Greetings esteemed guests, colleagues, parents, and my beloved students. I am honored to speak tonight—an honor bestowed on me by my colleagues.
To my colleagues I say thank you for the privilege to speak tonight and I’ll try not to let you down.
To the graduating class I say congratulations. You’ve worked really hard and I am very proud of you.
Tonight I am going to tell you a story about risk.
Many of you know that I was a rock climber for most of my life and the story that I am about to tell you involves a first ascent in the Needles of South Dakota where my partner and I risked it all to survive.
First, a short disclaimer: Some of the details of this story have been altered in order to accommodate a PG setting and to simplify the timeline since I only have 15 minutes to tell the story.
The climbers of the 1970s and 1980s were eclectic. We were social misfits and had demons that drove us to do extraordinary things simply because climbing was all that we had. And my demons were as savage as any in our group.
As a child I had flaming red hair, buck teeth, and a blazing temper. I was bullied in school and responded by going nuclear. I was kicked out of first grade for clubbing a classmate over the head with a chair. By the time I was ten I’d been dragged to the principles office by every method known to man—by my hair, ears, shirt collar—I was an outcast—and my parents were at their whits end.
In 1969 my parents sent me to a summer camp in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming where I learned to climb. I found solace in the high places, the freezing bivouacs, and the steep granite walls—but more to the point—the friends that I made along the way shared this bond. We were misfits bound together by climbing. Not many of us had any innate climbing talent. We dug deep and risked our lives and survived because we never gave up. Quite frankly, I’ve never been more terrified, at any time in my life, than when I was climbing.
In 1978 I traveled to the Needles of South Dakota with a friend on mine from Chicago. Both of us had learned about the legendary climbing area from a book called Master of Rock that featured the exploits of John Gill—a famous climber from the 1960s.
When we reached Needles Highway we were slack-jawed and speechless. All around us were mighty pinnacles of granite that pierced the sky. Yet our initial experiences on the spires were a disaster. The climbing was unprotected and the summits were anchor-less. If we managed to tremble our way to the top of one of the spires the descent was mind-blowing and highly dangerous. The climbs were so frightening that we loaded our gear into our car and drove up the road to leave.
As we were passing through the Needles Eye parking area we spotted another climber and stopped to chat with him. His name was Paul Muehl. He was ex-special forces, a jack-of-all-trades, a master of everything. It was a lucky meeting for us and for the next two weeks Paul led us up and down the spires on Needles Highway.
In those days the climbs were free solos and the summits lacked any sort of anchors. Down climbing and using improvised anchors were the norm—a typical descent off a spire involved tying the rope off to your partner who then sat down on the summit and acted as the anchor. The others rappelled to the ground and then the anchor person followed by down climbing the route. I’m certain if we hadn’t met Paul we would have left the Needles maybe never to return. He and I became close friends and we formed a climbing partnership that lasted over two decades until his death by cancer in 1998.
In 1978 the Needles were on the verge of a revolution in climbing and we were the wave, the driving force of the Golden Age of first ascents. Everywhere we looked there were blank faces, spires that hadn’t ever been climbed and we were hungry to cast off into the unknown and leave our mark on the Needles much like John Gill and others had in the 1960s and 1970s.
And so it was that a small group of us gathered in the Needles every summer throughout the 1980s. We lived in a cave that was fifty yards from the highway and each day we climbed new routes. In those days it didn’t matter which spire you chose because there were first ascents everywhere.
On a warm day in June, Paul and I motored down the Needles highway and stopped by the Totem Pole. We leaned across the hood of his brown, International Scout with a pair of binoculars and studied a spire in the far distance that we named The Naked Rib.
The Rib was located on the south end of a massive formation called the Bartizan in the Cathedral Spires. The spire shot into the sky like a scythe and had never been climbed before so we made plans to do the first ascent the following day.
The following morning we made the 1 mile hike to the base of the spire and organized the gear. We had twelve bolts, a couple soft iron pitons, and some clean gear. We made fast work of the first pitch which brought us to a small ledge at the start of thin climbing up the right side of the scythe.
We drew straws and I started up the steep face first and drilled a bolt maybe thirty feet above our ledge. Each move involved INCHING UPWARDS ON SMALL CRYSTAL PINCHES, BALANCING PRECARIOUSLY ON THIMBLE SIZED FOOTHOLDS. After drilling the bolt I lowered off the climb and Paul took over the lead. Fifteen feet above my bolt he found another stance and began the process of drilling a bolt. As he swung his hammer two things happened at once: There was a loud pop like a gun shot and Paul fell.
He was launched into the abyss, his body silhouetted against the bright sky until the rope caught him and he lunged to a stop mere inches above the belay ledge. The crystals that he’d been standing on had broken under his weight.
After a few moments Paul climbed back to his high point, found a new set of holds to stand on and drilled the bolt. And that was when the thunder started. He lowered off again and we sat under an old army poncho until the rain stopped. When the sun came out I took over the lead, climbed to a new high point and drilled another bolt…but not before the thunder came again and we had to wait out yet another storm.
We took turns and waited out three more storms until finally we were down to our last bolt and had run the rope up the scythe perhaps eighty feet which was about half the length of the rope. By this time it was late in the day and we debated rappelling off and coming back the next day. But quitting wasn’t an option and I started up again with only one goal in mind—to get to the top.
When I reached the highest bolt I paused for a moment and leaned my forehead against the cool granite. I knew what needed to be done. We guessed that there was at least eighty feet of climbing left and I only had one bolt. This meant that I needed to climb at least forty feet up the remaining face before drilling the last bolt. I would be risking an eighty foot fall and the climbing was still very hard. So I launched onto the thin holds and climbed with a purpose–like a BASIS fire drill. The scythe quickly fell away into open space below me.
Eventually the angle lessened until I came to another vertical headwall. Here I drilled the last of our bolts JUST AS THUNDER sounded again over the Cathedral Spires. I sprinted for the top of the spire as black clouds streamed in the sky but SUDDENLY the rope went tight and I couldn’t move—I’d run out of rope.
Just then I heard Paul’s voice confirming that we had used all 165 feet of our rope.
I looked up. The summit was at least thirty more feet above me. We had no choice. I turned my face down the wall and shouted at Paul to pull the anchor and climb.
He knew what I wanted. He would dismantle the belay, shoulder the pack, and we would simul climb without a belay in order to reach the summit. In a second, the rope came loose and I gunned it for the top. As soon as I crawled onto the summit I put Paul on a hip belay and a few minutes later he joined me on top of the scythe.
Now I would like to ask you for a favor: Imagine yourself THREE HUNDRED FEET UP a small pinnacle in the Cathedral Spires—the summit is the size of a card table. Imagine a massive storm, a juggernaut of fury marching at you from the northwest—the last rays of the sun from the southwest—the daylight is failing and night is nearly on us. The only feature on the summit is a thin, flared crack—too small for our gear. We are out of bolts and have just one, soft iron piton—our only hope for an anchor.
We looked across the chasm towards the main Bartizan formation shocked that we simply couldn’t scramble over to it when another blast of lightening sent us into action. Paul took the pin and drove it straight down into the flared crack. It sounded like he was pounding on a hollow piece wood. A good pin rings with a high pitch when it’s whacked with a hammer—we both knew the pin was no good.
We secured the rope to the pin [anyway] with a long sling and tossed the free ends of the rope over the back side of the pinnacle. The rappel was completely free hanging all the way to the ends of the rope that dangled some SIXTY FEET SHY of the ground. Below the ends of the rope we spotted a large knob on the wall.
I glanced at Paul. “Maybe we can get to the knob,”
Paul laughed. “You’re not serious,” as we watched THE ENDS OF THE ROPE dancing in the wind. His cigarette made a nervous trip from one side of his mouth to the other and the wrinkles AT THE CORNERS OF HIS DARK BROWN EYES deepened. He scratched his mustache. “Well,” he said. “If you can make the jug then I can too.”—YOU SEE, I AM 5 FOOT SIX AND PAUL WAS 5 FOOT NINE.
We both leaned over the edge and scrutinized the large white jug some ten feet below the ends of the free hanging rope. From the jug the wall swept outward to the ground. WE WERE CERTAIN THAT IF WE COULD MAKE IT TO THE JUG, we could get down.
Another crash of thunder brought our attention back to the heavens where lightening STRUCK Spire Four in the Cathedral Spires—we were about to be engulfed by the massive onslaught.
Paul clipped into the sling to back up the anchor. I locked my rappel gear onto the rope and levered over the side and slid down into the abyss. I stopped above the dangling ends of the rope and studied the jug that seemed a hundred miles away. Looking up I caught Paul’s silhouette against the angry sky, and THOUGH I couldn’t see his eyes, the glow of his cigarette danced against his darkened face. I thought I saw him nod.
I eased down to the very ends of the rope. For a moment I HUNG SWINGING IN THE WIND and then I let the rope slide through my rappel device and hung free from the ends of the rope a full sixty feet above the ground—either I had to make the jug or be killed by the fall.
I began to jerk and swing trying to latch my toe on the jug. Time slowed to a near standstill as I felt my arms beginning to fail from the exertion but soon I had a swing going and eventually caught the big crystal with a toe. In desperation I lunged for the wall and let go—the ends of the rope whipped out of reach like a bungee cord. For an instant my body was balanced as if on a slack line, neither on the wall, nor off, and I lunged for ANYTHING I could grab.
I caught a small edge with my fingers. MY HEART HAMMERED IN MY HEAD, my breath punched the musty granite as I pasted myself against the wall. I gathered myself, steeled my breath, and slowly climbed towards the ground. A few minutes later I stepped onto the rocky floor of the forest and turned my face to the sky. “I made it!” I shouted.
In a second, Paul levered over the side of the pinnacle, his body illuminated by a flash of lightning. Adrenalin surged through my body like HOT, LIQUID METAL. He was free hanging in space on a SINGLE BAD PITON. I raised my arms and adjusted my stance AS IF I WERE PREPARING TO CATCH A BALL. If he fell I’d catch him no matter what. No matter the damage to me. We trusted each other implicitly—he would have done the same for me.
Soon he dangled from the ends of the rope—a dark form in the twilight—the ground bumped with the thunder. Then he was swinging like a mad man and he hooked the jug. A few minutes later he joined me on the ground.
The year was 1981 and we had just climbed the first ascent of the The Naked Rib on the Bartizan in the Cathedral Spires. We had drilled over a dozen bolts on the lead in a single push and WE WERE LIVING THE DREAM OF THE NEEDLES CLIMBER—casting ourselves into the vertical world of the spires to succeed and survive by the seat of our pants—EVEN IF JUST BARELY.
Paul and I climbed nearly two hundred first ascents together. We lived through a lot of close calls but we lived our dreams to the full extent of what they were and I will never forget those days or Paul Muehl who was like a father to me.
To my students and to the graduating class I offer the following thoughts on risk. Take a few. I’m not saying that you have to hang from the ends of a rope sixty feet above the jagged earth…which I’m sure your parents agree with me. But there is a big world out there and life is short.
A few extra notes:
Journey Songs played on the opening slide and the closing slides: the songs were “Don’t Stop Believin’ and Only the Young.
The crux pitch of The Naked Rib is 190 feet as described by Mountain Project.