I wrote this piece for Alpinist Magazine earlier this year and thought I would share the full length version of the story with everyone since most stories get sized down after editing. Its a long article so pick a moment of your day when you have a few minutes to spare and hopefully be inspired and learn a bit about the drive and passion that keeps me exploring.
I shivered like a freshly sheered sheep in the cold, Wyoming wind. Above me, a blue ribbon of ice rose for over a hundred feet and vanished into the clouds. I had never seen anything like it before. It was as if someone painted the ice on the cliffs with one smooth stroke. My partner, Gordon, was invisible, but the sounds of his axes kept a kung-fu rhythm. Shards and ice blocks fell from the sky, exploding at my feet. I pressed my body closer to the wall. Finally the ice stopped falling and I found myself picking my way up the last pitch of the classic South Fork Valley route Main Vein. The sun was settling behind the mountains, turning the ice to gold. At the top, I sat down in silence next to Gordon, while the alpenglow faded from numerous other frozen waterfalls. My heart rate slowed: I realized what power lay within this valley.
Gordon and I had driven up the South Fork just that morning with high hopes, motivation and what looked to me like a little fold-up treasure map. As we hit the dirt road, snow clouds began to lift, revealing icefalls all around us, so many, so intense and so blue, it was hard to believe such a place existed.
Although I’d only been climbing for a week, after a couple of hours on Main Vein, knee-deep in snow with ice flying by my face, each step upward overcame me with a deeper sense of adventure.
Those fourteen hours behind the windshield and those six hours of climbing in Cody would change the direction of my life forever.
Moving from Boulder, Colorado, to Cody, Wyoming, two years later was not a logical decision. Most people thought I was crazy to leave college, good friends, climbing partners and an abundance of gorgeous women to live in a small town. But when someone told me that adventure was lost in America, I responded, “You haven’t visited Cody.” By then, my life was entirely focused on searching for new ice routes. In the summer, I’d ride horses, hike and backpack into hidden canyons that just might contain winter ice. Each time I found something, it was like discovering a new world. Cody seemed to contain endless opportunities of this kind: the main South Fork Valley was only the beginning of its potential, and numerous side canyons spread out on all sides, offering the chance of routes that no other climbers had even seen.
As soon as I settled in here, however, I realized just how hard it would be to realize my greatest ambition. I’d envisioned myself as the finder and the first ascensionist of the valley’s next benchmark climb—not the sort of line it would be easy to solo. Therein lay the problem: the population in Cody is about 10,000; the number of ice climbers is about six; the number who climb WI5 or higher is about two. There’s a saying in small rural towns, “You didn’t lose your girlfriend, you just lost your turn.” In Cody, that saying goes, a bit more drastically, for climbing partners. One night a new partner told me that he was just too busy to climb. The next morning, while driving past his house, I found him loading up in a car with another climber in town. It was as though my own wife were cheating on me.
One solution was to create a new partner from scratch. I started mentoring a young man named Andy Cowan, whom I’d met at the local climbing shop. I began towing him up every piece of ice I could find and then dragging him out of the bar the next morning to climb again. He never asked how far the hike would be or how hard the climb would be. He was simply along for the adventure, happy to get hauled up more routes with a hangover than, perhaps, any other climber in history.
For two years I traveled as an account manager for a medical sales company working four days a week and exploring the other three days with Andy, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a Piper Cub airplane. Our first big discovery was Aldrich Creek, where the ice flowed from the cliffs like honey out of a barrel. Eager to climb as much as possible, I pushed myself so hard that I took a twenty-foot lead fall. On the way down, my ice axe pierced my bicep. After controlling the bleeding and getting patched up, I informed Andy that “we’ve hiked all the way in here and found all this ice. It’s too hard to walk away from this kind of discovery. Plus, with the warmer temps on there way, the days for ice climbing are numbered.” In short, we were committed. Andy nodded; by then he was used to taking my orders. Two days of climbing and seven new routes later, I felt as though I’d claimed a new continent.
And then the worst perfect-climbing-partner fear materialized: in 2001 Andy fell in love. He stopped climbing altogether. I had to do something to reach out to other climbers and motivate them to come to the valley. In the past, I hadn’t been willing to leak my secret areas and projects out to the public. Now if I was going to keep looking for that yet-undiscovered benchmark climb, I had no other choice. My website, Coldfear.com, was born.
A few months later, I got an email from Bobby Model, and my life changed again. Dangling high above me on the pillar pitch of Mean Green, as he got into position to shoot pictures, Bobby began to heckle: “Take off that old wool sweater and put on that nice, pretty Patagonia jacket I brought you,” he said. “No more wool sweaters!” I started to feel like a famous climber at a photo shoot. “I’ll make you famous,” Bobby even said to coax me on. Little did I know that was Bobby’s famous line!
Every throw of my tool sunk into the vertical blue Styrofoam ice with ease. When I found myself at the base of Bobby’s swinging feet and nicely asked him to move aside, he replied, “No, you are going over there.” He pointed to a ghost-white rotten ice curtain with no gear possibilities for thirty to forty feet to the top.
“No way,” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
He began to kick into the ice above my head with intensity and force and chanted, “You better start movin’ Mulkey.”
I carefully tiptoed upward and over, clipped the only remaining screw from which he was hanging, looked into the camera lens and said, “If I fly you fly.”
The next few moves pushed me completely out of my comfort zone. After so much time in such an isolated place, I’d stopped really pushing myself, without even noticing it. Now Bobby made me keenly aware.
Driving back down the valley that evening, he told me, “You know you’re not the first explorer in this valley. Back in the day, climbers like Todd & Kurt Cozzens, Stan Price and Alex Lowe would gather in this town every December without sponsors or crowds and just climb. During these gatherings, they established some of the classic routes here, some of which have never been repeated.”
No matter how many routes I’d opened in Cody, and no matter how many pictures of me he’d taken that day, in the larger world and history of climbing, I was still just average. But that was OK; while that new hard ice remained goal of my search, the journey getting there was the real draw.
Nonetheless, Bobby’s advice made sense. After leading pitch after pitch of Mean Green, I told him I was starting to feel tired. “This is not a place to feel weak,” he quickly replied. If I really wanted to explore farther into the mountains, I needed to be stronger. I began trail running in the hills and building strength and cardio in the gym. Soon I could arrive at the base of big climbs feeling one hundred percent.
Around that same time, from 2003 to 2007, the South Fork valley experienced a number of very dry winters and summers. Instead of wading through snow, I was dodging cactus on the approaches. Many of the classic ice routes like Joy After Pain, Moratorium, and Ice Fest became barely visible. But the dry ground made it easier to hike greater distances in a day.
Some partners, rewarded with hundreds of feet of untouched ice, caught my fever of exploration. Others got frustrated coming back to the car with dry ropes and screws. A few partners Andy Cowan,Joel Anderson, Kenny Gasch and Mark Devries stuck with me. One day, after five hours of stumbling higher up the Aldrich Creek bed, with a heavy pack Andy and I turned a corner to find ice pouring from the cliffs in three spots, forming massive pillars and curtains. Daggers hung from the amphitheater walls formed of better-quality rock than most of the South Fork. Andy and I looked at each other and at what we would call the Garden of the Gods. We laughed with amazement and content.
In the Ishawooa Valley, Joel and I stood on top of The Testament, after what might be the first ascent of the Southern Rockies’ tallest pillar. But even more than the climb itself, the beauty of the area now struck me. Countless ice lines fell from the sharp valley cliffs. Each time we topped out on a route, we would discover another one on the opposite side of the valley, each with its own unique ambiance. While The Testament had been like climbing in a vertical sea of ice above the lower valley, the thin and technical Peaceful Warrior had opened out a vista of the canyon’s high peaks. What would the next view be like? I felt like a child surrounded by wrapped presents at the base of a Christmas tree.
On one approach, a standoff with a pack of wolves, reminded me I would always be a visitor in this valley. I’d come to Cody nearly ten years ago in search of, perhaps, myself and a vision. I found a world I never knew existed, a place where my actions and emotions became one. I have seen alpine sunsets so vivid that I chose not to take a picture because no photo could ever capture them. I’ve spent more time trying to get away from sheep than from other people—or from other climbers. What had seemed like my greatest challenge here—finding friends to climb with—turned out to be my greatest opportunity. I still haven’t found that holy grail of the steepest ice climb, and I now hope I don’t. Because then the true adventure of the search would end.