“I’m not going climbing till I hit 12,000 followers,” Mike chortled. He was being facetious. But he was also gazing into his iPhone as if it held the secret to growing a bigger penis.
“Mike,” not his real name, was about 150 “people” shy of hitting 12K on Instagram. I say “people” in quotes because, for all intents and purposes, they aren’t actually people; they’re just numbers. Multiplicative, addictive stats that ping up on your phone’s screen at random intervals. Like a spinning slot machine, the notifications are awfully transfixing and cause you to check your phone every 2.8 seconds.
We were a small group of climbers on a sponsored trip to make climbing films and stories and photos about ourselves for magazines and ad campaigns, and somehow create this even more perfect documentation of an experience that was already perfectly great.
A climbing photo of Mike had just been published on a major magazine’s Instagram feed—followed by some 10 million. When you get your tag on a feed like that, you’ll be gifted a biblical flood of new followers who shuffle in like a horde of zombies that can’t stop, won’t stop, hitting the Like button on all your shit.
“Boom!” Mike said about 90 seconds later. “Twelve thousand! OK … now we can go climbing.”
About six months earlier, I experienced a malaise. I’d been writing up a storm and hadn’t climbed at all for a month, wasting an entire Sendtember. I was stressed out about money, life, and just what the heck I’m supposed to be doing with my time on earth. Just your average brand of petty existential angst normally associated with bored yuppies who have great lives but are mostly preoccupied with how much gluten they’ve been ingesting.
My friend Hayden Kennedy called out of the blue. “Dude,” he said, “I feel like standing on top of something. Ya know? Ya ever feel like that?”
I did. Summits are sacred to climbers, and if you live in the right place you don’t need to sell the farm and go the Himalaya to bag a rare one. The Utah desert is chock full of trophy-worthy peaks.
A weekend adventure with my good homie seemed to be exactly what I needed.
And this is where the story gets weird, because right as I hung up the phone, I started thinking ahead to the future, and the inevitable article I’d write, Instagrams I’d post, and Twitters I’d tweet, glorifying our weekend excursion, which hadn’t even taken place yet.
The captions I’d write became clear. I’d be restored by the very struggle of groveling up some gruesome vertical sandbox, and ultimately receive the gift of spiritual convalescence, which could only take place atop a wind-blasted desert tower.
My weekend played out before me vividly, as if it were a real event that had already happened—like deja vu, or the way any fictional story you write feels more real than reality. I was projecting myself into the future by turning climbs I hadn’t yet done into a story that I’d already read a thousand times.
The story was already written in my head—the beginning, middle and end, complete with a generic Buddhist affirmation to tie the whole piece together quite nicely. The obvious and absurd question became: Why bother even going climbing at that point?
I didn’t know the answer to that question. What I did know, however, was that I would be in for a major ass-kicking trying to follow Hayden up as many towers as possible. So with that, I packed up the car and headed west to meet my friend in a red-dirt wash.
Driving west on I-70 into Utah gives one the feeling of crossing some kind of threshold. The ambiance quiets. Suddenly, there’s nothingness in all directions and you feel like you are floating in open, hushed emptiness.
Steering left off the highway takes you down a wormhole of pavement called River Road—a corridor that winds beneath the blinding red walls. The kudzu-choked river charges in parabolic arcs, never allowing the traveler to see more than a single turn ahead. The corridor bursts open at a vista of the Fisher Towers, luminous in layered sunset colors, like a surreal diorama comprised of rock and light.
River Road juts west here and new skylines of tumescent towers and squat mesas appear. Castle Valley. To enter this hidden world feels like entering your own personal Western storybook. And without a doubt, the main characters of this narrative are Castleton Tower, the Rectory, the Nuns, and the Priest.
I pulled into the Castleton parking lot and there was Hayden, propped up against the side of his Ford Transit conversion van. We cracked beers and made a fire and talked about life.
I imagine many people who hear Hayden’s name will be familiar with his climbing. He’s logged some impressive ascents in his 23 years on the planet. But I think few people know what a consistent all-arounder he is—the key word being “consistent.” Hayden climbs, off the couch, at a world-class level no matter what the medium may be. Trad, sport, bouldering, big-wall, alpine, expedition; limestone, granite or sandstone of all chossitudes.
In 2013, the Piolet d’Or jury “celebrated” Hayden and the late Kyle Dempster’s 2012 ascent of a new route, completed in alpine-style, on the south face of the Ogre I in the Karakoram, Pakistan.
(Side notes: Did you know that when you win the Piolet d’Or, you don’t actually get a golden ice axe?
You also don’t “win” a Piolet d’Or. You can merely be “celebrated” by one, which means you win a heavy, unwieldy plaque—ostensibly to hang on your wall next to your bookshelf of unread American Alpine Journals and that one copy of The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anywhere Weight-Loss Plan.)
A few weeks before the Piolet d’Or ceremony, Hayden had sustained one of the worst injuries of his climbing career: a three-foot fall (that’s right: 3 feet) in the Movement bouldering gym in Boulder, resulting in a torn ACL.
When I asked Hayden about his experience attending the prestigious Piolets, he recounted fuzzy stories of drinking copious amounts of French wine and meeting all of his alpine-climbing heroes. But the most vivid memory, he said, was of hobbling through a series of airports on crutches while trying to carry around this cumbersome plaque—which, aside from being physically hard to carry, was also giving him a deep sense of unease.
Later, reflecting in a blog post, Hayden wrote: “The ultimate alpine climb would be a spectacular line up a virgin face, no one nearby, with a good partner—and there wouldn’t ever be a word uttered about it. Stripping away all desires except the pure experience of the climb, escaping all expectations and our own egos, these are the real achievements. We should all dream of this … maybe one day it will become a reality.”
That night at the fire pit in the Castelton campground, Hayden spoke about not being certain about what he wanted to do with his life: become a full-on professional climber or go to college and study to become something else. The pressure was on because one of his sponsors was getting on his case about the fact that he hadn’t “done” much in the last year—which could only be considered true in a relative sense and, besides, six of those 12 months were spent rehabbing a knee. The bigger contention, however, was that Hayden didn’t have a “social media presence”—no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram.
“I hate all that bullshit,” Hayden said. “I guess I need to figure out what I want to do with my life.”
I realized that, in a very different certain sense, Hayden and I were in the same boat.
“Dude, I’m sooo out of climbing shape,” I muttered while hiking up to Castleton. “I might be psyched to just follow you around today.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever, man,” Hayden said.
It speaks to Hayden’s character that I feel comfortable openly acknowledging my weaknesses around him, something that’s difficult for me to do. He’s one of those rare people who truly never judges, never looks down on others. It’s this trait, more than blitzing up K7, that earns Hayden my respect.
We started off with the North Face of Castleton, opting out of the normal first pitch (fist jamming for days) and instead choosing a variant just to the right: an interesting 5.11c finger crack. Hayden styled the pitch easily. I started climbing and about 20 feet up, my foot skated off the ivory-smooth rock and I fell. Over 100 feet of rope stretched taut and I ended up on the ground.
“Did you just hit the ground?” Hayden yelled, peering over the belay ledge far above.
“No!” I hollered back, lying.
The fall woke me up. I tried again, and soon remembered the particular rhythm and balance needed to flow up this kind of rock.
“Oh, man, it’s so good!” Hayden exclaimed.
An hour later we stood on top, enjoying the repose of flat ground and an airy position.
Since we only had one rope, we rappelled the Kor-Ingalls—Hayden’s first multi-pitch rock climb, which he climbed with his dad when he was 13. Then we traversed the crest of the Moenkopi-Chinle talus cone over to the Rectory, where four parties were creeping up Fine Jade like caterpillars.
“The thing about climbing up here,” Hayden explained, “is that you have to come prepared to do any route. Whatever’s open.”
We ducked around the corner to climb Coyote Calling (5.11+), a once-obscure route that has been making a strong resurgence among devoted desert junkies. Hayden had climbed the route the year before with someone named “Trout Man.”
“Oh, man, it’s so good! So good!” he declared for neither the first nor last time that day. “You want to lead this pitch?” he asked.
“No, you can.”
I appreciated Hayden’s kind, consistent gesture to take the sharp end, but my mind was still preoccupied with all the baggage that I had hoped to leave at home. Life, work, money. You can’t bring that stuff up on a climb; it’s too heavy. I wasn’t in the present. I felt as if I were volleying back and forth in an epic tennis match between the past and future—and I was the ball. I longed to just strike the net and stop in that middle moment. Unlike the narrative that I’d composed, in which I’d be restored by this desert experience, I was really having trouble letting go.
With a scant, single rack, Hayden linked the first two pitches into a 180-foot 5.12. The next pitch was a gorgeous splitter. And the last pitch began with a stout, runout boulder problem right off the belay—20 feet of 5.11+ crimping and sandy jamming. I followed everything cleanly and enjoyed getting back into a bit of a groove. Soon Hayden and I were once again standing on a summit.
The sunset had crept into position to paint faint brush strokes of golden light across the North Face of Castleton. The air felt comfortable, if dry. It was a peaceful moment. I regarded the entire vista through the screen of my iPhone and snapped a photo, which I later posted to Instagram.
I’ve been to concerts where I’ve observed young people actually watching the live show before them through their phone screens. Why would you go to a concert only to shrink the performer down to a 3-x-4-inch reproduction? Tools like smart phones allow us to stay constantly plugged in and have empowered us to be creative and share moments of inspiration. But when the content creation replaces actual experience, it seems to me as if smart-phone-enabled obsession might be actually doing harm on a psychic and emotional level.
The ubiquitous presence of the smart phone on a climb stirs up some of our sport’s most important questions, too. Are you going climbing to go climbing, or are you going climbing to create Instagrams that show you climbed? To prove that you are a climber to the world, to your “sponsors”—to yourself?
The problem with social media isn’t that it exists, or that we use it so frequently. The primary problem with social media is that accelerates an already negative habit that we should be working to suppress.
More than anything, it tends to replace substance with image.
At one point, climbers were horrified by the idea that a photo of themselves might appear in a magazine on a route they hadn’t yet done. Today, however, those apprehensions seem incredibly outdated. No one gives a shit. That Insta-gratification of peer affirmation—Likes—has in some cases surpassed the pure desire and motivation needed to actually accomplish something. Social media has introduced too many road bumps into climbing as a personal, spiritual path toward self actualization.
You could also argue that it has hampered professional climbing. No need to do anything new, explore something interesting, or even bother with sending. A beautiful photo of you trying a classic line, Insta-tweeted to thousands of zombies in your social-media empire, is all it takes to make sponsors happy, if not also affirm your own self-worth.
A few years after this experience, Hayden got to have that “ultimate alpine climb” experience that he wrote about. Hayden, Marko Prezlej, Urban Novak, and Manu Pellessier teamed up for a route on a peak you’ve probably never heard of in northern India. Marko Prezlej said he thought the route was the most beautiful and hardest alpine climb he’s ever done—and that’s really saying something. Word eventually leaked out about their achievement over a month later, but it was extremely diminished coverage when viewed in the context of the ascent’s significance. If they had only had a PR team, as some professional climbers do these days, hawking their ascent to media, and commodifying their climb through photo placements in catalogs and product lines named after the mountain, we would all know about it and they probably would’ve been celebrated with another Piolet d’Or.
Instead, nothing. No outbreak of online vitality, let alone a word uttered.
Hard to say whether this is something to be admired, or lamented. Climbing, ironically, does become selfish when you can’t share it. This is where social media shines. Inspiration of others may not be reason numero uno why we climb, but it can at least become a nice annex.
But with today’s social-media landscape, I reckon it’s hard to truly achieve such pure intentions, or justify them to yourself without at least some internal unease. We’re all drowning in our own photo-filtered glut, unable to separate what’s rad from what’s not, what’s real from what’s fake, and, most importantly, the clarity of understanding about why we climb, which can only ever come from a difficult, unfiltered experience. Again, as Hayden wrote:
“Stripping away all desires except the pure experience of the climb, escaping all expectations and our own egos, these are the real achievements. We should all dream of this … maybe one day it will become a reality.”
Wild Things Gone
The next day, Hayden and I set down our bags below a route called Where Have the Wild Things Gone? (5.11).
The first pitch is mega, and tough—green Camalots (a nemesis size for me) in a corner. The second pitch is loose and really runout. The third pitch is short and typical of the desert experience, with groveling up a sandy insecure flare. Once again, Hayden led the whole thing in one pitch using a single rack, and running it out 25 feet above a blue Black Diamond X4 Camalot.
“This is so good!” Hayden screamed, mid runout. He appeared to be genuinely enjoying an experience that would have made me cry with fear.
“Wow,” I said, finally meeting Hayden on the summit of the Nuns. “I don’t think I could’ve led that.”
“Yeah, that was runout,” he admitted, “but even if I fell, I wouldn’t have died. After the Ogre, I have a higher tolerance for that kind of stuff.
“You know, 5.11 trad doesn’t get the respect it deserves.” So true.
We rapped down the north face of the Nuns past one of the most stunning-looking routes either of us had ever seen. Sculpted candle-wax blobs of calcite created tufa-esque pinches, underclings and devious edges. It was Holier Than Thou (5.11c), a Jay Smith route.
“We have to do this!” Hayden exclaimed. “You want to lead this one?”
I realized I did and not just because it was more my style—face climbing with bolts. I just needed to get back on the horse somehow. Because this whole “not climbing” thing, being stuck in the future and burdened by the past, wasn’t working for me.
I wish I could report that I climbed the pitch well, but I didn’t. I wish I could say that when we reached the summit of the Nuns for a second time that day and sat on that sandy wind-weathered summit, I experienced the spiritual convalescence I was hoping for. But I didn’t quite get there.
I did, however, enjoy the climbing. Desire and expectations had, by this point, been fully stripped. I was with a good partner. And my phone sat in my pack, down on the ground. As my wise younger partner once wrote, perhaps this was the true achievement.
A version of this story appeared in Rock and Ice magazine.