N.B.: This Editor’s Note first appeared in Alpinist 12.
December 1992. I sold my last Christmas tree, pocketed the twenty-dollar bill and took down my signs. It had been a successful season, and, flush with a few thousand dollars, I stuck out my thumb for the Portland, Maine, airport. Destination: Hueco Tanks, Texas, and a winter of bouldering.
Frequently, alpinists don’t start in the mountains, but come to them from a distance, lured as often as not by something they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to understand. Our main feature in this issue is Fontainebleau, a choice that will perhaps raise eyebrows among our readers: An eighteen-page article on bouldering, in Alpinist? But the point we’re trying to make, one the discerning reader will quickly discover, is that bouldering and alpinism are not, at least historically, disconnected. In fact, the opposite is true. The best French climbers in history passed through the forest of Fontainebleau, pof in hand, on their way to the great peaks: Armand Charlet, whose imprint still appears on axes and crampons today; Guido Magnone, the Bleausard climber who rope-gunned the 1952 first ascent of Fitz Roy; Lionel Terray, alpinism’s “conquistador of the useless;” Gaston Rebuffat, the bard of the Alps. These climbers, and countless others before and after them, trained on the sandstone boulders of the forest with the clear objective of applying their lessons to the peaks.
In America as well, the two disciplines, seemingly so disparate, share a common place of origin: the Tetons. In the 1950s the center of American climbing had yet to shift to Yosemite, and for a few more golden years, the day’s best climbers would journey to the northwest corner of Wyoming to test themselves on the most accessible peaks in the land. John Gill was no exception. He came in 1956 for the mountain routes, but in between his alpine excursions, and directed by Yvon Chouinard, who also introduced him to the term “bouldering,” he took his gymnast’s background to the gray schist boulders that dot the periphery of Jenny Lake. Here, he began exploring the overlap between gymnastics and climbing, and his introduction of chalk and dynamic movement marked the beginning of modern bouldering in America. To call Gill the grandfather of bouldering is to overlook the past: by the 1920s in France, entire communities of boulderers, the ancestors of the pad people, were wandering the forest in search of problems. But it is also to overlook the range of Gill’s own history: he was, and continued to be, an alpinist. Indeed, Gill would return to solo Teton rock routes for the next forty-five years, long after injuries put his bouldering on hold.
I knew little of this history when I arrived at Pete’s, the hut at the entrance to Hueco Tanks State Park that once served as the unofficial center of the winter climbing scene. Indeed, as I set up my tent in the dusty, windswept campground, I knew little about mountain climbing at all. But neither, it seemed, did the others in the Park that winter. Timmy O’Neill was living at Pete’s, wisecracking in the mornings over huevos rancheros about life in his hometown of Philadelphia. Rob Miller was resoling shoes out of the back of a van. Dean Potter, enormously lean, served as the hut cook, scurrying up meals and cleaning dishes in between bouldering sessions. Rolo Garibotti had somehow procured a room in the back of the hut. It was whispered he had climbed in Patagonia. Most of us were rock climbers at best; those who, like Rolo, had climbed walls or mountains were accorded special esteem.
The wintering climbers spent their days wandering Hueco’s corridors in groups, focusing the morning’s attention on a particular area—the Gymnasium, the Warm Up Boulder—before moving on to their projects in the afternoon. But while I greatly enjoyed the community that winter, the bouldering left me a little flat. The problems never brought me deeply into the experience, and by the end of most days, part of me always seemed to remain unaffected.
From various places in the Park, distant spires could be seen on the horizon, wavering in the afternoon heat. No one at Pete’s seemed to know much about them, other than their names: they were the Organ Mountains, outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. Jeff Benowitz, an eccentric New Yorker recently transplanted to Fairbanks, Alaska, shared my curiosity. We hitchhiked over to have a look.
As we made our approach, the spires grew intimidatingly tall. We climbed a few of them; on one—ORP, short for Old Raunchy Penis— we didn’t top out until dusk. A neophyte, I was profoundly scared, but Benowitz, who had climbed real mountains, Alaskan mountains, assured me that this was far from harrowing, and that we would likely make it down alive. He was right, but something about the wild uncertainty of our descent clicked in me. We rapped through the night, Benowitz leading by headlamp. As we felt our way down the spire’s side, I seemed to widen from the inside out. This feeling of expansive awe, heightened by risk and immersion in the wilds, was what had been missing from the bouldering. It has conditioned much of my life since.
But also since then, I have discovered a different kind of appreciation for bouldering—one that had eluded me that winter. On the sandstone bands of Morrison, Colorado, and later, on the isolated problems of Estes Park, I came to value the simplicity of the movement, the camaraderie of an afternoon with friends, the relief of the vertical yoga on my back and forearms. On an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1998, I wandered down a braided riverbed, where two enormous glacial erratics leapt out of the treeless landscape. In the background, propped up against the border with China, rose the mountains we had come to climb, but all I noticed was the moaning wind, the water coursing through the riverbed and an occasional falcon, whistling across the open steppes. I spent the day bouldering easy highballs in my approach shoes. Bouldering and mountaineering merged seamlessly, in the surrounding geography and in my mind. It was one of my finer days.
Today, I live in Jackson, drawn here by the same mountains that first attracted Gill. Friends and I rarely visit the Jenny Lake Boulders, preferring instead Boulder City, where we climb in the autumn evenings among the yellow aspen leaves as the alpenglow takes the mountains. Each time I look up, the north faces of Teewinot, Owen and the Grand fill the sky, as complex as the first time I saw them. Many of the people I knew that winter in Hueco have gone on to chase bigger lines on mountains around the world. After putting together this issue, I realize we weren’t the first to make the connection. Somehow, I suspect we won’t be the last.