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Desert Visions

[This story by Stewart M. Green is one of several essays that were published in Alpinist 82 (2023) as part of a tribute to the life of Ed Webster, who died unexpectedly of natural causes on November 22, 2022, at age sixty-six. The title of that feature is “Photos & Footprints: Remembering Ed Webster.” Green, a photographer, climbing historian and prolific guidebook author based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was present for many important moments in American climbing, including the famed first ascent of Supercrack of the Desert (aka Luxury Liner) in Indian Creek. He was a close friend of Webster and was eager to share his memories and photos after Webster’s death. We recently learned that Green died unexpectedly of natural causes at age seventy-one on June 6, 2024. We now share his story from Issue 82 in his honor.—Ed.]

Left to Right: Bryan Becker, Ed Webster, Brian Shelton and Stewart M. Green at the base of Supercrack in 2008 during the filming of a movie by Chris Alstrin about the first ascent. [Photo] Stewart M. Green collection

On Thanksgiving morning 2022, I sent Ed Webster a message: “Happy Thanksgiving Edster! Enjoy the special day, take a hike, and be grateful for all that is good in this crazy world. I look forward to seeing you again, maybe back East next time.” I didn’t know that my friend wasn’t there to read it.

Jimmie Dunn rang me that day: “I have some bad news, Stewart. I just heard from Kurt Winkler that Ed Webster died.” 

“What? Are you kidding me, Jimmie? Ed? No way, man, no fricking way.” 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too…. I thought it had to be a mistake. A big mistake.”

It wasn’t a mistake, though. Our old friend Ed was no longer with us. He’d passed on to the great beyond, to the other side of the big ranges, to the land of the setting sun. It hardly seemed possible. Our friend, climbing buddy, fellow road warrior and partner in adventure on the mountain path for almost fifty years was now a memory. He had died on a Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving Day, at home with his family in Maine. 

I first met Ed at Colorado College in Colorado Springs on a sunny September afternoon in 1975. Of course his reputation had preceded him since he had written a couple of articles for Climbing magazine about Crow Hill, his local crag west of Boston, and Wallface in the Adirondacks. Jimmie and I had been climbing at Garden of the Gods that day and were heading back to town. 

“We should stop by CC and you can meet Ed,” Jimmie said. “He’s a cool guy.”

Schools had less security in those days, so we walked in the front door of Ed’s dormitory and headed upstairs to the second floor. His room’s door was open, but Ed wasn’t there. A screenless window on the west side was also flung wide. We looked out and there was Ed below, bouldering up the exterior stone wall. He crimped edges, manteled onto the windowsill and swung through the window. Besides his obvious love for climbing, the other thing that I remember about Ed that day was his eyes. They were intensely blue, penetrating and mesmerizing. Ed’s clear eyes were accepting, open and sparkling with talk of the last climb or the next adventure. 

Ed became one of my pals that day. He was friendly, interesting and a damn good climber. He was quickly welcomed into our local Colorado Springs climbing community, a group of rock crazies that included Jimmie, Bryan Becker, Earl Wiggins, Dennis Jackson, Brian Teale, Harvey Miller and Steve Hong, who was also attending CC.

Following that auspicious meeting, I climbed regularly with Ed at Garden of the Gods, a park filled with soaring sandstone spires on the west side of Colorado Springs. Ed reveled in the Garden’s fragile rock, climbing all the classic routes and then adding his own, such as Cocaine, Footloose ’n’ Fancy Free and Bilbo’s Bag Ends, a scary line up a face composed of what he called “slightly welded beach sand.” I cranked lots of Garden pitches with Ed, as well as routes at Turkey Rocks, dicey boulder problems at the Ute Pass Boulders and cracks in the Utah canyon country. He always climbed with a cool head, smoothly jamming steep cracks, standing on smears to hand-drill a hole for an angle piton or pinching crystals on granite faces. While Ed was excited about climbing new routes, he was not an excitable boy. Instead, he climbed with a workmanlike attitude, eyeing a new line and then figuring out how to do it. 

After learning of Ed’s death, I dug out a couple of folders filled with old letters and postcards from those days, many from Ed. One was a tattered envelope scrawled with Ed’s notes to me. The postage stamp was dated April 5, 1978. He had mailed it from the Needles Outpost store and airstrip, south of Moab, Utah. Back then the outpost was the only civilized refuge within fifty miles of the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. He was camped in a cul-de-sac off Indian Creek Canyon known as Fringe of Death for a month to document ancient rock art panels for an independent college study. I had dropped him off a couple of weeks earlier, so he was there solo, without a car and no way of getting supplies. I planned to return in mid-April, bringing essentials for him.

The envelope was a classic Ed Webster note. The backside read:

Stu Baby, Please I Need:

First Carlos Castaneda and Second Books

Dental Floss (Waxed)

Wide Brim Hat

1 Tarp or plastic dropcloth 

1 ocean

1 woman (pert + pretty)

1 wineskin filled with Rosé, OK?

In comraderie, 

Little Eddie

AT MY HOUSE: The mushrooms + my leather workboots

The flip side read: 


I am camped way back in Fringe of Death on the left. I’ll be looking for ya! 

Earl Wiggins belays Webster on the first ascent of Supercrack of the Desert (5.10) in November 1976. [Photo] Stewart M. Green

I showed up at Fringe of Death Canyon with my new bride Nancy and spaniel Jesse in mid-April. Ed was out searching for petroglyph panels for the day, but we found his tent nestled among junipers. We set up camp and waited for the man. Indian Creek Canyon was remote in those days, with little traffic on the highway to the Needles District and no climbers. Supercrack, a splitter crack on a west-facing buttress, had only been climbed eighteen months before by Ed, Earl Wiggins and Bryan Becker. I filmed and photographed their landmark ascent. The only people in this unpopulated outback were Heidi and Robert Redd and their posse of cowboys at the historic Dugout Ranch, plus a few uniformed rangers in the national park. When skinny Ed strode back into camp, he was happy to see us and happier to wolf down a plate of warm tortillas and beans and sip a chilled beer. Between bites, he said he had subsisted for the previous week on boiled potatoes and onions. 

We spent the next few days checking out petroglyphs Ed had found before moving camp to Beef Basin. The next morning the three of us and the dog dropped into upper Salt Creek Canyon below looming Cathedral Butte. We descended to the canyon floor and a riffling waterfall and pool. Nancy and Jesse stayed there, on the bedrock, while Ed and I continued north, crossing sagebrush flats and splashing through the creek’s muddy water. We passed Kirk Arch, Wedding Ring Arch and a parade of unnamed arches tucked in the rimrock. As we hiked, I related the entire script of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ed, who hadn’t seen the movie. It seemed appropriate to discuss it in that otherworldly canyon we walked through, talking about the dawn of humanity and the mystical promise of space. Finally, after almost ten miles we reached our goal—the famous All American Man pictograph.

We scrambled up a sandstone groove to a hidden chamber tucked in a cliff with the pictograph, painted red, white and blue, adorning the north wall. Created by a native artist around 700 years ago, the unique shield figure displays a color palette that wasn’t used on any other Utah pictographs dating to that time. Ed and I sat in the shade admiring the archaic figure, then shared a smoky chillum filled with pungent marijuana, hoping to induce the visions and trances undoubtedly experienced by a tribal shaman in the narrow niche some forty generations previous. After an hour, we reluctantly left and began the long hike back to the trailhead, reaching my blue Datsun pickup at our campsite as the sun scraped the western horizon. 

Webster holds the remains of a carcass above Jesse the dog while hiking to Salt Creek Canyon to see the All American Man pictograph in southeastern Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, April 1978. [Photo] Stewart M. Green

I made other desert vision quests with Ed Webster in the 1970s. Sometimes we climbed a route in the red rock country around Moab or ventured onto the Island in the Sky to find a new crack or slab, but oftentimes we stashed the rope and nuts in the truck bed and simply walked into the sagebrush and junipers. One time we bivouacked in a remote part of Arches National Park, sitting by a flickering campfire beneath a soaring cliff and a star-studded sky. We talked of climbing towers, my newborn son and deeds yet to come until the fire faded and the waning moon peeked through the Eye of the Whale Arch. 

In late March 2008, Ed, my son Ian Green and I climbed a new route up Remnants Tower, a stubby formation in Colorado National Monument. At the base Ian pulled out a four-pack of Red Bull energy drinks and Ed sampled one for the first time. After grimacing, he said, “Wow, this is actually pretty good.” Ian led the route, jamming an awkward crack to a keyhole that led into a tight squeeze chimney. Above, thirty feet of unprotected soft stone led to the rounded summit. After seconding the route, Ed shouted down to me, “This is the first first ascent I’ve done in the desert in over twenty-five years!” The route, named Squeezeboxer, was his last climb in the sandstone back of beyond. 

Those are the times that I remember my friend best, his boundless energy, his excitement for new routes and passion for unclimbed cliffs, and his love for ancient places and rock art, special places filled with myth and magic. Places for dreaming. Now, I like to think that Ed is out there in dreamtime, taking his place in the pantheon of climbing gods and chatting with the great ones that he knew—Layton Kor, Harvey Carter, Fritz Wiessner and Eric Bjørnstad—and waiting for the rest of us to catch up and join the party.