My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 6/10

"Why did you quit?"  

I had thought the question a slew of times.  I guess I had sort of asked it before but the answer was usually the same.  ”I quit to be with you and your brother and your mom.  Climbing is bad for families.”

But, for some reason, this time I got a different answer.  ’Dave [Tucker?/Foley?] and I were ice climbing [some climb or another] and I was leading.  It was really thin.  REALLY thin.  But I kept climbing.  At one point it got so thin I knew I couldn’t go up anymore.  ”The leader must never fall” and if I fell here the screws I had put in below me would do nothing.  By some miracle or another off to my right and above me there was a tree sticking out.  I knew if I could get to that tree I would be OK.  It was heinous.  There was thin to no ice and there were muddy spots.  I would set my pick into squishy mud and it would pop out.  I’d do it again until I could weight it.  Somehow, I got to the tree.

And that was it.  I didn’t want to die.  I wanted to come home and see you and your brother and your mom.  So I did.  And I didn’t climb again seriously.’

As far as I’m aware, he didn’t climb again until I dragged out to show me how to climb.

There it was.  The missing answer.  And it’s an answer I understand:  I didn’t want to die.  I wanted to come home to my family.  

I struggle with that reality every time I walk out the front door.  I struggle with that reality when the cornice breaks off while I’m standing on it but I survive unscathed because I’m on a rope.  I struggle with that reality when I’m calculating a pit and whether we should really, “Send it, bro!”  I struggle with that reality when I place a piece and it looks marginal.  I struggle with that reality when I’m leaving the house to go adventuring AT ALL.

I’ve had a cornice rip underneath me.  I’ve been charged to within 2 feet by a pissed off moose.  I’ve lost control of a glissade above what would be a thousand foot rocky ragdoll of an ending and stared right at death for a split second before regaining control.  I’ve torn ligaments in my ankle while on a descent solo in the backcountry and gotten lucky enough to be able to get myself out.  I’ve tomahawked where one should not tomahawk.  I’ve slammed my face into the ground so hard skiing I thought I had broken my neck.  I’ve fallen while leading on marginal gear and had a piece hold.  Most of these things were avoidable had it not been for my error or hubris and a couple of them were simply part of the objective risks we take.

So I get this story better than the other answer about how “climbing is bad for families”.  And I think that’s probably why he told the story in detail for once.

The era for this story, the partner, the season, the timing, all add up to me being between seven and nine.  I would have been ruined if my father had not come home from that climb, especially because, at the time, I was NOT a climber.

But even though my dad tells this story he also says something else, “You have to live your life.  You can’t just sit at home and rot.”  It’s a story told by a man who broke almost all of his bones in a BASE jumping accident…in the last eight years.  It’s a story told by a man who convinced both of his sons to get into dirt biking with him so he could race in the desert (we were willingly convinced!)  His eyes still glaze over in reverie when he talks about maybe one day iron manning the Baja 1000.  He’s fuckingfiftyyearsold and I can see the fire still.  He isn’t fooling anyone.

This is the adventure family’s dilemma:  We must live, this is HOW we live, but there is no justification for dying in the mountains.  Many of us live with that reality every day.  I remember it poignantly every time a day starts.  I kiss my wife and hug my baby when I go into the backcountry because I know it may be the last time I see either of them.  The risks are great but we do it anyway.  And I do say “we” because now Amelia is in the game snowboarding and loves it.  I’ve been told unequivocally on several occasions that we won’t be leaving the mountains any time soon.  Cedric has started skiing and adores being outside.  Unlike my dad, my whole family wants this and that’s probably why I won’t quit any time soon.  

Yet, he quit so he could be with us.

I don’t blame him.  In fact, in a lot of ways I’m thankful.

Good for him.

My friend, Joe Turner, is a horseman.  The dude is a celebrity in parts of the world for his ability to turn pissed off horses (who are usually pissed off because they were mishandled, mistreated, or abused in the first place) into gentle family animals.  I spent the night at his house the other night after an extraordinarily taxing real estate shoot and rather than be like, “No I just want to lay here and melt watching Netflix,” I summoned the energy and said yes to going with him to feed his animals.

And I remembered that I really love horses.  I just never spend any time around them and I don’t particularly enjoy getting this kind of dirty (though, I could get used to it).

Also, Joe’s dog, Briggs, a gigantic goofy and incessantly happy Saint Bernard, passed away in his arms the other day.  This, combined with a cloudy/rainy atmosphere, made for a really compelling half hour of shooting.  The last photo is of Joe telling me the story of Briggs passing in detail.

While I laid off of doing photo essays in the name of not oversharing I felt like these deserved some space in the intersphere.

My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 5/10

Telluride was a special place to grow up or so I’m told.  I really only have fleeting memories.  The ones I do have are rich to me but my mother seems to be miserable when she recollects them.  For me, bouncing all over the place was fun.  They can say I hated it and it was bad for me but I doubt seriously I would be the person I am today or have any love for the outdoors or be OK with poverty if it hadn’t been for those times.

Going to “The Freebox” across the street from where we lived occasionally.  Fishing at city park.  Shooting rubber bands into the corner room tower of the condo my grandpa owned in Telluride (it shows prominently in every main street photo: the green corner condo across from Last Dollar Salloon).  Crowds of people at the Bluegrass Festival.  The giant balloons that would drift down the street during a parade whose purpose I can’t remember.  Watching skiers in a line holding red flares.  Making “marmot stew” with my grandma and grandpa.  My grandpa also owned a house in Stoner.  It was the only one on this giant property that now has several houses on it.  That and Norwood are probably where my strongest memories lie.  Christmas morning chasing my grandparents Doberman with a rocking chair sized just for me.  Making a nest next to my grandparents bed.  Walking up to the cliffs behind that house.

During this time my dad worked sporadically and climbed.  I had no idea.  But while I was making these incredible mountain memories as a little child he was learning to climb from one Antoine Savelli (the dude who pissed everyone in the area off by introducing rap bolting and sport climbing to the local ethic) in Ouray and on the Ophir Wall.  Soon, he joined with Dave Foley and others.  I have no idea how all of the Arizona antics happened in the midst of that, or how the hell we lived out of a tent (I really don’t remember that part), but Arizona played a major factor in my father’s climbing development after he learned in Telluride.

My dad tells a hilarious story about how he’s pretty sure my grandma paid for him to take climbing lessons from Antoine Savelli as a last ditch effort to keep him away from my mom.  She offered to pay for him to do something.  Anything.  And it was right at the time that they were getting together.  Lucky him, he got climbing and my mom out of the deal.  I dunno if she thinks that was a good deal for the years he climbed, though.

Strangely enough, I meet people who know/knew Antoine Savelli and Dave Foley on a first name basis while climbing all the time.  While climbing in Indian Creek I meet a girl who lives in Telluride.  She knows Dave Foley.  Apparently he’s a legend.  She has no idea who my dad is.  My dad and Dave Foley got into climbing at the same time and learned things from each other as consistent climbing partners.  I met Foley once in Denver on one of my dad’s last climbing trips.  They climbed all the way until I was seven or so.

None of them know my dad, though.  I think he quit too early.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Top:  Dave Tucker in Rocky Mountain National.  He and my father had many trips together in the twilight of my father’s climbing when he was torn between a “real job” and dirtbagging.

Middle:  Left - Pops rapping the Nose.  Middle - Pops approaching something.  Right - Carrying “The Pig” on the way to siege the Nose.

Bottom:  The Diamond.

My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 4/10

I found Deadly Dan.  Dan was one of my dad’s long time climbing partners.  I know this because he talks about “Deadly” in 80% of his climbing stories.  When I started climbing, pops took me to the East Slabs of the Whale’s Tail in Eldo.  He bought me a rope.  He showed me how to tie in.  Somewhere along the line Deadly Dan came up.  I vaguely remember it being in relation to belays.  ”Make good belays.  We were always afraid we were going to die when Deadly was belaying.”  Hence, “Deadly Dan”.  This person became legend in my mind.  His nickname alone stuck like glue.

For this project I started glancing around the internet.  I went to Mountain Project.  Last time I was on MP in 2010 none of my dad’s old partners had profiles on there.  I found “Ed the Davis” and a guy named Bob Jacobs in an FA listing but that was it.  This time, however, when I got back on MP I got lucky.  Someone with a profile name Deadly Dan had signed up in 2012.  Last visit…2013.  Damn.  But I emailed him within the site anyway.

Twelve hours later I had a response.  It was from Daniel Stih aka Deadly Dan.  ”Holy shit,” I texted my family, “I found Deadly Dan.”  Dan, it turns out, still climbs a couple of times per year in Zion pursuing first ascents. He also works in “Indoor Environmental Solutions.”  He has a website.  Which is a relief to me, because based on all of the stories I had heard about his belays I was hoping he wasn’t dead.  Dan is full of stories, amazing, well told stories about his interactions with my father.  For me, he is living history.  He and my father’s other partners make up a part of the fabric of my childhood and I’m starting to realize that this project is as much about understanding the years behind me as it is about remembering my dad.

Dan corroborates the stories.  ”Your dad was a great pleasure to be around and taught me many things about climbing. I’m not sure who gave me the nickname and why. I believe it was because of the way I set up belays.”  He was quick to account, though, “…while my name is Deadly, I have never ever had a partner or myself injured while climbing.  In fact, partially and possibly due to what I learned those years climbing with Brandon and company, I would consider myself one of the safest climbers out there.”

The stories are fantastic.  I particularly love this one:

'Sometimes the stories and what you remember are about the journey and the times getting to and from the climb.   There was one in particular when Brandon saved the day.   Brandon, Bob Jacobs, myself and Jay (someone Bob and Brandon used to climb with now and then) were on a weekend trip to the Catalinas (Mt. Lemon) near Tucson.  I drove.  Driving back home sunday night heading down the mountain my truck started to over-heat.  It was a 1970's era Datsun pickup.  A beater.  It helped that the mountain was steep.  Although the temperature gauge was peaking and we could see steam coming out of the hood, we made it to down to civilization to the edge of town where there is a grocery store.  I think this area is bit more developed now.  At that time (1986 - 1988? ish) we were lucky there was anything there.  Most people would have just given up and called a tow truck I suppose.  This was long before cell phones.  I didn't have AAA or any idea of how I was going to get us all back to Phoenix.  It was kind of late.  Huge epic pending in my mind.  Never fear.  Brandon is here.  Genius.   Brandon goes into the grocery store and comes out with a garden hose.  I don't know where we found the tools.  He summed that the heater hose, a hose that carries water from the engine to the fan in your car…had sprung a leak.  Brandon removed the hose going to the heater and replaced it with a piece of the garden hose, by-passing the heater.  I can't remember if we bought more anti-freeze or simply added water to my radiator but we all made it back to Phoenix that night.  The whole process only took a few minutes.  

I drove that truck around for years afterwards with the garden hose in place.  In the heat of Phoenix.  Some mechanics alarmed at seeing it said I should replace it immediately.  I thought, “If it’s not broke don’t fix it.  That hose was worked.’

That’s my father. Through and through. No doubt about it. But to hear someone ELSE talk about my father (the Deadly Dan of so many legends no less), especially a side of him that I did not know or particularly care about until recently and especially with something less than fear or regret, is a revelation.

- - - - - - - - -

Top - No idea.  My mum will probably remember.

Bottom - Left and Center:  The man himself.  Right:  Unknown.

My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 3/10

There is always a hint of something that sounds like regret mixed with fear, longing, reconciliation, and probably a whole myriad of emotions about which I know nothing when my pops talks about Joshua Tree and Tahquitz.  As far as I knew, until I pressed him for more details when I got inquisitive about climbing, the story was that we lived in a tent outside of LA and were starving to death.  My mother was the only one who told me the story for years.  A note about my mum: she is domesticated.  She enjoys domestication.  She is and always has been a city girl of some sort.  I still am not entirely certain why in the hell she married my dad (though she usually recalls that it had something to do with his butt…thanks mom).  It goes like this:  We lived in a tent.  There was nothing to do and my mother was 16 and (I suspect) scared and lonely now that I think back to the way that the story was told.  We had no money.  We had no living space.  She vividly remembers having so little to eat that she once used all the food we had - a box of cornflakes and some cheese - to make cornflake nachos.  She recounts that they were horrible.

Even when I ask my father about this time he tries to stick to that storyline or something close to it.  There is always a line about how living in a tent is bad for little babies and they need a house to live in.  Of course, I’m not an idiot, I know what he’s intimating when he says that to me.  ”Don’t do what I did.”

The thing is, again, come to think of it, I’m a climber now too.  He tells the story and it sounds pretty miserable.  But, being a climber, I feel quite confident that we didn’t live in a tent for no reason.  He was climbing.  He must have been.  Because that is the only time of which I can think that we were not in Arizona or Southwest Colorado.

My dad also tells another story about California:  The climbing is amazing there.  When I hear him launch into talking about Tahquitz I can hear the passion.  I know the feeling.  A glimmer pops into his eyes and he goes into an almost glazed expression.  The granite, he’s always on about the granite.  It’s clean.  Perfect.  ”Not like this chossy bullshit in Colorado,” he’ll say.  When I told him I was going to Joshua Tree when I first started climbing we talked for an hour about routes I should do.  ”Go climb the Hobbit Roof.”  He still says that every time we talk about J-tree.  The Hobbit Roof.  Climb it.  It’s amazing.

My feeling is that these are two parallel stories even though he is careful to keep them separate from each other, probably because he likes the peace that he and my mother have.  I suspect this because I want that life and, to a lesser degree, have lived and currently live that life.  Eating tuna fish and rice during the off seasons because we have no money.  Wondering if the rent will get paid.  Running out of toilet paper and not having, as one of my college professors put it, “two hot nickels to rub together.”  Spending my paychecks on skins and skis and cams and lenses.

And I feel that passion; for skiing and for climbing.  I get it.  Some of the most miserable times are also some of the best times when the granite is clean and the route goes.  The darkest nights, the nights when hunger gnaws at my stomach because I let my family eat before me so we can live in a ski town, are often perfectly OK with me because during the day we shred pow.  I doubt he’ll ever say that he loved it out loud but I can hear it in his voice:  He loved it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Top two:  Left - “Ouray when it was illegal” my dad says.  Right - Ed and one of the random dudes from Camp 4 they partnered with on El Cap.

Middle:  My pops belaying on El Cap.  Those pants, though…

Bottom:  Long time climbing friend and day job co-worker, Dave Tucker.  On approach to the Diamond I think.

My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 2/10

"Your dad was a climber?"

"Yeah."

"What did he climb?"

"I dunno.  Do you know El Capitan?"

*startled* “Uh…yes…wow…”

We were a church going family.  One of my friends from that era, Jon, is a somewhat self-satisfied climber and mountaineer.  He is in many ways what one would call a “Church Bro” (a ripped, outdoorsy type person who plays guitar well enough to lead a bunch of people in singing and is always saying things like, “Dude, how is your relationship with the Lord, bro?”) though I don’t fault him for this because every church youth group has to have its token Church Bro.  As we drove into the mountains for a backpacking trip he was asking me a little bit about my family.  My pops was a middle aged guy running a successful engineering business.  He didn’t *look* like a climber.  I knew I had struck some sort of a chord but I didn’t know what.  I didn’t know what the hell El Capitan was.  It was something my dad talked about (a LOT) but it didn’t mean anything to me.  I wasn’t a climber by any stretch of the imagination and was quite sure I never would be (I was terrified of heights).  Jon’s eyes widened, “YOUR dad climbed El Capitan?”  ”Yes.”  I was proud.  I had no idea why I was proud but I was proud.  Anything that could make this person respond like this was something I could hold as pride in the person of my father.

I had this response, or a similar one, every time I brought the subject up again among the family oriented and churchy climbers around us in the suburbs of Denver.  My pops wasn’t climbing, he was showing his march to middle age and forward, so every time the subject came up people were stunned.  He had a beer belly for a while.  Surely that guy wasn’t once a lycra wearing hard man.

And then I started climbing and discovered that El Cap is the Mother Rock of American climbing.  Careers are made on it.  People sleep on it.  Warren Harding LIVED on it.  Layton Kor proved himself on it.  People die on it.

And my estimation of my dad went up even more.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Pictured:  Top - Brandon Thompson (my dad);  Middle - Jeff Bush, one of my dad’s BFFs in Telluride;  Bottom - This dude named “Ed” that my dad met in Arizona.  I think I found Ed on Mountain Project.  Every time my mum talks about the El Cap saga she remembers how “Ed and your dad came down starving.  Ed was wearing these God-awful rainbow tights and they smelled.”  Ed was one of my dad’s solid climbing partners when we lived in the southwest.

(Addendum:  I harbor no ill will towards youth groups or “churchy” climbers.  I’m a bit of one myself though I choose to keep that aspect of my life more or less completely private.  I just like to call things as I see them ;-))

Climbing in Zion Fooling around in the desert Approach in Rocky Mountain National Those shoes, tho'... Approaching the Diamond.  This is probably the best photo my pops ever took.

My Father Was a Climber:  Stories of Growing Up NOT Climbing

Part 1/10

Growing up I could never understand why my dad would leave for long periods at a time.  We lived in the Telluride area for several years (Telluride, Norwood, Dolores, and Cortez to be precise) and he would be in and out.  I guess I was under the impression at ages three through five that he worked.  I think he did work.  But he also climbed.  A lot.  Up until very recently it meant nothing to me because I did not climb even a single pitch until I turned twenty-four.  I discovered that he not only climbed but he also occasionally took a camera with him climbing.  This was a revelation.  We were talking about climbing over a family meal before my parents left Colorado to move to Tennessee a year ago and my mother said, “Yes, I think I have some photos of your dad’s from his climbing years.”  My mother never approved of climbing though she doesn’t seem to mind much that I do it.  His vertical absences scared the shit out of her and I have this feeling that they almost got a divorce at one point (they were separated for a month or so) because of climbing.  So the fact that she hid those old climbing photos in a box out of sight and I had never known of their existence doesn’t entirely surprise me.  Just taking them out of hiding made her more or less verklempt and visibly nostalgic.  As I pawed through the photos I recognized that I was holding something really important for my history. As a climbing, mountaineering, and skiing photographer the fact that my dad took a photo or two of his climbing days holds personal significance.  Not only this, but any historic contribution I can make to climbing is a contribution I want to make.

For ten posts every Thursday, in honor of the so-called “Throwback Thursday”, I am going to recall what I can of growing up with a climber father and having no real connection to climbing beyond some vague stories until I was an adult and began climbing for myself.

I have edited his photos in places to increase interest and tonal detail as well as recover color.  He certainly shot with a point and shoot and old film and I have taken creative license to edit a few shots as I feel he would have seen them.

Enjoy.

The High Five Collective

It started pretty innocuously in my mind.  My buddy TC liked records and liked to talk about “sampling some ill s**t”.  I didn’t think it was much more than that.  One day he asked me to come over to his house and photograph him with his collection for a photo competition on some website.  Sure, why not?  After I set up my lights and thought about how I was going to shoot, TC started spinning.  It was a revelation.  It was, without a doubt, the illest s**t I had ever heard.  I had never seen someone take other people’s music, set records side by side, perform some technological magic or another, and make completely original music come out.  I was addicted to listening and addicted to being present whenever I could be to watch this happen some more.

imageimage

image

Some time went by and TC started murmuring about how he and his friends were going to start making music.  I probably shouldn’t have underestimated this but I totally did.  You know when your friends say, “I’m making an album,” and you sort of get uncomfortable and you’re like, “That’s nice,” and change the subject?  It was like that.

Then TC sent me a song.  In it’s un-mastered, un-perfected form it was astonishing.  It was the thing TC had done when we first hung out only they had taken little bits and pieces of all sorts of things, made a totally legit beat out of them, and had a really talented rapper “spit rhymes” to the beat.  My mind was blown again, and I started to get psyched.  I could tell right then the group that was forming was destined for greatness.  I offered my services without hesitation.  So much of what they were doing and do is communally driven and I wanted to be a part of it.

imageimage

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

I shot a few times for them doing some portraits here and some lifestyle there.  I had moved to Montana and they’re Denver based so I shot whenever I came around.

Right away I was pushing for a physical copy.  This group is far more talented than your average group of guys chopping sounds and spitting rhymes in their basement with some computers.  Every member of this group has a really unique contribution.  From sitting at a computer dying over every square inch of every song to producing rhymes at the rate of an 18th century poet to getting their name out and about, they’ve got a ton going for them.  For a few months I pestered for a physical copy, a website, a presence, and it wasn’t just because I “wanted them to succeed,” it was because I LOVE THEIR MUSIC.

Lo and behold, last month they put out an EP called Master’s of Maintenance (http://highfivehiphop.bandcamp.com).  It is better than any other first EP I’ve heard.  It rolls with the best.  I can listen to every single song over and over and over.  It’s a piece that stands by itself.  The cover is amazing to look at.  The rhymes are addictive.  The bits and pieces have very clearly been labored over.  This is a cohesive work of art.

So, as soon as I could get to Colorado to shoot the entire group as a part of their release, I did.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

My advice?  Don’t miss getting on this train early.  Everyone they have sent this album to gets back to them quickly to book shows, carry the album in their stores, and be a part of the work.  They’re playing all over Denver.  They’ll be at Illegal Pete’s in Denver next month.  You can buy the album for whatever you want to pay for it.  This is a group of excellent musicians and all around great guys.  I’m psyched to hear what they continue to put out and I’m psyched to be a part of their movement.

ALBUM:  http://highfivehiphop.bandcamp.com

FACEBOOK:  https://www.facebook.com/highfivehiphop