Q&A with Jim Ewing
Interview by Leyla Brittan
After getting back on a climbing wall, how long did it take for you to decide you were ready for such a big project as the Lotus Flower Tower?
I think I kind of started thinking about it pretty much right away. Once things had healed, and I had received a socket and was starting to play around with different climbing feet and figure out how all that stuff works, it was really within a few months after surgery.
That’s pretty sick.
I just—I don’t know, I figured, I can climb again, so why not? And I guess maybe, if you want to get really philosophical about it, maybe after such a close call, you start to think, “Well, gosh, what were the things that I haven’t gotten around to yet? Because you just never know when your time is up.”
Did you train specifically for the Lotus Flower Tower?
Yeah, I did. I tried to do as much trad climbing, as many pitches as I could—in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Cathedral Ledge, White Horse. And a pretty significant amount of time in the gym.
Can you tell me a bit more about working with a film crew? How does that change the way you climb?
Well, you have to plan things a lot differently, because you have to give them time to be ahead, or fix their ropes. And it also complicated our logistics overall because we had to accommodate four people instead of two, and we had to bring a lot of camera gear into the Cirque, and twice as much food, and all of that sort of stuff. So it was kind of a pretty significant undertaking to try to film this whole thing—in such a small team, anyway.
What was the dynamic with the film guys?
Ah, it was great. Pat Goodman was the rigger, because he had been up to the Cirque—God, many times—I mean, he’s written a kind of a loose guidebook about the area, he’s written some articles about it. He’s been there probably more than anybody, at least from the States. And Taylor Zann, he’s a young guy, he was actually a pleasant surprise. Once I met him and started working with him, the guy was incredibly dedicated, a super hard worker; I don’t think anybody worked as hard as he did up there. And because of the bad weather, we had a significant amount of tent time together, so we all kinda hung out, played cards, played cribbage, whatever, joked, drank, told stories. It was a good time.
Any favorite card games?
Well, I had never learned to play cribbage. I think three of us learned to play cribbage at the Inconnu lodge before we headed into the Cirque. We bought these little backpacking games, board games and stuff. Mo had bought the cribbage board and I bought this other multi-game one but didn’t notice until we were in the Cirque that it was all in French. But it was standard games like backgammon and Chutes and Ladders and that sort of thing.
That sounds like a blast.
It was pretty fun.
You got sick on the second day of climbing, but how did the climb up to the bivy ledge measure up to what you expected?
It was pretty much what I expected. I’d heard that it was loose, chossy, wet, and it was ridiculously loose, chossy, and wet. But I’ve climbed a lot of stuff like that before, and it was slow going with packs on, but—yeah, it was a little bit nerve-wracking, but nothing more difficult than we could handle. It was just continuous, like every pitch was kind of shitty and potentially life-threatening. So it kind of weighs on you mentally, but physically it wasn’t too too bad. But I was good and tired by the time I got to the bivy ledge.
How long was that?
I think it was like ten pitches, but you can run some of the pitches together or stretch them, so you can shorten the number of pitches. But you’re kind of inside the cliff most of the time: it’s a deep chimney, kind of a groove system, with like refrigerator-sized loose blocks here and there, and actually, the bits of rock that you’re actually climbing on, a lot of it’s kind of just like detached, and leaning against the wall, so like, the whole thing could just go.
Sounds a little sketchy.
Yeah, so the second half was completely opposite: it was nice and clean and pretty solid, until maybe the very last pitch. That was a big choss pile.
Have you and Maureen had the chance to do any more climbing together since the film?
Yes! Yeah, we’ve climbed a bit. I’m actually sitting on the sofa in her basement right now. We’ve climbed in Red Rocks together, and we did some sport climbing recently this week on this trip. And last fall we climbed in Acadia, we climbed in Rumney. So amazingly, after kind of a stressful, tight-quartered trip, we’re still friends.
So you’ve been on a bit of a film tour, with the screenings of “Adaptive.” How has that experience been?
It’s kind of a lot more work than I anticipated. But it’s fun: I get to share the film, I get people’s reactions. I’ve had some people reach out to me after, saying, “Oh wow, this is really inspirational,” and “This is amazing,” and I find that kind of rewarding, but that’s—you know, I’ve never really sought to be an inspiration, and I’m not really all that comfortable with that label.
How often do you get to climb on a regular basis?
Well, I’m a weekend warrior sort of a guy, so whenever I can on the weekends, usually a couple of trips a year for two-week climbing trips here and there. Yeah, I guess I’m a fairly normal guy in that regard.
What do you think are your greatest strengths in climbing?
Probably my greatest strength in climbing is that I’ve just stuck with it for so long. Friends tell me I’m stubborn, I don’t know when to quit…the sort of things that lead you to doing remote big walls, I guess.
And when you’re not climbing, do you do anything else for fun?
My family—my wife, daughter, and myself—took up scuba diving, actually before my accident. And actually, I’ve returned to Cayman Brac, where my accident happened, several times now, just for scuba diving and not even climbing. Scuba diving is a complete departure from climbing. It’s a completely different environment; it’s a lot of fun.
I’m also a diver; getting into it, I thought, was terrifying, because it’s such a different environment.
It’s difficult at first. Actually, my wife did not get certified when my daughter and I got certified, because she was too afraid to do it. And of course in Maine, it’s painful to get certified. When you do your open water dives, you’re in like summer weather, but thirty feet down, the water is maybe like forty degrees. It’s really cold! I’m not kidding, it’s painful.
Has she been certified since?
Yeah, so we went on a scuba trip to Bonaire, down off the coast of South America, a few years ago, before my amputation but actually after my accident, so I still had my biological foot. And she did all of her classes in Maine and then got certified in Bonaire—did her open-water dives there. So she’s never actually experienced the frigid cold waters of Maine.
You have a dog, Hani. How is she as a crag dog? Do you ever bring her?
Yeah, she’s an amazing crag dog. She generally sticks close to the base of the cliff and just stays near us. I took her up to Shagg Crag in western Maine just a couple weeks ago, and she would kind of wander off into the bushes and play around, doing whatever, hunting for squirrels, and every time I called her she would just come running right out. She always stayed close. And earlier this spring it was kind of a chilly day, my wife and I were out climbing in New Hampshire, and she just lay down in the sun at the base of the cliff and just stayed there the whole time we were climbing. So she’s really pretty rugged too; she’s a small, but compact little thing.
How old is she?
We think she’s two.
She’s a rescue dog?
Yeah, we adopted her through Petfinder. Actually, she arrived at my house, I think, two or three days after I left for the Cirque trip. The name Hani is short for Nahanni National Park, where the Lotus Flower Tower is.
Do you have any other trips planned, or anything exciting coming up?
Well, continuing with the film tour stuff, but Mo and I are talking about trying to spend some time in Yosemite this fall. I kind of have my eye on some routes in Patagonia, maybe this winter, but I’m not sure I can pull it off. I actually have to have a minor revision on my residual limb, on my stump, sometime this fall, and that, the surgeon tells me, will kind of put me out of commission for a month. That kind of ruins your fitness pretty quick…. Actually, my surgeon just performed the same surgery that I have on a young woman from Boulder just yesterday. I think that brings the grand total up to like twenty or something now.
Really? Do you know how it went?
It went really well, I guess. She sent me a bunch of texts and pictures, and actually showed me her stump today, and it looks amazing. Really clean, not swollen: it looks like things went really well for her.
Do you have any other anecdotes from the filming? Did anything particularly funny or strange happen?
There’s a lot of sort of behind-the-scenes funny things that were going on but didn’t make it into the film. Probably the funniest thing, I think, was something that Mo blogged about: the cinematographer, Taylor, is kind of…poop-sensitive, let’s say. And he was completely grossed out when he had to poop in a wag bag up on the bivy ledge, kind of in front of us all, and it was hysterical. If you can find Mo’s blog post about that, it’s really funny.