In 1985, the legendary British free soloist Derek Hersey witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughan pour his soul into a beat up Fender Stratocaster. Stevie was at the height of his powers, having just cut his second studio album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Derek was pretty impressed, I assume, because on his way out, the thrifty Brit splurged and purchased an SRV-tour tank top. The tank top grew worn and faded while enduring numerous ropeless jaunts from Eldo to Yosemite. I like to picture Stevie’s screen-printed image high on the Redgarden wall, moving farther and farther into open space. Sadly, Derek died a soloist’s death and Stevie no longer got out to the crags. Instead, the tank top rested quietly in a chest of drawers. But with the constant shift of everything in our universe, eventually this would change …
I was scared, psyched, and extremely nervous while hiking up to a gash of rock in Ouray, Colorado, known as The Alcove. I had been climbing for approximately two months, and I was marching up a steep talus slope to accomplish my first “send” on lead. My prized project was a chossy stem-box known as The Groovetube, and at the grade of 5.8, I was somewhat confidant I could manage a clean burn to the chains. I’d even sprayed about the “possible” send the night before in the smoky Ouray tavern called the Silver Eagle (aka the Dirty Bird).
“Oh, I’ve already flashed it twice on toprope,” I’d blurted out to my friend-turned-mentor Annie Whitehouse. Annie is a famous mountaineer, climber, and all around badass who probably found our crew of beginner climbers to be at turns entertaining and annoying. I have no idea why she even hung out with us. We would constantly pepper her with questions that eventually turned to one subject, Derek Hersey. Derek had been Annie’s boyfriend, and we were obsessed with Hersey lore. We had read about Derek in our bible also known as Climb!: A History of Colorado Climbing, and once we found out about Annie’s inside knowledge, we would never let her leave our presence without probing for the nitty gritty.
“What did Derek do for money? Did Derek only free solo? What did Derek eat? Did he smoke pot?”
The barrage of questions would only end once we were forced from the doors of the Dirty Bird at closing time. But Annie must have seen a spark of the climbing spirit in us, because she continued to welcome our enthusiasm and fuel our climbing escapades with stories. It was with this spirit of encouragement that Annie agreed to join us at the Alcove the next day and bear witness to my first redpoint attempt.
“I’m nervous,” I wheezed. My friend, Justin, and I had trudged up the talus that ended at the base of The Groovetube, and now the sober reality of sending and not just talking about it had set in. I took off my pack and dropped the tangled mess of my newly purchased rope on the ground. Practicing a few trace eights, I looked up to see Annie bounding up the talus like a mountain goat.
“Are you gonna send?” Annie asked with a toothy grin as she reached us.
“Uh, yeah. I don’t know. I’ll try.”
“Well, here’s some good luck,” she said dropping her pack on the rocks in front in front of us. She reached in and brought out what appeared to be a whitish-yellow rag of some sort and tossed it to me.
I opened the wrinkled ball to see the black silhouette of a cowboy on the front of a tissue-thin tank top. The figure held the telltale shape of a Fender Strat in his hands and the lettering above the cowboy’s hat read, Stevie Ray Vaughan in faded gold print.
“Uh, what's this Annie?”
“Oh, that was Derek’s,” she said casually.
I caught Justin’s eyes as I tried to comprehend what was happening. We stared at each other in disbelief. All I could muster was, “Holy shit!”
“He would want somebody to wear it,” Annie mentioned while slipping on her harness.
I set the tank top down carefully, and began to ready myself for my first attempt at a real redpoint. But my thoughts were now somewhere else. I was thinking about Derek and Annie, and the fact that climbing had become something I wanted to belong to so badly. I had moved from the Mississippi Delta—the flattest part of the whole freaking country—about five months earlier, and had been searching ever since for a way to belong. In the south, I was a musician, but in Colorado, I was someone who drank and smoked way too much and stayed inside on gorgeous sunny days nursing a hangover and playing guitar.
My close friend Justin, who I had grown up with, had moved to Colorado and started climbing, so after a very, very, long winter, he was kind enough to start taking me along. And from the very first top-rope, I was hooked. Climbing was my way in.
I was wondering, embarrassed, if Annie had sensed my need to belong to climbing.
With these swirling thoughts and emotions, I fumbled through my first attempt at tying a figure eight, which Annie calmly corrected. Now tied in and ready, I found it difficult to concentrate.
“Hold on,” I said walking back to my pack.
I gazed down at Stevie’s image, and thought about the previous journeys of this shirt. I thought about Derek, and his great adventures and the climbing spirit he embodied. And then I thought about my own direction in life, and my constant questioning and searching. I figured there was only one way to answer these questions. I pulled off my own sweat-soaked t-shirt and let the hole-ridden relic slip over my torso. Though I could never hope to fill it in the same way Derek had, the fit was perfect.