When I was 20, in 1985, I carefully placed my new blue-and-white EB climbing shoes into my pack and bounced up a rutted road rising steeply above the Salt Lake Valley and along the flanks of the Wasatch Range. I was green and keen. Our destination was an alpine climber’s paradise called Lone Peak Cirque. A horseshoe shaped basin of textured granite walls resembling an outstretched baseball mitt, the cirque defines the southeastern end of the Mormon’s promised land. Prophet leader Brigham Young declared, “This is the place,” when he arrived in 1847. Beset by a combination of eagerness and fear, something climbers call butterflies, I had to agree.
My partner, Jay Wilson, had completed the first ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia a decade prior so I had good mentorship. At 36, Jay was also the most admirable grown-up I knew. He ran instead of walked when working construction, and laughed when I felt like blubbering with fear. He loved the mountains and sharing them with others, no matter their skill level. My experience on the day we climbed Lowe Route, a five-star, 500-foot-high, moderate masterpiece of sculpted alpine granite, perfect hand jams and “chicken head” face climbing covered with vibrant green patina, is burned into my memory. It firmly defined my future multi-pitch climbing ambitions.
During my climbing apprenticeship, I was fortunate to connect with many great mentors. Dave Anderson took me to Indian Creek, where we camped alone below the huge cottonwood tree right at the base of the Battle of the Bulge Buttress. I attended the mythical Bean Fest in Cochise Stronghold, and blew up watermelons with Todd Skinner during a 4th of July party in Lander, Wyoming. Craig Luebben, inventor of wide-crack protection called Big Bros, showed me the best offwidths—awkward and insecure knee- and elbow-sized cracks. No matter how impossibly hard they were, we insisted on rating them 5.9+, in honor of those who pioneered wide cracks several generations before us, without adequate protection.
Fred Becky, mentor of all mentors and still climbing at 94, shared first ascent photographs from Alaska, inspiring me to make it a regular spring destination. These were the days when a three-month-long road trip to Canada, Idaho and California cost just $1,000, including gas and beer. That was unless I traveled with Fred. His food sponsor was the McDonald’s condiment packet bin, he slept on concrete without a pad, and he wore polypro for longer stretches of time than the reign of the dinosaurs.
Eventually, I became competent at moving over stone and through the mountains. Ravenous for challenge, I found difficulty and claiming first ascents myopically important. Time passed in a blur of summits until, surprisingly, I began to crave process over achievement, planting a garden and building the off-grid home that parenthood and the unconditional, primal endorphins involved.
I also started to tire of attending memorial services for my climbing buddies and although modifying addiction is challenging, eventually my adventuring goals rotated full circle with the measure of success firmly rooted in my safe return. Locations like Lone Peak are once again top of the list: solid rock, plentiful protection, moderate grades and meaningful memories.
Last summer, my good friend Mark Williamson invited me to revisit Lone Peak Cirque with his son, and I found myself bouncing up the same rutted road, looking in the rear view mirror at 13-year-old Jack—already an unusually talented biker, skier and skateboarder—in the backseat. Wiry and strong, with shoulder-length dirty blond hair and new braces, he was quietly reflective, green like I had been, his mind filled with anticipation for the Lowe Route.
Quoting singer James Taylor, “Looking in my rear view mirror, I saw myself the next car back, looking in the rear view mirror.”
Same road, same objective. Watching Jack was like watching the memory of me. His eyes and emotions were my virtual reality goggles, and suddenly I felt as if I was riding shotgun inside his brain. Of course the magnitude of the moment belonged solely to Jack, but the vicarious association was intense. This was going to be really fun. Here is Jack’s perspective (or at least how the memory of me imagined Jack experiencing it all):
Pretty sleepy and hot, the valley temperature just hit the daily low of 88 degrees at 6 a.m. My dad’s idea to go alpine multi-pitching. Lone Peak Cirque is five miles and 5,500 vertical feet above us. We are about to hike there with huge packs filled with three days of food and climbing gear. I have no idea what that even means.
The hike is a roasting nightmare. I am too stunned to complain. After five hours, I collapse into a coma on the cool grass surrounding our camp at the mouth of the cirque. I never nap.
Around 3 p.m., my dad nudges me awake and the three of us scramble up the exposed ledges for several hundred feet to the base of the Lowe Route. This is my first multi-pitch trad climb and I am pretty nervous. Kennan leads while my dad and I climb together till the last chicken head face pitch, which my dad re-leads so Kennan can take photos.
Now I am alone on the ledge belaying my dad. Man, am I high off the ground. I’m scared and there is no way I can lean away from the anchor against the rope even though they told me it was bomber. Instead, my toes hurt in my tight rock shoes and I feel a little off-balance standing on this sloping belay ledge. My dad said the rope should run just fine… well, IT’S NOT. It’s wrapping itself in a frenzy around the rocks, webbing, and my legs. He calls for rope. Close to panic, I shout back, “You should’ve done a better job stacking it.” Ok, there it goes. Sweet.
Belaying is going easier. I look around, still hugging the wall. The evening sunlight is cool. My turn to climb.
Ok, Jack, deep breath. ‘Climbing,’ I yell. I start moving, getting that feeling I love. Granite. Man, granite is grippy, good holds. Finally I am not so scared, moving higher. Now to see what those chicken heads are all about.
From my ridgeline perch to the side of the angled granite face, I watch Jack begin to climb. I can tell he is really scared because of his awkward hesitations. I begin to worry about the fun factor but slowly he begins to relax, his movements becoming less fearful with summit success in sight. The sun hovers low in the western sky stirring the warm alpine breeze and bathing the cirque in golden light. The city fades into shadow, and together, we are alone. His papa is waiting with a high five, and Jack clambers onto the summit ridgeline and back to level ground.
Where once I followed Jay, Jack now follows Mark. With climbing, each new generation quickly absorbs the peak achievements of those who ascended before them. They take with them tokens of mentorship via tricks of the trade as well as an Appalachian-like oral climbing history that’s mostly true, very embellished and always funny. Kinship and legacy. Where Jack chooses to lead one day is still unknown except for the fact that he will have a seven-year head start on me. My grin reflects the setting sun. Thanks for the memories, Jack. You go.