The results of the Utah primaries/caucus– in which Cruz won in a landslide for the GOP, and Sanders in a landslide for the dems– are fascinating, anomalous, and once again really reaffirm the fact that this state was and still is one of the most culturally and religiously homogenous states in the union.
Analysts have been making a big deal of how both Trump and Sanders are riding a wave of anger at the political establishment– they’re both on the fringes of their parties, “outsiders,” and speaking the language of populism as it has not been voiced in over a generation (or arguably since the era of Huey Long and Father Coughlin). So, it would make sense that the two would both win in places with strong grassroots political insurgencies (Vermont, New Hampshire, for example).
Other places that are more mainstream and establishment, like Ohio, would go for more “establishment” candidates, like Clinton and Kasich.
So, why would Utah go for a GOP candidate that is very much a more establishment, insider, and a democrat who is quite radical?
Well, in the case of Cruz, it’s pretty obvious. Cruz is an ideologue, well educated but dogmatic, smart but certainly not an intellectual. He’s the closest thing to an establishment candidate. He fits the best with Mormon values this cycle. Trump does not.
I think it tells something about the faith and culture that Trump is not gaining Mormon supporters at the same rate that he’s getting evangelicals in the Bible Belt. Utah social conservatism has long been an enigma when compared to other strongholds of social conservatism like the Deep South, Central Midwest, or even other parts of the rural West. Most of these places have had similar hostilities to same-sex marriage, pro-choice women’s issues, and even liberal alcohol laws. But Utah, unlike, say, the bible-belt south, does not have the same dismal statistics of high school dropout rates, unemployment, divorce, teen pregnancies, drug addiction, or (here’s the big one) deep-rooted racial issues. Historically, this is because although Mormonism is deeply conservative, it originally was descended from northeastern Puritanism, rather than slave-state evangelicalism, but that’s another story.
Returned-missionary Mormons tend to have seen more of the world than most Trump supporters, and they are turned off by foul language. Furthermore, Mormonism has a deep history of not flaunting one’s wealth. Perhaps even a few Mormons have heard Trump’s ugly comments profiling Muslims, and thought back to their own history of religious persecution.
The one demographic of Mormonism that I think may have fallen into the Trump camp would be those Far Right, pseudo libertarian survivalist types– those rooted in the views of Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen who view social liberalism/big government as a plot of Satan. This fringe strain of Mormonism most recently got attention with the Bundy clan occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon. But, while their anger is certainly Trumpish, The Donald never came to these guys’ support; when asked about the Oregon occupation, Trump merely said he’d “tell those guys to get out.” No support here.
Ok, but WHY on earth would Utah democrats go for Bernie Sanders? Utah Republicans and Mormons (yes, I know they are not interchangeable, but seriously, the Venn diagram would be pretty close-fitting) are going for the more establishment, so why aren’t democrats?
This is a more complex question than the one about Trump and Cruz. Utah does not have the deep history of Rust Belt, working class, unionist democrats that places like Ohio does, and this is the demographic that Clinton seems to be going for. But I actually think that the root of Sanders’ popularity in Utah also is traceable back to the state’s strong Mormon presence.
It is difficult, VERY difficult, to be a moderate Mormon in Utah. From firsthand experience, I can say that it usually involves doing complex logical gymnastics to justify your faith with your politics; gymnastics that usually throw people off the bar. And once you’ve decided to leave the faith, your entire community, social structure, often family, quite literally FORCES you to be a radical.
A friend of mine who spent a summer in my hometown of Logan, Utah once from back east made the comment, “it’s a weird place, you’re either 100% Mormon, or a complete alcoholic stoner pillhead.” While my own experience with Utah is more nuanced than that, I understand what he was saying. Mormonism treats so many things as taboo, that young kids breaking away from the church and rebelling often do not stop to think that drinking coffee and huffing gas are completely different pursuits from one another. Both are seen as “bad” by the culture and religion, and once you’ve rebelled, it is up to you to distinguish between them. And not everyone can. My graduating class from Logan High School had more than its share of drug overdoses, suicides, and meth addicts (though certainly not as many as my current home of West Virginia). I think it was BECAUSE of, not in spite of, the Mormon culture.
This may be reason for the surge of Bernie– if you are a liberal in Utah, you have no reason to be a moderate liberal.
Either way, I’m proud of my state for continuing to buck the demographic stereotypes. The Trump Train will not be pulling into Promontory Point anytime soon.
Today is August 22, 2015. It’s pretty nice. The greenery outside the front door of my microcabin at the campground I run says “summer,” but the crisp temps and breeze say, “fall is on the way.” Hopefully, within the month, we’ll be in full-on Sendtember, with Rocktober immediately thereafter. The best time of the year here at the New River Gorge is right around the corner.
However, I have not been climbing much these last few weeks. I’ve never been a particularly gifted natural athlete, and sport specific training has always been pretty key to me performing at even sufficient levels. So for the whole month of August, I’ve put climbing on hold, and devoted myself to doing hangboard exercises a couple times a week. These “hangbored” workouts– in which I hang off of tiny edges with up to 50 lbs of weight dangling off of my harness– are exhausting, tedious, and sometimes painful. Friends ask me “why I can’t just come climb” in between my workouts, not realizing how it exactly feels to have pumped, strained muscles 24/7. I’m still able to climb a bit, and occasionally will even take a lap on Apollo Reed, one of my favorite sport routes ever, just to warm up for hangboarding. But other than that, I’m not climbing. The increased finger strength come September will be worth it; I’ve been here before.
Part of living here at the New River Gorge, where I am just minutes away from the best rock in the nation, has involved me accepting that in the summer I will just not climb much. As I get older, and less obsessive (while still improving), I’ve found that I need time away from the rock.
It hasn’t been that much time off that I’ve taken, however. For most of June and all of July, I managed to keep surfing along on the fitness that I’d gained from my pretty intense spring training, when I climbed Moonlight Buttress. I made a few trips to South Nuttal, an off-the-beaten-path crag here that has one of the most impressive line-ups of 5.12 traditional cracks that you’ll find anywhere. It was fun; I managed to send an Eric Horst route called “New Traditionalist” (5.12) that might be the best fingercrack at the NRG. Following the queue of local badass Pat Goodman, I also made some gains on a BEAUTIFUL Brian McCray crack called “Temporary Insanity,” which definitely feels harder than any of the other cracks I’ve been on, it’s probably more 5.13 than 5.13-, and requires a full arsenal of jamming skills as well as ample bouldering power.
Eventually, the hot summer temps and encroaching poison ivy got me less psyched on South Nuttal, though I’ll be back in the fall. However, right as this was happening, I managed to fall in with a great new partner, Stacey K., who was living at the NRG for June, and had more psych to climb hard in the hot temps than anyone else in town. It was pretty impressive to watch her tick off classics like the ultra-crimpy “Black Happy” (5.12) at Endless Wall, during very grim summer conditions of high temps and humidity. I managed to put away a couple more 5.13s while climbing with her, including the VERY memorable send of the endurance route “Eye of Mordor” at First Buttress of the Meadow River during a full-on hurricane-force horizontal rain and wind storm. This brief spike in fitness even manifested itself in an almost-send of the famed “Triple Crown” at Lake Summersville (three 5.13s in a day), but the smarmy handjam crux move of “Pod” (5.13b) thwarted me. Like I always say, an almost-send is still NOTHING!
Anyway, after mid-July, I finally threw in the towel for hard climbing in the summer. Since then, I’ve been getting on the lower New River, an incredibly stretch of whitewater, a LOT, and fine-tuning my whitewater guiding skills. Whitewater is another longstanding passion of mine; I actually worked through college and part of graduate school during summers as a raft guide on the Green and Colorado rivers in Southern Utah, and it’s been amazing to have world-class whitewater accessible to me as a quick, after-work option.
I’ve also been throwing in a healthy amount of weight training and core workouts with my hangboreding, as well as 2-3 cycling trips a week in which I ride down and back up out of the New River Gorge. Hopefully this regimen will keep me in good overall shape for the fall, despite my favorite Mexican Restaurant DiOGi’s opening back up and temping me with their nachos and margaritas!
Without a doubt, however, the biggest obstacle for my fall climbing season is going to be my old enemy: TIME. In addition to managing the local climbers’ campground here, my work as a freelance writer has really been taking off. On top of that, I’ve taken a job at one of Fayette County’s chronically understaffed high schools as a full-time English teacher. It’s been amazing so far; not only will the money help for future road trips, but I truly love teaching, and hope to be able to make a difference by applying my skills as a former college professor to some of the most disadvantaged and peripheralized demographics in the nation. Exposing rural hillbilly kids to Malcolm Gladwell? Fuck yeah.
But the problem is that I moved here to climb. I began substitute teaching last year for the good money, and because of the flexibility in being able to work when I wanted and no more. Now, pulled back in by my love of actually designing and teaching my own courses, I’ve lost that flexibility. Part of me hopes that my school will be able to find a qualified and licensed English Teacher to replace me, and I’ll be able to go back to being a dirtbag. We’ll see.
Either way, I really hope to have a good fall, even if it means running myself into the ground and burning the candle at both ends (forgive the double metaphor). I’d like to take down Greatest Show, Temporary Insanity, Thundering Herd, and The Racist, all lifetime goal routes for me here at the NRG. Beyond that (and providing I can get out of this teaching gig), the big goal is to be able to take my truck into the desert Southwest for all of December, January, and February, spending weeks and weeks at Hueco Tanks, Red Rocks, Zion, Joshua Tree, and more.
I’ve been managing to ride the fine line between dirtbaggery and being a responsible adult for a while now; let’s hope I can keep pulling it off.
I’m not really a huge fan of most climbing literature. Royal Robbins’s attempts to turn his visionary ascents into high writing, John Long’s modified campfire-stories, Mark Twight’s dark fatalism– most climbing writers get stale quickly to me, even if they are incredible athletes. There are a few exceptions: John Sherman’s humorous and occasionally self-deprecating essays of climbing culture are the ancestors of today’s better climbing blogs. And even more so, my favorite climbing writers– David Roberts, John Krakauer, even Matt Samet– are those who let climbing serve as a constant background for their stories, rather than put it at center stage. They’re not climbing writers; they’re writers who climb.
But still, climbing literature or not, my nearly half-a-lifetime on the rocks has found its way into everything from these blogs to my book (on a public radio interview last year I even tied Edmund Burke’s idea of “the sublime” into the climber’s idea of “type II fun). More than a few ideas have formed as I’ve applied some of my favorite historical themes (recreation, environmentalism, frontier mythologies, rigid ideologies) to my own evolution as a climber over the past seventeen years, and it seems like the more I gradually slink away from academia and the historical profession, the more integrated climbing becomes into my writing.
Anyway, here’s a little piece about when I was a clueless gumby.
I first touched the chossy, slippery limestone of northern Utah’s Logan Canyon at the age of nineteen in 1998, tying into a 5.8 toprope with a webbing harness, borrowed chalkbag, and my hightop Vasque hiking boots. It was a mixture of the new and the familiar. I was in decent shape, used to hiking up to 30 mile days, and even had some rudimentary climbing techniques under my belt honed from years of slot canyon scrambling in the Canyon Country. The first route I climbed was a sort of chimney feature, and the stems and mantles that I employed to get up it were familiar; it was fun to experiment with the moves on toprope, and without the consequences of a broken ankle and possibly a 20 mile evac.
I did not know at the time about the sport versus trad ethical debates that were just winding down in the late 1990s. I didn’t know about climbing gyms beyond the county fair, or the emerging phenomenon of first-generation gym rats like Sharma or Lindner who were moving quickly from plastic to 5.14 rock at the time. I did not know that at the time, Salt Lakers 90 minutes to the south were at the forefront of American sport climbing and bouldering. I did not know what the back story of a family friend’s comments were, when he would rant to my parents about how “those guys hanging off of bolts in China Wall Cave (probably Boone Speed on Super Tweak, 14b) didn’t know shit” about REAL climbing, and how he had climbed a route right near Super Tweak back in the 1970s.
Despite not knowing any of this, I was in some ways set to become a grumpy, elitist, ideologue member of the Tradiban from day one. I approached climbing from a perspective of outdoor adventure, not athletic or gymnastic improvement. I was a wilderness advocate, environmentalist, even very briefly an eco-saboteur, and obsessed over backpacking and isolated river trips. Occasionally, I’d encountered bolts on clifflines in the backcountry and been disgusted at the crass hubris of leaving chunks of metal in a natural landscape. This was no different than paved trails, or housing developments being carved into canyons for that matter.
Perhaps above all, although I certainly was just barely starting to be aware of it at the time, I measured the ultimate value of my outdoor experiences in terms of isolation and solitude. A socially awkward virgin who still lived with my parents, steeped in the misanthropic essays of Thoreau, Abbey, and self-described “solitudarian” Colin Fletcher, I went into the backcountry mostly alone or with one or two friends. My ultimate goal was to find stunning natural places where nobody else was– we would rather be on drab BLM land alone than on stunningly beautiful NPS land with others, and were quite willing to turn away from trailheads where even one other car was parked. I hated any mark of human presence on my backpacking trips, even kicking over cairns along many Southern Utah hiking routes (I’m pretty embarrassed even today to admit to this, and I stopped doing it after getting lost while hiking back to the car along a route where I had obliterated some cairns a few days earlier).
This had actually turned me off from climbing through high school. I disliked its reliance on partners, and even more the crowded, social aspect of those noisy roadside crags that I would drive past on my way to a backcountry trailhead. Most of all, I hated the cliques and scenes that so many types of outdoor recreation fostered. This aversion probably had its origins in my family’s smug, cynical tendency to dismiss anything that was popular or trendy, be it pop music, team sports, or mainstream TV shows. It was also most definitely shaped by my working for an “old-school” backcountry outfitter in the tiny, isolated town of Torrey, Utah. We took pride in being removed from the yuppie crowds of Moab. In going out of my way to avoid the cliquishness of outdoor rec, I embraced horses and cattle herding over mountain biking, oil leather over Gore-tex, Carhartt over Patagonia, duck-taped liter bottles over camelbacks, Cabellas over REI.
Despite all this, I found that climbing was easily the most addictive outdoor activity that I’d ever done. I could spend time outside, there was a quantitative and simple platform for measuring improvement, and (gasp), it might even help me meet girls! I bought the toprope basics– shoes, chalkbag, rope, harness– and even got a volunteer job at the Utah State University’s small bouldering gym.
But still, a lingering part of me felt guilty for indulging in this perceived new-school, cliquish activity. My non-climbing friends and family did not let me forget it; “Oh, you’re going to go hang off the side of the Fucoidal Quartzite crag again? Why do you enjoy climbing right next to the road? Why don’t we go hiking instead, away from people?” Fortunately, after about a year of easy toproping up Logan Canyon, I discovered a way to resolve my older solitudarianism with my newfound love for climbing. It was this thing called “trad.”
Disclaimer: for the purposes of this essay, and this point of time in my climbing evolution, I’m defining “traditional climbing” as “the placing of removable gear on a route,” rather than clipping bolts. This is neither the historical definition, nor my personal definition today, but what is important was that this was how I saw it around 1999, when I was a cocky, clueless 20 year old.
I didn’t know any trad climbers well (although they definitely existed in my hometown of Logan). In climbing magazines I would come across photos of Yaniro, Suzuki, or Hong, putting these expensive cams into cracks, and then almost unnaturally, mystically, moving themselves up granite or sandstone walls simply by twisting their hands, fingers, and toes into these same cracks. Having only climbed on slippery, breaking limestone, I could not comprehend how cams and crack technique would even work. They seemed as inaccessible to me as climbing 5.11.
Then, all this changed. For President’s Day of 2000, I had originally planned on doing a canoe trip down Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. However, at the last minute the friend with whom I’d planned on boating changed his plans. There was a girl he was chasing who had invited him to come to some place called “Indian Creek” to climb as part of a larger group. He bailed on the canoe trip, but obligatorily offered to let me tag along– “yeah, I guess you can come. It’s probably going to be really lame though.”
I had no other choice, was angry that I’d been forced third-wheel style into a cliquish group (that included MORMONS! Ugh), but figured that, hey, at least I was going to get down to the Canyon Country that I loved.
It was only as we were driving south on I-15, my friend, myself, and the designated “trip leader” packed into the front of a compact 2wd pickup truck, that I found out what we were in for. I asked Trip Leader a few questions about the climbing we were going to do, and found out that, GASP, we were about to CRACK CLIMB, with TRAD GEAR! Having spent years hiking through Wingate Sandstone, I was instantly worried about climbing on soft rock like this. The only saving grace was when Trip Leader informed us that he would lead all the climbs, and we could toprope them (yes, we were that group). But still, crack climbing? I was scared.
The next morning, after waking up amidst the familiarity of a sunny desert winter morning, we hiked up to the unfamiliarity of Supercrack Buttress. There were only perhaps three other groups there (yes, I’m playing the Old Man, Back-in-the-Day card here), but I was already apprehensive about seeing crowds of people in the Canyon Country, my Canyon Country. When we got to the base of our first route (Keyhole Flakes), I noticed the white chalk caking the outside of the crack. I didn’t know what to think about this; my sense of aesthetics and leave-no-trace ethics was repulsed.
Recalling some SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) pamphlets I’d read about Leave-no-Trace climbing, I asked Trip Leader, “Aren’t we supposed to be using red dirt-colored chalk?” He just laughed as he was racking up, “Nobody uses that stuff!”
Despite my initial misgivings, I found that toproping these climbs– Keyhole Flakes, The Wave, Incredible Handcrack– was incredibly fun. I was strong, and had decent body awareness from the gym, and just layback sprinted up everything in lieu of actually using jamming technique. Eventually I even learned some rudimentary handjamming skills, and took to it pretty quickly. Later that day, we moved across the canyon to Battle of the Bulge buttress for some 5.11s, a grade that I’d never come close to climbing in Logan Canyon. I toproped the shit out of some corners, again mostly laybacking, all while thinking, “wow! This is awesome! I want to do more of this!” By the end of the day, after witnessing our Trip Leader take a bad headfirst whipper on Cave Route, and even badly toprope-thrutching up some 5.12s (Digital Readout and Swedin Ringle), I was hooked. My friend who had invited me was less psyched; the jams hurt, the girl he was chasing showed up to the crag with another guy, and he wound up just leaving us to go hiking by himself while I was quickly running from one toprope to the next. I think the last thing I heard him say was something about how “granite is so much better.”
For the last day of the trip, we stopped off in Moab on the way home. I bought a set of stoppers and the old, Xeroxed Indian Creek guidebook at Pagan Mountaineering. Although my friend wanted only to go home, Trip Leader informed me that there were some great first trad leads on Wall Street, so we stopped off and I led 30 Seconds Over Potash (5.8), and then Flakes of Wrath (5.9). It was awesome.
Upon returning to Logan, I was changed, and had figured out how to resolve my solitudarian backcountry enthusiasm with the newfound love of climbing– TRAD! I would sit through my Environmental Ethics philosophy course, where we would talk about the struggle and balance between preservation of natural landscapes versus enjoyment and exploitation of those same resources. I would sit through my US Western History course, where we would discuss Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that American identity had been shaped by the rugged, individualistic meeting point of “civilization and savagery” on the Wild West Frontier. It was clear to me that trad climbing was both environmentally responsible, AND individualistically bold. I was quite clearly awesome.
Between classes, I would run into the gym for quick sessions, my chest puffing with a new elitist pride as I projected the perfect handcrack that crested the entire roof of the gym, while lowly sport climbers looked on in amazement that I had unlocked the secret of the handjam. Then I would go home and read climbing magazines about rad trad ascents around the world. I would especially dwell upon the intros to various guidebooks to Indian Creek and the Canyon Country. The words of grumpy old trad climbers like Eric Bjornstadt and Stewart Green all emphasized the sheer badassery of desert crack climbing. “5.10 here is HARD.” “You have to hang off of pure jams, there are no face holds at all!” “The rock is really soft, you might die!” Along the way, I started putting together a trad rack, and found one or two partners who were psyched on driving the six hours south to Indian Creek every weekend.
All of this reinforced this idea: I was incredibly rad for trad climbing, the same way that I had been rad for solo backpacking or riding 30 miles through a thunderstorm while carrying a newborn calf that was shitting all over me. Because it was uncomfortable, kind of scary, and because most people that I knew did not do it. The toproping cliques, the USU outdoors club, they could all fuck off. I saw myself as a Turnerian rugged individualist for embracing the danger of trad climbing, and a Leopoldian deep ecologist for not clipping bolts.
I was also ideologically rigid and clueless, as much as my 21 year old contemporaries who were discovering Ayn Randian Objectivism about the same time.
The thing is, most cocky 20-something males who eventually figure out that Objectivism is shallow and unrealistic do not do so by nearly killing themselves. After a season of climbing RadTrad at Indian Creek, I was a dangerously confident gumby. As far as I knew, trad climbing ONLY involved placing removable gear on lead. I didn’t know anything about ground-up, onsight ethics, let alone rope management, anchor building, or multi-pitching. My friends and I, cluelessly strutting about Supercrack Buttress, jumped on every 5.10 crack we saw, falling– or more frequently hangdogging– our way up them before eventually redpointing them. We were sport climbing, but did not know or think it.
In the early 2000s, desert crack climbing still had a mystique about it; mutant gym rats from Boulder or Salt Lake City had not yet discovered how easy Ruby’s Café could be to them with just a few weekends of work on basic crack technique. Guidebooks and internet forums were full of the whole “Woo crack climbing is hard and dangerous!” mythology much more than they are today. We reveled in it.
I fell right into this mythology by thinking that because I could hangdog myself up a 5.10, G-rated handcrack, it meant I was a 5.10 trad leader. It took a runout, footwork intensive 10a seam in Little Cottonwood Canyon (Equipment Overhang Right), and a stopper that pulled right out when I yelled “take!” to show me otherwise, as I took a 35 foot whipper that nearly cratered me.
Looking back at this, it is both scary and humorous. There is not a much more dangerous demographic in this world than an early-20-something male. The objectivist business major, the marine recruit, the suicide bomber, the gang member, or the clueless trad-wannabe solitudarian, they are all seeking to secure their masculinity and establish themselves in a complex world through a paradox: asserting their individuality but also gaining acceptance, by way of pre-established ideological templates.
My climbing evolved further after that near-groundfall in Little Cottonwood showed me new revelations such as “trad climbing does not involve yelling TAKE on gear.” I moved to Dallas, Texas for graduate school, where I found that for one to be a climber in a big city that is hours from the nearest rock, one often has to strengthen their identity as a climber much more than if he lives in Utah. I devoted myself to training in a climbing gym for the first time, spending every weekend climbing steep limestone sport or bouldering in Austin, old school runout trad at Enchanted Rock, or even bolted multipitch in Mexico. Gradually, though I did not notice it at the time, I found that the distinctions between sport, trad, and bouldering did not have to be rigid, and that each discipline fed off of and benefited the other. I also eventually came to the realization that just because you place gear in cracks that is removable does not make you unusually bold or environmentally conscious.
Furthermore, as I matured and became more involved in the Texas climbing community, I gradually moved away from my solitudarian roots. One cannot find the same solitude in North-Central Texas that there is in Southern Utah; the only outdoor activity I could do was climbing, and it most definitely was NOT backcountry, wilderness, or isolated. I began enjoying the social aspects of climbing, of getting to know people in the gym and on the rock, building friendships around the sport, and even finding an awesome girlfriend who liked climbing too (seriously!).
When I started climbing, a regular apprenticeship– under the tutelage of a more experienced mentor, with mock leads, seconding up easy granite multipitches with passive pro and bomber rock– would probably have been better, and instilled a more thorough perspective of humility and history in me. The toprope-to-Indian Creek route was not the best way to go (even though I still reap the benefits of having learned crack technique early and intensely).
I am nonetheless glad that I came to climbing from the direction of outdoor adventure rather than the direction of the gym. I still enjoy ground-up, onsight traditional climbing, sport climbing, bouldering, and headpointing– all very distinct disciplines. Living in the tight-knit community of Fayetteville, West Virginia, I’ve fallen more in love with the social aspects of climbing than my 19-year old self ever could have comprehended. But I still enjoy the occasional relapse of solitudarianism, pulling into an empty parking lot, hiking out to an unpeopled crag, and dangling over a cliff, just a rope and myself.
In 1776, the Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante obtained funding from the Spanish Crown to seek out a new northern route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the new colony of Monterey, California. However, once they were in the wilderness of the Colorado Plateau, they focused more on converting Indians and seeking out new mission possibilities, rather than finding a quick route across the Great Basin. This had actually been their main objective all along. Kind of like when a climber gets invited to come give a historical lecture in Zion National Park, when his main objective is climbing Moonlight Buttress.
Yup, I went there in my talk, and the climbers in the audience laughed, all knowing full well that 24 hours earlier this bespectacled nerd spouting off historical facts and theories had been groveling up 1000 feet of sandstone finger cracks. And while I want to emphasize that I would have made the trip to talk about my book Wrecks of Human Ambitioneven if climbing had not been on the table, I’m not going to lie– the prospect of getting a paid trip to the red rock country to do my two favorite things, climb and talk about history, was a dream come true. Thanks Zion Canyon Field Institute!
Moonlight Buttress (10-ish pitches, 5.12ish) has hovered in my consciousness since shortly after I first started climbing in the late 1990s. I first heard about it when one of our Utah State University climbing community members aid soloed it over spring break. We all thought it was a big deal that he was “soloing a 5.13 big wall!” (I didn’t know the difference between aid and free climbing at the time). A few years later, a friend of mine, also aiding it, nearly died. She rapped off the end of her rope while bailing off of the fifth pitch, and was only saved when a tangle of slings self-arrested her mid-fall (yeah, it’s complicated).
As my years as a climber progressed, several of my friends and partners from Indian Creek began getting on the route as a sort of final exam in the crack techniques that the Creek fostered. I wanted to get on it, but found great reasons to put it off. My multi-pitch resume was pretty thin. I wasn’t a solid 12+/13- crack climber. Then I moved to the humid East, first to Texas, then Ohio, then West Virginia, and desert crack climbing faded back into distant memory, even as I matured and improved as an overall climber.
Then, this past winter, I got back to the Southwest, mostly for long, moderate routes in Red Rocks. It was nice to be back in the desert. Although I love my current home at the New River Gorge, and stand by my hyperbolic statements about its Nuttal Sandstone being the best medium for rock climbing ever, the desert southwest will always be my first love, and true home.
It was during this time that I also finally made the acquaintance of Dan “Climbing Trash” Snyder, whom I’ve known through various rock climbing websites for damn near a decade. We’ve got a few commonalities in our backgrounds– we’re both cultural “Jack Mormons,” we both have chosen to live in small town hubs of outdoor recreation, and we’ve both spent way too much time dragging tourists through canyons, over trails, and down rivers as backcountry guides. In addition to letting me crash at his house in Virgin, UT (where gun ownership is legally mandated), Dan also hooked me up with some folks he knew who worked for the Zion Canyon Field Institute. It turns out that they were psyched on having me come out in April and give a talk on the history of humans doing stupid stuff in the desert. And of course, the first thing that came to mind was, “Whoa, I’ve GOT to climb Moonlight Buttress!”.
Fast forward to the week of April 22 (Earth Day!). I flew into Salt Lake City, rented a small compact car, and made the obligatory 12 hour visit to family in northern Utah before driving south on I-15. I’m accustomed to being a dirtbag, driving across the country and spending months living out of my truck, so this new method of travel with flights, car rentals, motels, and travel receipts felt strange. I hadn’t even packed a sleeping bag!
It was also strange to come back to an area where I’d spent so much time as a child. My grandfather, the late, brilliant landscape artist Harrison Groutage, was the first person to instill a love of the desert into me. He’d built and lived in a beautiful vacation home just south of Zion through the 80s and 90s, painting countless views of the West Temple, Kolob Terrace, and Smithsonian Butte from his north-facing studio window. Although I’d never climbed in Zion when I’d spend time at his house, it nonetheless felt like I was coming home.
Anyway, enough of this sentimental reflection. I rolled into Virgin around dark on Monday night. Climb Tuesday, book lecture on Wednesday, maybe climb again Thursday. I knocked back a few Knob Creek-Dr. Pepper cocktails with Dan (the guy loves his sugar), and discussed the upcoming climb for the next day.
I had not had luck finding a partner whom I was confident getting on such a big, hard climb with. Ideally, a perfect partner would have been someone who could swing leads, and was solid on the grinding, sometimes painful nature of long, desert cracks. But although I sent out a wide-ranging message to my “dream list” of partners who I knew might be in the area around then, nothing came through.
Finally, less than a week before my trip, Dan simply offered to jug the route. This offer blew my mind. Contrary to what a lot of people assume, jugging is hard work, in some ways just as exhausting as free climbing. Dan had been either guiding or working as a brickmason for several weeks with no days off, and I wondered if he knew what he was getting into with this offer to jug and carry the pack on a “rest day.” However, he’s tough, has been climbing for decades, and most importantly stays positive even in exhausting situations. I’ve bailed off of big walls before because partners became negative and complaining, but I knew that Dan would not do this.
Still, this offer of jugging brought its own challenges. I’d be leading every pitch, and the impetus to get up the route rested solely on me. This would be a change from all other long, hard routes that I’d done, such as Red Rocks’ Rainbow Wall or Potrero Chico’s Sendero Luminoso, in which I was climbing with partners who were much better than I was. The pressure was on!
Although I’d been training hard in the months leading up to this climb, and was in very good shape as far as endurance goes, there were plenty of things I could have done better in preparation for Moonlight. I could have scheduled a longer trip to brush up on my neglected desert crack technique. I could have climbed more pitches of trad back at the New River Gorge (I think I led one pitch of 5.11 gear that entire spring).
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t know what my exact goal for Moonlight was. I knew that I wanted to give it a very good attempt at onsighting (actually, more like flashing, since I’ve watched so many videos and talked to so many people about it), but was pretty sure that I would get bouted. I thought that maybe, if I didn’t completely get my ass handed to me and did it with just a couple mistakes, I might try to get back on the route on Thursday.
Anyway, we got up at 5:30am the next morning; I had no appetite, but put away two cups of black coffee and two peanut butter/banana burritos. We packed food, water, and cigarettes for Dan. One 70 meter rope, one gri gri, ascenders, and a shit ton of cams, none larger than a red camalot. I was particularly wary about the half dozen purple camalots we had, since that is by far my weakest size of crack (a couple millimeters bigger than a fingerlock). We drove through Zion Canyon as the sun rose, feeling extra special with the VIP pass that we’d gotten from a ranger, which allowed us to drive into the shuttle bus-only section of the canyon. The approach was chill; easy river crossing, easy scramble to the base of the route.
On the first four pitches, which are basically the approach to the six-pitch 5.12 splitter and corner finger cracks, I got off route a couple times, but felt great. At the base of the 5.12 section, a ledge 350 feet up called the “rocker block” we converged with two other parties: a pair of free climbers, and a very fast-moving aid climber who also had his own jug/support sherpa. Both groups were very chill; we sat on the ledge, bantered about mutual acquaintances and beta, and watched as another group made its way up from the base of the route.
Gazing up the imposing corner, I could make out fixed anchors, plenty of tickmarks, and even some chalk scrawlings on the wall that said “B” and “Y”– I realized later that some goober was reminding himself where to put blue and yellow cams. Oh well, this was not a wilderness route, it was not even an adventure route; it was just hundreds of feet of glorious finger crack.
The corner pitches– the first (pitch 5 of the entire route) is a hard v5-ish boulder problem to a 5.11 fingercrack, and the second (pitch 6) is a wild layback/stemming affair– went smoothly. The 5.12+ “crux” layback sixth pitch has probably gotten a bit wider over the years, because I got tips jams the whole way.
Pitch 7 was the one which I had heard the most about being awkwardly hard, and it definitely took a lot out of me: a physical squeeze chimney up to a point where you reach WAY back into a corner for a flared ringlock, and then have to make a 180 degree rotation from facing left to facing right. I must have accidently read this the right way, because I managed to get the rotation, and even flexed my fat hips to get a no-hands position in the hardest part! Unfortunately, in the enduro off-fingers layback above, the pump finally caught up with me, and I took a little fall. Booo! We made it up to a really nice ledge at the base of pitch 8 (a beautiful 12a finger splitter, best climbing on the route), where we ate, drank, and lounged around, waiting for the aid party to get further ahead of us.
I fell once more that day, on pitch 9, which I thought was the hardest of the route, with 30 feet of off-fingers splitter. After this point, the route turned into really cool, but kind of scary face and pinscar climbing. Pitch 10, a 12a called the “Nutter” pitch, was a struggle; I was digging pretty deep into the reserves, and there was one moment where I stopped, 15 feet above a tiny tcu in soft rock, and thought, “holy shit, if this was a single pitch route at the NRG, it would be the day’s highpoint if I onsighted it! I’d go home and start drinking!” But in the context of this huge route, it was just another challenge that I had to bang out almost mindlessly.
One more pitch of 5.10+ handcrack over a little roof, then some juggy slabbaineering and we were at the top. Even with the other parties on the wall and the leisurely pace, we managed to do the route in about nine hours. After a quick jaunt down the West Rim trail and a few conversations with tourists, we were drinking margaritas in Springdale. Damn good day.
I was pretty happy with how we did on Moonlight Buttress. No epics, no all-out ass kickings, just good, tired fun. Who knows, maybe if I had been swinging leads, instead of leading every pitch, I would have had a better shot of onsighting it, but I was psyched to have done the thing in good time, with just a couple falls. Unfortunately, however, my body was so wrecked, and my fingers so sore from the endless fingerlocks that I knew there was no way I could go back on Thursday to redpoint the pitches I had fallen on. We went cragging, and I barely made it up a single-pitch 5.11. Three weeks later, and my fingers STILL hurt.
In terms of the training I did, I was happy with my approach, and the constant mileage of steep sport and gym routes was key to building my endurance. But again, who knows, maybe if I had been able to go cragging for a couple days in Zion or Indian Creek, again I maybe, just maybe would have had a shot at actually onsighting the route. But I can’t be disappointed at all; this was a fairly “off-the-couch” desert climbing experience for me (in terms of the rock type, not fitness).
Three days later, I was back at the New River Gorge, climbing single pitch, bombproof sandstone in 80% humidity. The contrast could not be greater. My fitness, which I had been training by periodization to peak for Zion, predictably plateaued out by late April as well. Now, as the Appalachian Spring is gradually giving way to summer, my body and fingers have still not yet fully recovered from Zion, and I can tell that I desperately need a break from climbing for a month or so. Fortunately, whitewater season is just around the corner.
Without a doubt, this was one of the best climbing trips I’ve had, despite its brevity. Although I did not send (hopefully I’ll get to return to finish the route off), I identified a “dream route” that I’ve wanted to do for over a decade, trained specifically for it, and gave it a great go. The fact that I was able to incorporate this into my literary and intellectual life only added more to the experience. Climbing, history, and landscape have always been intertwined for me, whether in humid Appalachia or the arid Southwest.
“Well, if you really read into the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus meant…”
“We’re not meant to eat wheat. If you knew what our paleo ancestors used to eat…”
We hear remarks like these all the time, in casual conversation on politics, religion, history, to the point of cliché. They all share a common theme: to put it simply, things aren’t going as well today as they were yesterday, so if we can only figure out what people were doing yesterday, we can get better!
When I used to teach, I would occasionally emphasize three “rules” of history.
1. There is no Virgin Land
2. There are no Indigenous Peoples
3. There is no Golden Age
I’m going to focus here on the final of the three rules (the other two I may get to later). The quotes I opened with were fixations upon “Golden Age Mythology,” a mixture of hero worship, applying ideals of platonic perfection to the past, and being severely dissatisfied with the modern world. They’re not necessarily false, but can be severely misguided.
On the surface, we can all think of obvious “Golden Ages” in our cultural memory that we also know were not quite so Golden. We think of the virtue of the Roman republic while forgetting the political corruption and assassinations; the high art of the Italian Renaissance while forgetting plagues and religious oppression; the suburban family-friendliness of the 1950s while forgetting institutionalized racism and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. We remember the good– the 1960s had the Stones and Beatles, the 1990s had Nirvana and the Pixies!– while forgetting the bad (Herman’s Hermits and Milli Vanilli).
However, despite our acknowledgement that the past has always been less than perfect, we continue to subtlely and subconsciously assume that some times, characters, or events are so sacrosanct that they are beyond reproach and criticism by anyone from any part of the sociopolitical spectrum.
Deferential reverence towards our nation’s origins, particularly the U.S. Constitution and the “Founding Fathers,” is a great example of this irrational reverence for the past. In the current (and anachronistic) debate of “were the founding fathers Christian?” both sides of the argument fundamentally want and need a bunch of white guys who have been dead for two centuries to agree with them. Fundies misuse Jefferson’s words about the “creator” and “nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as some sort of evidence that he was Christian in the sense of 21st century evangelicalism. Secularists like Richard Dawkins or even Bill Maher will quote Jefferson’s or Franklin’s words on the inutility or riduculousness of religion, as a way of making their case that these guys were somehow synonymous with modern-day internet-activist atheists.
At this point, you are probably saying, “so what DID the founding fathers really think about religon?” Rather than spend paragraph upon paragraph upon this question (short answer: they varied, none were what we would call Dawkins-atheists, or fundamentalist evangelicals), I would respond with this: “why do you care what they thought?”
The very fact that we want to have the case closed on what Jefferson or Franklin thought of evangelical fundamentalism just shows how deeply our culture is entrenched in this reverence for the past. These men simply HAVE to agree with us! To win an argument, we only have to show that some respected figure from the past agreed with our stance, rather than take on the more difficult task of arguing our case on its own merits of logic and reason.
Or, as Thomas Jefferson himself said,
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.
So yeah, I just used the words of Thomas Jefferson to strengthen my case for why we don’t necessarily need to use the words of Thomas Jefferson to strengthen cases. This has got to be some sort of paradox.
It’s the Jefferson paradox! Get in the TARDIS before it explodes!
But the fact remains that, if we can tie something to a sacrosanct institution, it gives our argument more merit. Scholars almost unanimously agree that the U.S. Constitution did a terrible job of dealing with the slavery/freedom paradox that has plagued American since before we were a nation. It swept the issue under the table, gave special favors and concessions to slaveholders (such as the 3/5 clause) that it did not give to any other special interests, all the while not even being able to even mention slavery by name within its own words.
And people knew this from day one. As the slavery debate snowballed toward the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution a “covenant with death,” and “dripping with blood.” David Walker, a free black anti-slavery pamphleteer, openly mocked Jefferson’s “declarations” as hypocritical.
However, the anti-slavery activists whom we remember the most are those who refrained from attacking our nation’s origins, those who believed that the Constitution was foundational to the point that, if it attacked, the house above it would divide and fall (forgive me for riding the metaphor car off the track). Frederick Douglass, on addressing a crowd of white, middle-class females in New York, made sure to temper his angry “What to the Slave is Your 4th of July?” with occasional reassurances that he respected the Constitution and our founding fathers; they were not wrong, maybe just a bit misguided, and the fault was upon us for not really knowing what they meant.
In a lot of ways, this comes down to the difference between what political scientists call “radical” and “conservative” revolutions. Radical revolutions attack the very roots of the institution that they’re seeking to change (“The Constitution is wrong!”), while conservative revolutions seek change within these roots (“We need to rethink how we’re reading the Constitution!”). And of course, Abraham Lincoln, the consummate conservative revolutionary, abolished slavery in a rather genius way that preserved the sancrosanctity of the Constitution. Realizing how important it was to the cultural memory of a nation that was not even a century old, he did not suspend or overturn the Constitution, but rather forced the Southern States to secede, and then used his power as commander-in-chief to seize the human “property” of belligerents in a time of war, all while following the rules of our founding documents. The Revolutionary Golden Age was thus preserved.
Walter Sobchak was not the only one to give a shit about the rules.
Jesus wouldn’t approve of the Westboro Baptist Church! Jesus wouldn’t bomb an abortion clinic! Jesus wouldn’t oppose gay marriage!
Even more deeply entrenched than our reverence for the revolutionary period, is the deference from all sides of the political spectrum to a person whom we know very little about. It’s interesting; while the Right usually supports their arguments by saying “the Bible clearly says…” almost everyone from the Left– whether atheist, agnostic, or progressive– is even more guilty of Golden Age hero-worship, in which they try to point out to conservative Christians that Jesus was some sort of liberal, passively resistant hippy (the long hair and beard probably help this argument).
“Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Ghandi also was guilty of Golden Age hero worship.
Once again, I’m not going to jump into the cesspool of selectively quoting scripture to show how Jesus-would-vote-for-my-party-therefore-WIN! We can find passive quotes, active quotes; quotes supporting collectivism, and quote supporting free enterprise; quotes supporting and opposing statist government action, or quotes relating to any other convoluted argument that our society it fixating upon at a given moment. Yawn.
Scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan have done a great job of peeling away the centuries of spoken and written mythology that surround Jesus, and laying bare the few facts that we know about the historical man. It basically comes down to this: he was a Jewish mystic who fervently believed that the Roman Empire’s presence in Judea was fulfilling some sort of end-times prophecy, and this was more than enough to get him condemned to death. That’s it. We don’t know what the definitive story of his birth was, or why there are conflicting accounts of his last minutes and words. And there is no passive resistance, no love-everyone hippitude.
Or this, unfortunately.
But, because every story needs a redeeming, sacrificing hero, our entire society has gotten behind the idea that Jesus agrees with THEIR cause, and that any veering from their cause is a result of misinterpretation and misreading. Not only do secularists attacking Christianity refrain from attacking Christ, they often go out of their way to show that they AGREE with him, to the point of fabricating evidence just as much as the fundamentalists whom they are assaulting.
In the end, it is just obvious that the very ways in which we tell stories and make points rely on Golden Age mythology. Mormon faith is built upon the idea that they are reclaiming “true” Christianity that was corrupted by the Catholic Church. Wilderness preservationists from Muir on have tried to retain some sort of static, idealized outdoor landscape that has never existed. 1960s Red Power activists emphasized that Indians before Columbus had lived in complete harmony with the earth and each other. Free love advocates and some feminists write and talk of how all of today’s problems are tied to the hierarchical imposition of monogamy that took us away from our polyamorous, bonobous roots. Cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead implied that less “modern” societies such as those in Samoa could show us how our own society was before it fell from its golden age. Paleo fiends tout how much better off we were before the rise of agriculture. Grumpy trad climbers on supertopo.com forums angrily type away at their keyboards about how rad they were back in the Stonemaster days of Yosemite in the 1970s. I am dead convinced that the pinnacle of popular music was during the grunge years, when I was in high school with my Nirvana t-shirt.
None of these myths that different subcultures have built around their ideologies are 100% wrong. I love listening to grunge on my headphones while climbing trad routes in the wilderness. But, they all fall short when they try to buttress their cases with what Jill Lepore has termed “historical fundamentalism”– the selective seizing of the broad, expansive past for purposes that fall into narrow chronological and ideological scopes.
Our entire society and Western culture is built around this, as Carolyn Merchant showed in her excellent book Reinventing Eden; and in many ways, the Garden of Eden myth is the ultimate Golden Age that we just wish we could get back to. But we need to realize that history is more complex than just supporting single issues, and that asking the question “What would Jefferson/Jesus/Kurt Cobain/John Bachar do or think” is anti-intellectual at its heart.
That is all. I’m going to go listen to 90s music, now.
So, I finally got a book published. It’s quite likely that I’m done with academia for good now; the job search has been dismal and I’m honestly pretty jaded with the whole process. However, I’m still pretty proud of getting my revised dissertation published, something that most academics do once they’re trying to get tenured, but whatevaaaah.
Anyway, check it out by clicking the link in the heading of this post. Apparently, there’s going to be an ebook edition due out soon, too.