A Climber’s Ghost Story, Unexplained

An encounter with the undead would have turned back most people. But a big free wall awaited, and well ...

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This ghost story was first published in Ascent.

My dear friend and climbing partner Benji Fink died in his sleep in Vail, Colorado. Apparently, he just drifted off peacefully, exactly the way he lived. He was 44 years old. Despite not having hung out with Ben for over a year, I can honestly say that he was more than a friend, more like a brother—such was his openhearted and loving nature. This tall, burly sportsman, who lived to hunt, fish, bike, ski and climb, was raised in North Texas, close to where I grew up. Gentle, wholesome and patient, he was beloved by animals and children. Women also seemed to gravitate to his easygoing demeanor, wry humor and soft-spoken Southern accent. I once wrote that Benji could sweet-talk the panties off a nun, and it’s true, but the relationships never seemed to last beyond that inevitable moment when his inamorata would ask, “What’s next?”

In a world of anxious people, all scrambling to advance toward some imagined horizon and goal, Benji was truly content with his life as it was, whether he was working at a paint store or fixing up condos in a ski resort. While others struggled for security, Benji was simply looking forward to getting up at 3 a.m. and killing some ducks, bouldering at Wolcott, and then, hopefully, taking a nice nap. That complacency didn’t sit well with a string of girlfriends who wanted … well … a little show of ambition, probably, or maybe just a commitment. At his packed memorial in Vail, a group of local women stood up and spoke about how much they were going to miss old NCB—NonCommittal Benji.

Though I know Benji died in the way we all hope to check out—painlessly, happy with life, in his sleep—I haven’t gotten over the fact that he’s gone, and I doubt I ever will. I think that’s because Benji was a touchstone of sanity for me, like a rock in a sea of whitecaps. I’d been swimming in the rough waters of life for a decade, striving, but it was a comfort to know that Benji was out there, possibly taking a nap.

Another reason I’m so broken up about Ben’s death is that he was a character in some of my most important memories, and, as everyone knows, the stories of our lives are the bricks with which we build our true selves. Now, literally overnight, Benji’s gone, and somehow this big piece of me has disappeared with him.

A couple of weeks after Benji died, his mom, Donna, e-mailed to suggest I write something about him. Knowing how much Benji loved his mama, I couldn’t refuse, but so many stories came to mind: Canoeing in the icy predawn darkness to Benji’s Secret Spot on the Colorado River, stomping out a duck blind and getting our limit of pintails; playing the “waving game” in the 1990s in Rifle, where we’d sit by the road and wave at famous climbers as they drove out of the canyon just to see who was cool and who was an asshole (so many “non-wavers” back then); but the story that stands out most in my memory took place sometime around 1995, in a little ejido called Los Remotos, about an hour into the Chihuahuan desert near Mina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

One day, way out in the desert digging up peyote to use for …  medicinal purposes, Benji and I spotted a huge stone prow in the distance, flanked by steep gold and gray limestone walls, standing a couple of thousand feet above the cactus scrub like a massive schooner of the gods.

“Damn,” Benji said, “we ought to climb that thing.”

And so—skipping for the time being our uncanny encounter with a truck full of federales who appeared like a nightmare and searched our car, found the peyote, inexplicably wished us a buen dia and let us go—a plan was hatched.

We talked it over that night with our friends the Gutierrez-Villarreal brothers and discovered that they not only knew of the towering formation—called La Popa, after the poop deck of a ship—but that one of the brothers, Memo, actually worked near the wall, dumping industrial waste. He was decked out in his plastic Hazmat suit even as we spoke, getting ready for work by drinking a few holiday beers called Indios.

Early the next morning, we found the allure of a first ascent to be stronger than our fear of the green men, mummies and naguales.

“Yes,” he said proudly. “We get waste from all over the world. Germany, Los Estados Unidos, Peru, Canada. But this desert is a very strange place. Sometimes the little green men run beside the truck at night and bang on la carga. Oh, yes. And the mummies walk the desert at night, and los naguales … ”

“Wait a minute,” Benji said. “What’s a naguale?”

“Shape shifters,” Memo said. “They look like regular men but they can change into animals.”

“Dude,” Benji said, looking at me with concern in his eyes.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said. “Do you?”

“Maybe. This is Mexico, man. Weird shit happens.”

Early the next morning, we found the allure of a first ascent to be stronger than our fear of the green men, mummies and naguales, and we packed up our gear, food and enough water for five thirsty days. We also looked around for our bag of peyote, which we planned to eat that morning for … sustenance.

When Homero, another of the brothers, ascertained what we were looking for, he brought out several bottles of rubbing alcohol and pointed to the white lumps, like chunks of potato, floating in the liquid. Trying to be helpful, he’d chopped up all our peyote buttons and soaked them in the alcohol. Turns out that the locals had no idea that peyote could be ingested. They used it as a liniment. And so, mildly disappointed, we thanked Homero and told him we’d look forward to rubbing peyote juice on our sore muscles when we returned, then set off in my beater Nissan pickup, following a vague dirt two-track, gunning through lakes of deep dust that shot like geysers across the windshield, rumbling over washboard ruts toward the big prow.

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The road ended at a place on the map called Los Remotos, which consisted of a red windmill and a cistern of brackish water. After a little wandering we discovered a cave dug out of the dirt wall of a nearby arroyo. A short, slumped, weather-beaten man in dirty black slacks and a filthy tan dress shirt emerged from the cave and mumbled something in a guttural language that might have been Spanish. Using a mixture of Spanglish and charades, we learned his name, Luciano Espinoza, and found out that he had access to a mule named Macho. He told us that Macho could, indeed, carry our six gallons of water up the steep talus heaped for a thousand feet to the base of the wall.

Luciano disappeared around a bend of the arroyo and reappeared an hour later, leading a yellow mule. We tied our water and a pack of gear to a wooden saddle that looked like the roof of a doghouse and then set out toward the wall. Luciano’s breath was ragged and he cursed Macho in the odd, glottal tongue that resembled Spanish, throwing his blown-out huaraches forward like a child trying to toss heavy horseshoes.

The sun beat down like a tin hammer and the hill went on and on, ever steepening. Roughly two hours into the hike, Macho backed his hooves to the edge of a 15-foot drop and refused to budge. Luciano cursed and tugged on the reins, and Benji stood behind the mule banging the yellow hindquarters with a sotol stalk. Macho’s eyes rolled white as cue balls, and he reared up, pawing the air with his front feet, then tipped over backwards, plunging into a brace of dagger-tipped agave cactus.

We all scrambled down and cut away the saddle. Luciano was moaning, “Es de mi tio! It’s my uncle’s burro!”

Amazingly, Macho struggled up and wandered off to crop at some prickly pears. He appeared to be unscathed.

“We’ll carry from here,” Benji said.

Luciano helped us porter our gear to a little cave made from two boulders just a few minutes from the base of the wall, and as the sun set he took Macho’s reins and prepared to start down the hill. The weather had changed and a thick fog the locals call nieble was swirling like blowing wool.  We gave Luciano a headlamp and five dollars (which he tried to refuse), wished him luck and watched until his light disappeared into the fog. Then we busied ourselves setting up camp.

About an hour later I was boiling water for Ramen when Benji said, “Dude, turn off your headlamp.”

I cut my light. Benji pointed down the hill. I looked and caught my breath in terror. The entire hillside was checked with eerie gold lights.

At that time, Mexico was a magical place to us. It had only been five years since we’d stumbled on the massive walls of Potrero Chico, mysteriously rising like a manifestation just a couple of hours across the Texas border, and the country still seemed foreign and strange and not altogether friendly. My buddy Duane Raleigh had made one trip to La Huasteca, a crag near Monterrey, in the 1980s, and the police had robbed him at gunpoint three times in one night. More recently, on an exploratory mission to a big 800-foot plug-shaped massif called Cerro Gordo, Benji and I had found an orange stone with these words scraped into the patina: A Todos Los Gringos Que Pasan Aqui, Matanlos. ¡Ver! which, roughly translated, means: To all those gringos that pass here, they kill them. Pay attention!

And now here we were in Los Remotos, Mexico, looking down at a troop of lights marching toward us to … what?

We debated urgently in coarse whispers.

“What the fuck?” “I don’t know.” “What do we do?” “Are they coming to kill us?” “Maybe they just want to say hi.” “Or rob us?” “Or … what?” “Did we eat that peyote?” “No!” “Are you sure?” “Yes!” “What the fuck?!”

Benji dug out the binoculars and we took turns scanning the slope. What we saw through the binos was even more horrifying. It was difficult to discern exactly because the soupy fog obscured the walkers, but it looked like a group of about 40 people, with huge anvil-shaped heads and spindly legs, holding lanterns and lurching uphill toward us.

We were completely gripped. The wind picked up and the nieble thickened as the walkers approached. Benji and I scurried uphill, leaving our camp strewn and disorganized, and we jammed ourselves into a tight hole in the talus and spent a cramped and uncomfortable night shivering with cold, too terrified to utter a word.

The next morning dawned sunny and cool, perfect for climbing. We crawled out of our hole and Benji scanned the slope with his binoculars, handing them to me after a few moments. I took a look and shuddered. No people, but the slope below us was covered in shaggy ponies.

“Naguales,” I said.

Down at camp we munched on PowerBars and discussed what to do. The wall above looked incredible, impossibly steep, tall and featured with tufas that stood off the rock like Cadillac fins and surfboards. It looked like the kind of climb flatlanders like Ben and I dreamed about during long, hot, sticky, unclimbable Texas summers. And yet, there were those troubling supernatural shape shifters that might or might not return to murder us in our sleep. To go or stay? Such a conundrum.

Benji broke my reverie by shouldering his pack. “Let’s do it,” he said.

Of all my memories of Ben, this moment is my favorite because it points to his great attribute: Benjamin Matthew Fink was far from complacent. In fact, he was the gamest man I’ve ever known. I’m sure most people would have turned tail and descended that day. I certainly wanted to. But because Benji wanted to go for it, we ended up establishing perhaps the best—certainly the steepest—big wall free route in Mexico.

Last year, 20 years later, Alex Honnold and Josh McCoy made the first repeat of our route, El Gavilan (5.13a, 900 feet) and confirmed its quality. Benji called me and we relived that adventure, and talked about adventures to come. I’m saddened that these plans won’t come to pass, but I’m so grateful for the time we had together. I can only imagine that Benji is enjoying himself somewhere on the other side, hunting and fishing and climbing and skiing and biking and napping.

Jeff Jackson is editor of Ascent and Rock and Ice.

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