Audio Book (sort of…)

Professional audiobook narrators need not worry. I’m no threat. But during this coronavirus pandemic, when many climbers seem challenged by the social distancing directive (surprisingly enough to me—hell, I damn near invented social distancing), I figured this bizarre time makes a good time for storytime: I’m reading my book, The Tower, cover to cover, and releasing the readings for free, daily, no ads and no bullshit. Much gratitude to Patagonia Books for their support, and huge thanks to my long-suffering friend Jason Albert, who heroically endured as my first regular climbing partner back in my “Sketchy Kelly” days in Missoula. I was such a pain in the ass. Jason’s a great writer and an audio pro, and he walked me through the basics, tweaked the levels, and fixed my bigger mistakes. It would have been inhumane, however, to subject him to a full edit of these recordings, and so the many glitches are all mine.

We as climbers tend to be fortunate with the lives we lead. If you are able, please consider helping somebody in need during this crisis, whether it’s a friend, neighbor, your local food bank or another organization.

Episodes should be streamable and downloadable (unless I botch the tech), and will be posted below daily. They average 25 to 30 minutes each, but range from 20 to 50 minutes. Apologies for the hiccups, the sips from my marg, and the wind outside my window. And my pronunciations of foreign words are atrocious. Have mercy. You get what you pay for. I had to put on my blinders at times while recording, and let some things go, or I’d drive myself nuts. I’ve consolidated the 35 chapters (plus Epilogue and Postscript) into 16 readings, prefaced by a short intro. Enjoy, and stay healthy.

An off the Couch Audio Book (1)

Language: Some folks have asked if it’s kid-friendly for language. Well, might depend on your kids, but it’s probably not. I read the book as I wrote it, uncensored, which includes some cuss words from me, and plenty of f-bombs in the quotations and dialogue from the impassioned climbers themselves.


Click link to stream audio. To download, on Safari right-click the link; on Chrome click and then hit the download button in the player; on iPhone press and hold the link for options. That taxes my tech knowledge, sorry. The files are named sequentially, so once saved to wherever your device puts downloads, they should play in order. 

Introduction (5′) + Chapter 1 (Lost Time) & Chapter 2 (In the Beginning) (25′)

Chapter 3 (Toni, Toni, Toni) & Chapter 4 (January 2012) (24′)

• Chapter 5 (1959) & Chapter 6 (Aftermath 1959) (28’)

Chapter 7 (Doubt, Rage, and a Gas-Powered Compressor) & Chapter 8 (Ragni di Lecco) (37’)

Chapter 9 (Body of Evidence) (40′)

• Chapter 10 (Origins of Belief) & Chapter 11 (Poseidon and Zeus) (27’)

• Chapter 12: Cold Reality & Chapter 13: Blessed by Bridwell (39’)

Chapter 14: The Grandfather Clause, Ch15: Insight from Reinhold, Ch16: Examination of a Myth (22’)

• Chapter 17: New Patagonia & Chapter 18: El Arca de los Vientos (25’)

• Chapter 19: Aftermath 2005 & Chapter 20: Stop Making Sense (22’)

Chapter 21: Los Tiempos Perdidos (32′)

Chapter 22: A New Story, Ch23: The Democratic Republic of Cerro Torre, Ch24: Demystification of a Massif (48’)

Chapter 25: A Brief Commercial Interruption + Chapter 26: Contrast on the Southeast Ridge (29’)

• Chapter 27: Seven Days (54′)

Chapter 28: Aftermath 2012, Ch29: Everybody Has an Opinion, Ch30: Cesare’s Letter, Ch31: Growing Pains (48’)

• Chapter 32: Alone with the Truth, Ch33: The Man and the Mountains, Ch34: Fact-Checking Interlude, Ch35: My Truth (32’)

Epilogue + Postscript (29′)

Into the Whiteout

kc -- Simon walking after Sgorr Ruadh P1060281

It had been a while. I don’t climb in weather like this. I stay inside and drink coffee. But I dutifully marched through the whiteout, following Simon as he navigated by compass toward the highland plateau of Cairn Gorm. He was searching for a particular block of rock, from which we would rappel into nowhere and then climb out.

The last time I started climbing in a whiteout, versus being caught in one – there’s a big difference – was thirteen years ago, here in Scotland. It was the 2005 BMC (British Mountaineering Council) Winter Climbing Meet, where they pair visiting climbers with local hosts. Steve House and I came from the U.S., and on the first day our host was my friend Ian Parnell. As we hiked through gale-force wind that blew snow sideways, an hour in, during a quick clearing we caught a glimpse of a cliff plastered in white. “It looks to be in good nick!” Ian shouted to me from three feet away.

Of course I’d heard of Scotland’s legendary mixed climbing history, and seen pictures of cliffs speckled in what looked like snow, which I figured had to be ice, or something with at least a degree of cohesion.

“Oh, cool,” I yelled back, “So that white stuff is good névé, huh?”

“No! It’s complete piss, you scrape it away and climb the rock beneath,” Ian said, before putting his head down and continuing toward the base.

Welcome to Scotland.

kc -- simon navigating P1060297

Simon navigating toward the rock atop the Cairn Gorm plateau. 

At that 2005 meet, I also met Simon Richardson. He’s a Scottish mixed master who has made some 700 first ascents of winter routes in the country. On the day I was paired with him, before we headed out he had asked, somewhat apologetically, if I’d be interested in scoping a potential new route on Ben Nevis. He was concerned because the route was no guarantee, as it might not be in nick – he’d been watching this line for the past eight years, to no avail. Thing is, if it’s not plastered in enough white stuff then the route is not in proper winter condition (yes, I know…). Therefore, you can’t climb it (if not by official decree, then by common climbing law of the land). But that day, he thought, could be the day. Eight years, and finally enough white to scrape away for a potential new route on Ben Freakin Nevis? No apology needed, I said, yes, let’s have a look.

While I don’t recall either of us placing any ice screws on our new route on Ben Freakin Nevis, I remember torqueing my picks into cracks, hooking them over edges, squinting through my hood as spindrift blasted down the overhanging chimney, and bridging up wild features in swirling wind. And also, after one of the pitches, Simon reaching the belay and telling me, “You need to hammer-in your pieces. Every one of them lifted out; you’d have fallen the entire length of the pitch.”


In truth, the white has some cohesion. Rarely enough to place ice screws – the handful of ice gullies are homes for those – and usually not enough to support full body weight. But it adds a modicum of support, unlike the dry powder back home in Colorado. It usually freezes the loose blocks together, too, but you have to be meticulous with cam placements, as they can slide on the rime. Hexes and nuts rule for protection. Especially if you hammer them in. Most importantly, the ferocious wind, wet snow, and frequent freeze-thaw cycles make for bomber turf sticks. And from the turf oozes mud and moisture, which then congeal with the wet snow and freezing rain. Voilà, it’s miserable magic.

In Scotland you have to climb in bad weather, or else you wouldn’t climb at all.

Which reminded me of the previous day of this 2018 trip (which began innocently enough, with a delightful weekend at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival). Simon, his friend and frequent climbing partner Roger Webb, and I started in a pre-dawn drizzle and hiked through steady gusts for three hours in (two out), to climb for seven on the north face of a feature named Raeburn’s Buttress, on Sgorr Ruadh. We climbed in conditions so heinous that, had there been fixed anchors and had I been with a clone of myself, we’d have bailed. But Simon wanted to do a new line, as is his wont. He’s 57, has raised a family, is a recently retired engineer, and is obsessed with new routes (which is how you get to 700 and counting). The adventure of the unknown combined with the lure of familiar, beloved landscapes prove impossible for him to resist. Just after starting the first pitch he looked up, paused, then found a stance and asked us to pass him the guidebook, so he could study the existing lines. Guidebook? “No wonder the pack is so heavy,” Roger mumbled, as he dug in and pulled out a brick of bound pages. Simon had slipped-in the book, as Sgorr Ruadh is one of the few areas he doesn’t thoroughly know.

I glanced at Roger to check his reaction. Nothing. Perfectly normal. Snow swirled in the sky and I thought back to the drive up, when I dozed in the backseat while Simon and Roger argued in the dark, engineer against lawyer, about what comprised a new route versus a variation. In my slumber I forgot who argued what or who won (neither, I suspect), but I remember talk about a summer rock route that sometimes doubles as a winter mixed climb. “That’s one of the few routes I’ve done in summer as well as winter,” Roger said, “and in winter it’s far easier because the green slime is frozen.”


“Yeah, we’re here,” Simon suddenly said on the highland plateau of Cairn Gorm. I couldn’t see a thing, aside from a block of rock sticking out of the snow.

“Be careful not to walk over the cliff edge as the plateau is very featureless at this point,” Simon writes in the directions to this crag in Chasing the Ephemeral, which won the award for best guidebook at the last Banff Mountain Festival. His book follows an ingenious structure, coaching the reader through fifty featured routes to impart an understanding of Scotland’s nuance and magic, thereby helping enable success. “I’m not a very good climber, but I know the mountains and understand them,” Simon told me. And I know this: The farther you stray from bouldering comps, the less being a good climber has to do with solely pulling hard moves.

Years ago while walking on the opposite side of the valley, Simon discovered this Cairn Gorm crag, Creagan Cha-no.

The clouds had momentarily parted and, surprised, he saw a cliff. It had no prior history of climbing, perhaps because nobody had seen it. Yet if you know how to navigate (or are with someone who does), and don’t walk over the cliff edge, it’s a mere hour-and-a-half hike from the car. Which was lovely, since my feet still hurt from yesterday.

We dug through the snow and uncovered an anchor cord slung around the block. “Hey Simon,” I said, “How many areas like this do you think are still undiscovered because nobody has been around to see them when the clouds lifted?”

He grinned. “That’s a very good question.” Then he threaded his belay device and disappeared into the fog.

Richardson -- for kc blog Cairn Gorm

Kelly on Jenga Buttress, Creagan Cha-no, Cairn Gorm. Photo: Simon Richardson

At the bottom of the basin we pulled our ropes and crossed a snow slope one at a time, to the base of a classic route – it had relatively easy climbing, much like the day before, except nothing about Scottish winter climbing is truly easy. The cliffs aren’t very tall, but each outing is like a miniature alpine route, scrappy and character-building, and maybe that’s why I haven’t said much about the actual climbing, because it really isn’t about pulling ultra-good moves. Not in the way that a gymnastic sequence on pocketed limestone is good, or the killer blue tape route at the gym is good. But as we climbed toward the still-raging plateau, at one point I pulled my face into the wall and noticed how the rime-encrusted corners were comprised of millions of crystals of ice, intricate and beautiful, like miniature planets in a vast universe. I giggled to myself at both the absurdity and the joy, before a blast of spindrift made me shiver again.


The next day I was finally warm. I sat on the tarmac, inside an airplane. The snow fell in wet, heavy sheets. Then came rain, mixed with sleet, delaying departure until the de-icer machines could set me free. I looked out the window, then sat back and closed my eyes. I savored the far-north sunbeams shooting light across the moor, the view to the inlets of the sea during moments of cloud break, and the soothing absence of noise. I also remembered the smile on Simon’s face, glowing from beneath his hood.

The motors whirred and clicked and groaned, readying to whisk me away to sunny Spain to clip bolts on perfect limestone in weather that would be assuredly good – what the hell, I’d figured, since I was already across the pond I’d better hop over to Spain. But it’s important to get the order right.

Not because Scotland’s weather is bad, though – after all, how bad could anything be that freezes the green slime?

kc -- scotland P1060268








Old Patagonia: A photo tells a story

I’m awestruck by the stories of Old Patagonia. You can read them in the AAJ and other climbing periodicals, maybe hear some ‘round campfires, and you can find others in books – one of my favorites is Enduring Patagonia, by Gregory Crouch. I encountered scores of these stories during my Patagonia research; my selected bibliography contains 256 references (many more informed my thinking), and I conducted in-person interviews in seven different countries.

Yet sometimes you’re taken by something as simple as a hastily-snapped photo. This, for me, is one such picture:

Foto archive©Silvo Karo_Fitz Roy_Devil's Dihedral_ 1983(LR)

Photo © Silvo Karo

The photo belongs to the great Slovenian climber Silvo Karo, and he’s allowed me to post it here. On the left is Francek Knez, on the right is Stane Klemenc. The year was 1983, and they’re establishing a difficult and dangerous new route on Fitz Roy, which they called Hudičeva Zajeda (Devil’s Dihedral).

Take a moment. Study the hardware, the wool mittens, the fur-lined parkas. The atrocious conditions. The expression on Knez’s face, and the snow-filled helmet that he isn’t bothering to wear. Think, 1983 – no sat phone, no helicopters, no rescue crew. The town of El Chaltén didn’t even exist at the time. Much less weather forecasts. Which, as you can deduct from my last post, New Patagonia, is why they’re stuck climbing in a storm.

It isn’t that bad weather no longer happens in Patagonia – it does, and several deaths in recent seasons were related to exposure after things went wrong on a route. Rather, if all goes right, you now have the means to avoid the storms. Rolando Garibotti, the undisputed climbing expert of the area, told me, “Before, any day with any clouds was not a climbable day. We would all wait for the splitter weather, at least to start up on climbs. These days any day with lower winds is a climbable day, even if there are clouds and humidity in the air.”

One of the most astounding outings from the 2014–15 season points to how top climbers can thread the needle like never before. Here’s Rolo, discussing Colin Haley and Alex Honnold’s initial attempt at a one-day ascent of the Torre Traverse (they succeeded in 2016): “On day one it rained until 5 a.m., they started climbing anyways, knowing it would improve, they got to near the summit of Cerro Torre by 3 a.m., in 22 hrs, but the weather shut them down. Wind that was supposed to arrive at noon arrived early. This was a 20-hour window. Before forecasts, you would not have even done the approach.”

But to the historically bad weather: Has it improved in recent years?

Seems like it. But while anecdotes and uncontrolled observations suggest longer weather windows since the mid-2000s, I’m hesitant to jump to conclusions. Stories can be invaluable in shaping our understanding of different times, people, belief, and a number of things I dealt with in my book. But with this, stories aren’t enough. I want evidence.

Consider, for instance, that within the last decade exponentially more climbers have visited the Chaltén Massif, many staying the entire season. They rely on an infrastructure in town that did not previously exist, and are ready to strike at even the narrowest weather windows – even climbing in cloudy weather, so long as the winds are low and the clouds aren’t storm clouds. And then, with the advent of social media, any alpine activity today is infinitely more visible to the outside world. All of these things influence our perceptions.

Furthermore, despite our suspicions of better weather likewise arriving in the last decade, it’s important to remember that it surely isn’t black and white. Meaning, if the weather has improved, it probably didn’t jump from Old Patagonia to Palm Beach.

We shouldn’t mistake anecdotes for objective truth. Even if such assumptions prove correct from time to time, as a rule it’s a lazy way to think, one laden with traps. You don’t want to drift toward the mouthbreathers who dismiss the expert consensus on global warming because it got cold that one weekend last June. Even if it did fuck up your NASCAR lawn party.

The problem with Patagonian weather is that, far as any of us know, we don’t have good comparative data. Rolando Garibotti might be getting close, though. Rolo has some data summaries from 1977–2002 for Punta Arenas, the nearest longstanding weather station south of El Chaltén. The two places likely receive similar weather. And he rounded up some raw data from 2002–14, though they might not be comparable and we don’t know how to process it. Any weather experts out there?

Anyway, I’m getting a little off track. That photo of Silvo Karo’s, and Old vs. New Patagonia.

During my research, one evening at Silvo’s house in Slovenia our conversation drifted into an entire era. That era included the pinnacle years of Slovenian alpinism, of which Silvo was an integral player. Soon I barely spoke, just listening, completely rapt, as if I had a seat beside Moses as he recounted stories from the days of the tablets.


Here’s the part about Patagonia, an expanded excerpt from Chapter 24:

Silvo Karo has climbed in both Old and New Patagonia. He endured vicious days while establishing difficult and dangerous new routes on the east face of Fitz Roy in 1983, the east face of Cerro Torre in 1986, and the south face of Cerro Torre in 1988; all three routes are unrepeated. By the time of his January 2005 trip, Internet weather forecasts had just arrived. He and fellow Slovene Andrej Grmovšek started at the base of a connecting formation three thousand feet of technical climbing below Cerro Torre and raced up to the Compressor Route, which they took to the summit. It was as if they were in a playground. Their linkup became known as the Slovene Sit-Start, a half-joking reference to the world of bouldering, where the emphasis is on pure difficulty on small rocks, and climbers often start seated in the dirt and pull onto the first holds.

cordes - silvo IMG_6710(crop)One night at Karo’s place in Osp, Slovenia, fall 2012, we were talking after dinner and a day of cragging. I asked about the old days in Patagonia. Karo’s hulking shoulders were slouched over his plate and wine glass, and then he leaned back to talk. He’s built like a linebacker but climbs with ballerina grace. He recounted the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Slovenian alpinists—this tiny country, then a part of Yugoslavia—set standards in commitment and difficulty that have yet to be eclipsed. Karo was a core part of the crew. It came at a cost; a staggering proportion of his friends and partners died in the mountains.

He said, “I think the thing that has changed a lot in Patagonia, the weather forecast, no? In 2005 was the first weather forecast, or one year earlier. I remember at that time, we were all down—it was so nice, the weather forecast, uff. You could just go and climb. Before? Nobody know.

“I remember, Jay Smith. He was also in Patagonia a couple of times [Smith established several new routes in Patagonia, including the first ascent of Cerro Standhardt in 1988], and one time he decide, OK, now I will start to write the details. All that change in the sky, I will just mark it. And maybe for one month he write the details: wiiiiindy from this side…clouds come from this side today, and tomorrow it is like this weather and then barometric pressure, he follow pressure and everything. But finally he didn’t find any signs to tell him, ‘OK, this-means-that-weather-will-be-good.’ Zero. And he decide, no, not possible. Not possible. Even local people living in town don’t know. But then, satellite and all these things…very precise, and then in advance they tell you.

“I remember last time in Patagonia, they have a weather forecast that will be: tomorrow start period of good weather for three days. And man, it’s just perfect. You just go to the wall at night, no problem, you sleep well, no shaking all the time with the weather, ooooooooh, it start snoooowing.” For a second his eyes drifted, like he was back on a tiny bivy ledge thousands of feet up when a storm arrived. Then he gently returned and smiled. “It’s tooootally different, no? Now to climb big climb in Patagonia it’s much, much, much more easier. And you don’t need to take anything just in case for protection, extra things, extra food. You know that next three days the weather will be good, and you will do it.”

I suggested that maybe something has been lost.

“Other things is gained, of course. You need to go with the time,” he said with a lighthearted laugh.

I agreed, while thinking of how everything changes and the future builds on the past. I mentioned that we still can appreciate the stories of old.

He nodded his head and started to speak. Then he paused, stared into an invisible distance, and didn’t say a word.

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

By now we know well that everything changes. And still, after the mind-blowing ascents of recent Patagonia climbing seasons, I feel like we’re witnessing something special, almost like seeing leaps into the future in present tense. Perhaps I’m overstating things. Time will tell.

When researching for my book, and reflecting on history through the lens of today, I was frequently struck by the futility of predicting the future. Here is one example, from an editor’s note in the 1959 AAJ after they received word of the supposed Egger-Maestri climb:

1959 AAJ (bigger)

Armed with today’s perspective, I shouldn’t be surprised at the phenomenal recent ascents. I am, however, awed. Regardless, and with full respect to the current rate of progression and the next-level skills of today’s top climbers, I think it’s fair to say that the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing occurred far from the mountains, circa 2005.

Below is an article I’ve been meaning to post for some time. It’s similar to a piece I originally wrote for the 2014 Alpine Journal (U.K.), and is mostly a stitched-together excerpt of my chapters 17 (New Patagonia) and 24 (Demystification of a Massif). It’s about that massive change I just mentioned – the delineation between Old Patagonia and New Patagonia, and the story of how it happened.


cordes - P1000913 newpatagpost

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

Imagine yourself weary and worn, camped in the woods of Patagonia, just back from an attempt where a sucker-window of weather had slammed shut as you were three thousand feet up your climb. It was as if the fury of the gods had suddenly descended upon you, but somehow you’d survived. Your body went numb, the wind slammed you into the wall, and you couldn’t hear your partner yelling at you from three feet away. Every second of every hour for the next twelve was laced with a primal fear. Then, you staggered back to camp and crashed out, deep into a dreamless sleep. You hadn’t slept in thirty-some hours and as the storm raged, you hoped for only one thing: that it would continue, so you wouldn’t even have to think about going back out there. But in the middle of the night you had to piss. You’d rolled over and mumbled, unzipped the tent door, and staggered outside. Through bleary eyes your gaze strayed to the gaps between the lenga trees, and you’d seen stars shining bright. Fuck.

In 1975, following one of his many Patagonian expeditions, Ben Campbell-Kelly wrote: “An expedition should be prepared to be spending a minimum of three months in the mountains, particularly if they have chosen a difficult objective.”

crouch - poles on CR GC025 LR

A Polish team racing the wind and incoming storm high on the Compressor Route in 1996 (Gregory Crouch photo).

In 1995 on Infinito Sud, an incredibly difficult new route up the center of Cerro Torre’s south face, Italians Ermanno Salvaterra, Roberto Manni, and Piergiorgio Vidi hauled a 200kg aluminum box for shelter as they went, to wait-out storms. Salvaterra, Cerro Torre’s all-time greatest climber, had been worried that regular portaledges would be destroyed by the wind.

In his 2000 book, The Big Walls, Reinhold Messner wrote: “The big problem on Cerro Torre is the storms. Every big face there should really be measured twice.”

But that was then. Old Patagonia. Before the arrival of the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing, which wasn’t the bridge over the Río Fitz Roy, or the airport in El Calafate, or the paved roads, or even the evolution of modern climbing gear.

This change affected every element of Patagonian alpinism, even – or perhaps most of all – the attention paid to the area’s most infamous and bizarre route: The Compressor Route, on Cerro Torre. Over the course of two trips in 1970 (often misreported as 1971), Italian climber Cesare Maestri used a gasoline-powered air compressor to jackhammer some four hundred bolts, most of them spaced to be used as ladders, into the mountain’s southeast ridge. Maestri placed many of his bolts beside perfectly usable cracks, while elsewhere he launched up blank stone, seemingly determined to avoid natural features.

Though Maestri returned home to terrific fanfare, the greater climbing world was less impressed. Most climbers considered his tactics an affront to the spirit of alpinism and to long-held notions of fair play.

But in the ensuing decades, something curious happened: The Compressor Route became the most popular route on Cerro Torre.

Few climbers even attempted other routes on the mountain. Until the mid-2000s the Ragni Route, the next most popular route and Cerro Torre’s line of first ascent, was summited only four times.

Even as more climbers came and tried, multiple years would pass, often consecutively, without Cerro Torre seeing a single ascent. Each summit-less season, each nightmarish attempt that ended in a hellacious storm, and each rare success further embedded the Compressor Route as part of Cerro Torre’s lore. For many climbers, the moral affront of Maestri’s prolific bolt ladders became easier to overlook.

Tales of terror were omnipresent. Since storms race in from the west, if you were high on the Compressor Route, you wouldn’t know you were in trouble until it was too late. Eyelids froze shut. The wind would send ropes sailing horizontally into space before shifting and launching them back into the wall like wild, slithering snakes, twisting them irretrievably around flakes and forcing climbers to cut their ropes and make ever shorter rappels with what remained. Climbers would stagger down to the safety of the forest looking like battle-worn soldiers, their eyes fixed in thousand-yard stares.

In 1980 Kiwi climber Bill Denz made thirteen attempts to solo the route. He endured a seven-day bivouac trapped on a tiny ledge a thousand feet below the top on one attempt. Another time, his best attempt, Denz retreated only two hundred feet below the summit.

Each previous suitor validated the next, particularly when many were renowned figures – starting with Jim Bridwell’s 1979 true first ascent of the route (Maestri, it was later learned, retreated from below the top in 1970), which effectively bestowed the blessing of climbing royalty.

salvaterra - mauro 4 tiro 3 (LR)

Mauro Giovanazzi attempting a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre in 2001 (Ermanno Salvaterra photo).

As testament to Cerro Torre’s inherent difficulty, aside from the four complete ascents of the Ragni Route, until 2005 every other climb to the summit depended upon using the bolts of the Compressor Route to get there. The three routes on the south face descended upon intersecting the southeast ridge, while the two routes on the east face finished to the summit via the Compressor Route.

By the time a nearly two-week-long stretch of clear skies hit the Chaltén Massif in late November and December 2008, the number of Compressor Route ascents had grown too many to count, but stood at well over one hundred.

That late 2008 weather window, however, was different. Not only because of its duration, but because everybody knew it was coming.

In his Chaltén Massif summary in the American Alpine Journal, Rolando Garibotti wrote: “The big news was that the Ragni di Lecco Route on the west face of Cerro Torre had six ascents (nineteen climbers), more than all previous ascents of the route combined. In contrast, the season saw only one ascent of the Compressor Route. It is as if overnight everyone stopped climbing Everest with oxygen, fixed rope, and Sherpa support. While Maestri’s hundreds of bolts remain in place, the climbing community appears to have finally given them a cold shoulder. The list of non-Compressor Route ascents of Cerro Torre has now grown to fourteen.”

Weather balloons had probably been going up around Patagonia long before anyone made forecasts, Jim Woodmencey told me. He’s a climber, skier, and former Grand Teton National Park ranger who owns a forecasting company called MountainWeather. He says each country has weather service stations, and they launch balloons that gather data at various points in the atmosphere. There are other ways to gather data as well, like surface observation stations, ocean buoys, and satellite photos of clouds at different elevations and time intervals, which indicate things like wind speed and atmospheric moisture concentration. Even though data is comparatively sparse in less-populated places like Patagonia, virtually nothing stands between the storms brewing in the Pacific Ocean and the Chaltén Massif. Thus, unlike many prominent alpine destinations, the data collected allows for incredibly precise forecasts.

Data alone means nothing, though. It’s computer models that actually analyze the data and make predictions – forecasts – and they’ve improved tremendously over the years. Data transformed into a forecast answers the key question: Is it climbing weather, or not?

In the 2004–05 season, German climber Thomas Hüber decided to see if his weather guru, Karl Gabl, could provide forecasts from afar. Forecasts for the Chaltén Massif were unprecedented. “We had no idea if it would work for Patagonia,” Thomas told me. “But it worked, so everybody was looking at me to see if I’d go or stay, because the climbers thought I knew via Innsbruck the secret about the weather. I had a great first season. Not only for Patagonia but everywhere, weather reports changed a lot in alpinism.”

As Gabl’s forecasts have shown over time, accurate mountain forecasts require specific knowledge. Even if you could teach yourself how to do it, you’d need the ability to access the information, which requires functional Internet access.

The Internet didn’t come to El Chaltén until 2003. Even then, it was scarce, and it barely worked. The first locutorio (Internet cafe) arrived in 2004; climbers would come to check the weather on NOAA, but they’d struggle because the connection was so bad.

Local resident Adriana Estol recalls, “I came here in 2006 and it was almost impossible to have Internet at the house, but some houses were lucky.” One of the lucky houses belonged to Bean Bowers.

Bowers, a tough-as-nails alpinist and full-on lifestyle climber from the U.S., was always the do-it-yourself sort. For several consecutive years, he’d lived the entire season in El Chaltén, and he’d scraped together enough money to buy a small house there. In 2011, at age thirty-eight, Bean died of cancer, but several of his friends remember how he figured out the weather. He guided in the Tetons in the summers, where, one season, Climbing Ranger Ron Johnson showed him how to read weather models. Bowers then took a course from Woodmencey on mountain weather forecasting.

Doug Chabot, an accomplished alpinist and avalanche forecaster, also helped out. “I gave Bean the weather basics on forecasting in 2004 since he was keen to learn. In fact, during his first trip there [to El Chaltén], he would call me to check on a few weather models. I was avalanche forecasting; I’m used to looking at weather models every day.” He added, “Most importantly, I had a real job and was reachable by phone.”

Climber Josh Wharton remembers well the first season of forecasts, as he and the late Jonny Copp were climbing together in the massif. Many climbers expressed gratitude to Hüber for sharing his forecasts that season, and soon the gratitude would shift to Bowers. “Bean was reading the navy maps a friend had showed him, but he was still pretty new to it, so it wasn’t always that spot-on. Thomas Hüber was using a satellite phone to call his Austrian meteorologist, and between the two I remember growing increasingly confident throughout the trip. In fact, when Jonny and I started down Poincenot [the final tower in their fifty-two-hour linkup of Agujas Saint-Exupéry, Rafael, and Poincenot], the wind came up harshly right on queue, almost to the hour Thomas’s guy had predicted three days earlier. It was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment!”

cordes - weather forecast

As he was learning, Bowers kept his dirtbag forecasting knowledge close to his chest, mostly sharing it with friends. In 2006 he taught it to Rolando Garibotti, and soon climbers were knocking on their doors asking for forecasts and how-to instructions. After all, knowing the weather in Patagonia was like having a golden ticket – and it was especially good because it was free.

Climbers literally lined up at Garibotti’s house wanting to learn, so he typed up a how-to email (now he has a weather forecasting section on his website). Before long, everyone could get a spot forecast for the massif. Just follow the steps, punch in the data on the right websites – the location coordinates for Cerro Torre, by the way, are -49.3° and -73.1° – and you get frighteningly accurate projections for precipitation, temperature, and, most importantly, wind speed.

It was as if the walls shrunk.

5.0.2cordes - el chalten IMG_7970(LR)





Left: El Chaltén in January 1986, less than one year old, with the red roof of the town’s only building faintly visible (Sebastián Letemendia photo). Right: El Chaltén, January 2013 (KC).

Within a few years of that 2004–05 season, the forecasts had become so accurate that climbers could confidently leave behind most of the storm gear they used to carry, making for lighter loads and faster climbing. Around the same time, interest in the Compressor Route rapidly subsided. Maybe it took the clarity of blue skies to bring to the fore what most climbers objectively knew: The Compressor Route was so compromised that it was hard to consider it a valid climbing route. Detractors of the route had long argued that having the entirety of difficult climbing covered in bolt ladders removed too much of climbing’s innate natural challenge. When doing it in perfect weather, they were right.

Yet it’s an interesting interaction, because weather and conditions are integral to alpine climbing. Climbing the Compressor Route in Old Patagonia meant something different than getting up it in New Patagonia. Remove the crippling fear of being caught in one of those legendary storms, and the change in Patagonian climbing is impossible to overstate.

Nowadays in El Chaltén (nobody camps in the woods anymore), between bouldering sessions climbers can be heard saying things like, “Yeah, looks like sixes and eights tomorrow, then dropping to twos on Wednesday.” They are talking knots of wind speed at the lower, forecast elevation, which translates into nay or yay for climbing at the higher mountain elevations.

In early 2007, I remember staring over Bean Bowers’s shoulder as he pulled up the weather map on his computer: The mother of all high-pressure systems was coming our way. The skies were clearing from there to Australia for four days, and so Colin Haley and I headed for Cerro Torre, where we completed an oft-attempted link up of François Marsigny and Andy Parkin’s 1994 route Los Tiempos Perdidos to the summit via the Ragni Route. Despite the exposure to the ice cap, and the harrowing story of Marsigny and Parkin’s epic retreat from high on the route, Colin and I climbed with ten-pound backpacks. Our only concern was whether or not we could climb the route; we didn’t worry about storms (someday a forecast will be deadly wrong and trap climbers like us). While it was one of the best climbs of my life, I also realize that we were playing an entirely different game than the climbers of Old Patagonia.

I was again struck by the difference, the evolution, when I visited El Chaltén in 2013. A friend had been monitoring the forecasts from the U.S. and saw a window coming. He took advantage of today’s increased accessibility, hopped a plane and a few days later climbed the Ragni Route. Around the same time, a pair of strong young Slovenians arrived, dropped their bags at their hostel – the forecast was perfect – and, without sleep, ran up the trail to Fitz Roy and established a hard new route. Afterward, in town over dinner and at the bars, while storm clouds thundered through the peaks, in comfort we all swapped stories of our ascents.

Practically overnight, climbers could avoid the most horrifying and brutal component of Patagonia climbing while resting and bouldering in the shadow of the mountains, ready to strike when the weather clears.

The place would never be the same.

Snapshots: Cerro Torre

Preface: I keep meaning to post, have ideas and drafts, but too often time escapes me. I don’t typically get attached to dates: my birthday, holidays, anniversaries of climbs, none of them matter much. I rang in the new year sipping a drink and reading a book. Exciting man I am. But today, for whatever reason, I noticed the date. Right now in 2007 Colin Haley and I were climbing Cerro Torre. I wrote the below for a digital publication called Explore. I called it “Snapshots,” which also happens to be the title of my last entry. Anyway, today seems as good as any to repost it here. 



First light fluttered from darkness, glowing on the horizon like baseline fires across the curve of the earth. We barely spoke. I racked the gear, checked my knot. Nearly a vertical mile of climbing towered overhead.

Deep breath.

It was my first trip to the storied Chaltén Massif of southern Patagonia, where spires jut into space like parallel rows of sharpened teeth. For decades, climbing legends have risen and fallen here with the ferocious winds. For sixty-five million years, these granite spires have reached toward the sky like temples of the gods.

Our trip had started like so many others: long on ambition, short on action. Cloudbanks of fury obscured the mountains and the wind so scoured the earth that on some days even approaching the glacier was unthinkable. We’d retreat to the forest and pass time with our friends.

Just before our flights home, the skies cleared. A perfect window.

It’s funny how time passes. Two days can go slowly, without recollection. Passing normally, placidly, mundane days like any other.

So often, I recall only fleeting moments. Sometimes, when standing in line at the bank or sipping coffee or driving to the store, the molecules in my brain that hold the memories of my mind flash before me, transporting me to a dreamlike world that I know is real. On Cerro Torre I remember my heartbeat pounding in my ears as we raced up thin ice that would disappear the very next day, melted by the fierce southern sun when we were higher on the route. I remember shivering away the night without sleeping bags in a snow cave three pitches below the top, drifting between sleep and hypothermia. Waking and climbing through rime-ice mushrooms, gargoyles, and house-sized sculptures jutting outward in gravity-defying forms like images pulled from a fantasyland. And, of course, tunnels. Tunnels? Yes, tunnels. Treasure-hunt tunnels carved by the wind, allowing passage through the impossible seeming mushrooms, until we sat on the summit under perfect skies, almost unbelievingly, knowing we’d been lucky.

Exactly two days after we left, we staggered back to our tent as silhouettes of giants towered overhead. Before crawling inside and collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I remember staring once more at the stars while the wind calmed to a whisper, as if the gods themselves were pausing between breaths.

cordes - IMG_8223 LR crop

Snapshots: Mt. Huntington

Scotty -- Kelly on Htngtn

While sifting through old images, moments captured in physical form that release memories in my mind, I came upon this, from Mt. Huntington in 2001. The photo belongs to my climbing partner Scott DeCapio, and shows me heading toward the upper slopes on the West Face Couloir route. We’d soloed the opening bits, and then Scott — the most efficient climber I’ve known — led the spectacular ice couloir in a long simulclimbing pitch. We swapped leads and I headed into the horrific flutings of the final thousand feet to the top. Conditions vary with alpine climbing, of course, and that upper section felt like vertical trenching through collapsing sugar. I remember trying to run the rope sideways across flutings (probably pointlessly), since we were tied together with no protection — I kept thinking that every bit of snow and ice just ahead would offer pro. It never did, but we never fell. Finally we gained the upper ridgecrest, and then Scotty led a shorter, final pitch through cornices to the top. The 4,000 vertical feet from our camp on the Tokositna to Huntington’s summit took nine hours, then another seven to get down. While no big deal by today’s mind-blowing standards, at the time it was the fastest ascent of the peak, and likely its first one-day ascent.

I remember standing on the summit, exhausted and absorbed in swirling emotions like terror and elation. We both knew that soon we’d have to descend terrain we’d climbed without anchors, but for the moment we stared in awe at the expanse of the Alaska Range, unfolding in every direction. Suddenly, Scotty broke our summit silence: “I want my mom so bad right now. I hate alpine climbing.”

We made it down, and our vows to quit alpine climbing didn’t last. Reflecting on our climb, and the curious prevalence of summit-less “ascents” of the peak, I wrote: “Now I understand why folks sometimes stop at, ahem, ‘the end of the difficulties’ on Huntington.”

Afterward, down on the glacier, a friend asked how we could safely climb Huntington in two and a half pitches? As I type this now, as I’m older and less bold, I better understand his incertitude. I also know now, as I knew then, that safety, while sometimes an illusion, can be inseparable from a reality-based belief in one’s self.

On one hand, we were reckless because we could have fallen to our deaths. On the other, recalling my thinking at the time, I knew that we did it right.

Perhaps both are true.

Inspirations: Alaska and beyond

A coincidence leads to today’s post, in that yesterday I corresponded with two people who’ve had a powerful influence on me. The first came as a surprise, when Jonathan Waterman, whom I don’t know and haven’t met, but whose writing I’ve long admired, posted the following on my Facebook page:

Just finished The Tower and found it riveting, beautifully written and incredibly researched. An instant classic. Congratulations.”

Some writers, like some climbers, like to claim that they don’t care what anybody else thinks. They do what they do exclusively for themselves. It’s a nice idea, but as an absolute I think it’s usually bullshit. Most of us care what other people think about us and what we do. For me, with the massive, draining, two-plus year effort with my book, praise feels good, especially from people I respect. I’ve received wonderful, surprise compliments from climbing writers I’ve looked up to but didn’t know, such as Dick Dorworth, Lito Tejada-Flores, Jon Krakauer, and David Roberts, all of whom I consider masters of the craft. Roberts reviewed my book in the new AAJ, which intimidated me – his razor-sharp mind and willingness to criticize are traits I admire, and he’s likely our greatest living American climbing writer. But when such a person critiques your work, well, it’s understandable that you might be a bit nervous. The AAJ just came out, and his review is perhaps the highest praise I could have imagined. Blew me away. OK, enough of that.

Soon after Waterman’s note, Jack Tackle and I emailed as he was in the airport, en route to India for an alpine climbing expedition. If you know his history (you can get a glimpse of Jack in this recent Enormocast episode), all he’s done and all he’s endured, you just have to shake your head at his resilience. But it’s more than resilience that makes Jack special to me.

So it dawned on me that awhile back I’d written about both of these guys and the things they’d written. The following originally appeared in January 2008 on, as part of a series they ran on literary influences. Given that I’ve been largely unmotivated to write original stories since my book, I thought I’d post my article here. Feel free to leave a comment about some of your influences – we’re all products of our environments, and I find it illuminating to learn about the influences of others.

Inspirations: High Alaska

High Alaska, the classic from Jonathan Waterman, started it all for me.

But different writings have influenced me in different ways at different times. For me, influence has come from photos, words and people. These have led me to places of inspiration. Photos are obvious: Hey, what’s that, and has this line been climbed? Bradford Washburn was, and still is, the greatest photographer. I can’t imagine that anyone else has influenced and inspired American alpinists the way he has. You always know a Washburn shot when you see one, and I saw plenty of them in High Alaska and the American Alpine Journal.

I can’t remember exactly when I first bought High Alaska, but it was within a month or two of when I first started to climb, the winter of 1993-4, in Missoula, Montana. In May of 1994 I went to Alaska for the first time, aiming for Denali’s West Buttress. I was so inept that the Butt was over my head. Still, it meant everything to me then, at least as much as anything I’ve done since. Even more, all the stories of obscure badass routes and real-deal climbers (unlike me at the time, for sure) inspired me beyond belief. All of my heroes put in their time there. I wanted to be like them.

I’d see something in High Alaska and crave more. More about a specific route. More offshoot conversations sparked by the words and photos. Soon I’d call Gray Thompson (FA of the American Direct on Denali back in 1967, along with a million other great climbs, and a Missoula local) and his wonderful wife, Eloise, to ask if I could come over for a half hour or so to look up something in the AAJ. They’re always generous, and they had all the Journals; their bookshelf was the epicenter of new beginnings for me. My “half hour or so” always became five or six hours, because I’d look at one thing and it would lead to another.

I’ve always loved all climbing periodicals (even those that supposedly make you cooler if you say you don’t like them, evoking the timeless “I’m a hardman” phrase: “aww, I never read them mags”). However, the AAJ was, and I’d like to think still is, in a category all its own. As an aside that I never could have imagined back then, Christian Beckwith, then AAJ editor and co-founder of Alpinist, hired me to be his editorial lackey back in 2000, and I’ve been with the Journal ever since [update: I stopped working there in 2012].

cordes - trailer park descent

Scott DeCapio descending from London Tower, in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge in 2000, after the first ascent of The Trailer Park, Ruth Gorge, Alaska.

Mark Twight, the undisputed king of rants, has influenced an entire generation or more of alpinists. I first read his story “Twitching with Twight” (in his Kiss or Kill collection) when I moved to Estes Park in 2000, and paid $65 each month to live in a shack. I’d just gotten divorced and struggled hard to get myself together. I had no “real” job, and The Shack was a dump, but it was cheap and two miles from Rocky Mountain National Park—even closer to Lumpy Ridge. Part of me feared I was rolling into a go nowhere, do nothing life, battling with myself over what I loved to do and what I wanted to be rather than following the generic recipe. I love this passage from “Twitching with Twight”:

“Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions.”

The article was over the top—that was the point of it, I think (Mark says so in his Author’s Note after the article)—but some parts hit me hard, with power. The other day, while climbing in the Park, a friend and I talked about this article. It still influences me, even with the little things—when I get self-conscious about my gray hairs and deepening wrinkles around my eyes, this line fires me up to always try my best: “Don’t worry about the gray. If you’re good at what you do, no one cares what you look like.”

One of the greatest articles I’ve ever read is Jack Tackle’s “The Accidental Mentor,” in the Voices from the Summit anthology. It’s an awesome story about an insanely desperate situation, camaraderie, trust, inspiration and the bond of good partnerships.

At one point in the story Jack writes of an evening in Talkeetna, when he finally met Bradford Washburn. Jack was nervous, as meeting one’s heroes can be dangerous: “My lessons with other ‘heroes’ stuck vividly in my mind. In their cases, the book was definitely better than the movie.” Not so when he met Brad, and they talked until 5 a.m. A few hours earlier, Jack, feeling bad about taking up Brad’s time, said he should let Brad get to bed. “I can always go to bed. I can’t always talk to you,” Brad replied. I’ll never forget that line.

Jack wrote of the impact Mugs Stump (from an earlier part of the story) and Brad Washburn had on him: “I am sure they had little or no idea of what influence they had on my life, especially at that time.”

I first met Jack in Missoula, where he gave a slideshow. I’d been climbing for only a year or so, and I watched in awe, taken not only by his accomplishments, but by his overall demeanor and humility. After the show, I wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid—after all, he’s Jack Tackle, and who am I? Finally I summoned the nerve. He made me feel so big, genuinely asking about my life and my climbing ambitions. Jack Tackle! These days Jack and I are good friends. He still inspires me.

When I first poured over the stories in High Alaska and the AAJ, it was just the climbing that made me want to be like those guys. Over time, perhaps I’ve matured a bit, and I feel like I’ve grown into my own person. But, at least when it comes to people like Jack Tackle, yeah, I still want to be like those guys.

All that Noise: A Summertime Rant from Estes Park

A party on the Upper Great Face, seen from atop the Lower Great Face at The Crags, Estes Park.

A climber on the Upper Great Face, seen from atop the Lower Great Face. The Crags, Estes Park.

Audibly, I suppose today in Estes Park was like any other here in summer, with blaring sirens, incessant noise pollution from everybody with a compensatory complex and a Kid Rock fantasy (giving double meaning to the term “hog”), and, of course, the town’s summertime mating call: car alarms. As climbers, however, we can usually get away from such obnoxiousness. At least some of it.

I love climbing for a lot of reasons, including the silence. There’s silence like the absence of human noise, replaced by the sounds of birds and the wind. It enhances another silence, an invaluable silence: the quiet in my head while climbing. The greater experience of climbing, of course, extends far beyond the physical. After all, I can do cool moves in a climbing gym, which I enjoy and do regularly, but getting outside, away from the road, is different. I tend to think that climbers who venture beyond the trailheads share these values. It often lends itself to an immediate connection, knowing you’re there for the same reasons. That very thing happened today, in fact, up high at The Crags. We’d done some climbing, saw another party across the way, enjoyed a friendly chat, then the afternoon storms came. They headed home while we waited out the rain, and then began hiking toward a sub-section called Wizard’s Gate. It has terrific climbing, and, with a 45-minute approach, a great vibe with glorious views. One of my favorite summer spots in Estes.

As we rounded the corner, we heard something different, another party. Orgasmic-sounding grunts from her. Loud “Yeah, fuck yeah!” repeating from him. My climbing partner and I exchanged puzzled, bizarre looks. Then they came into view: they were in the cave area, which probably magnified their sounds. No, they weren’t fucking. She was climbing. Trying hard (which is rad, of course – there’s my obligatory nice statement), with him completely unaware, it would seem, of his location or of even the slightest possibility that anybody but them might be trying to enjoy the day within, oh, like a couple of miles. Maybe Rifle was closed for the weekend, I don’t know. She kept going, kept trying. He kept bellowing. Like, top of his lungs bellowing, “Fuck yeah, you got his! Breathe, breathe, you own this, it’s all you,” “You’ve earned this, relax, yeah, get it back, FUCK YEAH!” and, my personal favorite from the day: “Stay positive, you’re here for the right reasons – to fucking crush this thing!”

Hey, I’m all for encouragement. But when you’re out there, just so you’re not the climbing version of the jackweeds on their obnoxious Harleys, I’ll offer some advice: Maybe think about fucking crushing the silence button. Just a little bit. Not meaning destroy the silence, no, definitely not that. I mean “crushing” in the annoying parlance of our (climber) times.

Anyway, so then, finally, we heard her first words: “Fuck. Let me down.” She was close, good effort. Maybe next time. A blissful silence followed as she lowered and they made out at the base (I’m not making this up), and once again I could hear the birds singing. Ahh, so nice. For a couple of seconds, anyway, until they were drowned out by douchebag Neanderthals in pirate costumes roaring through in the valley below, advertising their diminutive manhood to the world.

Who, I wonder, wants to be like that?

On days like this, autumn can’t come soon enough.

Captain Fun Pants and the Sketchy Kelly Cocktail

While looking for an excuse to introduce an ingenious drink recipe, I remembered these photos, which I had forgotten. Here goes.

Back in the fall, some friends and I went to Devil’s Tower for a couple of days. I wore my hot pants, the fun pants, the Wyoming You ain’t from around here, are ya, boy? pants.

scariot - kc on bloodguard (9 of 42)

Bloodguard. Craig Scariot photo

Or, to continue the movie theme, You think a route would get sent by a guy wearing these bad boys? Forget about it…. 

One day, CFS shot photos while I tried an amazing, 160-foot thin crack pitch called Bloodguard.

A hair away from the onsight, I blew it. In fairness to the route and despite my self-spray at my failure, I blew it right where it got hard. As I did, I let the rope sneak behind my leg. Bad move, it’s a mistake I sometimes make. Problem is, sometimes it just happens, like, you have your foot here and it’s fine, move it a couple inches this way and suddenly it’s not, and in the moment of the move you fuck up. I do, anyway, and from observing others I know I’m not alone. Most of us just don’t fall in that particular wrong moment. But I did.

Then, as the problem goes, you flip upside down, which can be dangerous. A few years ago I smashed open my head and face rock climbing, though that was a different form of a flip, the fall-out-of-a-heel-hook fall and flip. (Friends don’t let friends heel hook, someone told me later.) Merely a flesh wound, that one. And this one, on Bloodguard, produced no blood, no injuries.

Didn’t even smack my noggin, though this flipping potential is why I usually wear a helmet. Though I’m not one of those non-critical-thinking morons who seems to insist that always wearing a helmet will prevent every injury; that said, I suppose it’s usually a good idea. (Even in the gym?) So is top-roping. Then you eliminate the potential of flipping falling altogether. Maybe we should have gotten to the top and rappelled in to Bloodguard. Or aided up it on perfect gear for two hours, then set a TR. Next time.

Wait a sec. Hold on, what? Oh, OK, yeah, sorry. That was the voice inside my head telling me I got off on another tangent.

Anyway, I was fine, got back on and finished the route, and later saw pictures. Check out the zoomed-in evidence shot of where and how I fucked up. See? If not, have a couple of Sketchy Kellys and look again. See? Also notice the old boxing instincts – keep your chin tucked (but your eyes up) when someone’s swingin’ at ya.

Rad route, dipshit move, fun pants. Cool pictures by CFS, though the light wasn’t great. Later I saw some not-so-cool, wholly unholy pictures that those cretins you see below took with my camera while I was climbing. Friends like these, huh Gary?

That’s right, dude.

Anyway, enough of my senseless prattle. Here’s the goods:

The Sketchy Kelly

“What kind of guy names a drink after himself?” a friend fired at me.

“A guy like me, that’s who. I think I invented it.”

It’s hard to believe that there’s anything new to invent, especially when it comes to booze. Then again, they probably said that before climbing gyms and belay gloves. To be sure, I popped the ingredients into Google, gave it a page, didn’t see anything, and called it good.

As some might know, back in the Missoula days when I started climbing, I’d earned myself a nickname: Sketchy Kelly. As in, “Whatever you do, don’t climb with that Kelly guy, he’s sketchy.” And I was, no doubt. I had no clue about placing good pro, building anchors, safety systems, any of it. I just loved climbing and had far more ambition than skill or sense. Among some friends the nickname stuck, nowadays jokingly (I think…). Here’s an article about the Sketchy Kelly days that I wrote for Alpinist a few years back.

And if I may brag for a moment (why sure, go ahead), I’ll have you know that the Sketchy Kelly is well known to the hotel bartender at the Ventura Beach Marriott. (That’s where I stay for Patagonia meetings.) It’s a fine alternative to non-homemade margaritas. That’s the thing, you can’t trust any old marg, and I have standards. Gin & tonic? That’s hard to fuck up. The Sketchy Kelly is essentially a tasty variation to the G&T, and thus a good option when traveling, or just when lazy. It’s odd, I know, how I’m too picky to drink a marg with anything but fresh limes, but sometimes too lazy to squeeze them.

Without further ado (finally), I’d like to introduce you to my self-discovered, self-named drink. And if it already goes by a different name, dammit, I don’t want to know.

Sketchy Kelly proportions. In a plastic cup with ice combine:

1 part Limeade (1/2 oz) — can’t remember if that’s reconstituted a tad or purely frozen. Basically, it’s sugary lime juice.

1 part Cointreau (1/2 oz) — or a touch more. Like a healthy splash.

4 parts gin (2 oz)

Diet tonic to the top

Diet tonic?, you ask. What kind of man are you? Easy now. Remember, diet makes it taste stronger. Besides, we don’t want sketchy sodapop sugars messing up our upstanding drink.

Don’t fall while drinking it. But if you do, keep your chin tucked and keep fighting.

The Soft Passage of Time

I’ve gotten soft. I have proof. But let’s talk about the weather.

Yes, we’re spoiled here in Colorado, where we’re so accustomed to sunshine that after a couple of consecutive rainy days we grumble, “Might as well move to Seattle with this bullshit.” But now, seriously, for weeks the weather has been better in Seattle. Here in the ‘Rado (brah), it’s snowing, alternating with sleet, as I type this.

Which leads to my said sad softness, which isn’t exactly breaking news. It does, however, allow me to feel better about myself for my love of climbing indoors (on well-set gym routes, anyway) and going for walks (in the rain, lately). I laugh when I imagine the look of abject disgust on the face of my younger self at hearing those words. I remember going for a walk at Lumpy once about fifteen years ago, just to clear my head a bit. It was a rare occasion. On the trail, two of my buddies walked past after their day of climbing, and muttered only an awkward, “Hey Kelly.” They looked confused. When I saw them in the bar that evening, they asked what I was doing. Just going for a nice walk, I said. One of them paused, again looking puzzled. “But you don’t have a girlfriend.”

Anyway, ankle fusion rules, I highly recommend it. I walk for an hour or more on most days, marveling at the simple joy of walking without my bones grating together, and I’ve climbed some longer routes outside without pain. It’s amazing. Maybe I’ll post some photos and an ankle update soon. I’ve got a sweet drink recipe I’ve been meaning to post, though, and I’ll do that first. Tomorrow. Before I climb in the gym.

Maybe this aging-softness thing is all about a state of mind. About being OK with one’s self. It’s a show of growth, of acceptance, yes, passive acceptance as we circle the drain, life’s steady drubbing leaving us alone with no hopes, no dreams. Ahem. I mean, it’s OK if you’re that kind of person, anyway. (And apparently I am.) Pass the Doritos, namaste.

kc - glove IMG_2010 kc - gym IMG_2002

In the gym the other day, my friend commented on my glove. Yes, as further proof of said sad decline I use a belay glove. It’s nicer on the hands (see opening sentence). Ya know, don’t want to muss my manicure. When she smirked and said “nice glove,” naturally my mind went to Spinal Tap. You know, their album Smell the Glove, and What’s wrong with being sexy? SexIST! Yes, the shack days never die, and it’s true that we boys communicate primarily through movie lines. Then I looked down and thought about that ratty old glove.

I don’t get sentimental about clothing, like a special stinky Capilene worn on this or that climb or whatever. I had the experiences I had, and with this glove I’d ripped out the liner and cut off the fingers. But standing there in the gym I chuckled to myself as, for the first time, I thought about the experiences I’d had with this tattered piece of leather. My mind drifted. Breaking into the kitchen atop the Aiguille du Midi with Jonny Copp, before getting busted and being banished to the bathroom bivy; our terrible epic on the north face of Les Droites in winter; our new route, Going Monk (Zoolander fans take note), in Alaska; Jim Earl and I surviving hallucinations, a whipper off the summit, and Jim’s pulmonary edema, with a descent neither of us fully remember in our exhausted states, after putting up a new route in Peru.

These days I dream less about the mountains, though their pull and their enchantment never dies. Sometimes I think how I might like to grow old if I can remain active, can continue doing the things I love.

In the gym that day, it was only for a moment that I paused to stare at my gloved hand. But nostalgia moved through me, feelings of different times and places in my life, many with Jonny. The sweet sorrow of missing somebody rose and then drifted away, even as it stays with me always, and I put my friend on belay for more plastic pulling fun. As I did, for only a moment I thought that this ragged glove is still holding on, I guess, just like the rest of us.