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LIFE ON THE EDGE

part 2 of 2 Art Higbee was nineteen when he met Jim Erickson, via Erickson's girlfriend, via Erickson's dog. "I lived right down the street," he recalls, "and she brought the dog over because their landlord didn't want pets. She asked if I could keep Jim's dog for a while."...
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part 2 of 2
Art Higbee was nineteen when he met Jim Erickson, via Erickson's girlfriend, via Erickson's dog. "I lived right down the street," he recalls, "and she brought the dog over because their landlord didn't want pets. She asked if I could keep Jim's dog for a while."

Higbee ended up being very nice to the dog. The opportunity to get to know Erickson--maybe even to climb with him--was not one he took lightly. "It was the summer of '72," Higbee says, "I was a dangerous climber, and Jim was famous. He'd just done the Naked Edge. I just hitched onto him."

Together, Erickson and Higbee climbed all over the Front Range, eventually completing a free ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite, with a film crew documenting it. Predictably, mention of the movie embarrasses Erickson and makes Higbee laugh. "Yeah--`Halfwits on Half Dome,' we always called it," Higbee says. (Free Climb: The Northwest Face of Half-Dome, the movie's producers called it. It is still available on video, but in Boulder, it's usually checked out.)

Higbee, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, had always been intrigued by the mountains--first by the raptors who nested there, and then by any kind of climbing. He came to Boulder in pursuit of a chemical engineering degree but found climbing much more compelling. "I just stayed in Boulder, gave up my wrestling scholarship and ran out of money," he admits. Soon he was selling CB radios to support his habit. He's never regretted it.

"First off, it's sensational, right? It's cymbals clashing," Higbee explains. "You're standing on the vertical, eighty or ninety degrees. And all these birds, the swifts that live in the cliffs, they'd zoom you! Barreling around, doing rolls over your head! What a fabulous place to be! And you felt like a real pioneering spirit, knowing you were one of the most painful people ever to stand on this spot!"

Though not the first. He knew that after he met Layton Kor.
"Jehovah's Witnesses came by to convert me, you see, and I was a polite young man, so I listened," Higbee recalls, "but they could tell I was more into climbing. The next time, they brought Layton Kor to my house."

Higbee listened as hard as he could, and he made sure his climbing friends were alerted for Kor's subsequent visit, which began with "an hour's worth of doctrine," Higbee says. "As soon as the hour was over, he talked about climbing for three hours. It was the price of admission. It was worth it."

Higbee moved back to Steamboat in 1978, where he embarked on a life as a "heavy-construction supervisor. I'm fat and lazy and 42," he concludes. (His friends, by contrast, speak of Higbee as a champion skier and coach of downhill racers.) He has never forgotten being part of the golden age. "We had the luxury of risking our lives," he remembers. "Kor and the other guys had gone before us. Pat Ament was still there. I even played chess with Ament. He was almost as good as he said he was."

Higbee's last comment is the kind of statement that has dogged Pat Ament throughout his illustrious climbing career. Though he is known for having been one of Kor's most talented climbing partners, for writing the seminal guide to Boulder area climbing, training more young climbers than most people can remember and having a host of unrelated talents, including music, chess, painting and karate, Ament also has a history of bugging people.

He knows a lot about climbing, and his interest goes far beyond the technical side of things. I haven't been sitting in his North Boulder apartment long when "jealousies" enter the conversation. "If you said, in a youthful way, `I don't want to brag, but I climbed the Yellow Spur,' people held it against you," he says. "People accused me of bragging, which is so bogus."

All climbers crave recognition, he tells me. Why should he be penalized for wanting the same thing? "Erickson liked that sense of accomplishment and being special," he offers. "When he suddenly was no longer in the limelight, he lost interest. I don't want to run him down, but he was attracted to the limelight. Anyone who says they aren't is lying."

Now 49 ("but people say I look younger"), Ament has been climbing since 1958, the year his father moved the family to Boulder from Denver."I just happened to go up to the Flatirons," he recalls. "I had a friend who had an interest in climbing, and we knew you needed a rope. We had a vague idea that we tied ourselves together somehow. So we procured a rope from a frat-house lawn--it was strung through a bunch of posts, and we casually sawed the knots off and just started running away with it down the street."

Ament soon progressed to old hemp ropes "that filled your hands with slivers," rappeling from trees and "climbing hand over hand because I was young and light." And then the Flatirons, where he froze in fear while a friend screamed at him to try his first real rappel. Once past that crisis, though, Ament says the vertigo went away for good. At fifteen, he'd progressed enough to teach climbing to students twice his age; he claims to have written the first draft of his famous guide High Over Boulder while still in high school.

By eighteen, he'd been climbing with Layton Kor for several years. "Layton was a phenomenon because he had so much life force," Ament remembers. "Later, of course, I realized that he was obsessive-compulsive and a little crazy. He pursued whatever he did with all his being. He could be so humorous, and he would scare you to death at the same time. He was 200 pounds at the time, and I weighed 120, and he would take these awful falls. Later he became a Jehovah's Witness, and it came out in The Watchtower that it was a sin to climb, a waste of your precious life. I would think," he adds, "it was a sin not to climb, and waste your God-given talent."

"Where is Kor?" I ask.
"Last I heard, he was in Guam, skin diving."
With and without Kor, Ament went on to pioneer more Front Range routes than Erickson. At the same time, he built a career writing about climbing techniques and famous climbers. Some of his work was almost poetic in its superlativity. His next book, Ament says, will be an autobiography--"a work of literature, more than a glorious wallowing in my own self-love." Climbing, of course, will be a central attraction.

"Well, I'm one of the climbers who has really thought about it," Ament says. "When you ride your bike, you're working your legs, but your mind is on a treadmill. When you play chess, your mind is clicking along, but your body is stagnating. Climbing brings it together in a beautiful, magical way. The adrenaline is flowing, and it's flowing all the time."

This kind of bliss, he adds, has nothing to do with today's sports climbers--"they just want to clone people"--and everything to do with the golden age. "We had the entire canyon to ourselves," Ament recalls, "and everything we did was a first ascent. It wasn't dictated. We made up our own rules and solutions."

A series of injuries and a persistent weight problem have kept Ament from repeating some of his glorious earlier routes, but he says he will climb elegantly and well "until my legs no longer work." And he still teaches the occasional student. "I'll take 'em up once and get paid for it--that's fair," he says. "If I like 'em, I'll continue, but not necessarily just for the money."

And not for the irresponsible thrill, either. "I am much more interested in mastery and control," Ament says. "I have come to realize that danger doesn't exist in climbing per se. It only exists in people. The people are dangerous. The rock is just there."

Kevin Donald, though he has climbed all his life, never quite joined the ranks of Erickson, Ferguson and Ament. But without ever consciously planning to, he parlayed his passion for climbing into an impressive job as a stuntman/model/athlete/all-around movie guy. As I arrive at his Eldorado Springs house--a perfectly restored log cabin right next to the river--he is just wrapping up the details of his next assignment.

"It's a film company," he says. "They want to have a climber with a film camera open up an Anasazi ruin for the first time. I'll rappel down, or maybe lower in an Indian first, if it's not too hard. I guess it proves a climber can do okay for himself."

Donald lives modestly, but everything he owns is top-of-the-line, and there are framed pictures of himself and his wife, Maureen, on all the walls. After a while, I realize that they are all print ads or magazine covers. Then I recognize one. It's Kevin Donald, eating cereal in the wilderness, underneath this tag line: "The question is not: Are Grape-Nuts Right for You? But: Are You Right for Grape-Nuts?"

"If you'll notice, all the camping gear is correct," he says, a little sheepishly. "I insisted on that. And see those raspberries? They're actually midget berries that grow up in the high country. Otherwise it would look ridiculous."

"Hey," I say, pointing to another picture. "Is that Sylvester Stallone?"
"I spent six months with Sly, teaching him how to climb for Cliffhanger," Donald confirms. "He doesn't like heights. He made no bones about it, but we got him to do what he needed to do."

Kevin Donald first saw Eldorado Canyon in 1958, when his father took him to a Civilian Air Patrol picnic there. He was ten. Later, at South High School, he hooked up with Duncan Ferguson. The two had in common not just the urge to climb, but also the fact that their parents had forbidden the activity. In fact, they were both supposed to be practicing pole-vaulting instead, in order to win college scholarships.

"I had a '51 Ford, and Dunc and I would jump in and go to Morrison to climb, taking our vaulting poles with us, just in case," Donald recalls. "We had no idea what we were doing, and lucky for us, we were not killed."

It took months before Donald found a partner with the the proper gear and experience; on their first climb, he broke his wrist. Undaunted, he took off his cast, pole-vaulted at the next track meet and won a scholarship to CU. "All my friends went to Vietnam," he remembers. "I went to college. And when I got there, I climbed all the time. It sounds really corny, but I loved the forbidden nature of it, that it was dangerous and risky."

In Boulder, Donald worked toward a degree in criminology but spent most of his time in and around Eldorado Springs. "It was bikers, hippies and a lot of us climbers," he recalls. He got to know Jim Erickson, guided for local mountaineering schools, turned down a chance at a master's degree and made intermittent trips to Hawaii to indulge his parallel interest in big-wave surfing.

"And then an interesting thing happened," he says. "In 1970 I was guiding around Eldorado, and I bumped into a film production team from New York. As I walked by, they yelled, `Can you climb this rock?' And they offered me a hundred bucks to do it for the camera. No sweat. Then, after I did it, they asked if I would drink a bottle of Pepsi for another hundred. I took all my friends out to dinner that night, and that commercial eventually made me 7,800 bucks for five seconds of film time."

Over the next half-decade, Donald climbed, surfed and completed a number of daring ocean voyages. All he was looking for, he says, was "a bona fide adventure. People think an adventure is getting on a plane and going to Cancun," he complains. "All the adventure has been weeded out of our lives and transplanted to our TVs." And that's a problem, Donald says, because as human animals, we crave adventure. "Climbing, especially," he adds. "It is a deeply satisfying feeling to grab hold of something and pull up. I don't know if it's simian or what, but it's a basic need. I think fear of heights is instilled by parents. I mean, stay away from the edge--what kind of message is that?"

"You could get hurt," I point out.
"And that's the tragic part," he agrees. "It's very dangerous, and I don't mean to sound flippant about it, either. Think of the speed of falling objects. Think of the hardness of the rock. Still," he decides, "I am convinced that man is set up to deal with these pressures. Back in the old days, when we went out to hunt mammoth, it was exhilarating, but guess what? Occasionally, one of the hunters did not return. And if you take a predator--and we are predators--and you take away its prey, you have one depressed predator."

Kevin Donald tried the risk-free, preyless life and hated it--particularly in the mid-Eighties, when he decided to see how far he could go as a model/actor.

"My plan was just to work a lot and buy stuff," he says. "I went from stunt man to fashion model, I traveled all over doing print and TV--I even spent two winters doing catalogue work in Chicago. It was so weird. The typical meat market. Go to the gym, pump up your pecs and interview. I began to disdain the whole process, but it was a race between my receding hairline and my mortgage payments."

In the end, though, Donald won out. By the time he quit modeling four years ago, he owned not just his Eldorado Springs house, which has appreciated astronomically, but a beach house in Baja and three ocean properties in Oregon, as well. "And now," he laughs, "if my agent calls, I just say, `No thanks, I'm bald.'"

When not recreating intensely--his latest obsession is windsurfing--Donald works as an "extreme locations director" for film companies. He likes to spend part of each winter in Baja, but this being autumn, he's climbing in Colorado again--sometimes alone, sometimes with a paying customer. Next week, a longtime client from Texas will arrive for three days. He'll sleep and eat at Donald's house, socialize with him and his wife and climb eight hours a day.

"There's still nothing like climbing," Donald says. "You don't keep score--at least you didn't used to--and nobody wins. The only downside is the phone calls. Too many."

"Phone calls?" Donald picks up the latest Rock and Ice. "Every one of these has an obituary section," he says. "That's what the phone calls are about. Last time, a couple weeks ago, it was someone I knew who froze to death climbing the Diamond."

"Was there a funeral?" I ask. "Was it sad?"
"He died partaking of an adventure," Donald answers. "At least a drunk driver didn't take him out. So there was not the tragic sense of loss. But it was loss. It was definite, real loss."

The rocks of Eldorado Canyon are still hot with afternoon sun, which is the only comfortable thing about being plastered full-length against them, all the way from your toes to the side of your cheek. All I am trying to do is climb one-eighth of the easiest route here--so piddling it doesn't even have a name--but there is something about the process of inching up and subsequently looking down that sends a jolt of fear into my vitals. I remember why they are called "vitals" in the first place.

I come around a corner to find Kevin Donald sitting sleepily against a boulder. It occurs to me that what I am doing is the equivalent of interviewing John, Paul, George and Ringo and then signing up for ukulele lessons in order to know how they must have felt in Hamburg. "Nice job," he says, giving the rope I am attached to a small, encouraging tug, as if to hurry me up the rock. Good, I think. The sooner I get up here, the sooner this will end.

And instantly, when it does end, I think: Over? Already?
All around us, much steeper rocks are festooned with climbers hanging by what look like threads, chatting casually, as if this were a cocktail party. Donald points out some of the more famous routes. The Naked Edge, Erickson's most notable free climb, looks massive and daunting against the sky.

"Since Jim's day, it's become a trade route," Donald says. "Not like it was no big deal then, but a lot of people have done it since."

"Have you?"
"Yeah," he says. "I've done all these. Some of them I did nude."

It is entirely possible that Roger Briggs has done some nude rock climbing, but he is not the type to mention it--and certainly not the type to brag about it. Rather than talk about himself, he prefers to provide the big picture.

"There's sort of a profile with climbers," he says. "You can pretty much count on dropouts from the mainstream."

Now 45 and still climbing masterfully--over the past five years, he put up some of the hardest routes on Longs Peak--Briggs has the lean, gangly look of a distance runner. At 6-foot-2, he is tall for a climber, but his extra height never slowed him down. His contemporaries remember Briggs as not just gymnastically graceful, but as tough as a mule. "I was obsessive about it, certainly," he says, "but it was never the only thing in my life. I always planned on coming home. You can do outrageous things on the rock, but I don't."

For example, although he has never been in the habit of flirting with death, he uses it. "Because I never did think I was talented," he explains. "So at times, instead, I get physically inspired. Several of my Longs Peak routes were inspired by friends who were killed climbing. One of them in particular. He free-soloed hard climbs. He spent so much time on the rock, he was like a lizard; he lived on the vertical. When he died, he was halfway up a face in California and a storm moved in. No one will ever know what happened, but no one was surprised, either.

"My response was to do the damn hardest climb I could," Briggs says. "It involved going back and back and back and getting my butt kicked putting up the climb. All because he was supposed to be doing it with me, and he was dead."

Briggs grew up within sight of the Flatirons, and he can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated with climbing. At fourteen, he was climbing with people twice his age--though none were as legendary as Pat Ament, whom he idolized. "I spent three months with Pat Ament," Briggs says. "He was nineteen and I was fifteen. I was in such awe of him. I was the first of the many young boys that he loves to take under his wing. He changed me a lot. He did not teach me to climb, though, despite what he may have told you."

"We rode freights together," he continues. "It was a family crisis. I'd tell Pat it was time to go home, and Pat would say, `If they make you go home, that means you live in a prison. Say no.' It was a funny time. It began in August, and by November, so much had happened that I just wanted to be a tenth-grader again."

Although Briggs went on to become one of the Seventies' most noteworthy climbers, he recognized early on that there was more to life. At twenty he decided to become a teacher. Today he teaches science and coaches track at Boulder's Fairview High School. And he continues to climb.

"Because it's one of the most primeval things there is," he says. "All five senses are involved. It's this immediate mood, and nothing else. You have to forget about how your day went. You have to be in the moment. And, as far as enlightenment goes, you don't have to say a mantra 50,000 times.

"It gives you a sense of responsibility for yourself. You have no one to blame but yourself, and this has gotten to be such a blaming society. If you scare the piss out of people," he decides, "in general, it's good."

end of part 2

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