posted by dpm on 03/13/2012


Every once in a while a theme emerges in one's life that demands reflection. Recently, this concept of iconic climbers and what they mean to us has been hitting me from all angles. Joe Kinder touched on the topic in his latest Stash video titled "A Photo is Worth a Thousand Inspirations." He talks about an old picture of Timy Fairfield barely clinging to Lungfish (5.14) in Rifle, Colorado and how that image shaped who he became. Timy himself comments on the image stating, "As children there are certain things that stay ingrained in our hearts and I think that the imagery of our idols and our mentors and significant historical events we pull out of magazines and posters... We put them on our wall and we aspire to place ourselves in that position someday. It's very important to identify what inspires us. Someone doing something passionately. Someone doing something with focus and intent in a manner that I wanted to do anything I did, not just that sport."

Timy Fairfield on Lungfish (5.14) in Rifle, Colorado. Click the image to watch Joe Kinder's "A Photo is Worth a Thousand Inspirations."

My personal inspirations in climbing are easy to identify. I think back to when climbing was all new to me and the now-faded excitement that I would feel just driving up to the cliff. There was a lot less climbing media back then and I can easily picture the short stack of VHS tapes that sat on top of our busted college-house television: "Free Hueco," "Big Stone," "Inertia," and "Masters of Stone V." Each video had been played 1000's of times until the footage became almost unwatchable but it didn't matter. The images were ingrained in our minds just like the dialogue that we regularly recited at the crag. We'd describe our V2 boulder projects using Obe's words from "Free Hueco," "Yo, yo! You gotta grab this little Frederic Nicole crimper! Backstep. Dropknee!" It didn't matter that we were scruffing around on mossy 6-foot high blocks. We imagined ourselves as Obe grabbing the final ear-shaped hold of Flying Marcel, feet cutting, screaming some indiscernible victory cry that sounded like it came from a Nintendo Street Fighter II, left-right-A Button combo.

"C'mon Obe!" Click the image to watch the scene from "Free Hueco" of Obe on Flying Marcel (V11). 

One of the images that really shaped me was from the now considered 'old-school' film Masters of Stone V. I don't need to re-watch it to picture it in vivid detail. The scene opens on Dean Potter's shoeless feet running toward the Nose of El Cap to the tune of an epic-sounding song by Vintersorg. The narration picks up with Dean: "When I'm approaching El Cap, I have all these different emotions running through my mind..." He solos up the opening pitches to Sickle Ledge where he literally runs past Timmy O'Neill who's playing the role of the average climber. Timmy looks awestruck as Dean runs by saying only, "Don't touch me." It's the kind of image that can stick indelibly in the mind of a young climber and it did.

From "Masters of Stone V." Dean Potter approaches the Nose of El Cap. Click for video. 

I wanted to be Dean Potter. I wanted to feel the "different emotions running through my mind" like he did when he was getting ready to solo El Cap. Unfortunately, I lived in North Carolina and didn't have El Cap to do it on. The biggest wall we had was the 1000-foot Whitesides Mountain, which is one of the boldest free climbing areas in the East. Climbing editor Jeff Achey described Whitesides perfectly in a 1997 Climbing magazine article: "The challenge...exists in non-numerical space. You pass the bolt at the 5.12 "crux" and then the real ordeal begins. You climb there half-knowing that your mind might visit places you would not willingly go. It's dangerous, and myths and superstition do a better job defending it than common sense. The essence -the justification, if there is any- lies in obscure, ineffable moments."     

Whitesides would be the perfect place to replicate what it would feel like to 'be' Dean Potter soloing the Nose. Our plan was to climb it three times in one day. We figured it was about 1000 feet of climbing each time and El Cap was about 3000 feet. Never mind that Whitesides might be closer to 900 and El Cap was probably closer to 3300...Dean didn't have to descend each time to start again. Ignore the fact that we had a rope on as a team of two, and overlook that we'd be climbing routes that don't have a "5.12 crux before the real ordeal begins." Pulling on gear through 5.11 cruxes would suffice at putting us in the appropriate mind frame.

The 1000-foot Whitesides Mountain, North Carolina. Photo: Joey Wolfe/Mountainproject.com

My friend Skip and I set off early in the morning. We racked up in the parking lot, going as light as possible and hiked in to the point where the approach trail descends to the bottom of the cliff. It was this point that we'd be returning to after topping out each time so we stashed our water...and our shoes. I tied the rope to my back just like Dean and descended quickly through the thick Rhododendron forest with Vintersorg playing on repeat in my mind. The ground was sharp and jagged. My soles were pink and soft, not at all like the callused Neanderthal feet of Dean. But the Vintersorg drowned out the pain and before long we were topping out and doing it again. On our third run up the face we were flying. The initial fear had evaporated and been replaced with invincibility. Stopping to place gear was a distraction and a nuisance. I felt stationary and the cliff passed by in front of me as if my face was hovering inches above a treadmill. There was nothing except the freedom of unencumbered movement and the incessant sound of Vintersorg playing in the background. For just a few hours, I was Dean Potter.   

Back in the parking lot we dallied, not wanting the feeling to end. A deep southern drawl broke the now silenced Vintersorg, "Y'all were smoking up there." I turned around and a face materialized from within the tattered pages of my North Carolina climbing guidebook. It was local legend Doc Bayne who'd been watching us from the neighboring route Whipping Boy. Doc was the driving force behind bold NC free climbing. He'd put up routes that still strike fear into the hearts of climbers and stands out to this day as the icon of North Carolina climbing. He offered us a beer and we chatted with our hero as the alcohol quickly added a perfect buzz to the end of the day.

The only photo I could find online of the reticent Doc Bayne (belaying) on the hairball route Carolina Hog Farm, (A4/5) Looking Glass Rock, NC. Photo: CDC/Mountainproject.com

A few years later I found myself approaching the Nose of El Cap. I'd seen the trail before but the thoughts that ran through my mind were far different than Dean's. Intimidation and impossibility were foremost. Vintersorg was nowhere to be heard. I had shoes on my feet and walked slowly under the weight of a huge haul bag. We fixed lines to Sickle Ledge, about 600 feet up, and rappelled to the ground for a night's sleep. The  next morning we jugged our lines back to Sickle. I was standing there at the belay, and once again, a face materialized in a blur and ran toward me. Timmy O'Neill had leapt from my television screen into my reality and clipped my belay. He frantically pulled slack rope through a single quickdraw until it came taught and at that exact instant an urgent voice rang out from below. "Pendulum, Take!" Timmy uttered a single word, "F**k," and had time to wrap the rope once around his hand before the full weight of Dean Potter came onto the rope. Moments later Dean appeared and ran by me. He didn't say, "Don't touch me." He didn't have to. I knew the part I was required to play. I stood awestruck, mouth slightly open, but I wasn't acting.

He paused at the end of Sickle ledge, pulled a stashed gallon of water out from behind a rock and chugged until his belly was full, panting, out of breath. He belched and then the dark, shirtless hulk of a man banged his chest like a Silverback Gorilla and let fly a primordial cry the likes of which have not been heard since the dawn of life. A few seconds later, Dean disappeared up a long corner, never once stopping to place gear. I caught a final glimpse of him heading into the Stoveleg pitches and then he was gone.

"Don't touch me." Masters of Stone V.

I felt lifeless and awed at the same time. The realization was immediate. I was not Dean Potter and I would never be Dean Potter. I looked down briefly at my pink feet and then began the standard friendship-threatening dispute with my partners, trying to explain why I was going down. I rapped to the Valley floor and found out later that day that Dean and Timmy had shattered the Nose speed record with a time of 3:59. It was Oct. 15, 2001, the first time the Nose had been climbed in under four hours.

My friends continued up the Nose and I headed up to Tuolumne Meadows where I found it much easier to emulate John Muir than Dean Potter. A short while later, I heard that Doc Bayne had been killed in a hang-gliding accident. He wasn't invincible and neither was I.

I think now about how our heroes shape our lives and who we strive to become. It's a huge part of our personal development. As Timy said, "We put them on our wall and we aspire to place ourselves in that position someday."  I had aspired to put myself in Dean's position and when the time came I found that it wasn't me. It wasn't who I truly aspired to be. This is not to suggest that I lost respect for Dean, or Doc and his bold style. If anything that level of respect has strengthened and I can fully realize why we label these climbers as "iconic."

This concept of climbers as icons grew over the years and revisited me again a while back. Tommy Caldwell was up on his Dawn Wall project and I was following along vicariously through pictures and short videos. I was chatting with my friend Nick Duttle about his personal goals for the year and he laid out his proposed ticklist for his summer in the Front Range of Colorado: Sarchasm (5.14b), Grand Ol' Opry (5.14b), and Vogue (5.14c). These routes had one thing in common that stood out: Tommy Caldwell first ascents. I did a little digging and found out that all these ascents went down over the course of a single year, 1999. On top of that, it was the same year that Tommy established Kryptonite (5.14d) at the Fortress of Solitude, Colorado to produce the first of the grade in America.

Tommy is more than an icon, he's a legend. We view him now as the big wall free-climbing master but that didn't happen overnight. He spent nearly a decade mostly sport climbing and that year, 1999, marks somewhat of a high point. He eventually sought out greater challenges and gravitated toward El Cap. Duttle's ticklist illustrated the effect that Tommy had had on him and others. I spoke with Jonathan Siegrist about it as well. Both of them had aspired to repeat Tommy's sport climbing legacy that he left in the Front Range. Jonathan has since succeeded as the only person to repeat all four aforementioned routes.

The iconic Tommy Caldwell from the movie "Icon."

I set out to write an article about it but the concept evolved into a video project which eventually got pitched to Andy Mann. The movie "Icon" is the final product but only the first in the "Iconic" series. There's some footage of Duttle climbing Sarchasm and Grand Ol' Opry as well as interview and climbing footage of the icon himself, Tommy Caldwell. Siegrist wraps up the video with his own contribution, Shadowboxing (5.14c), and discusses how he was inspired and what he's doing to become iconic himself. It's a great movie that captures the concept of "iconic" and how our heroes shape who we become.

Jonathan Siegrist on the first ascent of Shadowboxing (5.14c) in the movie "Icon."

I have no desire to go back and climb El Cap. The truth is, I didn't want to be like Dean Potter, I wanted to be Dean Potter. Those are two very different things. For me, climbing has become about identifying goals, committing to them, and then finally attempting to achieve them. I've achieved some of them and others I haven't, but they are my goals for myself and they have very little to do with what I see in the media on a daily basis.

But who would we be now without those idols to help guide us? It's that process of aspiration and personal development that leads us to finally discover who we are and what we truly want. I know now that I can't be Dean, Tommy, or Doc. I can't even be remotely close to how bad-ass these guys are and that's exactly why I hold them up high as heroes and icons.

Check out the movie "Icon" at HDclimbingvideos.com.