posted by dpm on 06/23/2011
Nick and I started climbing together a few years ago at the Red River Gorge. My first impression was that he was kind of a dick. Our buddy Brando was wrecked after a long day of climbing and wanted to toprope something just to get his draws down. Duttle pulled the rope and belittled him for being a sissy, making him lead it again. Brando nearly died getting his draws down, but Nick wasn't being a dick. He just expected Brando to challenge himself as much as he pushed himself.
Back then Nick was strong and talented but he was nowhere near the top-level athlete he is today. Over the past few years he has consistently climbed the ladder of ability. He's picked up some sponsors along the way and is now struggling to live as a full-time rock climber which isn't quite as glamorous as it sounds. People may not realize how much work is involved in fulfilling commitments to sponsors and other associated tasks that come with being sponsored. One of Nick's recent commitments was helping out at the New River Rendevous. He stayed at my house for a few weeks which was just enough time to send some of the hardest routes in the region.
I got to know Nick better and to see how far he's come as a climber. First off, he works hard. While a lot of today's 'pro' athletes wake up at 10:00 and smoke a few bowls for breakfast, Nick was up at 5:00 shoveling back healthy bowls of Bob's Red Mill Cereal before hustling to the crag for cool temps soon after the sun came up. I could hear him out there waking up his grumpy partner with a stern voice, "Edgardo, let's go. It's time to climb!"
He'd return mid morning to wait out the heat and rest before heading back out the door for an evening session. One afternoon we sat around the table on our laptops, Nick sending emails to sponsors regarding the event, and me tooling around 8a.nu as usual. I clicked on Nick's ranking and said outloud, "Damn Nick, you're #5 in the world combined ranking!" I know 8a isn't the definitive tool for measuring one's ability and not every athlete keeps a card but it's a pretty good indicator. And to me, #5 in the world for combined bouldering and sport climbing is pretty good. It's also dangerously close to an athlete like Adam Ondra who sits at #1. I was impressed. Mostly, I was impressed with Nick's ability to think big. He looks at world famous test pieces known for their difficulty and instead of thinking, "Wow, that looks impossible," like most of us; Nick thinks, "I can do that."
He left my house to head back west with a massive ticklist that only seems to grow despite his consistent ticking of routes off the list. He headed straight for an old nemesis of his in Mill Creek, Utah and dispatched it quickly. I gave Nick a call to check in and ask about his recent sending spree.
Here's Nick's stats:
Height: 5' 11 3/4"
Weight: 175 normally, 169 fighting weight
Max number of pull ups: 40 something in high school
Max number of one arm pull ups: 1 or 2 now, 6 all time record
Hours spent per week indoor training: as few as possible, 1 hour?
Staple of diet: Bob's Red Mill 10 grain cereal, vegetables
Hardest boulder: Esperanza (V14) or Sol Adunamentum (V14) first ascent
Hardest route: Thanatopsis Direct (5.14b/c)
Climbing Style: All styles! I've worked a lot to boulder hard and climb hard in all styles!
DPM: You recently had a bit of a breakthrough in climbing ability on your east coast trip. Eight 5.14's in about 3 months is not a bad ticklist. Then you went straight home and easily fired your project, the seldom repeated 5.14b, The Bleeding in Mill Creek, Utah. What changed for you? Did you train a bunch?
Nick: The biggest breakthrough happened in Hueco while climbing on Too Many Martinis (V15 project) It was a mental breakthrough really. You have to hold on really hard on that thing and it took a lot of tenacity. It's very long and all the climbing is consistently difficult. I learned how to try hard through the discomfort. I learned how to "flip the switch" a little better.
DPM: Do you feel like you're still progressing as a climber?
Nick: Oh yeah, definitely. I still learn and grow like crazy. I'm not necessarily getting stronger but I'm learning how to be a better climber daily. I'm logging so many miles climbing full time and I still learn something new all the time.
DPM: I read somewhere once that your goal is to climb 5.15c. I thought it must be a typo and I kind of joked you about it only to realize from your response that you were dead serious. Tell me a little about your theory of aiming REALLY high.
Nick: If you aim as high as you think you can attain you're selling yourself short. If you think 5.13 is as hard as you'll ever climb you'll never get there. If you think you can climb 5.14, you'll climb 5.13 easily. Set your goals beyond what you think you can attain and then be pleased with all the success you achieve. Believing you can do things is important and when I climb 5.15c I'll laugh back at you!
Nick on Shocker (5.14b) Red River Gorge
DPM: How do you think your lifelong health challenges have affected your expectations of yourself and your abilities? (For info on Nick's genetic condition watch his profile video here)
Nick: My health challenges have always gotten in the way and presented a new challenge. I was always forced to work something out, and at some times in my life it was a true life or death struggle. Whenever I came across a challenge I didn't get to choose if I wanted to overcome it. I had to. Rock climbing is like that in sense. They call it a boulder 'problem' for a reason. It's hard to solve but there is always a solution. That was always a draw to climbing for me. You have this piece of rock and you know that it is climbable. You have to make yourself find the solution and then execute.
DPM: We recently talked a lot about what it means to be a pro athlete in our sport. Over the past few years you've struggled to 'make it' as an athlete. Tell me about your desire to be a pro and what it takes to be a 'pro.'
Nick: Being a pro athlete is a dream I've had since I was a kid. I was into running at first but a knee injury took me out of it. Running came naturally for me but climbing didn't. I had always been good at running so when I started climbing, and kind of sucked at it, I got fired up to get better. I've always been a performance oriented person. I've learned to be myself and really push myself while also enjoying the sport I love. I've set solid goals that I hope to achieve. I've learned how to be a good ambassador and share this sport with others.
Teaching a clinic at the New River Rendezvous
DPM: I've also sensed a bit of your hostility toward the climbing industry. Maybe 'hostility' is too strong a word but I sense that you feel that who gets sponsored and who doesn't is sometimes unfair. Talk a bit about that.
Nick: Look at all other sports and you'll see that all pro athletes have to be able to perform. They are all held to the highest level of performance. Why is our sport not like that? I see a lot of people out there that are fully sponsored but their level of performance isn't nearly what it should be. Athletes should present themselves well and have an image but they need to do more than that. I think that if you're getting paid by a company to perform you should be held accountable for your level of performance. It should be required that you have an 8a scorecard or in some way present your level of achievement and ability. There are too many 'athletes' milking the system and getting by on image while some other dedicated and talented climbers aren't able to live their dream.
DPM: There have been times when other pro athletes have shunned you or talked shit about you. I remember a few years ago when you went on a crusade of downgrading. How did that affect your image with other climbers. What is your stance on downgrading and upgrading now?
Nick: Oh, they didn't like it one bit! (laughs) They didn't want to hear it at all. And it's a shame because the Colorado scene (which Nick is a part of) has developed an image of thinking they are better than everyone else. I just thought things were getting out of hand and there was too much of a surge forward with grades. My intent was keep everyone in check and be like, "Hey, guys, don't forget how hard things actually are." I wasn't trying to hurt anyone or downplay anyone else's accomplishments. I've kind of put that behind me though. It made me realize how that could hurt someone. If someone worked really hard to accomplish a goal of theirs and I came by and told them, "Oh, sorry that was actually not that hard." I understand now how that could be hurtful. Upgrading on the other hand is a different story. The Bleeding is a perfect example of that. Everyone that has been on that route knows it is nails hard. Noah (Bigwood) put a ton of effort into that route and he's a super talented climber. He was just throwing out a guess of a grade. But I've traveled a lot recently and compared to other American 5.14b's it's right up there as a very hard route.
DPM: When I first met you, you were a single dirtbag living in a busted-ass pickup with your old smelly dog. You've since picked up an awesome girlfriend that spends a lot of time traveling with you. How has Katherine affected your lifestyle and your climbing?
Nick: Katherine has been a huge benefit to my climbing and my life. She is encouraging and loving. We like to cook together and hike together and spend our time together. She also balances me out and keeps me even keeled. I have so many good things to say about her. I guess I got lucky.
DPM: Yeah, when she headed back to Colorado and left you at our house she told us, "Nick has to be told what to do sometimes. If you want him to wash the dishes, just tell him and he'll do it."
Nick: (laughs) Yeah, like I said she keeps me in check. She brings out the best in me. I've definitely become a better person since she's been around. But it didn't come easy! I had to chase her down. She was working on an organic farm in Moab and I was living in Boulder. I quit my job driving a school bus and moved to Moab where I picked up work driving a rafting bus. I had to fully go for it!
DPM: Nick, your dog is older than the Bible. Who's gonna live longer, you or Sapphire (AKA Pig Dog)?
Nick: It's getting hard to say. She keeps going and going. It's kind of ridiculous but inspiring. She's fifteen now! When she was young she was so fit and active. I think that's why she's still around. I still take her hiking in the mountains. She slowly hikes to the crag and she loves it. She's been to more states and countries than most people! She might outlive me. We'll see...
Sapphire the immortal Pig Dog
DPM: I know this rampage of hard climbing is going to continue for you. I just got your message that you'll be coming up here to Ten Sleep, Wyoming to crush all my projects in my face. Go easy on me alright. After that, what's next? What are your plans for the coming year? Unfinished projects?
Nick: I've got a few goals for the summer. I want to keep my power levels up and do some bouldering in the Park (Rocky Mountain). I'd like to finish of Jade, Aslan, Top Notch and some others. I also really want to check out Kryptonite at the Fortress. Oh, and Vogue and Sarchasm. Sarchasm especially is one I want to do. It's a five and a half mile approach and the setting is unbelievable, right there at the base of the Diamond. The climbing is super technical and it's really hard. I was hoping you'd go up there with me.
DPM: Forget about it. How about plans for next fall and the coming year?
Nick: Around September I'd like to go up to Squamish and try Dreamcatcher again. I think I can do it. Then back to the east. The Golden Ticket at the Red is still on the list and 24 Carats and that Full Metal Brisket project at the New. Then back to Hueco to finish off Too Many Martinis. That thing has to go down. Really I just want to do the biggest lines in the country and then go to Europe to continue the quest! (laughs) Honestly, I'd really like to climb 9a (5.14d) this year.
DPM: I know that you really appreciate all your sponsors do for you. You've got a great support team. Who are they?
Follow Nick's travels on his blog at www.nickduttleclimbing.com
Interview by: Mike Williams