Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It was the cold of Gunnison that sent him down south to Durango. Cold in different ways: the temperature, and the cold of heart. One too many times did he have his heart broken, and he broke one too many hearts.

He is without a past in Durango. He can walk the streets alone and be almost certain that he won’t be recognized. This won’t last long, so he takes it for what it is worth. He can sense the strong community; in the Post Office those in line chat like they are neighbors and best friends.

Durango in December, this year it has been warm, pleasant, the high temperature of the day rising up to 50 degrees; a pleasure to walk out into the afternoon Colorado sun.

He is a climber so naturally he seeks out the climbing areas. Durango is like Gunnison at first, no epic cliffs in sight when you roll into town. A little research and one finds there are cliffs all over, sandstone, limestone and granite.

The traditional area of East Animas has got his attention. The area’s most proud crag, the Watch Crystal is a rainbow of sandstone. The view from the crag is expansive, farmland just below, acres of it. Snowcapped mountains to the west, the La Platas, begging for more snow, but the days lately have been all sunshine, the blue bird sunshine that Colorado is famous for, an intoxicating sunshine.

More sandstone off in the distance, multiple areas, they stand as monuments to him that he is where he should be in life, with new cliffs for him to explore to climb, to grow older with.

He has a few friends to go climbing with; old Gunnison friends that now live in Durango, or nearby. A blessing to have a comfort like that in a new town; people that he knows to trust his life with on the other end of the rope.

He needs the climbing, climbing is who he is, where he found courage and adventure and the need to be free, that need to breathe clean air, and camp out in the dirt.

Climbing at East Animas is like anywhere else, with its own funkiness. It demands one works for the gear that he places, hanging on by your fingers trying to wiggle a piece of gear in the crack, and then trying to worm up the route with some grace. He aims to make deliberate movements, as if he knows where he is going, but he has never been there.

The climbing is less crowded than he expected. It’s so close to town, yet he only sees a handful of souls each day at the crags. But, maybe it’s because it’s December and the local climbers have switched to climbing ice or skiing. He’ll find out in the spring.

Just as he needs climbing he needs love. Finding love is not as simple as finding the climbing areas. He’s learned much about patience from climbing, and more than he wanted to about patience from love.

Walking the streets of Durango there is an abundance of beautiful women. The college girls seem too young now, how young the freshman are now is beyond him; they are just girls, he needs a woman.

The scene is set for love to take place here, the warmth, the opportunity to hike into the mountains, to soak in hot springs; Durango has all the elements for romance to ensue. A slow turning novel it is, beautiful and demanding of patience. He should savor every day, every sentence, every word, and every woman who strolls by.

Slowly the days will progress, and he will become more a part of the town. He will build a name for himself. The women of Durango are now just bystanders in the novel that is his life. As time goes by one may become the main character, that ‘one’ he believes in with faith. That time that is represented in his mind seems like an eternity; like the time that it took Mother Nature to build the rocks he climbs upon in the afternoon sun.

He has survived eternity before, and he will again. He has lived through those epic Gunnison winters, and he has lived through thunderstorms of crying and periods of guilt and doubt.

He is just reading the first page of the place that is called Durango.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Second volume of Climbing Zine released

Benighted Publications is proud to announce that the second volume of the “Climbing Zine” is finished, and ready to be consumed. The latest zine was compiled by former Gunnison Valley resident, Luke Mehall, who is now living in Durango, Colo.

Contributors and artists for the “The Climbing Zine Volume Two” include: Greg Pettys, Lindsey Schauer, Will Anglin, Brian Malone, Travis Kuester, Scott Borden, Cliff Cash, Al Smith III and Mallory Logan.

While rock climbing is the major focus of the zine, the writers also weave in other topics that are central to living the climbing life: the search for love, couch surfing, dumpster diving, marijuana consumption and travelling to exotic locations.

For a copy of The Climbing Zine Volume 2, contact Luke Mehall at lmehall@yahoo.com. To view the zine online click up to "links and such" on this site, where the zine can be read via Google docs.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dish Dog Goes to Joshua Tree (Written for the 3rd issue of Stokelab)

Reluctantly, this past summer, I returned back into the world of washing dishes in Crested Butte, Colorado. I thought I’d retired after a solid 15 years in the profession, one that was my first job, carried me through college and some experimental years after college, when all I wanted to do was rock climb and live in a tent.

The return was because of the downturn in the economy, and my public relations job in higher education was cut due to reduced funding, a problem that every college in the nation is grappling with now.

So, I was back in the pit, and 15 years of memories came flooding back. The first things I recalled were the worst: the reality of cleaning up people’s leftovers; the meager pay with no benefits; and coming to the realization that this was the very same position I had when I was 16.

In addition to the drawbacks, there are some positives to being a “dish-diver”. While the work doesn’t demand much cognitive thought, the mind is free to float and contemplate life. No one really messes with the dishwasher, (at least they shouldn’t) so you’re responsibilities are limited to making sure the dishes are clean. The greatest thing about being a diver though, at least in Crested Butte, is the off-season, when tourists are away, the whole economy of the town comes to a screeching halt, and if you’ve saved your pennies you can travel around.

While many of my friends were seeking opportunities in Northern California with the new Green Rush of marijuana harvesting, I opted for a month long trip around the west climbing at the places that tend to be warm in the late fall. One of the places I ended up at was Joshua Tree, California, where I once had a 100 day run of climbing and washing dishes, and it was a beautiful struggle.

Fresh out of college I was hungry for experience, and I was hungry. I’d packed everything I owned into my 1988 Mazda and hit the road. The town of Joshua Tree is just outside of the national park; it’s a place that defines small town America, and my employment options of washing dishes were limited to a joint called Crossroads, a place popular with climbers that serves the best food, the best coffee and the best beer in town. I walked in, met the owner, and told her I was the best dishwasher this side of the Mississippi. They needed a dishwasher, and soon. I offered I could start right away and they gave me a job right on the spot.

It was a glorious winter, and a personal revelation that I could camp out all winter and climb. Home was camp. I only needed to work three days a week to sustain my meager wants and needs. Plus, the cooks were supportive of my mission to be a climbing bum, and would give me abundant leftovers. (Earning the respect of cooks, as a newbie dishwasher, is something that does not come easily.)

The dish pit itself was a challenge though; there was no dishwashing machine, so all the dishes had to be hand washed. Every shift started with 15 – 30 bacon trays that were a slimy mess to clean up with. The dishwashing became more and more grueling as the night went on; washing dishes by hand is humble work. But, as soon as I’d really be about to lose my patience, it would be time for beer and the shift was almost over, and I’d have a couple days off to climb. I thought I was onto something there, the 20 hour work week, and I probably was.

Camp was a mixture of climbing bums and weekend warriors. The hard cores worked even less than I did, and had probably already saved their pennies in the previous season working in restaurants, construction, or marijuana farms. We would all have philosophical conversations about how to live more peacefully with nature, and how to consume less. I thought we were well on our way of doing that by camping out.

The hard cores would throw dance parties atop 150 foot rock formations, run around the desert naked, and generally kept themselves entertained. I followed them around, as much for the sake of friendship and common interests, as possible story ideas for the future.

When it came to leave Joshua Tree that season I was burned out on the wind and living outdoors in the desert, so I headed back to Colorado. Most climbers do this; Joshua Tree has only a handful of locals that live there year-round. Plus, back at my dish gig in Crested Butte there was a dish machine, and I could camp out in my friend’s front yard.

This year when I went back I stopped back in to Crossroads I saw a couple familiar faces. It had only been three years, but no one remembered my name. They did remember that I was, “the dishwasher/writer guy” though, so there’s some consolation in that.

I won’t be headed back to my dishwashing gig in Crested Butte this winter, I’m moved down south to Durango to see if I can get myself out of the cycle of washing dishes to stay afloat. However, some of my employment contacts thus far have been in restaurants, so we’ll see if I can avoid the pit. One of these employers even asked for a resume, the first time I’ve had that request in 16 years of diving.

So I probably haven’t seen the last of my days as a dish dog. To all you other divers out there, keep up with the safety meetings, and don’t let the dishes be on top of you, be on top of your dishes.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Leaving and Friends (The following is a piece I wrote just before leaving the Gunnison Valley in late October)

This morning I’m waking up and thinking about writing. It’s what I do most mornings. However, this morning is different, I’m moving from the Gunnison Valley today.

I thought I might write something about leaving, but I didn’t know what. Thoughts and ideas passed through my head of last 11 years and how epic life in Gunnison is. Do I write about the cold nights in Gunny, the time it was negative 40? Or do I write about the experiences I’ve had climbing in the Black Canyon on the wild 2,000 foot walls that are literally almost in our backyard? Or do I recall when I first moved to Gunnison, and didn’t know anyone and thought that I’d made a big mistake and wanted to leave? Or about the struggles of college, and finally graduating after three different schools and many semesters off, and many times that I doubted I could finish? Or about the struggles of wanting to become a writer, but not knowing where to start, and then submitting to the pull of the wilderness and inspiration and guidance of my professors and anyone else that would take a look at my stuff?

From this perch of my little apartment in Gunnison on my last morning before I venture off I have a view of these last 11 years. Many things have happened and I’ve grown and matured in ways that would be difficult to quantify. I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve experienced a similar growth, many of us are united by our time spent together in Colorado.

What I’m realizing though, as I sit here, is that there is no need to try to record all that has happened here in the Gunnison Valley, over the last decade-plus. It would be impossible anyways. The adventures and growth that occur here are the stuff that novels are made of, and Jah-willing I’ll write my book someday.

What really matters for me right now is that in a little while I’ll be having breakfast with a handful of friends at the Firebrand shortly. It won’t be a dramatic goodbye; anyone who has lived here in the Gunnison Valley realizes that the time comes when we have to leave this incredible majestic mountain place. For yours truly it is time to escape the cold, and to find more opportunities in my career.

As I sit here and contemplate I’m not worried about the upcoming change in my life. I think this is because of my friends. I’m leaving Gunnison to move to Durango where one of my best friends, Tim Foulkes is also moving to. Before that I’m taking a month to travel and find stuff to write about, with my friend Dave Marcinowski. Today I’ll drive to Telluride to meet Dave and then we’ll travel to Yosemite, California together. There we’ll couch surf and hang out with two old friends we met in Gunny, Mark Grundon and Scott Borden. Then finally at the end of the month I’ll be with countless friends in the desert in Indian Creek to celebrate Thanksgiving together.

All of these connections were made in the Gunnison Valley. These are good people, who value adventure, exploration, self-discovery and friendship.

And, that is what I value the most in my 11 years I’ve spent here, the friendships that I have made; anything that I have done on my own pales in comparison to the power of friendship.

In a few hours I’ll drive my beat-up old car west, and the view of the Gunnison Valley will fade from my rear view mirror. I’ll be gone and I don’t know when I’m coming back again. But, what I’ll take with me, and what is all over the country is love and friendship, and that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, and what I am the most grateful for in my life.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Quick Q and A with Jonathan Schaffer on the Black Canyon

Favorite thing about the Black:
The remoteness, it’s an area that you can climb at without a lot of people around.

Least favorite thing about the Black:
The drive, I wish it was closer. I’ve almost hit deer, elk and even a mountain lion while driving home exhausted.

Favorite climb:
The Tuffnell-McGee on the Great White Wall. Established by the late Cameron Tegue, this climb encapsulates the entire Black Canyon experience.

Personal Black Canyon hero:
Mike Pennings of Ridgway, Colo. He’s done more routes than anyone down there, and is still getting after it climbing harder routes in faster times.

Other favorite local climbing areas:
Taylor Canyon, Spring Creek Canyon and Lost Canyon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Black Canyon Binge

Jonathan Schaffer jokes that, this fall, he has either been at work or climbing in the Black Canyon. There must be some truth to that statement, as the 22 year-old Gunnison climber is quickly rising up the ranks to be one of the canyon’s top climbers.

In less than three years, Schaffer has completed nearly 60 routes in the Black Canyon, which is known in climbing circles to contain some of the most difficult big wall routes in the United States. The canyon has the tallest vertical wall in Colorado, the 2,300 foot Painted Wall and several other walls that soar to up to 2,000 feet.

“It’s my favorite place to climb,” Schaffer said. “I like the rural nature of the area, and the challenges that the climbs represent.”

Schaffer began climbing in the Black Canyon in 2008 after moving to Gunnison to attend Western State College, where he studied Recreation. Currently he is employed in the deli at the Gunnison Vitamin and Health Food Store.

His early exploits in the canyon were full of adventure, as he sampled some of the elements that give the Black Canyon its feared reputation: loose rock, difficult route finding and physically and psychologically demanding climbing. His stories of include falling rock, getting lost while bushwhacking in gullies and running out of food and water on the wall.

“One of my bad early experiences in the Black was when I was going down the Chillumstone Gully on the South Rim,” he said. “I was down climbing on some large boulders when they came loose, I fell about 20 feet down the talus with the boulders. Somehow the rocks barely missed me as I landed on my back. I thought for sure I wasn’t going to be able to walk out that day.”

Other tales include climbing rope-less above a deadly whirlpool above the Gunnison River, pulling off television sized blocks on climbing routes, and nearly hitting a mountain lion while driving back from the North Rim of the canyon on Highway 92.

Andrew McKean of Gunnison is one of Schaffer’s many Black Canyon climbing partners. He says that Schaffer’s style of climbing is what has made him successful in the Black.

“He’s a really bold climber and he’s also really fast, efficient climber,” McKean said. “He’s a great partner to rope up with down there.”

This fall has proved especially successful for Schaffer. After graduating from Western in May he has dedicated almost all of his free time to climbing in the Black. His original goal for fall was to complete 20 routes in the canyon. He passed that number earlier this month, and has kept up with a pace of two to three difficult climbs per week.

Among his accomplishments this fall was climbing a route on the 2,300 foot Painted Wall in less than seven hours. On more than one occasion he’s climbed around 2,000 feet and returned the following day for another 2,000 feet. He has also established several first ascents in the canyon.

Ryan Rees, a climbing ranger for the Black Canyon National Park, has been impressed with Schaffer on many levels.

“I haven’t seen anyone climbing at the rate and level that Jonathan does,” Rees said. “He’s climbing on difficult, serious and committing terrain and he does it in a really good style. When he’s done he’s really humble about it as well. All of this combined with how young he is, make his efforts very impressive.”

Schaffer admits that he has an obsession for climbing in the Black Canyon, and has a hard time finding the adrenaline rush he finds there at other areas that are less difficult and not as dangerous.

“Everything else pales in comparison to the Black,” Schaffer said. “After a brutal day down there I get my fix….I love waking up sore and not even being able to think about climbing.”

While the fall climbing season is just now winding down for the Black Canyon, Schaffer is already thinking about going bigger in the spring, perhaps attempting a link-up of the canyon’s three major walls: the Painted Wall, the North Chasm and the South Chasm. It would be almost 6,000 feet of climbing in a 24 hour time period, a feat that has only been done once before.

“There’s just something about the Black,” he said. “Every climber has their own definition of what climbing is all about for them, and to me the Black Canyon represents what I look for. For adventure there isn’t a better place.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Zen of Dishwashing (This piece will appear in the Summer 2011 issue of the Crested Butte Magazine.) Photo by Mike Brenneman

Washing dishes was my first real job at the ripe age of 16. Today at twice that age, it is still my occupation. What lies in the space of those 16 years is the Zen of dishwashing.

I’d be willing to bet half the people living in Crested Butte have been a dish diver at one time or another. Our economy demands that most of us take jobs we are overqualified to do. Something that the economy in the Gunnison Valley also demands is creativity, so I suppose it is fitting that Zen dishwashing was born in Crested Butte. (Former dishwasher, Garth Mangels of Crested Butte, gets credit for coining the term.)

Dishwashing was my main occupation during my collegiate years, and I met a ton of characters working in the restaurants of the Valley. One of the most memorable characters is the first Zen dishwasher I ever met, Tim Foulkes.

I’d been diving in the dish pit at the Palace in Gunnison for a couple of months now and was ready to move up to cooking. I was 20 and ambitious, the dishwasher was the lowliest place in the restaurant, and I was tired of being the last person in the joint when the place closed down. The cooks would promptly start drinking at the bar when their shift was over, leaving me to finish up on my own.

Plus I’d nearly died in that dish pit, when I unknowingly turned on the disposal one day with a big sharp knife in it, and it came flying out, blade first, barely missing me. It would have been a tragic death for a young diver.

Tim loved death metal, and the main benefit of the Palace was that the diver had his own stereo, a key element attaining Zen in the dish pit. Back then I was somewhat of a Deadhead, which could have put us at odds with each other, but luckily it didn’t.

I’d never seen a diver as content as Tim in the pit. He would simply blast his death metal and get into the zone. Since I’d recently been in his shoes, I’d stay a bit later, helping him put the dishes away so he wasn’t alone finishing up while everyone else partied at the bar.

Another thing about Tim was that he refused to advance to cooking. I’d never seen someone do that, and couldn’t conceive why one would hold on to an occupation that paid less, and was treated worse. But visionaries are often doubted at first.

This place, in those days was a little too casual about the drinking; the boss was a so-called recovering alcoholic who still drank. Anyways the place wasn’t turning a profit, and closed down after I’d only worked with Tim for a few months.

I followed Tim to the Green Lizard, a Mexican joint, with alcoholic managers, and the worst dish pit you’ve ever seen. No machine, just a sink, and lots of oils from all the fried food. The only ray of light and fresh air was a small vent right in front of my face. That space was even violated one day when a cook pulled a prank on me, blowing flour through it, covering my face in white powder.

Fortunately the unhappy, alcoholic managers would not stick around in the evening, and we’d be left alone. Not all of the cooks were mean; some were climbing buddies of mine, and we’d take safety meetings near the pit, blowing the marijuana smoke into the vents above the grills. A couple of times police officers would come in for food, just after the meetings, but the smell was masked by the fryers and other food on the stovetops.

I jumped at the chance to advance to cooking, leaving behind the cramped dish pit, but moving closer to working with the alcoholic manager. He always gave me and everyone else a hard time. So it was only a matter of time before I got sick of this job, and one summer day I called in and told them I was done.

I tried to seek employment with my friend Rich Lombardo, who owned the now-gone Mexican joint Serranos, in Gunnison, but he didn’t need any help. So he called up to some restaurant owners in Crested Butte, and set me up with an interview at the Cantina.

The start of my diving career at the Cantina was unremarkable; I showed up, washed some dishes, went home and repeated. There wasn’t much of a social scene for me, no climbers worked there, and I didn’t have any friends that worked there either. But it was a job, and it paid more than the places in Gunny, so I continued on.

During this time period of my life I started to experiment with minimizing bills and maximizing recreation time. I was studying recreation in college, and I figured it was time to take a semester off for some field research. My lease ran up at the same time, and I put my domestic belongings in a storage area and moved into a tent.

It was a glorious period, with plenty of time for climbing and camping, and virtually no living expenses, save for gasoline, gear and food. I wrote poetry by the fire when I camped alone, and spent a lot of time inside my head just thinking.

I finally graduated, and realized that there were warmer places than the Gunnison Valley to camp out and be a climbing bum/dishwasher. So, the first winter after graduating I packed up and travelled to Joshua Tree in southern California. I scored a job at a restaurant called Crossroads. I walked in and told the manager that I was the best dishwasher in Colorado. It must have worked because I found myself employed in their modest, three-sink dishwashing station the next day.

It was a winter of 100 days of camping, naked dance parties atop rock formations, plenty of climbing, and lots of free food from Crossroads. The two head cooks could not have been different from each other; one was a hard working thirty-something woman who cursed up a storm; and the other was a beautiful, quiet Asian woman, a climber, who had graduated from Yale. I made friends with both, as well as the other two cooks, who were eager to try climbing. I took them climbing, and in turn they treated me with a high level of respect, something that is often hard to come by as a new dishwasher in a kitchen.

It was as simple as my life had ever been. Moments of contentment came and went, and I pondered how long this simple life of climbing, camping and washing dishes could be satisfying.

By April Joshua Tree started to heat up, and all signs pointed that I should return back to the Valley. So I went back to the Cantina. The dish pit seemed bigger and cleaner than ever after working in a cramped space without a dish machine. One cook at the Cantina, however, was always messing with my Zen. He would shout obscenities at me, and rudely place dishes in my area by basically throwing them at me. He also dissed my music, (by now my music of choice was hip-hop, as I’d become less of a hippie). One day I put some Outkast on, and he started complaining about it, running off a slew of obscenities. It was either time to punch him in the face or walk out. I chose the latter. The same cook also had a plate thrown at him by another dishwasher whom he was disrespecting. I wish I could have seen that.

A couple of years ago I thought I had an opportunity to get out of the dishwashing game forever. I was working for minimum wage, washing dishes in Salt Lake City when I got a call from my alma mater, and they were looking for writer for their Office of Public Relations and Communications. I jumped at the chance and the job quickly moved to full-time; I thought my days of diving were behind me.

I went almost two solid years without commercially washing a dish. But, with the downfall in the economy my job was cut to half-time and I inquired up at the Cantina, and they took me back in.

Things were better now in the kitchen. The stars had aligned for some Zen dishwashing to take place, the cooks were friendly, I was being treated with respect, the music was generally good and safety meetings were tolerated. But now the problem was with me. I wasn’t content in the dish pit.

I thought about it long and hard. What had changed? Had I learned all the lessons in life that the dish pit had to teach me?

I reached out to fellow writers and philosophers to figure out where I went wrong. One friend, Nathan Kubes, an artist from Gunnison wrote back to me, “the term the Zen of dishwashing is right on. This drudgery is a serious pain in the arse, it wounds our ego, it exhausts our bodies, it tires our minds, and it seriously inhibits inspiration.”

What did I know about Zen? I realized I knew very little. Could the suffering with the dishes teach me as much as when I was content with the job? Was I really after Zen dishwashing or was I searching for something else?

I sought more information from Nathan and wrote to him to see if he had any readings he recommended on Zen.

He wrote back, “You want to read about Zen? Read the phone book.”

A clever answer, his thoughts had served their purpose. I began to look at diving with a new perspective. Meditation or Zen are not things that are easily attained, nor is finding happiness while holding down a mediocre job that you are beyond qualified to do. The whole summer I’d been learning more lessons about the Zen of dishwashing, and I thought I had lost the path. I was on it more than ever.

The busy summer has passed. While many are sad to see the summer go, in Crested Butte we, overqualified, grunt workers welcome the autumn, or the off-season with joy; especially if we’ve saved money and can recreate during the time when tourists are not recreating here.

I realize after this most recent season of diving, my return to the ol’ dish pit, after a long hiatus, that I don’t need to continue to look for Zen dishwashing, it’s always there; there’s Zen in every moment, learning opportunities in every situation, good or bad.

What I am searching for now is the dishwasher’s nirvana, and I’m going to be thinking about that in the next couple of months while I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor; time off, recreating in the wild lands of the West.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Let's Get Bonanzed -- Butte Bouldering Bonanza photos

So last month, on August 28th I organized my final Butte Bouldering Bonanza, an event I started as a Western State College of Colorado (WSC) student. This was the fifth year of the Bonanza, and in my eyes it was the most successful one yet.

For me it was a success because we had 100 people from the Gunnison Valley climbing community together at the Skyland Boulders, and of those hundred more were in funky costumes than were not.

In addition to the bouldering competition we had a mostly local foods barbeque from the WSC Sustainability Coaltion, a dance off, a slackline competition, a beat-box competition and a costume contest.

The event was part of the WSC "Week of Welcome." Here's some photos from the event. We'll see you next year, as the Bonanza will be organized by members of the WSC Climbing Club.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Year In The Heart Of A Climber, for the Climbing Zine Volume 2, release date: Indian Creek Thanksgiving 2010

“Some people say that love is a losing game. You start with fire and you lose the flame. I’ll take my chances and I’ll risk it all. I’ll win your love or I’ll take the fall.”

“You’ll Accompany Me” By Bob Seger

I believe I left off last time, in the original Climbing Zine, concluding my essay by stating that women were the greatest thing on this planet. Well, women and climbing of course.

This past fall I’d just returned to the Gunnison Valley, Colorado from a climbing trip to Yosemite Valley, California. It was one of those trips that made me feel optimistic about everything. I was in good shape, for myself, with climbing it’s all about your own standards and goals; trying to measure up to another’s is a sure way to fail in the climbing path. I was also single, and a new season was about to unfold, the colorful and nostalgic autumn.

I met her on assignment for work, taking her photo as part of a story I was working on for the college. Yes, it was fall, she was dressed up nice, in one of those mountain woman Patagonia skirts that showed she belonged here in Gunnison, but also with a style in her hair and makeup that told me she came here from another place, perhaps the East Coast?

I didn’t ask her out right away, I would have appeared too eager, plus it was a work assignment, and I needed to remain professional. We casually exchanged names, but I made a mental note that when I saw her again I would try to establish a connection.

The Gunnison Valley is great because it’s small. Had I been in a city and met this beautiful, striking, young woman I would have had to get her number, or at least a full name to look her up on Facebook, taking all the romance out of the process. But this beauty would stand out in Gunnison, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d see her again.

It happened in the Gunnison airport, I was about to board a plane back home to Illinois, when I saw her out of the corner of my eye. I purposely walked past the boarding area to strike up a conversation; acting like I’d ran into her by accident. She was waiting to pick up a friend from New York City, and I only got a few words in before her friend got off the plane, nearly tackling her with an energetic hug. I left to board my plane to the Midwest, all the while thinking of this new woman in town who had captured my imagination.

A couple weeks later we were soon having coffee and trail running now and again. She had all the right qualities, good looking, smart, athletic and psyched on living in the mountains. Plus there was a connection, and that feeling in my gut that I simply had to pursue her. A feeling that I could not stop, but one that took a sharp turn when it was revealed, she had a boyfriend back east.

When your heart tells you that something should be pursued I believe we should listen to that, even if there will be suffering. I still wanted to pursue Lynn, but I’m not the type of guy who wants to date a girl with a boyfriend, nor would I want to date a girl with a boyfriend who would date someone else. I wrote in my journal to console myself, and poured my heart out to friends over beers. I’d known this woman for a mere few weeks, but I felt something, a strong feeling, that I simply had to pursue her.

So, where many lovers begin, to quote Common, I tried to focus on gaining her friendship. We hiked up Taylor Canyon one day, and then the following weekend I convinced her to try climbing up Hartman Rocks. She was deathly afraid of it, and only would go after I promised her she would not die.

It was late fall by now, and a stunning day in early November. One of those bluebird days that feeds optimism and exercise, and creates a high that no drug could ever compare with. Hartmans would soon be snowed in and too cold for climbing. The grueling Gunnison winter was on its way with one last glimpse of the Indian summer for us to soak in.

She trusted me enough to do a climb on the Beginners’ Slabs, shaking her way up the route, while constantly seeking reassurance that she was safe. She was. When she completed the climb and was lowered back to the ground she reflected that because the experience was so terrifying it might be the one and only time she went rock climbing.

But she said something later, sitting on a rock, watching others climb, that was enough to plant a seed in my brain that I had a chance with her….someday, “This is the best day ever.”

I found myself wanting to see more and more of Lynn. One morning we went for a run before work, even before coffee and I decided when the run was over I was going to tell her how I felt about her.

With a bumbling nervousness I started to express my thoughts and feelings. There was no reciprocation, she told me that she had a boyfriend and had to be loyal to him. For the rest of the day I thought maybe my heart would just stop beating. I was anxious and wondered to myself if I should have kept those feelings inside.

It all changed once the truth in my heart was expressed. We stopped talking on the phone, sending emails, and running. I didn’t even try to take her climbing again, it was winter anyways and we would have had to travel and camp in order to find some warm rock. On my birthday, in December she agreed to have a cup of coffee with me. She told me that she couldn’t spend time with me anymore. She had to remain faithful to her boyfriend. I walked out of the coffee shop, snow looked to be building in the clouds; it was time to settle into loneliness and winter.

If you’ve lived through a Gunnison winter you understand something about patience. They are long and cold. If you’re a downhill skier or snowboarder, and it snows, it can be paradise. But that bug never bit me, I always find the winter here in the Gunnison Valley to be the most difficult season to endure. Like I said before climbing typically demands travel once it starts snowing in December till the temperatures break into the 40s in mid-March. And climbing is at the heart of my existence, something I rely on heavily for health, happiness and fitness.

I eventually tried to make peace with my feelings for Lynn, even though I wanted to be with her, there was nothing I could do except wait out her long distance relationship, or just let it go.

I wrote in my journal, “There is a natural way that things happen. It would be foolish to plant a seed outdoors in the winter, silly to ski on a hill without snow. But just as I want to eat from the garden and smell the flowers, perhaps to have you I must just have to be patient and wait for the sun to come back around.”

I tried my best not to sink into the despair of the Gunnison winter, the time of year when I am the least active. I continued to run on the snowy trails nearby and tried to stay positive. A New Years climbing trip was planned to Mexico, and I escaped with friends to Boulder to at least climb in one of their fancy gyms. I had a better attitude about the winter than ever before.

I thought of Lynn less and less, not that I didn’t still desire her affection, I still did, but because I needed to move on. I still spoke with close friends about her, and my patterns of dating. I typically dated in the past when I was energetic and happy, in the months of spring, summer and fall. Sometimes the women of the summer would leave after their time ran up in the Gunnison Valley and they had to return east or south for school. Other times the natural rhythm of love would simply end once everything started freezing up. But I was slowly realizing that it was me who would freeze up and become inactive come winter.

So that winter I just tried to be active, and strive for health and fitness. The running really helped. A lunch break run when it was a mere ten degrees outside would make me feel alive and energized. I even joined the College’s cross-fit club, a new hybrid sport mixing cardio exercises with light weightlifting. My cross-fit coach was Wallace, a friend I’d met the previous fall, who also consoled me when I spoke to him about Lynn. I thought I was doing alright.

January and February passed and soon it was March, and climbing season was just around the corner. When Spring Break came around I was off to warmer climates, to southwest Utah, with the simple mission of being warm for a few days and climbing a few routes. I met up with Wallace out there, and repaid his crossfit lessons with some climbing lessons. Lynn had all but faded from my thoughts, and I figured she had probably forgotten about me as well.

On that little mini-climbing trip we sampled some sandstone sport routes near St. George, Utah. It was truly glorious to bask in the warm sun after the frigid Gunnison winter. We spent a couple days in Zion, and Wallace tried the brutal art of crack climbing for the first time. On the drive back, with the sun shining and spring on its way, I felt optimistic again.

Again, on a writing assignment I was interviewing a professor, also a good friend and was given some important news about Lynn, “Did you hear she’s leaving to go back east, and…..she broke up with her boyfriend.”

The one-two punch of the news was dramatic. I wasn’t surprised to hear she was leaving though; people come and go from the Gunnison Valley all the time. I didn’t think that this news gave me much of a chance though, till I heard from her a couple weeks later in an email, “my friend from New York City is in town…would you like to get a drink with us this week?”

It ended up being the same friend that she’s been waiting for in the airport. A small group of friends all went for a drink together after work at the local wine bar. I made sure I sat next to her, after only a short time of speaking I remembered that connection we had and I made sure that plans were made to do something that coming weekend. We planned to do a bike ride. When you’re living in the mountains of Colorado a bike ride might as well be the equivalent of living in the city and going on a first date.

On a walk, after the bike ride, she told me the story and I acted like I didn’t already know, she’d taken a job back east and broke up with her boyfriend. She was leaving, just as my chance was arriving. But in the mountains, the opportunities come and go quickly, like the chance to summit before a thunderstorm. I still had to take the chance to love this fine young woman.

The mountain way of courting (biking, running, climbing) ultimately led to being invited over for a movie, and then it was natural for romance to ensue. After that winter making love was like slipping into a hot spring away from the cold. I was completely content in the moment and never wanted it to end. Of course she made me wait just the right amount of time; men, we’re always ready and we rely on the woman to say when.

We eventually made it to the hot springs, and did those things that lovers do in the spring, while living in the mountains, simple things, yet the most important things that young people should do, just simply enjoying love and being alive. I even loved her dog, a golden retriever that she rescued, that was the cutest, sweetest dog I’d ever seen. We ran and biked with the dog out in the hills. We went to yoga together, we shared everything we could and were both high on life and love. One day I told her those elusive three words, “I love you,” something I’d never told another lover.

Things were incredible, my confidence was at an all time high, and I had everything in life I wanted. I gave little thought that soon, when summer started rolling, in mid-July that she would be leaving back to the east coast.

We were intoxicated on that loving feeling, but we still talked about her departure now and again. Since we liked each other so much, and I’d never felt the way I did about anyone, I thought she might be the one. I held the thought of continuing our relationship after she left as an option. For a brief sweet period of time I could not even consider being with another woman. Perhaps my single mountain man days of loneliness were coming to an end.

Adventures led us to try out more climbing together. She really trusted me now and it showed when we went climbing. A natural athlete, once she surrendered to trusting her belayer and the equipment she excelled. She liked climbing, and that made me like her more.

One day we were talking about Yosemite Valley, and I told her all about the place. We looked at schedules to see if we could fit in a trip there before she left. She had a wedding in Boulder in June. We could go to the wedding and then bust out to Yosemite for a week. Perfect right?

We left Gunnison for Boulder in her vehicle on a Thursday afternoon so we could check into the hotel. The employees of the hotel were oh-so fake friendly, I don’t know why things like that bother me, but they do. Give me real friendliness or nothing, I say. But when you’re throwing down some cash to stay in a place things like fake-friendliness come along with it. Or maybe it’s just one of the downsides of Boulder, a place where I usually enjoy myself.

We walked the streets of downtown Boulder, had dinner and drank at a local bar. The next day we ran at the Flatirons, and then checked into yet another hotel for the wedding evening. We ran around town getting nice clothes for the wedding. She dressed me. My only wedding attire I owned was a pink tie that was dumpster dived.

The wedding was a disaster for us. All the other couples were married and kept inquiring about our situation, “Are you moving to the east coast? Are you getting married soon?”

The event brought out the reality of our situation, we had two more weeks together and that was it. If I couldn’t survive one night as her date for a wedding, there was no way I could survive the long distance Colorado-East Coast relationship. That night in the hotel I told her I didn’t think we would be together once she left Colorado. She cried, I felt guilty. It was a sad night in Boulder.

We went to Yosemite anyways. The drive was long, and we tried to talk it out. That first night we stayed in Salt Lake City with a good friend I consider a sister. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend and poured her heart to us over beers and dinner. We didn’t bother telling her we’d just broken up. Sometimes there isn’t time for everyone to share their feelings.

We arrived to Yosemite and agreed to make the most of the situation. Upon arrival I learned that the friend I was staying with had just broken up with his girlfriend as well.

She got her first taste of climbing on Yosemite granite, but there an air of unhappiness between us. We started to argue when left alone. I told her I needed space. It was agreed she would spend a night nearby with a friend from Gunnison who was working for the park service. We would meet up the following day and regroup.

That night after we arrived back at my friend’s house there was a pile of my clothes and belongings in the house, with a note from Lynn saying I needed to call her. When I did she was in tears. She told me she needed to go home. I stood outside in the meadow in back of the house, the sun was setting. It was the brightest orange I’d ever seen. She asked if I wanted to go back with her. We’d only been in Yosemite for three days, and I’d yet to climb anything serious. I decided to stay. She drove 16 hours straight back to Gunnison. I was in Yosemite with Scott, a friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend as well. It was a sad situation, but I figured I was where I was supposed to be at that juncture in life, with good company, and a perfect place to reflect on what had just happened.

We’d made plans to climb Stoner’s Highway, a ten-pitch 5.10 that goes up the middle of the Middle Cathedral, right across from the monolith, 3,300 foot El Capitan. I figured that it would be just a regular outing on the rock that would pose only minor difficulties given the 5.10 rating, and the fact that I’ve been climbing at the grade for ten years.

We jokingly dubbed ourselves, “Team Breakup” while hiking up the trail to the wall. I was more than eager to do some longer climbing; we’d been festering around the short, one-pitch, well travelled climbs for the last few days and I had the itch to get a few hundred feet off the ground. With a game of rock, paper, scissors it was decided that I would start out with the leading, an easy, but loose and crumbly pitch led us up to the beginning of the more difficult climbing.

I’ve always found that when space is gained into the vertical, above the ground, my head space becomes different as well. Reflection is natural when looking around you in the vertical world, and in nature. That day my thoughts were with Lynn; they were thoughts of guilt, I’d led her all the way out to Yosemite to realize that my own selfishness was at the heart of the journey. I wanted to experience being up high on the walls, and she was a beginner and we were broken up. How did everything happen so fast?

The meditation and reflection of hanging on the wall is gained through climbing. This day the climbing demanded some serious focus, much more than I had anticipated. After my first mellow lead, it was Scott’s turn on the sharp end of the rope. I watched him climb 25 feet to my left, with no gear off the belay. Had he fallen, he would have violently come swinging back my way. So falling wasn’t an option. Scott brilliantly completed the sequence, secured more gear, and then climbed another run-out section. He arrived at the belay, and then I cleaned the pitch, and soon it was my turn for a run-out lead.

Scott had set the tone with his incredible, delicate, climbing, and I was determined to emulate his style. I climbed up off the belay about five feet, clipped a piton, a relic from the 70s, all rusted, a ‘maybe’ piece of protection (pro), as in if you fall maybe it will hold. Then I climbed 20 feet out to the left, heading for a crack system. At this point I was on a small perch, contemplating my fall with the toes of my feet on some good footholds, my hands on some decent holds as well, eyeing the next moves to get to where I could place some pro in a crack that would hold a fall. It’s at this point in the climbing where complete focus is necessary. I zoned in to the moment, delicately stepped up eyeing a handhold, leaned into it, and stepped up to where I could place some gear. I was safe and again, and climbed up a decently protected crack system to the next belay.

Stoner’s Highway demanded this type of dangerous, delicate, in-the-moment, type of climbing, pitch after pitch. Scott seemed to get the most difficult pitches, with 30 and even 40 foot run-outs on 5.10 climbing. He told me he didn’t think he could have done the moves if he hadn’t just broken up with his girlfriend, and was in the state of mind he was. I don’t think my breakup figured in to my risk taking. I just wanted to be up climbing on the wall with a friend, and reflect.

We made it up to the ninth pitch, and it was my turn to lead. The first bolt was a good 20 feet up above the belay, and I couldn’t confidently reach it. I climbed back down to Scott, and he went up. He felt the same about the risk, it was too much. We rappelled back to the ground.

I wanted to climb more with Scott, but he was scheduled to go up and climb El Capitan in a couple days and needed to prepare for a four day climb. I was bummed because he was the perfect partner for the situation, but alas Team Breakup was only destined for one climb.

I spent a few more days in Yosemite Valley, and got my fix, managing to do some somewhat difficult multi-pitch climbing, sorting my thoughts out up on the wall, up above the more complex horizontal world. I arranged a ride back; Tory, one of my best friends was moving back to Gunnison after three plus years in Los Angeles. He welcomed the company, and he also listened to me about Lynn. A good listener, who is also a good friend, is invaluable. He told me about his struggles with women and relationships too; all of our struggles as humans are similar.

Back in Gunnison Lynn was set to leave in a week. I met up with her for coffee the morning I returned from California. She shared with me just how upset she truly was about my selfishness in Yosemite. I felt sad. I tried my best to listen and not be defensive. In relationships I don’t know if it’s better to be heartbroken or the heartbreaker.

A week passed and we didn’t see each other. Finally it was her last night in town.

We had a few items of each other’s and agreed to exchange them at her house, and say goodbye. It was raining when I rode my bike over there. Her dog was the first thing I saw in the porch. A dog that had been previously abused, she was confused by all the boxes packed up. It was sad. Moving is a confusing thing.

We said goodbye and wished each other well. As we hugged I looked over her shoulder to see a pile of climbing gear, since we’d parted in Yosemite two weeks ago she’d purchased a rope, and more equipment. She had the bug. At least I gave her something, I thought, the love for climbing.

It’s been a couple months now. It’s fall again. We exchange emails about our lives, she’s found places to climb in the East, and she’s leading now. Again, I feel confident about life, and optimistic. I’ve finally experienced being in love; it only took 31 years. Once you’ve loved, life is different. For all of my dating life I wondered if I would ever truly love, and feel confident enough to share that, now I know that’s possible.

As I finish this, my life is in boxes, preparing for a move, down south to Durango, a warmer Colorado mountain town. We climbers, more often than not, live transient lifestyles. We know that life is temporary, change is the only constant. What is there to hold onto to believe in?

One truth for me still stands out; something a wise climber-friend said to me, “women are the greatest thing on this planet.”

Well, women and climbing, of course.

This piece is featured in my first book, Climbing Out of Bed, a collection of 25 climbing and mountain town stories. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coming Out Of Dishwashing Retirement (photo by Mike Brenneman)

The latest turn in our economy has forced a lot of people to do things they normally would not to earn a living. For yours truly, I’ve recently come out of retirement as a dishwasher.

About two years ago I gained full-time employment with Western State College, which meant a close (I thought) to a 15 year career in restaurants, where I primarily washed dishes. The job also allowed me to move back home to the Gunnison Valley from Salt Lake City, Utah where I was temporarily living in a basement and washing dishes for minimum wage.

Starting July 1st at the close to the state’s fiscal year, I’ve been one of the many victims of the sour economy and reduced state appropriations for higher education, and my full-time job was cut to half-time, leaving a void in my bank account needing to be filled. Leaving the Gunnison Valley again really isn’t an option I wanted to pursue, I’ve done that three times and each time I found myself pining to return to this sacred place and our unique community.

At first my thoughts were to escape to living in a tent and simply working my half-time job. That worked in my twenties but now in my thirties I appreciate my writing desk, a shower, a place to keep my bikes, and all the other comforts of having a roof over my head too much to make that sacrifice.

I quickly found myself speaking with my previous employer in Crested Butte, inquiring if they were in need of some dishwashing help. Of course they were, in July in Crested Butte a reliable dishwasher is always needed. So there I was back at my old stomping grounds in the dish pit.

I was somewhat nostalgic about the return. I still have many dear friends that work at this restaurant and the owners have always treated me extremely well. Many times I would leave for the winter on rock climbing excursions and return to beg for my job back come summer. They have always found work for me, and for this return I was extremely grateful given the state of the economy.

Like many people do these days when something significant happens in their life, before I went back for my first shift I made a Facebook post to the effect of, “I’m coming out of dishwashing retirement…hope I can keep it Zen with the Donita’s crew.”

The nostalgia lasted a whole five minutes. Quickly I found myself bummed out at the reality of my situation. I’d returned to the same position I held for my very first job at 16. I’ve got a college degree, many articles published in respected publications and websites, and a few years of experience under my belt working in public relations in higher education. This was failure right?

My depression over the dishwashing situation was the result of some real fears, but the greatest fear that I’ve failed with my professional career is unfounded. Things are different here in the Gunnison Valley; we cannot measure our success strictly by what we do for a living. Here, even though most of us are overeducated for our occupations, we do what we have to do. I’ve worked with Ivy League graduated in restaurants in Crested Butte, or those with PhDs who abandoned lucrative careers to live in the majestic Gunnison Valley. We are successful if we are healthy and if our spirits are fed. That’s why the Gunnison Valley is home, and why I would rather wash dishes here than have a “successful” career elsewhere

Now that I’m a month into coming out of retirement, I’m doing my best to accept the struggle of being a dish diver, to “keep it Zen” and try to not lose my cool when the dishes start piling up like they will this busy time of year. I’m also trying to separate what I do to make money and who I truly am.

So cheers to everyone in this valley who does what they have to do to survive and continue to live here. Most of us are overqualified for what we do, but we love it here. And besides soon enough the off-season will be here and all the hard work of the summer will pay off for recreation down the line.

Below is a link to Pete Jordan's book "Dishwashwer" on Amazon. He's the guy who attempted to wash dishes in all 50 states and even appeared on Letterman. He also was a zine-ster. The book should be pretty cheap, and I get hooked up if someone buys a copy.

Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (P.S.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Black Canyon, according to Duane Vandenbusche

The Black Canyon National Park, just a few minutes from Montrose, is one of the most dramatic canyons in the country, offering visitors a chance to look 2,000 feet down to the Gunnison River that flows below. For those curious about the history of the canyon, look no further that the pages of “The Black Canyon of the Gunnison” by Duane Vandenbusche.

Vandenbusche, a professor of history at Western State College of Colorado (WSC) in Gunnison, knows the canyon inside and out. He’s been exploring the Black Canyon since he arrived to the region in 1962, before the Blue Mesa reservoir and dams within the canyon. His greatest adventure was being a member of the team that made the first successful voyage through the canyon, from the town of Cimarron to its end.

“It was a four-day adventure and I lost 10 pounds,” Vandenbusche says. “The depths of the canyon kept us on edge the whole time. It’s a daunting place, some days we only had 30 minutes of sunshine because of the steep canyon walls.”

The steepness and narrowness of the canyon Vandenbusche says is unrivaled. “The Gunnison River in the Black Canyon falls six times more than the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.”

In the book other groundbreaking adventures in the canyon are documented, most notably the famous 1901 William Torrence/Abraham Fellows expedition that lasted 10 days. Fellows had an engineering degree from Yale and Torrence was a native of Montrose who was familiar with the canyon. The expedition was done for the U.S. Geological Survey to find a site to divert water to the nearby and arid Uncompahgre Valley.

In the book, Vandenbusche writes that Torrence and Fellows “crossed the Gunnison River 76 times with no knowledge of what lay before them….climbing, swimming in roaring and cold water.”

The expedition discovered a place for the Gunnison Tunnel, which today still provides water for Uncompahgre Valley and its citizens. It was the first U.S. Reclamation project in history and last year the tunnel celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Another major feature that carries historical significance is the former Denver and Rio Grande railroad that ran through the canyon. The railroad ultimately failed and was plagued by the natural features of the canyon, including falling rocks.

“The Black Canyon of the Gunnison” also covers the excellent fishing of the canyon, rock and ice climbing, ice skating and kayaking. Towns that were buried into history by the Blue Mesa Reservoir also are included.

“The Black Canyon of the Gunnison” is published by Arcadia Publishing, based out of San Francisco, California. It is available at local bookstores and also at the South Rim Visitors Center in the Black Canyon National Park.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Climbing Out of the Darkness Into the Light

This article appears in the March issue of Colorado Central Magazine.


I woke up in Penitente Canyon freezing. It was Easter Sunday. This was back when my philosophy toward camping equipment was in its experimental stages; but I guess equipping for the great outdoors always is.

My philosophy was that two average sleeping bags would equal one good bag. The spring weather in the high country of Colorado proved to me quickly that I was wrong.

At our campsite, just a couple minutes from the climbing inside the canyon, I decided to get the stove going for some hot water. It sputtered and failed to light. I looked to my climbing partner and we immediately decided breakfast in La Garita, a few-minutes-drive away would be a good idea.

I was grumpy and in a sour mood from not sleeping but it quickly got better in the old sweet café in La Garita, the only breakfast joint in the small town.

Penitente Canyon has always lured me back time and time again. Over the years I’ve heard stories of the Penitentes, a branch of Catholicism that used to use the canyon for religious ceremonies. One of the ceremonies I’d heard about was on Easter Sunday they used to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, actually hanging a member of the sect to a cross then walking him through the canyon; suffering leading to salvation.

In that café I thought about the Penitentes, and my minimal suffering the night before. I thought about darkness coming from light.

Driving back to the canyon, full of hot food and caffeinated I was excited, almost giddy; temperatures were getting better, the sky was that blue that it only is in the mountains, and we were about to climb, which in good conditions always makes me pleasant.

That day we spent doing what climbers do. Climbing up, coming down, being happy, yelling silly things, making inappropriate jokes, testing ourselves, falling, getting back on the wall, trying again. We did the classic climb next to the Virgin Guadalupe mural, (often mistaken to be the Virgin Mary). I thought and wondered if fifty years ago on the same day, Easter Sunday, how the Penitentes might be using the canyon, and what they would have thought if someone told them about the most popular use of the canyon, rock climbing, and how they would react.

Near the end of the day we tried one last climb, that time of the day when a climber knows the sun will be leaving the rock shortly, and it is time to savor those last few moments before the cold Colorado air kicks back in.

On my turn, I tied in, went up put the very tips of my fingers into pockets, later using those pockets for the centimeter of my climbing shoe that would fit in, as my fingers searched higher for more small holds. This particular climb was painful on my fingertips, but climbing is one of those sports where you have to endure some pain for success.

The climb ended, the light faded, we were full of adrenaline and we’d tried hard and it was time for beer. Salvation!

The climbing in Penitente Canyon is primarily short, when compared with other Colorado areas; climbs are usually thirty to sixty feet tall. It’s also easily accessible; a short five minute hike from parking leads one to the climbs. One of the greatest features of the canyon is that it is both very friendly to beginning climbers (numerous easy-moderate routes exist) and challenging to the best of the best.

In fact, perhaps the most famous female climber of all-time, Lynn Hill, was recently featured in Climbing Magazine, on a popular Penitente route, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” located just a few feet from the virgin mural. The climb is one of many that was established by Bob D’Antonio, a pioneer of the canyon who spent countless hours establishing routes. D’Antonio is also the author of the guidebook for the canyon, called, “Rock Climbing the San Luis Valley.”

The rock is volcanic and is featured with huecos, pockets and some cracks. The Sangre de Christo mountains stand proudly to the west towering above the San Luis Valley. The canyon has a spiritual feel to it. Hikers often stroll leisurely through the canyon to watch climbers. In the spring and fall climbers from all over Colorado, ranging from Denver to Durango enjoy the offerings of the canyon.

Penitente Canyon is located on Bureau of Land Management Land (BLM) property and is managed by the Saguache Field Office. Camping is available for a moderate fee and group sites are available.

Penitente is one of many climbing areas in Colorado that hold a special place in my heart. To me it’s shrouded in mystery of what the Penitentes actually did there. (I look forward to learning more in the pieces accompanied to this article.)

Most of all, it’s a place I remember for that Easter Sunday, when I woke up cold and miserable and left, tired and happy. A place in the great outdoors where one can come out of the darkness, into the light.



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