On The Run

“We’re on the run!” Wild eyed and grinning with adrenaline, N called to me out the window of his red Sienna minivan as we merged onto highway 211 leaving Creek Pasture. Snow flurries fell around our small caravan as we fled from the place all of us considered to be where we felt most at home. We were hoping to find somewhere safer to hide, not from the impending storm, but from the pandemic that had been sweeping the nation.

The Sheriff allowed us to camp one last night in Indian Creek before San Juan County was closed to non-residents. The setting felt apocalyptic as the snow flurries turned into a full-on blizzard outside J’s van where we had congregated. We passed around a bottle of whiskey, the burn of the alcohol helping to dull the anxiety that was reflected on every face. We had no idea where to go, but we took solace knowing at least we were in it together.

[Both the Literal and Metaphorical Storm Building in the Creek [Photo by Q.R.]

We were a misfit crew of crack loving van-dwellers, each of us with a different colored license plate and a different story to tell but one thing in common: none of us had anywhere better to go when we were told to “go home,” so we had come here. Home. Now we had just been told that we needed to leave. None of us begrudged the county for kicking us out; they were just doing their best to take care of themselves in hard times, same as us.

The next day we headed for the small and somewhat forgotten area of Dove Creek, just across the border in Colorado. We thought we would be the only people there and could isolate ourselves in peace, but that proved to be far from the case; everything went wrong immediately. Within twenty-four hours, first we got a van hopelessly stuck in the mud, and then we found ourselves at the wrath of a local who screamed at us for being where we didn’t belong. Wounded by the hostility and lack of compassion from a fellow climber, most of us including myself hung back and avoided the confrontation. A few well-spoken pacifists from the group rose to the occasion and managed to convince them that we weren’t a threat.

[Hopelessly stuck in the mud [Photo by J.S.]

Discouraged by the incident, the next day the group split as our opinions differed on what the responsible thing to do was. For half the group it made more sense to stay, since travelling increased the risks both to us and those we came in contact with. For the other half including myself, we felt there wasn’t enough climbing potential in the area to justify our presence, and so we decided to try again somewhere else. Watching the group break apart so soon planted a small seed of a different type of anxiety that would grow over time: that we would all inevitably disband and I would be left to face this now seemingly hostile world alone.

Four of us left the next day for North Wash, a place deep in the canyon country of Utah that is home to vast amounts of undeveloped or forgotten wingate splitters (aka Indian Creek style crack climbs) and two infrequently climbed yet mega classic hard lines: No Way José, and the Trail of Tears. If Butch Cassidy and the other outlaws from back in the days of the Wild Wild West could hide out there in the Robber’s Roost, surely we could find our own sort of refuge to live out our days in peace without being criticized nor posing a threat to anyone.

As I started driving towards the desert and re-entered cell phone service, I was upset to find the local from before had tracked down my email address and had contacted me. They had once again had a change of heart and insisted I leave, claiming that as a traveler I did not contribute to the local community and thus had no place there. It broke my heart to read those words, because giving back to the climbing community is the very thing I care about the most. First the Sheriff (who was only doing his job of course), and now this. For the second time in less than a week I was being told that I didn’t belong in a climbing area, the only place I’ve ever felt like I belonged. Not only that, but I apparently did not contribute to the community, despite it being a pursuit I have dedicated a tremendous amount of effort and passion towards for my entire adult life.

It wasn’t the first time I had received criticism for climbing recently. Just a few weeks prior I had visited a local crag in Sacramento while my van was being repaired, and logged an ascent on 8a.nu. The next day I received a mysterious text message from an unknown number discouraging me from recreating. Shortly after that I wrote an article for Climbing Magazine about the dirtbag’s dilemma living a transient lifestyle during these unprecedented times, hoping to garner some understanding and helpful solutions from the community. A fellow Washington climber replied to it with a comment that stuck with me in the months that would follow, saying that “Empathy is still relevant.” In times when the world needed it most, I was starting to experience less and less of it.

I began to think a lot about the way the climbing culture was changing amidst the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. So much of my relationship with the sport is built around my interactions with the community, as an athlete, a traveler, and just a person who has never really felt like I fit in anywhere else. Now I felt completely alienated from it. Were I to mention climbing on social media I knew that everyone with a less mobile ‘home’ would be quick to criticize and wouldn’t understand my choices, or far worse, would think I was setting an example they should follow and would go out climbing in an irresponsible way that might get someone sick.

My thoughts wandered to the early days in Yosemite, as they often do when I’m looking for inspiration from the people I consider my greatest heroes. I frequently reflected on Dean Potter’s voiceover in the documentary Valley Uprising, when he claims he “Just wants to practice his art,” after clashing with hostile rangers. Climbing had been a counterculture pursuit back then. So many of the climbers I idolize from previous generations had to choose to be outcasts and even outlaws in order to follow their passions for climbing. In my generation however, it’s become the complete opposite. Climbing is so mainstream these days that I even got a role in a Facebook commercial this winter for being a climber. Now it felt like climbing itself was becoming counterculture once more, but this time it was not from the world at large, but from the climbing community itself. Apparently empathy wasn’t still relevant from all those who found it easier to criticize than try and understand, as I watched toxic fights break out on Mountain Project and in local climbing forums. I even heard rumors of vigilantes patrolling crags to shame anyone they saw out recreating.

Well over an hour from any services, and affording us the ability to avoid any and all human interaction, North Wash did provide the refuge we had been seeking, for a little while at least. The adventure was high in the wild Utah desert, with no trails or beta for almost everything we climbed. We quested up many a sandy splitter, never knowing if there would be an ancient tat (old webbing) anchor at the top or if we’d have to haul up the bolt kit and put in our own. If it didn’t have one already, we would give them names and carve plaques for future adventurers, the first of which I aptly called, “On the Run.” I learned how to hand drill, and perfected my cairn building skills. I also scrapped my way up first No Way José, my hardest sandstone crack to date at 5.13c, and later celebrated a team send with N on the two pitch Trail of Tears, a 5.13b. Aside from one other pair, our small group were the only climbers for likely hundreds of miles.

[Scrap doggin’ up No Way José in high winds [Photo by N.M.]

Before long however, the outside world started to catch up with us. The RVs camped at the official campgrounds began to decrease in number until they were eventually all gone. Signs started to appear that more and more areas around us were closed. One day a small aircraft flew over our camp with the word “Patrol” written on the underside of each wing, and then it circled back and flew over again. Someone knew we were here. It began to get hotter and hotter, and the long and steep approaches in full sun made even the walls with shade difficult to climb at. We all knew our time was up.

For the next few weeks we struggled to find where to go next. The cool spring temperatures had given way to scorching heat in the desert, yet the mountains remained too snowy for troublesome vans to tackle rough roads. We tested the waters in a number of places, but there was no shortage of trials wherever we went. Crowds, hostility, lack of psyche, conditions… wherever the next escape might be, it remained elusive. At the same time, life inevitably began pulling some of the last remaining members of our crew in different directions as we each looked for answers to the challenges of the troubled world in our own ways.

For several months, we had found a sense of security and a feeling of home in each other as a little dirtbag family, forming connections stronger than even the most bomber hand jam. Eventually though, as unavoidable as the changing of seasons, one by one we disbanded until I was finally and inevitably forced to face the thing I had been most afraid of: I was alone.

Spring had come to an end, but with it so had the worst of the hostile attitude towards climbing and thus my time feeling like I was on the run. I had been running not just from the pandemic and my own fears of facing it by myself, but also from my identity within the sport of climbing itself. As the taboo on climbing finally eased, instead of driving west towards Washington, where I had originally planned on spending my summer working and climbing, I pointed my van in the opposite direction towards Wyoming.

Over time, all the moving and hiding had taken its toll on my psyche, since every time I began to get excited about a climb or a place, I would end up leaving. I hadn’t felt like my climbing had had a purpose in too long, but I had high hopes that I would find it once more on the dolomite pockets of Lander or Tensleep, the alpine spires of the Winds, or the granite cracks of Vedauwoo. One of my biggest idols Todd Skinner had declared Wild Iris the place he had traveled the world searching for, after all. I was looking for my own set of answers to life’s greater questions, and knew it was time to find myself again through climbing. The world was and continues to be changing, but I have to believe there will always be a place for climbing in it.

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