This article I wrote about our time in Idaho while Josh Fowler and I shot our film A Fine Line originally appeared in the June/August 2011 issue of (the now-defunct) Deadpoint Magazine. The working title of the film was “On the Warpath.”
I’m reprinting a slightly edited version of the print article here (since the original link is dead), along with some photos from our trip there with Dave Graham, Daniel Woods, and Jimmy Webb to attempt the second attempt of the James Litz bouldering testpiece, Warpath (V14) at Castle Rocks, Idaho. Good times.
Rolling a spliff a little smaller than a banana, Dave Graham opens his laptop to show us some of his latest video work. His voice rising over relentless French electrosex beats, he points at the screen and raves about each edit point. The footage oscillates between incomprehensible and shockingly original. I get a twinge of jealousy. It’s the kind of free-flowing creativity that I’m not feeling at the moment.
We’re in Dave’s cabin at a bed and breakfast near Almo, a small town in Southeastern Idaho, where my friend Josh Fowler and I were working on our own climbing film. So far this is the only footage we have: video of us watching Dave’s footage. We came to Idaho to shoot climbing porn – just pure unadulterated bouldering action, along with any other hardcore sending that would probably go down. But it’s turning out to be a little more B-rated. Yesterday, in perfectly dry, cold conditions, Daniel Woods climbed his project, the prize footage we sought. At the time Josh and I were just landing in Salt Lake, a day’s drive away. When we rolled up to Idaho that afternoon, the weather turned from perfect to shit. We arrived at the boulders with tons of gear just as everyone was heading back in a snowstorm. That was yesterday. Today was a lost cause with more horrible weather, so we gathered in Dave’s room to watch skate videos and “recover”.
I try to record the scene with my video camera but it’s no use. My audio levels are all over the place. I look impatiently at Josh. He’s trying to take in the multiple streams of consciousness pouring from Dave and his Macbook, and I know we are both thinking the same thing: Turn off the laptop, tell everyone to shut-the- fuck-up, and mic up Dave: “Hey can you say that again? What you just said about bouldering and video editing and French cinema and…”
It was never going to happen. I just keep rolling. “See!” yells Dave, “Climbing Style! It mirrors personality and physical appearance!” He describes the styles of half a dozen climbers, finally coming to James Litz. “Recluse. Unknown. It’s hard to say… I’d have to research it more.” He trails off, his eyes fixed on his screen.
Our collective trip to Idaho is in fact a research project on the elusive James Litz, a kid from Tennessee who has become a climber of mythic proportions, even to the best in the world. While Litz ropes up on occasion (in one summer in 2009 he ticked off eight 5.14’s in Wyoming alone including General Litzenheimer 5.14c/d and Master of the Universe 5.14d. Seven of those were first ascents), he is more known for his freakish crimp strength and nailing the worlds sickest boulder problems: Freaks of the Industry, The Insurgency, and Dreamtime, all V14s. At one point, Litz was rated among the top three climbers in the world on 8a.nu for combined route and bouldering accomplishments.
Yet there is something about Litz that isolates him from the crowd in the high-end rock climbing game. Litz Problems seem to be rarely repeated. They are too remote, the holds are too small, or maybe he doesn’t hype them enough for people to take notice. Follow the trail of a couple homemade videos and a note in Hot Flashes and you’ll likely find an “Unrepeated Litz Problem” that those in the know have at the top of their tick list. One such benchmark line is Litz’s 2007 creation in a remote corner of Idaho at Castle Rocks State Park, just up the road from our cabin. Litz started on the extreme lower-right of the Taco Cave, and followed a spiraling arc of Twix Bar-sized holds, climbing horizontally to the leftmost lip of the cave, to exit on a low-percentage V10 lip encounter called Out of Africa. Litz called that particular geometry Warpath. It was one of the hardest unrepeated lines in the country at the time, a possible V15. A grainy video of the climb appeared online, but other than that, Litz didn’t have much to say about it. He usually left it to the rest of us to decipher his lines.
There are only a couple dozen climbers in the country who could seriously consider repeating Warpath, and three of them had come here to gang-bang the thing for a week. Daniel Woods, Dave Graham and Jimmy Webb had driven here from Colorado hoping for a good weather window, Webb visiting from Tennessee. Two more strong boulderers, Chad Greedy and Diego Montull rounded out the road-tripping bouldering posse. The film that Josh and I were working on was based around the second ascent of Warpath and everything seemed lined up for it.
Except Daniel just did the second ascent, and we missed it.
Still rolling on Dave, I turn to Josh, “Shit I don’t know, man. Warpath went down already. Stark’s gonna be pissed.” Josh looks over at Daniel who is running through the send footage on Dave’s DSLR. “They got footage,” he says. “Maybe we should take a look at it. We could probably use it, then shoot our own version. Jimmy hasn’t done it yet. Anyway I’m sure Daniel would be willing to climb it again.”
Repeating the big send for the camera is common practice. You can stitch together different camera angles and get a better sense for the climb on film. Even if we had been there for the second ascent, we’d probably re-shoot it anyway. I stare past them at the blizzard outside the window. The ice-rimed granite domes of Castle Rock in the distance might as well be on Mars. I had my doubts. We were here to do a job; to get shit done in a professional way, but climbing isn’t like that, at least not the way I remember it.
The first time I met Daniel Woods was at Horse Pens 40, a boulderfield attached to an Alabama mountaintop ranch of the same name. I was photographing the annual Triple Crown Competition, bird-dogging climbers around the boulderfield all day.
I was in mid-swig, leaning against a tree next to some dank mushroom of granite, when a hand shot out from the cave, gripping like crazy. The hand was followed by a sandy-haired kid making quick work of a long, burly V10 called Slider Sit. Maybe it was how the ground sloped away, but the he seemed half my size at most; a tiny kid, slaying rock giants. “Can I get a picture?” I asked, already snapping away. He eyed me warily. I think I signed his scorecard. That year Daniel won that leg of the Triple Crown, at age 16. His first V10? Two years before that.
Few American climbers back then cared a damn thing for professional sports, so getting your picture taken at some local comp must have seemed strange to a kid. There was no money in climbing in the US, no point in media exposure. Outdoor competitions like Phoenix and Triple Crown were big, but only happened once a year, and who wanted to climb indoors all day in the small indoor competition circuit? If you really wanted to compete you had to go to Europe, only to get in line with 100 other “best climbers in the world,” all funded enthusiastically by their countries and climbing outside only to “train for plastic.” Here it was still a dirtbag’s game, with a handful of sponsors. Many of the sponsors were even more dirtbag than the climbers themselves. Today not much has changed, but now the best young climbers here are going for direct media exposure, posting photos and video of their latest sends up on 8a.nu and the blogs to establish a pecking order that the industry can’t provide. Now media-savvy climbers who can stay on top of the grade scale and talk a good talk at the retailer shows can eventually cobble enough money together for an endless winter: Hueco, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Bishop, Hueco.
Dave Graham’s been at this game for years. He is one of the original American “pro” climbers, notorious for his creative lifestyle and endless drive to find new rock. If anything has changed today, it’s that he is better funded. He’s been paying everyone’s tab all week, speaking colloquial Spanish and sharing photos of his latest projects in Switzerland. Daniel’s got big sends, big sponsors, and a pocket full of plane tickets. And for what it’s worth, everyone even acts like the pro athletes I know. When they aren’t giving 200% to the rock, they do nothing. Absolutely nothing. When you expend that kind of mental, physical and creative energy, like an Olympic swimmer you need to bring your level of activity down to just over a coma if you expect your body to comply with that kind of effort next time.
Yet, after two days with a gang of pro climbers and perfect rock everywhere, all we have in the can are some extreme close ups of a split tip and slow-mo snow. When all I did was climb, weeks of downtime was welcome, but now I have a job to do and all this chasing-climbers-around and waiting – it’s getting to me. I’m too impatient, and I feel like I’m about to throw in the towel at every turn. I decide I’d better redirect myself before I make a bad decision.
It’s like pushing through sleep on a long drive. You can fantasize all you want of stopping to rest, regroup, but you’ve got places to go and sometimes you just have to slap yourself in the face a few times and crank some Highway to Hell. I snap the camera’s viewfinder shut and hit STOP. “Let’s get some dinner.” We stumble out into the dark to the restaurant next door.
After phenomenal steaks, cold beer and good company, I feel a little more behind the wheel. The weather will eventually break, and everyone still seems psyched to be here. This corner of Idaho is beautiful. High-desert vistas of sage and pinion, punctuated by islands of champagne-colored rock domes of fine-grained, highly- featured granite. It reminds me of Tucson with better rock, or of Hueco back in the day, with fewer people. If nothing else, we’ll do some exploring and probably find more lines to pioneer. I realize how lucky we are to be here, with common purpose of ascending rock and nothing else.
The next morning Josh and I are up at 7. We shoot timelapse, explore some vantage points, check out the one local cafe that serves homemade sandwiches and, on high season, an impressive list of microbrews. It’s 1pm when we get back to Dave’s cabin.
A cleaning lady is knocking at their door. We go in with her in and find the boys lying around upstairs like lions between kills. Everyone is asleep but Jimmy. Maybe we should interview Dave downstairs, I offer out loud. “Don’t wake up Dave,” Jimmy warns me. “Seriously.” He pauses for effect. “He’s a little unhappy when you wake him up early.”
True, Dave’s on the worldwide climbing circuit, I think. Maybe he’s on Mumbai time, but I’m worried the weather will clear soon and I’m itching to film. “Don’t do it!” Jimmy yells again as I head downstairs. But the cleaning lady has already rousted Dave. She busies herself in his room while he pours a bowl of cereal in the kitchen. Wild haired, bleary, he offers up a staccato of ideas for the afternoon. By the time his bowl is empty, he’s raving with the possibility of trying Warpath again in good weather. He’s psyched beyond words, and it’s still 1am in Mumbai.
We rally, and in an hour we are headed to the Taco roof to see what we can do about a repeat-repeat of Warpath. Jimmy is close to sending. Chad works Jared’s Roof on the right, and Daniel has his sights set on a new V-who-knows linkup into to Warpath. Diego is climbing everything, else a burst of color in the monochromatic granite landscape. We meet up with local Mike McClure and his wife Tammy. A couple Canadians arrive and the Taco is starting to get pretty stuffed. Everyone’s having a good time. Then the wind picks up and the wheels come off the wagon.
Josh and I had dropped down into the cave where everyone was warming up. Busying myself with the mini-crane, I’m surprised by a rare expletive from Daniel. “I’m numbing the fuck out!” he screams as he drops from the roof. Dave is lying on the ground, one hand dug deep into his pants, massaging his groin furiously, “I’ve hurt myself in a new place,” he moans. Jimmy, looking burly after some serious pulls on Warpath, shows the camera a bloody finger. His words slur tounge-twisted from his frozen mouth. “It’s 35 and windy out. I’m tired. I’m bleeding. We’re done here today.” I pan back over to Daniel, who stands like an icebound penguin, head buried in his puffy.
A splitter day has become that scene of complete frigid misery that most climbers have an intimate respect for. I walk around the carnage filming, feeling awkward with my massive down coat and warm, un-calloused fingers. Dave alternates between whimpers and laughter, spread-eagle on a boulder and Daniel is silently gathering his things. I can’t believe we are bailing on Warpath again. By the time we break down the jib, everyone has scattered.
I eventually meet up with Dave up at Green Wall. With a heinous groin pull I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, Dave is in surprisingly good spirits. The guy has endless psyche, boundless creativity for new rock. We scramble around just looking at the crazy wind-scoured formations and he starts climbing some shitty pile which turns out to be brilliant and hilarious. It has some of the weirdest features I’ve ever seen on granite. Dave is 15 feet up and trapped inside a coffin-sized hueco by a pinon juniper. It’s hard to explain but he has to remove his hat to top out and I hear him whooping above. Jimmy’s head pops out from a toilet-bowl-shaped hueco near the ground, which goes all the way through the base of the rock to the other side. Seeing this, Dave has to do it again from the other side, this time for full value: squeezing, 360-degree-stem-gemming, rock climbing, and then the Hat Move.
The next day brings more bad weather but Daniel is planning to leave (as in, leave the country), so we head up to Warpath one last time, with him alone and a couple pads. It’s freezing and windy, but he’s patient with us and our outsized video setup. After a V10 warmup, he separately fires off the first and second half of Warpath, over and over. Josh and I are slack-jawed. Among the swirling snow in a deep cave, Daniel slays the giant. He tries his linkup project a few times, making enough progress to want to come back and work it another day. The snow builds and we retreat, Daniel indulging us while we shoot some scenic and timelapse shots. Back in the cabin we get an interview with him that goes perfectly but I can tell his mind is already on the epic drive back to Colorado in full weather. He’s probably glad to get the hell out of here and climb some new rock in better weather. He sent his project before we even got here to shoot it, and now I understand why. He probably feels the same impatience that I do, except on the other side of the camera. A real professional at 21, he’s old enough to know the game has to be played, but still young enough that he can play it by his own rules. I think of Litz, and I wonder what Dave’s research suggests about Daniel’s climbing style.
“Maybe we can get some more footage in Colorado,” I suggest. He eyes me warily. Then he smiles, genuinely psyched, “Sounds good!” He grabs his bag and heads out into the sleet, to Colorado and then to Europe to slay more giants.
The rest of us spend the the afternoon exploring a nearby town with amazing roadside tacos and little else. By now everything has shut down, and the closest food is over an hour away. Even our little steakhouse is closed. We find a gas station with a freezer section and head back with bags full of frozen pizzas, only to realize we don’t have an oven in the cabin. Do not microwave those things. Trust me.
I’ve read that sitting increases the your chance of dying within 15 years by 40%. If so, we climbers are doomed to live a short life on our asses, punctuated by rare moments of ecstasy and terror high off the deck.
After sleeping in the next morning we poke at Warpath for a couple hours, but the weather just won’t let up. Scrambling around the backcountry, we clean up some amazing new projects (which will later dead-end at “only 8a”) and stare at blank rock that is just beyond 9a.
We spent a week in Idaho with group of some of the best boulderers in the world. We shot extreme close-ups of a split tip, slow-mo snow and Daniel lapping cruxes on Warpath. We shot Dave pioneering the Hat Move and we timelapsed storms marching across the high desert. We captured late night streams of consciousness and videos of us watching Dave’s videos and Jimmy standing in a blizzard, and we saw some of the finest untouched granite boulders in the country. Those are the future giants to slay, but for now we’ll rest, and we’ll remember what a great feeling it is to do absolutely nothing.
Here’s a beautiful video of Jimmy Webb finally repeating Warpath in 2014
And here is a video excerpt from the Idaho part of our film, A Fine Line. You can get it on DVD or download HERE.