tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: climbing


I began technical rock climbing about 25 years ago. Before that I just climbed anything — trees, buildings, swing sets. I started wondering how all them folks went up those big rocks with ropes, I wanted to understand the systems. I walked into an old gym in Denver called Thrillseekers and looked around for someone who looked like they knew what they were doing. Under one overhanging wall, all by himself, was the fella who would teach me everything I needed over the course of the next 5 years. Gary Begley. He was from Philly and spoke with that heavy accent. He was (and still is last I checked) a lean, hard ball of muscle with features from the faces of old spanish kings. I watched him as he did reps on the same two holds over and over till failure, never more than a foot off the mats. He saw me looking and asked what was up, I said, ” hey man, do you ever climb outside on rocks?” Gary’s face lit up with the fire that I would come to understand as I belayed him on thousands of climbs and as I ran support for him over hundred mile runs or talked to him about terrain in foreign countries. Within a week after my question, he was dragging me up Petit Grepon in the Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park. That day was complete with a 4 a.m. start, a lightning storm at the top and a solid lesson in hustle. Gary was and is and always will be a hot wired engine. He taught me and did not mince words if he saw me being unsafe. He didn’t put up with excuses and lies about life. Once I mentioned that I wanted to learn Spanish, we were sitting in the bar having a beer after a day in the limestone coves below Vail. He sipped his beer and allowed the fire to flash from his eyes while he responded, “no you don’t.” I looked at him. He finished his thought, “you don’t really want to learn Spanish, you’ve been saying that for over a year but I’ve never seen you studying or trying. You’re smart, Tobias, so if you really wanted to learn Spanish, you would.” I was irritated and my beer tasted bad all of a sudden. Two months later I exited a bus in Punta Arenas, Chile. Seven months after that I returned to the states with a solid grasp of Spanish grammar. I remember the smile on Gary’s face when I told him, it was genuine and big. I had used his honesty as fuel and discovered some truths about myself in the process.

Gary flies these days. He fires up mountains and para-glides off the tops. He’s a top-notch pro with multiple disciplines. I know he’s got a family now, I haven’t seen him in years but I check on him now and then. His hair is finding silver through the black and the drive that I saw all them years ago in Thrillseekers still manifests itself in his every molecule. I reckon he’s mid 40s and if he called me and told me he was training to be an Olympic wrestler, I’d put money on him to make it. It’s nice to be the student of someone whose belief in the simple act of living extends beyond his own person and snatches you up by the nap of your neck and drags you along for the ride.

All these years later, last Monday, I was climbing alone in the desert backcountry and Gary’s voice came through the quiet. I was halfway up a beautiful set of fissures that finish on top of a huge stone in the middle of the Wonderland. Soloing is a personal choice that is difficult to explain. I won’t go into detail, but it allows a certain form of moving meditation in which there are equal parts of exertion, attention and self-reflection. Most folks think it’s stupid. I see it differently. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was climbing and I had been in the spot before. I decided to turn back, for some reason I didn’t like the way the world was spinning at that second and I chose to climb down. I wondered if this was about getting older (tricky for someone who has always enjoyed a good, old-fashioned pull-up contest). I might have even felt the tiny pangs of some form of depression. Then I heard Gary’s laughter and his advice about smart choices, “living longer means you get to play more.” I smiled and started trotting back to my rig.

Afternoon coffee sure does taste good.

It’s nice to be 48 and sore from running and climbing.

I reckon there’s still a lot to learn, a lot of playing to be done. So many pretty places!

I keep my eyes on the sky whenever I’m in the mountains, there’s always a chance I might spot a golden eagle or a great horned owl…there’s also a chance I’ll catch sight of my old friend as he rips through the blue on a high speed glider leaving a vapor trail of spanish fire. Funny that he’s still teaching me without saying a word.

one little god

for whatever reason i love the overhead. i was born with these fancy fingers, this simian form. i reach and clutch for a higher view. i’ve never been dis-allowed by parent nor fear. the fear would be the fall but my hands and feet have proven themselves up till now, and so i trust them with my heart and fragile head. they carry me aloft. and there i sit and watch, like a little god,  the world in it’s spinnings.

there are patterns. maps. lines. tracks. weavings from the earth bound. sometimes the sweetest of views, the passing raptor and it’s sacred, speckled back. to look down into space and see a raven in it’s element is to see it anew.  i dream in flights of fancy, i imagine the world of the birds. the sky is to the bird what the sea is to the whale.  it is the fourth dimension in which flight and gravity interact and create beautiful arcing loops, gut-twisting turns that swing through the clouds and plummet to within inches of the stones that will someday claim every flying thing, every marching army, every twisting fin. the stones are the most patient of them all; they know that each prodigal heart will return to them, will lie down against them and stop.

and from the top of the rocks, i can see the below-ness.  with a little wind and the november sun, i shut my trap and think about the things that i read from the script that the desert provides. there is a pellet from the gullet of a barn owl in the crack at my feet. i see the skull of a mouse that must have been caught in the open. them quiet, strange owls…all white and silent like a moth. i know a cave where a barn owl roosts in the coldest parts of the winter. i’ve climbed past her as she sat in her torper, awaiting a warmer day, storing energy. and i climbed in close as she sat atop a pile of sticks built in the stoney, black hole where two monoliths meet. almost too cold to climb, my hands stinging from the cold. i passed the barn owl close, maybe 6 feet, and she opened just one eye and moved her head slightly. the medicine between she and i was good and her eye floated closed. what a privilege. and for that second, in the eye that was only black and darker than the space between the stars, i was seen. what are the dreams inside that creamy white skull? can you imagine?

but that was a time last winter and not now. now is warm and the sun is sweet. out from my perch, i am moving toward the ground. i am coming down.  from 40 or so feet above the joshua trees i see the lazy j marks left by a traveling rattlesnake. they are clear from here. i follow them to a thick creosote bush and there, in the sand and freckled shadows, is the maker. a group of climbers with a dog are walking the path.  i am watching and i start to say something but the space between is enough to let the world turn on it’s own.  the dog wets on the other side of the bush. the snake does not blink. now i am down and i squat to look at the one that goes without being noticed.  there is no rattling, i suppose there is no need. i wait to see if there is anything more and, without a sound, the snake moves out across the sand, leaving it’s j’s in cursive behind.

there ain’t anything more. there isn’t a finishing point. there is only the perfect distance and the chance that my heart doesn’t decide that it’s too tired to continue. and your heart, too. here’s to our hearts and the rhythm in between.

an ode to joe crowe: and others of his kind

joe crowe. jose cuervo.

i first met him in the marine corps. he came bald and wild eyed, like some kind of feral thing trapped outside and brought inside.

i was in recon and he was assigned to my platoon. joe was wrapped like a wire cord around an oak stick. if there was fat on his body, he burned it while he dreamed. and god did he ever dream. in fact, dreaming is what killed him.

he was always weird. his officers didn’t really know how to treat him. he was too tough to make quit and he was to powerful to turn off. he burned. oh man, did he ever burn.

he froze to death 5 years after i met him. he was soloing a route called zodiac on the face of el capitan in yosemite. it was christmas 2002 i think. i had just been climbing with him. i went home to see my ma in colorado. the phone rang and it was a ranger. he said he found a piece of paper in joe’s pocket with my name and number on it. it was back before i carried a cell (none of the wild bunch of fellas i was with carried phones…we spent hours talking to sweethearts and mamas and relatives on the pay phones located outside of bars and eating establishments; plugging quarter after quarter in so that we could say the things that we thought of, or stand and listen to the silence of the people who missed us.) and the phone call came to my mom and dad’s house. the ranger asked if i was a relative.

no, i’m his friend.

well, joe’s been in an accident. he died last night around midnight from hypothermia.

where do i come?

well, if you know his next of kin? we need to talk to them.

i worked it all out with the ranger that night. i left home and picked up another friend, brian foster, and together we picked up joe’s ma. she got drunk on tequila as we drove to get the body that once walked and talked and lit fires; the body of joe. joe’s dad would have come but he was high on meth. he cooked it and sold it and smoked it. he killed himself two weeks after joe’s funeral.

this next part seems like i made it up. even now, i can’t believe it happened. as we wound our way to mariposa, dropping down toward yosemite valley, i looked up into the sky and saw a swirling mass of crows. there were literally, thousands and thousands. i’ve never seen so many birds of one specie together, not before, not since. they were on every power line from pole to pole. they filled every tree. they were in the streets and overhead and as far up as i could see. we stopped the rig and looked at them. brian and i looked at one another, then we drove on.

joe’s connection with crows was known to us all. his eyes twinkled as he connected his last name to them. once, a year before, i had to go find joe in the  headwaters of the amazon. he had gone off and not come back. i had some feeling of responsibility for his crazy ways. i told him before he left to paddle the amazon from it’s higher origins to it’s end, that if i didn’t hear from him in 6 months, i would come looking. 9 months later, i went looking. i followed the route he said he would follow and, after 4 weeks of showing people pictures and hearing stories of some long-haired, blue-eyed, wild man. i found him. he was in a small village, dressed in the clothes of the villagers sitting in a little square at the end of a path. when joe saw me walking toward him he threw down the book in which he was writing  and walked up to me. with big tears in his eyes, he simply put his hand over my heart and said, “brother.” i told him a lot had happened. i told him about the world trade centers being hit and the death of our other friend, christian regenhard. (christian’s story is another on it’s own, too much for now.) i asked him to come back with me. he did. we flew back and joe was different. he was always different.

my buddy, foster, still drives joe’s red toyota truck. he’ll never get rid of it. i still walk around with joe’s shoes and backpack and climbing gear. i use the stuff all the time. i had drawn nine crows at joe’s request, to tattoo onto his arm. he never got them, later i had brian tattoo them onto my arm instead.

we’ll never know what bright colors joe saw as he walked through this world. his candle seemed to burn so bright that it made me nervous for him. i always thought we might lose him young. i was right. now i grow old and he stays young and bright and wild in my mind. he leaves a cache of men behind that burn with his memory; brian foster, thomas arnold, roger sparks, curtis caton, johnny thomson, josh crowe, frank pickering, james terwilliger, scott young, ed mcgee, tim bundy, dave kenneally. surely there are more and women as well. i don’t know all his exploits but i carry some with me in my memory. more than the memories, however, are the marks he left in my heart.

they are like the scratches a bear might make,

reaching high as he can reach, in the bark of some old pine.

these here thoughts are for joe crowe,  and the others of his kind.

the sweet spot

inevitably, in every sport and every trade, you will come across the sweet spot. it is a place on the diving board. it is a spot on a baseball bat. it is where you find the perfect bounce on the trampoline. it is the exact point where the surf board is deflecting off the wave as it rises out of the ocean. it is the perfect hammer blow. it is the only place your foot will stick in the middle of that one boulder problem, when your feet are ten feet off the ground and your knees are too old to take that kind of a fall. it is the perfect pitch of your tattoo machine as the needle bears down on the skin. it is the angle of your ski when you carve perfectly across new powder. it is the sound that comes from two sisters singing an old gospel song in perfect harmony in front of a group of people who love perfect harmony. it is that rhythm you fall into in the middle of a foot race when the world falls away and you only listen to your heart and your heart becomes your keel and the air becomes your ocean. it is when you love so much that you would forfeit your life to save the life of your beloved.

talent is not needed to know what i’m talking about. effort is needed. if you seek to feel, you will come across a sweet spot eventually, and when you do, you will know.

i can’t help but smile at my opportunity. this life, man, it’s going on. i honor life when i lay down in my sleeping bag every night. i lay there, wherever i am parked or camped or bedded down, and i say the words, “well, there was another day.” it is just a practice. i say it in the yellow lamp-light of mortality. i will someday wake up for the last time…that is such a humbling, wonderful thought! i am only for a while. damn that’s good…and sad.

when i look at myself honestly, which is maybe 65 percent of the time (and that might be an exaggeration, it’s probably more like 50 percent), i see a fella that is pretty good at a good number of things, terrible at a few, and great at even fewer. i’m usually pretty good at the things i try really hard at. of course, like most everybody, i’m terrible at the things i dislike or am afraid to try (like bowling). i can say that i am great at one thing for sure:   i can wonder. i’m pretty much an expert wonderer. i can prove it, but it might be boring to watch; and besides, i don’t need to prove it because it’s pretty damn selfish.

here’s the thing; i wonder because of the fact that i am here. that’s enough, no kidding, to keep me going for a while. that i can make sense of symbols and put them in order so they can transfer my thought and allow someone else to understand my thought! do you realize how amazing just that is? it is a transfer of thought! we must realize the importance of existence! of being! i mean, we ARE. my goodness, i’m shuffling through the scraps of thoughts at the feet of Aristotle and Einstein and Emerson, but as simple as my thoughts are, they are true.

find the sweet spot. it’s there if you look a little deeper. if you crack your heart-door open a little wider. if you find yourself looking for it, you’re bound to run into me. it’ll be real good to meet you.