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Jeff Long: Chasing Dragons

Seven years ago, a lone climber tried to make a difference. He is trying again.

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October 1, 2013

My idea was simple. Climb a mountain. Slay a dragon. Save the world. The sky was falling. Boulder County had just suffered a second year of record-breaking wildfires, filling the valley with yellow smoke. When the rain finally arrived in September, we felt saved. Then it turned into a 500-year flood. Roads closed. Small mountain towns went dark.

The mighty Diamond, the East Face of Longs Peak, scene of a one-man protest. Photo: Jeff Long.

Finally the Old Testament weather relented. People started digging out. My house was high and dry on a hill, so I pitched in with the less lucky. On this particular Tuesday, I was helping my climbing partner Cliff dig trout and various artifacts from the foot-deep mud covering his lawn.

A Georgian transplanted to Colorado, Cliff was laced with hardcore sports scars. He fished, hunted, chewed Red Man, owned ugly dogs, and simultaneously believed in universal health care, environmental protection, the Tour de France, and 5.11 long before sport climbing existed. He was also the head of Boulder Community Hospital’s emergency room.

The radio was playing NPR. Every day Newt, Rush and the Tea Party patriots howled louder: judgment day was here. They meant to starve the Beast, kill Obamacare … and drill, baby, drill.

Cliff and I went on slopping mud into the wheelbarrow. To take our minds off the rage talk, we discussed Tibet. We had gone with our brides on a joint honeymoon shortly after the Forbidden Kingdom opened to tourists. From Everest to Lhasa and Kham, the landscape was one long chain of ruins left by the Cultural Revolution, and specifically the Red Guard. The Red Guard, like the Brown Shirts in Nazi Germany and white-supremacy groups in the United States today, was an ultra-nationalist militia blessed by a demagogue.

“That won’t happen here,” Cliff said. “This is America.”

“It already did,” I said. “It’s called the American West.”

“We fought our civil war. We committed genocide with the Natives. We’re better than that now.”

“The Tea Party, creationists, Aryan Nation,” I said. “Fascists.”

“It’ll never get that far,” said Cliff.

Armed militias, a race war, a Führer: it did seem a stretch. Nevertheless, it was my role in these conversations to weave dystopian consequences.

“Tank Man,” I said. “That’s what we need.”

Tank Man was the name of that lone figure who faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It had been the morning after the People’s Liberation Army crushed—slaughtered—a massive democracy protest by students and civilians. I kept the blurry newspaper photo of him, a thin man in a white shirt with a bag in one hand, maybe his lunch.

Hiding in their hotel rooms, horrified foreign correspondents were certain they were about to witness a slow-motion execution—by steel tank track—in broad daylight. Instead the column ground to a halt. The drivers even turned off their engines.

“I don’t see any tanks,” said Cliff.

And yet I had covered Nepal’s revolution in 1990, and was in Cambodia at the beginning of its first election, in 1993, and was a monitor in Bosnia’s first election in 1996 after the Serbian dictator Milosevic used talk radio and TV to whip up a “civil war” that left 200,000 Bosnians dead. I had interviewed refugees and visited the burnt library in Sarajevo. I had seen how all it took was a spark.

Around noon, the Red Cross arrived in Cliff’s neighborhood with food and bottled water. We were eating sandwiches when the news broke on the radio. The Tea Party had blocked the federal budget, collapsing much of the government. The entire national park system, including nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, was officially locked down. The Tea Party claimed the shutdown might last a year.

Looking out across the slick, chocolate alluvium, I felt I was seeing the end of the world, or the beginning of a terrible new one. It was easy to envision hard-won rights … buried.

It started raining again. Cliff and I stowed the tools. I went home and showered.

The mirror was hanging there. I leaned in, my crows-feet like quotation marks waiting for some words.

Each of us carries a private place or thing we use to interpret the world. Citizen Kane had his Rosebud sled. Sailors have the Sea. For me it’s the Mountain.

So I went up on the Diamond.

I didn’t invite Cliff or any other climbers. What I had in mind was necessarily a solo endeavor, both for the optics and because I had no idea what I was doing. If I tried to explain it out loud, the absurdity would have defeated me.

I started driving at nightfall. My journey quickly hit its first obstacle in nearby Lyons. The canyons leading to Longs Peak were barricaded due to flood debris. A sheriff’s deputy recommended a 70-mile detour to the south, which led to another 140-mile detour behind the Continental Divide. It was nearing dawn as I reached the Longs Peak ranger station, where I found a locked gate and a “Closed” sign.

In four decades of visiting Longs, I had never known the gate even existed. The sight exercised one positive effect. The impossibly empty parking lot on the far side confirmed my missionary zeal. Empty as a ghost town, the so-called People’s Mountain needed me.

I parked a few hundred yards down the dirt road, saddled on my pack, and trudged past the registry booth, eager to get beyond the rangers’ reach. Then I stopped. The registry reminded me of a voting booth. I returned to enter my signature, date and address, everything necessary to notice and identify my trespass. I was making up my civil disobedience by the moment. For good measure, I wrote “No One Owns a Mountain” on the plywood in felt marker, and imagined the front-page photo of them leading me out in handcuffs, bedraggled but defiant.

Between the wind, the altitude, and my load, the trail took longer than usual. Plus I was not getting younger. The sun rose and then sank behind the summit.

Rather than wrestle my pack up through the loose chunks in North Chimney, I opted to hike around to Chasm View and rope down to Broadway. That’s how I had done it 40 years ago when I soloed D7.

I was a kid then. The climb had been as spontaneous and uncertain as what I was doing today. On a lark, I had borrowed some gold line, a hammer and probably 30 pounds of carabiners and pitons from the CU rec center. I had lacked the skills to free climb the Diamond, especially alone, and didn’t know how to aid. But over the course of three days, I managed to piece my way to the top.

It wasn’t a first ascent. No doubt I mangled my karma with all those piton scars. Nevertheless, those three days had bound me to the Mountain for life.

Which was why I was rappelling into the Diamond today. In a way I was time traveling, to protect a place in the present so that I could climb it in the past. The circles connect eventually.

Tiptoeing across the skinny section, I traversed Broadway and reached my destination, the bivy cave at dead center of Longs’ East Face. The cave resembles every cliff dwelling in the world, an overhang with a rock windbreak piled up by generations of climbers. It was the perfect Alamo for my stand against the Tea Party.

As darkness fell, the wind halted. Immediately an unwelcome presence filled the cave, a ghost of sorts. I recognized it from other ledges on walls and mountains, the telltale stink of a previous climber. Somebody had taken a dump.

After a short, futile hunt by flashlight for the shit pile, I resigned myself to sharing one of the greatest views on earth with some entitled asshole: no pun. Climbers can be Nature’s greatest stewards, but also pigs.

Next morning, I woke ready to shock and awe the Tea Party. But the air was chilly, and I had an altitude headache. I peeked over the windbreak. Veils of tangerine mist lapped at the wall. A hundred stories below, Chasm Lake sparkled like a bright coin. There should have been ant-sized climbers approaching around the water. But the mountain was closed.

I brewed a cup of Earl Grey and got to work, arranging my water bottles and calculating rations. My sit-in could last about 10 days. After that it would turn into a hunger strike, at least until I approached the point of needing a rescue. If I couldn’t walk out on my own steam, it would impeach my defiance. I had to remain my own commander.

The wall warmed up. I went exploring. White handprints marked the start of different routes. Petroglyphs: ancestors: comrades in arms! Those hints of past climbers were my high moment.

It took about five minutes more to figure out what I already knew. My one-man sit-in hunger strike was a dud. I had no plan, no manifesto, no script. News helicopters would not hover outside my cave. Rangers weren’t coming to arrest me. No one even knew I was here. What had I been thinking?

I had overshot. This was a battle of symbols. But connecting the Diamond to the stand-off in faraway Washington suddenly seemed a reach. I was just a little man on a mountain.

I was tempted to rap off and get on the trail and go home, but decided to stick around for a few more hours. I could at least make a few notes. I piled some rocks into a seat as far as possible from the stinky cave, and parked with my journal.

What would Muir have said to the Newts and Rushes and Tea patriots? How would Edward Abbey have monkey wrenched the frackers? Imagine Thoreau as President today.

I yearned to know if a person as common as I was might somehow tweak the universe for the better. The Chinese authorities had probably executed Tank Man shortly after journalists, from their windows, photographed him. But for a moment, a single, thin reed of a person had halted the Devil in his tracks.

I tried variations of the theme. I crossed them out. I started over. Now and then a rock zipped down from the summit. The hours flew.

My one morning on the Diamond turned into three days. Why not? I had come all this way, to the edge of the world. Writing a message in a bottle made more and more sense.

Surely, after all my years on the planet, I must have picked up some bit of wisdom. Catch and bottle it and throw it into the ocean of time: maybe that boy who soloed the Diamond 40 years ago might come across it. Or someday my daughter might put it to use.

Each morning I woke, made tea, and resumed my meditation on that island in the sky. My journal filled with doodles and dead ends.

I had come to slay monsters. But were the monsters really so monstrous? It did seem too dark to call the Tea Party fascist. Newt wasn’t Hitler. Rush wasn’t Goebbels. There was no single person to blame for the climate change and poisoned rivers, no Satanic Majesty.

The illumination went beyond forgiving the misdeeds. I realized that I was beginning to forget them. As the years pass, it takes an effort to even remember an earth without pollution and extinction. As a photographer I have captured the beauty of mirror-black oil slicks, of wildfire smoke at dawn, and smog under the Milky Way. The destruction begins to look like a masterpiece. The ruins of Tibetan monasteries become Gothic backdrops. Skulls dug from the killing fields have become tourist attractions in Phnom Penh. We slowly sink into the mud. We become casualties.

It was happening to me.

For three days I sat staring into the abyss. Now the abyss was staring into me. I was growing smaller and more absurd.

Cliff was right, you can’t be Tank Man without the tanks. Longs Peak was not Tiananmen Square. I was blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction. It was time to go home.

Even so, I might have stayed longer, waiting for the Diamond to speak. But I got lucky. I got a storm.

Late on the third afternoon, the clouds gathered. I made a pathetic attempt to bombproof the windbreak with a few granite slivers, and then doubled the rubber pad underneath me, and zipped into my bivy sack.

Every climber has terrifying storm stories. I will only offer a polysyllable: lilapsaphobia. That is a fear of apocalyptic weather. Imagine PeeWee Herman screaming. For several hours. That was me on that night.

The rain whipped. The wind howled. The thunder lightninged. I screamed.

Hoarse and a bit bruised from floundering for shelter, I survived.

Dawn arrived. A BB pellet of sunlight came and went. The cirque lay absolutely still, not a whisper of a breeze. I packed and readied the first rappel. Never mind that I had failed to slay a dragon. I was alive.

But as I triple-checked my knots and the anchor, something seemed different. I glanced around. I waited. This felt important, almost existential. I had come this far … a moment longer …

It was the air. The air was clean. The stink was gone.

The Diamond had a lesson for me after all.

One raindrop at a time, the storm had washed away the pile of shit.

One raindrop at a time.

Sept. 3, 2020

I kept my little sojourn on the Diamond quiet for a long time, embarrassed by my folly. When I finally got around to telling a few friends, I made it into a joke with me as the butt. It was like a Jerry Seinfeld show where nothing happens.

But here we are, seven years later, and things have gotten worse. America is falling apart.

During the first months of the Covid quarantine, I started a “plague chronicle.”

Remember how still the world felt back in March?

It was wonderful, in a way. The sky fell silent, no airplanes. The highways lay empty as a zombie movie. The air cleared. The birds sang louder. A mountain lion took a nap on the Pearl Street Mall.

Covid isolation and its weird fusion of time has reminded me of climbs and treks, narrow ledges and bivouacs high above the world. My three-day sit-in on Broadway keeps bobbing to the surface of my mind. But the memory has changed lately, grown insistent and almost haunting. One night I dreamed the cave was a mouth speaking some inhuman language. A ghost is what it has become, a business that needs finishing.

I am finally putting my message in a bottle. All those doodles and crossed out words and incomplete notions born on the Diamond have sharpened to a point. The times have sharpened them.

I had a beer with Cliff last week. We talked about the flood back in 2013, and digging mud, and the Tea Party. “I changed my mind,” he said. “Fascism has landed in America. It’s here. Where’s Tank Man?”

The tanks aren’t far away these days. You can almost see them in places like Portland. You would think the merciless virus might unite our nation. But most Americans—almost 75 percent, according to a Georgetown University poll in August 2020—think we are heading towards a civil war. Yes, it can happen here.

Ascent holds risks. Climbers know that very well. In reaching for the sun, we put our lives on the line.

In many parts of the world, you dip one finger in indelible ink after voting. It doesn’t wash off for a few days, a way to prevent election fraud. In places like Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge were still loose, an inked finger could get you killed.

On my way to a BBC shoot on Everest in 1990, our expedition was trapped in Nepal’s democracy revolution. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square demonstration had both occurred just a few months earlier, giving hope to people around the world. I grabbed my camera and joined the vast throng snaking toward the king’s palace. People were giddy; at last, the rule of law! After a few hours, hot and thirsty, I returned to the lodge. While I sat drinking a cold orange Fanta, the popcorn sounded. It went on and on.

The army massacred up to 200 marchers and disappeared most of the bodies overnight. Next morning, a friend and I screwed up the courage to visit the hospital. The streets glittered with broken glass. She spoke a smattering of Nepali. We bluffed our way past five machine gun nests. The hospital was jammed with victims sitting back to back. Blood painted the walls. I took pictures of the dead.

The day after that the people marched again. The day after that the king stepped down. Democracy is not free.

There are a thousand kinds of risk.

We need to take action. It seems to me that the climbing tribe has a special obligation to preserve the social and political structures that support the wilderness that sets us free.

Vote, always vote. One raindrop at a time, we can make all the difference in the world. Please, vote.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 266 (November 2020).

Jeff Long’s non-fiction and New York Times bestselling fiction have won awards and been adapted to film, including “Cliffhanger” and “The Descent.” Ascent 2020 published his latest article, “Leper Chai,” which won the Best Mountaineering Article at the Banff Mountain Book Competition.

Rock and Ice is committed to a diversity of ideas. The opinions published here do not necessarily reflect those of Rock and Ice.