Closer to Truth

Fifty-six years ago, February 3, 1959, went down in history as the day the music died. In the climbing world, this date carries significance as the day when Cesarino Fava allegedly found Cesare Maestri lying at the base of Cerro Torre, muttering Toni, Toni, Toni. We now know that the word “lying” in this context has multiple meanings.

Earlier today my friend Rolando Garibotti released a massive, new piece of the puzzle surrounding Toni Egger’s death. Nobody knows the Chaltén massif like Rolo, and his knowledge of the terrain is unmatched. To pinpoint this location is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Except, with Rolo’s intimate knowledge of the place, a place he loves and cares for, he could study that haystack for a bit, then basically go, “Oh! Yeah, that needle – here it is.” Truly amazing.

I’d hounded him to dig into this mysterious photo. I’d wondered if it might reveal something. Errol Morris has a book called Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, which I read while researching my book, and I was struck by his dogged pursuit of truth. In Garibotti, Morris has an equal.

Those versed in mountain terrain will notice the exact location match of both photos. What does this mean? It means that in 1959, after failing on the east/north aspect of Cerro Torre, Toni Egger and Cesare Maestri continued north, crossed the Standhardt Col, and investigated the western part of the Torres. Maestri never mentioned a word of this foray, a significant venture impossible to mistake or forget. It had to happen during the only unaccountable time of the expedition: the six and a half days when Maestri claims they climbed and descended Cerro Torre. We’ve long known Maestri’s claim to be false. We now also know that their camera was not lost, or at least not the roll of film. And that Cerro Torre is almost certainly not where Toni Egger lost his life.

Below, I’ve re-published the article and photos from Rolo’s website.

While Cesare Maestri was certainly a brave climber, he returned from Cerro Torre and lied to his dead partner’s family. This photo brings us one step closer to the truth that Maestri refuses to tell. The rest relies on the integrity of Cesare Maestri, Il Ragno delle Dolomiti, the famed Spider of the Dolomites. Relies on his ability to summon courage beyond climbing: The courage to finally tell the truth.


Completing the Puzzle

New facts about the claimed ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959

By Rolando Garibotti, with help from Kelly Cordes, 2/2/2015.

Over the past four decades, Cesare Maestri’s claimed ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 with Toni Egger has been widely discredited (*). An abundance of evidence has shown that their high point was only a quarter of the way up, 300 meters, near the so-called “triangular snowfield.” What has remained a mystery is where Egger and Maestri (supported by Cesarino Fava) actually went during the six days that Maestri said their round trip required — seven including the final morning, when Fava supposedly found Maestri lying in the snow — and from which Toni Egger never returned.

Maestri was undoubtedly a phenomenal climber and an independent thinker, a vanguardist who deserves respect for his contributions. However, this should not preclude examination of his Cerro Torre claims. In doing so we are trying to establish the facts relating to the first ascent of one of the world’s best known mountains. In the past, some Italian circles have taken offense at the examination of the facts, unwilling to accept the misstep made by a figure they hold in such high regard. To this day the defense of Maestri’s Cerro Torre claim has been exclusively emotional. Nobody has ever mounted a fact-based defense, countering the contradictions, inconsistencies, and evidence piled against Maestri’s 1959 Cerro Torre story.

But proof of Egger and Maestri’s whereabouts during those six days was out in the open all along. The previous days of the expedition, with the team portering gear, making day trips to the lower east flanks of Cerro Torre and fixing ropes to the triangular snowfield, were all accounted for and corroborated by Fava’s journal, the journals of the three young college students who accompanied them on the expedition and by Maestri’s own accounts. In Maestri’s book Arrampicare e il Mio Mestiere (Milano, Garzati, 1961) a photo (on a non-numbered page, adjacent to page 64, effectively page 65) taken by Maestri shows the late Toni Egger climbing on what the caption claims are “the lower slabs of Cerro Torre’s wall.” Two years ago Ermanno Salvaterra and I had noticed the photo while working on a yet un-published book; Ermanno and I knew the terrain, and it was clear that the photo had not been taken on Cerro Torre. What remained unclear was the actual location. The photo had been cropped in such a way that very little of the background could be seen. About a year ago Kelly Cordes asked me to look into it again, and he recently insisted, so I put forth a more decisive effort. After many hours studying images of the entire valley, with the help of Dörte Pietron, we recognized a feature that matched the photo in question. Bingo!

Maestri’s photo of Toni Egger was in fact taken on the west face of Perfil de Indio, a small tower north of the Col Standhardt, between Agujas Standhardt and Aguja Bífida, on the west side of the massif, the opposite side that they claim to have been climbing on.

What is the significance? In Maestri’s many accounts of his 1958 and 1959 expeditions, never does he mention climbing on the west side of the massif. The six days when Maestri claims that he and Egger made their final push on Cerro Torre from the east are their only unaccountable days. What really happened during those days? This photograph provides another piece of evidence, and unequivocal proof of a place they went during their expedition that, curiously, Maestri never mentioned. Indeed it is nowhere near the location of his claimed ascent, and certainly no place one would unintentionally wander. Or forget. Perhaps in light of the massive difficulties faced from the east, the pair considered the west face of Cerro Torre, where Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri had found a line of weakness and made good progress a year earlier. From their east-side base camp, the only possible way to reach Cerro Torre’s west face would be to climb the slopes to the Col Standhardt, and then rappel west (decades later, this would become one of two most common approach routes to the west face). In Maestri’s photo, Egger is shown climbing below (west) and immediately north of the Col Standhardt, obviously returning to the east side of the massif. It is an impressive lesson in route finding. In the last decade parties trying to return to that same col from the west have needlessly battled with steep, hard climbing directly up to it. The line chosen by Egger and Maestri is far easier (III˚). From the Col Standhardt, the pair faced a return down the wind-loaded, avalanche-prone slopes that feed into the bottom of the Upper Torre Glacier – where Toni Egger’s remains were later found.

Toni Egger’s death remains a mystery. Based on this new information it seems possible that he suffered an accident descending from Col Standhardt. The one person who knows what really happened refuses to speak, leaving us to try to piece together the truth. The most troubling aspect of Maestri and Fava’s story is that they told inaccurate information to Egger’s family regarding his death. Toni’s sister is still alive. She still begrudges the fact that upon their return Maestri and Fava did not bring back any of Toni’s clothes, equipment or diaries (Toni was well known for writing detailed entries in his diary). She is in her late 80s, living alone in a small town near Lienz, Austria. It is long overdue for Maestri to provide her, and the world, with a truthful explanation of what happened during those six days in 1959.

Toni Egger’s last lesson to us is that of clever, ingenious route finding. Hopefully Cesare Maestri’s last lesson will be one of integrity, coming clean once and for all.

What the photo proves:

– that this photo, which Maestri used in his book, was not taken on Cerro Torre as he claims.

– that Egger and Maestri visited the west side of the massif, the opposite side to what Maestri claims, likely to attempt the west face of Cerro Torre (what other objective could have possibly made them want to head that way?).

– that, because no days were unaccounted for, undoubtedly they went there during the six days when Maestri claims they were climbing and descending the east and north face of Cerro Torre.

– that the camera was not lost as Maestri claimed.

* The first publicly expressed doubts were from Carlo Mauri, a renowned alpinist from Lecco, Italy. Later the case was picked-up by Ken Wilson, then editor ofMountain magazine. Much has been written about the many inconsistencies in Maestri and Fava’s accounts, and about what might or might not have actually happened. On top of Wilson’s excellent articles, some key publications include Tom Dauer’s book Cerro Torre: Mythos Patagonien, my article A Mountain Unveiled, first published in Dauer’s book, later reprinted and expanded in theAmerican Alpine Journal, Reinhold Messner’s book Torre Schrei aus Stein, and more recently Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. All who examined the facts have reached the same conclusion: Maestri’s account is but a tall tale.

Leo Dickinson, Colin Haley, Dörte Pietron and Ermanno Salvaterra also contributed to this article.

Rhythms of Grace

When I woke this morning, again I marveled at starting my day without impending dread of my foot touching the floor. Then I realized the date: February 1. Five years ago today I destroyed my ankle, had my lower leg flopping to the east. In an instant, everything changed. And then, about two months ago, when my talus and tibia were bolted together – my fifth ankle surgery – the pain (in my ankle; I’m still a bit of a wreck in other areas) lifted like a disappearing fog, a fog that had crept into my life and infused my every waking moment. I’ve always wanted to be strong, and I’ve tried to be tough. It was important when my sport was boxing, it’s important in climbing, and it’s important in life. But some things, some times, can be too much.

Tomorrow I’ll get an update from my surgeon after we take Xrays, and if all is as it should, I’ll continue my return to living the life I love. It’s a feeling that was slowly flickering and fading in the face of chronic pain, yet for the first time in years I’m optimistic, even eager. Though maybe a little bit afraid to feel too excited.

I’d meant to reply to all of the kind comments on my recent surgery post, but damn, time flies when you’re having fun. So, with complete sincerity: Thank you.

As I type this, I’m aware that a bunch of grown men are having fun doing similarly pointless things as we climbers do. They’re chasing around a funny shaped ball and knocking the hell out of one another. I’m not into it, go figure. But they love it, and most of the country does, too. I don’t follow most mainstream sports, and I mostly find TV to be a mind-numbing waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, I know all about wasting time. I just have far superior means of wasting mine. Ahem. Anyway, maybe the Super Bowl will go into extra innings – I’ve heard that’s never happened. As with any aspect of human performance, mainstream sports, despite their many problems, have moments that can lend us great inspiration.

One of the best broadcasters of mainstream sports is a man named Al Michaels. I mostly know that because I love audio, and I found the recent Fresh Air interview with Michaels tremendous on several levels. He’s probably best known for his call of the U.S. vs. Soviet 1980 Olympic gold medal ice hockey game, a call that, when replayed during the interview, still gave me chills. The interview gives insight to story, emotion, the value of silence amid crazy moments, and includes some priceless, laugh out loud Howard Cosell stories. The one that starts just before minute 22 is all-time. Hint: Cosell, with his cigar and his canary yellow blazer, hops out of his limo to intervene in an inner city street fight.

I’ve written before of my affinity for good audio stories and interviews – like Terry Gross’s interview with Maurice Sendak near the end of his life. I have to be ready whenever I return to pieces like that, as they leave me in tears. Two of my other favorites include her interview with Jay-Z and her interview with Trent Reznor.

Not since the Sendak interview, however, have I been so moved by audio as with Gross’s 2014 interview with Sam Baker. Baker was like so many of us who are reading this, a traveler and adventurer – including climbing – until one day in 1986 as he sat on a train in Peru, and a bomb set by the terrorist group the Shining Path exploded overhead. Seated beside Baker were a young boy and the boy’s parents. All three were killed, and Baker, too, was blown apart. Somehow he survived, but with severe, lasting damage. He became a musician, and his songs are stories, often like hymns with qualities both elegant and haunting. One critic aptly described his music as “Simultaneously beautiful and broken.”

Toward the end of the interview, before playing his song Pretty World, Baker spoke of his attempts to live a simple, structured life, even as he struggles with post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. He said, “In those days, once I was kind of getting through the worst parts of the surgeries, there were moments that were exquisitely beautiful. One of the things about seeing so much sorrow and so much suffering is that when there is an absence of suffering, sunlight off a rose is incredible.”

I’ve probably listened to Baker’s most recent album, Say Grace, more than a hundred times. It plays in my head daily, for which I’m grateful. I’m reminded of Terry Gross’s words toward the end of the interview. She’s interviewed hundreds of people, yet her tone carried original sincerity as she told him, “Sam Baker, I’m just so happy I know your music now. I found out about it pretty recently and I’m so glad it’s a part of what I know. It’s so good. Thank you so much.”

Guess I don’t have an overriding point to this post, or much more to say. I hope your team is playing well, and you’re inspired. I feel the same. I think I’ll listen to some music, read, and patiently, gratefully await tomorrow morning.


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.