The Janitor Who Would Climb With Anyone
In 1987, Climbing’s Editor at Large, Jeff Jackson, worked as a night janitor at Sequoia National Park, California. There, he traded climbing lessons with fellow employees for belays on Moro Rock, a 1,000-foot dome. Trusting his life to some of the weirdest characters he ever met, he learned more than he taught.
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It took us a long time to get to Hanging Rock because Dan had to hug all the redwoods. “Big” Dan Sweeney weighed 300 pounds—Amish hat, black beard, denim overalls, no shirt, chest and shoulder hair curling out of suspenders like black feathers. His six-foot frame looked like two bathtubs glued together. Despite the bulk he was sprightly at age 45, gamboling down the trail from tree to tree like an enormous deer.
“Look up!” he shouted, pointing to the greenery in the towering sequoias far above. “That’s the crown. These are the kings and queens, Marshal.”
That was Dan’s nickname for me: Marshal, short for “The Marshal of Pinewood.” Pinewood was the collection of 12’ x 12’ cabins where Guest Services, the park concessionaire at Sequoia National Park near Fresno, California, housed their employees. It was the summer of 1987, and Dan and I were working in the park—he as the pantryman at the park deli and I as a night janitor in the Lodge Dining Room. We were walking the short trail from Pinewood to Hanging Rock, a several-hundred-foot, 5.5 granite slab, where I was going to teach Dan to belay and where that summer I’d already taught a handful of other park employees to belay in return for climbing lessons. Fresh out of college and perpetually eager to climb, I’d needed someone—anyone, really—to hold my rope.
“Let’s move along,” I suggested.
Time passed. I looked away. Finally he broke the embrace and we continued up the trail.
Another redwood. Dan removed his hat and lifted his sweaty arms. Pong hung about him like spiced fog. He rested his beard against the tree and whispered, “Oh, glorious forest giantess.”
“Who were those people at your cabin?” I asked.
Earlier that day, while making my “security” rounds of Pinewood (keep reading), I’d noticed a convertible Porsche parked in front of Dan’s cabin. The sports car had seemed out of place in employee parking, where most of the automobiles were hoopties.
“Schmegegge,” Dan said. He used a lot of Yiddish. Schmegegge means “baloney.”
“That was a pretty fancy car,” I said.
“Better look into it, Marshal.”
Bob, the actual manager of Pinewood, had abdicated responsibility for keeping order in the camp of 75 mostly addicted, vagrant, seasonal employees willing to live in plywood boxes for a few months and make minimum wage. It was a nest of irascibility—loud talking and fights and tussles between lovers. Early one morning when I was getting back to Pinewood from my 9 p.m.-to-4 a.m. stint cleaning up at the Lodge Dining Room, I came on two alcoholic old men rolling around in the dirt trading weak blows and creating a racket.
I pulled them apart, and then shoved them apart when they started squabbling again—I quieted them down and generally restored order. Word got to Bob (the manager), and he made an announcement at the next employee campfire that I was “gonna help out with camp security.”
Dan was terribly disappointed that I—at 23 years old—was busting up parties and enforcing quiet times. He told me I was “working for the man,” but he liked my singleminded focus on rock climbing. I’d taught myself to climb in the late 1970s by reading Royal Robbins’s Basic Rockcraft and doing the runout, technical slabs at Quartz Mountain, a clean granite panel in southwestern Oklahoma, but Sequoia was the first chance I’d had to get serious about the sport. Every day I’d walk the mile from Pinewood to Moro Rock—a 1,000-foot granite dome shaped like a petrified hipbone weathering out of a Sierra hillside.
Moro Rock was relatively unexplored at that time. The seven-pitch South Face (5.8) was climbed by Karl Jensen, Arthur Johnson, and Howard Koster in 1939. Amos Clifford, René Ardesch, James Cook, and others had added a dozen nice one- to four-pitch lines to the flanks. But the standout existing routes in 1987 were Levity’s End (5.10; seven pitches) on the big, proper-steep west face, put up in May 1984 by E.C. “Eddie” Joe, Dave Hickey, and Ken Awbry; and the much-feared Pressure Sensitive, a six-pitch 5.11X put up just a month later by Joe, Richard Leversee, and Ed Sampson.
In keeping with the ethic of the day, Joe and Co. only climbed ground-up, placing bolts as a last resort, and Eddie in particular—according to comments online—was notoriously stingy with the drill.
“Moro is no joke,” he wrote in 2011 to a climber seeking beta on supertopo.com. “The routes I had a part in were put up on Moro’s terms, not mine. If there was a good stance, if you could get one, fine. Otherwise you must climb like your life depends on it.”
Levity’s End features shit-your-pants runouts, but Pressure Sensitive is described by Joe as the “big sack” route, with its massive fourth-pitch runout above a “classic” 1980s anchor: two quarter-inch buttonhead bolts with iffy Leeper hangers.
Lots more great routes would go in over the next 34 years, including the five-pitch Whistler (5.10), by Mike Daly and Art Degoode in 1989; Piece de Renaissance (5.10b A1; eight pitches) by Joe, Jon Gatti, and John Vargas, also in ’89; and the modern-bolted Modern Guilt (5.12a; 10 pitches), freed in 2016 by Brian Prince and Vitaliy Musiyenko. Now, though Moro Rock has about 85 routes ranging from one to 10 pitches, the massive west and east faces still contain big swaths of unclimbed, knobby granite.
I called up Joe, but he said he was too busy managing an outdoor shop to go climbing (though I suspect he was justifiably wary of partnering up with a strange Texan), so I enlisted my girlfriend, Cristina Wait, to drive over from Berkeley on the weekends and belay me on proper ground-up FAs, up to four pitches tall, on the shorter east and west flanks—routes like Pennies on the Patio (5.9), Guitar Man (5.10X), Clean Sweep (5.11), Delta of Venus (5.12), and Rio Bravo (5.12R A3).
I needed weekday belayers, and I recruited them from Pinewood. Security guards, maintenance guys, a maid, a ranger, another janitor. Thirty-four years later, I see their names in the guidebook and I remember them: Malcolm Jolley, John Ribbitch, Fred Skemp. Together we added more than 15 routes over the course of that long summer.
I was tearing through belayers. Most weren’t even climbers and only went out a time or two before moving on or bailing altogether. By mid-July, three months after arriving at the park, I was down to Dan Sweeney—my latest recruit.
“What did the people in the Porsche want?” I asked again. My curiosity was piqued. I was the Marshal, after all.
“I’m an artist,” he said.
Dan was the pantryman at the deli, where he cut up lunch meat and pickles, and refilled mustard and mayonnaise bins. Each day at 3 p.m., he’d get off work and walk back to Pinewood through the Giant Forest, hugging trees, talking to them in a mumble.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Flatbush, how is the hip?” “Mrs. Berrybark Cinnamonbark, you’re smelling beautiful today.” “You’re a rascal, Louie. You need to stop gambling.”
Back at his cabin he’d change into overalls and sit on the steps smoking a fat cigar, immovable as a rock. Some evenings he’d still be sitting there when I went to work at 9 p.m., and every morning when I passed his cabin in the predawn darkness, his lantern was lit. Painting, I guessed.
Dan turned to face me, squaring up and pawing spots in the pine needles for his feet.
“You don’t think painting takes strength,” he stated. “You believe strength comes from outside. But true strength comes from here.” He pounded himself in the belly. “Go ahead, hit me as hard as you can right in the gut.”
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“Hit me!” he commanded.
I punched him half-heartedly.
“Like all class traitors, you work directly against your class interest.”
“It serves you to refuse to demonstrate my point.”
He extended his arm straight in front of him.
“Hang on my wrist, Marshal.”
Picture a plum perched atop two toothpicks—this was Dan’s physique. There was no way someone as top-heavy as Dan would be able to hold 165 pounds suspended from his extended arm.
I wrapped both hands around his hairy wrist and lifted my legs. His face turned red and his eyes turned red and he wavered then steadied up and I hung there for a moment. It seemed impossible.
“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked.
“I’m a painter,” he said, pointedly. “I paint like this.”
He extended his arm straight before him and slashed dramatically. “It takes tremendous hara.”
Again he whacked himself in the belly.
Hanging Rock, just across from Moro Rock, is a spit of granite flopped down a slope like the Rolling Stones’ tongue symbol hangs across the lower lip. I was never clear if the “hanging” referred to the massive slab itself or the precarious-looking, car-sized boulder poised atop it like a tipped dreidel.
I’d always used that rock as an anchor to lower my charges down the 200-foot slab below, then have them climb back out, but nobody near Dan’s size had tested it. We eventually arrived at it, and I looked from Dan to the boulder, gauging proportions, spitballing weights. Could he pull it down? I think we’re good. How did I know? I just knew. (We do this all the time, of course—bet our lives on educated guesses—and not just while climbing.)
“I’m gonna lower you,” I said. “And then you’re gonna climb out. OK?”
Dan’s dough-white forehead folded. He eased to the edge of the 60-degree slab and surveyed the Kaweah River Valley and town of Three Rivers, looking like a diorama, thousands of feet below.
Sweating like a cold glass, he pulled a few breaths, removed his hat, and used it as a fan. Instinct and an understanding of physical laws crystallized in a vision of possible outcomes. It was the moment when every single climber with a functioning amygdala thinks: Oh fuck, I could die if something goes wrong.
Hoping to head off Dan’s retreat, I pulled out a 30-foot piece of one-inch webbing and tied Dan into a diaper harness, then knotted him to the rope.
“Just lean back and I’ll lower you,” I said.
Dan sucked his cheeks and chewed, sizing me up, enacting another ritual—call it “the assessment.” Do I trust this fool?
“All right, Marshal,” Dan said after a few more anxious moments. “Into the abyss.”
I lowered him a hundred feet to a small ledge, and he cruised the 5.5 friction, pausing occasionally to rave, “I’m emerging from the womb of California!”
We shook hands when he reached the anchor.
“Climb over there tomorrow?” I asked, pointing to the ginormous west face of Moro Rock.
“Sign me up,” he said.
Like so many partners, Big Dan made only a few outings. The last climb we did was E Ticket Ride, a two-pitch 5.10 I’d put up earlier in the summer on Moro Rock with tied-off knobs for pro. Dan fell over and over at the crux—300 pounds yarding on the girth-hitched chickenheads. I marveled at the strength of the granite.
“Use the Jumar to pull through,” I yelled, but he refused and kept flailing.
Through some miracle of physics or inner magic, Big Dan got his weight over the lugs on his hiking boots and sketched through the 5.10 friction—one of the most amazing things I’ve witnessed. When he reached the belay and saw the knobs we were clipped to as an anchor, he “resigned” forever.
A month later I was back at Hanging Rock training a new recruit—my father, Frank Jackson.
In 1987, Dad was already a top criminal defense attorney in Dallas. Six-one, 200 pounds, he’d played seven years as a running back and wide receiver for the Dallas Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, and Miami Dolphins.
Dad grew up rough in Paris, Texas. Son of an alcoholic, abusive father once tried and acquitted for murder, Frank, and his four siblings, Charlie, Johnny, Mike, and Vickie, endured extreme poverty. Through some combo of toughness and genetics, Charlie and Frank became professional athletes.
In 1955, as a sophomore, Dad took his Paris High School baseball team to the state championship in Austin, where they played Abilene. The score was 2 to 1, and Abilene had two outs and two in scoring position in the bottom of the last inning when centerfielder Frank Jackson made a diving catch to give the Paris Wildcats their one-and-only baseball state championship. Local sportswriters still call it “the catch.”
In 1957, my father was approached by the Yankees about a signing deal, but he chose football. He was drafted by the Dallas Texans, who went on to win the AFL championship in 1962. Dad set records—he still has the most TD catches (four) in a game for the Chiefs—and played in the 1965 All Star game. So that day at Hanging Rock as I prepared to lower him down the 5.5 slab, when he said, “I’ve already proven myself athletically,” he was simply stating the truth.
He’d watched critically as I tied off the boulder and roped him in. Now he stood at the edge doing “the assessment.”
From the vantage of 34 years gone by, now a father myself, I can imagine the layers. He’d watched me grow from a drooling baby covered in hair whom he described as a “bush ape,” into a gawky adolescent, into whatever I was at 23 years old. The Marshal of Pinewood.
I’d graduated the year before, in 1986, with a degree in creative writing from a college Back East, bought a Honda 360 motorcycle, and rode it from New Hampshire to Dallas, camping and climbing along the way. The Gunks, Seneca Rock, Bellefonte Quarry. In those days, there weren’t many/any people at the crags, so some days I’d solo easy stuff, simply enjoying the movement and exposure. Sometimes I’d luck out and run into other climbers, like the time I met Ron Kauk and Robyn Erbesfield at Beehive Rock near Chattanooga.
When I finally got home to Parker, Texas, I encamped at my folks’ house and lined up the best job I could find with a creative-writing degree—moving furniture for Big Tex Moving Company. I’d work hard for two or three days, then get a break while the guy who owned the truck, Marlon—western boots, cowboy hat, and infundibular beer belly—tried to book another job. My co-worker, an angry hick with a mullet who was named Jeff, raged like he was being choked with a cat tail, criticized my lifting technique, and complained that I was ‘twisting him around.’ Between jobs, I’d climb at a crag I’d found near Cleburne, Texas, where some of the first limestone 5.13s in America went up thanks to the efforts of Jack Mileski and Duane Raleigh.
After I’d spent a few months freeloading off my parents, Frank let me know that I was no longer welcome to doss at “Basecamp Jackson.” I had to move out. This eviction coincided with Marlon’s fully loaded truck catching fire. Jeff and I quelled the flames with moving blankets, but it was stressful hearing the cries of the mom, dad, and kids whose worldly possessions were starting to smolder.
Soon after the engine fire and Dad’s ultimatum, I was flipping through the back pages of Outside and came across an ad that read: “Work Among The Big Trees.” The concessionaire at Sequoia National Park was looking for people to house, feed, and clean up after the tourists. I looked Sequoia up in the Rand McNally road atlas (no internet back then) and judged the distance to Yosemite. It looked pretty close. Enticingly close. Close enough to apply for a job. Soon I heard back that I was hired.
When I got there in May of 1987, I discovered that Yosemite was almost six hours away, but Moro, the undeveloped dome, was a short hike from Pinewood. Since I had no vehicle—I’d sold the motorcycle, after a calamitous crash—Moro would have to do.
A couple of months after I started working, my father called me.
“I’d like to come out and visit,” he said. “I woke up the other day and decided I don’t want to live my life in a law library.”
Like all of life’s big realizations, my dad’s epiphany sounds almost trite. Forty-seven years old, famous and wealthy, Dad realized that material success doesn’t necessarily lead to satisfaction. He spoke fondly of his Uncle Oscar, who’d spent his life in the East Texas piney woods, hunting and fishing. He said he’d known a game warden who worked for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful life?” he asked rhetorically.
Once he got to Sequoia, we hiked and talked of outdoor adventures to come. He was stoked to try climbing. Now he was standing at the edge of Hanging Rock and thinking about placing his life in the hands of his maundering son.
“Nah,” he said, “I don’t think so. I’ve already proven myself athletically.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
He inspected the anchor and carabiners.
“You mean this little ol’ strap is gonna hold me?”
I assured him that it would.
“How do you know?”
I just knew.
“Nah,” he said. “Nope. I’m not doing that. I’ve already accomplished everything I want to achieve in sports and blah… ”
I said, “Well, this is a little different than football, Dad.”
“How is it different? When I was younger, I could do this all day and never draw a deep breath. You got to be a nutjob to do something like this … ” Et cetera and so on.
This went on for 30 minutes. Mostly a litany of excuses, but he also managed to criticize my beard and question the validity of pursuing climbing as a lifestyle.
Finally, as all partners must, he gave his life to me, and I lowered him to the ledge where the climbing began. He climbed back up, and I watched his body come alive. The athlete, buried for 20 years, woke up. By the time he reached the anchor he was a climber
Over the years, Dad, now 82 and a recent inductee into the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Hall of Fame, and I put up lots of routes together. That next year, 1988, we were among the first climbers to add routes to the walls of El Potrero Chico, Mexico. We also climbed lots of Colorado Fourteeners. In 2008, on his seventieth birthday, Dad made his last climb. We tried a winter ascent of Quandary Peak (14,271 feet) near Breckenridge, Colorado, and darn near tagged the summit, but had to turn back in high winds and deep snow.
One day near the end of the summer, the convertible Porsche 911 Cabriolet showed up again. I watched it round the bend of the Generals Highway and pull into Pinewood, driven by a guy in a three-piece suit, with a pretty blonde woman in a slinky red dress in the passenger seat. I saw they were carrying two bags of Lay’s barbecue potato chips, two six-packs of Foster’s tall boys, a sixer of Guinness Stout, and two cigar boxes sealed with gold foil and painted with coats of arms.
A little while later they came out of Dan’s cabin holding long cardboard tubes. Dan stood at the door while they told him how great he was. He waved them away. I could tell he wanted them gone. After my daily rounds, I walked over to Dan’s cabin. As usual he was sitting quietly on the top step, puffing a cigar. That night he had a bag of barbecue potato chips open at his side and a tall glass of creamy beer.
“What are you drinking?” I asked.
“Prince of Wales,” he said. “You want one?”
He fetched another glass and mixed me a delicious Foster’s and Guinness.
“Who were the people in the Porsche?” I asked him.
“They buy art,” he said. “I’m an artist. Come here—I want to show you something.”
The inside of his cabin was completely papered in paintings—canvases nailed five-deep to the walls. Dan stood at an easel in the middle of the room holding a thick bamboo paintbrush and staring at a white canvas like he was going to kick its ass. He took a breath, let it trail out, and raised the sharp-tipped brush, thrust out his arm, squished the black paint against the surface, and made a swift downward motion. One stroke.
The result was a perfect shoot of bamboo—the dip of the sulcus groove, two supernodal ridges, a gleam of sunlight, beads of water—all in a single stroke.
“I can do that every time,” he said. “I can make perfect bamboo like some people make potato chips. I’m a master. I got an inka and everything. Look at this.”
He picked up a nearby cigar box and flipped open the lid. It was packed with $100 bills.
“I’ll get by on this for eight months,” he said. “Until the park opens
“What’s an inka?”
“That’s just some schmegegge.”
An inka, as I’d later learn from Google, is the formal recognition of Zen’s deepest realization, bestowed by a buddha.
“See this?” He picked up a little red stamp called a hanko. “They don’t
give this out to just anybody.”
I still have no idea whether any of what Dan said was true. I recently searched online for Big Dan Sweeney but nothing came up. Was he a realized Zen master working as a pantryman in Sequoia National Park? Today you can get a hanko stamp for $14.99 on Amazon, but consider also the convertible-Porsche people and a cigar box full of money.
The guy was a hard read. He hugged trees and held 165 pounds dangling from one outstretched arm, painted a bamboo stalk with a single stroke, and climbed 5.10 friction in Hi-Tech hiking boots.
I walked around his cabin, peeling back page after page—landscapes, portraits, waterfalls (but not a single bamboo) shaded with bold splashes of color. Some were impressionistic, some cubist. Corpulent bodies, tilted trees, bearded faces that changed to different faces when you turned them upside down. Dozens and dozens of paintings. A torrent of shapes and colors. It was a trip standing in the middle of all that outpouring.
“Take a few,” Dan said. “As many as you want.”
I chose a watercolor of blue and yellow clouds.
“That’s Moro Rock from Hanging Rock,” Dan said.
He explained how the arching clouds were actually the shapes of the roofs and cracks in Moro Rock, then rolled it up and slipped it into a tube (which I promptly lost).
“Have a cigar,” he said. “I only smoke Cubans.”
We sat on the steps eating potato chips, drinking Foster’s and Guinness, and smoking Cuban cigars.
“What are you gonna do after this?” Dan asked.
That was the question. I explained to Dan that I could go to law school like my dad and be successful, or go climbing and be a dirtbag.
“I know you, Marshal. You’ll go to law school.”
“I can’t go climbing for the rest of my life.”
“The artist never stops. Try to stop, and if you can stop, then go to
(I did it backwards and went to law school before realizing that I couldn’t stop climbing.)
We smoked in silence for a long time.
“What is success anyway?” Dan asked.
I looked at the brush-stroke sequoias towering over the twilit woods. An autumn breeze stirred the pine needles on the road. Fine cigar smoke curled off toward the Lodge. Tomorrow I was going climbing at Moro Rock.
Jeff Jackson is the Editor at Large for Climbing.
From Fall 2021