Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
I was terrified of heights. That fear had been instilled in me by vague memories of working in a circus and falling to my death. I don’t know what those memories mean, or where they came from. Some people attribute such things to reincarnation. I’m not sure that is the case, but in any event they were recurring thoughts. I knew that to be able to fully connect with the land and be able to live as a hunter-gatherer I would need to overcome my fear of heights and become a proficient climber.
The physical aspects of climbing appealed to me. I hoped to use those to placate my fears. I grew up as an athlete and led a very physical life. When I saw climbers, I noticed they always had good physiques. I thought, I want to look that fit.
While those were the initial reasons I invested myself in climbing, they would soon fade into the background. Climbing became less about me and more about the art of climbing itself. It became about a dance or a meditation with the rock, about how to listen to and move with the land in the way it dictates, and about how not to force my physicality on the rock.
Learning about climbing was more of a mental process than a physical one. The only formal instruction I had was a beginner-level climbing class at a mountaineer school. I was taught basic rope work and a few safety precautions. Following that one class, I would just show up in the valley, where there were enough climbers to help show me the ropes, so to speak.
When I first started climbing, I was such an accomplished athlete that I could just muscle my way up the rock. I attacked the rock like it was a physical challenge, such as bench pressing my body weight or sprinting a lap around a track. I was a yarder, the term used for people who pull overly hard with their arms. My ferocity and overall lack of grace on the rock caused the climbers to give me the embarrassing nickname “Muscle-Head Matt.”
As challenging as making it up the rock was, I now had another obstacle to overcome.
In my early climbing days, I had several white-knuckle incidents. Most of them came when I wasn’t climbing with a rope. They were soloing or scrambling experiences.
My first close brush with death was when my friend Jake and I hiked up to the top of El Capitan, the largest monolith of granite rock in the world. Experienced climbers from all over the world travel to Yosemite to tackle the three-thousand-plus-foot climb. After we made it up the trail, we decided not to hike back down the same way. Instead, we opted for a steep gully on the right side the trail.
The gully descended the full three thousand feet. From a technical standpoint, it was extremely dangerous. The rock was also very chalky and loose, which made it over-the-top dangerous. We also both had backpacks, giving us extra weight that increased the difficulty.
At one point, I was climbing down a big flake—a rock sheet that juts out on its own. I was holding on tightly. Jake was below me. His climbing technique was far more accomplished than mine. I was still muscling everything. Jake was using his feet to work his way down the rock, while I was using my arms, yarding on the flake.
Without a sound or any other warning, the flake snapped. A thin chunk of stone broke off in my hands, leaving me in a free fall. I went flying through the air, still grasping the stone. Instinctively, I let go of the stone to free my hands.
I continued to fall straight down the vertical rock about twenty-five feet until my backpack slammed down on a rock. I hit so hard it felt like I scrambled my internal organs. The impact flipped me. I hit the ground in a slightly sloped area and began sliding down the hill.
Frantically, I grabbed at rocks and trees to stop my slide. I managed to latch on to the base of a tree seconds before I fell off a two-hundred-foot drop. I hung there with my arms wrapped desperately around the tree, half my body on the rock and the other half dangling over the edge. I was a hundred feet below Jake.
“Are you okay?” Jake yelled. “Are you stable?”
I told him I was.
“Man, I saw you flip off that rock and I thought you were done,” he said, summing up the fall.
So did I. I pulled myself back up onto the rock. It was my first real climbing lesson. The rock was warning me that I needed to become a more graceful climber. Jake was below me, and I could have very easily hit him with part of the broken flake.
And if I don’t grab that tree, I die.
The near-death experience rattled me, but it also motivated me. My first thought was that I wouldn’t climb chalky rock. Unfortunately, where I lived, there was always going to be chalky rock. I needed to learn to climb it properly.
I fully realized that I would not be a true climber until I improved my technique and established some finesse. I also knew that I needed to find them on my own, not in climbing school.
I began studying the rocks. I would go out to the base and stare up at a rock for hours and hours. I wanted to establish an appreciation for the rock. These cliffs were an integral part of the earth, not climbing walls with plastic notches dragged behind pickup trucks to carnivals. The rocks had been carved and honed by Mother Nature over millions of years. I had to learn to respect them.
I also decided to climb easier rocks without a rope to learn how to move on the stone. This allowed me to stop being afraid that I wouldn’t make it up the rock. During this time, I started to enjoy how the rock carried me over it. Once I felt that connection, I began to see climbing as a graceful dance that nature was teaching me, rather than as a man battling the elements to survive.
My technique needed improvement. I had to learn to distribute my weight more evenly and move the way the rock wanted me to move on it. Once I altered my technique, I started to feel like I was connecting with the rock. I started moving with the rock in a way that the land wanted me to move. It felt as if I were dancing on the rock. I could almost envision the rock gods and the tree gods looking up and saying, “I really appreciate how that guy is climbing.”
Oddly, when you reach that point, in some ways it feels like you are giving something back to nature. Every aspect of the land is giving and receiving energy—all the rocks, all the animals, everything.
Let’s say a climber makes his way up a rock crack. There are chipmunks frolicking and plants flourishing. The chipmunks communicate with their chirping and movements as they jockey for position for food. Plants have different ways of communicating that we don’t fully understand.
Now let’s say a climber brings a boom box and plays some heavy-metal music. Then he starts yarding on the rock. His rough climbing pulls a bunch of loose rock down, but he doesn’t care. He keeps going. Maybe he steps on a loose boulder that rolls down the crack. During this process, he might have disrupted a squirrel house or even an unseen endangered falcon’s nest. Even if there is no visible damage, he is certainly freaking out all of the animals and disrupting that whole area. Of course, he didn’t realize that because he was not paying attention.
But if a climber goes up there and climbs with focus, attention, and purpose, even a hawk or a golden eagle that has lived on the land its entire life will fly by and appreciate the way he is moving on that piece of rock. Seeing that climber might just make the hawk’s day. It lives there. It is part of the land, so in essence, the climber is giving something back simply by climbing well, as strange as that may sound.
I found this to be true. When I started climbing with finesse, hawks always came to watch me. When I sucked, I never saw a bird anywhere near me.
Of course, there’s no way to know when you reach that level. There’s not a light that goes off, or a special call you hear from the hawks. The only tangible way would be if a spectator were to look up and say, “That guy is moving gracefully up the rock, rather than fighting to get to the top without falling.” What it comes down to is the difference between a person who has a strong intention and one who does not.
Intent is a powerful driver. Whenever I travel across the land, I will always connect with the native people. They will look at me and say, “Strong heart.” What they are seeing is not a guy who can know everything and live off their land. The native people can feel when somebody has an awareness of and an intention to learn their land. That intent can be extended to anything in the wild.
About a year after I began climbing, one of the world’s greatest climbers Peter Croft, showed up to watch me on several occasions. From high up on the rock, I would look down and see Peter staring at me. I wondered if he thought I was going to die because I was a hundred feet up without a rope. He would spend hours watching me, but by the time I descended, he was always gone.
I knew from other climbers that Peter was shy. One day, I bumped into his wife in town and asked her why he was watching me. “He loves to watch you climb because you climb like you appreciate and love the rock,” she said.
That was huge for me. I had gone from “Muscle-Head Matt” to being appreciated by a world-renowned free climber. It validated that I had a connection to the rock, and that I could make the connection stronger if I looked and listened, instead of trying to battle the land.
I had come to realize that when you put up your defenses and try to battle something, you don’t get very far, but if you work with something, be it the land or people, you get a better experience—even if that interaction is with an immovable force. When you watch the best climbers on the hardest climbs, you won’t notice how difficult it is unless they fall. They maintain their grace and cool until the moment they pop off the rock. It’s the inexperienced climber that is grunting, grasping, battling, not moving well, and losing all technique and focus—and probably not getting up the rock. It looks like a schizophrenic spider trying to figure out where to go, darting in one direction, then another.
The process of climbing is like a jigsaw puzzle. You look up the rock ten to thirteen feet and mentally measure your moves. You think, what’s the sequence? Where do I put my hand? I see a geological pocket in the stone caused by some type of organic vegetation that was trapped and has decayed. Does it look too soft? If so, then you shorten your moves until you can test the spots.
But the danger never disappears. Even after I became a confident climber, I had close calls. The first was when I was free soloing—climbing without a rope—Half Dome in Yosemite. Having been there on my first backpacking expedition, I knew there was an easy route on the south side that wasn’t directly on the face. It was a big crystal dyke that went up for a couple thousand feet. I climbed the first four hundred feet or so and hit the critical juncture.
I knew from reading the guidebook that this move was the crux of the whole climb. You had to move along a polish (a rock ledge) for about eight feet before you reconnected with the dyke. When you use a rope, you clip in at that point so if you fall, you can swing over to the dyke. Without a rope, that move was dicier than most five- to six-rated moves, which was the rating of the climb.
I stopped and worked out the move in my head. Mentally, I saw it. But then I checked the footing. It was very unstable. I concluded the risk was not worth it. I climbed back down the dyke, descending the four hundred feet I’d climbed up, to the bottom.
Unsatisfied with my climb, I decided to take a more challenging way to the base. Instead of hiking back to the trail, I went down the face on an edge where there was a ravine. I had to climb down the ravine backward because it was so steep. The ground was loose. In some regard, it was reminiscent of the El Cap adventure, but technically much harder.
When I got about halfway down, I felt that I was in the clear. I then spotted a rope coming off the face. The long, static line was about a thousand feet. It came down off the face and disappeared into the ravine. The terrain was becoming increasingly steeper so I decided to use the rope as backup, as a sort of guide line. I put my hand on the rope and continued the downward moves.
After a few steps, the granite under my feet turned to loose ball bearings. The footing was so poor I started sliding. I grabbed the rope firmly with my right hand. I was now using it for support. Trouble was, a thousand feet of rope has a lot of stretch in it, so I was holding on but continuing to slide down the ravine.
After about twenty-five feet I could feel the rope getting tighter and tighter. Then it became so taut that I gripped it with my other hand. When it tightened fully, I had all my weight on it. But the rope was so long and I put so much force on it that it turned into a rubber band and popped me up out of the ravine.
I was literally flying across the face of Half Dome, Tarzan-style, some five hundred feet off the floor. To avoid crashing into the rock, I pushed off with my feet. Now I was free swinging out over the rock, doing a hundred-foot pendulum. I was desperately looking around, trying to determine where I could land. There wasn’t a person in sight.
As I was swinging back and forth, I realized that the rope wasn’t long enough for me to reach the bottom. I was stuck on a sheer face of Half Dome.
I spotted a dihedral, which is an inside corner of rock. I could see that it had a plateau on top and thought that maybe I could make it up to the plateau to get my bearings. But that escape plan was fleeting. I quickly realized the rope wasn’t swinging me to the plateau; it was swinging me into a rock crack about thirty feet below the plateau.
I hit the crack hard, did a quick hand jam into it, and wedged myself in. I lifted my feet and stuck them in the crack so I could regroup and assess the easiest way down. I checked the rope’s length again, but determined it wouldn’t reach the bottom.
I looked up and saw that the plateau was only about thirty feet above me, in what appeared to be an easy climb. As a backup plan, I wedged the rope into the crack in case I needed it later. I then started free soloing. I was four hundred feet off the deck, doing this very difficult crack (rated 5.8, a fairly challenging climb for somebody without experience using a rope and a very difficult climb with no rope).
When I reached the plateau, I pulled myself up and walked over to the other side to find an easier route down. But there wasn’t one. The other routes off the plateau were sheer rock, straight down. The crack where I had left the rope was the easiest way down. The rope, as I had already determined, was useless because it didn’t reach the floor.
I climbed off the plateau and back down into the crack to where the rope was wedged. I left it there, and proceeded down. The climb was over. I just needed to make it down. I took it slowly, felt my way, and reached the bottom safely.
Once I became an experienced climber and shed “Muscle-Head Matt” for good, I established a cardinal rule: never free solo anything that I had already done with a rope. I broke that rule only once.
It happened on a route I had done a bunch of times with a rope. Each time I was up there, I kept thinking it would be a perfect solo route. It was 800 feet, 5 pitches. (Pitch is climber-speak for length; a pitch is 165 feet of rope.) It started out as a 5.8- or 5.9-rated climb. But in order to not repeat myself, I decided to do a 5.10 variation.
The variation was cool. I climbed up the first 150 feet of a thin finger crack and felt confident that I would be fine free soloing the route. I passed two climbers who were on ropes. It’s kind of freaky for a climber who is roped up to watch somebody without a rope climb by them.
After I carefully passed the climbers, I reached the tricky part. There was a bulge right at a crack that required two hand jams followed by an unorthodox friction move. I climbed the bulge and executed the move. I stayed in control, but as soon as I stood up, my foot was just inches from popping out.
My heart started racing. I held fast and thought, Slow down your heart. My next thought was that it would’ve been awful if those climbers I passed had to watch me plummet past them.
There was still one bigger bulge above me that I had to climb. At that point, I was questioning my commitment. I had broken my rule not to free solo something I had roped. I made that rule because it kept me focused and in control. But I went ahead and did it.
I reached the next bulge. My heart was beating in triple time, and I kept trying to slow it down. There was too much dangerous exposure on the route, because at that point I was seven hundred feet off the deck of the steep, sloping face where the ledges were.
Though I made it without incident, that was the last time I broke my cardinal rule.
Any responsible climber on a new route should always be thinking, Can I downclimb this route? As you go up, you must focus on every move. However, you also have to work in both directions because there may come a point in a route, even as far as a thousand feet up, where you determine that you can’t continue and need to downclimb the route. When that happens, you set aside ego for safety. No matter how well you know the rock, you have to know yourself better.
Climbing was an important phase of my education about nature. It was something I immensely enjoyed. Being on the rock was blissful. It was one of the few things I found that completely emptied my head of all thoughts and distractions. All of my attention had to be focused on one thing.
At that point in my life, I didn’t know how to meditate. Climbing took the place of that. It channeled my head to a point that forced me to relax and surrender to nature.
If a climber doesn’t surrender to the rock, he is not going to climb well. When someone watches an accomplished climber, they marvel at the way their back muscles ripple and their legs and arms attach to the rock. Most people think, That person must be in amazing physical shape and have strong hands. That’s all true, but that is not even the half of it.
For a climber, it is about letting go of those thoughts. The climber cannot think about the physicality, because there is so much technique involved in the way you must balance your feet and your hands to take pressure off them. The climber must take a soft approach, rather than an aggressive one, or he will not be a climber for long.
When I first started climbing, fear was pervasive. I was scared of heights and had thoughts of falling. But once I learned to move over the rock the way nature wanted me to move over it, I felt like I was doing the right thing. Although I was free soloing routes two thousand feet up, those climbs weren’t a death wish. I wasn’t doing anything that was out of place to the degree that it sparked an uncontrollable fear. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.