Sunday, September 11, 2016

Thoughts on the passing of Scott Adamson, an extraordinary human

Thoughts on the passing of Scott Adamson, an extraordinary human

Scott chucking inverted laps in the Crack House

Scott Adamson and Kyle Dempster no longer walk among us in this life. They died in Pakistan some time in the last two weeks, attempting to climb one of the great mountaineering challenges of this generation, the north face of the Ogre II. The Ogres are formidable mountains, and even to gain entry to the 'easier' routes on that massif one must be numbered amongst the world's elite. These guys were the real deal: strong, well trained, experienced, and committed. And now they are gone.

As always happens in the aftermath of death, many people are left with questions and introspection. Scott and Kyle were well loved and integral members of the SLC and Utah climbing community. I never met Kyle, however I shared some special times in the desert with Scott and always considered him one of my mentors. I should say CONSIDER him still my mentor, because today I got my ass out of bed and drove over to the gym and did a workout, with proper integrity, because that's what Scott would do, and want me to do.

We shared some great adventures in the desert, like the time we were camped at the Creek and it dumped rain all night, one of those intense fall rains. Scott didn't hesitate to wade out into the swollen river in his skivvies and check the depth, then proceeded to ford it in his truck as muddy water seeped around the doors and up through the floor. Needless to say, 12 hours later his alternator died...sending us on a midnight run through the star-studded desert canyons.

There was another time on a Zion wall when we arrived at a gaping offwidth that none of our gear would fit. It was my lead so I started up, but quickly got mired in hesitation as I assessed the obvious ledge-fall I would take if I fell. “Gimme the rack,” he said. Scott just took the gear and sent the thing without gear, executing with perfect form.

Another time that comes to mind is on the infamous ‘Ear’ pitch on Primrose Dihedral on Moses, one of the tallest towers in the desert. Scott fell while transitioning from an awkward sloped undercling to a lieback around the Ear. I expected him to pull back to the bolt. “Man, what is this? Hanging on towers? Lower me!” Surprised, I lowered him to the anchor, he pulled the rope without saying a word and then fired the pitch. I heard him hooting from the summit and realized what a guy I was climbing with. Whenever things got burly, Scott's answer was "Yarrrr!"

Scott is a mentor for me not because of his climbing skill, but for the way he WORKED. His talent in the vertical world may have been natural, but his strength and tenacity were hard-earned though sweat and effort. Scott truly beleived that he could realize extremely long-shot goals, and make himself a better person in the process, by devoting tremendous energy and heart to the betterment of himself. He trained really hard, and often while working in the construction trade, or as a wildland firefighter. He was a true blue-collar badass, proof that you don't need a fancy gym, money, or status to be a successful athlete, all you need is tons and tons of heart. He loved it. All of it, from the truck bivies to the daily pain fests to the cold belays and suffering to the satisfaction of sending hard, mentally demanding pitches. And he did it all without apology, refusing to shoulder the burden of other people's judgment like so many of us do. Beyond his strength and stamina, he had a rock-solid sense of himself, and you could take it or leave it. He didn't bother bullshitting anybody - he had no need to, because he knew who he was.

Scott set an example for me by his two main strengths: heart and discipline. He is an example for how hard he was willing to work, and how he refused to let fear cripple him once he committed to seeking the limits of what is possible. He knew as well as anybody that when you really are searching for that limit -- the boundary of what a human can do -- truly terrifying things can be found. This is what Scott and Kyle were doing in the Karakorum: striving to find the limit of human will that exists somewhere in the sharp horizons of mountains and within the vast and shifting spaces of our minds.

I fall short of these strengths on a daily basis. I continually fail to believe in my abilities to improve myself; I fail to trust the process of hard work; I fail to find the motivation to engage in work with heart. I forget the successes of my past in the face of fear and pain. I yield to my comfort-seeking mind, again and again. Sometimes, however, I am able to believe, to act with strength, and to trust in forces larger than myself. These are the finer moments of my life, the defining truths that allow me to say: I am a person. I have a will. I am worthy.

I'm thinking mainly of climbing and athletic feats as I write this (and many of you may identify with this as well), but as I take a mental step back I realize that, of course, this applies to every dimension of life. Whether it's doing the rehab for my hip surgery with integrity, working on core stability instead of fun climbing so I can avoid injury, finishing grad school, sticking to my budget so I can pay my credit card on time, maintaining oil changes on my rig, keeping up with job applications even though I get denials back, wiring a house well so it will be safe and last for the owner, or continuing to support my fiancé so she knows she is loved and special, these are all struggles that require heart and discipline.

People like me (and maybe some of you) need people like Scott. We need people who know, down to core, who they are, and let you take it or leave it. We need examples of drive and sacrifice to aspire to.  It can be the smallest thing, like an evening after a long day when I feel overwhelmed and just want to eat cereal and watch a TV show. These are just crutches to assuage my mind, which want to be coddled. Sometimes I think, what would Scott be doing? He'd tell me to eat real nutrition so I can gain strength from the day's labors, and to do a few planks or physical therapy exercises before I relax, and I'll relax better after that anyway. I know he'd be right. This is just one small way that Scott will continue to live in my life, and I'm sure he lives in more vibrant ways in a lot of other people's lives.

Sadly, whenever young people die and the circumstances involve their own decision (as opposed to be taken out by a drunk driver, etc), there will always be bystanders, particularly on the forum of the internet where courage is not a requisite for speech, who will criticize the dead for being reckless or selfish. I guess I've been around long enough now to refrain from reading the comments below articles.

I would say to these people: yes, Scott and Kyle put themselves at risk, tremendous risk. At this high standard of mountaineering, there is some certain probability of no return. Is that unconscionable? Is that selfish? Answer me this: we all have a 100% probability of dying; it is perhaps the one fact that is absolutely certain. What are you doing with the days you have? Are you applying yourself as much as you know you can? Are you living with heart and discipline? Are you doing anything that will grow beyond your self and live in others?

The death of younger people always starts this conversation about acceptable risk. There's another conversation that I almost never hear: about the risk of so many choices that people make that don't seem as 'risky' or 'extreme' at first glance. Like people that choose to smoke, or drink heavily, or to not take care of their bodies. People who don't do the work to find and keep motivation. People who don't honor their word. Depression is very unhealthy; I know this from experience. I guarantee you that all these people (and I may be amongst them) will die earlier than they may have, yet they are usually not called out publicly as being 'reckless'.

I'm not going to call out these people either. Who am I to do that? I'm merely going to question our societal norm that we put longevity - the numbers of a person's life - on such a pedestal above other things. Perhaps we can look at the quality of the life that has been lived, and that can speak for itself.

I will dearly miss Scott. I am sincerely grateful for his life, what he has given me and what he has given many people. His example for me does not diminish by the fact that he died. It will always burn inside me. How can I repay that gratitude? By living with integrity, believing in the process of work, and taking on my own challenges with heart and discipline. I already know that I'm going to fail at one million of these challenges. But I can perhaps succeed at a few more because I have examples like Scott.

Someone wrote on Scott's Facebook page:

"They didn't die doing what they loved, they LIVED doing what they loved."


Or was Scott would say, “NWS”.

A warrior surveying the next days' challenge.

There has been an outpouring of love and community support after Scott and Kyle's disappearance. It's always good to be reminded that community exists and we are stronger together. Some links:

A well-written article summarizing their climb, the storm, and the rescue effort:

Memories of Scott for his friends and family. Please share if you have them!

A tribute from Alpinist that expands on the talent, drive, and genuine good nature of Scott and Kyle

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Small town traditions

The best part about small-town living is the eccentric traditions. Those bizzare events that coalesce out of old habits and morph into something unique. Everybody has a good time, and while most new participants don't know how the tradition started in the first place, it's the evolution of the thing that's the most fun.

Every year in midwinter, the entire hearty population of Laramie and surrounding towns descends on Centennial, Wyoming, population 270. Centennial is six buildings on the side of a highway, right at the base of the Snowy Range. The whole town shuttles up in pickup trucks to where the plowed road ends in the mountains and skis back to to town, mostly with a beer in hand. Costumes are highly encouraged. There are bonfires and roasting hot dogs, and eventually everyone glides with gravity back to Centennial where the town's one pizza oven pumps out hot pies and bands play into the night.

Some people think the 'Poker Run' started as a race, some as a poker game, some as both. Whatever it's origins, everyone agrees that by the time February rolls around in a small town on the high plains, after three months of cold temps, snow, and bludgering winds, a little mid-winter celebration is due.

Skate skis on a narrow trial choked with snowshoers: this happens a lot.

Team USA!

Picking blugreass by the fire in a bear suit

Tom sciences the situation: long-range hot dog roasting

Annie indicates her skepticism of pocket sausage.

Isn't laughter the best medicine?

Until next year!

Friday, January 29, 2016

For the love of frozen waterfalls

Climbing frozen waterfalls is a ridiculous thing to do. They're cold, they break sometimes, there are always falling objects. You're covered in spikes. You're rarely comfortable. At some level you know that things could go really wrong.

But man, aren't they cool?

There is nothing like the fractal chaos of ice to remind me of how alien our presence can be in some landscapes. Here the climber is a bizarre visitor in an even more bizarre land.

Too often we try to make sense of our world. As a student of science, it seems this is all we do. Sometimes it's best to behold these wild things that don't make sense, and just accept them. For the wise, this is enough. For some of us, we need to feel it for ourselves.

[photo David Fay]

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Mammal in the Mirror

Never pass up an opportunity to shut the hell up”

I don’t have to squint to read the bumper sticker; it’s right there in front of me and I know exactly what it says. I know, in fact, precisely what it means for me, and that by some cosmic logic I pulled off the highway to pee five minutes ago exactly so I would get back on behind this car and read these words that I’ve been thinking right in front of my eyes. The invitation is right there. Can I embrace it? I set the cruise control to 65 and watched the patchwork valley of hayfields and pump jacks drift by, letting my thoughts slowly subside to nothing.


Like all mammals, there is war going on inside my head: two instincts, old as life itself, pull in opposite directions. Self-preservation, the watchdog of the individual life, instructs me to be cautious and scrutinize all potential risk. It tells me to eat now while I can, and hoard food for later. But a herd of self-centered individuals would fester and decay, confined to its immediate surroundings and food supply, and never discover the ample bounty beyond the next ridge. This competing instinct—to explore, take risks, and act spontaneously on intuition—has landed many a creature in harm’s way, broken, lost, or worse, but the discoveries and exploits help the community survive. This conflict between comfort-seeking and risk-seeking behaviors has been documented in birds, mammals, and human toddlers. As Homo Sapiens grows to adulthood, the most advanced and subtle logic system in the known universe learns to choose between these urges. Sometimes.

Of course, I’m not a squirrel or an antelope or a hunter-gatherer in the wilderness; by day I do gymnastics with linear algebra at a computer and in the evenings I do silly things to satisfy physical urges, like ride a bicycle around in circles or lift iron disks off the floor or climb up rocks the hard way so I can walk down the other side. I generally do not worry about my survival. I have never been predated upon, never endured famine, never weathered a storm without some kind of shelter. I am, generally, safe.

I am, however modern, still a mammal. Despite my swollen frontal cortex and its powerful capacities to organize and reason, ancient instincts pull with an irresistible tug. I squander resources on fruitless explorations, I eat far too little walking far too long just to see the other side of a mountain range. Sometimes I climb steep rocks without a rope, or use one where it wouldn’t matter. I also eat and drink too much, hoard protein bars and noodle packets, sleep when I have work to do, and avoid danger like the plague.

I am a whirlwind of contrasts, a walking paradox. I pretend to control this animal with 27 years of reasoning. I forget that the animal is 2.7 billion years old. 1:100,000,000; how’s that for a ratio. I am a rider atop a surfboard, struggling to choose the direction I paddle, unaware in my limited reference frame of the deeper currents that move me.

I am a reasonably smart person. I got into graduate school to study a field with a name most people haven’t heard of. I can do magic tricks with pages of numbers, draw order out of chaos, water from the rock. Sometimes I’m even smart enough to recognize my own powerlessness. But not that often.

I started climbing rocks because it felt good. At some point I tried climbing rocks that seemed too hard and it felt amazing and empowering. I climbed rocks for recognition, which felt pleasing, and faded. I climbed them to prove something to myself, which led to exciting consequences and a few badly sprained ankles and mostly a waste of time. Sometimes I climbed them because I felt the sun streaming down from heaven and gravity evaporate on the wind, and I felt connected to everything. The intensity of this connection fades, but once attained, I never lose it.

These days, I’ve learned not to try to create the sublime moments. After seven years of dedication, I’m still pretty bad at forcing them. Sometimes I climb rocks to share an experience with friends, and that is deeply satisfying. Mostly, these days, I’m more aware of my own powerlessness paddling on the deep currents, and by climbing rocks I get a glimpse of my real self, like catching a glace of my reflection on the calm surface of a lake as the wind ripples recede for a moment. For many of us, these breaks in the wind are the closest we get to self-knowledge.

Most days I let the currents of instinct take me where they will. The stakes are low enough, why strive so hard to choose? Sometimes self-preservation wins and I quit thirty minutes into a workout and sit on the couch and watch a Game of Thrones episode and eat a pint of ice cream. And I feel satiated, in that moment. Sometimes the exploratory, risk-taking urges win and I leave the snacks alone and bike through the sunset into the dusk without a plan, or do extra sets on an interval workout, or break ground in the garden with a pick axe, or leave the computer alone and write a letter to my grandmother with a pen. Sometimes I choose which path to take. But not often.

How much power does my logical brain actually have over my emotional, instinctual self? Every time I climb, my reflection in the vertical mirror forces me to deal with this question. How many times do I find that instead of trying to climb up the rock, I’m actually trying not to fall? No wonder the climb seems so hard. No wonder I fall.

When I think about my best climbs, they’re always the times when I was just an animal moving up stone. I focused my attention on holds, movement, and solutions. Send or sail, doesn’t matter—it’s the pure headspace that makes it memorable. On the best pitches I’m letting my intrepid, exploratory self do what it knows what to do—the “me” upstairs is just along for the ride. To enjoy. Perhaps to share the story with another mind, later.


The road turns to gravel at the Rifle Mountain Fish Hatchery and I ease my car up a narrowing canyon of limestone cliffs. I park under the shade of a cottonwood grove and walk up towards the crag to meet dear friends. The first saunters up in purple tights like a court jester, embraces me in a warm hug. The second emerges out of the forest from a nap, also clad in silly clothes. We walk up beneath the steep walls, tie into a rope, and try hard for no purpose other than the trying itself.

At a rest stance I scan the cliff above for holds. I try to read the sequence, and all I can tell is that it appears impossible. My grip is fatiguing. While searching for footholds I notice the bolt below me, and the self-preservation urge tugs with force. “You could just rest on that bolt,” it seems to say. “It’s safe.” The voice is so enticing. Of course it’s safe. This is why we practice hardship—this is why we look in the mirror—to gain the strength to resist that voice. To earn the ability to choose. This is, I believe, what they call consciousness.

I am still weak, but I have trained. I look up from the bolt to the wall above. The unknown. Nothing is certain, not even how I will use the first hold. The siren song of comfort-seeking instinct drags me downward. Soon I will be too heavy to climb. I remember my training, and I remember the bumper sticker. This, clearly, is an opportunity be silent for once. I focus on the edge above and my mind quiets, and then I notice something else: I’m curious about that edge, and the next, and how I might manage to reach between them both. Like prodding the embers of last night’s fire to life, I feel the exploration instinct stir deep within. With my attention focused on the sliver of limestone above my face, I shut up and let the curious animal climb up and seek what it wants to find.