From St. George, UT (this was weeks ago at this point – I’m way behind) Dustyn and I booked it out to California. We marveled at the rock mountains of Arizona before finally stopping for the night in the Mojave. My tent almost blew away, but that was the peak excitement of the night.
We made it into Sequoia National Park the next day. Even though I spent the first eleven years of my life in California, I’d never been to the Sierra Nevadas before. At last, twelve years after moving away I finally laid my eyes on them.
Driving through the Giant Forest, known for its grove of the world’s largest trees, while blasting my Magic Vibes playlist was a surreal experience. The light was fading and the people were gone. We had the park almost to ourselves, it felt. We found a pullout and I pitched my tent behind a boulder.
We explored the park on foot the next day. I’d been in contact with Brent, a long-time friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen since before I moved. He’s been working in Sequoia for the past four summers and we’d planned on meeting up in a few days. In the meantime, he’d recommended to us one of the few sport climbing crags in the park.
Thus we found ourselves bewildered at Buck Rock. There were sport lines here, surely, but none that appeared you could descend from after reaching the anchors. Rather, it looked like you were supposed to top out and scramble down what looked like class 5 rock. Without knowing the proper beta, we decided against taking our chances and enjoyed the view over ramen noodles instead.
Elsewhere we found ourselves on a 10-mile hike up to and back from Emerald Lake. The sweeping granite landscape at the valley ridge was a sight to behold. Ripping waterfalls cut through the rock in all directions, and we could hear them distinctly from thousands of feet above. Once at Emerald we napped on the rock and numbed our feet in the icy water.
King’s Canyon, home to the tallest peak in the lower 48, is almost all backcountry. We rode a path to Road’s End that opens up with a trailhead into the mountains beyond. We merely got a taste of the full scope that King’s wilderness has to offer. I’ll be back.
Our last day in the park we spent with Brent. We showed up to his camp at 8 AM sharp and woke our bodies up over some warm coffee. Before long, he piled onto the bed in the back of my car so the three of us could make the bumpy ride to the trailhead for Weaver Lake together.
We crushed the trail, cruising at a breakneck pace while passing the time with inspired chatter of stories, thoughts, and ambitions. At the lake we made seats out of rocks and chilled in content happiness for a good while. I seized the opportunity to wash a layer of dirt off my legs. Eventually we made our way back down the trail so Brent could make it back in time for a meeting at camp.
Twelve years apart but we picked up right where we left off. I can’t overstate how awesome it was to reconnect with him. We’ll see each other again soon.
With Joe’s Valley behind us, Dustyn and I pushed South for Utah’s three remaining national parks. We came across Capitol Reef first, braving the brutal heat for a quick pass without giving the park the justice it probably deserved.
By the time we arrived in Bryce Canyon that evening, we had already decided to spend the night there rather than continue South. We found the cooler temperatures and strangely forested desert terrain refreshing.
The canyon’s amphitheater was the calling card of the park — it’s collection of bizarre hoodoos the greatest in the world. We dove into the canyon for a closer look at the unstable walls.
The next day we were up early to continue our trek. We arrived before long to the glory of Zion, its high walls towering far above the valley below in a way reminiscent of the imposition I imagine Yosemite poses.
We explored for a while before finding a library to relax at and catch up on work. I made myself comfortable in some bean bags with a window wall view of an enormous mountain face. After the library closed for the day, we rolled up the street to skate below said mountain on some junk we found by the side of the road.
By dusk we made our way out to a BLM spot I’d heard of to pitch camp for the night. We were enjoying beers and good conversation by a fire when a truck pulled up at the far end of our spot. For several hours a lone man seemed to endlessly coil and uncoil rope in his truck bed. Dustyn and I were perplexed at least and unnerved at most, but it didn’t keep us from getting a good night’s sleep in anticipation of climbing Zion the next day.
In the far northern end of the national park lies Kolob Canyon, home to the legendary Namaste Wall. Its lines of huecos make it look as though it was hand-crafted to be climbed. Despite it’s inviting appearance, we soon found the wall firsthand to be deceptively overhung and even taller than imagined. All the more inspiring… and we had it all to ourselves.
We jumped on Half Route (5.10+) to warm up for Namaste (5.11d), the namesake of the wall. At 80 feet, though, Half Route was not to be taken lightly. I got the onsight, thanks to a hueco big enough to sneak a decent rest about a third of the way up. Even still, by the time I clipped the anchors the pump in my forearms was real.
Dustyn blew past the rest intentionally; Namaste’s own resting point wasn’t until after 90 feet of climbing and he correctly figured to get there clean he’d have to be able to send Half Route without resting.
It’s hard to manage this level of pump without specific training, though; Dustyn fell on Half Route a bolt before the anchors. Namaste was even more of a struggle.
At 140 feet, fourteen bolts and then two anchors, Namaste is one of the greatest tests of endurance in all of North America. After getting through the initial 50º overhang to start out the ascent, Dustyn ended up piecing together the rest of the route more or less bolt by bolt — the lead climb made immeasurably more difficult by having to haul up the weight of half of the 70 meter rope with one arm just to make each clip (something else we had not anticipated).
Because of the overhang and the height of the wall, I’d lost sight of him about halfway up the wall. When he yelled down to me that he’d finally clipped into the anchors, we were together glad that the war of attrition was over and had been won, even though it hadn’t been pretty.
We’d calculated with a little bit of light geometry that the climb could be viewed as a triangle and that my 70 meter rope would be just long enough to go all the way up and back down if it only went along the hypotenuse once. That meant the line had to first be led and then top-roped afterwards to clean the quickdraws. So after Dustyn made the long descent back to Earth’s surface, I was on deck to finish our work.
On the wall I also made quick work of the initial overhang, but annoyingly slipped off at its vertex. Even more annoying, the overhang sent me far out into open air and unable to swing back onto the wall to continue climbing, even though I was clipped into the draws above. That meant I needed to be dirted to start from scratch. Climbing more carefully, I made it through the technical crux without slipping off again.
The rest of climb was a slow grind, though. Similarly unable to manage the creeping pump and in order to avoid swinging helplessly out of reach of the wall, I also ended up going bolt by bolt. It felt like I was up there forever — the exposure unlike any climb I’d ever been on. In the end I did finish and was glad to be done, finally cracking a smile after I’d reached the top.
After just the two pitches we were spectacularly spent but extraordinarily energized. We hiked out of the canyon and relaxed the rest of the day at a Starbucks in St. George. For some reason they treated us to free drinks and enough food to last us a few days.
The physical highs and lows of the day would become emotional highs and lows the following day. Thursday morning I received troubling news that jeopardized my ability to continue this grand trip and left me with a hard choice to make. In my newfound position of discomfort and uncertainty, I found myself at first strangely excited at the novelty of it all before reality struck and my thoughts floated around in a state of paralytic indecisiveness.
Dustyn, meanwhile, had come across some vocational struggles of his own. Uncertain of what freelance work would come his way after finishing up with his current client and frustrated by stalled progress on a personal project, we found each other in rare moments of existential crises. It was in this adversity that we came together and began to work through it.
Throughout the trip we’d had moments of creativity that brought forth ideas of all kinds. That trying evening in particular we brought Del Taco burritos to a city park and started iterating through each brainchild, simultaneously analyzing levels of feasibility and market size. In time, a new idea sparked from Dustyn and quickly caught fire in me. With clear vision and unparalleled excitement we collectively decided to move forward with the first step. We’ll see where it leads us.
Freshly inspired, we retook to Zion the following morning — our sights set on the grandest hike in the park and one of the most epic in the country: Angel’s Landing.
Angel’s exposure and scrambling deemed death-defyingly daunting to most was more or less a cake walk for Dustyn and I. The views throughout were breathtaking but the capstone was definitely the precipice at the landing itself. I was called crazy more than once on the descent for the lines I took down the rock, but I never did anything I wasn’t sure I could do.
We finished our stint in southwest Utah with a weekend of hot but shaded climbing outside St. George. As non-noteworthy as my climbs were, Dustyn’s were impressive. I more or less accidentally free-soloed a 5.9 halfway up but got my butt kicked by a 5.10d with a poorly placed bolt. Dustyn, meanwhile, sent two more 5.12s: Dancing Fox (25 ft) and Tortuga (40 ft), the former purely powerful and the latter more carefully calculating.
From here we depart Utah and close our chapter in the desert with a long move to the Sierra Nevadas of California.
Dustyn, Moon, and I fled Moab Thursday afternoon for the Manti-La Sal mountains of central Utah in search of a world-class boulder field called Joe’s Valley. The day had begun with a slew of rad ascents and we were eager to keep the send train going. When we arrived, we found the valley empty and claimed it for ourselves.
For a world-class climbing destination we were surprised by the lack of development. Searching for established bouldering areas at times became hour-long adventures in and of themselves. But the problems we found were inspiring; the rock itself exotic in appearance and touch.
At Warm Up area we stumbled upon a solid V3 and V4. I flashed each, culminating one of my best overall days of climbing. Dustyn and Moon got the sends, too.
By the time we crawled into our respective sleeping abodes, we still hadn’t seen anyone else in the valley. Even the bugs were nowhere to be found. Moab’s suffocating blanket of heat long behind us, the cool night air of Joe’s Valley was unspeakably refreshing. I found a spot for my tent between some boulders and below a patch of low-hanging pine trees.
We collectively woke early the next morning to my car alarm echoing throughout the walls of the valley — Dustyn the guilty culprit. After some peanut butter and stale bagels we headed straight to the Crack Boulder and got to work.
Dustyn and Moon warmed up on some bizarre V1s and got sketched out by an unfriendly downclimb that they made more unfriendly with the aid of a dead tree. Not willing to risk my ego on the sandbagged V1s, I instead picked out an even weirder V3 aptly named Lanky. It’s basically a super balancy hand-foot match mantle move and then a dyno to a stupid slopey top out, which I was unable to see or feel until I left my feet and went for it. I stuck the dyno and topped out without slipping and breaking my back. To finish up with the area, Dustyn climbed his first outdoor crack problem after which this boulder was named. Moon and I wanted nothing to do with the crack, so we moved on to the Riverside area.
Freshly exhilarated by the river’s boulders, I went ham. Without bothering to chalk up or put my climbing shoes back on I jumped on every fun line I could find. Moon followed me on a traverse directly over the water while Dustyn snacked on peanut butter and explored the hillside above. By the time we were ready to jump on something harder, I was well warmed up.
We decided to work the area’s classic V5 called Kelly’s Arete (not really an arete). Still riding the euphoria of the morning and the day before, I inefficiently tried all sorts of different beta while Dustyn watched with a critical eye. He sent it his second burn. By the time we had the beta on lock my fingers were too fatigued to make the last move before the top out. Though frustrated, I was pleased with my progress nonetheless. Moon, nursing a tendon injury, wisely decided this problem’s pockets weren’t worth further jeopardizing his fingers.
Out of water and eager to escape the midday heat, we made the drive into town to find the local climber hangout spot. After some unintentional detours and faulty intel, we found Food Ranch and filled our bellies. Moon and Dustyn left together in search of a boulder called Hidden Dragon while I stayed behind to get some work done.
I followed before long and aimlessly scrambled in flip-flops up the most unstable hillside in existence. After shouting back and forth to echolocate each other, I found my fellow dirtbags staring down another V5. We took turns on it but were ultimately uninspired, so we turned our sights instead on the namesake of the boulder: Hidden Dragon (V7), a dramatically overhung pumpfest of a problem that tops out with a V4 reach from a bad pocket and a slopey crimp. This was a line that oozed inspiration.
“You climb like a monkey!” Moon exclaims as Dustyn gives the dragon his first burn. I jump on next, cruising through the juggy overhang and slipping on a dyno to the beginning of the top out because I cut feet and swing into Moon. We work it together until dusk falls, each able to make the moves but unable to fit the pieces for the send. The descent down the hillside is dangerous fun; we basically surf down the dirt in the dark and try to avoid uprooting unsettled boulders along the way.
Back at camp we got a fire going and cracked some beers. Over creatively spiced ramen we joked and shared stories well into the night.
“Did you guys hear that guy last night?” Moon asks us the next morning. “He slowed down as he drove by, yelled at us to get out of here, and threw a beer can out of his window.”
Mildly taken aback but mostly amused, Dustyn and I each shrug and say we must have slept through it.
It’s our third day on, and I can feel it in my fingers; they’re stiff and my skin is thin. But we’re here with a purpose. The climb must go on.
We go straight to Riverside. I have Kelly’s Arete in the crosshairs, confident that I have my beta dialed down. Without really warming up, I jump on and cruise to my personal crux. I hit the wrong hold and get stuck. Unable to readjust, I jump down in frustration.
I work it probably a half dozen more times but just don’t have the strength in my fingers that I’d had a couple days before. My last burn I fall again at the high two-finger pocket with heinous feet and land badly on my ankle. I rip my shoes off in angry agony and throw my hat into the forest. I’m done with this problem, and perhaps climbing, for the day. My grand adventure tallies a new personal low point. I’m not an emotional person, but I am fiercely competitive — especially with yours truly. And when I fail, I lay waste to myself.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” I tell Dustyn and Moon. “Gonna go hang out at Food Ranch and get some work done.” We arrange a meetup point for later in the evening and I drive away.
In a funk but still wildly productive, I whittle away hours in the upstairs of our new favorite spot. I’m voraciously satisfying my sugar craving with a pack of red vines and a liter of raspberry lemonade when Dustyn walks up the stairs to surprise me.
With contagious energy he recounts to me the afternoon’s misadventures. Moon and he had spent hours traipsing through the wilderness in search of Wills a Fire, the valley’s famously classic black-and-gold-streaked V6. They’d supposedly found it, but not without accidentally dislodging a boulder from the hillside and sending it crashing down the mountain. They hang out with me for a hot minute, looking up videos of the line before heading back out to the valley for an onsight attempt.
I finish up my project at hand and leave in pursuit of them. Finding them is easier this time; Dustyn leaves a roadside cairn for me denoting the trailhead. They’re in the midst of problem solving when I stoop through a cave to join them.
The onsight attempt didn’t go as planned and the reason is clear: the line is true to its grade and the beta is unclear. I give it a couple burns but am pretty shredded from the morning’s climbing, so I’m happy to focus instead on lending insight where I can and capturing moments through a lens.
Dustyn and Moon cycle through attempts, working each sequence independently until they feel like they have it right. The send burns each fall short at the crux, though. The day has brought each of us to moments of doubt and vexation, but Dustyn reminds me that’s just the nature of climbing.
The attempts continue until dusk when we collectively decide our fingers have had enough. We return to Riverside, this time only to relax and fish. After our descent from Wills a Fire, a dude in a truck stops in the road to ask if he can borrow a lighter. Dustyn offers up his and in return the guy gives us each a beer. At the river, Moon catches and releases a beautiful cutthroat trout. The evening is on the upswing.
Once our stomachs start growling, we head back to set up camp for our last night in the valley.Again we make ramen and a fire. The conversation bounces back and forth for hours. At some point in the night I’m eating dry sugar cereal and pulling pants on over my shorts because I’m cold. Dustyn meanwhile sits fireside in his underwear because he’s been wearing his shorts for two weeks and thinks they smell bad (they do).
My sugar craving carries over into the morning and I eat my knock-off Captain Crunch with water because almond milk is unpractical when you’re living in a car. We get a jump on the day and arrive back at Wills a Fire before 8 AM.
My friends are possessed, ready to kill themselves on this boulder if that’s what it takes to get the send (I exaggerate, but not by much). The morning is a continuation of the prior evening: progress here, setbacks there. I jump on at times to try different beta, but ultimately nothing works in its entirety. At four days on, this problem is above our ability to perform at this point. We walk away not with a sour taste in our mouths, but instead excited anticipation for the next trip to Joe’s Valley.
We return one final time to Riverside in good spirits. We come across a young bouldering crew from Berkeley, California and Moon asks if that’s flour that they’ve rubbed all over the rock. They bite on his sarcasm and we laugh.
We fish a bit more only to be teased by the local trout who are evidently smarter than we are. After a couple of the most grotesquely delicious PB&Js anyone’s ever laid eyes on, we say our goodbyes. From here Dustyn and I will head South to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon en route to Zion. Moon needs to stop taking days off and actually return to work, but he promises to meet up with us in Wyoming at the start of August and finish our trip with us. I can’t wait.
After my sunrise hike of Mesa Arch, I get back and wake up Dustyn so we can get a move on. We stop by Potash on our way to Moab so Dustyn can get another burn on Knapping with theAlien. Though the send eludes him again, he makes good progress — this time getting to the top. He grabs his bail biner from the day before and returns to Earth.
To our surprise, we find some Native American petroglyphs on the very walls we’re climbing. We study them for a while in curious fascination.
Eager to get out of the heat, we head back to our adopted home at Red Rock Bakery for smoothies and delicious veggie bagel sandwiches. I accidentally sabotage their internet and end up getting a free coffee for it. We hang out until they close in the afternoon, then decide to explore Arches National Park.
The wild landscape continues to blow our minds. It feels like we’ve left Earth and have been transported to some distant desert planet. The heat of the afternoon is brutal so we keep the adventuring low-key, deciding to do a proper hike the following morning instead.
We drive back to town for an evening work session at the library. I’m not very productive; at this point in the day I’m crashing hard after a combined 7-8 hours of sleep over the past two nights. When the library closes I’m ready to go to sleep, but Dustyn wants to stay in town for a while longer. We reach a compromise: he’ll drop me off at the campsite and then go back into town for the night.
The spot of choice was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) plot a ways down Potash. The further down we went, the more remote it became. We arrived to find a pullout that led to an even more secluded berm. Eager to test the 4×4 capabilites of The Buffalo, we begin to climb the steep rock road. About two-thirds of the way up, I decide to bail; the rocks scraping against each other underneath the car was far too unnerving. The pullout would serve just fine for the night.
We set up camp as quickly as possible while mosquitos swarmed every cubic inch of the air around us. Then I watch Dustyn drive away and my stomach drops as it hits me what a foolish move this could end up being.
I had no phone service, limited water, and no one else knew I was out here. The walk back to town would be seven hours, if it came to that. Too wired at this point to actually sleep, I cross my fingers that Dustyn would actually return and sing For What It’s Worth on repeat to keep myself company while savagely squashing all the mosquitos that had snuck into my tent.
After a couple hours Dustyn does indeed return, and I’ve never been more grateful to see him. I fall asleep and get a great night’s rest.
The next morning we catch another beautiful sunrise and embark on the short drive back to Arches. We arrive just as the parking lot is beginning to fill up and eat some day-old free bagels from Red Rock before hitting the trail.
Despite the early morning heat, the trail teems with people. Barefoot, shirtless, and mildly claustrophobic I carefully blow past them to get to the top as quickly as I can.
Delicate Arch is the premier landmark of the Moab area (if not all of Utah) and it does not disappoint. We soak up the beautiful view for a while and make the trek back down.
We coffee shop hopped again, Dustyn put in another burn on his project 5.12, and we found a spot to sleep outside Canyonlands.
I perpetually lose things; sometimes I find those things. I’d had several close calls with my phone and wallet already on this trip, but they always turned up. I don’t realize until later, but at some point at that sleeping spot my wallet must have fallen out of the car. It still remains to be found. Strangely, I’m not too bothered.
Well-rested and excited to be climbing earlier than usual, we get to Potash and set up by 7 AM. The conditions are just right; the air is cool by Moab standards and the mosquitos are nowhere to be seen. After three days of work, Dustyn has his beta dialed down and at this point just needs to execute. And he does — perfectly.
He cruises through the campus start to the rest, pushes hard through the high crux, makes a handful of tough clips, and finally reaches the anchors. In unison we begin hooting and hollering in excitement. As we’re laughing our heads off, Moon rolls in to join the party after a three-and-a-half hour drive from Vail.
The fun goes on; Moon and I each jump on Knapping with the Alien on top-rope, eventually getting to the anchors after a couple of falls. Then we collectively move on over to the more casual Nervous in Suburbia (5.10a).
I jump on and figure out the beta as I go, thankful for the slabby angle that allows me to take my time. I get the onsight after a handful of cryptic balancy moves.
Moon is on deck next. The first bolt is high and precariously located, so I had stick-clipped the quickdraw and rope to start my ascent. But with the draw already in place for Moon’s redpoint burn and the rope pulled all the way back through, we find it difficult to stick-clip directly into the draw given the angle of the slab. Instead, we decide to protect the fall with crash pads. Moon boulders up and fearlessly gets the first clip, but wants to come back down to get his head right before climbing further.
We share in some roadside R&R, pointless pebble throwing, and toenail clipping. Ready to go again, he jumps back on with a clear mind and cruises it for the send.
Dustyn and I left Rifle Mountain at noon on Sunday to venture further West. We stopped in Grand Junction just before crossing the border into Utah to take some much needed showers at the last Planet Fitness we’d see for a while. A couple hours later we rolled into Moab.
After exploring the town for a while, we hopped back into The White Buffalo to sink our toes into the surrounding desert. Five minutes from Main Street put us on Potash Road, the local sport climbing crag. We scoped out some routes, grateful for the convenience but also mildly unnerved by their literal roadside locale. Down Potash a ways we found a trailhead for Corona Arch. Impulsively, we started down the trail hoping to reach the arch before the sunset.
We made it just in time. The desert landscape was unworldly. So were the faces.
At this point in the day, we were on cloud nine. The stoke was at a fever pitch, especially when we found a Denny’s open 24/7 that offered unlimited orange juice refills to satisfy our acid cravings. Unfortunately, the rest of the night would only go downhill.
Denny’s didn’t have WiFi, so that mostly ruined our plans of getting in a late night work session. And the service was pretty horrible. Frustrated and eventually just tired, we left in search of somewhere to sleep. After some aimless wandering we found a spot, even though we probably weren’t supposed to park there. We weren’t caught but I paid the price nonetheless; that night was probably the most miserable of my life. It had been over 100º since we got here and the night temperatures weren’t much more forgiving. We cracked the windows to let some air flow, even though that meant letting the biting bugs swarm inside. Too hot and uncomfortable to sleep, I reached a point of delirium at some point in the night and proclaimed that I was just going to die. Dustyn ignored me and shrugged at my rare moment of melodrama.
But no freesoloing, 80 mph winds at 13,000 foot ridgelines, stalking mountain lions, or territorial cows had killed me thus far; neither would that heat or those bugs. Morning came at last and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Eager to hit reset and start my day right, I drove The Buffalo back to the Corona Arch trailhead while Dustyn remained asleep behind me. No other cars were there, which meant I had sunrise all to myself.
I spent a few hours up there, appreciating the opportunities that allowed me to find myself alone in the silent beauty of this exotic world. In time, I returned to the trailhead to find Dustyn stretching outside The Buffalo and telling me he’d only woken up 15 minutes ago.
He and I, respectively well-rested and rejuvenated, then hit the crag. He had his eye set on a 5.12a called Knapping with the Alien, so we plopped our gear down on the side of the road and got to work. Progress was slow and difficult; Dustyn eventually made it to the crux but further exposure in the heat was unbearable so he clipped in a bail biner and returned to Earth. We found a great little coffee shop called Red Roof Bakery and worked away the hottest part of the day before driving into Canyonlands that night to catch the sunset.
I climbed up a rock feature to catch a good view of the changing colors of the evening sky. Dustyn joined me and broke out the guitar.
“Do you think one thing will just lead you to the next thing?” he asks me. “When you throw yourself at something, will more things will come of it?”
“In my experience that’s been universally true,” I respond. “I think being proactively dynamic will always open doors. Your path won’t be a straight line. It’ll be chaotic. But along the way you’ll touch so many different circles of thought, people, opportunities, and ideas. And any one of those could bring forth something new and worthwhile. Or maybe not, but that’s part of it.”
We talk well past sundown and finally head back to the car. Dustyn’s tired and puts himself to bed after deciding we’ll just stay there at the trailhead to Mesa Arch. Somehow I’m still going, though, and stay up for a while playing with the camera and the night sky. I bring out my pillow and lay down on the asphalt, surprisingly comfortable but honestly afraid of another night in the car (camping at Mesa is prohibited). Eventually I decide to call it and crawl into the belly of The Buffalo.
I actually sleep great but am up early again for another sunrise. The trail is not empty this time; I begin the short trek with literally a bus full of foreign tourists. Maneuvering around them to get a good shot was a successful challenge.
On Friday Dustyn and I set out from Vail for Rifle Mountain where we had our sights set on some world-class sport climbing routes. That evening we jumped on three different pitches, perplexed by the cryptic rock and incorrect intel from a local. Nevertheless, we put in work that we could build off of over the weekend.
In the morning, we drove out to find cell service so we could get in touch with Oliver and Moon, who would each be driving in to climb with us. Oliver ended up seeing us on the drive and just followed us back to Rifle with his friend Caroline. Moon showed up a little bit later.
Dustyn and Oliver go way back but hadn’t seen each other in about a year. It was my first time meeting Oliver and Caroline, but we all became fast friends. We got to climbing quickly — trading belays and burns on the rock. On his second attempt at each, Dustyn sent the 5.11s that we were working the night before. Together, Moon and I worked Winter’s End (a great 11b) but neither of us could get it clean. Caroline and Oliver got their stoke high on all sorts of routes, and Oliver even onsighted his first 5.9 on lead.
We broke for lunch, and while we were eating I saw some brook trout in the adjacent stream. Overly enthusiastic, I rushed to grab and set up my fly rod. Moon followed suit. We spent the next couple hours walking up and down the canyon trying to tempt the fish to bite with mild success; Moon caught one, I caught none. My technique for rainbows in Virginia has no carryover out here, it would seem. Meanwhile, Dustyn, Oliver, and Caroline were continuing to put in work on some more pitches.
Dustyn and Moon jumped on Pile Driver in Skull Cave, a super polished 5.11c. I’d wandered around seemingly forever trying to find them, but when I did I caught Dustyn trying hard.
At the end of the day, we were all pretty exhausted. We packed up and set out in search of some free camping that Oliver had the beta for. From here on, the evening would only get weirder.
We passed through the canyon, which eventually flattened into national forestry land. As the gravel road grew more precarious, wild forest children waved us onwards with pool noodles. Just as dusk was falling, the road opened up into the meadow we’d been in search of. What we hadn’t anticipated was the army of cows standing guard.
We honked our way through the herd and eventually joined ranks with the other cars at the edge of the field. The standoffish bovines greeted us coldly with wary glances and expressive moos, arranging themselves in a row while they watched us set up camp.
As night settled, the cows seemed to disappear — inaudible and unseen, though traces of them remained scattered all around, much to Caroline’s misfortune and our amusement. Several moments that night I laughed harder than I have in as long as I can remember.
The night became truly surreal when, near midnight, some thrill seekers decided to fire up their ATVs. I counted four, each racing by behind the other across the meadow in a cloud of dust, silhouetting what seemed like a hundred cows in the foreground from the warm radiance of their headlights. There’s never been a moment I regret not having a camera in hand more.
The weirdness continued in the morning when I sat up to find myself face to face with a cow right outside the screen my tent. Wildly uncomfortable, I periscope around to find that our entire camp is surrounded; hungry cows at our dinner table, curious cows by our cars, forest cows in the bordering aspen grove. I cautiously scamper out of my tent and foolishly make eye contact with a bull passing by. It paws the ground viciously with its hoof and lowers its head, eager for a challenge. I avert my gaze and crawl back into my abode, fearing imminent trampling, but manage to survive another hour until everyone else is up and moving.
We reflect on the strangeness of life over breakfast before saying our goodbyes and heading our separate ways. Moon and I would fish a bit more before he left for work, while Oliver and Caroline peaced out for a hike in the Rockies.
My work in Rifle remained undone, however. Eager to get the send on Winter’s End, I convince Dustyn into giving me a catch on a few burns before we leave the canyon.
My first attempt I fall just before clipping the fourth bolt. Determined, I work the sequence a bit and have Dustyn dirt me; each burn would be a redpoint burn.
I rest up and give it another go. I remember my sequence and clip the fourth bolt this time, but realize I don’t have the next sequence as dialed down as I thought. I fall again, work that sequence, and once more get Dustyn to dirt me.
Frustrated and possessed, I decide I’ll give it one final burn — promising to walk away afterwards successful or not. I cruise through the crux but dry fire at a jug. Even though I thought I was falling, I manage to readjust and somehow hang on. I work up to and through the fourth bolt, but I’m pumped to the max. I feel like I’m going to fall any moment, but in the meantime decide to just keep climbing — one move at a time. Somehow, I stick enough moves to come out of the overhang and into the slabby finish. Before I know it, I find myself eye to eye with the anchors. Clipped one. Clipped two. Done.
Breckenridge had been good to me, but onwards I pushed. Dustyn would finally be flying in that night and I needed to be there to pick him up. I coffee shop hopped around Denver for the day, fed myself PBJs out of the back of my car, and witnessed an impromptu live action play right there in Tenn Street Coffee.
As evening fell, it was time to go fetch my partner in crime. With smiles, a fist bump, and a bro hug we reunited and hit the road together at last. We were officially stoked folk.
A spot to sleep for the night presented itself in the back parking lot of a Cracker Barrel, of all places. A Subaru drove up while we were making dinner and two guys hopped out. Curious, I struck conversation and discovered that Josh and Jesse unbelievably also trekked out here all the way from Virginia. We shared stories for a while, discovered a number of uncanny similarities, and exchanged contact info.
We caught a good night’s sleep and started our exploration early the next day. The coffee shop hop continued and we broke up our work flow with a good skate session. Then we moved westward to catch Moon and start climbing.
Dustyn was quickly enamored with the mountains I had come to call home over the past week and a half. He was as equally floored as I by the rock littered across the landscape in every direction.
We went straight to my new favorite bouldering spot: The Klettergarden, arriving just as dusk was falling. Moon showed up soon after.
We showed Dustyn around and told him about the lines we’d been working. As the light continued to fade, the stoke continued to grow. We slipped our climbing shoes on and got to work.
Dustyn was as intrigued as we were by the Colorado rock. More polished and nuanced than that of which we were used to in Virginia, deciphering the beta was a collaborative effort.
Well-rested from a couple days off, Moon finally sent that uber hard V3. The crux, like several of the problems here, was topping out from a less than ideal sloper perched atop an overhung start.
We moved onwards and upwards to some of the tougher lines, taking turns on a couple V6s called Minturn Mile and Mortal Fingers. Moon had sent Minturn Mile already, but he worked it with Dustyn and I anyway. The top out remains undone, but the other moves were conquered. Super fun line with epic movement.
Mortal Fingers was a puzzle from the start. Dustyn and Moon adopted one set of beta, reaching straight for a crack. I felt stronger trying something different, getting in super close to the rock and making a balancy, open-hipped cross from a gaston to a sloper. The next couple moves went smoothly, more or less, before we got stumped by a reachy dyno. Reps were limited because the dyno catch was one of the rare sharp holds at The Klettergarden. My last attempt was my best; I’d gotten the movement right (thanks to Dustyn’s microbeta) and struck the hold spot on. My grip slipped, but I probably would have stuck it had I been fresh. Dustyn came close, too. Moon dialed it down and stuck it. He’ll put it all together and get the send soon.
It was another successful night, full of hard climbing and lacking in mountain lion attacks. We celebrated with beers back in town and a makeshift late-night snack (cottage cheese, beans, rice, and spices) back at Moon’s place.
Tuesday morning I left Vail for Aspen on a curious whim. While naturally and architecturally aesthetic, I didn’t find Aspen very welcoming towards nomads. So after stocking up on some food I called another audible and moved onwards to Breckenridge. Driving through Independence Pass was stunning and exhilarating with its high cliffs and narrow roads.
After arriving in Breckenridge, my decision to move on from Aspen was quickly justified. The town was walkable, the parking was free, and the people were friendly.
I wandered around for a while and happened upon The Crown, a small coffee shop with a super rad vibe. But they closed before I could finish my work, so I wandered on over to Starbucks — an establishment I typically prefer not to frequent unless out of preferable options. It turned out to be a good move, though, because the barista with whom I was chatting alerted me to a family of foxes that live behind the building. Eager to try and catch a glimpse, I ran outside with my camera.
Not two minutes passed before the first fox lackadaisically walked right in front of me. I wasn’t prepared for that shot, but fortunately they weren’t done scampering around looking for food.
After Starbucks finally closed, I wandered around town in the dark trying to find my car. I took an unlit path and, in some surreal stupor, spotted an unfamiliar canine silhouette in the distance. The eerie shape, lit only by the faint moonlight, stood motionless and stared me down as I continued to approach. But I blinked and it was gone. Another fox, surely.
After an embarrassing amount of time, The White Buffalo was spotted at last. I found a perfect spot to sleep for the night and put myself to bed.
After hiking Longs Peak on Saturday I drove Southwest to meet Moon in Vail, where he’s working as a climbing instructor for the summer. We caught up and made some pasta, but I crashed and was asleep on his floor by 8:30 PM — evidently still exhausted from the early morning hike.
I woke up feeling great the next morning, though, eager to get out and do some proper climbing. Since Moon rolled into town a couple weeks ago, he’s been frequenting a bouldering paradise about twenty minutes away called The Klettergarden.
Moon had warned me in advance of “old, rich hippies” who hang out at the boulders for days on end and pester the climbers. We saw no trace of them, but there were loads of other climbers trying to make the most of the beautiful Sunday.
The Klettergarden is a fairly recently developed site, allegedly established just eleven years ago. Colorado rock is unique, too — there are so many tiny features on the rock that each person can have their own distinct beta on a problem. The freshness of the site and abundance of beta options meant there was lots of potential for new lines, so Moon and I collaborated and set a few new problems. We’re super stoked with what we came up with.
After climbing for a few hours and beating ourselves up on the rock, we left to see if any fish were biting. The water conditions aren’t great right now; the rivers are high, fast, and unclear. Nevertheless, we scoped out a prime spot that looked like it had promise.
Unfortunately by the time we got down there, another fly fisherman had beaten us to the spot. He ended up catching a decent rainbow trout. We had no such luck but had great fun anyway.
Desperately hungry from a long but thrilling day, Moon and I went back to town on the hunt for some late night grub. We found ourselves at a cafe bar exclusively filled with people twice our age, but that didn’t stop us from staying until closing time. Our conversation was so great, in fact, we unintentionally lured an eavesdropping woman at the bar into joining us.
The next day I spent mostly working at a coffee shop in town. But come evening it was climbing time again. First we checked out a local indoor wall that surprised us with a couple tough project problems. Once dusk fell, we headed back out to The Klettergarden to do some night bouldering.
We knew the risks of being out at this hour; mountain lions are frequently spotted at these rocks and Moon has even seen their fresh tracks firsthand. But we had a group of four and made plenty of strange noises to keep the cats at bay. An eerie presence followed us around the whole time we were out there, as if we were being watched (and we surely were), but luckily no lion made its presence known.
I jumped on a few projects and made some headway on each. I found the rock here very inspiring, both in its forgivingly smooth touch and its untapped possibilities. Coupled with the surrounding aspen grove and a night sky dense with stars, I easily consider it my favorite outdoor bouldering spot yet.
It’s 3 AM and my phone alarm goes off. I’m already wide awake, fueled by nervous excitement. I roll out of my car and get a quick stretch before tapping on the window of Nathan’s van. We’d slept right there at the trailhead so we could be ready to go. We had our sights set on Long’s Peak, the tallest and most difficult 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We pack our bags. Double check. Triple check. Our bags are heavier than we’d like, filled with water, food, crampons, ice axes, rope, harnesses, and other gear. By the time we finish packing, we have about 2 hours to get above tree line in order to see the sunrise.
Our timing was perfect. The sky was bloody and fiery — the texture and depth of the clouds unlike any sunrise I’d ever witnessed.
We pause again to catch our breath and take stock of the morning light, but not for long. We have a long way to go even after tree line and need to keep moving. Now began the trek through the alpine tundra, where no trees offered protection from the ever-strengthening gusts of wind.
The path through the tundra alternates between snow and rock. The rock stairs require huge steps that sap the strength in my legs. The snow is a slog, my morale weakening each time I sink up to my thighs.
As we near the peak, the path disappears, giving way to the boulder field. Few hikers take this path; most follow the desolate snowfield around the base of the peak to the Keyhole Route. Nathan and I had different intentions.
Our plan was to summit via the Cable Route on the North Face of Long’s Peak. The Cable Route is directly visible in the photo above directly to the right of Nathan’s head (the more inclined Keyhole Route far to the right). The Cable Route gets its name from a cable that used to be installed up until the 1970s when the rangers decided it conducted lightning too well. The line remains, though, beginning with a technical 5.4 vertical ascent before becoming a class 3 scramble to the summit. We plan to free solo the ascent and then rappel back down.
But the wind only grows stronger. It takes my hat, sending it hundreds of yards away in the blink of an eye. It knocks us over and we throw our axes into the snow to keep from following my hat down the mountain. At times the wind beats us back, slowing our trek. At times it propels us forward, sending us face-first towards a boulder. We estimate the gusts to be a consistent 30-40 mph, with gale force bursts of 80 mph or above.
Given the conditions, we decide it foolishly suicidal to attempt our free solo of the Cable Route, expecting that the wind would simply blow us right off the North Face.
Nevertheless, we reach Chasm View, where our summit climb was supposed to begin. We stand in awe and bear witness to the legendary Diamond of Longs Peak. In an instant, a gust comes from seemingly all directions at once and I collapse into a rock outcropping to keep from being helplessly thrown over the ridge. I remain there for a while out of sheer exhaustion, snacking on granola bars and drinking water to keep altitude sickness at bay.
Nathan proclaims Longs his favorite place on Earth, and I find that I don’t disagree. The brutality of the approach was beyond anything I imagined. Never have I found myself so pushed to my limits. And yet the reward standing here face to face with the Diamond is sweeter than anything I’ve ever tasted. It’s a moment where exaggeration becomes impossible.
We descend in good time, reaching the trailhead before 11 AM. The 11 mile trek took us up and down 4,000 feet of elevation and lasted nearly 8 hours.
We drive back to Estes to fill our bellies at Inkwell, Nathan’s favorite coffee shop in town. After recuperating for a couple hours, we fondly part ways so I can continue my journey. I head now to Vail to see Moon.