On May 17th my good friend and climbing partner, Lucas Dunn, passed away on Tahquitz Rock. Writing has always been a way I’ve worked through things in my life and after the accident members of our little community reached out with similar experiences.
It’s such a familiar place. The wind lashing at my back. Cold granite against uninsulated skin. Pressing my arms into my core as I hold a belay device with a frozen hand, the other clenched in a pant pocket. I have yet to correlate this part of the climbing experience with anything positive. Many of my happiest moments on big climbs came because of anxiously waiting on belay ledges, but I could never put it out. Not like traffic or a bad movie. The emptiness and void tore at my soul and the loneliness stripped away my ego and left me reminding myself why I was on the Hulk in the first place. I needed to be there.
It has been almost a month to the day since my friend Lucas passed away while descending the Vampire at Tahquitz Rock, in the sleepy town of Idyllwild. It was a breezy and cool morning in mid-May, cold and chaotic at the high belays. While loose rock caused the tragedy, I can’t help but remember the wind while tied into those bolts. I was so relieved to have gotten up that pitch of climbing, and with only short cruxes after amidst moderate crack climbing the route should have been in the bag. In the captains chair, facing an environment that made me uncomfortable, I opted out. Something I am prone to doing. In the middle of June, two-and-a-half pitches up the Sunspot Dihedral, I wouldn’t get that choice.
Climbing had been a part of my life for the better part of 11 years, and for one reason or another has been woven into my DNA. The accident didn’t stop me from doing what I loved any more than it stopped me from eating. Indeed, it seemed that once my appetite stored up some calories I was ready to head back up to climb.
Unfortunately, ‘climb’ is not a singular thing you can do, like Buy or Win. A big hike up a peak is no less ‘climb’ than a 10 foot plastic boulder problem in a high school gym. I could waltz up the same easy routes I’d always done, but once it came to a runout or loose section I couldn’t help but put two and two together. I couldn’t help but consider the consequences of a slipped foot at this instance or if that block came loose. Though objective and rational I was constantly faced with these damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations and having to reconcile mortality on a Sunday afternoon tromping up an easy climb with my Mom.
I knew, objectively, that I was safe. I knew that I loved to climb. The brain and the heart are two VERY disconnected organs. The f*#kers could never agree on anything.
If you don’t have a bucket list, make one. I don’t mean to say that in any, we’re all gonna die, sort of way. While that phrase has lost no truth in 10,000 years of being spoken, what I’m getting at is you should make SURE to do some things on it – NOW. Somehow a bucket list has come to mean a list of things you do as you’re dying.
I call bullsh#t. A bucket list should be something that, when faced with a few free hours or couple hundred bucks extra in your bank account, you indulge by doing something that you actually want to do. Start a garden, get shot out of a cannon, whatever.
Up until recently, I had piggybacked on my climbing partners ‘list’. Of course, it was all climbing, but what else interested me? If I was going to delegate a portion of my life to accomplishing some goal, of course I would spend my twenties doing all of the ones under the folder ‘rock climbing.’ So in some way, I was eating my Spinach and Broccoli. Lucas had, written out, all of his climbing goals. There weren’t many, but they were PROUD for a kid his age. At 21 he had impressive goals, but more importantly he was on the track to completing them – even a bit ahead of schedule.
Back track two years. Another freezing belay, another buffeted granite buttress. This time it is the classic Red Dihedral route, on the incredible Hulk formation in the High Sierras. Relatively moderate, but incredibly sustained, this was a massive step up for both of us. When looking back at the routes I was really proud of, the climbs that defined who I was and my style… a surprising amount of them I suffered through with Lucas leading charge. I’d gotten pretty good at getting through those hard days, and had a few tricks up my sleeve. For this belay in particular, I had built it just before a short crux section, a favorite trick of mine.
The Red Dihedral was hyped by none other than superman climber Chris McNamera as “a HUGE day” if done the popular way, Car-to-car. It was about as hard as I could climb, at sea level and right off the deck, but losing 50 pounds of baby fat had given me some confidence. That, and a teenage ropegun.
A few hours earlier, we had bushwhacked up an intermittent trail for four hours to reach the formation. The day started out looking Huge, and sitting at a cold belay with sand draining slowly through the hourglass only added to its ‘hugeness.’
Sometimes I would just stare at the rock, when tethered to a belay. I would pick a spot and disect the grains of the granite, absorbing myself in the immediacy of what is in front of me and tuning out the noise of the obvious racket all around. A great coping mechanism, really. Finding a spot, the eyes dial in to the diorite, feldspar, quartz. Small mites appear, where were they before? Were they always here? They have six… no eight legs. They seem to run around without any appearant agenda, oblivious and aloof to their spectacular position three hundred feet up a cliff.
Suddenly, from somewhere above the wind and I, I hear it.
The locking carabiner is quickly detached – I’d been holding the gate with my fingertips to start spinning as soon as I heard the call. A bit of OCD, a speed climbing habit, or some task to focus on to take me out of the reality of my position. I hurredly perform all of these tasks, not thinking outside of their immediacy, until the rope tugs at my harness and pulls me up towards the summit and glory while my fat ass drags me the other direction.
Two years after climbing the Red Dihedral, I was back with a different Luca(s).
Positive Vibrations and The Salathe Wall. Positive Vibrations and The Salathe Wall.
That was the mantra playing out in my mind for the six weeks I spent living in Idyllwild. Like Lucas, I had a list. It was his list, and I’d be damned if I let him down.
Every decision I made was to make those goals happen, it seemed. Stay out late and drink with the locals, or early bed time for a morning run? Laundry or a hard bouldering session? My girlfriend had left me a few months earlier and I traded an apartment and domestic life for a trailer in the mountains. Each morning I’d wake up, resenting the dawn, I would remind myself that this was MY choice to be here. I was here for a reason.
The day of the accident was a training day. To do those big climbs we had a perfect training ground, The Vampire. Sustained, but with distinct cruxes – not unlike the tall granite walls we were heading out to do that summer. A week before, I had another training day, climbing Super Pooper to Price of Fear. For Lucas, everything had a natural progression – this led to that led to this.
I was working at the hiking shop for the Pacific Crest Trail hiker season. It’s a short window, lasting about six weeks from late April to early June, depending on the snow that year deposited on high mountain passes. It was my last 6 weeks working for the company, after spending 7 years down in San Diego at another location, and the plan was to follow the hikers north to the high mountains after the through hiker season ended, and take whatever I had saved up with me to buy enough beer and cliff bars to live a few months among the bigger peaks. Early June Lucas and I would climb The Salathe Wall on El Capitan, and early July we had booked to climb Positive Vibrations on the Incredible Hulk.
A few days after the accident I promised myself I would do those things. It was time to start the natural progression, and finish the goals we set out to do.
If there were any doubt of climbing being a part of my genetic makeup, that was washed away after receiving all of the support from the community in the wake of Lucas’ death. THIS was home to me. I would sit in my trailer after work, exhausted and still trying to put the pieces together, and read wonderful message after wonderful message on facebook, email, even hand-written and left on my windsheild. For a guy who always thought himself as a bit of a loner it was, to say the least, humbling.
One such character was a friend-of-a-friend, a typical climber that fits no stereotype. Lukasz was driven, a humble man with a modest lifestyle and rich qualities. Not a bad climber, either, and my lone day climbing with him was out at Red Rocks as he climbed on .12′s in the Gallery with a big grin.
The die-hards, you can’t keep them off the rock. As soon as we started talking, inevitably it came out that I had scores to settle. I knew I wasn’t ready to lead the pitches I was preparing myself for on Positive Vibrations, and Lukasz had mentioned wanting to try the Sun Spot dihedral, a huge corner system rising just to the left of Positive Vibrations. A touch harder, but I could have the confidence of a top-rope to allow me the experience without the consequence.
I knew I wanted to climb the Salathe Wall and Positive Vibrations, but I also realized that I wanted them on my terms – I wanted to do Lucas proud and lead those cruxes. Those days will come soon enough.
The rope above was tugging hard. We both knew we were in for some tough work ahead and had to move.
Lukasz had just climbed the third pitch of the Sun Spot Dihedral route. The first two pitches are shared with Positive Vibrations, but are not too difficult and have this big, distracting dihedral above you to take the mind off any supposed cruxes. This pitch, however, busts left – away from the windy furrows of the ‘Vibes and off to the arcing corner system that makes the Sun Spot up above.
Somehow, back at the trailer 3 weeks ago, I had told myself I would just be top-roping today and could just enjoy the climbing. Now, faced with a 15-foot traverse without protection, harder than any pitch I’d tried since the accident, I feel a sharp sting. Hubris, I think.
Three hundred feet up, seven hundred to go, and I realize I may have f*#ked up.
I claw my way out an alcove and up under a roof, big and dead horizontal, that cuts left across a steep slab with only a down-pointing flake for your hands and naught for your climbing kit to slide into. Just before I pull the last piece of protection that keeps me onto the right-most end, I put it together – the swing, the helmet not doing sh#t, a crash, lowering in the wind, helicopter, hours passing by.
There is a saying I jokingly have with friends, when the moves get somewhat spicy. You see, unlike my parents generation, or theirs before, I don’t have to worry about a draft. Not really. This undercling, this is my vietnam. This is my chance to do the thing that is scary. Of course it’s bullsh#t, and not at all a good analogy – more of a funny thing. However, in fight-or-flight lizard brain mode, you don’t really consider the intracacies of that fallacy. Instead you pull fiber off the bone and crank on the cold stone like you’re garroting Charlie.
A moment later, there I was, firmly wedged in the hand crack that signaled the end of the traverse.
At least I knew I could do it.
I had a moment of confidence as well, on the Red Dihedral, with the other Lucas. It was on my first hard lead, when I had climbed myself into a corner that I had to climb out of, both literally and figuratively. Of course, climbing to me is MADE of these moments, when you have to act and react to stimuli and be fully engaged.
Trivial as it was, I got pretty damn scared on the smooth 5.9 laybacking. Pulling out of it, I realized that I could get up the cruxes, that if I could do one maybe I could do them all.
A funny thing happened just before I joined Lukasz at the belay atop pitch 3. I started to actually ENJOY the climbing. It was fun. It was engaging. Had the situation been a bit different, I could see this as almost being a blast.
I wonder often how the whole climb must have felt for Lukasz. You see, I had been living and traning at altitude for 6 weeks for a very similar climb. Lukasz came from a conference in Japan the day before, flying into berkely then crashing in Lee Vining. Hardly an ideal pre-race ritual.
Looking up at the long, sustained fourth pitch I could sense his day was catching up with him. As he fought his way to the top, disappearing soon into the tightly packed corner systems, I was left alone at the belay yet again.
Being with Lucas as he was passing, I had to tell myself that life was bigger than what it was. That there was a deeper meaning to who he was, to who I am, and to what way I lived my life. So much of it had been fight-or-flight thinking, self preservation if you will that allowed me to wrap my brain around what had just happened.
Do this, hold that, wave this. Just do the thing, do the thing, do the thing you have to do. Don’t think about why or what, do it. It is so common in climbing, but like Miyomoto Musashi wrote “when you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things.”
Somehow I got through that morning. If I could get through that accident, I could get through the next crux. I knew it.
I’m snapped awake again by a tug at my harness.
Right in front of my face is 5.11 climbing, with 170 feet of 9-something milometer rope out. Lukasz had to fight for this pitch, and he is a monster. Falling down low, with so much rope stretch, will likely deposit me back on this ledge for the first 15 feet, and despite all the objectivity in the world it is not a pleasant idea to take long top rope falls way up here.
Pulling hard, digging deep, I started moving – right off the belay I am nothing but frozen sinew and fear. I strain at each reach and claw out the gear buried in the high sierra granite. Just like the pitch before it was right at my limit, it scared me, and from the crucible I came out finding the delicate steps and jams to be a beautiful dance across stone. That same fear turned itself into affirmation of who I was, of what I was – that this climbing stuff, it isn’t that bad.
At the belay above, again I was left to my own devices. For hours this cycle repeated itself.
Coming to the end of the difficult climbing, it was clear the route was in the bag. There was a lot left, a circuitous ledge system above and some supposed variation Lukasz wanted that would take the last pitch of the Positive Vibrations to lead to the summit ridge.
Waning from Jet Lag, I let Lukasz take a breather as I set off on the easy pitches, leading to a cold dank alcove. We traded off the sharp end of the rope so Lukasz could navigate the final pitch of Positive Vibrations, above and around the corner that made my little alcove I sat in. Just as he pressed up onto the block a few feet above me, he turned down to say a few words that were obscured by a stiff breeze. Apparently things changed rapidly where he was, or so I guessed he had said, as the sun shone strong on his back and face as he glanced down to me. Judging by the angle of the shadows I knew we had to move.
That same cold alcove, that same cold belay – I find it all over. I found it on the Mithril Dihedral on mount Russel, I found it on the Leaning Tower, I found it on the Red Dihedral. With each of those there was a moment, when the sun arced high enough overhead to light the nooks and crannies that had avoided it thus far, when you are bathed in warmth and comfort for the first time that day. Long routes require early starts, and early starts push the loving rays of sun on North-Facing routes until well into the afternoon.
Time erases some memories but immortalizes others. I’m reminded now of a moment on the Red Dihedral, just before the final crux fingercrack. We had froze and sweat our way up the lower corner and were faced with this tall, thin obstacle with a prominent crack splitting it. Just as Lucas led up into it, confidently jamming and pulling through it, the sun shone bright on our backs, illuminating our smiling faces and seeing us to the summit.
That cold alcove, waiting for Lukasz, that was the worst one. All around me the rock was unsettled, loose, laying about carelessly without regard for life below. It was dank, chilled, and stank of old urine. Looking up above, just a few feet away, I saw a steep rock wall. We had told ourselves that the hard work was over, and that the summit was all but guarunteed. Looking up at the steep, presumably blank wall above, then looking back down the trail that lead to my car… it could not seem further away.
What after this pitch? What if, as I’m leading, I get off route and step on a loose boulder? What if the confusing ridge puts me off-route, eating up time, and we are stuck up here in the dark? Could I see rocks falling, or the end of my rope after the rappel?
Just as my mind reeled from one catastrophe to the next, I felt a familiar tug on my harness.
Losing a friend will certainly help you understand how important relationships are. In between my time in Idyllwild working at the shop and my summer in the sierras I went on an overnight backpacking trip with my little brother in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him better the last few years, and had been meaning to find something we could do together besides climb. Lucas passing away helped me turn that “been meaning” part into reality.
We hiked out to Red Tahquitz and set up a camp on the very tip top of a peaklet, overlooking the gorgeous desert divide, carumba, Saddle junction and even the peak. Just a few weeks earlier I had run the ridge that makes the divide, passing through several forms of mountain ecosystem while following a path that lopped back and forth, East and West along the skyline. That evening, with my brother, the sun shone bright yellow, then orange, then red, then pink.
That first night, sitting on top a ridge looking down on a mountain that had been such an instrumental part of my life, I had clarity. I had clarity that this was what I did, that this was what I loved. That climbing is only my way of interpreting a beautiful world that I deeply wanted to know, that I intimately wanted to be a part of. Without Lucas’ list I had my own, I know what it is I am seeking in the mountains.
Later that summer the ridge, the peak, and almost all that I gazed upon would be ravaged by an incredible mountain fire. Fortune gifted me an evening with the Goddess before the Phoenix took her away. I will remember that night the rest of my life.
This time I heard no ‘on belay.’ The wind must have drowned him out.
I jammed my fingers in the awkward, flared cracks in my little alcove and went to follow Lukasz, yet again. Yet again I asked myself if I could top out this next obstacle.
Both hands on the little pinnacle, press, feet up. As I stood and unclipped the bolt, I wondered at the change in color right in front. So much of that day had been spent staring at granite that I started to notice nuances – this rock was different. It was yellow. I turned around and saw why, as the sun painted the rock from low on the horizon beautiful autumn colors. Following the vistas back, forth, and down took my breath away; below was a thousand feet of air, looking all down the Positive Vibrations route sweeping away beneath. Climbing this penultimate pitch would put us at the end of the Red Dihedral, on to familiar ground.
I turned back to the rock and looked for my way, and saw it weave and trend right across the most gorgeous rock I had seen in my life.
Hand jam after hand jam, this was the last hard climbing, but it wasn’t hard. It was secure. It was warm. The deep jams comforted.
Every time I had to move my feet I was forced to look down at the route Positive Vibes. I was supposed to be here, but not like this. I’m with the wrong Lucas.
When people leave your life unexpectedly it takes a long time to really understand what it means to be without them. Even to this day I will pull out my phone as if to text something funny to Lucas. No longer distracted by fear, wind, cold, I realized that I was ON Positive Vibrations, but not with Lucas. Eight, ten, twelve weeks of my life I had spent preparing to climb this route, with Lucas, and leadthis pitch. Here I was, but Lucas was nowhere to be found. The reality was, he would never be there, not like before. So many months I had envisioned being up here with him, and being there without put pencil to paper. I understood what had happened, I understood what life was going to look like.
I knew I could go on, I knew that if I could get up Sun Spot Dihedral I could cross any obstacle that came my way. I also knew, just then, that I had to do it without my friend.
I danced my way up the best and worst pitch of my life, leaving tears and saving memories.
It was late in the evening when Lucas and I got back to our cars after climbing the Red Dihedral. It was unsaid, and our ego’s may have been looking too far forward to realize it, but we did something amazing that day. For us. We pushed hard, jumped into the arena and overcame. It is so hard in life to step out of your comfort zone, especially when there are sunny climbs in Tuolumne meadows a stones throw from the road. These are the moments that define you, that you live by. The rock stripped us bare and we built ourselves back up, a bit longer in the tooth and no worse for wear.
Having a beer at the Woah Nelly deli just before closing, Lucas with an Apple Juice, life was good. Life is good.
Lukasz on the approach to the Hulk
Lucas on Roller Coaster in Joshua Tree