LIFE ON THE EDGE
part 1 of 2
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."
"Climbing has become increasingly less outcast," he says. "Even by my day, it had become less bohemian. The real climbers were a bunch of freaks, before the word `freak' meant anything--not like the guys with dreads down to their waists who follow the Dead in their parents' BMW. The personalities were more interesting, too, because the sport was less acceptable."
"Like who?" I ask.
"Layton Kor," Isaacs answers immediately. "A pioneer...a strange guy. With Layton and his contemporaries, it was like Kerouac and Cassady were athletes. They threw a case of beer in the back of their car and disappeared for weeks, climbing. Kor was a generation or so before me--around the early Sixties. He was incredible."
More recently, however, his path has become much more difficult to trace. Although Kor's name crops up in almost every climbing discussion, the man himself has disappeared, leaving only a legend behind.
"He could be in Glenwood. On the other hand, he could be in Guam. You could never write about him, anyway," Isaacs decides. "He's too big. It would be like writing a footnote about a god. I mean, people can climb now in hours what he never even dreamed of doing in his day, but it wasn't about technical virtuosity. His sweat froze on him; he sat on a ledge in the Alps for days, waiting out a storm and eating smashed mice. You know, I think someone told me he'd become a Jehovah's Witness."
"I wouldn't know. But my guess is, he needed a bigger hammer for the existential thing," Isaacs muses.
"Is that what you wanted?" I ask.
"My climbing was a kind of addiction that had to do with avoiding other things," he responds. "When you come down, what you are avoiding comes back. In truth, it wasn't all that much fun. I don't know if it was me who said this or someone else, but it's true: Climbing is many, many hours of deadening boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror."
Like most of his friends at the time, Isaacs worked crummy jobs to save up money until he could go back to climbing full-time, and that's how he lived for five years, until it became both ineffectual and suicidal. "I don't know if you can live on the edge of bowling or bridge," he says, "but if what you're trying to do is avoid other things, you need the intensity of the edge to keep blocking out what you're avoiding. If you hang out there long enough, you go over."
Even though he no longer climbs, Isaacs can't keep his hands off the climbing magazines. It is as if he's reading a supercharged edition of his high school alumni news.
"Wow, look at the climbing shoes," he says, flipping through Rock and Ice. "You used to be able to choose between two or three. Now look--there must be fifty different kinds of shoes, all with this sticky rubber. Listen to this ad: `can jam, smear, stem, edge and point, all in a day's climb.' It's a different world."
There's even a woman on the cover of Rock and Ice.
"Didn't you know any women climbers?" I ask.
"Very few, in my day. Diana Hunter comes to mind. Boy, she was a goddess. She climbed in these Value Village dustbowl dresses. She was this flowing nymph, with this Olive Oyl body, lanky, thin, spindly, beautiful, just beautiful."
"What happened to her?" I ask.
"She fell," he says.
"Diana was killed in 1975," Jim Erickson remembers. "She was a very good climber. She'd been a dancer, light and skinny. She fell climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. She fell a thousand feet and died. We had a big wake. It was very sad."
It was very involved. Diana Hunter's death broke up a pattern of rock-climber romances Erickson remembers as "pretty incestuous." Faced with the unexpected loss of a friend, several couples in the Eldorado scene began to make commitments they were loath to make before. "I remember the sadness, but I also remember getting to marry Nancy, the girl of my dreams," Erickson says. "Once. That's over now. Whew. Our personal heartbreaks."
Erickson admits to having a certain propensity for heartbreak. "I may even deserve it," he says. "I may have inadvertently broken a heart or two myself. I have a pessimistic view of relationships, but I've come to terms. You can't have everything."
At the moment, Erickson does not have love. He has a job in what he likes to call "munitions," which means he's an office manager at a slingshot company. Even at a vegetarian restaurant in Boulder, he is one of the most monastic-looking people in the room. His clothes are deliberately plain, deliberately logo-less. His hair is less than a half-inch long. From a slight distance, with his high cheekbones and tightly stretched skin, he could as easily be mistaken for 14 as for 45. He talks rapidly--to company and to himself. Confronted with the restaurant's menu, he says, "Okay, Erickson, be brave."
This from the man who, along with Duncan Ferguson, made the first free ascent of the Naked Edge, an aptly named razor of a rock in Eldorado Springs. It is hard to think of him as intimidated by anything, let alone a piece of tofu. "I became famous by mistake," he says. "I'm not saying I had no ego; I just wanted to do things that were new. I never liked the media aspect. In my time, nobody gave a flying fuck about climbers. If you wanted to be famous you had to write about yourself. After a while, the films and books and guidebooks came along, and I wish they never had."
Erickson was already word-of-mouth famous in 1968, the year he enrolled at the University of Colorado. He was eighteen and had been climbing since he was eight, an interest that grew out of his initial fascination with caving. By the time he got to Boulder, he and his brother had climbed all over Devil's Lake in Wisconsin, as well as the Shawangunks in upstate New York. "And we were not sports heroes, either," he says. "People just assumed we were insane. There were very few serious climbers. Maybe 35 in the whole world? When I got to Boulder, I took a lot of drugs and hung out down at the Sink looking for climbers, and I couldn't find them. I'd drag my roommates up mountains. Finally, I met a few of the hardcore climbers up in Eldorado. Layton Kor."
"What was he like?" I ask.
"Oh, man," Erickson sighs. "He was one of the gods. I had no concept I would ever be that good. I would go up some of the routes he put up and fail, just because I was awestruck, and the myth of him and some of the other guys hung over me the first year I was here."
At the beginning of the second year, though, Erickson decided to try some of the routes put up by Kor and his contemporaries, but to do them without ever resting his weight on pitons, bolts or slings. Although Erickson continued to use hardware to anchor his rope to the rock, he began to favor bits of equipment that slipped into rock crevices or over small outcroppings rather than having to be pounded into the mountainside. His style of climbing was not just free but becoming "clean," in keeping with the climate of the times.
Before Erickson tried it, few had considered free-climbing a route as hard as Kor's. "And finally, I just blundered up it," Erickson remembers. "All of a sudden, I realized there might be others. In fact, some of them were dead easy. Why hadn't anyone done them?"
By the mid-Seventies, Erickson had done hundreds of them, which is why his name appears on every other page of just about every Front Range climbing guide. He is remembered as ruthless--and admits to it, at least partly.
"There were guys who liked to solve problems on the rock," he says, "and I respected that. But I figure life's too short to waste on the same ten feet of rock over and over again. My approach was, you look at it, and then you start at the bottom and push yourself until you almost fall. I was interested in maximum difficulty, and you know what? In the history of climbing, I will be a veritable footnote. But I have the satisfaction of knowing no one will ever do those climbs better. Unless, I don't know--one-handed?"
The thought seems to create a moment of angst for Erickson.
"You don't climb anymore?" I ask.
"Right now, I'm into caving," he says. "I'm pushing the envelope of that particularly tiny sphere of influence. I've been fairly successful in the Colorado caving scene, whatever that is."
"What's good about caving?"
"Caving is something I'm doing now," he answers instantly. "I could have endorsed climbing shoes and made videos, but I would have been living off my past. What I want is to do something now, even if it's something stupid."
In fact, Erickson has been the subject of a half-dozen climbing films, and he spent five years teaching rock climbing at a mountaineering school before retiring to go into munitions. But he likes to put distance between himself and the stereotypical adrenaline-seeking climber.
"I backed down from as many as I completed," he claims. "Most macho types would push it. That's a good way to die, and yeah, climbing is mostly very exhilarating because you're potentially dead--but I never liked the cheap thrill of it."
No? "I did get to the point where I viewed ropes and hardware as cheating," he admits. "I was so involved with natural climbing that I did a lot without ropes. Not till I had children did I even think about it. Your friends die and stuff, but you don't think it's gonna happen to you. You don't think about that at all. You think about yourself."
Erickson didn't start having kids until 1976, but dying and stuff began to take on meaning three years earlier, when he took his first serious fall. "I was soloing a bunch of new routes, and I fell up behind the fourth Flatiron and broke both legs and wrist," he recalls. "I called down to a lady on the trail and started to crawl. Eventually the rangers found me, and I told them I fell while hiking. I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth."
"Why?" I ask.
"I had been sort of...emotionally distraught. I shouldn't have been climbing."
"You wanted to die?"
"No," Erickson says, "I didn't care that much. It was one of the hardest, most obscure climbs, and I jammed up the easy part. Then I looked down and saw a huge stump with a point sticking out of it, and I thought, boy, if you fall down, you'll be impaled. And solo climbing is a very psychological kind of game. If you think you're gonna fall, go home and have a beer and forget about it. So I went back down, but then I moved the stump and went back up, and the next thing you know, my hand slipped out of a crack, which I never thought it would, and I fell, right where the stump had been."
"Did you keep soloing after that?" I ask.
"You know," Erickson responds, "people are interested in this one part of me. I would have given up any of it to write one profoundly beautiful piece of music, despite all the wonderful things I apparently did in climbing. The fact that people know who I am is not much fun for me. I can see why very famous people hate it. To beat a reporter over the head makes perfect sense to me."
"No kidding," I say. "What do you think of indoor climbing walls?"
"This spring, I actually hung out at one for a month."
"Did anyone recognize you?"
"A few," he says, "but mainly they laughed at me and my archaic equipment. I had climbing shoes with what I considered brand-new sticky rubber soles. These shoes dated to 1978, which I consider new. These shoes," he laughs, "were definitely non-a la mode."
end of part 1
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.