When I first arrived in the Needles of South Dakota in May of 1978 I had no idea how this place would change my life. Back then the climbing culture was almost entirely populated by eclectic individuals and things were no different in the Needles—it was just a microcosm of the American climbing scene.
We all, its seemed, were fighting demons and living life as hard as we could. In those days you didn’t need abject talent to be good at climbing, you just needed a set of stones and the willingness to risk your life—and maybe this last part, this warrior aspect, was the component I took hold of with a death grip.
Truth is, I was scared shitless of the run-outs in the Needles but my demons were so intense and life threatening, that I threw myself at the blank faces with the persistence of a salmon going home to spawn. This in itself is what made me fit in to the culture in the Needles. Without climbing I was nothing more than a kid from Chicago with an anger problem.
My introduction to climbing didn’t start with the Needles. When I was eleven my parents had sent me to a summer camp in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming where I had learned to climb. I discovered that I was good at mountaineering in contrast to the social scenes that permeated my existence in Illinois. Even today, nearly forty years after the fact, social groups are still an enigma to me.
The mountains were more simple than sorting out the social nuances of the urban pecking orders. I suffered the bivouacs, the pounding cold, and the pain of the upward struggle without complaint. The key was to suffer well, to shut up and just keep going until you topped the summit and could start the downward slog home. This skill set set me apart from my peers in the Midwest.
None of them had ever jumped a crevasse with a pen light crimped between their teeth or sat on a ledge in the thunder and lightning through the long hours of the night. My high school years weren’t marked by proms and football games but rather, the number of times that I had traversed the whole of the Wind River Range from north to south and then, from south to north.
Near the end of my time in high school I transitioned from mountaineering into pure rock climbing. In 1978 I graduated high school early and left Illinois for Lander, Wyoming where I participated in a twenty-one day winter mountaineering course with NOLS and after that, drove trucks in Rock Springs, Wyoming until the spring arrived and the climbing season was about to begin.
My roommate, Jeff Jones, had raved about the Needles in the Black Hills of South Dakota where John Gill had climbed the Thimble—one of the most famous boulder problems in North America. We had studied Gill’s book, Master of Rock, until literally the pages had fallen out of it. And so, in June of that year, we motored to the Needles to experience this amazing climbing area ourselves.
It was here that I met Paul Muehl. He was nothing like the picture post card rock climbers of the time who wore white painter pants, T-shirts, and sported long hair. He sauntered up to us in the Needles Eye parking lot wearing Levi cut-offs, a striped T-shirt one size too small, and dorky socks pulled up high on his calves. A cigarette dangled from his lips. He seemed seven feet tall to me though his actual height was 5’ 9”.
“I’m Paul,” he said. “Where you guys from?”
Paul, it turned out, became like a father to me and was my climbing partner for more than two decades until his death by cancer in 1998. That summer we spent every night at his house—the little brown cabin on the west side of Custer across the street from the golf course—where he told us stories about first ascents. How he and others had cast off onto the vast unprotected faces, taken giant whippers, and succeeded where others had failed. I was hooked, the seeds planted, the tree felled. My identity awaited me in the spires and pinnacles that cut the sky along Needles Highway. I was going to be a Needles climber or die trying.
Yet there was a deeper underlying thread in all of Paul’s stories: the characters that permeated the scene. The rich meshing of personalities that made this Needles a novel in stories that transcended most other climbing areas. The climbing greats had all been here and left their mark in some unique way that translated into legends, that when first heard, were unbelievable—almost. One such Needles master was Renn Fenton and this story is as much about him as it is about me and my relationship with Paul.
My first season in the Needles was hard earned. During the first few days I backed off of every climb that I tried until we met Paul. He had suggested that we try the Fan because it had some “pro”—a single ring-piton located about 60 feet below the summit. He watched me attempting the lead from the top of the Holy Terror which he had soloed—that in itself had blown me away.
I had stood atop a sub-pinnacle with the rope clipped to the bad pin, starring up the sixty feet of crystal studded face and shook my head: I was too frightened to climb it. When I looked down I could see the eyes of my friends wide with fear. And then to my amazement Paul appeared, soloed up the chimney to my stance and put out his hand. “Give me your rope.” He said. “The son-of-a-bitch ain’t that bad. Just seems that way.”
I untied the rope from my harness and handed him the end. He tied the rope around his waist, sans harness, and blazed up the overhanging face to the summit. For the next several weeks, Paul led us up most of the classics on Needles highway.
It was on the day that we climbed the Needles Eye that I first heard about Renn Fenton. It happened after we had rappelled off the summit of the Eye to the ground and we were coiling the ropes. I turned my face upward and took in the thin face that rises from the parking lot straight to the summit. The first thirty feet were devoid of any large holds, just little crystals and a thin vertical seam.
“Its a Fenton route,” said Paul. “He soloed it to the flake.”
I looked away from the steep face and found Paul’s eyes. “How hard is it?”
Like it mattered really. I couldn’t have climbed it anyway but I was mentally banking climbs for later.
Paul shrugged. “I’m guessing 5.10.”
“Have you climbed it?”
He shook his head. “Saving the son-of-a-bitch,” he said, and moved off to toss a rope in the back of his brown, International Scout.
I looked up the steep face again as I finished coiling the other rope and imagined soloing the face to the flake which was at least fifty feet above the parking area. I wondered about Renn. Who was this guy who could do such a thing?
Behind me, and over my shoulder, was the Thimble with the famous Gill route on it. As I thought about the density of outrageous climbs in this parking lot, an involuntary quiver shot up my legs to my finger tips. Where did these guys find the mettle for such amazing feats of strength and courage.
Not long after we climbed the Needles Eye I left for my job in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming where I spent six weeks teaching mountaineering and performing odd jobs. I returned to the Needles in August and managed leads on everything that Paul had essentially guided us on earlier in the summer before traveling to Gunnison, Colorado where I was attending college.
When I returned to the Needles a year later in May of 1979, Paul and I immediately paired up and climbed together. It was near the end of June in the morning when Paul found me in the campground near Sylvan Lake. There were maybe eight of us staying in the campsite and when Paul drove up, he waved me over to the truck. “I got something I want to do,” he said. “It ain’t never been climbed before.” His voice was low and he gave the other climbers a sideways glance. “You want in?”
My heart raced. Sure as shit I wanted in. “Hell yea,” I whispered. I could tell he wanted to keep things on the down low.
I quickly organized my gear and tossed it in the back of his Scout and we motored to the Needles Eye parking area. It was early in the day and the dirt lot was empty. We parked under the overhanging face of the Thimble. Paul lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the window. “C’mon. I’ll show you the line,” he said. “Its a fucking line, Pete!”
I followed Paul around the backside of the Bell Tower through the trees. We stood together, faces raised, scoped the grey wall of the spire. I could see a ring bolt in the middle of a blank face maybe sixty or seventy feet above the ground. Paul pointed. “The line goes up those flakes to where they end and then left to the bolt and then straight up from there.”
Above the flakes the line looked thin, no definable holds, nothing that stood out as “big”. I wondered about the bolt. “Where’d the bolt come from?” I asked. “Thought you said the route hadn’t been climbed before.”
Paul’s eyes were focused intently on the wall. He took a long draw on his cigarette before he answered. “It hasn’t,” he said. “Some Germans climbed the spire by the standard route with only one rope and got stranded on the descent. They drilled the bolt to get down.”
Just then the loud roar of an unmuffled VW bug interrupted us. Through the trees I saw a red VW beetle roll past us along the road before it disappeared into the parking area. “Looks like Renn decided to join us,” said Paul.
“Renn?” I asked.
“Renn Fenton,” answered Paul. “Guess the son-of-a-bitch decided climbing was a better idea than drinking.”
We returned to the parking area to meet Renn and collect our gear. Renn had parked his beetle next to us. He stood a head shorter than Paul and was built like a bulldog. He wore a red T-shirt stretched over thick arms and a generous belly. There was a hole over the left knee of his faded Levi 501 button ups. His eyes narrowed on me. He was weighing me with his dark blue eyes. Yet behind his dead to rights gaze a strange light flickered there. Anger?
“This is Pete,” said Paul. “Son-of-a-bitch is a good little climber.”
I extended my hand. Renn’s calloused grip was solid as stone; he wasn’t a desk jockey. My concentration on Renn’s gaze was so complete, I almost missed the fact that Paul was asking Renn about his route on the Needles Eye. Renn turned away and followed Paul to the base of the Eye where I joined them.
Renn’s variation took a direct line up 50 feet of thin face climbing before it met the regular route on the southwest shoulder. The moves looked lean and scary and it was unprotected—he had soloed it.
Renn’s voice was thin and sort of halting as he described the climb. “The day before I climbed this son-of-a-bitch,” he said, pointed up the wall, “I met a girl down in Custer at the Frontier Bar. I come up here the next day and couldn’t find no body to climb with…and I was hung over…bad.” He caught my gaze. “One minute I was fine…then dizzy as hell…and I puked a few times…but I climbed her anyways,” he said and turned back to Paul. “The rock swayed,” he held his arm up like it was a spire and tipped his hand upside down. “Every time the spire flipped upside down I jus’ hung on…until she tipped the other way…and then I climbed fast as hell.”
I was slack-jawed, my hands opened and closed involuntarily. When I found his eyes with my eyes he was chuckling. I noticed grey stubble in the form of a goatee that I’d missed before. I was expecting to hear about months of obsession: him standing under this killer face trying to work up the courage to cast off into oblivion only to hear that the whole thing was the aftermath of a bender. I shook my head. “That’s an amazing story,” I said.
I glanced up the face again and then moved off to the Scout and donned my rucksack. It would be a few years before I’d be ready to climb the direct line on the Eye and I would deadly sober when I did it. I had my demons but wasn’t nuts.
I followed Paul and Renn around to the backside of the Bell Tower. We gathered near a tree at the base of the flakes under our objective and I uncoiled Paul’s red rope and put on my harness while he geared up.
Along with his harness, Paul donned a belt with a hand drill and a hammer and a bolt bag that had 1/4 inch button head bolts and hangers in addition to a sling with wired nuts and chocks—metal wedges to be placed in the flake system. Lastly, Paul slipped his Kmart tennis shoes off and put on a pair of PA’s—hard rubber soled climbing shoes—lit another cigarette, and stepped up to the wall.
Renn had slipped into his harness and had clipped a round aluminum stitch-plate to the waist and leg loop. He wore an old style harness that had a thick waist belt and a loop that was pulled up between the legs to complete the leg loops. “I got him,” he said, to me.
He meant to belay Paul. I shrugged. I honestly didn’t know what the pecking order was yet.
Paul found Renn’s eyes. “Got me?”
Renn nodded and played out several feet of slack in lazy loops on the ground near Paul’s feet.
“Well,” Paul said, cleared his throat. “Let’s see how this goes.”
He turned and started up the flakes. Paul looked like a daddy long-leg spider with long bones that defined his limbs. He made right angles to the rock as he climbed up the flakes. He placed a few nuts and then banged in a pin at the top of the overlap before he stood up on a small ledge.
The wall rose, bending over his head pushing him to the left toward the lone, ring-bolt that waited in the middle of a blank face. Paul placed another pin. The sound, as he pounded it, was like a hammer thumping wood—not good. A well set pin has a ring to it, like a black smith smacking an anvil with a sledge hammer. The pin sounded like he was driving it into pumice. I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Can you back that up with some wires?”
Paul fiddled with his nuts. He nested a couple small wedges near the pin and tied everything together with a sling and then he clipped a faded, red runner to the whole mess. “There,” he said. “All safe again.”
My fingers and palms were cold with sweat. I wasn’t so sure he was safe. The whole business looked pretty sketchy to me. He lit another cigarette and reached to the left and sampled the crystals. “Its a thin, son-of-a-bitch,” he said through a mouthful of smoke.
With his ape index he reached at least half-way to the bolt. Then he moved his foot out onto something I couldn’t see. “Watch me,” he said in a low voice.
I glanced at Renn. His coal, blue eyes were locked on Paul. When I swiveled my gaze back to Paul he had stepped off the ledge to the left. Both hands were crimping something in front of his face. He rocked left and latched a vertical set of crystals with his hand, tapped his left foot along the face to a hold several feet underneath the bolt. Readjusting his feet and hands he clipped the bolt with a long blue sling. He pulled on the rope with his left hand. “Slack, me!”
But the rope didn’t move. “Slack,” shouted Paul for the second time. He yanked the rope and pushed it towards the ringbolt, but there still wasn’t enough rope for him to clip the bolt. The faded red sling on his last piece, fifteen feet away, jerked.
I turned my attention on Renn. Something flickered in his eyes as before in the parking lot. His fists were bloodless and white where he clenched the rope.
“What the hell!” I shouted. “Slack him!”
Renn shot me a dark look and fed out the line. I heard the metallic click of the carabiner as it captured the rope. Paul was safe again for the moment. But wrestling for the slack had worn him out. His elbows lifted, leveling with his shoulders—the sign of extreme fatigue.
My chest tightened as Paul climbed ever higher above the bolt. I felt as if I straddled two worlds. On the one hand, my friend was climbing fully blown, and throwing for holds—he was going to fall. On the other hand was Renn—something was wrong with him. It was as if he was possessed by a demon. Jolts of adrenalin shot through my veins. “This is going to be a huge fall,” I whispered.
From the corner of my eye I saw Renn’s mouth working. “Ethyl,” he said. “Ethyl. My fucking Ethyl!”
I squared off with Renn and made to take the rope.
“Watch me!” Shouted Paul.
I stepped towards Renn. “Give me the fucking belay!”
Renn stepped away from me. He gripped the rope with one hand and rubbed his right trouser pocket with the other. “Oh Ethyl,” he repeated.
“Watch me!” Paul shouted again.
Renn drew something out of his pocket—something white and round. I swiveled my head to see Paul’s legs shaking, his right foot skated off a hold. There was a small divot above him and I thought if he could reach that he might be able to get a hands-down-rest and drill a bolt. “Can you make it to the pod?”
His curses echoed between the spires.
“Don’t let him do the climb,” said a shrill voice.
Turning, I found Renn holding the white rock in front of his face. It had little black eyes and a mouth that said, “O.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I grabbed the rope and Renn wrenched it out of my hand.
I gestured at Paul. “He’s gonna fall any second!” I hissed. “Shape up or give me the fucking belay!”
The hand holding the rock bobbed in my direction. “You are such a rude boy.”
My mouth opened…to Ethyl…to Renn…I was speechless.
“You insulted her,” said Renn, “she’s not a thing.”
“I’m taking the belay.”
Just then Paul’s voice boomed, “Falling!”
I wrenched my head around to see Paul’s lanky frame open away from the rock. Coils of rope flaked over his head as he careened down the wall only to slam to a halt inches above the ground—his foot tapped a sharp spike of rock as he stopped. He came within a hairs breath of driving himself onto the narrow spike of granite.
I was paralyzed with fear.
Paul reached inside his shirt pocket and produced his cigarettes. Lighting one he blew a cloud of blue smoke into the cool morning air. The cigarette made two trips back and forth across his white lips before he finally spoke. “Jesus Christ,” his eyes burned into Renn. “What the fuck is going on down here?” Paul tapped the nasty spike with a toe. “You damn near killed me, Renn.”
Renn muttered something about Ethyl and shoved the rock back in his pocket. Without saying a word, he pushed away from the tree that he leaned against, and lowered Paul to the ground. He rubbed his face. “I need a drink,” he said, and disconnected from the belay.
I rolled my eyes as Renn wandered through the trees to the parking lot. “He’s fucking crazy, Paul.” I said in a low voice, thinking about Ethyl. “What’s with the rock?”
“Well, Pete,” he replied. “Everyone’s got their thing.” He unbuckled the belt with the hammer and hand drill and handed it to me. “You’re right…he ain’t all there anymore.”
“That’s the biggest fall I ever seen,” I said, and belted the hammer and hand drill around my waist.
“Renn’s got a funny way about him,” said Paul. “He spotted this line years ago.” He untied from the rope and pulled it down through the gear. “I guess he doesn’t want us to climb it.” He handed me the end of the rope and I tied in.
I mulled this over. Apparently there was more to the story than I was aware of. “Maybe we could work on a different first ascent,” I offered, “something he’s not connected to.”
“No,” he said, looking back up the wall. “Him and I already discussed this and he agreed.” His dark eyes bore into mine. “No Pete, it’s settled. He can decide to climb with us or not. Wait till you get up there,” he said, changing the subject. “It’s a hell of a route.” He handed me a wad of slings.
I laced my boots and stepped up to the start of the climb to survey the route. The enormity of the challenge began to settle in. The wall above was steep and I couldn’t see any holds bigger than a sewing thimble. It just looked hard. And because no one had ever climbed this before there was another added dimension—the unknown.
That’s the thing about first ascents. There’s nothing to guide you except a best guess as to where the route goes. There’s no basis to say, I know I can do this, because there’s no information. No grade to measure your ability against. All of these thoughts played through my mind as I started up the first few moves. I swear I could feel the thump of my heart in my finger tips.
I clipped the rope through the gear in the flake and moved up toward the ledge. The climbing wasn’t to hard, mostly large holds up steep flakes. Soon I reached the ledge at the start of the traverse towards the ringbolt and clipped the pin. Less than an inch of the mangled piton was buried in the seam. The wired nuts were #1 Chouinard stoppers meant for body weight applications not massive Needles whippers. The whole mess looked absurd—like a small child had tethered the pin onto the rock with little silver strings. I leaned my head against the wall and took a few deep breaths. I felt the holds leading off the ledge. I could see a set of white crystals half way to the bolt.
I looked down, found Paul’s eyes. “Got me?” I saw Renn standing next to him and thought, what the fuck?
Paul nodded. “I got you, Pete. Go for it!”
I moved my left foot off the ledge onto the blankness. I shifted my weight onto my foot. I pinched a small crystal between my left index finger and thumb. I stretched away from the security of the ledge and the mangled pin. I tapped my right foot off the ledge and let go with my right hand sliding it towards my eye. I hooked my right thumb over a small nub and shifted my center of gravity to the left. Slowly…I let go with my left hand…reached for the white crystals…grabbed the finger bucket. “Whew.” I shouted.
That’s when I noticed that Paul had transitioned the belay to Renn and was hurrying towards the parking lot. “Nice climbing, Pete,” he shouted, over his shoulder. “I’ll be back in a second. I need another pack of smokes.”
I saw the look in Renn’s eyes, the tight line of his lips. “Oh shit.” I whispered. I stretched to the left and gripped another cluster of small crystals, extended my left foot towards a slopping rail of feldspar. Shifting my weight to the left, I transferred my right hand onto another pinch and reached for the clip hold near the ringbolt and that’s when the rope went tight. “Slack.” I shouted. Renn’s eyes were slits. He held up the rock: Ethyl jeered at me.
My voice cracked, “Slack!”
A rail of cold sweat dripped down my neck, my fingers slipped on the holds, feet trembled. My composure started to fracture. I saw myself falling, the mangled pin exploding from the seam. I saw the rocks coming…the phone call to my mom. I pulled on the rope, “Fucking, slack me!”
Just then, I heard a commotion and shouting and then the rope came free.
Now untethered, I lunged for the clip hold and walked my feet to the left. I grabbed the rope to make the clip and slapped it against the carabiner only to fling the clip out of reach. My right foot skittered off the foothold, I tapped it back up the wall onto the hold.
I lunged for the carabiner again and and hooked it with my middle finger, twisted the line against the gate and shouted, “Go in!”
But the rope jammed between the gate and the catch on the carabiner. My breath puffed like I was running a marathon in mud boots. “God damn it!” I shouted, and whacked the carabiner with my hand and the rope finally clicked inside the metal link.
My forearms were useless as clubs, feet trembled. I was a goner with nothing left except for will power and the desire to live.
I threw to the left grabbing a thin edge. Stepping up, I lunged for a small crystal with my right hand…latched it. I crawled my left hand up to another edge and adjusted my feet. I lunged again…and again…flailed higher above the bolt. I saw the divot to the right and made a wild launch for it…and caught it with my finger tips.
With no time to waste, I rocked upward, took hold of some tiny crystals and jammed the ball of my right foot into the divot. Standing, I pasted myself against the wall. My body shook like I was on speed.
“Can you drill a bolt?” shouted Paul.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. When I looked down I saw that Paul was in command of the rope again…which calmed me down. I honestly didn’t know if I could drill a bolt. I cleared my throat. “I dunno!”
Most of my weight was on the big toe of my right foot. The thought of letting go with my hands made me dry heave against the wall.
“Can’t hear you,” shouted Paul.
I managed to shout, “I don’t know!”
I leaned my forehead against the cool granite, closed my eyes, and breathed in long, single breaths. I was trapped. I had to either drill the fucking bolt or jump off the son-of-a-bitch and take the whipper.
I peeked down the wall. I didn’t have the courage to jump. From the corner of my eye I saw the red beetle roar off down the highway—thank god, I thought, at least I didn’t have to deal with that asshole again.
After a time, I let go with my hands and carefully released the drill and freed the hammer. Holding the drill above my head I swung the hammer. As I pulled the hammer back, my body began to tip off the wall. I dropped the hammer to fall against its keeper line and plastered myself flat against the wall. My breath exploded against the rock, hot adrenalin thrummed behind my eyes. I breathed in the musty smell of granite and waited for my breathing to ease.
“I’ve got you,” shouted Paul.
I tried a new position. I brought my left arm across my face holding the drill near my right eye. Choking up on the hammer I began tapping away. Three taps. Rest. Three taps. Rest. It seemed like hundreds of years past before the hole was finished.
“All safe again,” yelled Paul.
“Not yet, goddamit!”
I slotted my hand into the bolt bag and selected a hanger preset on a button head bolt. Carefully, I inserted the bolt into the hole about a 1/4 inch. It was then that I noticed that I had drilled the hole at an angle pointed upward. Even as I tapped the bolt home I knew it was marginal since any load on it was in the direction of the hole rather than perpendicular to it. This was not a mistake that I would ever make again but on this day it just added to my state of anxiety.
I let out a breath and for the first time pushed away from the wall and looked down at Paul. “All safe again.”
“Nice going, Pete,” he said. “That looks like a hellish stance.”
I switched feet and rotated my right ankle. The pain made my teeth vibrate. While I waited for life to return to my foot, I studied the wall above me. Maybe ten feet of steep moves led to a shallow gully on the left. I could see large crystals in the gully. If I could reach those crystals I’d be home free.
Leaning my head against the wall again I chalked my hands and breathed. For the moment my panic had retreated into the remote depths of my mind.
I started up the wall on delicate two-finger-thumb-pinches. The moves were surgical and pushed the boundaries of balance. I felt like a rock surgeon as I picked my way up through a feldspar puzzle. Soon I found myself an arm’s length to the right of the gully maybe ten or fifteen feet above the bolt. The base of the gully sloped towards the ground.
I stretched toward the gully with my left hand and could just barely touch a good hold. Liquid panic burned through my veins. My feet gently shook on the tiny foot holds. Cold sweat made the hand holds slick as oil. I chalked my left hand, swallowed my fear, and leaned to the left. As soon as my index finger crimped the crystal, I tapped my left foot onto the sloping rail at the base of the gully and started to shift my weight on to it. Just then, my foot skated off the hold.
I rocked back to the right. “Fuck!”
“Jesus Christ!” Shouted Paul. “Nice recovery.”
“That was fucking close!”
Again I leaned left. Hooked the hold with my index finger and tapped my left foot onto the rail. I counted to three and rocked my full weight onto my left foot and bumped my hand all the way onto the good crystal. I switched feet and made two or three quick moves up the gully until I was on bomber holds.
I whooped. I’m sure they heard me all the way to town. A few more moves past black tourmaline crystals brought me to the top. I collapsed on the curved platform and shouted, “Off belay!”
The summit was like a whales tale and I rolled into a sitting position in the base of the curvature and leaned my back against the higher wall to belay Paul. I took in the slack and shouted, “On Belay!”
“Give me a minute, Pete.” He needed to don his shoes.
There was a breeze that tousled my hair. The weight of the stress lifted off of me like a cloud and I suddenly felt tired and yawned—the adrenaline hangover was in full swing.
Paul called from below. “Climbing!”
“C’mon up,” I shouted, pulled up the rope.
Within a few minutes Paul joined me on the summit. “Nice lead,” he said. “What a fucking route, Pete. What a route!” He slapped me on the back.
“Did I see Renn take off” I asked. “Cause’ I got a few words for that son-of-a-bitch.”
Paul nodded. “He left for the bar. Said he needed a beer.”
“He’s fucking insane.” I said. “I don’t want to climb with him again.”
“Son-of-a-bitch bout’ killed the both of us,” he laughed. “What do you make of his rock?”
“Ethyl, you mean?” I laughed. “She’s a fucking witch!”
We sat together for a while on the summit in silence. Paul smoked and I leaned back against the warm rock and took in the surrounding spires. High clouds streamed across a deep blue sky. Eventually he nudged me. “What are you going to call this fucker?” he asked. “Got any ideas?”
I thought about the moves, drilling the bolt, getting locked off by Renn, my level of panic…and then I thought about the Clint Eastwood movie that I’d recently seen. “Yea,” I said. “Every Which Way But Loose.”
Paul laughed. “That’s good,” he said. “I like that.”
As was usual in the Needles during a first ascent we left the rope in place so others could join us and on that day Paul Piana and Mark Smedley also climbed the route.
The first draft of this piece was written in 2007 and submitted to a literary contest. It was rejected because the reviewers thought that the events described were unbelievable. Since then I have re-written the story several times down playing Renn’s actions but always felt that those drafts were dishonest. In this draft, the narrative is as close to the truth as my memory allows given that we did the first ascent of Every Which Way But Loose almost forty years ago.
As to whether the story is believable or not: our family of climbers in the Needles were as dysfunctional as the catholic family I grew up in. There was denial, in-fighting, insanity, and alcoholism—but that’s exactly the thing that made the culture so brilliant.
We did climb with Renn again but were careful not to let him belay. Not long after Every Which Way But Loose, Renn adopted another rock he called Elmer. Elmer and Ethyl were a couple and accompanied Renn everywhere he went. We accepted Renn for who he was and I was always careful to ask him how Ethyl and Elmer were doing.
Finally, Renn Fenton was living the climbing life long before it was fashionable to live in a van and climb full time. He died alone in a ramshackle trailer near Newcastle, Wyoming. In the end it was the late Loretta Muehl and Paul Piana that looked after him.
Feature Photo: Paul Muehl. This photo was shot the following day after the first ascent.