were lucky enough to hook up with a girl—which really just amounted to being the guy who stayed conscious longer than everyone else—and you got to end that interminable frenzy with some (any) physically intimate experience … Those were the days when you felt like a real-life hero.
Of course, “real life” doesn’t work that way. When I emerged from college, I felt sharp, critical and hungry. But it was painful to discover that none of that knowledge I had cultivated was, in any way, advantageous in developing the meaningful connections of adulthood, which I didn’t even know I was looking for. In the absence of that academic sanctuary, I roamed the country trying to be nothing more than a “real” rock climber, but finding little comfort in that lifestyle’s inherent singularity. Whatever that means.
Palisade is famous for growing delicious peaches and producing Colorado’s best wine. Interestingly enough, it’s the sandstone rocks—particularly, their location, size and constitution—that make the fruit so juicy and good.
“The rockier the soil, the better the grapes,” Dave explained. “Typically, the more the vines are stressed, the better the fruit. You want the vines to have to work to find water. There are vines in Portugal hundreds of years old; no one is certain how deep the roots go.”
We were sitting outside the old farmhouse where Dave had been living during his tenure as winemaker. Vineyards stretched pacifically before us; we watched the sun set and drank beer. The brown and yellow sandstone of Mount Garfield isn’t much to look at in the harsh midday light, but at dusk, this once subaqueous massif is outrageously beautiful, a hallucinogenic canvas for all the vibrancy of a desert sun at its brief and bewitching western nadir.
Palisade is located right at the narrow, verdant mouth of the Grand Valley. This little farming town is flanked by the Book Cliffs of Mount Garfield to the north, Debeque Canyon to the northeast, and the massive Grand Mesa to the east. These lithic uprisings trap sun to create a microclimate that, in conjunction with an irrigated Colorado River, make Palisade a fertile oasis in a high-altitude desert.
Less than a few decades ago, local farmers diversified their peach crops, grew grapes and made wine (i.e., made money).
“Why do people swirl a glass of wine, shove their noses in it and say stuff like, ‘Ooooh, so barnyard?’” I asked, using a mock adenoidal voice. It was the busy harvest season. Instead of heading to Yosemite, I had decided to take a minimum-wage job working for Dave. I had moved into the dilapidated farmhouse, and my only rent was buying coffee and keeping the fridge stocked with beer.
“Most people do it because they’re pretentious dicks,” Dave explained in his even-tempered, emotionless tone. “But there is actual science to swirling wine in the glass. Wine needs to oxidize. That means add oxygen. Too much oxygen will turn the wine into vinegar. But the right amount of oxygen brings out different notes of taste and smell.”
“So, because of oxygen, there’s a brief, perfect moment where the wine becomes the best-tasting, best-smelling wine that it’s ever going to be?” I asked. “But then … it dies?”
“Basically. That’s the reason we traditionally use corks. For example, French wine is often made from shitty grapes with low sugar content, which means the product initially bottled is undrinkable. French wine, though, gets better over time because the cork allows for a slow oxidization. But we don’t need any of that shit here. We grow great, big, plump, juicy grapes in ’Merica. Most of this shit is ready to drink the year it’s made, which is why corks are a complete waste of money. But all the idiots who drink wine think that if the bottle doesn’t come with a real cork, then the wine is cheap and therefore doesn’t taste good.”
“Do you think that the same thing is true for people?” I asked. “Like, we breathe oxygen; it’s what gives us life. But is it also the very thing that’s slowly aging us, killing us.”
“Totally. That’s why people are all into anti-oxidants. They think it’ll make them live forever.”
“What if you just hold your breath?”
“That could work. You should try it.”
“And the grape vines. The harder they have to work, the more fruit they produce. The more stressed they are, the stronger they become. I think that we’re like that, too. Don’t you?”
“You mean ‘hard work’ like this?” Dave made a tight fist with his right hand and a little hole with his left hand. Then he strenuously forced the fist through the hole, grunting and acting as if it was the most painful, uncomfortable thing in the world.
We made this same hand signal about dozen times a day, usually right after Steve, the vineyard owner, showed up and casually charged us with some backbreaking duty. He’d say something like, “Can you guys just go empty those wine barrels real quick? They need to be filled with the cabernet this week. That would be greeeeaaaaat. Thaaaaaaanks guuuuuuuys.” He was like the boss from “Office Space,” only more laid back and inebriated.
When barrels aren’t filled with wine, they need to be filled with water so that the wood doesn’t warp. The barrels are always sitting on metal stands to be stacked on top of each other and moved around with forklifts. A full barrel weighs about 600 pounds. To empty water out of the barrel’s hole, though, the barrel has to be spun around on its stand.
Here’s the trick for doing that: There is no trick. It takes brute fucking strength. You have to get down into a squat position, crimp the sides of the barrel with your climber-honed grip, and deadlift/spin the barrel in one quick Russian-caliber clean and jerk.
It took every bit of strength to perform this task just once, but we’d have to do it 150 times, which is why we thought it’d be easier to crush lead into gold with your hands than do whatever Steve had asked us to do.
To be clear, it wasn’t the labor that we minded; it was Steve’s insouciance toward all the work that went into making the product. He’d show up around 10 or 11 a.m. with a paper cup of coffee and walk around the winery for half an hour, making executive decisions about unimportant matters. When he finished his coffee, he’d walk over to one of the wine tanks and, casually mid-sentence, fill his cup up to the brim. Then, with his characteristic indifference, he’d continue on with yet another alcohol-scorched day.
“Can you guys just go crush those four tons of merlot real quick? Greaaaaaaaaaaaaat.”
As hard as some of those days were, we still made time, after every shift, to climb. Again, it was still all about speed, quantity and intensity. Run three miles into the Monument to climb Otto’s Route, car to car, as fast as we could go.
We probably did Otto’s Route over 50 times that fall, always trying to best our previous times. Dave, the better runner, would carry the rope and forge up the trail. I, the better climber, would take the crux. We eventually dialed the four-pitch route down to two pitches with a modicum of free-soloing. Our rack ultimately became one #9 nut, six draws and one 60-meter rope.
Again, those old questions—How much? How many? How big? How fast?—had reappeared in our lives. Or perhaps they’d never left
THE GRAND DENOUEMENT
I ran into Monument Canyon, my recently awakened palate tasting the salt of my sweating brow. I could hear Dave right behind me, his energy urging me up the trail.
The slender, familiar prow of Independence Monument came into view. We reached the base, put on our climbing shoes and soloed up through the first-pitch chimney. At a little ledge, I put Dave on belay. He climbed to the part where he placed the single #9 nut, then ran it out to the next anchor in the “Time Tunnel”—a third-class ledge that is the belly of Independence Monument. I raced up and swung into the lead.
Soon I launched up the Monument’s thorax, climbing its exposed, slender spine. I had come to know these manufactured holds so well. I could move steadily and without thought, like a Taoist, like a real rock climber.
We reached the summit and slapped hands, the sun etching our silhouettes violet, the camera circling around us at this apogee.
I reached the base first, pulled on my sneakers and started running. I came to the large flat rock where Beatrice Farnham Otto had inscribed the Declaration of Independence. There, I saw a ghost. He was holding a long pickaxe in the piolet en canard position. I approached the specter cautiously.
“Congratulations,” the ghost said. “You are well on your way to achieving the car-to-car speed record of my route.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Why “it’s me! John Otto!”
The camera shows a close-up of my face; my eyes grow like saucers, my mouth gapes. The ghost continued: “This place is so special to me, and I’m stoked that you and Dave have been brought together by my climb. Through climbing this route I got to see what’s inside of me, and because of that, everything else felt simple.”
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be a real rock climber,” I admitted, my face either about to sneeze or cry.
“Climbing isn’t the most important thing,” Otto said. “People are. I learned that when my wife left. You will have to learn that hard lesson, too. First, you have to learn to define climbing for yourself. That’s what will allow you to keep it ‘real.’”
“Well, thanks for the route,” I said. I started swaggering down the trail, bobbing my head, only … there was no hip hop music!
“Wait, Mr. Otto!” I said. The ghost turned to me. “Why isn’t the hip hop music that only I can hear playing in my head right now?”
“You’re becoming an adult,” the ghost said. “You no longer hear imaginary hip-hop music every time you think you’re doing something badass. All that bobbing and swaggering off to da club or whatever. … You don’t look like a badass; you look like a dumbass!”
Did John Otto just call me a dumbass?
Suddenly I heard Dave yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” I turned back to the large flat rock, but the ghost was gone. I started running. I ran as fast and as hard as I could. And this time, the only sound in my head was the walloping of my live, beating heart.