We’ve all been under-equipped or unprepared for a climb at some point or another. An imperfect rack can make for a perfect adventure. But when describing 18-year-old Duane Raleigh’s attempt what might have been the first winter attempt on the north face of Mt. Ypsilon (13,514 ft) in 1978 in Rocky Mountain National Park, using the term “under-equipped” is akin to describing the first moon landing as “underwhelming.” He and partner Donnie Hunt couldn’t afford climbing equipment, so handmade almost all of their gear, from self-sewn down jackets and gloves to their ‘ice axes.’ “For those, we took hammers and ground them down, cutting teeth in them,” said Raleigh. “We had no idea how to alpine climb, knew nothing about avalanches or anything. We didn’t even have ice screws. Our harnesses were the lash straps off our packs.”
After a five-mile approach in deep snow, the pair began the climb. Miraculously, with their makeshift axes and sheer will, Raleigh and Hunt battled up to within a couple hundred feet of the top of the 1,500-foot face. Then darkness fell. To summit would mean racing a growing storm, then a treacherous and unknown descent without headlamps in the dark. Luckily, the pair spied a nearby couloir, managed to traverse into it and glissaded down. They had planned to bivy at the base, but upon reaching their “camp,” realized it was buried in snow. “We couldn’t find our sleeping bags,” said Raleigh, chuckling. The two teens spent the night out in sub-zero temperatures in a blizzard. They made it out the next day, frozen but alive. “It was the first time I’d ever been in the mountains,” said Raleigh (Rock and Ice’s Publisher, Editor in Chief, and co-owner). “I loved it.”
The people behind the words and pages of a magazine are often hard to imagine. Growing up in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I religiously read used copies of Rock and Ice left at my local rock gym. I imagined the magazine holding a large office in Boulder or Denver, with dozens on staff, a private climbing wall, a boulder cave, and maybe a wacky gear testing lab to boot. When I first met Raleigh and his team in 2017, however, I walked into an office smaller than my college newspaper’s office, and even more sparsely furnished. There were three or four small rooms and a staff I could count on two hands. “Everybody knows everybody here,” said Raleigh. “It’s a good, intimate team. We all climb together. It’s a tight group.”
Rock and Ice is one of the few large-scale American climbing publications both owned and operated by climbers. Raleigh and Quent Williams, Production Manager, along with co-workers Alison Osius and Michael Benge, have owned the magazine since 2002 as part of the publishing group Big Stone Publishing, which also produces the longform publications Ascent and Dirt, Trail Runner, and the new Gym Climber. Raleigh wasn’t always a magazine owner, though. Before that he was a writer, and before that a climber, before that, even before the clueless teen with a clawhammer on Mt. Ypsilon… he was a 14-year-old boy watching a movie in a tiny Oklahoma town.
A Climber from the Plains
Growing up in the 1960s on the plains of western Oklahoma, Raleigh wasn’t dealt the easiest hand to begin a lifetime of climbing. Around his small town of Weatherford (pop. 4,500 at the time), “there was nothing besides prairie and oil rigs,” he said. At 14, however, he and childhood friend Donnie Hunt saw a movie, The Mountain. “It was this hokey old thing with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner,” said Raleigh. The film depicts typical Hollywood-style mountaineering hijinks in the Alps, (think an older “Cliffhanger”) as two brothers attempt to rob the bodies of victims of a plane crash. “It doesn’t show you anything about actual climbing,” admitted Raleigh, “but it had a mountain, and it had some climbing.” That was enough. The seed was planted.
Hunt’s dad was a meat distributor, and one of his stops was near the Wichita Mountains, two hours south of Weatherford. The boys didn’t know anything about the Wichitas, but the map said they were mountains. So, beginning in 1974, the two began bumming rides down with Hunt’s father whenever they could. They stole a ski rope from a nearby pier, made nuts out of old pieces of pipe and used screwgate rapid links bought from the town’s hardware store (the kind used to attach permadraws to anchors) as carabiners. “None of it really worked,” Raleigh said, “but that was O.K., because in our hiking boots we couldn’t really get on anything hard enough to fall off of. If we’d had real rock shoes, we would’ve died.”
Climbing was flourishing in other parts of the country (Long, Bridwell and Westbay sent The Nose in a day in 1975), but in Oklahoma there were no climbing shops, no magazines, no books. There was no one to talk to for advice. “We didn’t even know how many climbers there were, because we had never seen one,” said Raleigh. “All we had was that movie, which we’d only seen once.” They copied almost all of their gear from the film, oblivious to the fact that mountaineering and rock climbing demand very different equipment and technique. To battle up Oklahoma rock, the teens bought the same full-shank, stiff leather boots used in the Alps in the film. They fashioned makeshift knickers like those worn in The Mountain, too. “We cut jeans off below the knee and stitched them up on our mom’s sewing machines,” Raleigh said. To belay, “we had one leather glove, and when someone was leading, we just wrapped the rope around the hand with the glove. We didn’t know about a hip belay, we were just like, ‘Well, we should just hold onto the rope.’”
They spent the next few years scrambling around the Wichitas with The Mountain as their guide, scraping by on jury-rigged gear and guts. By their later high school years, however, things evolved quickly. A copy of Royal Robbins’ Basic Rockcraft turned up and shortly after, some real climbing gear. The pair eventually met a few visiting climbers from Texas (the first they had ever seen) who bestowed valuable knowledge not based on Hollywood fantasy. Missions like Ypsilon followed, and then others in Eldorado and Boulder Canyon.
By 1980, Raleigh was making the climber’s annual summer pilgrimage to Yosemite. He bagged the seventh ascent of the Pacific Ocean Wall(,2500’ A3 5.9), as well as a tick of The Nose amid a brutal snowstorm. He was hooked. A few summers passed, “and then one summer I just stayed,” said Raleigh. The 22-year-old dropped out of college, joined YOSAR, and settled down with the second YOSAR wave, with legendary climbers like Russ “The Fish” Walling (founder of FISH Products), Walt Shipley and Werner Braun.
From Rock to Writing
Though he had written a solitary article for Climbing magazine about Oklahoma climbing in 1979, Raleigh didn’t begin writing seriously until almost a decade later. “After Yosemite I was just a derelict,” he said. “I liked to travel and climb. I went to the Alps, Mexico, scrounged for money, worked on oil rigs and in construction. At one point I delivered flowers to weddings and funeral homes.” He eventually remembered the $50 he’d made on the Climbing article, however. So in 1985, Raleigh began writing for Climbing. He preferred writing product reviews, “because you get paid twice, you get the gear and you get paid for writing , it was almost a scam.”
The ball moved quickly. Gear review after gear review paid off, and in 1990, Raleigh was hired as Climbing’s Equipment Editor. Five years later, he became the Editor. When the Carbondale, Colorado-based publication, owned by legendary alpinist Michael Kennedy, was sold in 1997, first to the Cowles Media Company and then shortly after to Primedia Inc., the new owners placed Raleigh as Editor in Chief and Publisher.
The new management was a far cry from Kennedy, however. A local Colorado climber and alpinist of the highest order, Kennedy is famed for alpine missions across the world, notably a legendary 1978 push on Latok I’s North Ridge with Jim Donini, George Lowe and Jeff Lowe, a goal which remains elusive even 42 years later, though recent attempts have come close. In contrast, the magazine’s owner after the back-to-back ‘97 sales, Primedia, was the largest magazine publisher in the world at the time, with nearly 400 magazines. Based in New York, with a corporate office on Madison Avenue and nearly 2000 employees, Primedia was as far removed from the world of climbing as an owner could be.
“Little old Climbing magazine became part of the largest magazine publishing house in the world,” said Raleigh. “Instead of being a stand-alone climber title, owned by climbers, we were one of 400 magazines, owned by people who didn’t give a crap about climbing. It was a publicly traded company. They only cared about stock trades.”
With the power of Primedia behind it, Climbing did see a boom in circulation, and despite the new corporate owners and some layoffs, Raleigh and his team had free reign over what they could cover. “It wasn’t all bad,” he said, “some of the corporate executives were terrible, but others knew publishing, so I learned from them.” Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall from the day Primedia walked in the door. “Because it was publicly traded, their mission was to ramp up revenue and sell assets,” said Raleigh. “If you’re part of Primedia, your days are numbered. Eventually something is going to happen. They’ll sell the magazine, merge with another publisher. Everybody will be fired and the magazine moved to somewhere else. A typical corporate buyout.” Raleigh and his staff at Climbing knew they were living on borrowed time.
A Peaceful Coup
In 2002, Raleigh caught wind that a much smaller climbing magazine based out of Boulder, Rock and Ice, was for sale. Founded in 1984 by Neal Kaptain, the magazine was run by Kaptain and then George Bracksieck, until it was bought by Dougald MacDonald (now Executive Editor of the American Alpine Journal) in 1997. “It was quite small. [Rock and Ice] was always a secondary competitor to Climbing,” Raleigh said. When he heard Rock and Ice was on the market, however, Raleigh knew it was his signal to jump ship. “I liked working at Climbing, I liked everyone I worked with, but I knew under Primedia things wouldn’t last. First, though, Raleigh tried to buy Climbing. “I called them,” he says. “It was the first time since grade school I’d been laughed at.”
Next he talked to the man in the office next to him, Quent Williams, Climbing’s production manager, who was also ready to leave Primedia, and had a history in real estate, and some entrepreneurial experience.
The pair teamed up, made a bid, and bought Rock and Ice. They then moved the magazine from Boulder to Carbondale, and coincidentally, set up their office directly across the street from Climbing. Nearly the entire staff of Climbing left to follow their boss to Rock and Ice, which worked out perfectly, because none of the Boulder-based Rock and Ice staff, save for one, wanted to move to Carbondale. For Senior Editor Alison Osius, who had worked at Climbing since 1988, there was no hesitation in leaving Primedia to move to R&I with Raleigh and Williams. “It was painful. We all had a lot of years invested in Climbing, but it was exciting, too. It was a chance to build something and be our own overseers.”
Soon after, Climbing magazine moved to Boulder and several of the old Rock and Ice staff went to work at Climbing. Dougald MacDonald even became editor at Climbing. It was almost a perfect swap. An issue of Rock and Ice from 2002, Raleigh told me, reads much like an issue of Climbing from 2001. “It would’ve been a lot easier for everyone if we’d just stayed where we were and changed the names of our magazines,” he said.
The rest is history. Rock and Ice grew to one of the largest climber-owned and operated publications in the country. The fledgling Trail Runner, which was sold by MacDonald along with R&I as an afterthought in a package deal, now has more print subscribers than even Rock and Ice. Raleigh and Williams also acquired Ascent, the longest running climbing publication in the world (founded in 1967), from famed climbers Allen Steck and Steve Roper, and founded Dirt, a longform publication to pair with Trail Runner. Recently, Big Stone also created the indoor climbing publication Gym Climber.
Climbers to the Core
Self-ownership has its risks, but being climber-owned and operated naturally results in an improvement in the quality of the content Rock and Ice produces, said Williams. “Duane loves what he does. He’s a good role model, and the employees who come to work for him are passionate. They know their stuff, and the result is quality product.” Rock and Ice staff can talk about big wall missions or climbing 5.14, because they do it. Trail Runner staff can talk about running 100-mile races, because they do it. “Everyone is core,” said Osius. “There’s a lot of institutional memory.”
The Rock and Ice office and before that, Climbing under Raleigh’s leadership, has seen a host of big names in climbing and writing alike pass through its doors, from ice wizard Will Gadd to big wall legend Mark Synott to Matt Samet (now Climbing’s editor). Writers like Andrew Bisharat and Jeff Jackson, as well as industry figures such as Alex Lowther (Patagonia’s Creative Director of Film and Video), Chris Parker (Black Diamond’s Content Manager) and photographer Tyler Stableford have all held a desk under Raleigh’s roof at one point or another.
Rock and Ice Editor Francis Sanzaro (Ph.D.), a climber of 25 years, is the author of several books on topics from sexuality to philosophy, as well as poetry and fiction. Sanzaro has written for publications such as the New York Times and Huffington Post, featured on BBC World News and BBC Radio, and tagged first ascents around the country. Osius, Executive Editor, is a former World Cup and X-Games finalist with several national championship titles, was the first female president of the American Alpine Club (AAC) and won the AAC Literary Award in 2006. She has bylines in over 55 publications, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times. Associate Senior Editor Michael Levy, a former rock guide in China and Vietnam, is also the Assistant Editor of Alpina, the mountaineering section of Appalachia, America’s longest-running journal of mountaineering and conservation. Delaney Miller, Gym Climber’s Associate Editor, is a competition veteran with 12 National and Pan-American titles. Raleigh himself, now a far cry from the climbing bum penning gear reviews between stints on oil rigs, has four published books under his belt, including Knots & Ropes for Climbers, which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 1998. He was the recipient of the AAC Literary Award in 2013. The Rock and Ice contributors list reads like a who’s who in the world of climbing, with figures like John Long, Reinhold Messner, Conrad Anker, Jeff Long and Jerry Moffatt, to name a few.
The operations and sales staff are perhaps as much a part of Rock and Ice’s authentic, core mentality as the writers and editors. Carbondale local Jordan Hirro, Advertising Sales Manager, spends his weekends in the Black Canyon and is involved in re-bolting efforts around Colorado. Associate Publisher Ben Yardley, a climber since childhood, grew up in Vermont in the shadow of his father Nick Yardley, a prominent New England climber, and is a nails-hard sport crusher himself. He also recently bagged what is perhaps the first solo and unsupported traverse of the Elk Range (35:50 hours, 65 miles, and ~25,000 feet of vertical gain).
This allows not only the writing to align with Rock and Ice’s audience, but the ads as well. “One of the things that sets us apart is that we don’t do any programmatic ads,” said Yardley. “We will never serve ads to our customers that aren’t endemic and relevant to their needs.”
Unfortunately, the magazine industry is a much tougher business than it was 20 years ago. Print readership has nearly halved, down from 40,000 to 25,000 subscribers. Still, “the sheer number of eyeballs we have reading our stuff blows away the number we had 20 years ago,” said Raleigh. Rock and Ice’s website sees approximately 550,000 unique visitors each month, but Raleigh has no plans for a paywall. “Our goal isn’t to charge people online for stories, our mission now is just to provide the best online content, to make it available for free. But that’s a tough model,” he admitted, laughing. Despite the challenges of print, “There will always be a place for print,” said Osius. “Something you can hold in your hand, a medium that showcases the beauty of photography, which is an enormous part of the literature of our sport.”
Though it is small, and climber-owned and operated, for Williams and Raleigh that’s part of the magazine’s strength. “With so much uncertainty in the economy due to COVID-19, it’s scary,” said Williams. “But we call our own shots. There’s no board of directors, no corporate overseers holding us back. It’s going to hurt for a while, no doubt about that, but we’re flexible enough to where we can pivot and do what it takes to make the magazine successful.”
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