Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Birthday Challenge

Though I could pass for 21, and still get carded regularly, I just celebrated my 31st trip around the sun. I got some good natured insults from my younger friends in their twenties and words from my Mother to the effect of, “I can’t believe I have a 31 year old son.”

Reflecting on that wave of life that takes us from the twenties to the thirties I am glad I got to this point; and after surviving all the heartache and trial and tribulations of the twenties, sometimes I feel like every day is a bonus.

Motivation flows through me now at a more consistent rate than it did in my younger years, and thus, I had to celebrate my 31st birthday, with a Birthday Challenge.

The Birthday Challenge is simple, yet genius: doing things you love in increments of the age you are at. My challenge this year involved my three favorite sports: running, biking and rock climbing. I feel this challenge gives special meaning to one’s day of birth, allows time for reflection on life –what has past and what lies ahead, and inspires others to create birthday challenges for themselves.

Perhaps the most essential element to a birthday challenge is your friends who join you on the mission, or support from afar. They know the challenge that you have set out and they keep you going with motivation throughout the day.

The day started out with my dumpster-dived radio alarm blasting news on Obama’s plan for the Afghanistan war. I arose, layered up, had some coffee and a kiwi, motivated my friend and roommate Brittney and we laced up our running shoes and headed out the door. The running was a shock to the body, and I set my sights on simply keeping up with Brittney. We ran towards Western State then up in the hills behind the college: my alma mater, my place of work and the place responsible for much of the growth that has made me who I am today.

We ran up and down the trails amongst the sage, looking over Gunnison. A full moon proudly showed itself to the west. The running was brutal, but after 20 minutes I found pleasure in it. As we ran back to our house, after 31 minutes, I looked at Brittney, her exposed hair was white and frozen. As we passed the bank on the way to breakfast the temperature read 3 degrees.

At my favorite restaurant in Gunny, the Firebrand, we warmed up. Another friend Ron, joined us for breakfast, and eventually he and Brittney left for work. I sat and wrote down 31 things that I am thankful for, in the middle sending a text to my friend Shaun, who introduced me to the Birthday Challenge, after 25 rock climbs on his 25th birthday in Joshua Tree, California. Later, Heidi, one of the owners of the Firebrand handed me a piece of paper with a prompt: What have I learned in the last year?

Here’s a sample:

As one gets older, you still have to dance and get wild and express yourself.

I hope to get married someday.

We still need to write letters, especially to Grandma.

Jay Z is still bad-ass.

There is so much more to learn.

You have got to love the lovers, and dismiss the haters.

A walk by the bank revealing single digit temps. and the nip in the air proved my next mission would be cold: 31 miles on my road bike. This was a solo mission, as my main road bike partner, Ben, was out of town. I’m one of those people that thrives on just the right amount of personal time and solitude, so I welcomed the time alone.

Winter road riding walks a fine line of being enjoyable or just miserable, and my ride represented both feelings. Reflective thoughts ran through my head as I passed the familiar terrain of Highway 135 and then Taylor Canyon. Freezing temperatures ran through my feet as my toes turned numb, and my Camelback’s hose froze up. It was cold and beautiful, and when I arrived back in Gunnison I was happy that segment of the challenge was completed.

The midday challenge was an important meeting with my supervisor at work. New to the area she looked at me with a mixture of fascination and a ‘is this guy crazy’ glance. After a cup of coffee with a friend I set out with my support crew for the next mission, and headed out to Hartman Rocks.

Shane and Al were essential to this piece of the challenge: 31 boulder problems. The wind and the cold aimed to throw my psyche off, but these guys balanced out the elements with some good old fashioned camaraderie. As I completed one boulder problem (a short rock climb without ropes) Al would give me his coat and gloves and Shane would grab the crashpad and move to the next climb. The climbing was brutal, my fingers turned numb after a couple problems, and my feet suffered the same feeling crammed into my climbing shoes.

“They wouldn’t call it a challenge if it was easy,” we said a few times. After 20 climbs the sun was setting, and we realized the challenge would have to end at the climbing gym at Western State.

This was by far, physically, the easiest part of the challenge, it was relatively warm, and safe, and mentally I was on cruise-control. Socially it was more difficult, as my youngster climbing friends were giving me a hard time, “31 you’re getting old. Soon you’re going to be using a walker.”

I took the comments as affection, as I’m sure they meant it, and completed the challenge amongst the hustle and bustle of the 20 some climbers at the gym. A small gathering of friends followed at my house, with gifts of cards and beer.

The physicality of the challenge set in, with the high that accompanies that, and the worn-out feeling of being out in the cold all day. Surrounded by friends, I felt grateful with the three that had helped me with my challenge. My idea would have been merely an idea without their support and motivation.

Later one friend in her twenties gave a big speech about how it was my birthday and a full moon and that I should go out to the bars and live it up. My thoughts and aspirations were all connected with my bed and sleep. After around 31 minutes of convincing all my friends to leave without me, I drifted off into the cosmos. I’d completed a dream and a vision and it was fulfilling, and dedicated to health, fitness, friendship, and celebrating another trip around the sun. Ready and all psyched up for another year.

Check the link below to Al's video of the bouldering challenge:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Climbing Out Of Bed

It was a summer in the Rockies and love presented itself as if the answer to a dream. Later, lust made its appearance confusing everything, and as the summer was unwinding I felt compelled to let the women of my summer fade into memory, and drift towards friendship and nature and climbing.

I finished my last writing assignment for work, fired off the email, and shut the computer down. After my first year, at my first 9-5, I knew it was time to step away. Time to decompress, recharge; get back to the climbing life for a little while.

The climbing life is like poetry. Being somewhat removed from this existence with the demands of steady employment, I sometimes forget the feeling: the clarity the mind finds after a long hard climb, the satisfaction of living very close to nature, the bond that grows out of trust and sweat between climbing partners. With that in mind I set off from the Gunnison Valley, Colorado into a great expanse that separates us from another holy, sacred place: Yosemite Valley, California.

The women of life, I can’t live without them, and really I was never given a choice. They (or you) are poetry too, but sometimes too exhausting and consuming. Dating is thrilling, but awkward, and the older one gets the more one desires to find a soul mate, or just gets bitter or indifferent to the situation. The heart cries out for physical and spiritual love, and often it has to find it in another soul that it has not known long; the older I get the more strange that seems. The less that you know someone, the greater risk for the body, mind and most of all the heart; oh the heartache and time that dating demands. But, oh the desire to just slip into the hot spring that is love and just bathe in there and be comfortable. But, God always seems to make me face the stark cold that follows the dip in the hot spring, the sober reality of the difficult challenge that all humans are faced with in love.

It was a tremendous coincidence that my good friend and summer couch surfer Brian was driving to Yosemite the very day that my summer vacation was set to start. I was nearly broke, so the couch surfing karma was important; I knew Brian would let me catch a lift without paying for much gas. Brian would be staying at his new home in Santa Rosa, California, so I could look forward to a slow train ride back home for reflection.

I like Brian for many reasons, and on a cross-country journey I knew he’d be infinitely entertaining. He’s one of those people who’s always verbalizing most of his thoughts so conversation could go anywhere from sustainable building to the little ‘Seinfeld’ like scenes we all go through in life. (He’s an engineer who has worked as a timber-framer, who also enjoys taking three months at a time off work, hence the couch surfing.) Since he’s always talking he always makes you think. This notion was confirmed when he wholeheartedly agreed that we should bring a dictionary along on our journey, to test each other’s vocabularies. He also thought it was a great idea to do twenty pushups every time we stopped and got out of the truck. My kind of guy.

Just over a hundred miles west we left my car in Grand Junction train station parking lot. Fifteen hours to go till Yosemite. Leaving Colorado into Utah is always about stepping out of the comfort zone. Seeing that Leaving Colorful Colorado sign sometimes I can’t help but think if I will return alive, those thoughts are followed by the comfort that even if I don’t return living, my friends, ones I know and ones I’ve yet to meet will continue on in the path of climbing and friendship and all that comes along with that.

When we couldn’t drive any more we slept, then we ended up in a town, close to Yosemite, where there was coffee and groceries and climber looking people. I was barely surprised when I saw a climber we knew from the Gunnison Valley in the coffee shop. “Yeah, I’ve been out here in California for awhile now,” he said in that California way. “It got a little too cold over in Crested Butte.”

The climbing community stretches from sea to sea, offering endless couch surfing and opportunities for fun and fitness; a culture and economy of its own.

Our connection in Yosemite was Mark, who was ‘living the dream’ more than any other rock climber I knew. I can’t help but wonder if his experiences in his college days at Western State in Gunnison shaped his psyche and his attitude towards living for the moment. During his senior year he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which led to surgeries, radiation treatment, and finally chemotherapy. During this entire time he remained a climber, surprising the hell out of more than one friend when he’d asked to stop at a climbing area on the way back from the five hour round trip for radiation treatment. Then he’d climb his way to the top of some difficult crack route; and many times the friend could not even repeat the route that he’d just completed.

He’s also Brian’s best friend from childhood. Brian once told me a story of Mark climbing in the gym after a chemotherapy treatment. Mark was trying his damnedest to climb up a vertical wall with small holds, grunting and giving it his all. As innocent, young and dumb climbers will do, a bystander started yelling beta (info.) about the climb up to Mark (a pet peeve to many a traditional climber), “Put your left hand up to that crimp, move your right foot up to the hold with red and white tape….”

Mark, bald from the chemo, dangling from the rope, could have responded, “Shut the fuck up,” but he simply yelled back in frustration, “You don’t understand….I’m on chemotherapy.”

Four years later and still cancer free, he’s settled into a life of guiding rock climbing and then climbing a ton of his own and enjoying the leisurely stretches between work by traveling, couch surfing, skiing, yoga, and he’s even picked up surfing, not only couches, but actually waves of the ocean. On a recent climbing trip/work assignment he met Norma, an architect from Mexico. Now ‘Normita’ had joined him in California where Mark had somehow secured two hundred dollar a month rent at some prime real estate in Yosemite. When he’s homeless an old camper on top of his Ford truck works as home.

The Green House

Mark had told me that he was living in The Best House in Yosemite, and he’s not one to hype up things that aren’t great. We rolled in to The Green House, slightly haggard from our travels, and ready for some rest. It was mid-day and late-summer, hot and humid, nearly oppressive. I took refuge on their trampoline under a tree and drifted off into sleep.

The house wasn’t the greatest because it fit into a definition of luxury; it was the greatest because of the location and rustic feeling. It was a mere ten minute drive from the famous glaciated granite walls for climbing. The floors creaked when you walked on them, the kitchen had a bucket of water that constantly needed to be changed as water was used, and there was no bathroom, only an outhouse.

Later I began to learn the stories of The Green House. It was another Basecamp, hundreds had stayed within its doors, and the journals in the living room recorded this. They brought the place alive, all the way from its rustic roots of being farmland and a stop along the way for the railroad, to the current role of housing outdoor educators and couch surfers passing through Yosemite.

On the Rock

Our story, our climbing, well….it was hot in Yosemite, so much that there were not any other climbers there really, so essentially we had the Most Famous Walls of America to ourselves. Once the mileage and toil of the road wore off I began to feel free and content, I was here to climb them walls, and when we weren’t climbing there was food and beer and there were the people who make this Climbing Life worth living.

There was some structure to our days, I would fall asleep on the trampoline and then awaken later to the coyotes howlin’ in the middle of the night. The sun was the natural alarm clock but hitting the snooze button of the heat was impossible. Mark was off to the park in the morning to work nearly every morning. If he didn’t work we would climb, if he did we would climb later after he was off work.

Some climbers used to call Yosemite the Center of the Universe. It is the most popular big wall climbing area, perhaps in the world. It also sees millions of tourists from all over the world. In mid-August it was busy, like a city, while the daunting granite walls and small trickles of waterfalls stood above it all.

I was looking for release, and it was coming. Haunted by the desires of the flesh from a woman that I lusted for, but did not love I began to forget about her by being immersed in the day-to-day meditations of living for climbing. Like all women, from the ones that break your heart to the ones that simply fulfill the urges all humans have, she slowly faded into the memories. After the fiendish feelings I was pleased that my consciousness and body were content with the simple life.

Mark, Normita and I hiked up to the Cookie Cliff. The objects of our desire were some crack climbs, ones that went for a hundred or two hundred feet; practice climbs for the big walls that always lay ahead in dreams. Normita let us go. I suppose if you are going to date a climber, you must let them go. Normita was the coolest, tranquillo, we just went and she stayed content at the base of the walls.

Somewhere in the climbing the past fades, the voice in your head moves on from rewind or fast forward, and the poetry begins. My memory comes in when I began leading; which basically means you’re climbing with the rope placing gear in as you go, so you fall and when you fall you go until your protective gear stops you. The knot in the stomach and the butterflies compares to asking someone out that you really dig.

I reached into my chalk bag, and powdered up my sweaty hands, jammed my fingertips into the crack, the tips of my shoes barely going in…it’s an instinctual thing climbing, a flow and a pace is developed by measuring fear, fitness, and fun. More or less for forty feet now, three hundred feet above the towering pine trees below, I’m moving up the perfectly vertical, straight up rock, looking for anything on the side of the crack, dimed sized edges to stand on with my feet. I place cams into the crack, a rush surging through my body as I pull up the rope to clip in. I’m working as hard as I can, the limit when I reach up to slide the tips of my fingers into the crack, and I pop off falling fifteen feet in a split second weighting the rope, with a scream that echoes into evening, something primal. I get back on, and keep climbing.

Normita seems content when we return, rappelling down the granite face shouting nonsense loudly in the air because we can, because we like the feeling of yelling jokes that we only get. The language barrier between Mark and Norma enhances their true communication of love.

At dinner, over soy sausages (Mark tall and muscular could be a model for vegetarianism) we explain slang to Norma. Somehow we talk about love, and all the slangs and directions that love could take. She says quietly to Mark, “I love you,” with no idea of how sincere and poetic she was.

“Livings’ mostly wastin’ time,” a lyric in a song by Townes Van Zandt I used to listen to all the time. I guess I wasted a lot of time on that trip. Climbing demands rest to build those muscles and to be psyched on pulling your body up the granite cliffs day after day. So I’d just walk around there, feeling some yin and yang attraction and looks from women with their summer aura about them, as we were dwarfed by the towering granite walls, the blue sky above, the ninety degree heat, the trees; and the deer and squirrels all running around. Eating ice cream for calories and energy and to stay cool, and when that didn’t work, finding release in the river, which instantly energized and cooled off that oppressive August heat.

Our next memorable moment on the walls came a few days later. I had to leave back to Gunnison for work soon so we planned around Mark’s work schedule, and the energy that comes with the steady pace of conditioning with a bigger, physically demanding goal ahead. That goal became a thousand foot wall, that faced north, got shade all day cause that that was the only way to make it enjoyable. Just open to climbing after being closed for months to peregrine falcons and their nesting, it’s called The Rostrum, and it finishes up as a hundred foot wide pinnacle, right at the top of a canyon, where beer and the car are right there. But I’m getting ahead of myself with thoughts of celebration and ending.

Mark was off work around four in the evening, four or so hours of daylight to go. The plan was to rappel down into the canyon, attempt to do the entire route in that remaining time, but if our ambitions were unrealistic, we could sneak off the wall via a simple escape with minimal trickery.

I’d heard of the route for years, even saw video of a man climbing it with ease: without a rope. It was always closed to the falcons that were nesting up there; or out of my realm because I wasn’t strong enough on previous trips. I went into the thing a little cocky, thinking it would be vertical hiking. It was more like the master that is Mother Nature had to teach me and my consciousness a lesson. I wormed up a chimney to reach Mark’s perch, as he belayed me up. We did the transfer of the gear, my mind not at all present, we had eight hundred some feet of rock towering above us, and the daylight was nearing an end. “I need progress,” my ego said, “and I need it soon.”

Confused by a rating on the topo, the piece of paper that described the route, the range of the rating made it seem well within my ability, and it was, but it was not vertical hiking, it was vertical finesse that was needed, the brain needed to be calm, the body needed to perform in a yogic way; the vertical terrain above me would demand everything I possibly had.

I was traversing on small edges again with my feet reading the rock for handholds, trying to dance with the rock; but I wasn’t dancing at all, I was tense, the mind demanded “the clock is ticking.” But no clock was ticking, the rock wasn’t going anywhere, it would be patient, the err here with in the form of the human. Since I wasn’t dancing, wasn’t using the yoga I had in me, I tried to muscle. Muscl-ing it I didn’t correctly strategically put my gear in the rock, an eighth of an inch crack was all there was….I climbed awkwardly with fear, putting my feet and hands in all the wrong places, my inner voice doubted, sent negative thoughts all around, I couldn’t tell ya for sure, but I bet my anus was gripped. I relayed my fear and doubt to Mark, “I don’t know man. Can you just do this. I just don’t think I have it.”

As patient as the rock he refused to let me further slip into my spiral of doubt. “No, you’ve got it, you can do this.” Kind words from a true friend.

I eventually struggled my way through it, not pretty, not dancing, but our journey continued….Of course we took the mellow option sneaking off the climb with perfect cracks above us for seven hundred more feet. But I was tired, humbled, just in need of food and the rock above didn’t inspire, but it would soon enough, the rock always inspires the climber. Love always comes back around if you believe in it, maybe not in the same place, but if you keep climbing up the hill, keep waking up with the hope that with the new sunrise are new possibilities, you’re bound to find that magic again. Climbing, athletic and masochistic, silly at times for a grown man to be infatuated with it, it’s about love really, if you don’t love it, and the experience, well there are other things to do with your time.

I had a pizza dinner with my new favorite couple the night before returning to the climb again. I felt the love, no awkwardness being the third wheel. We talked like people talk when someone is about to leave. We explained more words to Normita, made plans to all meet up in Mexico over New Years. Norma would introduce me to all her friends. I’d get to keep working on my Spanglish.

It’s a great feeling to be ready for the big climb. Proper conditioning, nutrition and attitude; when those things come together, the dangerous activity of climbing is joy to share with your partner. You get out what you put in.

I woke up that morning and just had that good feeling in my mind and my gut. We leisurely got our things together, had a breakfast of soysauge and eggs, good protein, visited with the newest arrivals to the hostel of the Green House, Outward Bound instructors wrapping up their summer. There would be a small party, with more coming in tonight for beer and a bonfire, toasting to the end of the season.

We started late, not too late, just in time where we knew in our internal clocks of climbing experience that we could climb the thousand feet before it got dark. I asked Mark if I could lead the pitch that gave me such a mental battle before, he obliged, I knew he would. I went into the climbing aware of the difficulty the risk, not over-gripping the handholds, carefully placing protection into the crack. Still the nervousness-in-your-stomach-like putting it all on the line to ask a woman out was there, but that’s good, it lets you know you’re alive. The move sliding my right-hand pinky and ring finger barely into the crack then leaning left putting my weight on barely an inch of those fingers. I had pulled through. I was dancing, it was yoga, positive vertical progress ensued.

The climb was the best-ever because I had to try, really had to do, and I did. Mark, a Yosemite master showed me his vertical walking, but still grunted in sections. Some of the climb demanded that in the moment precision with just the fingertips and edges of my shoes on the wall, other parts half my body chimney-ed in a crack, with my elbows and knees and feet making the slow upward progress.

It is the physically demanding climbing like this that demands the mind stay in the moment. The breaks in between, when you are sitting on a two by two foot ledge tending to the rope waiting for your partner to join you, dangling a thousand feet above the river below is when the mind spaces out and thoughts travel.

I often think at these moments of repose, where is she? The next woman in my life, the one that will make all the awkward dating worth it, the heartache, the guilt, the woman that I’ve convinced myself exists. The one that has to be alive and struggling in love just like me, the one I’ll fall in love with that I’ll live from season to season with, finding intimacy and self awareness at an entirely new level. All the past lovers have given me great gifts, but past loves are like past climbs, they only exist in memory and don’t add up to much. I wonder, where is she, and when will she be ready for me, and am I truly ready for her? I look off into the distance, dangling my feet off the cliff looking into the trees, up to the sky, and say the unspoken prayer of what I want out of the rest of my life in love.
The last pitch was one of those bigger cracks where you have to figure out what side of your body to slide in for progress. It got so wide at one point I had no gear in, had I fallen it would have been big a disaster, a possible tumble fifty feet down the vertical rock.

Reaching the top of that crack, there we were, through the struggle. We shook hands, a team that had won, accomplished the goal. We were there, mentally, spiritually and physically.

The Outward Bound bon-fire, beer drinking party was full of outdoor educators who had wrapped up their seasons. The next morning folks would be off to Seattle, and Oregon, and the East Coast, and me to Colorado. On the phone, I tried to buy a last minute train ticket, only to find out they were working on maintaining the tracks between Utah and Colorado, I’d have to take a bus if I wanted to make it back for work on Monday.

You Can Go Back Home

The bus was less romantic than an old train, across the desolate strange vastness that connects the two Valleys, Yosemite and Gunnison. It was painfully slow, but I had a high and a feeling of satisfaction from the climbing. Part of the pain was that we had to go all the way down to Los Angeles when the direct route was just to head east. But in L.A. when I got on the bus a cool black fellow, asked me “what are you a base jumper or something,” when he saw my rope on my backpack. We went on to have the best conversation I’d ever had with a stranger. (Normally I bury my head into literature or fade into my headphones to avoid awkward conversation.) He told me his background, of being a young drug dealer, who’d spent a lot of time in jail, of witnessing first-hand killing in L.A. But he was a plumber now, who was into cars, and listened to any subject I wanted to talk about with sincerity. We talked about spirituality, of God, and he told me about his beliefs, I told him about mine. We talked about the power of prayer, and he told me that was why he believed in God. He told a story of his obsession with sex, and how he needed to move past it, how he could not focus or think of anything else, he prayed, and he was able to free himself from that bondage. I wondered if we were best friends in a past life, we looked deep into each other’s eyes when we talked.

It was almost exhausting the conversation, it was deep. I was relieved when he got off the bus to meet his woman. The bus ride went on forever. I listened to the same songs over and over on my MP3 player, and looked at rolling hills and thought about where all the other occupants of the bus were going; with little interest of actually talking to them to find out.

After an eternity the bus crossed over past that wonderful Colorful Colorado sign, and I realized I’d survived another climbing trip back into my home, and that I was going home again, and alive, and it was the end of summer, and the beginning of something.

I’ve slipped back into my 9-5 world, which is fine. I pay the bills and eat good food and have a roof over my head and I get to climb frequently and get to taste that feeling. We’ve got the Black Canyon here, our own Yosemite, even better in some ways, less crowded, more wilderness, and more pristine. A place that if even for a day, the mind and body can forget the troubles of flesh and indulge in the magic that is called rock climbing.

I’ve learned a thing or two about what I want out of love. I want what Normita and Mark have, I want the desires of flesh to be met, but to have that happen also with love and not lust. I can’t slip and give into the desires without it.

A couple months after returning Dave, another kindred spirit and mountain guide passed through Gunnison staying on my couch. Dave spends a great deal of time in the mountain climbing consciousness: months on Denali, the highest mountain in the U.S up in Alaska, and countless days on the rock in various Western States. Over a beer we talked about what mountain guys who are much softer on the inside than the outside talk about: climbing, the desire for home, and of course love. He’d met a woman that weaved into his intricate and delicate climbing life.

“You know,” he said. “Women are the greatest thing on this planet.”

I imagined Dave as a mystic searcher, like many climbers are and all human beings have the potential to be. He’s seen the freedom on a thousand days in mountain environments that many of us only glimpse in television commercials and in the pages of National Geographic. He’s been to the mountaintop and that was his gem to share to the valley below.

I thought about what he had to say, and I hoped on his next visit, that I would have a woman in my life to tell him all about.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Hometown Paper, The Pantagraph Wrote An Article About Me

This story was written about me by Scott Richardson, a writer for the Pantagraph, out of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where I grew up. I am grateful to Scott for this article, and ideally some high school students in the area will consider coming to Western State College; and others may just simply check out Gunnison on road trips out West. Thanks Scott.

Former Twin-City student discovers the love of climbing ... UP

Luke Mehall thought he was running away from home when he gave in to a bad case of wanderlust. But he was actually running toward something - a new home in the Rockies.

At 20, uncomfortable, disillusioned and not sure why, Mehall left the Twin Cities after graduating from Bloomington High School in 1997.

"I was big on traveling around," Mehall said.

He bounced to a couple of universities. One day, he spotted a place on a map, Gunnison, Colo., home of Western State College. Like Forrest Gump blown by the winds of fate, he went.

Now age 30, Mehall is assistant director of public relations at the school where he graduated five years ago. He also is a freelance writer for magazines, including Climbing and Rock and Ice.

He loves his career. But it's what he does after work that convinces him he's finally found a home in the mountains. He spends time rock climbing, mountain biking and road biking. Tourists and locals alike also hike, kayak, white-water raft, trout fish and more. Crested Butte, a well-known destination for skiers, is about 30 miles away.

The college, which specializes in liberal arts, business and sports, includes a student-led outdoor guiding service, an adventure race team, a climbing team and a ski team.

"The outdoors definitely attracts people here. The outdoors is a big selling point," said Mehall, son of Twin City accountant Richard Mehall, and Lynette Mehall, a Unit 5 school administrator. "We have a long history of people coming to ski Crested Butte and wind up staying to go to school here."

"Here" is about 7,800 feet high in the Colorado Rockies. Crested Butte is about 9,000 feet up.

The Telluride Film Festival is held about 150 miles away from Gunnison every fall. Thinking he should support the green theme of the event, he and a friend once rode there on bikes.

"You get a pretty good climb at the end," he said, chuckling. "Mountain biking has been going on in Gunnison as long as about anywhere."

Underscoring that point, Mehall noted champion mountain-bike rider Dave Wiens lives in Gunnison. He made headlines by beating Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race not long ago. Wiens works to develop more trails in the region, where it's possible to ride 30 to 40 miles on single track paths in a single day.

Mehall got his first taste of the real outdoors camping with the family in Minnesota. But it wasn't so much what happened outdoors that captured his interest. He fell in love with rock climbing at Upper Limits, a climbing and teaching center located inside a converted grain silo on Bloomington's west side. Mehall was able to learn the basics he uses now to go "bouldering," or climbing sheer rock faces at places like Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. The park also offers fishing, camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and wildlife viewing.

The height of the climbing season each year falls in late June when the 24 Hours of Gunnison Glory is held as part of the Gunnison River Festival, he said. Competitors climb 12 or 24 hours to see how many climbing routes or bouldering problems they can master in that time. The Gunnison Loco Motive held during the festival adds mountain biking, trail running and kayaking to the climbing challenges.

During long winter months, skiing is the primary pursuit. Mehall isn't so much into alpine skiing. Rather, he enjoys cross-country skiing. Though some may think the area must be too steep for long-distance skiing, Mehall described the annual El Mountains Grand Traverse. The cross-country ski race begins at midnight and covers the 42 miles between Crested Butted and Aspen.

Mehall wants to compete in the race one day. And, he dreams of writing fiction with stories that feature Colorado and Utah settings.

Looking back, Mehall said, "I was big on traveling around. I had wanderlust. That's still a part of me. But I'm happy now. ... Climbers say if they didn't find climbing, they'd have a drug problem or be dead or in jail. I think that's true for me. I think climbing is a good outlet for the angst of youth and writing is, too."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Prose After 24 Hours Of Climbing

24 Hours of Gunnison Glory has passed, but for volunteers us it was more like 48 or even more, but still after only seven hours of sleep in the last two days I had to keep climbing to reach my goal of 30 climbs for the weekend.

Gunnison Glory was the most effort I have ever put into organizing a climbing event, and it was by far the most intense; imagine climbing as much as you can in a 24 hour time period. Imagine night approaching and 40 climbers scattered about Hartman Rocks with the skies full of red, blue, and purple, lightning, rainbows trying to get just one more climb in, or savoring the moment.

You may notice in this writing my thought jumping from one to the next; for the readers sake I hope you know what 24 Hours of Gunnison Glory actually is. Now, completed (it was held this past weekend June 26-28 at Hartmans) it is the Western United States’ only 24 hour climbing competition. But to me it is a verb, a memory, fresh in my mind but still blended with lack of sleep, exhaustion and euphoria.

I often wonder why humans do what they do: on one side why is it so hard to brake our bad habits why are we driven to have that extra drink or say that extra negative word in a fight? On the positive side what drives people to push limits in athletics, or to volunteer that extra hour, do everything they can to help in their community.

Thinking of 24 Hours of Gunnison Glory, why even after it had passed did I feel compelled to climb some extra routes to make my goal of 30 for the weekend?
I am a man of many flaws. I drink too much coffee and beer sometimes, I am not always the nicest too my friends and many times I say negative things I shouldn’t; typically I take things too far.

I have always said if I never came out West from Illinois and started climbing and doing other Re-Creational activities I would either be dead or in jail. Climbing has brought so much positivity in my life; friends, health, and the mind expansion to try a little harder, do a little better, if you want something put in the effort and it is yours.

With climbing one can always try harder to achieve the goal. Many climbing friends have taught me this; too many to name.

So after 24 Hours of Gunnison Glory was over, and I had only completed 20 routes, I felt compelled to achieve my goal.

Hartmans is rolling sagebrush, clouds that billow, blue sky that is the bluest you’ve seen, granite boulders that go on forever. A sublime landscape inspring, tell you that nature is king and always will be; the man-made world will never compare, and the man-made world is just us rearranging nature.

But back to the climbing; little sleep over two days, feeling responsible for the 40 climbers out and about for the 24 hour vision quest/ climbing competition. Now that the event was over the responsibility had vanished. A weight lifted off my shoulders, the euphoria of accomplishment mixed with exhaustion, fingers sore to the bone, but still climbing to achieve the goal, the goal, it’s what we put in mind so that we grow, so that we have something to work towards.

I’d maybe say that I felt the release the accomplishment when I topped out on the 30th boulder problem of the day; but the release, the zen, the feeling that we’re looking for that we had in childhood and that we find now and again if we believe in love and in magic and in hardwork; that feeling came somewhere between the 1st and 30th climb; somewhere from head to toe; of being in the moment, being aware that I am still alive and all dreams are possible, that came to me somewhere before or after or during 24 Hours of Gunnison Glory. And, if my words make sense, and you’re feeling this, well we’re on this journey together and there is much to do, to see, to feel, and please….take the time to try a little harder, see more, live this life to the fullest.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

My vehicle as art

I've always wanted to graffiti a vehicle, and now that my 1988 Mazada MX6 has almost 200,000 miles and is getting older, the present moment seemed like the perfect time.

Since I am not much of an artist, I talked with Nathan Kubes, who 'tagged' the foundation of the Mazada; black and white swirls with an OM sign being the most striking feature.

The day after we painted the first draft of the car, I immediately felt that I had made a mistake; I even got pulled over by the cops which influenced my doubts. But it began to grow on me, and even started to make me think differently about my vehicle; for what is a car other than something to get from point A to point B?

The car attracts stares, especially from the police, I've yet to cruise it around now that it is all red, white and blue; (perhaps I will enter it as a float in the Fourth of July parade in Crested Butte).

A final thought that I'm having now is that my car is beyond just tranportation, it is art, something for the people to enjoy. Something beyond just a petroleum using, greenhouse gas emitting transportation polluter; it is a thought provoking canvas that hopefully, once the art is completed will be the coolest graffiti car in the Gunnison Valley.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Certified Life Savers: Western State Mountain Rescue

Matt Willis pointed to the massive scar on his head as the reason he is involved with the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team (MRT).

Willis, a 10-year veteran of MRT, was once a victim himself, the result of a nasty rock climbing accident near Washington, D.C. He said he is simply returning a favor by making his time available for those who may need help in the outdoors.

He is one of 20-plus volunteers who make up the local team, which was recertified by the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) earlier this month. The certification lasts for five years.

Western remains the only college-based MRA certified team in the country, though community members play an important role. Ron Edwards, a Western graduate, is one of those key players. “You get as much of out this experience as you want to put in it,” he reflected.

Edwards attends weekly meetings and trainings, though as the team prepared for the rigors of recertification they stepped it up with additional training sessions starting last fall.

The areas in which the team was tested reflect the dramatic surroundings of the Gunnison Valley. In two days they were challenged in a series of mock scenarios, including searching for a lost hiker (and evacuating that individual off of a scree field), rescuing two climbers stuck on a sheer wall in the Black Canyon and performing an avalanche rescue on Monarch Pass.

“It was a great feeling of accomplishment for us to get this done,” Willis said. “There is a lot of stress involved in the recertification process, emotionally, mentally and physically.”

Adding to that stress were more than 30 evaluators analyzing Western team members’ every move. The evaluators represented rescue teams from throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

Willis noted that the normal rescue situation — whether it is a search for a lost hunter in freezing winter conditions or dangling off of a rock cliff — is something that the team deals with in their usual operations. Once they got used to people looking over their shoulder during the testing, the team performed well, he said.

Sara Lamar, another Western graduate, has been involved with the team for more than four years. She described the team as being like a family. “We all get along great and work extremely well with each other,” she said.

Bethany Marvin, the team’s president and senior at Western, echoed that sentiment. “This is an amazing group of selfless people,” she said.

Edwards noted that he is especially impressed with some of the younger members of the rescue team, which operates directly under the auspices of the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s really wild that 19- and 20-year-olds are involved in this, in college and with the level of seriousness,” he said.

The certification will last through 2014, and the team is proud that they are offering a service that is so valuable to outdoor enthusiasts.

“We put in a lot of hard work and it paid off,” Marvin said. “We also could not have done this without our newer members.”

“Never before have I trusted a group of people so completely,” Lamar added. “I know that we are a top-of-the-line rescue team.”

To learn more about the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team, visit their Wiki page at

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On a Train, Waiting in Vain

Random notes from my journal today…..

Everyday city confusion, more questions than answers, more information than one person could digest in a day, a lifetime…..

On a quest for material to use to make my fiction writing enjoyable and popular, I comb the streets of Salt Lake City in an attempt to further understand the complexities of this diverse city; a Crossroads of the West.

A Train, Waiting in Vain

The third cup of coffee is always potentially dangerous, a vain attempt to compromise the body for the desires and hunger of the mind.

I’m on Spring Break and I wander the streets of Salt Lake City, wondering what the hell am I doing here? My friends of the city are at work or at play in the mountains, I search the streets alone, take notes of the landmarks, hoping that this material will be useful for a writing project; one that may or may not come to life.

The train took me here crossing the Colorado border past Grand Junction into the lonely desert of sage, the tumbleweeds and red rock, past the bricked buildings of Mormon towns that have seen better days, broken down, bricks missing, windows of cracked glass. Abandoned cars along side the rail road tracks make one long to hear the story of how the car ended up there, so I fantasize how it all went down….

The train sways, with travelers that have both seen better days, and others who have their best days ahead. But we all have the day that is in front of us.

I am the lonely stranger, usually too shy to speak to my neighbors, but this train ride is different. Just as one adapts quickly to the style of walking necessary on the moving train, we can think of things to say to start conversation.

I sat down in a seat in front of a girl with a metal prosthetic leg, ironic I think to myself because I have just met a climber-friend, Chad Jukes, an Iraq Veteran, who also has a prosthetic leg and lives in Salt Lake City.

I settle in for the ride, and let the desert and the train tell its story. I feel happy to discover the train, and have thoughts of Kerouac and taking a voyage far west. But I am on a mission….

Eventually I ask the girl behind me a question that I don’t really need the answer to just to talk. Why is it such a hard bridge for me to cross to speak to someone I don’t know? I have so many wonderful friendships that all began as two strangers speaking. Her name is Sydney, she is a climber, and had just returned from climbing in Ouray with Chad and many others. Synchronicity and some unspoken force seem to be at hand in this train ride.

I sneak Colorado beers on board, and probably have one too many. Eventually the expanse of the desert leads to the sprawl of Salt Lake City; lights of the city and falling snow are the landscape. I walk around sure to grab onto the backs of seats as the train sways, an old gray haired couple shares a red blanket with checkered black stripes, the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I sit down as a man, obviously in pain takes his seat in front of me. He asks an employee of the train for some Motrin, I offer up some Ibuprofen, and he accepts gratefully. He’s just been in a truck that has flipped; he’s got some broken ribs and is returning home to Los Angeles. His eyes tell me that though in pain, he’s glad to be alive. As I eavesdrop on his phone conversation, he’s got a woman at home who will be glad to see him upon arrival in California.

I’ll never see him again, yet he’ll stay with me forever.

My lonely day that followed digging Salt Lake City is nearing a close, on the heels of night, the time I prefer most in cities. The computer in the library I’m writing from tells me I only have a few minutes, the buzz and focus of the coffee will be wearing off, its time to enter the world of friends after wandering the city alone. Time to listen to stories firsthand over a beer and dinner, rather than making up stories looking at things from afar, time to flow with the time of life, on a planet flying through space, in a world that provokes infinite thought and possibilities…..

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thoughts on New York City, and the Gunnison Valley, Colorado

As I write this I’m on my way back to the Gunnison Valley, fresh off my first trip to New York City. Currently writing this from Chicago, at least starting the piece, so I’m at a mid point in this journey; a good place to stop and reflect.

Though I always enjoy returning to the Valley after being away, and the brief visions of clarity that always seem to accompany the return, in some way leaving New York City I felt myself longing to stay there longer; to bathe in a sea of humanity that pervades the streets and buildings of the city.

I find some irony in this because in my younger days I loathed cities, and always found myself trying to escape once I’d arrived. I dreaded a visit to the city that would seem to come; a result of further travels or family visits. Life I suppose even for the mountain person, always leads to a visit to the city sooner or later.

I was at a stage in my life, during the college days, where I was perpetually drawn to nature, appalled and dismayed by the consumptive culture that seemed to fully manifest itself in the Cities of the United States.

But, somewhere along the way, the Cities of the US began to appeal to me. Just like the Wilderness of the United States they contain their own magic and charm. I prefer the nighttime; thoughts of Frank Sinatra’s music floating through the air like clouds of smoke used to in a dark bar, the unknown women of the night, plentiful in New York City, knowing where you are you will only be there that night forevermore. Only the moon is visible over head when you spill onto the streets, but you know the stars are still there from your days in the wild.

New York City is the complete opposite of the Gunnison Valley, Colorado. Perhaps that is why I long for it, and it appeals to me. I think I’ve rid myself of a na├»ve belief that mountain people are somehow superior that city folk, and that just because one lives in a city means they are being more consumptive than me just because I live in a place on the edge of the wilderness. Most of us, the Citizens of the United States live off the same system for our food, our energy, our clothing, entertainment etc, and we’ve all just ended up where we are because that’s where we are supposed to be.

In the spirit of procrastination I’ve finished this very small essay up in Gunnison. I used to never feel at home anywhere that wasn’t close to nature. I don’t know if I can explain this but maybe it was just that I needed nature to find out who I was; and not knowing who one is can make things awkward while traveling through life. Now that I know a little more about who I am I’m curious about humanity, fragile and precious as it is, from that beautiful city girl of the night in New York City, to my mountain people here in the Gunnison Valley.

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