Rifle, with its slick open-handed holds that always face the wrong direction, is one of those unforgiving places where it really helps to be a technician. You can get away with sloppy footwork, poor-fitting shoes and no kneepads up to a certain grade, but when a route gets truly hard for you, you’ve got to suit up and boot up in proper style if you want to send.
I’ve watched various people come to these painful realizations as they are inevitably forced to swallow their prides, slap rubber on their knees and squeeze their feet into tighter shoes.
My friend Derek Franz is one of these guys. He started climbing at Rifle in a pair of Mythos and a daisy chain on his harness. When he got to low-end 5.13s, he finally ditched the daisy, and graduated to a used pair of Miuras that he got on consignment. Incredibly, he continued progressing to 5.13c sport, and 5.12 trad in the Black Canyon.
For some reason Derek also began wearing a pair of camouflage cargo pants from Target. He grew his blond hair out hippie-long, and started tying it back with a bandana, Karate Kid or Rambo style (not Bret Michaels style). This outfit became Derek’s signature look. His unfailing combo of camo pants and headband earned him the nickname “Operation Derek Storm.”
Eventually, we just started calling him Storm.
In the art of donning kneepads, most Rifle climbers squeeze their anorexic thighs into a set of pads so tight you can barely pull them on—then they glue and tape them directly to skin. Derek, however, only employed a set of loose-fitting kneepads, pulled up over his cargo camo and duct-taped directly to pants’ fabric.
This is literally as effective as trying to sprint 50 meters in a pair of bowling shoes. Yeah, you can technically do it … Just not well.
Yet this was Derek’s one sticking point—he refused to go down this tried-and-true road of Rifle kneepad tech.
This week was a big week for Storm. He underwent open heart surgery on October 30. He’s 32, but was born with a bad ticker. His aortic valve acted like an old farm gate that never quite shut and just swung and creaked in the wind.
I’ve known Derek for many years. I think that I was actually the first intern at Rock and Ice in 2004; they hired me as an associate editor that year, too. Then, that next summer, Derek became the magazine’s second intern.
Derek has always existed in his own imaginative world. He kinda mumbles often, and you’re never quite sure what the heck he’s talking about because much of his babbling is a reference to some bizarre but actually witty and funny fantasy playing out in his head. Derek is one of those people who takes awhile to get to know. Like most writers, myself included, he’s introverted and uses our craft to communicate his own POV to the world.
He’s really dedicated to writing, too, having penned a column in a local newspaper for years, and still waking up every day to work on his short climbing fiction and poetry. While these are not my favorite genres, I respect Derek for his commitment to them. He writes because he loves it. It’s for himself. Check out his work here.
I got the pleasure of climbing with Derek on his last day before he had to head to the hospital, where a cow valve was scheduled to be transplanted into his own heart. He insisted that we leave early so as to have enough time to climb as much as possible. He genuinely approached this day as if it might be his last day of climbing ever. Throughout the afternoon, as we ran laps and fell all over the place, he’d make comments like, “This place is so beautiful!” “The trees look so pretty today.” “This is such an awesome day to just be outside.”
Derek was working on his hardest project to date, the infamous Simply Read (5.13d). It would be his first route of the grade, and he was really close to sending it in September. But when his chest started hurting, he grew understandably concerned about pushing himself too hard. In those three following weeks when they were figuring out exactly what was wrong with Derek, he lost that extra bit of fitness one needs to send. The doctors eventually cleared him to climb (though he might suddenly pass out), but it was too late to snatch a send. Balls
On this day, though, Derek showed up ever optimistic. Most importantly, he showed up with two brand-new tight-fitting kneepads. He had finally resigned himself to the idea that tight-fitting pads, duct-taped directly to the skin, would be really helpful and maybe even gift him a send. I held the rope for him as he tried, twice, to tick this 11th hour redpoint. But alas, success eluded him.
“At least I figured out that good kneepads really do make a difference!” Derek said, beaming optimistically. “This will go down next season.”
It was one of the best climbing days for me, too. To be around someone who is so appreciative of these little details in life, whether that’s learning new kneepad tech, or just being buzzed about the beauty of the fall. It’s truly infectious and uplifting to be around a person like this. Life really is a beautiful, precious thing and it shouldn’t be wasted. Ever.
We sent off Operation Derek Storm to the operating room in proper style, having a party in his honor with the theme being, of course, “Operation Derek Storm.”
Today I’m happy to report that the surgery went well, and Storm 2.0 is up and running with a new operating system. I have a feeling that Simply Read won’t stand a chance.