Bunched in a back office at Earth Treks were Chelsea Rude, Jon Cardwell, Paul Robinson, and, among others, Lynn Hill and Chris Sharma. For those last two, onetime world champions in climbing, you could argue that there was no upside to participating in a local competition, but they are pros. And genial. Sharma was so genial, in fact, that he didn’t warm up, and a few sips of beer may even have passed his lips. He was to be a surprise bonus at the event.
Somehow, reluctantly, I—citizen I—was here as well, along with Madaleine Sorkin, Angie Payne, and other climbing lights from various genres, all clustered around Carol the organizer as she frowned at her clipboard and tried to divide us into roughly equal teams, one for this brand-new Earth Treks gym, and one for the American Alpine Club, whose offices are nearby in Golden, Colorado.
“Well, Alison’s probably not very strong,” she said audibly, and moved me from the AAC column to the Earth Treks’, apparently as a handicap.
This was not exactly your normal comp, but someone must have asked about scoring.
“I think it should be completely subjective,” put in Angie Payne. “It should be for style, height and hair color.”
Carol tried to hand Chris a shirt. The AAC team wore baby blue, the Earth Trekkers red.
Chris already had on a shirt, a verdant green technical type. “Isn’t this OK?” he asked in his sweet Sharma way, and of course was allowed to stay in whatever he wanted. Chris could be the Green Team.
I was told to go first, except that I couldn’t because Brittany Griffith, sponsored athlete-ambassador, had just jacked my harness. Guess she doesn’t have many contacts in the climbing industry (she is only married to Jonathan Thesenga of Black Diamond). So Carol called Phil Powers to go first, which served him right.
It had all started weeks before when Phil, AAC executive director, asked several people “our age” who are active climbers to be part of a “fun comp” at this Climbers’ Gathering in Earth Trek’s new $6 million facility in Golden. Phil was participating, and Mark Kroese and Steve Swenson, our contemporaries, agreed. But Mark and Steve had somehow melted away, and were having beer and chatting among friends in the audience. I had just had to leave off climbing with George Lowe, a rare treat, to come back to the competitors’ meeting. That afternoon, I had made a last effort to get out of the comp, but Phil asked me to stay and keep him company.
It was, further, a day, a week, in which I felt overloaded: trying, among too many other things, to catch up after a trip East to teach a class on Mountain Literature.
With more and more snow coming, I’d left home, four hours away, on Thursday afternoon, hitting standstill traffic on the passes, to stay at my friend’s house in Golden. There I piled my stuff into the wrong room, and the cat kept attacking the door. Meanwhile an old friend from Seattle had reserved us a room Friday and Saturday at the Denver Sheraton, venue for the AAC annual dinner, but suddenly had to get her gall bladder out. Stuck with the room, I somehow assumed the board meeting, as it often is, would be at the venue. I got up before 7, fought traffic into Denver, and arrived at the hotel only to find that the meeting wasn’t there at all, but naturally back at the AAC facility in Golden.
At the comp, we could pick from one of three routes of varying difficulty. I picked the easiest, climbed and fell, then got to socialize again. Jamie Logan, age 67, came out and flashed our route, at the top adding a discretionary and very crowd-pleasing dyno. The tiny Lynn Hill, apparently unable to reach a hold on the main roof, wheeled completely around to bat-hook it with her feet, then twisted over to palm it. As she established herself, an onlooker asked in wonder and confusion, “What just happened?”
Sharma came out, unveiled, and summarily flashed the hardest route, which we’d been told was 5.14.
The AAC Team ultimately prevailed.
“How did you do it?” the ebullient MC’s Cedar Wright and Timmy O’Neill asked Phil.
Said Phil, deadpan, “We cheated.”
They brought out a gold-buckled hero’s belt for him, and somehow, for some reason, gave George Lowe a pair of gold-spray-painted skivvies, which he obligingly pulled on over his climbing pants, a sight that apparently startled his teenage daughter when he later came strolling into the house after the party.
The next day I went to the first-ever joint board meeting of the AAC and the Access Fund, which in fact was held at the Sheraton, so I got something right. I then moderated a panel of women speakers. And that night we heard a retrospective from Yvon Chouinard, introduced by Hans Florine, who wore one of the original brightly striped rugby shirts from Chouinard’s company Patagonia. Florine said, “Yvon introduced environmental concerns to the business world.”
Chouinard began, “All I can do is tell you a few stories that I still remember.”
And he did. We knew the gist: that he was French Canadian, that he’d originally begun rappelling out of an interest in falconry (the first climber he ever saw came up and passed him in a chimney).
I didn’t know that he arrived in California unable to speak anything but French. “I couldn’t speak English and was the shortest kid in school,” he said. “I ran away … and immediately took my own path the rest of my life.”
Herewith, some excerpts from “YC.”
Of himself at 12 with an enormous bird perched on a leather band on his arm, he said: “This is a red-tailed hawk I used to fly on housecats.”
Of his business: “The reason I started this little shop is I wanted to make some pitons. … the best kind of business to be in is where you make addicts of your customers.” He sold them out of his car, and eventually started his business Chouinard Equipment. Later realizing that the pitons were harming the rocks, he and his partner, Tom Frost, superseded their most popular product with “clean” chockstones.
Of the North American Wall, then the last big face on El Cap, done in 1964 with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt: “It was pretty intimidating, it overhangs the whole way. I’m lookin’ pretty smug [in this photo] but I’m totally freaked out.”
Of Don Whillans: “He was the Artful Dodger. In fact, I had to fire him. He just would not work, at all.”
Of Fred Beckey (with whom he did the North Face of Mount Edith Cavell in Alberta and the very long Beckey-Chouinard, South Howser Tower, in the Bugaboos of British Columbia, 1961): “He taught me how to go to a diner and run off with the creams and ketchup. He was the first dirtbag. My wife looked it up on Google, and ‘dirtbag’ comes from Yosemite.”
And Warren Harding, with whom he and Pratt climbed the South Face Route, Mount Watkins, Yosemite: “He had a perfect memory” for a pitch and the exact hardware required to climb it.
He also noted that Harding, in his 40s, still lived with his mother. Of the time when Harding spent a daring, dogged 45 days on the first ascent of the Nose route, El Capitan: “Someone interviewed his mother, and she said, ‘This is the longest Warren’s ever been away from home!’”
And last: “The times I went to Yosemite were the absolutely greatest times of my life. Talk about cheap living … completely outside of normal society, living on the edge. There was a lot of fat on the land. That’s probably never going to happen again.”
I saw hundreds of friends, and then I struggled home the next day. Even the radio announcer was saying the roads were “horrendous” and not to be on them if you didn’t have to. But things were only freezing up worse, so I just did it. Was it all worth it? It always is.