LIFE ON THE EDGE

FOR FREE CLIMBERS, NOTHING IS EVER SET IN STONE.NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP THESE GUYS WERE NEVER YOUR AVERAGE SOCIAL CLIMBERS.

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It wasn't so much that Duncan Ferguson made peace with death; it was more that the novelty had worn off. The fact is, if you are going to climb very difficult rock faces without a partner, a rope or any kind of protection, death will be as much a part of the landscape as the lichen on the rock.

"I had one pretty simple revelation in the summer of 1973," says Ferguson. "I'd been soloing, doing harder and harder things, being very cautious, if you can call it that, very aware and focused. One afternoon in Eldorado, I realized that you take a number of steps closer and closer to the edge, and you start to accept that the next step is falling off, and you're no longer frightened. It's just the next step, and you accept that."

Was this an interesting philosophical revelation or a slap upside the head? Ferguson has never been sure. That day, at least, he stopped climbing and went home. "It was a little moment in time. A little checkpoint," he recalls. "Not that it stopped me from soloing or pushing my personal limits."

That was 22 years ago. One of the most daring and respected climbers of his generation, the 45-year-old Ferguson still climbs intensely, particularly on ice.

"I never met a man more obsessed than Duncan," says longtime friend and fellow climber Dudley Chelton. "But he's a real gentleman, very low-key. You'd never guess the level of it."

"Duncan climbs at the very edge of his ability," says Kevin Donald, who's climbed with him since high school. "I've done that myself, but I always wonder--if you do things that have a fifty-fifty chance, what are the odds?"

Ferguson improves the odds by taking lifesaving precautions. Sometimes. Clearly, you don't climb the way he does unless you're getting something out of it. "Actually," he says, "climbing is the lazy man's way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don't, you won't succeed, which is minor--or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge. Hey, if it was just like climbing a ladder, we all would have quit a long time ago."

But Ferguson did not quit, which made him part of a very exclusive group. Along with about thirty other Colorado climbers, he was one of the pioneers of free climbing: They used only natural rock holds to pull themselves up rather than the slings, bolts and pitons that earlier climbers were accustomed to hammering into the rock.

The routes Ferguson and his peers free-climbed outside Boulder--on the Flatirons, in Eldorado Canyon--inspired climbers all over the country. Some of them packed up and moved here. In guidebooks, the early Seventies became known as the "golden age of Colorado climbing," and today no one argues if you use that term.

Since those days, the number of climbers has increased exponentially, thanks in part to the introduction of indoor climbing walls and incredible strides in the technology of climbing gear. Climbing is no longer the province of a small subculture but a focus of summer camps, a music video stand-by--even a reasonable weekend hobby.

"It's hard for me to comprehend, says Jim Erickson, one of Ferguson's contemporaries, "but now people drop out of junior high school to become famous climbers."

Some of the inadvertently famous climbers from the golden age have dropped out of the Boulder scene. One is a New York stockbroker, another a satellite oceanographer in Oregon. Some are still deliberately climbing. Some deliberately are not.

Some are dead.

Gary Isaacs has not climbed in twenty years, and you won't find his name in any guidebooks or climbing histories. Nevertheless, he's always looked for the edge, something most climbers can't seem not to do. For the past ten years he has worked as a photographer, and whenever we did a story together, I was always waiting for someone to hit him, or shoot him, or burst into tears. That kind of edge.

I did not know about his rock-climbing history until one day when we ducked out of a boring assignment and visited a Boulder mountaineering store. Isaacs ran into a friend he hadn't seen since the early Seventies, when both lived in Eldorado Springs and their obsessions were vertical. They sat around trading tales like rock-and-roll musicians swap war stories. All the elements were there: the sense of being out of the mainstream, the potential risk, the glory, even a slight tinge of sleaziness. The climber who managed the mountaineering store had worked his past into a respectable job; Isaacs was more like the formerly addicted musician who cannot look at a guitar without thinking of needles.

Four years later we are sitting at the Wazee Supper Club with two beers and one pile of climbing magazines. Isaacs is wearing his black beret and his dead father's overcoat and smoking Camels. It is hard to picture him as an athlete until later, when he stands on Wynkoop Street admiring a crack between two buildings and muttering, "Don't be stupid."

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