A Night at the OX

Head, Shoulders, and Brains Above the Rest: Reflections on Missoula’s Oxford Saloon. By Cameron M. Burns

12319598_10206573767195747_2116353641_nIn 1990, after spending two summers in the Sierra Nevada, climbing with fellow sadomasochist Steve Porcella and a few other wayward grovelers, I returned to my parents’ basement in New Mexico while Steve headed back to Montana and graduate school.

Our two Sierra summers had led us to the notion that someone ought to write a guide to California’s fourteeners. I corresponded with Galen Rowell about the idea (he’d been up on Whitney with us in early 1990 when he and Dave Wilson finished off Galen’s and Kike Arnal’s abortive attempt on Left Wing Extremist). Both Steve Roper and Galen were supportive, so Steve (P.) and I hunkered down, 1,000 miles from each other, and, when time allowed, began writing. Within a few days, it was pretty apparent that we needed to be nearer each other in order to get the thing done. I was broke (as usual—how come after a 30-year and somewhat successful writing career I’m still broke? Maybe not as successful as I thought, huh?)), so my father offered me the job of sanding the entire exterior of his Los Alamos house, and staining it. He said he’d give me $1,000, which sounded like a fortune to me.

The job was brutal. The paint was like concrete, and it took hours just to do a few square feet.

Two weeks later, after several accidents, one of which included my right index finger getting caught in the belt sander I was using (you ever see one of those applied to flesh?), I moved on to the thrill of staining. At least the stain had some nice, mind-bending fumes whereas the sander just ate through any human meat it could connect with.

In the spring of 1991, I had enough money to head north. I invited a woman I knew from college, Ann, to go with me. She jumped at the idea. Like everyone who’s ever lived in Boulder, she was in a rut. And here I was—some young Romantic suggesting we were headed to paradise. It must’ve been the fumes from the stain. Or maybe she’d had a bad knock on her head as a child. Anyway, she agreed, and we shimmied north in my old, hand-me-down Toyota, camping along the way because that was all we could afford. We eventually got to Missoula, and moved in with Steve and his new bride, Sandy, who was pregnant. This arrangement was not to last, as Ann had already lined up a gig radio-tracking moose in Glacier National Park, and I was simply an easily rejectable third wheel in a situation that did not call for a tricycle. So Ann departed for Glacier within a few days, and I stayed with Steve and Sandy for a couple of weeks.

Each morning, for sanity reasons, I went and drank coffee at a place called the Oxford Saloon.

The Oxford Saloon was established in 1883 and has been continuously operated 24 hours a day since then. It’s not an easy place to describe, as it’s not just a saloon. It’s a saloon, keno lounge, diner, strip joint, casino, and liquor store all rolled into one. The old menu summed it up nicely: “Good old-fashioned eatin’, drinkin’ and gambling.” Think amusement park of adult vices and you get the idea.

After a couple of weeks in Missoula, Steve convinced Sandy that we needed to do a bit more on-the-ground research for the book.

How climbing Half Dome had anything to do with a book we were writing in Missoula, Montana on peaks mostly in the high Sierra has been lost on me ever since, but Steve somehow got out of the responsible would-be parent role, and we jetted south in his truck for a couple of weeks.

Half Dome was a bust. We got up a dozen pitches before some ne’er do well got in trouble up at Big Sandy (I think). The rescue gang came out and started blaring commands at the wall. That was all well and fine, but lingering out to the west was a massive storm. Massive, massive storm. We descended. Everyone descended before we were power-hosed off the wall.

Back in Missoula, we licked our wounds. And I spent more and more time at the Ox. Ann was out cavorting with moose, and my partner in crime was having a baby, doing his studies, and generally unavailable. The Ox it was.

As my visits there went on (typically in search of as much caffeine as I could hold down), it became apparent this was no ordinary … um, establishment.

Let’s take a quick tour—or a tour of it as I came to know it in 1990.

Walk in the front door of the Ox and you would be presented with a large hall-like space. Nothing out of the ordinary except that in that space there were three very distinct areas. Immediately to your right was a large, dark, heavy wooden bar—the kind of thing that could’ve done duty as a support pier for an interstate highway. People had worn sections of the bar with their elbows, carved initials in it, and generally abused it, although it was the kind of bar you could never demolish because it was just so darn solid. There were likely a few bullet holes in the wood, although I never saw any. Certainly there were several stains that I’m convinced were dried human blood.

Behind the bar was a great big mirror. Along the bottom of the mirror was a neat line of bottles—liquor of all manner and sundry. A few grizzled and genuinely rough types were always on the stools—morning, noon, and night—but there was never more than three or four of them. And, though they looked like something out a zombie apocalypse / western / hard crime / Rikers Island documentary, they were always cheerful and showed us their missing teeth, or rather, the gaps where said teeth might’ve gone.

Above the bar’s mirror was a sizeable collection of rifles and shotguns in glass cases, each with a placard describing the weapon and, I assumed, the kinds of flora, fauna, and road signs the piece had blown to smithereens.

I remember one morning, 8 am or so, when Ann was down from Polebridge. A huge man with eyeballs that pointed in different directions and wearing, it seemed, nothing more than a pair of dirty blue overalls and black boots wandered in. He looked like he’d been rejected by a mental health facility for being too crazy. He sat down at the bar, ordered six shots of whiskey, downed them, and walked out. Curious as all get-out, Ann and I stealthily followed him outside and watched as he climbed on the biggest, nicest-looking Honda Gold Wing I’ve ever seen, cranked it up, and chugged off down the street.

“Another day in paradise?” Ann suggested.

Off to the left side when you came in the front door was a pool table and, when I was there, a keno board on the wall. The temperament of the rough types at the bar was complemented by the elderly folks who seem to congregate for keno at all hours of the day. When the keno gang wasn’t in residence, the pool table was used for poker, and a dark and crusty collection of old men would gamble for hours on end.

Walk farther in—the bar ends and there’s an ugly Formica counter. This is the diner part of the Ox. Behind the diner were several refrigerated pastry display cases with pies of various flavors. The kitchen equipment—griddle, blenders, toaster ovens, etc.—all looked to be at least fifty years old, but they were kept miraculously clean and seem to work without incident.

When I lived in Missoula there was one waitress there with the most mannish of faces. She had a massive hooked nose, large beady eyes, a flat forehead big enough to mount a billboard on, and a strange tube-shaped body clad in what appeared to be left over worsted from the reupholstering of a couch. She looked remarkably like the Monty Python guys when they dressed up as little old ladies and reenacted famous military scenes. Her nametag said Francine or something, but behind her back we called her Frank.

Her sidekick, the cook, was a young man with an outgoing demeanor who both danced and sang Elvis Presley songs while he cooked eggs, sausages, ham, pancakes, grits, toast, and whatever else got ordered up. We labeled him, not surprisingly, Elvis.

There was a strange symbiosis between Frank and Elvis. Frank never smiled or said much and looked as if she / he might be in some kind of pain. Meanwhile, Elvis danced around and cracked jokes, laughed a lot, and was genuinely amusing.

“This guy’s pretty funny, huh?” Frank would snort sternly while thrusting a sloshing pot of coffee at Elvis. (Elvis would then blow Frank a kiss behind Frank’s back.)

The most notable thing about the diner, however, was the Ox’s most famous dish: brains and eggs. It was listed at the top of the menu on the wall, like some kind of gastrointestinal challenge. Our small collection of friends often joked about ordering it, but none of us really had the cojones.

Behind the diner, the Ox narrowed down into a wide, dark hallway of sorts. Each side of the hallway was lined with slot machines (one-armed bandits), where you could gamble away any money you might’ve saved by dining at the Ox. Behind the slot machines was a strip club.

Of course, when you’re sitting down to a breakfast omelette and a quite unclothed stripper leans over the counter next to you to order dry white toast and a Budweiser so she can keep her energy up … well, that works a mite better than coffee in the attention-span department. None of the strippers was particularly pretty, but they were all nice. The thing I hated was the fact they all smoked, even when standing at the Formica counter eating their toast and drinking their beer.

The other very noticeable aspect of the Ox was the “decoration” on the walls. There were excruciatingly rough portraits of longtime Oxford patrons. Dozens of these images were nailed to the walls, all the way up to the ceiling. The portraits looked like a cross between a fourth grader’s artwork and police suspect sketches.

Still, in 1990, while I lived in Missoula for six months, the Ox was a home away from home. Certainly it had an air of good down-home dysfunction. I fit in the way a glove fits in the bed of a pickup truck.

 

12348370_10206573771635858_45635775_nIn 1996, Ann and I returned to Missoula for a wedding. Our trip included a visit, with much of the wedding party, to the Ox. After some raucous taunting and teasing—and me considering that I might never see the Ox again—I ordered the brains and eggs. This brought me a round of applause from the gang, but it also meant I was committed.

After considerable time, the dish arrived. The meal was $5.99, according to the menu, but when it arrived it looked to be enough food to nourish a small Montana town. The scrambled eggs, of which there must’ve been about six, sat in one corner of the massive round plate. The rest of the dish was piled high with an opaque, gray Jello-like substance. There must’ve been five pounds of the stuff.

I pushed it with my fork, which slid easily into the gelatinous lump. I cut a piece off with my knife and put the soft gray Jello lump in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much. It was sort of tasteless. It was the consistency that disturbed me. Like some kind of soft pudding that you could probably snort through a straw. A violent shiver went down my spine. But I kept on.

I must’ve eaten about a third of the brains before I was forced to retire. The texture and color were making me exceptional queasy and the barrage of jokes from people rumored to be my friends was getting to me. I pulled up shy by several lobes and switched to coffee. Remarkably, everything stayed down.

In recent months I’ve read that the Ox no longer serves brains and eggs—the meal canned by one of the public health agencies. I’ve read the walls are no longer covered with the portraits of Oxford regulars (but, rather, with scenic images of logging, mining and railroads). And I’m sure Frank and Elvis are long gone. And as far as the liquor store, I never knew there was one until I read it online the other day—no clue if it’s still there or ever really was.

There are certain dining and drinking establishments that loom large in your youth. Places where you met your first girlfriend or ate your first Mezcal worm or tried steak tartare for the first time. Places that loom larger in your mind than they really were.

El Chapultepec in Denver, Evangelo’s in Santa Fe, the Purple Pig in Alamosa, Michael’s Kitchen in Taos, Laughing Ladies in Salida, Mother’s Café in Boulder (RIP), the Golden Burro in Leadville, Tacqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs—are among my dozens of loomers.

But the Ox stands head, shoulders—and, of course, brains—above the rest on my list for its sheer quirkiness, its colorful denizens, and the strange intersections of vice, humanity, food, and of course, beverages. I’ve never seen a finer collision.

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The Grand Teton with Heidegger and Hegel

When is a climb dependent on a priori reasoning? When you carry a backpack full of philosophy books and leave your warm shell at home.  By Cameron M. Burns

My first trip to the Grand Teton in May 1986 was a lesson in mountain preparedness.

Somehow we’d managed to score one of the American Alpine Club’s huts for a long weekend, and five of us zoomed up to Wyoming in two cars: the Bach brothers in their hot red MG, and Jeff O’Defey, Ethan Putterman, and I in Jeff’s sedan, a Sanford and Son–style Ford his dad had offered up, a vehicle with a ridiculous name like the Painful Yoga Position SL or some such (BTW: SL stands for “Short Legs” with all American-made sedans).

We unloaded into the bright and clean wooden cabin and immediately had a lively discussion about particulate matter and methane emissions—Ethan had had baked beans for breakfast.

The plan was to do an acclimatization hike the next day (a Saturday), then climb the regular route (an easy scramble) the following day. We fixed a gourmet-style dinner of Vienna sausages in hot dog rolls and corn chips and called it a night. In the morning, we loaded our packs and set off up the Garnet Canyon trail. After a couple of hours, we stopped for a break. Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I pulled out water bottles and ate a snack.

Curiously, Ethan—whose 6-foot 4-inch frame earned him the nickname “The Big E” throughout our college careers—sat with his pack on his lap and took in no nutrients or moisture. We eyed him suspiciously.

After 20 minutes, we started up again, plodding methodically up the canyon, taking in the scenery and enjoying a new experience. Although we all lived in the ~5,000-foot high Pretend Left-wingers Ultra Conservative Republic (Boulder) at the time, we thought we needed to acclimatize.

We also wanted to travel across Wyoming to experience the kind of multi-culturalism that we couldn’t experience at home in Boulder—you know, black people, native Americans, Asians, etc. (As Benny, a denizen of Reno often points out, the gay cowboys building electric cars he’s met in Reno are way more Boulder than Boulder. Oops, sorry, Reno, for that slur.)

About two miles up the trail it started to rain and a cold wind blew in from the west. We were in minimalist clothing, but we had sweaters and rain jackets. We opened packs and pulled them out. The Big E just watched and shivered slightly.

“Ethan, aren’t you going to put something warmer on?” I asked.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Um…”

“Whatcha got in that pack then?” Jeff asked.

Jeff’s observation was spot on. Ethan looked at his overstuffed academically oriented and notably square backpack, gave us a weak smile, then unzipped the main compartment. He pulled out a book. It was Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. He pulled out another book: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. Then Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

A floodgate, it seemed, had been opened.

Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. 

Phenomenology of Mind. 

Science of Logic.

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. 

The Principle of Reason. 

Identity and Difference. 

Discourse On Thinking. 

The Confessions. 

The German Constitution. 

Emile.

A veritable library of philosophy books the rest of us had never heard of were pulled out and shared among Ethan’s small shivering audience.

“You don’t have a shell?” I asked.

“Um, no.”

Jeff and I looked in his pack, just to make sure. Besides additional philosophy books, there were some pens and a notebook. But certainly nothing that anyone in a Tetons snowstorm would consider useful unless you thought a bonfire built with classic intellectuals’ masterworks might keep you going.

We held a quick meeting.

It was June, and down on the plains it was already scorching hot. Up in the canyon, though, it was blizzarding.

images-1Jeff recently (e.g., nearly 30 years later) recalled via email: “So we sent him back to the cabin with instructions to put the beer in the river to get it cold. And at the end of the day, as we drove across the bridge and looked down, there was Ethan, reading on the bank, beer cans slowly floating away downstream….” (I’d forgotten about the kayaking beer cans. Thanks, Jeff.)

After another dinner choking down as many Vienna sausages as we could without raising bile, we played a nasty game where we threw the sausages as hard as we could at the window screens (I recommend everyone try this because it’s quite strange; huck a Vienna sausage as hard as you can at an insect screen and the sausage will—no kidding—go right through it. It might say a bit about the amount of fiber in Viennese cuisine).

We settled in for another night of the unexpected and delightful noises and smells and vibrations generated by five 20-year-old men while they slumber.

In the morning, Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I left the Big E lying in bed with his very thoughtful, several-hundred-year-old male friends (“Wait, does The Social Contract really have a centerfold?”) and hoofed it up Garnet Canyon again.

We reached the Lower Saddle, where Benny, Kirk, and Jeff all got altitude sickness—or something along those lines. (Thoughts of sausages and insects, I suspect.)

I continued on by myself.

 

The standard route up the Grand is called the Owen-Spaulding. There’s a section on it called “The Belly Roll,” which is a straightforward traverse across a ledge with a bit of a drop to the Black Ice Couloir below. The Belly Roll, of course, was coated with ice, so I finger-jammed the inch-wide gap between the rock and the ice and shimmied across—and nearly lost my cookies.

Up on the summit I swore I wouldn’t downclimb that. Nope, I was going to wait for whoever was next up and beg a rappel from them.

Miraculously, a few minutes after I reached the “apex” of Wyoming (a curious term climbing-writers often use (like I just did) to prove their cleverness), there was a light clanking sound and two climbers, armed with enough gear to solo girdle traverse the Great Trango Tower and Everest simultaneously, panted their way to the top of the east ridge, where I was waiting for them.

We swapped loud yodels, as Wyoming climbers do, and agreed to swap my knowledge of the standard descent with use of their rope via a crack-cleaning Dulfer-Sitz.

We got down, shook hands, and I ran down the trail, thoughts of vulnerable sausages dancing through my head.

About 10 pm I met Benny and Jeff hiking up the trail to find me. They congratulated me and shepherded me down with their headlamps.

And, as is suggested in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, “there was much rejoicing.”

The funny thing about that trip is how much I learned about preparedness. Clearly, I wasn’t prepared for the weather, climbing conditions, and descent issues on the mountain, and the rest of the crew weren’t prepared for altitude sickness.

And, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, the Owen-Spaulding is, apparently, an aid route. I didn’t even know how to erect a portaledge at that tender age. (That’ll likely get changed 5 minutes after this article is posted.)

UnknownEthan, on the other hand, was ready all along. He had his books and his thoughts, and could’ve spent several years on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, reading and allowing dozens of cans of Mill-gag-me’s Beast to return to their natural habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Next time I go into the mountains, I’m going prepared—with an armload of books.

Ethan says he has a few I can borrow.

Although he is now in therapy because the above story is completely true, Cam Burns enjoyed every moment of that long (and lost) weekend.

Confessions of a Non-wanna-be Guidebook Writer

The tale of the old Old Green Beast or the horror (and occasional joy) of a climber who became a guidebook writer. By Cameron M. Burns

When I was a young climber, I never ever, ever wanted to write a guidebook.

Never ever.

I hated them.

As Steve Roper so famously wrote in a classic guide to the Sierra Nevada: “kick the cairns over and let people discover it all for themselves,” or something like that. I agree. I’ll always agree with “Ropero,” as Layton Kor called him.

It came about in a silly way. In 1988, a bunch of my high school friends were starting to bolt (by hand) routes at a crag in New Mexico. We all got in on the act, spending hours hand-drilling bolts in the iron-hard basalt. It was horrendous work. But a few months later, a few members of the local climbing club, the Los Alamos Mountaineers, wanted information on the routes. So I stapled together 18 pages, gave them to about six blokes who corrected a few things, Xeroxed twenty copies, and set them on the desk at the local “climbing” store. They were gone in a day.

Hmm. That was that, I thought. Done with that crap.

 

Within six months I was cruising the Sierra Nevada with Steve Porcella (see Alpinist 48).

After 65 routes the summer of 1989, we thought a new guidebook (to just the fourteeners) might be a worthwhile project. Roper had revamped an old edition of A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra for the Sierra Club (about the 4th or 5th edition, several of which had different titles (Hervey Voge’s 1954 edition had the same title, but the 1972 edition, for example, was simply called Mountaineer’s Guide)), and the route descriptions and grades were interesting, to say the least. In the summer of 1990, we headed back into the Sierra, the Whitney region. Somehow, we timed our trip with one that Dave Wilson and Galen Rowell were planning, and we decided to do a sort-of foursome. We met in Lone Pine the night before the hike in.

Over dinner, we got to chatting about a possible guidebook to the fourteeners.

“You know how Steve graded all those routes, right?” Galen asked while skewering a lump of potato (he’d known Steve since the fourth grade in Berkeley). “He flew over the range with a pair of binoculars and declared, ‘that can’t be a Class 5. I’m calling it a Class 4’.” The story seemed completely plausible because the stuff we were climbing in 1989 had grades that were quite outta whack with what was in the guidebook.

On the East Face of Whitney, Steve and I watched from 200 feet away while Dave and Galen finished off a route Galen and Kike Arnal had tried the previous year—Left Wing Extremist—named for the chicken-winging they did on the climb. (We failed on our new route.)

In 1990, Steve and I wrote a 450-page guide to California’s 14ers with about 150 routes in it. I remember just printing out the Word document was more than anything I could ever afford. But we also knew no one would want that—it was mostly boring climbing history. With fourteeners, people want to just bag summits, not know about some incredibly obscure 5.9 lying 15 miles from a trailhead.

CA14ers(1e)We pared it down to 92 pages—the easiest route or voie normal on each peak. We sent it to a half dozen publishers and none of them wanted anything to do with it. So we self-published California Fourteeners (Palisades Press, 1991, 92 pages), 5,000 copies done at a print shop in Great Falls, Montana under the auspices of our own company (Palisades Press). It was a funky little purple book, that to this day is one of my proudest achievements (then again, eating a six-egg omlette is a massively proud moment for me).

Four years later, George Meyers of Chockstone Press approached us and gave us a publishing deal for the 92-pager—20 percent of gross sales because it was selling so well (something like 4,000 copies in four years). George’s was the second edition: (Chockstone Press, 1995, 92 pages).

(In 1998, the Mountaineers Books republished a much bigger version: Climbing California’s Fourteeners: 183 Routes to the 15 Highest Peaks (1998, 272 pages). Like the first version, it went into a second edition (Climbing California’s Fourteeners: The Route Guide to the 15 Highest Peaks (2008, 272 pages). The full 450-page version remains like garlic to a vampire—appropriately untouched.)

While all these books were happening (1991–95), I’d moved across the west chasing various journalism jobs. My girlfriend Ann and I ended up in Aspen when I got a job at the Aspen Times in 1992, thankfully, with subsidized housing. After three years there (and having payed off my student loans for architecture school), we got married, and I headed to Patagonia with two English climbers. We climbed a handful of routes, and I came home in early 1996—completely stinking broke. Not two nickels to rub together.

After landing at Denver International, Ann took me straight to George’s place in Evergreen, Colo. Several hours of talk ensued, and I walked out of his garage with four book contracts in hand: a Colorado ice climbers guide, a guide to Independence Pass, a guide to Escalante, and a guide to climbing in the Telluride area. Luckily (for both me and climbers everywhere), I was smart enough to realize I knew very little about three of those areas, but I had been doing quite a bit of ice climbing. We chatted on the phone, agreed both of us would tear up the Escalante, Indy Pass, and Telluride contracts—but I thought I could pull together an ice guide pretty easily because I really did know most of it.

The only issue, I soon learned, was Jack Roberts. He’d started in on a Colorado ice guide, but George explained that Jack’s progress was glacially slow, and, in all honesty, he didn’t think Jack would actually ever finish it. Jack, of course, was doing all sorts of wild routes in Alaska and other places, so that was completely understandable.

I went back to Aspen, and took up a job shoveling snow off roofs in Snowmass Village—I had to earn a buck.

 

COiceIn late March 1996, George and I talked again. He wanted a Colorado ice guide manuscript in three weeks and Jack was on another climbing trip, or generally unavailable. I quit my incredibly lucrative career as a snow shoveler, jumped in my truck, and spent a week driving around the entire state, taking photos of well-known ice climbs that—since it was early April—were coming unglued and falling to pieces. Three weeks later, I’d finished the manuscript, crappy as it was, to the first Colorado ice guide—“The Old Green Beast,” I’d later call it. It was about 40,000 words—no big length because words seem to flow out of me like some kind of puss. We used to do easily 12,000 words a week at the Times, sometimes more, and my editors would often complain I’d written too much.

Jon Klusmire, a friend who worked at the Times, recently noted in a Facebook post: “As one of those Aspen Times editors, this is how I remember describing Cam’s approach to writing: ‘It’s like crapping in a tub. Back up and let ’er fly.’” Grusmire (as we used to call him) is always spot on.

In the fall of 1997, The Old Green Beast came out. It was less a point of pride than I would have ever imagined. In fact, throwing a guidebook for an entire state together in three weeks, with one week of on-the-ground research (even if I knew most areas), was sort of like performing brain surgery for the first time using Brain Surgery for Dummies as your guiding light.

Not a great idea. I was scared when anyone picked it up.

 

In the winter of 1997–98, climbing with Jesse Harvey in the Fisher Towers, we ran into three young climbers from Crested Butte sitting around a campfire. We talked climbing.

“So you guys like the Fishers?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said. “But we’ve got the new Cam Burns ice guide and we’ve been doing a lot of ice lately.”

My entire scalp rotated 30 degrees back on my skull, eyebrows lifting as if hauled toward the sky by an invisible crane. I waited several moments, then asked, “Is the book any good?”

The kid shrugged: “I think so, although we’ve only done a dozen routes in it so far.”

Jesse leaned over, and held the back of his hand up against his mouth so, ostensibly, the lads couldn’t hear him. But being a cheeky bastard, he said it loud enough so they could: “Cam, didn’t you say you wrote that book in two weeks?”

One of the Butteans looked at us curiously. He heard part of the wonderful commentary by my best climbing partner at the time (a somewhat cherished position at the time, since I led everything).

Thankfully the lad from the Butte hadn’t quite heard the entire comment. I swung an angry foot at Jesse, then announced it was bedtime as we had to get up and fix a few pitches in the morning. Oh, yes, and I had to go take a piton hammer to my friend’s head.

 

Over Valentine’s weekend in 1998, my wife and I hiked into a climb near Lake City. Three other climbers ahead of us were standing at the base of the route we wanted to do, and they were scouring the Old Greener. I did a quick 180 and told Ann, “We’re leaving. Run. Run!”

“What? We just got here.”

I bolted along the post-holed trail, gear clanking like an Indian dishwalla.

“They’ve got the Beast,” I yelled back at Ann. “Run.”

She tripped over the rope, now flopping around her feet, and gave me a stare that would’ve melted an ice climbing guidebook—even one with some bad mistakes. We got in the truck (also green), and buggered off to Ouray.

“Well, that certainly was fun,” Ann said as I drove. “What if we run into some ice climbers with a Tolstoy or, God forbid, an Ed Abbey?”

“Shsssh.”

 

A year or two later, Jack Robert’s Colorado ice climbing guide came out. It was really, really well done. But at a trade show, a good friend, Brian Litz—the publisher of Jack’s book—told me he’d been over to Jack’s Boulder home one day and found Jack at a keyboard with The Old Green Beast open, and Jack copying the Green Beast ver batim. Brian flipped, he told me at the trade show, and explained to Jack that you can’t do such a thing in writing. (If you study the mistakes in The Old Green Beast, some of them are repeated in Jack’s first book—like, for example, a route in Redstone that Duane Raleigh pointed out was horribly incorrect in the Beast (“In your own backyard,” Duane appropriately and correctly chided)).

But I didn’t mind the situation. Jack’s second edition was far, far superior to the first two books out there, and Jack and I later climbed together at Lincoln Falls.

Ice climbing with Jack was like watching a gazelle outrun a cheetah in the Serengeti. Ice climbing with me was like watching a sanitarium patient fumble with a walker. Besides, Jack was a real climber. I was oozing puss.

K&KForget the Beast. I was already onto several more books, including the second guidebook to Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide (The Mountaineers Books, 1998, 176 pages); Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest (The Mountaineers Books, 1999, 240 pages); 50 Hikes in Colorado (Norton, 2003, 208 pages); and later, Kilimanjaro & East Africa (The Mountaineers Books, 2006, 240 pages).

As well as several books of stories, chapters of books for other people, ghost-writing material for people, magazine articles and columns, gear companies’ material, and much more.

 

What strikes me looking back is that while writing all this stuff, I kept a full-time job the entire time. Research was done on vacation time, and it was always go, go, go—mostly on weekends. Mistakes are inevitable, as I’ve read in some of the not-so-friendly comments online, but I’ve always told critics, “hey, if you don’t like it, try writing your own. I’m sure it’ll be much better anyway.”

The Old Green Beast, though, was special. It came during one of those moments in life when you’re just living for the climbing, not giving a damn about the next buck but needing one anyway. Surviving any way you can. And seeing the world.

And Jack was always giving me story ideas for the UK magazines I wrote for. I scooped everyone on the news of Jeff Lowe’s Octopussy because of Jack, and later won a Colorado Press Association award because of that story. I never had a chance to thank him.

I miss his warm smile, his humble demeanor, and his friendliness when I’d show up at Gary Neptune’s shop. He was always good value, top shelf, as were his books. Well, his second edition, at least. The first had a bit too much of the Old Green Beast in it.

The Hermit: New Mexico’s First Mountaineer

The mystery of Giovanni Maria Agostini

By Cameron M. Burns

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of history is that it tends to repeat itself. And the greatest people who do remarkable things during one era are generally forgotten by those of the next. Paul Simon said it best, and simplest, when he sang: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

The story of Giovanni Maria Agostini is a case in point. Born in 1801, in Navaro, Italy, Agostini was the son of a nobleman, and an incurable wanderer. According to legend, Agostini killed his cousin during an argument, then devoted the remainder of his existence to atoning for the dreadful deed. After roaming around Europe for almost ten years, Agostini sailed to Caracas in 1838, then proceeded to wander the length and breadth of South America. He traveled throughout the Amazon Basin, up and down the Brazilian coast, amongst the Chilean Andes, and as far south as Patagonia.

One strange element of Agostini’s wanderings was his parallel lifestyles. Although he spent a great deal of time as the guest of the rich and powerful, he also sought out remote settings. According to historians, he was interested in pursuing a life of abstinence; he wished to repent for his murderous act. Thus he spent much of his life living in the wilderness, usually in caves.

Not surprisingly, Agostini also earned a reputation for being a holy man and was constantly healing the sick and comforting the poor. In 1863, after being removed from a cave on El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, Agostini arrived in New Mexico. He promptly took up residence in a cave near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was soon administering to the needy. Although Agostino sought only solitude, his own reputation made him a rather hot item, and people came from miles around to ask for his help.

Eventually, seeking only peace, Agostini moved to a cave at the top of El Cerro del Tecolote. The mountain later became known as Hermit’s Peak. In his new abode, Agostini carved trinkets and crosses, which he sold in Las Vegas for a pittance, just enough to buy cornmeal. Agostini’s notoriety grew, and before long the villagers were climbing the steep face of El Cerro de Tecolote just to seek the alleged saint.

The hermit’s most renowned miracle was performed when a group of villagers built a wooden shelter to help him endure the harsh mountain winter. Because he was very old at the time, Agostini consented. The group built the cabin to the Hermit’s plans; it was small and windowless, and had a low door that required he get down on his knees to pass through it. He also had the cabin builders rim the doorway with sharp wooden spikes. Obviously he embraced pain as much as he embraced solitude.

According to legend, while the townsfolk were building the cabin, they ran out of water. Not eager to see them suffer on his account, the Hermit scratched the ground with his walking stick. To the surprise of his followers, fresh water gurgled forth. Agostini had produced a spring where previously there was nothing but dry earth. Although the story sounds pretty tall today, the spring is the only water to be found on a totally dehydrated mountaintop.

In 1867, in search of a more fulfilling solitude, Agostini, then 66, wandered toward the southern part of New Mexico. In 1869, his body was found in a cave in the Organ Mountains; he had been stabbed to death.

Agostini left behind a wealth of legends, the least of which was an unsolvable murder. However, he also embraced a lifestyle that went beyond any mountaineering achievement. His life was spent as a part of the mountain itself.

This piece, written by Cam Burn in 1989, has never been published (until now).

An Ode to Eric Bjørnstad (and his trailer)

With Eric, the Trailer Was the Real Show

Eric Bjørnstad (1934–2014)

Cameron M. Burns

We first met Eric Bjørnstad in 1987, after Benny Bach and I had spent a night out on Big Bend Butte. We were driving back into Moab—tired, dehydrated, hungry, and generally frazzled—when we passed a huge rock shop of the north end of town (no longer there). We decided to stop and look around. Inside, rocks were stacked every which way on dozens of shelves, tables, and racks. Hundreds of thousands of rocks. Enough to rebuild the earth.

There was an old guy behind the counter (Lin Ottinger) and we got to chatting (after he asked why we looked like used dish towels on an Alaskan crab boat).

“If you boys have been climbing, you ought to talk to my roommate Eric.”

“Eric?”

“Yeah, he’s writing something about desert climbing.”

With directions from Lin, we found Eric and Lin’s trailer a block west of Main Street in Moab, nearly opposite a well-known eatery called the Poplar Place. We knocked on the door and a gruff voice commanded, “Come in.”

We opened the thin metal door and stepped inside.

If you’ve ever seen the television show Sanford and Son, then consider this: Sanford and his young spawn Lamont had the neatest, cleanest establishment for the commerce of junk that the world has ever seen. That is, if you’re standing in Eric and Lin’s mid-1980s trailer.

Inside were books, clothing, blankets, appliances, and a huge range of weird … um, I guess you’d call them “collectibles”—stuff like deer antlers, china tea sets, a javalina skull, a leather-bound flask, a brass trumpet, insulators from electric lines, and a 1930s box camera. You name it, it was there. Plus a few dogs.

And, apparently, a middle-aged man in the back, behind a desk piled high with books. Eric Bjørnstad was coming off a ten-year stint working for Harvard University on an air quality study, and he was busy lacing up a few reports.

We told him Lin had sent us, and we got to talking about climbing, even though we had no idea who he was or what he was doing. After an hour, we left with a promise to meet him—after we’d set up a camp—at the Poplar Place.

We showed up a few hours later.

Eric was at a table in the middle of the room. We immediately recognized the guy sitting to his right as Charlie Fowler (over the years, one of Eric’s closest friends) because we knew Charlie from the People’s Fake Left-wing Republic (Boulder). The other two we didn’t know, but we were soon introduced to Jimmy Dunn and Maureen Gallagher.

Then we started drinking beer. There’s not really much else to report from that evening because—as far as we know—nothing else happened. I do recall that no climbing got done the following day. In fact, no sitting up in the sleeping bags got done….

 

Then it started. 

Dozens and dozens of, maybe more than a hundred, trips to the desert, nearly all of which involved a visit to Eric’s in one of the five or six places he lived during the last 30-odd years—with Luke, Jon, Jesse, James, Benny, Baker, Takei, Sugarbush (Ann), Leslie, Mel, Bryan, Smith, El Jefe (Widen), Deucey, Singer, Schillaci, Fehlau, Ramro the Skiing Action Figure (JC), Porchdawg (Steve), Rab, Doorish, The Fred, and Charlie and Wee “Jumar” Joe (so called not because he was good with jumars). And a guy we called “Tourist Meat” because he wasn’t a climber (but every trip needs a non-climber to push the action toward the edge).

The best visits came once he got the trailer down on Powerhouse Lane, in which he lived for about 18 years. It was the bomb. The times in it were the bomb. And, in reality, it looked as if someone had bombed it. Sorry to say, when we arrived each weekend, it was basically the same thing.

Kabooooom!

The trailer, a long, full-sized job, was pure Eric. The front “room,” so to speak, was lined on both sides with shelves and books. The middle of the front room was a square area covered with vomit-yellow shag carpet. In the middle of the shag was a wood-burning fireplace—which in winter was always cranked to a level that would’ve put Guy Fawkes to shame. Windows on that end were those slatted rectangular things, which you can crank open and closed. The glass was, of course, that weird translucent stuff you can’t quite see through.

Step a few feet back, towards the middle of the trailer, and you’d enter Eric’s office. He had a desk propped up against the wall, stacked high with a classic Mac computer (at least 25 years out of date) and dozens of books and articles about desert flora and fauna, desert soils, desert history, Native American beliefs and traditions, poetry, 4WD trails (yup, he consulted a lot of those books because motorheads really do get around), geology, music, and philosophy—there were even a few books about climbing.

To the right of his desk was a two-seater couch (my back told me it was a two-seater after the first of dozens of nights on it). On a ledge above said couch was the TV, a 19-inch color job, continually cranked to Channel 39, also known as the Playboy Channel. (I’d never seen that channel before and after a few visits became convinced that I was a lesbian.)

That was the main front room (about half the trailer).

Walk down the hall going the other way and on your right you’d pass a bathroom, a bedroom that looked like it had been in an avalanche (there was a huge poster in there of a woman’s naked chest with a hexcentric nut holding fast against the cleavage), then the final room, Eric’s, which wasn’t anything to write home about (…but maybe a quick note to OSHA might’ve been in order).

 

Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.
Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.

Eric wouldn’t mind me giving him a bit of a hard time about his quarters. He and I were tight. Over the past 25 years, we’d nearly always call each other before a Mountainfilm or an AAC meeting or an OR Show, just to see if the other was going. “I know who my allies are,” he used say, followed by a small chuckle.

Truth is, Eric was one of the shyest people you could ever meet. It took him 15 years before he started offering a few quips on the idiotic route names I’d come up with. And as we knew each other longer, the franker we became with each other. We knew our own faults, but backed up by observations from the other, it was a good dressing down into an honest state of humility. I lay prostrate in the desert.

 

The funny thing about Eric and his trailers (and other homes) was this: they might’ve seemed like the lairs of deranged hermits, and they might’ve needed a good cleaning, but Eric’s ideals and values were anything but aligned with his housing units.

Sure, he had the Playboy Channel on 99 percent of the time, but I rarely saw him look at it (a few buddies and I would stare for days on end—many climbing objectives dropped for a few hours of sun-tanned exercise on the tube). Rather, when interesting sounds issued forth from said device, Eric would crank up the classical music on his Bose radio to try and drown out the heavy breathing. Then he’d dig out a quote by Goethe or Rilke or Heidegger to stick in the end of a chapter on some area of the desert.

I must’ve camped outside the Powerhouse Lane trailer 30 times. Another 20 nights or so were spent on the couch or the shag carpet inside, in a sleeping bag (the shag carpet was filled with slivers of glass from the ornaments Eric used to make; one night, a couple I know even skronked on that carpet!).

Often, on the coldest nights, with the stove blaring heat, Eric would start chopping wood on the carpet next to the stove. It was a sight to behold. Wood chips flying every which way, snapping into old European climbing books worth, I’m guessing, hundreds of dollars.

One day, in about 1992, Eric pulled out a huge collection of aluminum bongs. He handed them to me: “Here. We used these for the Eiger Sanction.”

Eric and Ken Wyrick had rigged the Totem Pole in Monument Valley for the filming of the Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood. He told me the story several times.

I had two take aways: one, Eric and Ken were hanging just out of sight (i.e., over the edge of the summit) during the summit scene with Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy sharing beer, and, two, Clint apparently did most of his own stunts. “If I had $10 million in the bank, I probably wouldn’t have,” Eric noted.

I had no idea what to do with the bongs, but I think they’ll make nice earrings for my youngest daughter when her ears get big enough to support two pounds of aluminum.

 

Eric might’ve have spent a few nights in his trailer, but his heart and soul were on the road. During the nearly three decades I knew him, he went through a series of vehicles (anyone remember the gray VW truck in the 1980s?), all of which had a common denominator: enough room to kip in the back.

We’d meet him in Arches and camp. Canyonlands, and camp. Mexican Hat, and camp. The Swell. The Fishers. Rover Road. Indian Creek. Colorado National Monument (not to be confused the un-national monument).

Sometimes he’d be making notes for one of his books on desert climbing. Other times he was just looking for company.

When he came to my and Ann’s Boulder wedding in 1994, he slept in the back of his truck, in the Boulderado parking garage. In the morning, he combed his hair, washed his face, and was ready to dance all day with Ann’s Aunt Dolores. They both had shock white hair and made a terrific sight, wheeling about the dance floor like two powdered figures from Marie Antoinette’s court. (Eric never commented on the fact that we’d hired an Elvis impersonator for the gig, but he did smile when I pointed that out.)

 

In the mid-2000s, Eric moved again, to a pretty bland house in the middle of Moab. He was slowing down, that was obvious. I made several visits to him there, to try and interview him, but the interviews became more and more jumbled, more and more confusing.

Most afternoons he’d drive out to the Colorado River and take up a space on the north side of the river (east of the bridge) on his folding lawn chair while his dogs went swimming. A few years ago, he was taken to a hospice in Moab. He called me several times, and made plans with James Garrett to go visit him, but work and family cancelled those plans. We talked a few times, and just a few days ago, I learned he’d passed.

 

A lot will be written about Eric in the coming weeks and months. And yes, he was one of the most amazing record-keepers the U.S. climbing scene will likely ever see (Roper was pretty unbelievable, too).  And, yes, his climbs were impressive: Mt Seattle first ascent, Mt Robson first winter ascent, all sorts of interesting routes in the PacNW, and, of course, a dozen big, very cool towers in the desert southwest.

But I submit that a man should be judged by the dogs he keeps.

And Eric always had a dog with him. Often two. Often others, loaners or dogs that needed sitting. I got to know many of them. They had names like Harvard, Queequeg, and Rilke. Thoughtful names, colorful names. Names that had meaning, like Eric himself.

His dogs were all very friendly and all, generally, well behaved. Not one of them ever snarled at a visitor (that I saw), and not one of them barked incessantly. And certainly, none of them ever coiled down a turtle-head indoors.

Eric didn’t feed them exactly the best diet, but they were all clearly happy and healthy, and very well adjusted. I remember using Rilke as a pillow one night at Powerhouse Lane. She didn’t budge all night.

I like to think Eric is with his dogs now, especially Rilke. She seemed to go everywhere with him for years and years, including our wedding. I miss seeing her jump up on the couch next to Eric, get a good scratch behind the ears, then flop down in his lap, totally contented.

Simply put, they are the most fabulous Moab couple I’ve ever known.

 

 

 

Cam Burns is a Colorado-based writer and editor. His latest book is Adventure at High Risk (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). He is currently working on several other books, including a record of his father’s five traverses of the Andes between latitudes 50 and 56 during 1967–68.

Bob Marshall: A Wilderness Original

A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall, 2nd Edition (Mountaineers Press, 2014)

By James M. Glover

Reviewed by Cameron M. Burns

My wife and I lived in Montana in the early 1990s, and I always wondered why this guy named Bob Marshall was so heralded. Not many people get a million acres of wilderness (fifth largest in the U.S.) named after them. Heck, I’d like to name a few million acres after people who deserve the credit but will never see it.

Well, this 2014 reissue of a 1986 biography—A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall—explains it. Bob Marshall was and remains arguably the biggest advocate for wilderness the United States has and will ever see.51MzbvhMWvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His feats in wilderness areas proved his obsession with the natural world. He explored the Brooks Range long before most, and studied the local population that lived there. He rambled in Montana’s mountains for three years while studying trees. And he had a massive thirst for hiking—up to 40 miles a day. When he was just a youngster, he and his brother George and Herb Clark were the first to summit all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet.

This book, first published nearly 30 years ago, tells the story of Marshall’s forebears’ move from Bavaria to New York in the mid-19th century and much about his father’s life, which ultimately influenced Bob’s (loving wilderness, community involvement, and no interest in the trappings of wealth, etc.)

When this writer’s family emigrated from Australia to the US in 1978, we landed in Syracuse. Some of my first climbing experiences were in Tasmania. Then, weirdly, starting in 1978, in the Adirondacks. My father and I did a 4-day tromp through the “Dacks,” and it was one of the best things I ever experienced.

This was Bob Marshall’s land. He loved (as we all do) and wanted to see it preserved as well as it could be preserved.

In 1935, Marshall formed the Wilderness Society with Benton McKaye to “battle uncompromisingly for wilderness protection all over the United States.” And the Society went on to do many great things in many great places.

This book is a fairly straightforward narrative—Marshall’s family history, his father’s devotion to wilderness and ethical concerns, and his academic and professional career—but what comes through and stands out in Glover’s tome is the unbridled love of wilderness that Bob Marshall had. As a youngster, he hated being outside after dark. But he pushed himself to go out and wander the forests near the family compound in the Dacks. If he’d only hiked 36 miles on a certain day, he’d often go out for an after-dinner walk to make it an even 40.

Although I call this book a “fairly straightforward narrative”—from a reader’s perspective—it has the three qualities that are a must to the art of biography and something that many biographies lack. One, the guy (Marshall) is a real character. Too many biographies are of the ilk that up-and-coming politicians write (“I’m here and this is what I believe” even though they haven’t done sh*t to deserve the public’s attention). Marshall’s definitely worthy of your eyes. Two, Glover’s writing is carefully crafted. I’ve read too many things in magazines and books where it’s quite apparent the author didn’t understand grammar, syntax, typography, and pretty much everything else (hell, I cringe when I read my own work from 30 years ago). And three, it’s an enjoyable story. In many bios the plot gets simply lost, as the expression goes, and a memorable character gets overrun by bad storytelling.

Glover, a writer’s writer, told me he hadn’t zeroed in one Marshall at first.

“When I was around 30 or so I was casting around for something substantive to write about,” he told me via email. “I was teaching college courses in outdoor recreation [at Southern Illinois] and was (and still am) an avid wilderness adventure enthusiast. Anyway, around 1978 or ’80 or so, I happened to read an article about Marshall in Backpacker magazine by Roderick Nash, and also read about Marshall in Nash’s famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind. So I began to dig around for more info on Marshall, with the vague idea of maybe writing a book about him. I didn’t realize, when I first began, quite what a compelling personality he had, and how important a historic figure his father had been, and how strongly committed Bob was to what we sometimes now call “social justice.”

Sure, Jim, his father was important, but mostly because he produced this great soul who was absolutely addicted to wilderness and willing to do everything in his power to preserve it.

It’s a remarkable tale about a remarkable man that, if you’re like me, has hovered in your hazy subconscious for years. This book brings him to light.

“I have to thank Marshall himself for making the book however interesting it is,” Glover told me. “He continues to seem to me one of the most compelling personalities in American history, even though he’s not well known outside environmental and wilderness adventure circles.”

No kidding.

Respect the writer, respect the subject, respect the words.

Read the book.

Assault on El Cap

Jeff Vargen’s film Assault on El Capitan tells the story of the second ascent of Wings of Steel

By Cameron M. Burns

As a kid growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I was a decent surfer. Indeed, I remember at age 10 some older kids at the beach where I regularly went asked me when I was going to go pro. They ridiculed my board, but said I could get a better one if I was planning to turn pro. It was all easy talk. Nothing rough. And, as usual, I was clueless. What the heck was “pro”?

Fast forward 15 years. I was living in LA and working in the film industry. I surfed in Malibu a few times, but hadn’t really surfed since 1978 in Australia. On one ride, another surfer literally tackled me from behind (as we both went down the same wave), later screaming at me that I’d dropped in on him (which I had, accidentally) and telling me I couldn’t surf there because I wasn’t a local. Oh yeah? Sure, I was 15 years out from my glory days as a kid but wasn’t surfing about having fun?

WTF was this? I’m not even sure the guy who tackled me was a “local,” (he had a full wetsuit on and most of the surfers I saw during my attempted Malibu rebirth were dressed like me), but clearly, this was a territory issue.

Any climber who’s spent even a little bit of time in Yosemite knows the story of Wings of Steel, a hard aid climb on El Cap. In 1982, 23-year-old Richard Jensen and 20-year-old Mark Smith arrived in Yosemite Valley with the goal of climbing a new route on the Capitan, one of the most coveted pieces of stone on the planet.

Thirty-nine days later they topped out on the big stone but it hadn’t been without its problems. Yosemite locals—taken aback that two outsiders were on their rock—had harassed them and made death threats. Three locals, whom to this day remain anonymous, went even further. One night while Jensen and Smith were on the ground, these three ascended several ropes Jensen and Smith had fixed, chopped all the bolts and rivets Jensen and Smith had laboriously drilled and placed by hand (and that’s noteworthy because by the early 90s, everything was being Bosched into place on El Cap), and rappelled off. They pulled Jensen and Smith’s ropes, heaped them into a pile, then defecated on them.

Yosemite-based climbers considered the route unworthy of its location on El Cap, although reports circulated that Jensen and Smith’s climb was pretty darn hard. Indeed, a few brave souls who tried the first few pitches (if memory serves, including Rob Slater) came back with stories of tenuous gear and long falls.

Twenty-nine years after the first ascent of Wings, Yosemite hardman and character Ammon McNeely—the veteran of more than 75 ascents of El Cap—decides he should do the second ascent. And, he brings in his girlfriend, Kait Barber, as his partner.

In 2011, filmmaker Jeff Vargen was on vacation on the East Coast and got a text from McNeely that he and Barber were going up on the big stone.

“I asked which route,” Vargen noted in an email to this writer. “He [Ammon] texted WOS. I laughed. No one does WOS and no one would do that slab in mid-summer, but that’s him—do things quietly and under the radar. Word got around that he was doing it and the Supertopo trolls followed his progress as Kait’s mom posted from the wall.”

When McNeely and Barber got down, Vargen went to look at the pictures and video clips that McNeely and Barber had recorded. Vargen was impressed. “One thing led to another and I called a few people I knew and they said they would be happy to talk on camera about WOS,” Vargen noted. “And then it kept going from there.” [WOS is an explosive topic on Supertopo.]

This film starts with a lot of historical discussion about climbing in general, climbing walls, and finally Wings of Steel specifically, including interviews about territory and locals versus outsiders with (Chris McNamara (Supertopo creator), Peter Haan (first Salathé solo), and Eric Kohl (general El Cap bad-ass) are interviewed, along with Hans Florine and Ron Kauk.

Steve Grossman is given the tough cop role, discussing how Jensen and Smith weren’t “forthright” about what they were doing up on the big stone while locals below heard about endless bolting. Grossman makes valid points, which are more or less later left unaddressed as a result of the difficulty of this particular climb and the respect the first ascensionists got from the second ascensionists.

Still, it’s all honest. Vargen told me via email: “Richard and Mark were kind enough to come to be interviewed. I never told them what kind of film I was making and they had no idea how they would be portrayed in the film. They trusted me that it would be fair but I told them it will fall as it falls. They agreed to tell their story and see what happened. they are brave souls. Steve Grossman was the same way. He came and said his peace, wondered how it would come out, but he answered everything I asked in an honest way. We did not chop him up to manipulate the tone. It was said as you see and hear it.”

In general, Assault doesn’t offer a whole lot of explanation for a lay viewer about what hooking is all about (it is scary, BTW), or aid, or wall climbing in general, but that doesn’t matter. The viewer gets the point. This climb is a balls-to-the-walls wall, and the first ascensionists got treated unfairly. And, yeah, the territory thing is always there—in climbing as in surfing.

All that spewed, what’s nice to report is that this is a wonderful wonderful (yeah, that’s two wonderfuls (sorry, three now)) film about McNeely and Barber. It gives us access into the world of a guy many of us have heard about for years (McNeely) and his whole, entirely low-key approach to life. It shows us how he deals with day-in day-out issues, and gives us the firmly backgrounded life that have made him one of Yosemite’s best contemporary wall climbers. The interviews with his brother Gabe are fabulous.

On the Great Slab that is, essentially, Wings of Steel, McNeely took six falls each day. Indeed, he fell more than half the height of the 900-foot Great Slab in the first nine days.

The falls shredded Barber’s nerves and there are several initial scenes in which Barber wants to go down. She hangs in and eventually gets up the wall (I would like to know what Ammon owes her at this point). But Barber and McNeely’s humility and honesty make this film much more than a documentary about Wings of Steel’s second ascent. The issues surrounding Wings of Steel aren’t resolved by the creation of this film, but it is a touching, thoughtful, and exciting film about doing a big wall, regardless of location. (McNeely’s videotaped yanking off flakes with his Talon hooks several times and tumbling yards at a time.)

The ways it’s edited also works well. The Wings debacle comes across as a serious turf war in the beginning, and it’s hard to watch some of the discussion knowing that this is just bickering among climbers. But, Vargen does a great job zooming out to a greater picture of climbing, location, personalities, and other issues, and then turning the film toward personal issues—fear, injuries, pain, and just getting up a damn climb.

In the end, this film is really about communications. In 1982, the communications between Smith and Jensen and the Valley locals weren’t there, clearly. Today, with so much being shared every minute of every day, and with people like Vargen compiling it carefully, communications have improved dramatically. All of the people in this film share the same values and love the same chunk of the earth’s crust. That they got a little sideways with each other is too bad. Hopefully, we’ll never see a repeat of something like Wings.

Starring and with footage by Ammon McNeely and Kait Barber. Also starring Mark Jensen, Richard Smith, Eric Kohl, Ron Kauk, Chris McNamara, Hans Florine, Peter Haan, Gabe McNeely, and Steve Grossman.  More information about the film can be found at Assaultonelcapitan.com.

Cam Burns’s most recent contribution to the world of literature was in To Nepal with Love and Adventure at High Risk.

Creamsicle Dick and the Reading of the Classifieds

Creamsicle Dick and the Reading of the Classifieds

By Cameron M. Burns

Author’s note: some of the email addresses and phone numbers in this piece have been slightly modified (using Xs) to spare the authors of these real advertisements unnecessary attention. I have kept the typography exactly as the original.

Unknown-2People of the Rocky Mountain West like to think the terms that define them probably include strong-willed, independent, self-starter, initiative, entrepreneurial, and clever. That might be so, but if you ever sit down with a newspaper published anyplace between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Polebridge, Montana, and start reading the classified ads in local newspapers, a few more terms will spring to mind, as I will shortly demonstrate.

My serious “reading of the classifieds” in as many newspapers as I could lay my hands on and time allowed began in late 2010. The previous summer, my wife, Ann, had started doing sudoko, apparently to mellow out when stressed; my mother had fired her interest. Ann would sit at our modest kitchen table thoughtfully working her way through the problems, trying to reveal the numerical pattern that sudoko is all about. But my wife’s an animal lover at heart, and when confounded by a number sequence, she’d often drift over into the classifieds, she told me later, to check the animals up for adoption. The following day’s emails from her would be filled with text like (and this one is clearly made up, but it’s close to what I’d get): “Rager: Un-neutered male pitbull male with severe aggression disorder. Great if you have a pit to keep him in….”

Every now and then, Ann would show me the ads. Sometimes I’d read them then wander back to the news. One evening, Ann delved deeper into the “classies” (as newspaper folks call them), and we realized she’d stumbled on a gold mine.

“Hey, come look at this,” she said.

She pointed to an ad in the Aspen Times, one of our local papers, offering “gold smelting equipment”; next to that was an “intelligent synthesizer”; a few ads down was a mounted coyote head.

“What the heck is an intelligent synthesizer?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Ann responded. “But we could put the coyote head on it and really mess with the neighbors. All the while smelting gold, perhaps.”

“Hmmm….”

Officially, it was the September 3, 2010 edition of the Aspen Times, a fine publication where both the editor of this magazine and I have labored many hours. Other dry goods on sale that day included the following:

• A moose head being sold by a John Henry of Silverthorne for $2,950;

• Two 5-gallon glass carboys for $29 each;

• A hydrofarm reflector; and

• An Orvis Battenkill rolling duffle bag (the Battenkill is, apparently, a river in Vermont/New York whence Orvis has its origin). Those items seemed simple enough, but then there was this: muscle milk natural, vanilla crème $15 81611 Aspen unopened 2.5 lb container Kevin 845-321-XXXX.

I immediately had to wonder, what is “muscle milk natural, vanilla crème,” and is it what I think it is? Then why’s it so expensive? Another ad read: drive 6 hours behind the wheel with Jamie Maffey value is $300 sell for $200 OBO 81611 aspen superb condition only 970-355-XXXX.

It sounded as if Jamie Maffey was some kind of uber vehicle-racing person, but a google search brought up nothing. I have to guess, then, that Jamie’s just a really wonderful person, the kind you’d shell out $200 to spend six hours in a car with. There really aren’t too many people like that, so $200 was probably a bargain. I wonder how Jamie felt about it and if he/she even knew such a thing was for sale. Doubtless, Jamie found out.

My wife and I wandered the classifieds over the course of the summer of 2010, and we were always surprised and delighted by what we found. In March, 2011, I decided to knuckle down and see if our experience was an anomaly or whether the rear-ends of most newspapers really were bizarre. From a roughly one-week period in late March, here are a few things I gleaned.

 

Used Car Salesmen

The vehicle ads are always worth a scan, and these days they seem to be more honest than some of the guys on the lots. For one thing, many papers now offer classified ads that include photos of the items to be sold, so you can get a look at your next commitment to the carbon economy. The Aspen Times of March 22, 2011 had a few of gems that read as follow:

BEATER – 4x Toyota Landcruiser 1986 1500 4 door. Rust of course. 27800 Manual transmission. white full chains dick 303 886 XXXX hampleman@XXX.net

I’d surmise this chap’s real name was Dick “Full Chains” White (perhaps derived from a CB handle or some such), but his honesty is beyond reproach. How many budding salesmen would throw in “Rust of course” as a statement? (Though I once saw a classified ad for a car that said “Rust in peace.”) The following ad caught my eye for two reasons:

Toyota Tacoma 2010

TRD loaded w/extras. Excellent condition. 17,000K.

Auto transmission 4WD. V6 silver

Access cab. Tow package.

$25,500

948-XXXX or call_john@XXX.com

One, most sellers of a vehicle that had 17 million miles on it would steer clear of pointing that tidbit out, and perhaps focus on the positive—like the fact that the vehicle still existed (as evidenced by a photograph).

Two, that email address…. Is it like call boy? Was the seller having a brainfart when he wrote down his phone number then his email address? Sadly, we’ll likely never know. But there must have been a sale on brainfarts on March 22 in Aspen—either a sale on brainfarts or on the word “used”—as the Times also had this:

Used tires $20 Glenwood Springs. Used condition. Joe 970945XXXX carguy1@XXX.net

 

Bodily Fluids

My mother always taught me to never buy certain things used: underpants, shoes, socks, bathing suits, mattresses, sheets, sofas, etc. You know, things of a highly personal nature. So the amount of stuff that gets used really hard—and peed, pooed, spat, or vomited on—for sale in today’s newspapers in unnerving. Ann suggested this is a result of the recent economic downturn and the fact that we’re all broke. That might be the reason for all the bad art in the contemporary classifieds, but what’s up with all the baby clothes, toys, and other items that fall into the “personal” category? Certainly these people didn’t grow up with my mother.

Under the header “Other,” the March 24 Glenwood Springs Post Independent offered:

Thick weave pre-folded CLOTH DIAPERS, Barely used, 4 dozen, asking $45 Rifle Excellent condition. 970-309-XXXX

My first thought was here’s an item that has actually had poo on it. And they want $45 for it. The nerve! My second thought was that that’s what it was going to have on it again, so no wonder the owner’s selling it. Other baby items really disturb me, though. The March 22 Summit Daily News had an item:

Baby Bjorn baby carrier

$30 Frisco Good condition. Frisco. Heidi 389-XXXX.

Bjorns are the one item that should be illegal to resell. In case you are somehow unfamiliar with a Bjorn, it’s a sort of backpack-like device that straps to your front and is used for carrying infants and toddlers around (think mommy wants to be a kangaroo and you get the idea). The child can face either forwards (toward the oncoming scenery) or backwards (towards you).

I have two daughters who were toted every which way in Bjorns. Our two Bjorns (one wore out, so we bought a second) were so covered with aged, white, glued-on vomit you could make a pretty thick chowder by dipping them briefly in hot water (we always had our kids face forwards to avoid the warm stream). Hence, my conviction that Bjorns come in two varieties: brand new or destroyed. There is no middle ground here as “Good condition” in this ad suggests.

Frisco Heidi was committing an unspoken classified-ad indiscretion to my way of thinking. I’m all into recycling, but I’m also a bit of a fan of hygiene. (Then again, I’ve seen lots of adverts for breast pumps, so maybe a milky Bjorn isn’t as much of a fourth-estate no-no as I’m prone to believe.)

While we’re in the region of mammalian output, one thing that’s always surprising is the number of dog-poo-pickup firms that advertise in the classifieds. Seems every mountain town has at least several of these companies, always with a clever name (e.g., Pooper Scoopers), and they only seem advertise in the “classies” (nothing classier than poo ads, right?). Ever seen one of these companies’ ads on a bus? On the chairlift? On the local public access channel? In GQ?

The following two ads appeared in a March 2011 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

 

Valley Poo Busters

PET WASTE REMOVAL

Call Today 970-456-XXXX

Valleypoobusters.com

 

Bapper Doggie Doos

Full Service Pet “Spaw” in Silt

970-640-6383/970-631-XXXX

 

The first one is straightforward enough. (Although why would you call them just today? If you’re having a tough time managing it and need this kind of professional help, I think you’d want to call today, tomorrow, and every other day—perhaps you need a Busters franchise in your backyard.)

If memory serves, the second advert had a typo (I believe it was meant to be Dapper Doggie Doos). The change to Bapper made me think it was another dog-poo scooping company, because, when it comes to dogs, the word “doo” can be applied to either end. I hope the paper offered them a free day’s classy.

 

Men Seeking Women They Can Move

A lot of folks turn to the “tight and narrow” section for love. Or things that approach love. (Or things that approach tight and narrow.) The Summit Daily News had a few gems that kept recurring in March. I especially liked these two:

 

A Gentleman and a Scholar

Dates and Escorts for Women Only.

970-389-XXXX

 

Need Help Moving?

I Have a 24’ Boxed Truck & A Strong Back

970-389-XXXX

 

The scholar half of the first guy needs some help with his capitalization, and his gentleman side needs to be less sexist. Aren’t escorts supposed to be professional? Aren’t they supposed to serve clients regardless of gender? I bet I could sue when he turns me down….

Meanwhile, the moving-back guy committed the ultimate classified ad faux pas (worse than baby spew). He offered himself bodily to the greater world. Certainly, most humans are at the core good, but when you offer your spine for services against gravity, all sorts of nutjobs with bizarre requests step up to the line. That ad ran, I think, on a Saturday. Ten bucks says he was in hospital by Sunday morning.

 

Don’t Know What You’re Getting?

To be sure, there are no courses in classified advertising writing (perhaps there should be), and I have never in my life seen a newspaper offer a set of instructions to would-be classified ad writers—other than a word limit and how to pay. The reporters at these papers are all provided with an Associated Press stylebook so that their copy is neat and clean, but venture into the classifieds an it’s as if a copy-style nuclear warhead has gone off. Scarier than all the random typographical rotten eggs is often the lack of vital information or of clarity—dare I say logic? On March 24, 2011, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent had this gem:

 

Photo $80 Basalt Good condition. 970-948-XXXX walkerandcore@XXX.com

 

I immediately had to wonder what the photo might be of. The seller’s long-lost Aunt Mildred? A bongo? His lawn ornament? Something vulgar? Something delightful? I personally would’ve paid $80 for a photo of something delightful but not for a photo of something vulgar—I already have too many of those. A more important question was why would you advertise a photo in the Glenwood Springs newspaper that an owner in Basalt was selling?

Then, my ever-prescient wife stepped in: “Maybe it’s a photo of Basalt.”

That might’ve cleared up some of the confusion (who, really, could say for sure?), but the reader still had to be wondering “of what in Basalt?” The seller’s long-lost Aunt Mildred in Basalt? A bongo in Basalt? His lawn ornament in Basalt? Something vulgar in Basalt (which, ironically, happens to be where I live). It appears classified ad writers seem to thrive on maintaining a high level of intrigue in their announcements.

On Thursday, March 24, 2011, I found myself scanning the Chaffee County Times during a trip to New Mexico. In the “wanted” section was the following:

 

Conga/Djembe teacher needed. Not very skilled yet. 395-XXXX.

 

Did the author want a conga/djembe teacher who was not very skilled or did he/she want one because he/she was not very skilled yet? Who can tell? And really, who cares—except, of course, the tens of thousands of conga/djembe teachers in the greater Buena Vista area looking for gainful employment. To them, this information would’ve been vital. More intrigue, more mystery. Proper command of English appears a Sisyphean dilemma for many mountain-town advertisers. Under the heading of “customer service” in the March 25 Vail Daily was an ad that read, in part:

 

immediate opening for

Store/General help.

Must be English speak

PT seasonal position

Up to 24 hours/week.

 

Gone to the Dogs

Dogs are what got my wife and me into the classified ads in the first place, so no discussion of said media would be complete without a trip to the dogs. The only problem I have with dogs—or, more correctly, dog ads—is that they’re often quite elastic with the truth. We humans are so rotten to animals that there are as many rescue shelters in mountain towns as there are coffee shops. And the good folks running these shelters will do anything they can to get them into happy homes.

On March 24, 2011, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent had this questionable listing:

 

Great Dane mix. Adoption Fee. 1.5 yrs Marlow is a wonderful boy, who loves to cuddle on the couch. Loves everyone he meets. 918-200-XXXX nxgolden@XXXX.net

 

A great dane that cuddles on the couch? Excuse me? You mean crush the couch and “everyone he meets”? Okay, maybe I’m too skeptical. But I kept reading and came across the following gem. At first I laughed, because the item could be read as if the dog were a mix between a rat and a terrier, not a rat terrier mixed with another breed. Then, the ad suddenly went south:

 

Rat Terrier Mix- Tuffy is a loyal and happy little 2 yr. old. Missing a back leg and is still very athletic. Loves people, great with other dogs! Rifle Animal Shelter. 970-625-XXXX

 

Of course, I got a knot in my stomach, but then realized that the Marlow the great dane could probably carry Tuffy around pretty easily, and I pondered calling the Rifle Animal Shelter to suggest a Marlow–Tuffy package deal. Ann said no.

Okay, I wasn’t really planning to call the Rifle animal shelter, but I really did get sad about Tuffy. Then I read a bit farther and got really sad. That same edition of the Glenwood paper had the following (including a photo of “Eric”):

 

ASPEN JOB WANTED

34 year old, orphaned at 7, continually incarcerated since 13 year old child, eagerly entering work force. Honest, intelligent, always drug & alcohol free. Holds GED plus numerous vocational training certificates. Seeks hospitality/recreation related, house sitting, service, retail or other position??? Available full time, will train. Beneficial Employer Tax Credit & Fidelity Bonding! Please contact longtime advocate mentor @ 714878XXXX,  gKisley@XXXXXX for information, plus official administrative contact & most compelling story of Eric’s journey.”

 

Creamsicle Dick

The classified ads in small-town newspapers represent the Rocky Mountain West better than pretty much any local peak, activity, superhuman resident, or marketing “collateral” (what a dumb-ass term) the mountain-town lifestyle sellers come up with.

In this modern day and age, every mountain town has become rather generic. They all have Victorian houses that have been restored in bright colors and cost far more than they should; nearly identical outdoor film festivals (that feature climbing, boating, skiing, and environmental issues); overpriced gear shops where only tourists shop because the locals are all professional outdoor athletes, even though their livelihoods consist of managing inheritances; a never-ending supply of dogs with names like Dakota, Kaya, Khan, and Kona; and businesses that actively welcome and offer dog treats to dogs with names like Dakota, Kaya, Khan, and Kona.

The classified ads in these towns’ papers often seem far more real than the places themselves. They’re not cookie-cutter like the communities they aim to represent, which means, hopefully the communities really aren’t as cookie-cutter as cynics like me believe.

Of course, with publishing moving online faster than a dog will show your dinner guests its flexibility, the same gaffes are now available to those from far outside the mountain west, as are their gaffes to us.

The Chaffee County Times classified section—the entire newspaper section—is called “Classified Adventures.” And that, I think, really sums it up.

Which brings me to Creamsicle Dick.

I don’t know Dick. I’d never heard of Dick until March 2011, I’m not entirely sure where Dick lives, and I have no idea how he came upon his own disturbingly colorful name, but in the March 31, 2011 Rifle Citizen Telegram, he (I’m assuming Dick’s a he) placed a classified ad.

Dick was selling a VW. It had lasted since 1974. It was cheap, as it should’ve been. Dick—when he placed the ad—was apparently based in Rifle. And his moniker was inspired by a sugary summertime confection:

 

Volkswagen Superbug 1974 $2500

creamsicle Dick

vtas@XXXX.com 81652

$2450

970-319-XXXX

 

Creamsicle Dick’s simple ad doesn’t say a lot, but it’s precisely what it doesn’t say that produces a colorful little debrief on life in the mountain West. His simple ad opens up an expansive window into the people and places we think we know, and realize we don’t quite. Or don’t think we quite do, even though we likely do.

Let’s see…a 1974 VW? Dick’s probably in his mid-fifties. He was likely a bit of a rebel back in the 1960s (who drove Superbugs in 1974?), he moved to Rifle because it was the West, and a slice of the real west, not a soft resort like Aspen.

Dick is also probably bald, or bad in bed, maybe both—Creamsicle being a nickname passed along from a loving female friend and kept by Dick as a humbling reminder of the degeneration of the human body and the simple joy of human relationships. Or it could just be the color of the Superbug.

Dick clearly cherishes his name, both the offensive images it brings to mind, and the special relationship he had, and maybe still has, with that woman, even though the kids are long gone. Dick can make fun of himself, but he doesn’t go overboard.

I picture him in his yard, in the mid-summer heat that flattens Rifle in August, his feet in an old kiddy pool, while he sips a cold Budweiser and lazily flips a few burgers on the grill. He’s not looking forward to tomorrow, pulling all that wire or fixing that backhoe. Life’s been good, and he’s earned it. Sure, he needs to lose twenty pounds, but he’ll do some Summit County peaks later in the summer and get back to a svelte 190. Selling the bug is a bummer, but he won’t miss the endless repairs, the endless search for parts, and the endless sore back from leaning over the motor.

Now, he drives a Camry, and feels like a neutered token of the middle class. Life is a long series of compromises, but it’s an adventure, too, and he’s enjoyed that part, and plans to enjoy it long into his twilight years.

Creamsicle Dick’s post is simply the best ad I’ve stumbled across in the years I was searching this stuff out.

I would, though, wager that Creamsicle Dick, and the guy I mentioned at the start of this classifieds adventure, Dick “Full Chains” White, are both chums, and they are probably still publishing ads.

Anyway, whatever they have to say, or not, it’s definitely worth a read.

Cam Burns knows that no matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

 

Skiing the Mort Hellers

Skiing the Mort Hellers
By Cam Burns

I’ve been skiing since age 12, so that’s… um… like 35 years. I started in 1978, when my parents and sisters and I moved to Syracuse, New York, from Australia. Skiing was the closest thing to surfing, which kept me out of trouble as a young larrikin, so my unwitting parents were fairly forced to buy me a pair of boards for the snow. At least that was how things played out. Six-hundred dollars later, while my parents wondered how they could possibly have spent an entire family’s monthly budget on what seemed like a kid’s toy, I took up the noble sport of sliding down hills at Labrador Mountain, a few miles south of Poorexcuse (which is just east of Rottenchester).

My new skis were Authiers, a brand that most of my middle-school chums had never seen (me, too, for that b9c06ae5_AuthierPirminZmatter). They were red and white and blue on top, and they had a jet-black base.

I was just 12, but those were the only new skis I ever owned. Seriously. Despite the fact that I soon moved (with my family) from Poorexcuse to Lost Almost, New Mexico (where I shared classes with a crazy-as-hell skier named Dean Cummings), then from Los Alamos to Boulder (a non-ski town but pretentiously close), and from Boulder to Missoula to Angel Fire, New Mexico (a bona fide ski town), thence Angel Fire to Aspen (another bona fide ski town). Not once in those years did I buy a new set of skis. I used whatever I could afford, typically used skis or simply boards generously donated by friends.

It’s always been that way. In Boulder, I used skis left by students in a trashed apartment. In Missoula, I used borrowed skis. In Angel Fire, I found an old pair of Rossis at a yard sale. In 1993, a year after my girlfriend Ann and I moved to Aspen, I started skiing the “Mort Hellers.”

Aspen—where we lived for four yeas before having children and migrating to the sanity of nearby Basalt, Colo.—we soon found, was into dumping skis. You could, and likely still can, wander up to any dumpster, at pretty much any time of the year, and find some old (not to mention not-so-old) skis in the box. This was most intriguing to a guy who’d grown up using borrowed, donated, cheap and even left-at-trashed-apartments skis. The more I peeked into dumpsters, the more I saw. This got quite annoying for Ann, as any evening we might stroll from our Hunter Creek apartment into town for a movie or a meal, I’d come back with an armload of skis. Part of the problem was that every time I looked in an Aspen dumpster, I’d find skis that were better than the ones I’d found the day before.
One day, I came across a beautiful pair of Dynastars. I pulled them out, checked the base and edges, and promptly declared them my new skis. They were great skis, and only about a year behind in terms of contemporary models. Disregarding my outfits, I was nearly in the modern age.

Then one evening, my friend Rob “Robbo” Herring pointed out that the skis had “Mort Heller” proudly stamped on them just north of the binding.

“Mort what?…” I stuttered.

“Who’s Mort Heller, Cam?”

The name made me shrink. Mort Heller was a name with a huge amount of baggage. At this particular moment in history, I was a reporter at the Aspen Times, a decidedly (then) anti-development newspaper and Mort was involved in some kind of development, although he appeared to be part of the wealthy elite as well. My boss at the time, a guy named Loren, had a running war of words going with Mort, or rather, against Mort because of said development.

Reporters are strange creatures. They supposedly live by the code that nothing can be assumed, that both sides in a debate get equal air-time regardless of what each side is saying (the current climate discussion is a case in point), and that they stay objective. It’s the same situation for cops. The problem is, the human condition kind of destroys a reporter’s or a cop’s ability to live by those noble codes. People are just too darn weird, unpredictable, rotten, wonderful and unreliable.

Then there’s the problem of newsroom camaraderie. To fit in, journalists have a pervasive knack of agreeing with fellow journos quicker then anyone or anything else. That’s no surprise, because as a unit, it’s often the paper versus the subjects of the stories—or worse, versus the rest of the world—so that camaraderie is a vital support system in the journo’s world. I was guilty of it. We all are times. So, when it came to Mort Heller, we all agreed he was a no-good developer. And, I admit, I trusted my boss, and still do.

Robbo had pointed out the “MORT HELLER” stamp on a late November Friday in 1993, when he and his then-girlfriend Karen came up for IMG_6665and a weekend of skiing. I didn’t say anything about the “MORT HELLER” stamping at the time (shrugging seemed a better response), but in the morning I sneaked out to my truck and grabbed a roll of duct tape. I stuck two small pieces over the “MORT HELLER” on each ski, and called it good. Of course, Robbo quickly noticed this, too, so he asked. And I explained.

Mort was the one person in the community I could not be associated with, or there’d be hell at work (for me, anyway). Destruction of reputation, loss of a vital support system, and general consensus that I was somehow conspiring with the enemy.

Robbo, Karen, Ann, and I skied a run at Snowmass, then drifted into a very long lift line. Then, Robbo pointed at something and suggested I look. I did, and when I turned back to ask him what he was pointing at, realized he’d ripped the duct tape off my skis.

Then, in the boomingest voice I’ve ever heard in a lift line announced: “MORT HELLER! MORT, OLD BUDDY! GOOD TO SEE YOU!

Silence from me.

“MORT? WHATS’S UP, MORT HELLER?”

“Shut up, Rob.”

“MORT, WHAT YOU GONNA SKI TODAY?”

IMG_6674

“Probably your head.”

“AW, MORT, MORT HELLER OLD BUDDY, YOU WOULDN’T DO THAT, WOULD YOU, MORT?”

By this point, a few skiers were looking at Robbo, but there were at least 50 curious people looking at me. I wondered how many would recognize me and how anti-development they might be, because as strange as the monster-home phenomenon is in Aspen, it’s got a hell of a lot of residents who are decidedly anti-development. Robbo didn’t seem to care and went on his loud Mort rant another five minutes. An eternity later, we got on the lift. I explained to Rob the very disquieting nature of his exhibition, but he was off to the races. Every lift line, every run, was about the same. A shrill “MORT!!!!” seemed to hang in the air. He’d already done away with my scraps of duct tape, so I was fully exposed, naked in a very discerning crowd.

By Sunday morning, I was ready to send Robbo and Karen home. Or not ski. But Robbo promised to tone it down, which he did—blaring out the name MORT HELLER only twice in a long, relatively good day. We retired to food and plans for our next adventure, rafting, surfing, climbing or just simple backpacking. And of course, skiing, which is still the main winter pastime around here.

 

I owned the Mort Hellers for about seven years (Mort clearly got rid of them after about a season—how else would I have been so up to date in my skiing gear?), but eventually I moved on to wider, weirder skis, all from one of the used gear shops in the Roaring Fork Valley. But I never forgot the Mort Hellers for a couple of philosophical reasons that the Mort Hellers suggest.

Mainly, I’ve never moved on from buying and using skis that that are recycled. So the Mort Hellers were excellent skis. To my way of thinking, there’s no need for me, or most people for that matter to use skis that haven’t been used before (okay, if you’re an Olympic racer, send me an email). I’m not trying to make some BS statement about recycling, sustainability, and all that crap. The thing is, most skis—the boards themselves—haven’t lived their lives to the fullest before they’re shoved aside in favor of the new season’s models. I think people should use their skis a bit more before they give them the heave-ho. The latest thing I’ve seen (on facebook of all places) is those new, weird-looking tipped skis (now a coupla years old). I haven’t read the literature on those tips, but I bet in real life there’s hardly any difference between those and loads of other skis that are pretty close—and, just a season younger.

Last year, I later saw an obituary on Mort Heller. He died on Nov. 24, 2010. He didn’t sound like the guy Loren had railed on in the newsroom—indeed, he seemed to be heavily into philanthropy. But then again, obituaries are rarely complete portraits of a person. Certainly, it said nothing about his great choice in skis.

Cameron M. “Cam” Burns currently swings both ways, on a pair of many-year-old X-Screams (which he got for a $50 bucks at The Gear Exchange in Glenwood Springs) and a pair of K2 Superstinks donated by his daughters’ friends’ dad.

Farewell, Layton Kor

Master of Stone: Layton Herman Kor

June 11, 1938–April 21, 2013


One of the greatest American climbers of the late 1950s and ’60s, Layton Herman Kor, died April 21 after a long battle with kidney problems and cancer.

The son of a Dutch mason (Jacob Kor) who came to the U.S. in 1897 from the Oldambt area of Groningen, the Netherlands, and a second-generation German-American (Leona Schutjer) from Iowa, Kor spent his early life in Canby, Minnesota and was particularly fond of swimming and fishing, especially during Minnesota’s hot summers. He loved the outdoors.

In 1955, The Kors (Layton, brother Waylin—7 years his senior—and their parents), who’d never lived anywhere other than the Plains regions of the Upper Midwest (with the exception of a short stint in California in the 1940s to address young Layton’s “rheumatic fever”) moved to Manitou Springs, Colorado, where the young Kor saw a film that would change his life (High Conquest based on James Ramsey Ullman’s book of the same name—Kor mistakenly called it Man Against the Matterhorn in his book Beyond the Vertical). The next day, Kor borrowed his father’s geology pick and found some rocks behind the trailer park and started chopping steps in the rock.

“I don’t remember,” he told me in 2008. “I think I just did it here and there probably, just something to balance in. It wasn’t very high.”

He quickly gave that up—realizing that chopping steps in the ice in the movie he’d seen was a totally different deal altogether—and began reading about climbing in whatever books he could get his hands on as the Kors moved briefly to Altus, Oklahoma then Wichita Falls, Texas (the “land of the flat,” as Layton called it. Ironically, the library there—in Wichita Falls—had a lot of books about climbing.

“As time went on I kept accumulating knowledge about what the sport was about, the fact that you use a rope and tied in and stuff like that,” he told me in 2008. “[It was] all rudimentary knowledge about the sport, but little by little I learned more.”

In the spring of 1956, the Kor family returned to Colorado—this time Boulder. Game on.

Kor, with no formal climbing training—and as many observers have suggested, because of that lack of formal training—essentially invented climbing for himself. And, fortunately, Kor was in an area with a lot of great crags that were almost wholly undeveloped in terms of their climbing potential: Eldorado Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Lumpy Ridge, and Rocky Mountain National Park, to name the nearest to Kor’s home.

“He just saw things and had that confidence,” noted Dave Dornan, an early climbing partner of Kor’s. “We were taught to be cautious and to test stuff, and three points of contact, and all that old-fashioned stuff, and he never had any rules to follow, so he just did what came naturally.”

As the years followed, Kor would go on to make first ascents of Eldorado’s best-loved and most classic climbs, including the Naked Edge, Ruper, Rosy Crucifixion, the Yellow Spur, and many others (he is credited with first ascents of 55 routes in Eldorado alone, most of them considered classic climbs today). By 1959, with his and Ray Northcutt’s ascent of the Diagonal on the lower section of Longs Peak, Kor was a household name in the Colorado climbing community—although that household was more like a one-roomed cabin at the time. Then, he really got to work.

In the decade from 1957 through ’67, Kor developed a routine in which he would roam between his local crags in the Boulder area as well as venture to other climbing areas, which in his case included Yosemite, Devils Tower, Garden of the Gods, the Shawangunks, and various Canadian and Alaskan areas, establishing new routes, and, as was important during this period, setting new time records for nearly every route he climbed, most notably those in Yosemite, which were the Holy Grail of American climbing, simply because they were the most challenging rock climbs on the planet in the early 1960s.

“He was a dynamo, a one of a kind,” Royal Robbins, Yosemite’s most respected pioneer of the 1960s, told me in 2008. “The emotion was one of wonder and admiration and ‘who’s this guy who comes from out of state and goes on the hardest Yosemite climbs and does them in record time? It’d never been done before.”

Like his father and brother, Kor became a mason and worked just enough to cover his expenses and spent the bulk of his free time climbing (he lived with his parents in their trailer until he was nearly 30). “My parent’s supported my climbing,” Layton told me in a 2011 interview. “Definitely. Without a doubt. For a decade there, all I did was climb.”

In 1966, he was so highly regarded in climbing circles he was invited to be part of an international team that included John Harlin II, Dougal Haston, and (by default Chris Bonington—who was hired by a UK newspaper to cover the event)—establishing a new direct route on the Eiger’s north face. The climb dragged out for more than a month, with the team of climbers routinely jugging 7-mil dynamic ropes fixed on the face—not something most climbers would rely on. “Every time the rope jumped or gave an inch or so my heart dropped through my boots,” Bonington told me via email in 2012.

Ultimately, one of the dynamic ropes broke, John Harlin fell, and it was suddenly the end of an era—the Kor era. Standard histories of the end of Kor’s climbing career suggest that after the Harlin accident he found God and quit climbing. He did the former, but not the latter and kept on climbing a lot, here and there, in a much lower-key fashion. As Lloyd Volgamore, a contractor who hired Kor during his early Jehovah’s Witnesses years in Golden, Colorado, told me, he was climbing a lot in Clear Creek Canyon even though he’d supposedly given up climbing. A single formation in that canyon—near the Kor home in the 1970s—reportedly boasts five Kor routes.

After living for periods in Golden, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Philippines, Guam, and California, Layton moved to Kingman, Arizona, where he passed his final days, climbing occasionally and cursing the dreaded dialysis treatment he was on.

Layton Kor, friends recall, was a rough and ready youngster on the crags—setting a climbing standard for difficulty across Colorado across much of the nation—but in later life a splendid and virtuous friend, father, and husband.

Every climber who’s ever lived has ultimately come to respect Kor’s climbs. He set standards for difficulty and daring in every area he ventured—the Front Range, the Colorado Plateau, Yosemite, and other areas. Authors Stewart Green and Eric Bjornstad estimated in 2012 that a popular Kor route near Moab, the Kor-Ingalls route on Castleton Tower, has had more than 40,000 ascents.

Kor even had an influence on equipment design, too. As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said in a 2012 interview, a 1966 ascent of Les Cortes near Chamonix with Kor led him to rethink ice gear.

“It was a big breakthrough because both of us realized it was a stupid way to climb with these flexible crampons and flexible boots, ice axes that wouldn’t stick in, ice daggers that were worthless,” Chouinard said. “It was a revelation for the two of us for sure.” Chouinard also credited Kor with being one of the few guys he ever hired at Chouinard equipment in the early 1960s—where a number of climbers worked just to get their hands on decent pitons—who could forge. For his part, Chouinard helped Kor learn to surf.

Chris Jones’s often maligned but generally accurate 1976 book, Climbing in North America, has a chapter titled “Layton, ‘The Great ’Un.’” He was the only climber in a book spanning more than a century’s worth of American climbing history to be honored in such a way—not even The Fred, whom we all know and love, was honored like that.

In 2008, a pensive Kor summed it up quite well for me during a marathon interview. “We all carry a little bit of madness,” he said. “You have to be mad to climb. It’s a pretty bizarre sport—a way out there sort of thing. It’s amazing it’s gotten so popular.”

Layton “the great one” Kor is survived and missed by his children—Arlan, Julia, and Jaime Kor—and his widow, Karen, and by his first wife Joy Kor (née Herron). And by thousands of climbers around the globe.    —Cam Burns

Contributions to his family can be made at a website set up by Chris Archer and Steph Davis: http://www.youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/support-for-layton-kor/55319 or, by contacting the writer directly at camburns@rof.net. Cam Burns is currently working on a biography of Layton Kor.