[This Full Value story first appeared in Alpinist 55 (Autumn 2016), shortly before the author was hired as the digital editor for Alpinist.com. Franz was recently featured on the Alpinist Podcast in an episode titled “Open Heart,” which can be downloaded or listened to on Alpinist.com: http://www.alpinist.com/p/podcast. –Ed.]
With life, I’ve come to realize, the significance of the beginning doesn’t strike you until the end. I’m thirty-three. During the past year and a half, I’ve undergone open-heart surgery and ankle surgery eleven months apart. In between, I got married. Three of my friends died. My old life has shattered from several angles. My new self is still forming. The pain and weakness in my ankle reminds me of that–and the terror I felt when I fell into the dark on a 2,000-foot wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
“STAND ON ONE LEG!” I said. I put my hands out for balance as I wobbled. My buddy and I were fifteen and sixteen years old, perched atop a sandstone spire with a summit the size of a dinner table, 300 feet above the desert floor.
Chaz lifted one leg. We laughed, giddy with fear and elation. I felt like a king on our tiny, crumbling point in the sky. Anything seemed attainable, the future as unbroken as the surface of an alpine lake at dawn.
“Close your eyes,” I said.
For a moment, I spun in a blank space of infinite directions. The void pulled at me–at us–and it was all I could do to stay upright.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE CLIMB, we’d built a fire in a tin stew can. Chaz fed it little twigs. Under the stars, we imagined everything we wanted in life–mostly girls. We swigged sour apple martini mix, and watched the yellow glow flicker through the perforated metal.
The fire had been Chaz’s idea, just as the tower had been mine. He knew how to kindle flames–something I did not. He blew gently on the tiny hot tongues, coaxing them to life, while I looked on with new respect.
In 1997 Chaz was my first real friend at Glenwood Springs High School, when I transferred at the beginning of sophomore year. I’d changed schools every year since sixth grade, when my parents divorced. I was mortified to discover that my mom had signed me up for classes like journalism and stained glass. They sounded…different. I was an only child who had trouble making friends. I was already worried about being different.
“Well, how was I supposed to know what you wanted?” my mom said. “You were spending the summer with your dad, and I told you to come home two weeks before school started, so that you could pick your own classes.”
It was true. My dad lived near Rocky Mountain National Park, and when I stayed with him, I could climb there every weekend. On silver granite ledges above green alpine pastures, I could easily forget the things I lacked, such as girlfriends, or any kind of social life. Then I met Chaz.
He sat next to me on our first day of Journalism 1. He noticed the climbing-gear logo on my T-shirt.
“Hey, are you a rock climber?” he whispered across the aisle. “I want to rock climb. My friend Michael climbs. His family owns the gear store.”
By spring, Chaz had his own harness. He struggled to study in school, but he absorbed the thick book, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, in no time. He’d only been toproping on the local crags when I convinced him to go with me to Colorado National Monument. I’d just gotten my driver’s license, and I had a new outlook on what was possible–a climbing road trip with no adults.
Sentinel Spire had poked the back of my mind since I scuttled away from an attempt with my dad a year earlier. It represented a shortcoming that nagged at me, a type of freedom I had yet to claim. Its slender point was only ninety minutes from my mom’s house, but it might as well have been on the moon: an alien landscape of hoodoos and buzzards, where red horizons traced ninety-degree angles across the sky. It was just far enough away to feel daunting, yet close enough to touch.
A SINGLE CRACK SPLITS the spire all the way through from base to tip. An old Layton Kor route, Fast Draw, follows the fissure up the north side. As the crimson wall tilts overhead, the crack is the only weakness in the bulging stone, widening to the size of cupped hands with nary a variance until the halfway point–where a climber must choose whether to continue up a stack of loose blocks wedged in the crack, or traverse left across the face to a dark squeeze chimney.
On the day when I finally reached that decision point, I’d make the same choice Kor did on the first ascent, tiptoeing left across the face, grateful for his drilled pitons that offered the first protection after my 3-inch cam far below.
But at age fifteen, when I first went there with my dad, I was so intimidated that I couldn’t even start the climb.
It was only the second route I’d ever touched on soft sandstone. At the time, I could count the number of 5.10 leads I’d done on a few fingers. The count hadn’t changed much by the time I returned with Chaz.
Everything about Fast Draw was novel: parking at the rim; fixing a rope for a rappel to the base of the spire; and bridging a large, airy gap to reach the start. The gap was spooky, but mostly it was the long crack that scared me. I only had one 3-inch cam to protect seventy perfectly parallel feet. My imagination whirled out of control: I pictured myself climbing with almost no safety into outer space. That day with my dad, I leaned across the windy gap and touched the bottom of the fissure, where it pinched off to a seam. My feet never left the ground.
With Chaz, however, I not only had a car, I had a friend who would follow me anywhere. During the drive, he introduced me to a Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon. Although I’d heard the music before, this was the first time it grabbed my attention in such a way–the ticking clocks and clanging bells; the lyrics, “The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older / shorter of breath, and one day / closer to death.” I still only had one No. 3 cam when we reached the base of Sentinel, and I was still scared, but more than ever, I yearned to see the hidden places of another world. This time, I resolved to pay whatever it took.
Once again, I touched the start of the crack for several silent minutes. The spire blocked out the sun. Its shadow stretched like a finger closing down upon me. Cold wind cut through the stone gap like the breath of God. It whistled through the holes in my helmet and nipped at my soul with the same ancient language that carved the rocks. Then my mind went blank, and I pulled into a place that I have never been able to leave, though I sometimes try.
I’VE NOTICED, AFTER MORE than twenty years of tying figure-eight knots, that I live the way I climb: utterly, perhaps regrettably, committed. There is no going back. One ascent begets another. Always, I need more, more than anything else, if I’m to be happy.
It’s possible I’ve devoted too much of my life to climbing. When I started out, the decision seemed easy. Noble and Romantic.
The day I walked into that high school journalism class, I had my mind made up: I was going to become a heart surgeon. At the end of that year, thanks to a passionate teacher, I’d scrapped my ideas of med school and decided to become a writer.
Climbing authors such as John Long and Jon Krakauer lured me into dreams of granite walls and frosty heights, where the meaning of life was stark and glorious; where truths could be collected from hidden nooks like tiny blue flowers. I shake my head now at how quickly I made the choice: I would follow my heart, and write about all edges of the world. I would find glorious illumination or die trying. Sure. Why not.
I picked the path without weighing the cost. I was only a child, but all actions matter, on some accumulating measure. They add up. Like snowflakes, they can pile up and obscure the path, or bury you.
I GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE in 2005 with a degree in journalism and debts that I still have to pay off. Ten years later, I felt as if the universe was mocking my boyish choices when I needed open-heart surgery at age thirty-two. The doctors sawed into my sternum and stopped my heart for ninety minutes while they replaced my aortic valve.
I spent the majority of three months on my back. It was plenty of time to consider what I was doing with my days.
Many of my friends were established in successful careers. They’d started businesses and taken surfing trips to Morocco. They’d written books and found modest amounts of fame. They were having kids and buying houses.
Meanwhile, you could say I’d lived a soulful existence that hovered just above the poverty line. Had I spent too much time wandering in too many directions?
I’d filled underpaid, overworked positions at newspapers for seven years. It wasn’t the kind of job I wanted, but I couldn’t seem to find a way out. In between stints as a copy editor and a reporter, I’d traveled until I found myself alone in my car with snow all around, out of money.
At age twenty-six, I’d crashed with friends in Bozeman, Montana, for a subzero winter. Unshaven and unable to find regular work, I tried selling vacuums door-to-door, but the only money I earned was $75 for a local freelance article. Week after week, with one of my best friends, Todd, I left all earthly troubles behind with our silent bootsteps in the deep, fresh snow of Hyalite Canyon. Only our heavy breaths, and the harmonic jangle of pitons and ice screws, signaled our presence among the winter pines. Cascading pillars and gleaming dragon teeth beckoned from the tiered cliff bands, and for a handful of hours, we had everything we ever wanted.
I was living on a credit card, then, but I had friends to shelter me and climb with me. I was lucky. I didn’t think so at the time.
I could almost picture what I was looking for, but the details eluded my imagination. Always, I longed for something different, for something better than I was. I kept making gambles to reach a lofty, forbidden realm of mythical bliss.
In 2009 I was living in a rusty 1973 RV with a busted roof when I met my future wife at a climber wedding. Mice ran rampant in my dilapidated metal box. I shot them with an air pistol and read Into the Wild by headlamp, bundled in a down jacket patched with duct tape. Mandi thought I was only staying in the motor home for the weekend when she gave me her phone number.
Shortly after, I broke my left foot while working on a landscape crew. Alone, with a cast on my leg, I climbed on top of the RV to patch the roof. Winter wrapped me up in gales of fat, wet snow, and I almost took a horrible fall. It was time to rejoin society.
I returned for a second stint at the newspaper. After four years in that windowless cubicle of bricks and partitions, I hated life again, more intensely than before. Mandi urged me to quit in spite of the financial risk. I got a job at an outdoor consignment store that didn’t pay as much, at first, but it was close to home and the work wasn’t stressful.
Instantly, I had more energy to write and climb. But I climbed more than I wrote. Although I felt selfish, certain that I was betraying higher priorities, I couldn’t ignore the relentless hunger.
Then the chest pain started. It felt as if someone were pinching and twisting the main blood vessel out of my heart. Doctors had told me that I’d need surgery at some point in my life, but they predicted it was ten or twenty years off.
Instead, it took place in October 2014. Mandi and I were planning our wedding, and she was finishing grad school, writing a 120-page thesis on Montessori education. No one could say what my future would be when I went under the knife.
A month passed before I was well enough to work a part-time shift at the store register. To everyone’s surprise, four months later, I was climbing the swollen underbellies of limestone caves in Rifle Mountain Park.
But the crags rang with a silent and permanent hollow. I was just two weeks out of the hospital when my friend Dave Pegg took his life. I’d last seen him when he hugged me on the eve of my surgery. Not long after, another friend, Logan Jauernigg, drowned while kayaking the White Salmon River. He was only twenty years old.
That June, Mandi and I were married on the rim of the Black Canyon. It rained every day for a solid week until the day before the wedding. Her white gown billowed in the breezy sunshine. Todd stood next to me, and she joined me on the edge of the precipice, where updrafts carried the flight of ravens, and the roar of the river crashed two thousand feet below.
Three months later, I was leading the crux pitch of Astro Dog below the opposite rim. A near-full moon glimmered below the black horizon. I could only see by the small light of a headlamp, but I wasn’t as scared as I should’ve been. In a glassy dihedral, I tried to stab my fingertips into the first opening of a crack. I missed. Gear ripped, and I crashed into the belay, six feet down. My right ankle was broken. It hadn’t even been a year since my last hospital visit.
“STAND ON ONE LEG.”
The cast is off, now, and the physical therapist has placed me in front of a giant mirror in a little yellow room. I wobble and nearly fall. The doctor says it often takes a year or longer to feel normal again.
After the accident, I clawed back to the rim of the Black Canyon in the moonlight. It was two days before the full lunar eclipse. The yellow orb bulged from the sky like an egg yolk when we reached camp around 2 a.m. We built a fire and slugged whisky, nodding off by the flames.
I tried to laugh it off.
“Compared to open-heart surgery, this will be no problem,” I said. “I’ll be back at it in a couple months,” I kept saying.
December 30: The call reaches me as I’m closing the shop. It’s been dark for an hour. Ryan Jennings is missing. He’d gone ice climbing alone, with a rope, before work that day. A short while later, friends come through the door. They found him. Dead.
I’d first bonded with Ryan on a river trip in 2013, and only by the end of it did I learn he was a great alpinist. At home, bent over the kitchen sink, I heave heavy sobs as water steams from the faucet. Balancing a real-estate career, a marriage and the care of two young children, Ryan had seemed as good at calculating risk as anyone I know.
Late January 2016: I’ve started climbing a little on steep, neon-colored jug holds in the gym, routes that require little weight on my feet. I limp everywhere.
“Stand on one leg,” my therapist keeps saying.
I try and I can’t. The visions I’ve built my life upon seem to crumble away beneath me, in spite of my strength and willpower to hold them together.
Later, I lie in bed, staring into darkness. I try to discern the future. A void tugs at the edge of everything I think I know. My mind swirls out of control, and it’s all I can do to stay balanced. I have to, because there is no going back.
Coyotes yip and quarrel in the pasture at the edge of town. Their howls echo in the night like prehistoric memories. I imagine them tearing apart a small animal. The scar down the center of my chest throbs. So does my ankle.
I remember those high school days with Chaz, when we were innocent and eager to find everything forbidden to us. We climbed downtown buildings, howling like feral dogs until police chased us. When I went to college, Chaz and Michael slept on my dorm room floor a couple times. We followed old ghosts down new alleys of darkness. Eventually, we lost sight of each other, and maybe even of ourselves.
What else could I have been? What else could I have done?
I know I dwell on the past too much. But I keep feeling that there’s something I missed in the dank corridors that I ran through as a youth, so sure of my destination. Where are those blue flowers? I try not to stir the whispering voices of doubt where I tread, but they rise and find me, nonetheless–from the depths of black coffee, steaming into my face each morning after another sleepless night. They call to me from the giant mirror of the little yellow room.
How did I get here? It seems to be an important question if I’m ever to figure out where I am, or where I’m going.
The memory of standing atop Sentinel Spire with Chaz has haunted me for years. I’m not sure why. I’ve often tried and failed to write about it, my grasp falling short of the story’s true meaning.
The stew-can fire still flickers in my mind. The difference now is that I sometimes curse myself for keeping it alive. But I can’t look away.
So I write.
Dusk falls. My fingers tap the keys, feeling for things I fail to see. Darkness recedes to light. I picture a vast meadow of phlox. The green and blue hues stretch on and on, past the vanishing points in every direction.
Once more, I fall asleep, and dream of a slippery grip on a sandstone edge; the empty space of the air below; the intangible shimmer of the infinite blue sky above.
A little less than three months after this story was published in Alpinist 55, I was hired as the digital editor for Alpinist.com. The bumpy, winding path of life continued to unfold with joys as well as hardship. In October 2017 my friends Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins died in separate but related incidents–Inge was killed in an avalanche while skiing in Montana with Hayden on October 7; soon after, Hayden died by suicide. As I’d done for many other members of the climbing community who have been lost since I started my job with Alpinist, it was my duty to write about the tragic events, which included a story in Alpinist 61 titled “Glimmers in the Dark” as well as the initial online story. When I started the job, I never imagined I would have to embrace so much death and sadness. A few weeks after Hayden and Inge’s deaths, I broke my left foot while descending from a solo ascent of Prodigal Sun in Zion. It’s been a long road but, as of January 2019, I’m finally back on two, mostly healthy feet. This past autumn, Alpinist Associate Editor Paula Wright interviewed me for the Alpinist Podcast. She asked me to talk more about how I started climbing as a kid who led his dad up the Diamond of Longs Peak at age 15, my dirtbag years and how I’ve coped with life, death and the balance of climbing and personal relationships. You can find a link to the episode, titled “Open Heart,” here: http://www.alpinist.com/p/podcast.
–Derek Franz, Carbondale, Colorado
[For more details about the author’s accident in the Black Canyon, see the August 2016 edition of Accidents in North American Climbing.–Ed.]