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Learning to Dream | Ascent

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I would later come to realize that I didn’t like Yosemite all that much. The days would feel too long and hot, and the climbing would feel a bit too hard for me. But perhaps more than the harsh climate and hard climbing was the uncomfortable fact that it had a “scene.” Still, like the heat, there was no hiding from it.

I arrived from England to Camp 4 partner-less in early September. That was partly the plan, I suppose, so the first thing I did was set my tent up and wander around to see what was what. I knew some people who would be there. Not the closest of friends, but I knew them enough.

I worked the tables, talked shit, as was the way:

“Oh hi, you know so-and-so.”

“Hey up, didn’t we meet in Verdon a couple of years ago?”

“Been having a good time?”

“Whatcha been doing?”

“Who are you?” Or so you feel that strangers ask. Good question. In that chest-puffed tribe I wondered the same thing as I pitched myself to various groups and fell in with a crew of Irish climbers who gathered noisily by a fire. We had mutual friends, and I mentioned these friends’ names like references at a job interview. The next day they were going to climb The Rostrum. I asked to come too, and got the job. The day went well and other days and climbs followed.

In the evenings we would gather around the fire and talk big. The Irishmen were good at it. They had known each other a long time and their pecking order was well-established. Their conversations were well-oiled and they baited and joked a lot. The gang was tight, and I didn’t feel much chance of being truly part of it. Perhaps I didn’t really want to be, so I learned to dance around the outside of it comfortably enough.

Sometimes I’d climb with the guys—Jim, Seamus, Patrick, Alan, and some others—or from the safety of their company strike out into other groups.

A week or two into the trip I was lying on the ground in Camp 4, aching slightly from several days of climbing, when I heard someone coming over.

“You’ll never guess what’s happened to Jim.”

I looked up from the dust to see Patrick beaming from under a John Deere cap. His hands were out by his sides, palms upturned like a picture of Jesus we used to have on our wall at home.

“The stupid fucker’s only gone and got himself arrested for shoplifting.”

Patrick’s eyes were saucer-like in delight. One of the currencies of the group’s conversation was schadenfreude: someone else’s twisted ankle, a botched crux or a fine from a ranger would make their day. I really liked that about them.

With no need for prompting, he carried on.

“We were in the store and he started eating sweets off the shelf. Then he picked up a can of Coke and tried to walk out the door with it. A security guard came up to him as he was walking out and said, ‘Can I see your receipt, sir?’

“He says, ‘Receipt? No, I paid cash.’

“What does that mean? ‘I paid cash.’ You still get a receipt. It makes no sense.

“The security man squeezed him by the arm, Jim turned white and got led off. Now he’s in the Yosemite jail, up in front of the judge tomorrow. This is so brilliant.”

Instantly I could see this as the beginning of one of the epic tales of woe they would tell about one another. I could almost hear it in my head as it was happening.

Hank, a Canadian who was sharing our site, showed up.
“Hank, you’ll never guess what Jim’s only gone and done. The stupid … ” Patrick began again, word for word, before wandering off to find others to tell.

[Also Read Dave Graham: Looking Backward | Ascent 2013]

Some time later, after the sun had left the site and campfire smoke sighed through the trees, the others came back from the village where they had been to visit Jim. They were quieter, less upbeat. The cells were cold, it was reported, and we all felt for Jim. Still, we put a brave face on it and carried on mocking him in his absence.

The following morning we watched as Jim, wearing an orange jumpsuit, was led into the court. The sight of him had the effect of stifling our expectant giggles, and I sensed the power of image. The image of a prisoner had control of Jim. He looked oppressed in the suit, a heavy cloud of repentance above him.

He stood in the dock and at the first opportunity said, “First of all, can I just say, your honor, that this is the single most regrettable incident of my life.”

It sounded like the words had waited all night to come out: Jim really meant it.

He got off with a $50 fine and walked away chastened.

“Come on, we off?” I asked Alan.

“No, we have to wait for Zack.”

While an indigent was assessed and duly evicted from the park, Alan told me about Zack. They had met him the previous morning at the Cookie Cliff, then had found him in the cells with Jim that evening. His crime? Driving his truck the wrong way down a one-way road.

“Here he is.”

I looked up as a lad, on the smaller side of average, was led out. Zack had straight blond hair, almost to the shoulder, and despite the orange jumpsuit he still walked cocky. The suit didn’t own him.

In response to the charge, he shrugged “Guilty.” When asked why he’d done it, he responded, “Poor judgment.” No excuses, no apologies, he just wanted out of there. When he left he took a $300 fine with him, but bore it in silence.

Zack Martin, staying positive and getting his game on. Photo: Courtesy of Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant.

Outside we treated him like a hero and there and then he moved into our society. I begrudged him mildly, as he quickly seemed more liked, or at least more valued, than I, and I had been starting to feel a little lonely as it was. He had an easy confidence and charm. Surfer savant. Attitude. Still he gave the impression of someone who had been well loved when growing up. I got the sense of motherly affection in him. Maybe he was an only child or a youngest. I thought this with a sneer at the time, though later with a smile.

The climbing carried on that season. I wasn’t exactly in a groove with the place, but I was aware that this was my chance to earn a few ticks. And I used good strategy, sometimes teaming up with a stronger partner, but often they were good climbing days for me, too, delivering everything that Yosemite promised. I can’t remember if I climbed with Zack much but toward the end of the trip, when the zest for hard days had gone, I was one of a four-man team setting off to climb the East Buttress.

In the abrupt dawn we panted up trails, first toward the Nose, then rightwards under the big flank of El Capitan. We stopped for breath under the North America Wall. The air was cold in the trees, still in the shade.

We peered up to watch the sunshine roll, hot as road tar, down the golden granite wall above. Portaledges could be seen here and there in the expanse, and some teams were rousing. I gazed at them. We all did. About 1,000 feet above us, a maroon ledge was showing some signs of life, and our eyes were drawn to it.

Zack put two fingers in his mouth and pierced the air with a whistle. A head appeared over the maroon portaledge, dark and slow moving, and turned down our way. Zack shot up a right arm and pointed devil horns with his thumb and pinky in the climber’s direction. Sleepily, a hand returned the sign from on high, and the climber whooped down. Zack whooped, too, loudly in my ear. I waved, but stiffly, like the Queen or a Russian premier.

“Oh, man, there’s no feeling in the world like waking up on your ledge, all the way up on El Cap, the world way the hell below you.”

His words rolled out slowly, heavy with experience, as if each one recalled another voyage up the hard stone.

“Yup. Ride safe, my friend,” he said.

His eyes were up still, and he talked low, to himself, with a faraway feel. I nodded in awe at his experience. My only dabble in that world had overwhelmed me and while I didn’t envy the wallers their discomfort, I still admired those who could hack it.

“Does look amazing,” I conceded, looking up at the ledges.
“Have you done many of them?”

“Nope. Not a one. But I’m gunna.” He bumped himself off the tree he was leaning against, put his head down and carried on toward the East Buttress.

Brilliant. Or perhaps I only thought this later. At the time I might have just remarked on the fact that he seemed to give off the air of being a big-time El Cap veteran with a bunch of A4 tours of duty in his haulbag when in fact he hadn’t done any. Not a one. But somewhere between him saying it and me thinking about it, I found something in his statement.

I’m quite touchy about bullshit. But I realized Zack wasn’t bullshitting. There was just a freedom in his statement. An understanding and a commonality.

Can a white man in London sing the song of a black man in the Depression? Can a drunk Irishman in 1992 sing the song of a maimed Australian soldier in 1913? Can a dying cowboy sing the words of a metal singer? Yeah: if they believe it.

Zack wasn’t pretending he had been there. Nor was he saying he imagined that there was no feeling like waking up on a wall. He was saying it. Just like I would say New York is a long way from Anchorage, even though I have never walked between them. It’s a fact, brother, it just is.

As he turned and walked off up the talus slopes that morning I realized a few things. I realized that for Zack to get away with that, a crime that in my pathetic rulebook of pointless crimes ranks quite high, I must actually like him and understand him. The other was that I really shouldn’t be so uptight.

Some time passed. Days. Weeks maybe? I was in a truck with Zack. His truck. I was crossing borders, heading toward his adoptive hometown of Durango. I can’t remember where I was coming from or what borders I was crossing. In the way of many things that happened years ago, it is scenes and instants we remember, not timelines. Small things—smells, comments, emotions—swell over time and the life that separates them diminishes until all that’s left is a collection of these significant events.

We drove across the desert, into the velvet evening, and talked about music, other people and climbing. Not routes or grades, but the special places and how they made us feel. This is often every bit as competitive as grade talk, but here I remember feeling listened to and that, ironically, led to a relaxed silence. I can recall that warm, dark silence now, as clearly as the desert night. In the small hours we arrived and I slept that night on a Thermarest on a tiled floor at the bottom of a flight of steps.
Our day-to-day existence in Durango—sleeping and eating—must have been standard enough because I’ve totally forgotten it. I do remember a visit to a climbing gym with another flight of steps, somewhere Zack had worked from time to time. He seemed familiar enough just to go to a locker and retrieve a mobile phone, yet the enthusiasm of the greetings he got suggested he hadn’t been seen for some time. While we were there, a visit was arranged for the following day to one of the local crags.

Even before I’d gotten to Durango, the Golf Wall was famous in our group thanks to Zack’s stories. Famously shit. The crag looked like it was left behind by an inferno. The climbing was abrupt and cruxy, and the routes, while over-bolted, still had a stench of groundfall about them. It was one of those awful crags that inspire a fond disgust among its devotees.
That night I ended up in someone’s house, in dim light, watching TV. It was the sort of scene where you imagine that pot gets smoked. Instead we had burritos, one beer apiece, then three cups of tea.

Next day was predictably perfect, and the sunny afternoon found Zack, Lisa, Tanya, and me scrambling along a dry rocky ridge not far from the parking lot a mile out of town. Lisa and Tanya were two blonde girls Zack knew.

To be honest, the names, Lisa and Tanya, are made up. Not just these two, but Jim, Patrick, the lot of them. What are you to do? This was over 10 years ago. Sometimes I think I can’t even remember much about Zack—not where he was from, brothers and sisters, how hard he’d climbed. But you can remember your sense of someone and what you thought of him. And you know, if not what he did say, what he would say, and that is what knowing somebody actually is.

And yes, I do remember how hard he’d climbed. Of course I do.
The four of us talked shit in the clear sunshine. I recall some hollering and a boulder-scramble. We often touched—spotting, or a hand up—and it was nice. I began to behave like not quite myself, and I found I was trying to chat up one of the girls. Lisa. She was younger than I, or I felt older, but she was nice to talk to and she had a smart sense of humor. Sooner than I was expecting it was their time to go to Denver.


In the truck, on the way home, Tom Petty filled the silence.

“That was fun,” I said.


“Good to catch up?”

“Lisa and Tanya?”


“They are really nice.”

And they were.

Once again time did its thing, and passed and found me in the Canyonlands. I had left Zack and was with someone else entirely: Kevin. In one of the most soul-exalting experiences of my life, we had climbed Primrose Dihedral to the summit of Moses and had returned, in the stories of our own lives, heroes. In the near night we traipsed down the talus toward the parking area, and I was disturbed to see, near the end of our walk, the presence of another team. I didn’t want to share the magic. As I approached, preparing myself for politeness, I heard a familiar voice declare:

“No way we’re gunna need more than a liter if we’re in the corners by 7 a.m.”

Shit me!

He hadn’t even heard us coming. Under the roar of a gas stove, I crept up behind him, pushed a finger like a pistol into his ribs, and hissed, Cagney-like:

“Stick your hands up, ya bum.”

Zack turned around.

“Stick your hands up your bum.”

This for some reason was our favorite shared joke, which had always brought him great pleasure, and he laughed and we embraced. Not only that, but Jim was there, too. I introduced Kevin and we talked in the superiority of the experienced about Primrose Dihedral. The whole way up: The Ear, the crux, the offwidth. I had led that pitch, so wore the badge of honor. Fine, I declared it. I didn’t mention my hang on the first peg, but it had seemed superfluous.

Zack and Jim told us that they had been on the road, and off it, for the last month. They’d hung out, gotten away from climbing for a bit, but I had the sense these two were back on the climbing trip, and loving it.

It’s so amazing in the desert, just being there, never mind having just climbed Primrose Dihedral. Zack and Jim gave us a cup of tea, and it was great to stand there in the night and watch the steam coming from the cups in the headlamp. Soon we had to get out of the canyons and they had to sleep so we bade them farewell and stomped off. And that was that.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Zack is dead: It’s that sort of story. The car he was traveling in rolled off the road and he was gone. It happened three years after the climbs we did in California and Utah. Events in my life made me realize that this occurred about 10 years ago and the round number called it to the front of my mind. A bit of research revealed that Zack died on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2002. I write this paragraph on November 28, 2012.

A month before the accident, I had treated myself to a visit to my old friend Tom Williams, who was holed up on the outskirts of Boulder. Tom and I go back many years, and getting together is a treat. I paid money to an airline and soon there I was in Eldorado Canyon in the golden sunshine of a November afternoon.

Boots on. I climbed the Bastille, solo, which gave me the fear; we chickened off a big route on Redgarden Wall, then later returned and climbed our way up it feeling like heroes.

“Chinese or Mexican?” Tom asked one evening on our way back from seeing Hallett’s Peak.

We ended up in a takeaway joint choosing boxes of noodles, and I was just about to leave when from behind me came a gruff:

“Stick your hands up your bum.”

Even before I turned around I knew what I was going to see. Under glaring neon lights stood Zack, his blond hair shorter now, and dressed more the way people are in normal lives. But still, like a blended image, I saw Zack as I had last seen him in the darkness at the base of Moses three years previously. The look on his face was the same one and gave the impression that not an instant had passed.

“No way!”

We had no chance to catch up in the noodle bar beyond planning to climb together the next day, so the following morning I traveled up Boulder Canyon in the passenger seat of Zack’s truck. I told him what I’d been up to, where I’d been and what I knew about any mutual friends. I told him I was still writing.

“What are you writing now?”

“Climbing mags still. Same sort of random stuff.”

“Cool. Did I tell you that I’m getting into photojournalism?”

The way he said it, it sounded like a proper thing, whereas I had made my interest sound like an embarrassed pastime. That struck me. Straight away he started telling me about plans he had: big plans, they sounded like. He was enrolled in a photo library, sending off submissions to national magazines, considering a book.

And there it was, just like before. From anyone else I could think of, this litany of big plans would set off my bullshit meter. But sitting there in Zack’s truck, the sun shining in through the window and the thick hot air coming from heaters on the dusty dashboard, I found myself thinking: Well, why not?

As we pulled into the parking lot of Castle Rock, he told me about a new camera he had invested in. Three thousand dollars’ worth of digital camera kit.

“Oh, but it’s hard to beat slides for quality,” I trotted out.

“That may be, but digital is the future. And that’s where you gotta be looking. The past isn’t going to happen again, bro.”

“I suppose when you put it like that.”

We warmed up. He was on home ground and pointed me at a couple of easier routes. It seemed incredibly cold that morning but eventually we loosened up. He told me I should do Country Club, a 5.11 crack pitch.

“Royal Robbins almost freed it back in the day, on sight. Isn’t that badass? He was using pegs for pro.”

I told him it was. I could tell it was. The route was just in front of us and it gave off that sense of bigness that tough routes on small crags give off.

“The slab at the start is shitty all the same,” he said. “Shitty little holds. It’s ‘jingus’—isn’t that what you guys say? Most people just pull on the bolt.”

It was a nice opt out, but out of respect for a great-looking route I clawed as hard as I could with icy fingers, got through the slab, climbed the crack, and eked through the top overhang, pump snapping at my heels the whole way. Zack had no time to second, so I stripped the pitch.

“I’m off to Pakistan soon,” he told me as we drove back toward Boulder. He had gotten a tip-off about a beautiful rocky valley somewhere in the Karakoram.

“Twenty-pitch crack climbs on perfect granite.”

It sounded amazing.

“You should come. It’s been good to hang out again.”

And it was.

He dropped me in the center of town. I waved as he drove off.
And that was that. There’s no real ending beyond those words exchanged in a November evening, nothing drawing it all together neatly. The only detail left was Tom, phoning me a week later, just after I got back to the UK, and saying in a self-conscious tone:

“Hey, you know your friend Zack?”

Maybe Zack was right: The future is where you gotta be looking. But this story has given me a chance to look back. The element of years has eroded the great bulk of our time together, leaving behind only these few small memories, but they are enough and I can clearly see him in them. I see his sense of freedom, to think how he wanted to think and make plans.

But perhaps, in noticing others, you are actually noticing yourself through the differences. I suppose in these memories I see too my uptight, small-minded outlook. It makes me chuckle. Perhaps that’s why I liked him?

For all I know I might never have bumped into Zack again. Things happen like that. But people live on by the way they touch others, how they inspire or how they make people feel. Feelings? There’s no feeling in the world like waking up on your ledge, all the way up on El Cap, the world way the hell below you. I can see that now.

Zack Martin died a few days before his 25th birthday. In his honor the American Alpine Club has set up the Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant to support humanitarian-centered expeditions.

Niall Grimes is an Irish climber who lives with his wife and daughter in Sheffield, England. His column, “Lines of Weakness,” appears regularly in Rock and Ice.