Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took a whipper, got a concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure Western out here!”– Skiy DeTray via text from mid-way up El Capitan’s Native Son (VI 5.10 A4).
I met with Skiy DeTray one week before receiving this text to learn more about his drive for climbing the most demanding and dangerous big wall routes in the world. In 2011, he spent 22 days on the side of Great Trango Tower, a 2,625-foot wall topping out at 20,623 feet in northern Pakistan. I also wanted to ask him about two other things: His work as a US Air Force Pararescueman in Afghanistan, and partnering with disabled athletes climbing El Cap.
We meet outside my office under cloudy skies in central Boulder. 38 year-old Skiy steps out of the car, reaches back inside for a six-pack of beer and we head inside. On the way in he tells me he’s packed to fly out to climb Native Son on El Cap in the morning. Dressed in a blue Patagonia synthetic jacket, loose blue jeans, a cotton T and what appears to be bedroom slippers—which he assures me are not just for wearing around the kitchen—Skiy’s at ease and relaxed. He has a light beard and dark blue eyes. He folds his 6’3” frame down in the wheeled office chair behind me, leans back and takes a sip off his Levity Amber Ale and talks about aid climbing.
“Aid climbing,” he says, “as you know refers to the struggle of high stepping in your aiders, making long reaches, and pounding in pitons. You let go of everything. All that holds you in place is a #1 head, or the point of the hook in the stone. The wind on El Cap at your back and the swifts around you. You just kind of float up the wall on copperheads and hooks. Then there’s all the mastery of technique and efficiency of systems and adventure. And there’s the necessary pain of it. Aid climbing has a roughneck work side of it. It’s delicate yet physical.”
From 2009 to today, he’s successfully climbed El Cap over 30 times, setting speed records with various partners on routes like Tribal Rite (VI 5.5 A4) in 19:48, and Shortest Straw (VI 5.7 A4) in 12:23.
The Pararescue Life
During his early twenties in Montana, Skiy ice climbed in Bozeman and took several trips to Yosemite to free and aid climb. In his mid twenties. tired of dead-end jobs and wanting to save money for Chamonix, he tried out for the Air Force special forces, undergoing two years of so-called ‘Superman School’ and was selected as one of the branch’s elite Pararescuemen.
“It turned into a job I loved,” he said. “There’s band of brothers watching each other’s back. Plus,“everyone skydives, scuba dives, are paramedics, and mountain rescue experts. I did that from 2001 to 2007.”
Skiy says one of the things he learned during his time there is the importance of teamwork. He credits his time as a Pararescueman, or PJ (Pararescue Jumper) to helping him become a better overall climber.
“They beat it into your head to adapt and overcome every situation you encounter. Complete the mission at all costs.” He takes a long breath and leans back in his chair. “It was two years of training where 90 percent of people don’t make it. It’s insane. And then four years operating with the teams with real life, high-risk civilian and combat rescue operations. We did civilian operations in Iceland and Tucson and Alaska and three tours in Afghanistan.”
He explains how he flew into the high mountains near the Pakistan boarder and recovered injured personnel under enemy fire: “I was basically special forces in Afghanistan. But there’s nothing basic about it.” He lets out big laugh. He makes a look like his eyes are bugging out of his head, looks at me hard and lets out another laugh. “It was A4+, A5. Ha, ha.”
After six years of active duty, he realized that he needed to make a change in his carrer that would allow him to climb. In 2009, he joined the National Guard, which allowed him to spend several months each year working in Alaska as a Pararescueman and six months on YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue).
Present Work, Medic
Today, Skiy works as a flight medic in West Africa. His schedule is 60 days of work on, and 60 days off.
“It’s nice,” he,” says. “But, my climbing has paid the price this year which I why I can’t wait to quit my day job. One more stint and I can take a few years off.”
Having free time from work gives him the flexibility he needs to spend a week or more on the side of a big wall. Like the time he climbed El Cap with two disabled military vets through an organization called Paradox Sports, based in Boulder, Colo. The team, including vets Chad Jukes (below the knee amputee) and Mike Kirby (partial foot amputee), successfully completed Zodiac (VI 5.10 A2+) on September 11, 2013. Skiy talks about a moment of adaption and overcoming, which occurred during their first bivy up on the wall.
“Mike, a prior army vet, dropped both of his shoes. We’re thinking the climb is over, we have to go down. Then the wheels started turning. We can make shoes out of sleeping pad material and duct tape and still get to the top of this thing. It just exemplified that no matter the challenge that if you adapt you can overcome any situation. It captured the whole Paradox spirit. War has left a lot of us with mental and physical disabilities. But through a positive adapt and overcome attitude anything is possible. Including still having an amazing life. It breaks my heart every time I hear a vet has taken his or own life.”
I ask Skiy if kids were in his future.
“Hell no… well, at least for a few years. I want to mix climb, rock climb, and ski four to five days a week and that’s kind of it. I can’t wait to visit the Moose’s Tooth in Alaska. I want to inspire people in a place and time where I was when I was young and impressionable.”
I ask if he’s a nihilist. After all, the aid routes Skiy seeks out are the hardest, most dangerous ones, such as Plastic Surgery Disaster, Reticent Wall with the rating of A4 and A5, which means serious injury or death in case of a fall.
“I’m quite the opposite,” he replies.
I asked what his childhood was like, how and when he got into climbing and why he joined the Special Forces. He grew up in Spokane, Washington. His mom worked at REI and due to her work she was able to expose him to rafting, camping, and climbing when he was only 8.
“There were all these climber hard-core dudes who worked at REI when I was a kid,” he says. It was climbing that grabbed him the most and he hero-worshiped the stars in climbing movies. “I feel like those videos inspired me set the tempo for that fuel to push yourself and always squeeze out what you have and the body you have,” he says. “To this date I can recite literally every line from those movies.”
He laughs slowly as we talk about what it was like getting his start top roping and bouldering at age 8 at the local Spokane crags called Min E Ha Ha. To reach the rocks located 12 miles from his home he’d have to persuade his mom to take him, or whoever he could get to take him there. He’d often bring his bike along, and ride the 12 miles home after he was done climbing, which he did generally alone. In the third grade, he started lifting weights and joined the cross-country team. He started leading routes at age 12. Climbing, running, and competitions were the main driving forces in his life from age eight to 16. While a member of the Mead High School Cross Country team in 1995, Skiy ran a two-mile race in 8:58, and was beaten by his teammate by 1/100th of a second, earning him second place in the country.
“If I just leaned in a little bit more,” he said, “I could have earned first.”
Skiy won a scholarship to Montana State for his excellence in running. There, his love for running was overcome by his desire to climb rocks. “I lost the plot and started rock climbing. I loved it.” He continues. “In my thirties, I could have worked a full time job and put money in the bank and put money in my retirement. Instead, I moved to Yosemite to become a granite climber, a speed climber and an aid climber.” “I was on YOSAR for four summers. One summer in Tuolumne, three seasons in the Valley. Those were the four best years of my life.” He sums up his climbing career: “So far: 30 years. Still alive,” he says. He free climbs about 150 days a year.
Travels in Pakistan
I asked him about his experience traveling through Pakistan and his time on Great Trango Tower.
“For 77 days, I traveled through Pakistan with Andy, a hard core, bar fighting, rough neck and Pierre Olsson, a Swedish Special Forces sniper. I felt between the three of us that we would be able to at least make to the base of great Trango. I think all climbing in Pakistan is worth the risk of getting to and from the climb because the mountains are that incredible. It’s the Wild, Wild West. You have to go there prepared to do anything.”
Great Trango’s height of 4,400 feet dwarfs El Cap’s 3,200. He described their attempt on the Norwegian Pillar as, “1,400 feet of 5.10 to an office sized ledge. Then 3,000 feet of aid climbing.”
The team had clear skies for the first seven days of the route and make strong progress. Then the clouds came in and they settled into their hanging camp located at 17,000 feet.
“We basically got to the ledge and a nine-day storm came and it snowed three feet. We knew that in order to reach the summit we would have to climb through the storm. So we quested in storm conditions. We were Jumaring in 20-degree temps, and aid climbing with beaks in a storm. It was insane.”
Days passed this way until they reached a ledge below the upper headwall, which stretches for the final 1,200 feet. They made 800 feet of progress.
“Then we got the call on our two way radio that another storm was approaching,” he says. “We were running low on food. We’d have to go without food for seven to14 days.” He laughs. “And we’d already lost 20 pounds each. I wish I would’ve taken food for 40 days.”
They retreated. Skiy plans to go back, but this time he’d like to make a four-day blitz up the wall to avoid being pinned down by a storms.
“I want to take my climbing from big wall, to high altitude objectives that require El Cap technique and finesse, plus gritty hard-core alpine endurance.” Then he adds, “But in a minimalist lightweight style.”
“How do you know when to draw the line of dreaming and staying alive?” I ask but don’t get an answer. A week later I get a series of texts from Skiy from the side of El Cap:
Thursday August 29: “Fucking awesome!! Swifts, King Cobra, and red granite streaks! A bit spicy, loving it!”
Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took wiper, got concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure western out here!”
Saturday, Aug 30, 8:52am: Andy is a little shook up, but ok. Sometimes the wall tests your mettle, we drive on.”