Perfect Storm Spurs Cottage Industries: A Dawn Wall Analysis

Who’d have ever predicted that a rock climb, no matter how amazing, would capture the world’s attention? Tommy and Kevin’s tenacity, along with the nearly unimaginable continuous difficulty of the Dawn Wall, blows my mind. But the general public? Well, regarding the mainstream, I’m just glad to see public appreciation of real climbers climbing hard technical terrain for a change, rather than the mind-numbing coverage of people getting dragged up mount-fucking-everest. But how did this happen? Who really knows. I suspect a confluence of factors came together, much like a perfect storm:

Roadside bigwall, allowing people to watch from below. Roadside bigwall, allowing easy access by filmers so we can watch from above. Best cell phone reception in the Valley, allowing the climbers to keep in touch with family, friends, and the outside world. Including updates on social media. Sponsors, proud of their athletes, publicizing their efforts. Tommy’s phenomenal personal story and legendary determination, applied to the hardest bigwall free climb in history, all mixed with the above, makes for a fucking great story.

Still, tons of great stories never catch hold. Most people, including Tommy and Kevin, do the massive majority of their activities away from the public eye. (And, to be clear, most of us aren’t doing anything near as interesting, or anywhere near as hard, as to warrant outside interest in the first place.) But climbing is growing, and media outlets are forever on the lookout for new and engaging stories. El Capitan just happens to be a spectacular, plainly visible icon of our national parks. The story hadn’t been isolated to the climbing media, either. Back in 2011, Alex Lowther, a terrific rock climber and writer,  wrote an article in the New York Times about Tommy, on-route social media, and the Dawn Wall. It bears repeating that El Cap is a roadside crag. A massive, impressive one, but nonetheless a roadside cliff (or, in mainstream verbiage, a sheer vertical cliff face with tiny nubbins to clench). And then, in winter 2014–15, as success appeared possible, a couple of places took further notice and ran stories. In the media, as with much of life, nobody wants to be left out. Like that, the tinder box of mainstream-ready combustibles exploded into a media blaze probably unseen in American rock climbing since Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) topped-out the same general hunk of granite back in 1970.

Pretty wild.

Almost as impressive is the way in which the Dawn Wall spurred a micro-economy, a thriving cottage industry, unseen in American climbing since the fabled Yosemite gold rush. Er, maybe not that big. For those who don’t know, in Yosemite’s high country in 1977 an airplane carrying tons of marijuana went down, and Valley dirtbags got high as kites and rich as kings (by climber standards, anyway). Likewise though less dramatic, the Dawn Wall media frenzy fed plenty of 2014–15 Valley dirtbags with $300-a-day gigs guiding reporters up the trail to the top, even better pay rigging for camera crews, and generally lesser pay writing stories.

I got in on the action when National Geographic asked me to write a piece on influential rock climbs. Nat Geo? Uhhh, OK. But damn, the article wasn’t so easy. Readers love lists, publishers love readers, and writers — at least those trying to earn a living — need to work with their publishers. Thus, I made a list. But how do you do such a list? My mind: Well, if this, then surely we have to include that, and then… etc, etc, etc, etc. Of course everybody will gladly tell you what you left out, what you should have included, and so forth. But try to do it. Go ahead, make the perfect list. The inarguable best. You’re allowed ten. No, OK, fifteen. Or, the way I did it, eleven. Photo availability, ideally photos from the FA, is crucial (remember, they’re paying you, this is work, not big talk from your internet podium). It’s due in like three days. You want your selections spaced at reasonable time intervals, you want to include different forms of the craft, and naturally you’re limited by your own knowledge, biases, and time to research. Not to mention the time to write. Remember, for each climb you include, you have to consider how it fits with the overall list. Hubble? Of course. Wait, that was 1990, and Action Directe was 1991. Turned out to be a bit like a puzzle. Anyway, here’s the link to my Nat Geo piece (by the way, I didn’t choose the title — my positioning for the piece comes in my first sentence). 

Anyway, I’ve saved the best for last. In a level of awkwardness somehow reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s “The Chris Farley Show,” a clueless yet endearing ABC reporter interviewed Alex Honnlove. That’s right. Honnlove. Remember that game in high school where you invented your own pornstar name? Only, most of us don’t get ours broadcast on ABC. How would they even know? Imagine:

“Sir — sir, excuse me. Are you a climber? May we interview you? Great, great, thanks. OK, first, your name?”

“It’s Alex.”

“Last name?”

[slight pause as Alex realizes his opportunity for true glory]


Whether or not that’s how it happened, or if the ABC affiliate simply needs an editor, I don’t know. (NOTE: They’ve subsequently fixed the glitch, but I caught a screen shot.)


I do know, however, that if you’ve gotten this far then you’re clearly not short on time. For you, my friend, it is well worth watching the entire seven-minute interview, in all its awkward glory. Alex’s subtle grin as he’s like “Yeah, I know El Cap pretty well” reminds me of comedy skits where the actor is trying not to laugh. And from about 5:20–6:30, where Alex explains how he’d get Fitz (Tommy & Becca’s infant son) to the top of El Cap, is priceless. “The baby would be in the backpack.” “Put him in the backpack…I mean, he’s only a 25-pound baby.”

Unfortunately the video doesn’t want to embed here. I’ve tried and tried, and given up. So here’s the link to the ABC7 News San Francisco•Oakland•San Jose interview, which is well worth your time (since you’ve read this far) — if not, I owe you a marg.

Thus develops the ultimate cottage industry to emerge from the Dawn Wall: The Alex Honnlove School of Babysitting.

And as they say in the media circus: That’s a wrap.

Chapter One

From time to time here I’ll post book-related content, from material that didn’t make the final cut but that I still found interesting, to stories from my writing process, as well as short passages. For starters, here’s the opening chapter — which, I suppose, qualifies as a short passage. The second chapter is considerably longer, and rewinds time to the fierce competition among Italian alpinists and expats in the 1950s, and to days even earlier, back when time began in Patagonia.



The howling Patagonian wind calmed to a whisper. The afternoon sun beat down and I blinked hard against
 a haze of exhaustion, the kind of blink where a black screen seems to linger behind your eyelids and you wonder how much time you lost.

I stared past thousands of feet of golden granite disappearing beneath me. A vertical mile below flowed the Torre Glacier, bending, cracked, cracking — growing and shrinking with the years. At its terminus, only
 a short way down valley, it calves into Laguna Torre and flows into rivers feeding forests and rolling pampas.

Scattered estancias dot a landscape where not long ago pumas and wild horses roamed. A giant condor soared overhead, riding the thermals. Sheep grazed on the barren grasslands that extend eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.

Cordes - P1010043 LRA hundred feet above, enormous structures of overhanging, aerated ice, vestiges of Patagonia’s brutal storms, held guard over Cerro Torre’s summit. They loomed like multi-ton sculptures pulled from a land of fairy tales, like whipped cream frozen in place, jutting wildly outward in gravity-defying, wind-forged blobs. On the opposite side of the mountain Cerro Torre faces the Hielo Continental, an Antarctic-like world comprising massive sheets of flat glacial ice that spill into the Pacific Ocean.

Just before sunrise, thirty-some hours earlier, we had started climbing. We raced up ephemeral ice beneath a sérac, then weaved through gargoyles of rime. We fell short of the summit as the sun set and the wind roared, and we shivered away the night in a snow cave in the starlit blackness of Cerro Torre’s upper crest. Come morning we struggled over the summit, and then started down the other side. Both of us carried only ten-pound backpacks, but we also carried fantasies, a dose of self-delusion, and a shred of hope. Without those, we’d have never left the ground.

I blinked again, and my gaze returned across the landscape, from the distant pampas to the beech forests surrounding Laguna Torre, to the golden granite falling away beneath my feet. And then to the rusting engine block on which I stood. The only stance on Cerro Torre’s headwall. A 150-pound, gas-powered air compressor, a goddamned jackhammer lashed to the flanks of the most beautiful mountain on earth. Above and below ran an endless string of climbing bolts — ancient two-inch pegs of metal drilled into the rock and spaced to be used like ladders — courtesy of the compressor and a man possessed, that for four decades allowed passage up this impossible tower.

The wind remained at a whisper. Exhaustion pulsed through my bones and I stared into a clear, cobalt sky, and knew that we’d been lucky. Calm around Cerro Torre never lasts.

My Cerro Torre Book (and marg recipe)

I’ve spent most of the last two-plus years researching, thinking, planning, analyzing, agonizing, toiling, writing, editing, rewriting, revising, refining and proofing a book about the most beautiful mountain in the world, Cerro Torre. I conducted in-person interviews in seven different countries, researched original documents spanning from the 1950s until 2013 (my selected bibliography contains 256 references, though many more contributed to my thinking and writing), and nearly drove myself mad.

kc - book - LR cropThis site, along with my book’s Facebook page, will serve as a place for me to post book-related material. My book is entitled The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. More about the book here, ordering info here.

It just returned from the printer and is available through Patagonia. Other retailers should have it soon. Guess that makes me a little late rolling into the requisite self-promotion that I loathe. But, apropos of much of the behavior and beliefs surrounding Cerro Torre — and many human endeavors, for that matter — when confronted by reality I’ll compartmentalize my thoughts into a little black box inside my mind, and then charge ahead. What the hell, it’s more fun that way.

With my posts, I can’t promise much of the “#Look at Me!” perfect-life curated content we’ve grown accustomed to in today’s social media, because I don’t think real life is like that. Alpine climbing isn’t like that, at least not often, and writing a book sure as hell isn’t like that, at least not for me.

But I’ll do it. My friend Gregory Crouch, an extraordinary writer, advised me (on Facebook, no less): “Don’t feel guilty about promoting your shit. It’s one of your responsibilities as an author. And yes, I know, it sucks. So pour yourself another margarita, hold your nose, and make it happen.”

I hope it’s not shit (#Yay Me!), and I’ll fulfill my promo obligations as best I can, even though I’d like to think the book stands on its own.

Anyway, quite simply my delay in getting going is because it took awhile. After the book shipped to the printer, I swore I’d never write another word, and I went climbing.

Some things, like good margaritas, just take time.

Kelly’s Book Spray Marg:

Herradura Reposado. Go for the good stuff. It’s a special day somewhere. Herradura makes terrific tequila, and the reposado picks-up flavors from the oak barrels where it ages, blending with the wild agave flavor. Real stuff, a great, honest tequila. Refined and aged, but not too much.

Triple Sec
Cointreau or nothing. With good tequila, I often skip the triple sec, since cheap paint thinner can ruin the smooth taste. But a fine liqueur like Cointreau adds a tasty touch, and a touch of class. A hefty splash, maybe 1 part Cointreau to 3 parts tequila. Fine to skip this step. Not fine to substitute cheap paint thinner.

A lime to a lemon, lemon to a lime, one round lime and half a fresh lemon. Plus a baby orange. Fresh squeezed, let’s do it right. Roll them on the countertop, under your palm, softening their skins and making the juices fluid. Roll the ends, too. A cheap hand-squeezer gizmo on a good lime will yield about two ounces of juice. You can also cut it in half, hand squeeze it hard, and mine it with a fork (poor-man’s juicer). Expect a bit less juice from the half lemon and baby orange. Stir the juices.

For each squeezed lime, add some agave nectar. How much? Hell, I don’t know. A squirt or two. This is art, dammit. Besides, if you make it too sweet you can always re-balance it with more tequila.

About half mix max, and at least half alcohol. Put everything in a shaker (a Nalgene works well) with some ice, and shake the sweet bejesus out of it. Vigorous shaking enhances the taste. Seriously – like it blends the agave-carbon chains into the, uh, (-OH) groups of the alcohol much more better. Adjust to taste, and remember that taste testing is fun. After all, as climbers like to say while they spray, it’s really just about the experience, you know?

Shaken, not stirred. Rocks and salt. And, as we know well by now, for fuck’s sake no umbrella.

kc - herradura-cointreau marg IMG_3837

Another Round

Sometimes, on a good day, I’m able to accept my injuries as the price of admission. I wouldn’t call them essential costs, but they cost me nonetheless. It’s curious, how pushing beyond ordinary survival and into places scary and unknown enriches life. Even becomes an expression of life itself.

Yet so often one slip, one mistake, one random moment of bad luck can change or end everything. For the first fifteen years of my climbing life I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Which, in some regards, makes the last five all the more challenging.

Since that perfect storm of a moment on February 1, 2010, I’ve had four surgeries on my lower leg and ankle. On Tuesday, I’ll have what I hope is my last. It’s the last real option, of the reasonable orthopedic options on the market (I don’t do snake oil). We’re fusing my ankle. After the prolonged recovery, I should be able to walk again without pain, without my tibia and talus grinding together with every step. Honestly, I’ve forgotten how that feels. It’s like a distant fantasy.

Some mornings, when I wake I stall on the edge of my bed, contemplating the distance to the coffee grinder in my tiny cabin. When nearly every step of every day includes pain, it grinds you down.

My range of motion will be somewhat reduced after fusion. But it’s already severely diminished, with the smaller joints of my foot compensating, and I’ve adapted OK in terms of technical climbing – my footwork isn’t any worse than it ever was. I just can’t walk far enough to partake in the greatest joy I’ve known: climbing in the mountains.

Anesthesia is so strange. One moment you’re there, and then you’re gone. You wake without realizing you missed a thing. My first time under, before my spinal fusion nearly ten years ago, I masked my nervousness with jokes. Joking not only masks fear, but sometimes it works. I remember feeling good – perhaps deluding myself, tapping into that requisite skill for alpine climbing and, sometimes, for dealing with life. I lay on the operating table, chatting with the good Dr. Wieder and his staff, when someone asked if I had any questions. Last words, you could say. They were about to put me under. I glanced around the room, and my eyes caught the warning sign on the door. “Oh – there is one thing,” I said, raising my index finger and looking at each of them before parroting the sign. “Remember…only YOU can prevent operating room fires.”

“We gotta change that sign,” someone said.

Several hours later I woke up. They’d cut me open, grinded this and moved that, harvested bone chunks floating in my spine to make the fusion material (no hip drilling needed). I knew nothing. I woke wondering when they were going to start. My smart-ass comment was that last thing I remembered.

It’s like a slice of your life is removed. Like a piece of cake, a sliver plucked away and gone, and then you’re back in. It’s not like sleep. When you sleep, you dream. Or if you don’t dream, somehow you know you’re still there. Still here. You roll over, scratch your head, steal back the covers from the one you love, then blissfully drift away again. Anesthesia is different. You’re gone.

I’ve gone completely under eight times – nine come tomorrow – plus some sedations for minor procedures. Bad luck, maybe. Along with a lot of good luck.

I’ve come to view anesthesia,  necessary as it is for life, as preparation for death. To bring me come closer to acceptance, to peace, when the time comes to embrace the eternal nothingness beyond.

Until then, when I wake I’ll do my rehab like a fuckin’ champ, like I do every time, because it brings me closer to returning to the life that I love.

So, here we go again. Another round. One step closer.

Dancing Skeletons

The other day I started writing a post about photographs, and then I stumbled upon this Memorial Day photo. The unmitigated grief in the image brought me to tears, and so I’m writing about today, which is every day.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy BBQs and a day off of work. Maybe we should, because we have so much to be thankful for. Holidays in the U.S. can be gross, though – Christmas being the worst, as I ranted about in 2010 and 2011 – because we tend to forget the meanings. Veterans and those close to them might accuse me of the same, as, on Memorial Day, I choose to remember people I’ve lost regardless of how they died.

memorial day

Memorial Day also makes me think about life.

Two years ago I wrote the piece below from my mom’s place, where my sisters, niece, aunt and I gathered, along with mom’s hospice nurses. Last week I saw my sister Jill and her family again, as I do a couple of times a year. They now have a boy, who’s nearly the same age as Fia was when I wrote the post. Emmett rolls around in the dirt, breaks stuff (yup, definitely a boy) and walks in what appears to be a constant state of forward falling (complete with frequent wipe-outs, which often segue seamlessly to him rolling in the dirt or on the floor, making some sort of mess, and finding it hilarious). Fia is now three and a half, climbing trees, talking up a storm and developing her personality, a wonderful mix of sensitive introvert and a little babble box curious about the world. She’s just like Jill was at that age – god, has it really been 40 years? – and quite likely the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in my life. “Mama,” she told Jill the other morning, “Can you please take the toothbrush out of your mouth so we can have a conversation?”

It’s almost incomprehensible to ponder the cycle of life, how fast and slow it happens, how we are nothing and everything in the passage of the greater universe and our individual universes.

About a month and a half after I wrote the below post, my friend Bean died. He was 38. Fuckin’ cancer. Unbelievable, and so ironic, given that he’d easily used up nine or more lives in the mountains. A couple of months ago a young friend, Kevin, only 24, died also of cancer. I will never understand life’s incomprehensible cruelty when young people die. And I can’t even think about children with cancer, or I disintegrate into a sobbing mess. Yet it all starts with the beauty and the possibility inherent in birth. Just the other day, it seems, Tommy and Becca let me hold their newborn son in the hospital, and again a few weeks later, as he slept on my chest and I stared at his minuscule fingers and his closed eyes, I marveled, alternately chuckling and drifting through thoughts about the mysteries of the universe. 

I haven’t tried to count the number of friends I’ve lost in the mountains, though more will someday die of disease, old age and what we call natural causes. Last summer my cousin, my age, drowned, along with his best pack mule, in his beloved Missouri River. His girlfriend tried to save him, but he was trapped in a whirlpool and with his last breaths, before he went under, he shouted and swatted her away so that she wouldn’t die, too. I didn’t know what to say to my aunt – his mother, my mom’s sister – and I still don’t. I know only that my feelings of loss will never approach the eternal void, the indescribable and permanent sorrow, of a parent who lost their child.

Yet the weirdest thing of all is to reconcile the simple truth, the reality, that death will only continue, because it has to. One day – the blink of an eye, really – it will be me, my sister, even her kids and then theirs, a thought so impossible I feel wrong for even thinking it. But this is the natural cycle of life, and the simple reality that time is all we have. At its heart, and not to sound trite, maybe it explains why I climb: because nothing makes me feel so alive, so at peace that I can dance with the rhythm of the world. I am forever grateful for the privilege and the freedom to pursue the life that I love.

A few weeks after I wrote the post below, my mom drifted away and died peacefully. I think of her sometimes, though maybe not as often as I should. I don’t know what “should” means. Maybe it’s just a sign of closure, of peace. And in death, I am certain, she finally had the peace that so often eluded her in life.

Hemingway wrote (A Farewell to Arms):

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”


Memorial Day (originally published on Patagonia’s blog on May 27, 2011)

Kelly staring into the Black, and the Black staring back. Photo: Steve Halvorson

Kelly staring into the Black, and the Black staring back. Photo: Steve Halvorson

I like the idea of dancing skeletons. They seem happy and free. I like dancing, too, though I don’t do it much, at least not in public (be grateful; I just do the same disco moves over and over again while sporting my whiteman’s overbite). But I love the idea – movement for the joy of movement and expression. Kind of like climbing, in a way. Probably just as absurd, too. Imagine Martians coming down and watching people dance. Or watching people climb. And skeletons, well, let’s be realistic. All of us die. In climbing and any adventurous realms of living, we might die sooner than otherwise. No guarantees, of course.

The Memorial Day weekend and the label art on a tequila bottle inspired these babbles (and a margarita recipe, of course). Which also leads me to apologize: I’ve received some flak for not giving kids’ versions of my margarita recipes, and for that I am truly sorry. Thus, in today’s post I shall include my well-researched kiddie version. I even asked my sister about it – right now I’m hanging with her and her adorable 18-month-old daughter, Fia, who’s fascinated by everything in her vast little world, so soon I’ll have her sample it.

Jonny Copp and two old friends on the Kahiltna Glacier, AK, 2003.

Jonny Copp and two old friends on the Kahiltna Glacier, AK, 2003.

This seems to me a great weekend to celebrate the cycle of life. The Memorial Day holiday originated for those who died in military service, and was traditionally observed on May 30 (my mom’s birthday!), though for me – and with full respect to the original idea – the holiday has even broader implications. It makes me remember everyone I’ve loved, no matter how they lived their lives, including their willingness to embrace risk or do things that are so easy to look back upon and second guess, because everything we do – the good and bad decisions we make, the experiences we have, the chances we take – are all a part of us, and make us who we are. For all of that, I am grateful.

And I’m grateful for my mom – she’s the reason I’m down here with my sisters, niece and aunt – with her quirky humor and wild streak. Hell, the phone rang yesterday, she answered and told the bill collectors, “No. I’m busy dying right now.” Wild-living, hard-charging, too often in too much trouble, but always full of love and now back in her home at last, no more hospitals, thanks to her dear friend who helps care for her, and for the wonderful, compassionate people of hospice.

It’s a good weekend to celebrate, to be thankful for all that makes us who we are, and to be thankful for the fact that we live such great lives that, on a daily basis most of the year, we can take for granted all that we have. All the way until we are nothing more than dancing skeletons.

kc - espolon IMG_3136

The Memorial Day Marg:

Espolón tequila: reasonably priced, 100% agave (of course – never forget that, despite marketing hype of mixto and gold blends, 100% agave is THE baseline), surprisingly good for the price. And who can’t love the label?

Limes: get ‘em fresh. Invest the $4.99 in a manual juice squeezer, and if you start by rolling the limes to soften ‘em, and maybe even microwaving for about 13 seconds per lime, the juices come plentiful. Work hard and you should be able to get about 2 oz. of juice per lime.

Agave nectar: Sweetener made from the same plant tequila comes from – perfect. Just a couple of squirts per squeezed lime tends to do it. Adjust to taste.

Lemon & orange: squeeze some of each. Or, if you’re lazy, just get it from the store.

Marg: About half tequila, and half the other stuff. The other stuff is mostly lime juice, with that squirt of agave nectar and a splash of lemon and orange juice. Adjust to taste – I can’t describe it down to the milliliter. After all, life is art, damnit.

Put it in a shaker or water bottle or anything, and shake the bejesus out of it. Pour it over ice. Salt if you have it (doh, I spaced it at the store last night).

Kiddie version: At long last, with apologies to my sister and all the parents out there for my delay, I present the kiddie version: more salt, less tequila.

Chicken Clip (ice pro pointer)

Since shattering my leg nearly three years ago, I’ve been unusually scared of ice climbing. Ice never particularly scared me before; I love the ephemeral medium, the psychological control and judgment required, the wildness and beauty of the backcountry in winter. The adventure.

Granted, when scratching-around in the alpine of RMNP you rarely get enough ice to place screws, but when I can, lately I’ve used what you might call the “chicken clip.” It’s an old technique – nothing I invented – that gives a little more security when doing the pumpiest part or ice climbing: placing screws. Consider it temporary pro, not real pro. Certainly not whipper pro. But it can provide an extra margin of safety.

Goes like this:

1. Place your tools solidly. Let go of your “free” tool (the one you release in order to place a screw), clip a quickdraw to the hole in its spike (assuming your tool has a hole in its spike…), and then clip the rope to the draw. It’s obviously not for holding a shockload fall – ice tools aren’t made for this. But if your tool is in good ice it should hold body weight if you have to hang.

kc - screw1 IMG_3765(LR)

2. Place the screw.

kc - screw2 IMG_3770(LR)

3. Move the draw from your tool to the screw. Since the rope is already clipped to the draw, presto, now you have real pro.

kc - screw3 IMG_3774(LR)

To vet the idea, I first checked with a couple of AMGA guide friends. Check. Good idea, they said, but don’t let the technique lead to false confidence, which leads to big problems of its own. Excellent point. Leading ice isn’t like sport climbing – it is not OK to fall. Don’t push it that far.

Next I checked with some friends at Black Diamond who oversee product testing and development. They said they recommend the technique to buddies. Cool. But again, be wary of false confidence. This won’t make you a better climber. Do it right. Get your tools in solidly. This isn’t real protection; it’s a (solid, when done right) hedge against falling off when in the sometimes vulnerable spot of placing pro.

Kolin Powick, who runs BD’s quality control and testing program (and who does a ton to further our collective knowledge of safety systems and gear), told me:

“Clip to spike is fine.

BD spikes are burly.

Don’t clip to a pommel.

They’re as weak as you are. Maybe even weaker if that’s possible.

That’s a good tip.

Of course the ice is always the question.

Picks could shear with a dynamic load like that.”

Nearly everything in climbing has advantages and disadvantages, and this technique is no exception. I think the plusses generally outweigh the minuses, but decide for yourself. Perhaps play with it on ice that’s well below your limit. Some considerations:


• Added security with minimal energy cost. The only extra step is a small one: moving the quick draw from your tool to the screw.

• If you slip-off while placing a screw – a time when you’re vulnerable, due to only one hand on a tool and the mounting pump, and potential body wiggle while turning the screw – it can prevent the whipper.

• If you pump-out while placing the screw and need to clip-in to your tool, you don’t have to do the frantic and dangerous fumble of trying to clip-in while pumped. You’re already clipped in, and can call “take.”


• If you have to clear-away more ice for your screw placement, it’s a hassle because the spike of your “free” tool has the draw, with rope, clipped to it. So first you have to move the draw back to your harness (or someplace else) temporarily, while you use that tool to clear-away ice. This costs energy, which could increase fall potential.

•Possible solution: chicken-clip your draw to the spike of the tool you’re holding onto (rather than the “free” tool”). This can be awkward, though.

• Not all ice tools have strong end-to-end strength. I didn’t survey the various companies. I only asked my friends who design and test the gear at BD, since I use BD tools.

• NOTE (important!): don’t confuse the plastic pommel for the spike. The pommels can break at surprisingly low forces. Some of the tests on various pommels, and returns to large retailers from breaks, are rumored to be quite startling. Bill Belcourt, who’s in charge of hard goods at BD, told me: “Our philosophy from the beginning was that the pommel was the replacement for the nylon leash, and it should be as burly, even though there is no standard saying it needs to be.”

• If you weight the rope, you essentially have a pulley system (like a top-rope) off your tool, which is more force than if you clipped directly from your waist to the tool with a runner. Granted, a stretchy rope holding body weight on a well-placed and strong tool should still hold.

• If you slip or fall and your tool breaks or shears out, you’ll fall farther. How much farther? About twice the distance from your waist (point of your tie-in knot) up to the clip-in point (where the rope goes through the bottom ‘biner of the draw clipped to your tool). In most cases, this will be an additional couple of feet. Could be enough to smack a ledge. Or to clear one. Ice climbing falls are usually bad, so the question: what’s the probability of the system failing, and if it does, what are the likely consequences of a slightly longer fall? No way of knowing. No formula. To me, it’s a slight hedge in safety, via fall prevention, that’s often worth using.

• Beware of thinking this makes ice climbing safe. It doesn’t. If you get on something way too hard for you, it can be bad news. Get complacent, even on easier stuff, and it’s still bad news. Don’t develop a false sense of security – the number one rule of ice climbing absolutely remains: don’t fall.

Times I Chicken Clip, times I don’t:

• I do it if my tool is placed in solid ice, especially if I’m scared (happens often).

• I do not do it if my tool is in mank, or a wobbly placement (which you try to avoid when ice climbing, but it happens). Then, I save the sliver of energy, breathe, and try to climb more delicately.

• I don’t do it if I’m climbing with keeper cords (the elastic leashes that go from your waist to your tools), which I often use on long routes, where dropping a tool could be serious. Most keeper cords will hold body weight if you have to hang, though they won’t hold a fall – a friend snapped one last season, for example, when he fell.

• I rarely do it if the ice is exceptionally complex, like lots of undulations that I know I’ll have to clear to get the screw in. Ideally you chop these away before placing the screw, but often I mis-judge how much ice I need to remove.

Most importantly, climb well, and don’t fall. Get out, get comfortable with the medium. And, when it makes sense, hedge your bets on the safe side. Maybe this pointer will help.

Ready: New Day, New Year

Past, present, future. We never know the future, of course, and we strive to enjoy and appreciate the present. The present that soon becomes our past.

We are all dying. Day by day, we inch or catapult closer. How much, we don’t know, which only underscores the importance of now, each moment, each day, day by day.

I’m not big on celebrations. I don’t really even like my birthday, for some reason. And I dislike Christmas, not because I’m an atheist (which I am), but because of what it has come to represent. To those who believe in the meaning of the holiday: respect. To those for whom it becomes a time of stress and materialism, I find it gross. And New Year’s, too – not my favorite, because, really, it’s just another day. Not a day to convince yourself that this year, unlike the X-number of years past, you will magically, somehow, muster the motivation you inherently lack to do something you proclaim to be important. No, if it were important, the superficies of a random day’s resolution won’t make you do it. It won’t. You’ll do it if it’s important to you, January 1 – or November 13, or March 4, or whatever – be damned.

One thing I love about the holidays, though, is the time off. I love how people use it as a time to do what we should all probably do more: work less, play more, and appreciate the things that make today – what will soon be yesterday – worthwhile. Worth living.

At the end of each year we get some cool lists. I generally dislike lists, too. Surprise, surprise, I know. Fair enough to wonder: what don’t I dislike? Hard to say. But generally, I dislike things that are stupid and fake. I like things that are real.

The year-end “Best Of” compilations of the arts give me great enjoyment via a nearly endless stockpile of engaging reads, viewings and audio.

The best audio I heard in 2012, or perhaps in my life, was Terry Gross’s interview with author Maurice Sendak. Sendak was born to Polish immigrants, and most of his extended family died in the Holocaust. He grew up to become a celebrated author, winning the National Book Award (among many accolades), writing and/or illustrating over 100 books, primarily children’s books, which often had a dark edge as real as life. Brilliant and real. His best-known work was Where the Wild Things Are.

The piece aired on May 8, 2012 – the day of his death – and it still makes me cry when I listen. Sendak was near the end of his life, he knew that his circle was closing, and his voice and his words conveyed a depth and a poignance and, above all, a beauty that eloquently encapsulates the time that we have. He speaks of life, its futility and its wholeness, its meaning and not, the reality of death and his mind as an artist.

Here is the link to the full audio piece (you can download it there, too, for later listening). Embedded here:

Here, and embedded below, is a brief and beautiful illustrated video that an artist named Christoph Niemann produced with short clips from the audio.

All the best for today, 2013, and every day. When our time comes, perhaps we can speak like Sendak:

“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”


The Penguin (handwarming tip for winter climbing)

Do you hate ice climbing? Yes, yes! It’s scary and stupid and cold, you guys. Oh, but wait! Once your fingers are warm, it’s all puppy dogs and rainbows out there.

Been meaning to post this simple, effective tip. I remembered it yesterday, when, instead of being in the rock gym, for some stupid reason we climbed outside. It was six degrees.

Cold fingers are cold and miserable, so we often wear thicker gloves, which makes fumbling with a gear a major pain and is more pumpy. Can feel like you added a full difficulty grade to the climb. I rarely lead with thick gloves, btw – even in the cold – here’s a post for those with cold hands and glove dilemmas. And here’s something I wrote awhile back on Patagonia’s blog, with some tips for dressing for winter climbing.

Climbers practice a variety of techniques to warm the hands, and possibly offset the onset of the dreaded Screaming Barfies (the perfectly descriptive term for when your hands – or toes, whew, that one really sucks – get frigid and then re-warm). Some things are obvious, like keeping your belay parka on for as long as possible (a post on that here), bringing a hot thermos to the crag, shoveling-down calories, or saying “fuck this” and going home to drink booze.

Active techniques include the well-known Speedskater, and my personal favorite, the lesser-known Penguin. Whereas the Speedskater is easy to perform, it carries the risk of throwing you off balance, which can lead to your cruel and untimely death, and it requires space – won’t work at hanging belays, for example. The Penguin, on the other hand, is technique-intensive (including the facial expressions, of course), but it’s worth it. Don’t know how it works, but it does. For me, it’s a magical instant handwarmer. I’m dead serious. Got my technique down and everything – which is more than can be said for my video editing skills. Anyway, it helps make ice climbing less miserable and more fun. I hope it helps, and feel free to post-up any good tips you have.

Notes from November

Quick notes from November:

• Learned a new term at Thanksgiving: “Meat Sweats.” The Caldwells hosted a great dinner, and after stuffing ourselves to discomfort, our friend Patrick expanded our vocabulary. I love learning a term that I didn’t know I knew.

Patrick enlightening us at Thanksgiving.

• Had the immense honor of interviewing Tom Hornbein a couple of weeks ago, for an oral history project organized by the Estes Park Museum and Estes Valley Library. I admire Tom, and can only hope to age like he has – he’s 82, still gets out hiking and climbing, is so insightful, and so damned sharp. Impressive man. He also wrote one of my favorite climbing literature passages, in his book Everest: The West Ridge. He describes the view from their brutal, unplanned bivy at 28,000 feet on their descent from the FA of the West Ridge, and first traverse of the peak, back in 1963:

“The night was overpoweringly empty. Stars shed cold, unshimmering light. The heat lightning dancing along the plains spoke of a world of warmth and flatness. The black silhouette of Lhotse lurked half-sensed, half-seen, still below. Only the ridge we were on rose higher, disappearing into the night, a last lonely outpost of the world.”

Tom Hornbein and me after our interview.

• Once again, on Black Friday I did not buying a goddamned thing. I do not buy the religion of mindless consumption that’s become a defining American value; never have, it’s a doomed road, there must be a better way. We’re all part of the problem, solutions aren’t easy, but the Black Friday madness represents our very worst. Better: get outside, walk, climb, breathe, spend time alone or with loved ones, give something away.

• Instead, on Saturday I tried to register to be a bone marrow and stem cell donor with Be the Match. It’s free and incredibly easy to do, though their health history form dq’d me (hardware in my spine), so I made a financial donation. It’s such an important program, please check it out. So easy, and life saving. I went there with thoughts of my friend Kevin Landolt. He’s a climber, skier, and a fine young man, 24 years old and with a very aggressive form of leukemia. I admire his honesty and courage – read some of his blog posts, they’re intense and extraordinary– facing death isn’t a bright and cheery thing, it turns out – and I wish him all the best the world has to offer. Our health, our friends, our families, our ability to enjoy being outside and doing things we love are what we should be thankful for. Fuck Black Friday. Register. Help. Those are true gifts.

• November has been fantastic in Estes Park, and Colorado in general. Rock climbing one day, ice up high the next. A few photos scattered below.

Longs Peak.

• Obviously (given my Nov 5 post), I’m psyched on the election. But I’m glad it’s over, so  that we can go back to mere congressional bickering, and even less-important bickering on Facebook. Along those lines, I have to chuckle at my friend Rich’s directness – we’re about as far apart politically as possible, and the guy certainly wouldn’t be accused of Tasty Talking. I think that all of us who cared about the election were getting worn thin. But I liked one of his Facebook posts not only for its succinctness (and his lack of filter), but because it’s how I’ve sometimes felt like replying to moronic online comments (i.e. The ones I disagree with). The blessing and the curse of the internet: No barrier to entry.

Rich began: “Because of the First Amendment I can say this: If you don’t like my political posts…blow me.”

South Platte.

• For all our dysfunction, we live in a pretty damn good country. Let the troglodytes in Texas secede.

Whiners. Especially after they shat-us Bush. To borrow from Rich, hey Texas…

• My cankle is coming along – still making progress, pretty cool, though sometimes still a bummer. I’m trying. Saved some money, kicked down and “bought the fucking ticket” (worthy story behind that phrase…coming soon, someday) to Argentina. Who knows if I’ll be able to climb like I want to or not, so we’re keeping things flexible, but Patagonia’s a good hang regardless. Side note: cabin for rent in Estes Park during the two worst glorious months, January and February.


• Getting older blows in many ways. In others it’s great – if you’re smart enough to realize that you’re not smart enough, you’ll continue to learn and grow. Gain wisdom. I love this sentiment from Muhammad Ali: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

• I hope you’ve all recovered from the meat sweats, and that you’re doing valuable things this holiday season, every season, and every day. At this devilspawn time of year, when unabashed consumerism reigns supreme, remember to remember the important things. If you want somewhere to start, read this – it’s Kevin’s latest post.

Weasel One thinking light thoughts after a resounding “crrrrack!” on Chasm Lake.

Tasty Talking

[This post comes from the end of my September trip to Europe; I’ve got a ton of notes, and ideas for several posts, but haven’t gotten around to writing them. I’ve just been talking about writing. Tasty talking. Here’s one, anyway–Kelly]

In the security line at the Boston airport, at an ungodly six a.m., through bleary eyes I stared at this TSA lady reciting the procedures with a semi-autistic mix of cheer and robotics. I blinked hard and stared, zombie like. Was she real? Plastic smile. Perfect hair. Sing-song words: “I’d like to ask you all to please remove your shoes and liquids, and to remember that we request…” and so on about the rules, on a never-ending loop. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What is this tasty talking?!

One of my last stops in Europe was at the house of my friend Marko Prezelj, who’s like a Slovenian version of a real Chuck Norris. When Marko does pushups, the earth moves (among his countless world-class ascents, his and Andrej Štremfelj’s ultra-committing alpine-style new route on Kangchenjunga South ranks as one of greatest of all-time). Marko has a great mind, sharp intellect and insight, and a manner that, well, sometimes some of us might consider a little bit direct. I like it. Probably because sometimes I’m too far the opposite.

What the fuck did this lady mean, “I’d like to ask you to…”? She doesn’t really mean that. We don’t have a choice. This is not ‘Nam, there are rules here. It is not a request, it’s an order. If I don’t comply, I don’t fly. Fine. So why this tasty talking?

The “tasty talking” term comes from Marko’s classic blend of Slovenian-English and his dislike of sugar-coated bullshit. It can take different forms. I got the original story over wines (plural because we drank several bottles, and they were different varieties).

Marko Prezelj (left) tells the story of Tasty Talking to Urban Novak and me.

Goes like this: When he was in the Charakusa Valley with a crew of American climbers (Doug Chabot, Jeff Hollenbaugh, Steve House, Bruce Miller and Steve Swenson) in 2004, in the mess tent one night the always cordial Swenson politely asked Marko to please pass this plate or that, then the salt, and then to please, if he wouldn’t mind, to also pass the pepper.

Marko can be impatient. This isn’t always a bad thing. He gets shit done. And it’s just the way he is – I remember first meeting him in France, year ca 2000, and as we climbed a multi-pitch ice route, his version of a belay transition went as such: I was on a ledge off to the left, bringing him up the first pitch. He cleaned the screws. Figured he had enough for the next pitch, so why waste time? He might’ve said something – if so, it would be like, “I keep going” – before continuing straight up the middle of the next pitch, not veering the slightest toward my belay. If not impatient, at the least Marko is direct.

So the salt and pepper weren’t far from Steve. He’d have to reach a little across Marko to get ‘em himself. Steve, polite. Marko, impatient. And trying to eat. The whole trip, all the Americans had been courteous to the point of sickly sweet, at least in Marko’s eyes. Cultural thing, perhaps. Anyway, the final request – for the pepper, or whatever it was – triggered a rant that birthed a classic term among Marko, the American crew, and our mutual friends:

“WHAT IS THIS TASTY TALKING?!?! You want the pepper. The pepper is right here! Why this ‘please will you pass’? Take the fucking pepper! No more tasty talking!”

Two routes in the Charakusa now bear the tasty talking name, by the way: “Tasty Talking” and, appropriately enough, “No More Tasty Talking,” both on Naisa Brakk.

Naisa Brakk is the pyramid on the left. The sun-shade ridge facing the camera, starting from a notch midway up (reached via the gully on the right), is Tasty Talking (House-Prezelj-Swenson, 2004). A couple of days later, Bruce Miller and Marko started the ridge from the base (lower left) and continued up TT, calling the full line No More Tasty Talking.

Lady, just tell me to take my shoes off.

In the West, we have a tasty talking culture. (No surprise from my vantage point, I admit, living merely an hour from the People’s Republic of Boulder, home to polite invitations that should perhaps be amended to consider asking people to please stop being so pretentious; but now in *Boston*, for fuck’s sake?!) Everything – even the negative – is framed in the positive, we’re all winners, and soon our lies aren’t lies they’re just misrepresentations and different ways of looking at things. We try to make ourselves look better than we are, and the little lies become so common that we hardly notice. It’s dishonest.


“Some people say: If you have nothing nice (tasty?) to say, say nothing. I can fully respect that in the usual complicated life where we have to be clowns, gladiators, posers, prima-donnas and other characters, if we really want to prosper. In the mountains, when we play our game honestly, I learned that only clear/simple communication works.

“I like climbing also because of its difference from popular pretending culture where instant attractiveness to others is a norm. Dishonesty and hypocrisy, covered with so-called good manners or politeness, creates fake emotions and stimulates vanity. I don’t like that in alpinism.”

Hayden Kennedy climbs Tasty Talking, Charakusa Valley, 2011.

But climbers can be every bit as bad. Maybe worse. Depends on the person – you, me – and how we want to be. We see this dishonesty in climbing reports where the climber/editor/publisher conveniently omits inconvenient details. In my 12 years editing the AAJ, I had to straighten-out plenty of bullshit. And, in general, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read that someone got to the top – only the “top,” it turned out, wasn’t the real top but, rather, the place they retreated from. Or a headline reading that they freed the route – only buried in the details was that they used a point of aid, or did it on top-rope – but hey, c’mon, we’re all winners here, and if the rock would have been dry they could have freed it…. It’s bullshit talk.

Other times, tasty talking isn’t really tasty, but an attempt to be civil. Cool. At least it starts that way. But too often we’re unable – or, worse, unwilling – to say what we mean, say what we want, to tell it like it is. I do it, too.

Important note: You do not have to be an asshole to stop with this tasty talking. You can still be a nice, decent person, and not be full of shit.

So I think Marko has a point. At its best, tasty talking is inefficient and annoying. At its worst, tasty talking is like passive aggressiveness mixed with dishonesty. If you didn’t reach the summit, don’t tell me you reached your personal summit. Tell me where you retreated from. (Then wax-on about what it meant to you, if you wish.) If you couldn’t do the route on top rope, don’t come down and spray that you can hike the route next time. Shut up, pull the rope and send. If you failed, you failed. You’ll fail at more important things in life.

And if you’re telling me to take my shoes off, don’t frame it in some long-winded request. Tell me to take my shoes off. Say please if you like – one extra word isn’t horribly inefficient, and it makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

Remember that classic scene in Pulp Fiction, with Mr. Wolf and John Travolta? “So, pretty please, with sugar on top. Clean the fucking car.”

When tasty talking becomes the norm, words become a riddle of intent, and lose their meaning. Words exist to convey meanings. Maybe a little less tasty talking might not be such a bad thing, and so I invite us all to perhaps consider what this man is saying (if we don’t mind, of course).

Enough of this tasty talking.