By Alex Lowther
NICK DUTTLE SHOES UP, TIES IN and snaps on his chalk bag like any other rock climber. Then, before touching rock, he pulls out his spray bottle, soaks his chest, head, hands and sweat shorts with water, and maybe, if his eyes are dry, blasts himself in the face. And that’s just the first hint that this man has not led an average life.
Duttle was, from birth, smote by a list of plagues rivaling those of Job, and yet, almost unimaginably, he stands among the strongest climbers in this country, having climbed V14 and 5.14.
Now a 175-pound 26-year-old with cobra-hood lats, Nick was born to a poor tattoo-artist mother in a Las Cruces, New Mexico, trailer park. At birth he was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED), which means he has inactive sweat glands and malfunctioning tear ducts. Doctors were unsure if he would live past age 3. Nick suffered grand mal seizures as a baby because his brain would overheat in the thermal Las Cruces summer, whereupon his mother would sink him up to his chin in a basin filled with ice water.
His biological father left his mother shortly after he was born, citing God’s wrath upon her for delivering a baby with this debilitating genetic condition, tossing her a bag of pot in lieu of child support as he scooted out the door. Nick’s next father figure, from ages 5 to 13, was a reformed hit man for the Hell’s Angels.
When Nick was 15, two opponents in a soccer game came at his knee from both sides, buckling him to the ground. Lacking insurance, he was unable to have surgery or even see a doctor, and had to rehabilitate himself.
At about that same time, a faint shimmer began rising off his family’s yard, and soon Nick, his mother and little brother were suffering from splitting headaches so painful that at times they could not open their eyes. The yard plants began to die. Pit bulls Nick was breeding to make money mysteriously perished. The family found out several years later that a natural-gas pipe had ruptured under their house. Just before they moved out, the immediate area around the trailer was declared to be New Mexico’s “Colonia” (a 1991 chemical-plant explosion in Colonia Privada Uniones, Matamoros, Mexico, in which toxic, birth-defect-inducing chemicals spewed across the landscape).
During those years Nick’s corneas began to malform, eventually rendering him legally blind, (a condition he corrects with hard contact lenses).
The list goes on, but so does Duttle. And he’s been killing it.
As a teenager, he took that self-rehabilitated knee and ran sub-five-minute miles in the New Mexico Junior Olympics. The first from his family to go to college, he studied geography and math, and nursed an interest in meteorology and astrophysics, subjects he plans to study in graduate school. In 2001, he sent the Hueco Tanks classic Power of Silence (V10) in his first eight months of rock climbing, and in 2006, the benchmark V14 Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”), also at Hueco. At Rifle, he has redpointed the 7 P.M. Show (5.14a) the hardest way, without kneebars, and Lungfish (5.14a/b).
At press time, Duttle was headed to Squamish, British Columbia, to attempt Chris Sharma’s Dreamcatcher (5.14d).
HOW DID YOUR DISORDER AFFECT YOUR LIFE AS A KID?
I mostly remember getting really hot. Playing soccer, I would have to stop every 10 minutes or so and dump a bucket of ice water on my head, then I’d be good to go again.
YOU CLIMBED POWER OF SILENCE (V10) AFTER EIGHT MONTHS OF CLIMBING. WHAT GAVE YOU THE DETERMINATION?
It was people telling me I couldn’t that made me want to so badly. I just went out there and did it.
WHO TAUGHT YOU ABOUT TENACITY AND HOW TO OVERCOME ADVERSITY?
My first pit bull. I had him until I was 15. While he was dying, I stayed up with him for three nights without sleeping. I finally fell asleep outside and I guess Rascal saw that I was OK. He got up and walked away to die. I woke up and ran into the house screaming his name. He came out of my room and walked towards me, staggering against the wall the whole way, and he got to me and just collapsed right at my feet, dead. There was a lot of bad in my life, but Rascal was through-the-roof good.
WHAT HAPPENED TO JOE, YOUR MAIN FATHER FIGURE, THE REFORMED HIT MAN?
My mom asked him to leave. He was a good person and tried hard to assimilate, but you can’t just wash off 30 years of personal history.
DID ALL THE ADVERSITY EVER MAKE YOU WANT TO LASH OUT AT THE WORLD?
Yeah. There was a lot of opportunity for me to turn into a terrible son of a bitch. But I didn’t. Joe, after he left, well, I saw him again before he died and he told me I was the strongest person he’d ever met, which is saying something, coming from a Vietnam vet and Hell’s Angels assassin. That was really important to me, hearing that from him.
WOULD YOU EVER HAVE THOUGHT YOU’D BE WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
Well, I don’t like to think of anything as a boundary, you know? If anything gets in the way, I find a way over it. There are a million reasons not to, and only one reason to do something, and that’s if you want to. You have to commit to it, and learn how to do it.
But I guess if you had told me as a scrawny kid passing out from the sun that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I’d have said you were crazy.