A year-end letter, five weeks late.
Ice climbing. I accept a freelance writing gig, $300 to write an article on Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is busy and dry in January – but nowhere near as busy as the Front Range ice crags, which my editor asks if I’d be interested in writing about. “I can’t do it,” I say to him, and instead write an article on a place which already feels a lot busier in the winter than it was the first time I visited it, several years ago.
In February, I meet Lacee, through Facebook of all places. She can ice climb on the weekdays like I can, and we strike up a productive partnership which will last throughout the year, and into this one. But in Feb, we are just getting started.
An unusually stable weather window comes through, and avalanche danger in the San Juan mountains in Colorado’s Southwest drops to “Low.” Lacee and I head to Silverton, to try our hand at some larger, longer routes. We succeed on some, are stumped by others. I’m pleased, Lacee, less so. She has failed on one particular climb several times now, and it eluded her again. She drops me off with Will, another friend, in Ouray. Lacee heads home with four warning lights lit on her car dash.
Will and I climb in Ouray, then Lake City, and then drive to his home in Phoenix.
Will is unemployed, has a guest room in his house, and asks me to stay as long as I like. I am employed, as is Will’s wife, Sara. I book a flight out at the end of the week. The three of us take one day to go rock climb in the Superstition Mountains, an adventurous and obscure local spot outside of Phoenix. We ascend a spire they have picked out for me, a crumbly piece of rock plagued by many “portable holds” – loose rock which Sara and Will tell me is typical of the area. The warm desert sun beams, while Denver is buried under another snowstorm.
We hang out on the summit for a while, basking like lizards. No other climbers are visible around us, although we hear the sounds of rock trundling far below. “Climbers doing development?” I ask. “Maybe,” answers Sara. “IF they are making routes, we probably know them.”
We listen to the voices from below for a few minutes. “That sounds like Scott’s laugh,” doesn’t it? Will and Sara confer, before agreeing that yes, it does. Will and Sara give a call from the top of the tower, loud as they can: “DONKEYS RIDE!” We receive an immediate answer – it is the Donkeys down below, Phoenix’s local climbing club/ degenerates.
The next time I see a Donkey, a month on, in a different desert, he tells me: “We were down there talking to some tourists, they were asking us about rock climbing in the Supes. ‘Yeah,’ I was saying ‘not a whole lot of people climb here, and if they are it’s probably just one of us Donkeys.’ And then you guys yelled down from the top of ol’ Hobgoblin – the timing was perfect!”
I leave the Donkeys in Phoenix, and catch a one-way flight home to Denver. Madi picks me up; we go straight to her place. It is warm; lovely; familiar. It is nice to be wanted.
Madi and I pass March pleasantly, although not without tension. We have broken up once already, although it seems we share the same dream, and have decided to give it another try. I have been looking for a partner with the time, flexibility, and desire to travel climb and work. She ticks all of these boxes. I tick many of hers. We take a week, travel to Moab.
We climb in Indian Creek, where due to a mixup with the messageboards, we cannot find her friends, but do find mine. (No cell service in the Creek – you communicate via notes posted on bulletin boards).
We work from an RV park in Moab for the week, which she pays for.
On the weekend, we climb Ancient Art; slowly, stuck in crowds, and without great cheer. A French-Canadian man captures sure-to-be-stunning drone footage of us on the summit at sunset, which he still has yet to share. (Below is all i’ve seen)
We travel to Ouray, a special place for her. We catch the sunny end of the ice park season (it is dripping, melting, falling), smoke joints, and soak in the hot springs for days.
We return home, and break up shortly after.
As usual for the last few years, summer is spent in Rocky Mountain National Park. We don’t get up on the Diamond this year (my Casual Route trip report remains one of this site’s most successful posts), but still tick off a good number of classic and not-so-classic routes across the park, including routes on Notchtop, Spearhead, the Petit Grepon, Hallet Peak, the Cathedral Wall, and Chasm View Wall.
Your average itinerary for a day alpine climbing in Rocky might look something like this:
02:00: Wake up
02:20: Leave Boulder (ideally you’re not driving)
03:50: Arrive at trailhead
04:00: Start hiking by headlamp
06:30: Arrive at base of climb
07:00: Start climbing (hopefully no one is in front of you)
10:00: Have some kind of near-death experience
12:00: Start getting concerned about getting struck by lightning (if you’re still on route)
12:00-14:00: Finish climbing (if you’re good)
14:00-16:00: Return to parking lot, take off boots, have beer on tailgate. Make eyes at cute tourists who will 100% not talk to you.
17:00: Tacos and margs at Ed’s Cantina. Relive climb with partner at the bar. Maybe spray to strangers about your epic day but mostly just focus on refilling the massive amount of calories you’ve expended.
18:00: Leave Estes Park
19:30: Back home
20:00: Sit on couch in an exhausted daze
21:00: Finally muster the motivation to get up and go to bed.
That day can go a lot faster or a lot slower, depending on who you are, what your objective is, and who your partner is. But overall, that’s a pretty average day in ‘The Park’. By the end of summer these days start to add up, and it becomes increasingly hard to get out of bed in the middle of the night.
I don’t write trip reports for every climb I do, but here is one from this summer that did get a trip report: Englishman’s Route, Hallet Peak.
My approach shoes, an object of great concern for my friends, are finally retired.
My father retires at the start of summer, after many decades working at the same company. No gold watch. But he has lived a comfortable life, and been able to give one to me and my sister, as well. He needs no more.
I buy a used Toyota Sienna minivan. Dad and I pull out the second and third row seats, and set to building a platform in the back. It’s a relatively simple project, all around. We do a few hours here, a few hours there, fitting the sessions in around my work schedule and his social schedule, a funny inversion.
I’ve never done a woodworking project with my dad, although he owns many tools and seems to appreciate tinkering.
“I’m proud you’re such a good woodworker,” he says to me one night.
“Mom’s second husband was a professional carpenter,” I say. “He taught me some stuff. Christina and him worked together more — she’s actually pretty good — but yeah, I know how to work a saw.”
“Huh,” he says.
My whole life, my dad has been an overly-enthusiastic photographer. Too many photos, of too many moments, clog his hard-drives. He claims retirement will be a chance to review them all. But we take almost no photos of the van build.
One evening, my stepmom comes into the garage to wish us goodnight. She asks us how it’s going. We are cleaning up, vacuuming sawdust and putting tools away. “This is great!” my dad says, beaming. “We’re using the tools, it’s coming along – it’s awesome!” He has a smile on his face like a kid.
I won’t need a photograph to remember that.
I hug my dad, take the van, take my computer, and hit the road.
It is 1,556 miles from Boulder, CO, USA to Squamish, BC, Canada. I drive myself there, alone. Fours days of driving; one breakdown; one tow across the middle of Wyoming. Not too bad, all considered. “Sounds like the starter,” my mechanic friend texts me, two days after I’ve had the starter replaced for $400. “Tell your car it isn’t allowed to die while I’m on a wall.”
I’m most of the way to Canada by then, but I reassure him — it won’t happen again.
I drive to Squamish, British Columbia, where I meet a woman my mechanic introduced me to. Brooke and I meet in real life for the first time in the parking lot below the Stwamus Chief, a 700-meter tall granite monolith. She’s just been through a bad breakup, she says. Sorry if she’s mopey. I find her cheerful, perfect.
Almost 20 years older than me, Brooke lives in a van and hasn’t had a job for over a year. When she chooses to be employed, she’s a programmer for healthcare companies. Surely, it pays well. For the past year, I’ve been watching her (and the ex, I guess), rampage across North America and Canada’s classic climbing. Big routes in The Bugaboos, Red Rocks, Yosemite — Brooke posts on social media a lot, and I’ve enjoyed watching all of it. Now, after a few chats and months of parasocial relations, we finally meet.
We climb lots of good stuff in Squamish. My first climb there, we top out next to a huge waterfall. I strip naked, jump in, and bathe the grime of the road trip off, staring out across Howe Sound. We romp to the top of the Chief, several times. I take a lunch break, and we climb four pitches of excellent cracks. I am back online before anyone notices.
Brooke sleeps in her van; me, in my minivan. Us and 30-40 others spend every night in the Wal-Mart parking lot, the best free bivvy spot in town. It’s a bit ridiculous, the amount of vans. The townsfolk have some opinions about that. I try to keep my profile low. I get no grief, and throughout two weeks in Squamish, I never pay for a night of lodging.
The rains arrive in Squamish, much later than average. They quench the wildfires burning across BC, so I can’t complain. Brooke, however, is crushed. No more climbing, and no immediate place to head to. The rain is everywhere within a six-hour drive. She leaves Canada, and heads south.
I head west, to Vancouver Island, to see about a girl.
Ruby and I met five years ago, in Chefchaouen. If you are a dedicated follower of this blog, you know about Chefchaouen. Chaouen is a small blue town in Morocco, a place where, for better or worse, my life changed. Meeting Ruby was part of that change. Had things gone a bit different, maybe here you would have found a long series about she and I.
But you won’t find such a story. We shared a brief moment in Morocco, and each went on our own journeys, for many years. We stayed in touch though, through many difficult moments. The digital relationship touches sexual, emotional, indifferent, honest, angry, avoidant, and most points in between during the five years which separate Fall 2017 and Fall 2022.
When we finally reunite in person, much lies unsaid between us.
“I remembered you being as tall as me,” I say to her. She is six inches shorter, in reality. “I’m glad I have that commanding presence,” she laughs.
“I had wondered if you would have changed,” she says to me, later in our visit.
“Am I different?” I ask.
“No,” she says with a shake of her head. “Maybe a bit more beaten down,” she qualifies. “But not too different, at the core.”
She is different. She has grown up.
We visit Tofino, a stunning surf town five hours up-island on Vancouver Island. It is a hip spot, no denying. But I spend five hours driving there, we spend a single night, and then five hours driving back. The vibe, despite some effort, does not materialize between us.
It is not a bad visit. It is simply pedestrian.
We walk on the beach.
We buy a stuffed animal.
I leave my camera in a five-star restaurant.
After five years apart, we take not a single photo together.
I return to the USA via ferry. I stand on the bow and watch the Canadian flags recede in the distance, the stars and stripes fluttering next. to me. I phone Madi. She does not answer. I phone my mother. We chat, briefly. She tells me her list for Washington, and Oregon, and tells me of the time she drove across the country, age 17. I’ve heard the story before. I will hear it again. I’ll check those places out, thanks mom, I say.
The glaciated peak of Mount Olympus stares at me through the seafoam. It starts to rain, and I am melancholic.
I drive, alone, through a rain-soaked Washington.
The Journey Home
The route returns to Brooke for a moment, and we climb at Lover’s Leap, near Lake Tahoe. We tick a 50 classic. She wants to continue the trip, encourages me to go to Las Vegas where the routes are long and the sun is out. Tahoe is cold; winter approaches.
I am tired; worn down. It has been most of a month. I say my goodbyes to Brooke and point myself towards home, stopping in Moab to visit with some friends who have just begun their digital nomad lifestyle. They seem to be enjoying it, although they are quarreling when I leave.
Home calls, stronger than it ever has.
The trip ended up looking something like this. although not exactly. A long ways, and a lot of land. A few moments from across America:
“TRUMP WON” graffiti on a rest stop, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.
Faded casino signage seen through a chainlink fence, Reno, NV.
Moonrise over Arches National Park and La Sal Mountains, Moab, Utah.
You might get an article about this one, later – if you’re lucky.
Home feels good.
There is much to be had here.
There will be more places in 2023. But in the meantime:
Images are all my own film photography. “Phoenix” taken by Will, “Moab” taken by Madi.