This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 208 (March 2013).
I first met the young man we will call Hugh, short for Hubris, at the top of the Third Flatiron on a fine September day.
It was 1984 or 1985, and I was at the top of this famous Boulder slab, chatting with some other climbers when a blond Adonis blazed upward, solo, every now and then glancing at his watch. Fifteen minutes, which struck me as a pretty good time, left him vocally annoyed at the top.
At some point I inquired about his descent plans, which he revealed to be nonexistent. I offered to set up a sling harness that he could use to rap the west face on the rope I had carried, soloing as well myself. Looking back at it now, I think this probably should have been my first clue.
For several years after that, we joined forces and blitzed through grades in Eldorado Canyon, starting from scratch and clawing our way improbably upward. The exciting thing about climbing with Hugh was how he could jump numbers in a single bound. One day he decided it was time to launch from 5.9 to lofty 5.11 in a single day. Anything was possible. I loved that. Hugh was a ski racer for the University of Colorado. He liked the rush of being close to his own edge. In four short years on the team he had broken every single one of his long bones. I suppose that should have been another clue.
Then came the day of rescue trucks, floodlights, bullhorns and a crowd of morbidly curious onlookers, who hung around the base of the Bastille watching as Hugh and I tried to descend from Art’s Spar on the Redgarden Wall.
It was an autumn Saturday, and we’d made plans to hit the Grand Giraffe (5.9) to Art’s Spar (5.10c). We would decide on the finish once we got there, but knew we’d top out. We’d been climbing 5.10+, including on the Diamond—this was supposed to be a romp.
A late start had us at the base at 3 p.m. We gunned for the belay below the Art’s Spar roof, three pitches up. All went well, if not very quickly, and I set up a nice belay just below the eight-foot roof. I brought up Hugh and we switched over the rack.
Hugh launched out to the roof in his typical style: a bit like a wasp clawing its way up the inside of your car windshield: scratch-claw-slide, on and on, but never quite falling off. He jammed up through the roof, pulled over the edge, and after an interminable time arrived at the belay. Cool! But now darkness was just about on us and, instead of continuing, we needed to get off the wall.
As the temperature fell, we shouted endlessly above the rush of the creek below, and decided that, rather than trying to find the rappel off the upper ramp, Hugh would rap back to our belay in the Grand Giraffe corner, below the roof. I would hold onto both ends of the rope and pull him into the belay when he came level with me. Then we would both rappel roughly the same route we had climbed.
Another eternity passed before Hugh finally shouted into the darkness that he had begun to descend. A short while later I heard a sequence of curses followed by the sound I will never forget: “Ping … ping … ping!” ringing into the void.
“Hugh,” I called out. “What was that?”
“My figure 8!” he shouted back over the roar of the river.
Something unthinkable, in fact something I never would have thought of, had just happened. Hugh had dropped his rappel device while on rappel. In my mind I gave him a 15 percent chance, maybe less, of living through it.
At that moment, we were suddenly flooded by lights from the fire truck below—someone had alerted rescue.
Great, I thought. Now they get to watch him fall. Below was a straight 300-foot shot to the ground.
As Hugh inched his way down the rope, held only by his hands, I saw his legs and then slowly a bit more drop below the roof. His torso came into view, and finally his wildly freaked face. He was descending with both hands and feet wrapped around the rope, like some gym-class exercise, shaking like a leaf in the breeze.
When he finally inched to within a dozen feet of me, I tied myself off, edged up the corner to where I could flip some rope around his legs and waist, cinched the loop as tightly as possible, and pulled him down until I could clip a sling into his harness.
At the anchor, his demeanor switched back to the usual cool, collected Hugh, as though this was all just part of the gig. We signaled “no” to the rescue crew, and started to rap. I gave Hugh my figure 8, and used a double-carabiner brake.
Hugh’s current aplomb and the casual, low-key rap to the ground seemed eerie, as if we were shrugging the situation off: What else would a climber do but haul himself hand-over-hand down a rope hundreds of feet in the air?
Eldorado Canyon breeds epics like the bayou breeds mosquitoes. Sometimes you get lucky, like we did. To this day I cannot explain how Hugh dropped the figure 8 while rappelling with it. He described a tangle of rope jamming into the 8, and freeing it by hand, without clipping a prusik above the knot. Somehow the 8 dislodged from his locking carabiner, and dropped into the darkness.
At the base of the wall, we sat briefly under a gorgeous clear starry night, just thrilled to be a couple of guys on the ground. Hugh quit climbing the
Editor’s note: Richard Wright passed away in Lakewood, Colorado on January 4, 2016 after a three-year battle with Hodgkins lymphoma. He leaves his wife, Anna Brandenburg-Schroeder. Read more about his prolific climbing career here: Climbers We Lost in 2016.