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Remembering Nolan Smythe

Aaron Livingston and Savannah Cummins share memories of the late Nolan Smythe.

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Smythe on the top of El Gigante. Even after conditions started deteriorating, he was having a great time. Photo: Aaron Livingston.

Nolan Smythe and I were on the summit of El Gigante trying to get our bags sorted to start the rappels into Logical Progression, a 3,000-foot bolted route in Mexico’s Basaseachi National Park, and conditions were slowly deteriorating.  Snow and hail started to fall from the sky. Nolan looked up from the bags, gave a big smile and let out a high-pitched laugh. “I’m still having fun!” he said. This was classic Nolan: always having a good time and making the best of any situation.

Two mornings and nine pitches later on March 6, we had the first 5.13a crux of the route in our sights.  I started some hot water on the stove and lit a cigarette—a surefire way to get Nolan out of the portaledge in the morning. He woke up and took a few quiet moments to appreciate his surroundings: the massive waterfall to the east, the unusual and vibrant song of the birds that call El Gigante home. And then we got to business.

We cleaned up camp, turned on some TOOL, and started jugging the fixed line to our high point from the day before. After a couple of tries we both managed to redpoint the pitch, back to back. We were on top of the world. Best friends on a wonderful adventure. Synchronized.

[Also Read Nolan Smythe, Climber and BASE Jumper, Dies in Accident on El Gigante, Mexico]

That night we climbed into the dark by the light of our headlamps. At about 8:00 p.m., Nolan came up to a belay after following one of my leads. I passed the rack of draws over, we ate a snack and then I handed him the haul line. We bumped fists and I said, “Have fun buddy! On belay.” He dispatched the beginning  of the next pitch as smoothly and calmly as ever, with the same style and grace he’d exuded on thousands of other pitches. This would be a warm-up for him back home.

About 10 meters up he stopped on a ledge and reached for a draw to clip the next bolt. Then the ledge came loose. He shouted “Rock!” and I held the brake strand.

But the rope never came tight. I watched my best friend’s light fall past me. The rockfall had cut his rope, and Nolan was gone.

He was 26 years old.

***

I’m not exactly sure where to start when it comes to talking about Nolan Smythe. He was my best friend, my favorite climbing partner, my brother in spirit. I imagined that we would pass away from simultaneous heart attacks while climbing on El Cap in our 70s.

Nolan and I met on the school bus when we were around 12 and 14 years of age. He walked up the stairs onto the bus that morning sporting a silly Justin Bieber-type bowl cut. He walked straight to the back of the bus, sat in front of me, and immediately got to rounding me up as his friend. We connected through a mutual hobby of riding bikes and building dirt jumps. We were fast friends.

Nolan was a lover of wild and remote places. A dirt biker and skateboarder in his younger years, he eventually shifted his interests to the mountains and learned everything he could about them. Straight out of high school he left Heber City to do a solo hike of the Colorado Trail. Upon his return he developed an interest in rock climbing and learning to scale the craggy walls of the Wasatch Mountains. After a year of climbing he bought a van and a rack. He went to Moab to chase cracks and the dirtbag lifestyle. He always had a special gift to understand what his dreams were and immediately take action to fulfill them. There was no time to be wasted in Nolan’s head.

Smythe before a BASE jump. Photo: Savannah Cummins.

He was a dedicated and talented climber and BASE jumper, but Nolan never sprayed much on the Internet about his climbing and he rarely took his GoPro jumping. Climber and photographer Savannah Cummins, Nolan’s girlfriend, says, “Nolan had no ego, and although he never sought out climbing to fulfill his sense of accomplishment, he was always ready to try damn hard. He could climb 5.12 in pretty much any style, anywhere, whether it was single pitch, or high up on a wall. His fear was always rational and never held him back from trying his hardest. Yet over time I would learn that Nolan’s passions far transcended climbing or BASE jumping. He had a deep and intuitive empathy for humanity and the world around him.”

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Nolan accomplished a lot in his short career. He had flashed Tague Yer Time (V 5.12) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado. He did the second free ascent of Original Sin (V, 5.12+) on Mt. Hooker, Wyoming, and a free ascent of Spaceshot (V 5.13-) in Zion National Park, Utah. Nolan had climbed the Nose in a Day and done an ascent of the Salathé Wall. He sent his first 5.13b after doing most of these big lines and he thrived while climbing at his limit high up off the ground. He moved with a style and grace that I’ve not seen in many climbers and had a way of making climbing at his limit look “easy.”  He’d also done first ascents as difficult as 5.12+ and had rope-soloed Castleton, The Rectory and The Priest in a day. BASE jumping off of each.

Smythe was an accomplished BASE jumper, but had started jumping less in recent years because he wanted to stay safe for the ones he loved. Photo: Savannah Cummins.

If someone needed help, Nolan was always ready to answer the call. More than once, he rescued BASE jumpers who had been hung up by their parachutes on large cliffs in Moab, most notably from the side of the Titan in the Fisher Towers. One time he went on a hike to the top of El Capitan and backed up a fellow climber’s anchor just 30 seconds before the original anchor failed.

Photo: Savannah Cummins.

And his help transcended climbing. Nolan was willing to talk whenever you needed it. He saved me from suicide and helped me wrestle my way out of alcoholism.

Nolan’s family and Savannah were so important to him. He made sure to buy pink flowers for Sav everytime she was coming home from a long trip. He also made me buy an unlimited InReach plan so he could check in with Sav all day every day while we were at Mt. Hooker and she was on expedition in Sao Tomé, Africa. He never wanted to be the classic “climbing boyfriend,” and gently encouraged Savannah to step out of her comfort zone, never stepping in to take over if it was her turn to lead.

Savannah says, “He was the patient type, and his support flooded any doubt I had in myself. He reminded me of what coming into climbing felt like in the first place, just to get to try, outside, living freely. He was my favorite person to climb with. If he had a smile on his face, it wasn’t long before I found a smile on mine.”

Nolan had started BASE jumping less. After a close call, and one final jump “for himself,” Savannah says he told her he was done with BASE “for now.” She says, “It made me happy to see him realizing not just how loved and cared for he was, but how much he valued his own life, and those he cared about most.”

If he was ever anywhere near his family—they had moved from Utah to California back to Utah and finally to Tennessee—Nolan made it a point to take time to go see them. His parents were always so excited to hear about his adventures even if they were nervous about some of his endeavors. He inherited their immense capacity to provide support to others.  Nolan would encourage you on your project whether it was 5.8 or 5.14, and he loved sharing the mountains with people of all skill levels.

Smythe (left) and the author, Aaron Livingston. Photo: Savannah Cummins.

Nolan had a gravitational pull. He made friends everywhere he went. He had an uncanny ability to shrug off anger and resentment. If he was upset by something he would walk away and then come back 30 seconds later grinning from ear-to-ear and laughing as if nothing had happened at all (just as long as you didn’t criticize his driving!).

You can find a lot of people to hold your rope and belay you. There are people that can go up a big wall with you. You can find somebody to offer beta and encourage you through a pitch of climbing. But a true, deep partnership, with a loving friend is a rare and beautiful thing to find. Nolan Smythe and I found climbing together. He was my brother.

We will do our best to carry his fire, his love and his passion in everything we do.

Photo: Savannah Cummins.