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How It All Began


by Jamie Emerson

May 05, 2002

In the spring of 1998, I was a junior at Michigan State University. I was an avid outdoors person with absolutely no experience rock climbing. When “famous wall climber” Todd Skinner came to visit the school, I jumped at the chance to see his presentation about climbing four of the largest big walls in the world. At the time, my knowledge of rock climbing came only from the occasional glance through an old Marmot catalog, which was stolen from the local backpacking store and my having read the now quite famous John Krakauer account of the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, Into Thin Air. Climbing was some sort of magical quest that only heroes of mythological proportion took part in. Somehow clinging to a sheer rock face thousands of feet off the ground required powers that are not given to the average college student, and thusly I was impressed. They were modern day warriors willing to die for mere thrills. Who were these mad men? (Later I would come to know that alpinists actually are deranged people and their public perception is probably less daring than their actual feats.) Skinner and his slides only fed my naïve brain. Here was a man who had been to some of the most extreme places on earth, and he had photos to prove it. Shot after shot of sickening exposure, towering granite, and mangled, bloody hands filled my ears like the Gospel. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but whoever said that never met Mr. Skinner. He had at least 2500 for every one that night and I might as well have been a parishioner listening to Christ himself, for I was converted! And so began my journey into climbing rocks. For three years I languished in the flat glacial till of mid-Michigan. My only oasis of rock in this desert of farmland was a small sandstone cliff called Grand Ledge. On the best days, which almost never happened save for a few days in early October, the texture of the rock was nearly perfect. Grippy, yet not in the least bit sharp. And on the worst days it was a seeping mossy animal, wet and smelly. It was covered with millipedes, spiders, and a number of creatures which I am sure evolved to live only on these holds which I so desperately desired to pull on. Most of the time it was some where in between. It was forty feet at its highest point and a far cry from the flamboyant photos I obsessed about in the various magazine publications. Top-roping a dirty 5.8 was a long way from Dean Potter free soloing on The Nose, but instead of serving as a discouragement it only added fuel to the fire burning inside. I wanted to climb, anything and everything. For the next three years, that’s exactly what I did. I quickly made my way through the routes at Grand Ledge and 8 months after tying in I hade made a top-rope ascent of Ragged Edge (5.12+), at the time the hardest route at the Ledges. This gave me some sort of inflated (soon to be deflated) pride due to the fact that the average Michigan climber struggles to make 5.10.

Because the local ethic at Grand Ledge is to top rope, and because I was (and still am) easily seduced into obsession over a route, working a problem into submission was often the order of the day. It was no surprise that I joined the legions and soon purchased a crash pad and became a boulderer. I make a distinction between boulderer and climber. A climber wants to play with gadgets, learn about knots, deal with adverse weather conditions and get themselves involved with hundreds of other little activities that actually having nothing to do with physically climbing on rocks. As a boulderer, all I want to do is climb!

When I first began climbing, the local scene included a group of 6 climbers. Three of them were college students. The other three had all been climbing over a decade and one of them, Bruce Bright, has been tying into a rope for over 30 years. Bruce was definitely the Grand (Ledge) Master, a trad to the core. He surely has clipped more rotten fixed pins and placed more homemade nuts than clipped shiny new bolts on his various adventures. His technique seemed absolutely flawless and I watched in awe as he floated up almost every route at Grand Ledge. I should say that I learned a lot about climbing from him, though he rarely spoke. He was never one to say anything about ANYTHING that he had done. He had to be pried open like an old wooden crate for secrets of his murky past. Bruce is truly a humble person. And while I admire this quality greatly in the man, it sure didn’t seem to rub off on me. After my (un)magnificent ascent of the local test piece, I was ready to take on the world. Or where ever my college buddies decided to go for Spring Break. That place happened to be Eastern Utah. It was my first “crack” at climbing traditional routes, for the rock at Grand Ledge lends itself to face climbing. I figured if I can do a 5.12 top-rope, than surely any 5.10 would pose no threat to puncturing my inflated head.

Not only did my ego burst on this trip, letting out the hot air in my head to the desert where it belonged, but I learned a very important lesson. For the first time in my life, climbing wasn’t about a number. I didn’t complete one route at Indian Creek without falling, yet I had a fabulous time. Every night we camped out under a clear, cold sky falling asleep to the calls of the coyotes. We made the umpteenth ascent of Castleton Tower via the Kor-Ingalls Route. What stuck with me the most from this trip are the images. When we drove into Castle Valley it was late at night and from our campsite in the morning, the Tower was hidden from view. I don’t know if I felt absolute joy or sheer terror when we rounded a large, rusty red wall and the Tower first exploded into view. How could I forget standing on the first belay ledge of my very first traditional route, knowing that I was only a quarter the way up. I was Neil Armstrong moments after taking off for the moon, already way up but still so far to go. I vividly remember leaning over the top of the Tower, about to make my first rappel, thinking to myself that adult diapers didn’t seem so funny anymore.

I know now that lots of people do this type of thing all the time, but on that day, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was the hero in Skinner’s slide show.

So I came back home a new man. I wanted to see more areas and travel to more places. I wanted to have more adventures. I wanted to recreate that wonderful sense of discovery and excitement that overwhelmed me on my trip to Utah. For the college student in Michigan this is very difficult to do, but with my limited budget, I managed to make countless weekend trips for the next two years. I traveled to the Niagara Escarpment where I sport climbed on some amazing limestone at Lion’s Head and bouldered near the thunderous tumult of Niagara Falls. In between routes, I jumped off perfect sandstone walls into Summersville Lake at the New River Gorge for some thrilling cliff diving. For three days one September, I sketched my way up the slick quartzite of Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. I even plugged some cams into the bullet-hard sand stone of Tennessee Wall outside of Chattanooga. However, time and again, my place of choice was the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

The Red is a very special place for me. The jungle of rhododendrons, the steep powerful pockets, and of course Miguel’s Pizza. Nothing on this earth rivals going out all day on a Saturday and just climbing your guts out, eating absolutely nothing save some candy and water and just devouring a cheesy, greasy Miguel’s Pizza as the sunlight fades to black and a chorus of frogs and insects sings from the darkness. This is one of the great experiences of life and should be missed by no one. It is at the Red that I really learned to sport and trad, and really gained valuble experience rock climbing.

Typically the weekend would start by leaving 1 to 4 hours later than expected. The 8 hour drive was almost always lengthened by construction, an accident, or highway patrolmen that decided that it was actually important to do their job and enforce the speed limit. It was rare that we would see the unbelievably large exit sign for Slade before 2:00 AM. However, my girlfriend Amanda (who was also captured by the magic of the Red) and I always had lively conversations and this sped the drive along. Friday was usually a sleepless night. As night dissolved into day and the fog dissolved into light, we would find ourselves scarfing down a gas station breakfast of biscuits and tropically flavored power drinks. Then we were off. On numerous occasions, our enthusiasm got us to the cliff very early and we would get in several routes before any one else got there. The day would be spent burning out on disgustingly pumpy sport routes. Often we got on routes we had actually had no chance of doing what so ever. Sunday would be spent working the knots out of our backs and forearms and plodding up some easy trad routes before tearing off back home on the long and tiring 8 hour drive. The weekend was always too short but I think that may have added to the beauty of it.

Once the original thrill of sport and trad climbing wore off, I found that what I wanted to do was boulder. It was such a strong urge that it pulled me away from the fabulous routes at the Red and had me thrashing through miles of underbrush in search of inevitably chossy boulders with marginal problems. And I loved every minute of it. There are several small boulderfields at the Red and a couple of short walls but nothing is more than mediocre. People often called me crazy or stupid for wasting my time when there were so many good routes to climb and maybe they were right. But I was happy and that was all that mattered. It was at this time that my love for bouldering fully developed. At the same time back home, I was also scouring the cliff-line at Grand Ledge for anything I could find. Every sloper, crimper and pocket was meticulously studied. The patterns of holds became like a crime scene, in which every possible combination was pondered over until the pieces were put together and the “problem” solved. It was the only rock available so it became an obsession. I was determined to climb every stretch of rock that, with my meager ability, I could possibly climb. Over the course of the next 2 years I established numerous new problems. Most were totally contrived but I did manage to find a couple undone lines and they definitely gave me a challenge as my skill improved.

It was not long until I met my climbing partner, David Ludders. Dave was the only person that I ever met in Michigan that shared my interest for hard climbing, beautiful boulders, and a general deep love for the sport in general. His presence at the Ledges on the weekends always made for an exciting session.

These findings kept Grand Ledge tolerable, but I knew that it was a matter of time before the lure of the west would get me to bite. I had certainly climbed Grand Ledge out, and while I still today miss the Red, the amount of bouldering is so limited that it too was getting old. I even tried several months at the local, and quite large, climbing gym in Ann Arbor. Once I got past the speaker literarly blaring Alanis Morisette, put my clothes in a “special” locker room and passed the pink, purple, and hideously green walls, I got to climb some of the worst problems I have ever attempted. Nothing can ruin motivation like a bad gym with uninformed monkeys for employees. I got stronger but my motivation dwindled. For myself, I became a lesser climber. I felt I needed to be around people who shared my vision and my beliefs about climbing and that was certainly not to be found in Michigan. In the winter of 2002, I packed my trusty Geo Prizm full of my belongings and headed out west, to Ft. Collins, CO. It was exactly what I was looking for. Ft. Collins is where it all began when John Gill aced his way up three lines on the Mental Block. The history was thick and the problems were good. "The Fort", is not, however, a relic of an area. New areas were being developed almost every weekend by motivated and enthusiastic boulderers. I was reunited with my old partner Dave and I quickly made friends with the local crew. For the first time since I began climbing, I met people that felt the same way I did about bouldering.

It was several months before I got a job and during those months I made many trips to the mountains by myself. At first the solo trips were simply to find already established areas that were either in a guidebook or that I had heard about. Those were easily found and I had many enjoyable, however cold, sessions alone in the woods. I also got very excited about finding new boulders to climb on. Very little can be more exciting for the boulderer than to look up a hill amongst a grove of quaking aspen and spot a house sized, virgin boulder. It is much akin to seeing a beautiful girl walking down the street, only no amount of unnecessary staring or unintelligible babbling will have the boulder slap you in the face and leave. It is all there, all for you. Almost as good as the virgin (girl) boulder, are the tromps through the woods themselves.

There are several rules to remember when looking for new boulders.

  1. When you see an area that you think might have some good boulders, it does not.
  2. When you see what look like good boulders, they are not.
  3. If you wear sandals you will stub your toes.
  4. If you wear sandals you will cut your feet.
  5. Don’t wear sandals.
  6. If you wear shorts, your path will lead straight through a path of prickers.
  7. If you wear shorts, your path will lead through jagged talus.
  8. Don’t wear shorts.
  9. Don’t follow a path.
  10. You will trip and fall.
  11. Always take a pad, brush and shoes in case you actually find something.
  12. If you do take a pad, brush, and shoes with you will be assured that you will not to find anything, and these items most certainly will either be lost or get snagged on trees.
  13. If you go in the summer, you will get eaten alive by mosquitoes.
  14. If you go in the winter, you will end up post-holing, uphill.
  15. Don’t go looking for boulders.

All kidding aside, looking for boulders is a lot of fun. It is wonderful exercise and it is the best excuse for a rest day that I have been able to come up with. The search for boulders is not purely a search for problems, but also (and more importantly) it is the search for adventure. The journey is the destination and sometimes my best “climbing” days were those in which not a single problem was attempted. It is not what I was looking for on the adventures that made them great. What mades them great is the “not knowing.” The surprise. Seeing new things, and living through new experiences. Celebrating the fact that I have two legs to walk up a mountain and two eyes to take it all in. By simply taking the time to enjoy the world around me through discovery and exploration my solitary treks through the hills were superbly fulfilling. It is through adventure that we discover, about ourselves and the world around us. We become a little less ignorant and a little more wise. It is for these reasons that adventure is one of the most important facets of climbing. It takes me back to my childhood when I would spend hours tramping through the deciduous hardwood forest of Michigan in search of action, adventure, buried treasure or anything else my racing childhood mind would get stuck on for that particular day. I was Mikey from the Goonies, chasing after One-Eyed Willie and his buried treasure. Nowadays the value of the treasure hasn’t changed, the stones just aren’t as shiny.

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