as delivered on January 25th 2020 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orange, CA
Today I’m going to tell you the story of one weekend, or mostly just one very long day, back in April of 2013. It was just one of many many days that Brad and I spent together, but it’s one that I remember clearly and one that I think really showed what kind of man he was.
By 2013, I’d already known Brad for four years. We had met in Yosemite Valley, had bonded over a shared obsession for the sport, and a shared place on the rebellious fringe of respectable society. Even though Brad was working seasonally there, the crowded and commericalized valley didn’t really feel like a world we fully belonged in. On rainy days or rest days, we would hunt around for a quiet place to use the wifi, cook a simple meal, and plan for the next big mission. But on the clear days, we climbed up out of the busy valley to the sheer faces above, savoring the freedom of the vertical world.
In 2013, I was living in Colorado and working intermittently, and Brad was passing through Las Vegas, probably on one of his never ending roadtrips. I wanted to escape a snowy wet spring in Boulder, and so it only took a quick phone call for Brad to convince me to fly out and meet up for a few days of climbing in the desert.
After he picked me up from the airport, of course in his little white honda civic hatchback, we quickly left Vegas and drove east. Our destination was a few hours distant, but Brad insisted that we make a stop along the way in the Virgin River Gorge. The interstate highway curves between the narrow limestone walls, so tight that even from high up on the cliff the sound of heavy trucks downshifting can drown out the shouts of your climbing partner. Those bulging walls of grippy brown and white rock do however offer some really fun climbing. When Brad heard that I’d never climbed in the VRG before, he instantly decided that we needed to make a stop. Even though we had to finish the drive that evening and had big plans for the next day, he couldn’t resist the chance to show me around a place he knew well.
I don’t even think Brad wanted to climb anything that afternoon, and probably needed a full rest day anyway, so he was entirely motivated to hit this highway-side crag so that I could get out and stretch my arms in the sun, and shake off the snowy Colorado winter.
I recently found some random video clips from this weekend trip, saved on an old hard drive, and I was watching through them the other night. There’s one clip from that day, where Brad’s propped up my camera on a rock while he belays out the rope to me. I’m a fuzzy little dot crawling up out the frame, grappling on the underside of a bulging belly of rock. Brad is watching intently and shouting encouragement… right up until the moment that my rubbery fingers finally fail and I come swinging off the wall. Then he breaks out laughing and my spidery figure comes dangling to a stop on the rope, and over the wind I can hear myself laughing too.
That was Brad. Climbing was home for him, and he always wanted to have his friends over. Whether he was sharing beta with a beginner, in preparation for their first big lead, or listening around a campfire as others told stories of yesterday’s epic, or supporting a good friend on their long term project, his passion always showed through. Climbing was just the air he breathed and what made him smile everyday, and he wanted everyone else to share that joy too. Brad gave off enthusiasm like sunlight, but still he never seemed to run low on energy to pursue his own, very lofty, goals.
After I had a chance to try, and fall off, a couple of the Virgin RIver Gorge’s best pitches, we hopped back in his car and continued on the road. Winding up onto the red sandstone tablelands, we followed the course of the river up towards its source on the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Dark green pine forests covered the mesas and moutains ahead, and then our destination came into view. The valley narrowed, becoming a gap more deep than wide, flanked by walls of every hue fom pink to purple. These walls, of Zion Canyon, were our true destination, and Brad had big plans for us.
The first of those old video clips that I took next day, which I don’t think I’d ever gone back and watched until recently, shows Brad at the wheel of his trusty civic, casually eating a banana and drumming along to the White Stripes on the stereo. Through the windshield, the towering white-capped peaks at the entrance to Zion are just catching the first rays of sun, and the clock on the dashboard says 6:02am. Our packs, which were piled atop the heap of clothing and gear on the backseat, had both been carefully loaded the evening before, and so on this morning all we had to do was boil up some instant coffee and drive a few minutes to the trailhead.
The next clip shows Brad with his pants rolled up to the knees, wading across a shallow river. Each careful step is braced against the strong current, and his face obviously shows how cold the water feels in the chilly morning air. Above us stands our first objective for the day, a climb called Sheer Lunacy. We were quickly geared up and climbing, steadily pulling our way up a thousand feet of beautiful orange rock. Our cold fingers and arms quickly warmed to the task, and it felt like we just flowed up the rock without even stopping for a breath. A short while later we popped out on the flat rim atop massive canyon, with the river just a dark strand far below.
In the next video clip, we’re walking along the rim trail in the bright mid morning sun, looking for the way back down. Brad looks at the camera and says “well, I think we can definitely do three…. Four’s gonna be hard though.”
The thousand foot high walls of Zion are considered by most climbers to be “bigwalls” and parties frequently spend multiple days scaling them, sleeping on small ledges or those cute little hanging cots. Even for an experienced team, simply ascending one wall of the massive canyon and returning back down in the same day is a huge objective. But on that phone call a week earlier, when Brad was laying out his plan, he proposed that we try and climb four different full-length routes in the canyon, all in one day. I remember being… hesitant. While I definitely love a nice full day of climbing, I thought four big-walls sounded like at least one too many. And he didn’t pick the easiest ones either, proposing four of the park’s most famous and imposing lines and insisting that we climb them all in a pure “free-climbing” style, without pulling or resting on any of our gear.
But now there we were, with one route complete and a lot more daylight remaining. If our fingers held out, we definitely had a shot. Up next was the most difficult route of the day, Moonlight Buttress. For me, simply getting up that one route, in the rigorous free-climbing style that we both were striving for, was not a sure thing. I had spent a long winter working, and pulling on plastic in the climbing gym, back in Colorado. I doubted my own fitness on those relentlessly smooth fingercracks, and I feared flaming out and spoiling our goal.
Brad knew that, but he had confidence that, if he took the lead, we could both make it up together. So after a quick snack back on the sandy canyon floor, we again tied into the rope and launched upwards.
On “Moonlight” Brad was at his best. The route cleaves an otherwise blank column of rock, with geometrically perfect corners and cracks splitting the orange overhangs. From a tiny belay perch halfway up the wall, I hung in my harness and craned my neck back, eyes on Brad. I was belaying out the rope for him as he stepped lightly upward, nothing in his posture revealing the actual difficulties. He moved smoothly up the rising, arching crack, which curved out at the top like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.
Once he finished the crux pitch, it was my turn to follow. I grunted as I climbed, lurching from hold to hold and savoring even the most meager foothold for a quick rest. I hastily removed all of his carefully placed protection equipment, thankful that he had taken the tougher job and forged the path first.
The sun was high in the sky when we crested the canyon rim for the second time, finishing the Moonlight Buttress. We had managed the most difficult part of the day and were still climbing in our intended style, with no slips from either of us. But sweat had soaked through my shirt, and my forearms cramped from dehydration. We found our way back down into the canyon and thankfully soaked our feet in the same river which, just a few hours earlier, had felt far too cold during our early morning crossing.
To get to our next route, we hopped on the park shuttle bus and rode a ways deeper into the canyon. A pre-recorded narration played over the bus’s PA system, talking of plants and geology and whatnot, and eager visitors pressed their cheeks to the windows to look up and try to see the sky above the canyon walls. We splayed out on hard benches in the back, enjoying a moment of horizontal slouching down here in this air-conditioned tourist world.
Our next route was called Monkeyfinger, and Brad was clearly nervous. At this point we were far from fresh. And, though the first two routes were technically harder, we had both actually been on them before and knew the intricate sequence of hand and foot placements that would unlock the most difficult sections. This next route, however, was new to both of us, so we would need to read and react to the rock, intuiting the best sequence on the fly. Failing to apply just the right pressure through the toes, or to hold enough tension in the core, or simply failure to endure the building fatigue in our forearms could easily spit us off and wreck the day.
“Oh man” Brad let’s out “This might be ugly, I really hope we don’t have to come back here next year to try this again”.
That was Brad too. He shared his doubts sincerely, and was honest about his weaknesses. He didn’t try to bluff his way through difficulty, but rather reached out for support from those he trusted.
Starting up Monkeyfinger, our third long climb of the day, we chose to share the burden of leading, alternating who would go first and who would follow behind on the rope. I took the initial sections, struggling with my swollen forearms and stiff fingers, as if the dial of gravity was being gradually turned up. Brad swung through and took the lead for the feared crux section, and he disappeared up a crack and over a bulge above. The rope inched up hesitantly, and I knew that Brad must be at the toughest part. Though I couldn’t see or hear him, the rope between us communicated his subtle movements, and I could tell that he was fighting. Up, down a bit, then up a little more. He was digging deep. Then the rope sped up and progressed smoothly again, and soon I heard Brad give a celebratory yell. A few more sections of easier climbing followed that, and before long both Brad and I were sitting on the ledge at the top of the climb, feet dangling into space and gazing out over the canyon… like we owned the place.
At this point, this had already been an all time classic day, one I could be proud of forever. But as the sun sank behind the canyon rim and the air took on the chill of evening, I also knew that we weren’t done. I mean, I wanted to be done, we had just climbed three of the best routes in Zion and our campsite was just a short drive away, stocked with beer and potato chips. We had already earned those beers, I thought! But… Brad’s goal was to climb four walls that day, so we descended back down into the canyon with purpose and efficiency as the light faded.
A quick shuttle ride, I think it was the last bus of the night, brought us back to his car at the trailhead. Our 4th route, Shune’s Buttress, was just uphill in the dark. Before we began the approach, we laid out our equipment in the parking lot and I even busted out my little camping stove for a quick round of instant coffee.
In my video clip from the base of the route, Brad is tying his shoes by headlamp, about to start up the route. I ask what time it is, he says he has no clue. Neither of us had brought phones or watches, so it didn’t matter if we ended up climbing until the sun rose again. I don’t remember much of that last route, and evidently didn’t shoot any video, so all I have are a few images, fuzzy and dreamlike. Twisting sore fingers into the cracks until the pain numbed away, seeing Brads headlamp sweep across the dark red wall above, hearing our metal gear scrape against the sandstone. My feet were screaming from being crammed into tight climbing shoes all day, and my eyes threatened to shut every time I stopped moving.
In my last video clip from that long day, we’re back at the base of the route, having finished and descended. While I excitedly narrate to the camera the insane feat we’ve just completed, Brad is quietly sorting gear by headlamp. He had known all along that we would finish, and so at this point there really wasn’t anything more to add.
I believe that everyone needs heroes. We need to look up and see someone above us, striving. We need our heroes to aim high and pour their hearts into their goals. We don’t need our heroes to be perfect, because no one is perfect, and we need our heroes to be honest. We just need them to take daring risks, and scraping through with skill and style.
Brad was a hero for me. We shared a sport and a passion, and we grew into our climbing careers together. We cheered each other on past milestones and near-misses. But I never set my sights as high as I did when I was climbing with Brad, and his humility, talent and dedication should continue to be goals for all of us to live up to.
Brad was never trying to change the world. We all know that climbing is arbitrary… and even selfish. But I do believe that in living his life truly, to the very best of his abilities, Brad has left an indelible mark on the world.
There were many days like the one that I’ve just recounted, Brad and I roped together far above the ground. Most were easier, a few were harder, but still no image remains as vivid in my memory as the crux of Moonlight Buttress, our second route from the day. The rope is curving up and away, along that beautiful finger crack that arches out at the top like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. The small figure above seems to be stepping lightly up the sheer walls, with each step pulling a little more rope through my hands. May you all feel this connection to Brad, high above, beckoning us to keep climbing.
image: “November Comes to Zion Canyon,” Gloria Miller Allen, Watercolor, October 2010 NPS photo