Neacola Expedition: The Moments In Between

Drew Thayer arives at the headwaters of the Tlikakila River.

Drew Thayer arives at the headwaters of the Tlikakila River.

I sat at the bank of the headwaters of the Tlikakila River, my thoughts bleeding into the white noise of water pounding past. This water had surged under the Pitchfork Glacier for miles. This glacier was big enough to be measured in cubic miles of ice. This was the vast and remote wilderness of Alaska. My pack raft was packed, my drysuit and PFD were on and my helmet strap was adjusted to extra snug. I had pack rafted exactly twice beforehand.

“Is this reckless?” my inner dialogue begins.


“Is this stupid?” the next logical question.

“Maybe” not so reassuring.

“Do I have any other options in this moment?”

“No, this is what I signed up for. There is no halfway.”

“So what do I know?”

“Follow Craig’s line through the rapids. Look for eddies. Hit the waves head on. If I flip, pull the skirt, grab the fucking paddle and swim to shore. Feet pointed up and down river.”

“Holy shit I haven’t been this scared since my first multipitch climb. Will I know what to do?”

“Yes dammit. Stick to the plan. Here we go.”

From a moment earlier on the trip: I just placed a bomber nut and cam at my waist. I’m balancing on my toes while peering over a roof to see if the route will go. I feel calm and excited like a boy opening up Christmas presents. This is what I know. I may as well be that boy again at home hoping for remote controlled racecar. I see holds above, but no protection for the next 30 feet. I remind myself I could always down climb if it gets hard. I trust myself and move.

Craig Muderlak heading into the unknown. (Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA)

Craig Muderlak heading into the unknown. (Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA)

Another moment: I am sharing a belay ledge with Craig while Drew pushes on above. There is silence. We have been watching the sunset for the last two hours. Because of the long days in Alaska, the sun sets in slow motion. It feels like this is the reason we came.

Later on: we are stuck inside a ping-pong ball. I feel the humidity on my face and squint in the bright white light and can barely make out our camp. I feel lost and found, trapped and safe all at the same time. And above all else exhausted.

The media usually favors the extreme moments. People want to hear about that cutting-edge, fast and light, ultra radical thing you did. But there’s so much more. There’s the suspense that builds for weeks before an adventure. There’s the suspense in the minutes and seconds leading up to the unknown. Or how that suspense can alternate between child-like excitement and soul-rattling fear. Or the relief and empowerment that follows finishing something that felt impossible. I am drawn to the mountains for their beauty and for the chance to see myself more clearly. And each time I return to the world somehow changed, certainly inspired and usually exhausted.

David Fay following a splitter pitch high on the Dogtooth Spire. (Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA)

David Fay following a splitter pitch high on the Dogtooth Spire. (Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA)

Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA

The Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA

Shred Mode 2,000’ 70° Snow M4 FA of the mountain which we named Spearhead

Packrafting Tlikakila River to The Big River to the Ocean. First Complete Descent.


The Desert Beckons

Hannah Trim (14') traversing high on Jupiter Cracks. Photo David Fay (13')

Hannah Trim traversing high on Jupiter Cracks. Photo David Fay 

Dirt, sweat and blood. Three elements that run unimpeded in the desert. Blood from battling up off-widths and squeezes reminds me that I still have much to learn. Sweat from the steep approaches and unrelenting sun which I track as it moves across the sky. And dirt. That red dirt is everywhere. The wind carries it and despite tarps and cars and picnic tables, it coats everything. This doesn’t let me forget that I have been to the desert.


But I take my time getting out there. Dwelling in the anticipation of adventure. Holding onto that tranquility before the storm. Because once I arrive in Indian Creek I know that I won’t be able to hold myself back. I won’t leave until the dirt, sweat and blood overcome me and I must leave.


I am jealous of Hannah Trim and Matt Zia who can spend a month in the Creek. Not only because they have the time to do it, but also because they have the patience to climb in moderation. That way they don’t burn out. They dig in. They make Indian Creek their home and pace themselves as each day comes and goes.


I woke up Thursday morning five miles outside of The Creek hours after the sun had hit my sleeping bag. I moved leisurely, eating richly and arriving at the message board just after noon. I had not planned very well. But I was ready to climb. Only I stood in dire need of a climbing partner. As happen-chance may have it, JD Merritt, Parker Schiffer, William Rushton, Ibby, and Axel Bjerke bumbled into the parking lot just as I made this realization. JD’s SUV was packed to the brim with climbing gear, camping equipment and boxed wine nearly falling out of the car as they opened the doors. This marked the beginning of CC’s annual Block Break pilgrimage to the Creek and an opportunity for me to relive my college days as I wrangled up some climbing partners.


David Fay deep in the 5.12- squeeze chimney that is Liquid Sky. Photo by JD Merit

David Fay deep in the 5.12- squeeze chimney that is Liquid Sky. Photo by JD Merit

And boy was it great to be surrounded by stoked climbers. William led an off-fist crack in the dark by headlamp. Ibby climbed her first cracks. Everyone got to talk smack around the campfire. And JD and I made a run at Liquid Sky. After sending the 11+ off width I contested that my butt was physically too large for the narrow squeeze. My scars and a core shot in the rope prove that I had tried. But we still wanted to summit. Linking the final two pitches of Lightning Bolt cracks to meet Matt, Hannah and Chris Dickson atop the North Six Shooter was nothing short of hero climbing. Amazing position, fluid movements and great company made this day spectacular.


After reliving the glory of a block break in the desert it was time to part ways. As everyone piled into JD’s car to head back to the springs, I stepped into my car. Once again alone, traveling onwards. Leaving the Creek, I pulled over at Wilson’s Arch. The ridgeline had caught my eye years ago. I began climbing. The first move was the hardest, but secure. From there fun and exposed scrambling brought me to the top of the arch. I enjoyed the fleeting solitude juxtaposed to a residential development and a highway. I knew nobody around here would follow me up the arch. I sat down. Once again holding onto that fleeting sense of adventure as the rest of the world spun madly on.

The Tiger Cliff: An Elusive Wall Pioneered in the Heart of the Rockies.

David Fay getting into the crux of Amba 5.12 Photo Credit by Justin Talbot

David Fay getting into the crux of Amba 5.12 Photo Credit by Justin Talbot

There is a saying around Leadville that if it weren’t for just one thing each climbing area would be world class. For example if the routes at Granite were longer than 15 ft, it would be mega-classic. Or if the Cecilville Slab was 10° past vertical, instead of 10° less than vertical it would be spectacular. Well this past summer a small band of tigers may just have defeated the paradigm.


With the knowledge and assistance of local developers Justin Talbot and Rob Dillion, Chris Barlow, Becca Shild, Matt Zia and I set off for what was soon to be dubbed The Tiger Cliff. We rendezvoused at the High Mountain Institute enveloped in clouds, unsure of our decision to continue. After hiking past Timberline Lake in search of the rumored wall, blue skies assured us we had made the right call. Basking in sunlight Chris and Becca found a moderate route to the rim so they could drop in on the king ling—the longest and most improbable line linking incipient cracks between black and tan streaks.


David Fay on the FA of The Gold Card, Matt Zia in the foreground Photo Hannah Trim

David Fay on the FA of The Gold Card, Matt Zia in the foreground Photo Hannah Trim

Meanwhile I began picking my way up the obvious left leaning crack splitting the face. Bulletproof rock, bomber gear and wonderful movement brought me to sloping ledge below a clean, blank dihedral. After moving into this dihedral and retreating, I opted to follow the positive features out left. I took my time, enjoying each move and each moment as I climbed upwards through the roof to the top. Matt followed this pitch helping to establish The Gold Card Indirect ground up.


After touching back down I found out that Chris had put in three bolts just to the right of The Gold Card. Becca and Chris had rehearsed the moves on this route and were moving on to try the moves on the king line (later to be dubbed Amba after the great African tigers). Liking rock climbing how I do, I was jonesing and couldn’t sit still. I wanted to be the first person to lead something else. After pressuring Chris  he let me get on the mixed line he had bolted. I flowed through the lower sections only to fall on the last hard move. I offered Chris a belay—out of generosity and so that I could be on the first ascent team. He tied in and climbed through the lower crux moving on to place some tricky gear in overhanging terrain. After resting at the jugs, Chris committed to the redpoint crux, moving smoothly up to the anchor.


David Fay entering the crux on the FA of The Gold Card. Photo Hannah Trim

David Fay entering the crux on the FA of The Gold Card. Photo Hannah Trim

On the hike out, our small band of tigers began brainstorming CC related route names. ‘8th Block’ would have to be real easy. ‘Block Break’ would describe a precarious rock on the route. ‘8th Block Break’ would be pure fun, lifestyle edition. Chris came up with a good one—and the name of his route—‘Respect Your Elders’.


Combining stunning scenery, a range of difficulties and consistent quality, Tiger Cliff stands against the Leadville paradigm as a premier Colorado climbing area.


The Gold Card Indirect 5.11- FA David Fay

The Gold Card Direct 5.12- FA David Fay

Amba 5.12 First Ascent Chris Barlow, 2nd Ascent David Fay

Respect Your Elders 5.12-  First Ascent Chris Barlow

David Fay on the FA of The Gold Card. Photo Hannah Trim

David Fay on the FA of The Gold Card. Photo Hannah Trim

Rambling in the Bugaboos

The immaculate South Howser Tower.

The immaculate minaret buttress of the South Howser Tower.

We rounded the bend and there were half a dozen people lining up at the base of the route. Rock climbing pioneers had valued the virtue of good clothing: well ironed shirts, collared and tucked. We paused momentarily—not because of the crowds but because of the publicity—before stripping down to our birthday suits and soaring up the route. With nothing to weigh us down, the next 14 minutes and 7 seconds were a blur. Scrambling up one of the most iconic ridgelines in North America.

By the time July rolled around I was getting antsy. To be done with school and without work, I was not willing to let any more time slip by. I had to go north. This is the season to go big, I mean really big. And I had a plan.

I could get a ride as far as Idaho, visit family for a few days, train on Slick Rock (a thousand feet of 5-fun) and then hold up a sign along a lonely country road in Northern Idaho. Waiting to meet a stranger headed north.

Hitch hiking has been one of the most liberating experiences that I’ve embarked on in the last 22 years. Sure, you need patience and companionship isn’t too bad either—I had Jack Kerouac. Waiting along a quiet stretch of highway far to the north I found inspiration in Jack’s Lonesome Traveler. After one of his adventures his remark struck a cord, “you can’t fall off a mountain.” And it’s best not to be in a rush to your destination, because that will take all the fun out of it. The first night I slept in an alternative commune outside of Sandpoint, Idaho. The second day I crossed the border on foot and stayed the night with a boy who had run away from home. The third night I was in East Creek Basin listening to Drew Thayer and Rowan Hills’ grandeur plans for All Along the Watchtower.

David Fay leading the final halloween esc pitch of Fingerberry Jam.

David Fay leading the final halloween esc pitch of Fingerberry Jam.

On the road I was dependent on strangers to make my journey. Often I would ask myself, “Come on, can’t I just be independent.” Then I’d do the math: one 50 lb pack, one 10 lb pack, two shoes and 419 miles. No way. Not if I wanted to climb on this trip. A web of strangers intertwined by this belief in good will picked me up and brought me north. As soon as I stepped foot in the parking lot for the Bugaboo Provincial Park a flip switch. I entered a new arena. Now self reliance governed my path. Every decision I made would carry an array of risks and rewards. And I would be held responsible for these choices. I felt alive.

I slept under a boulder the first two nights to give Drew and Rowan space to chase their dreams. The second night I curled up with a mug of hot tea and a chocolate bar while a storm raged overhead. I started counting the time between flash and bang: One mis—BAM. The Howser Towers must have been struck dozens of times each minute. My friends had set out to climb North Howser Tower. I knew them to be both self-reliant and ingenuous in dire situations. So I trusted their skills knowing that I would wait 24 hours before being alarmed. They stumbled into camp late that night. Although their aspirations of climbing All Along the Watchtower had not come to fruition due to route finding difficulties low on the route, they climbed a fantastic variation, All Around the Watchtower. Scampering up the Vowell Glacier amidst the storm.

Soon afterwards Drew and I briefly set out sights on the Minaret. We had slept in that day and stood below the first pitch of what we could tell by the guidebook—and our own eyes—was 5.10 slab climbing without protection until you were through the hard climbing 40 feet off the ground. Nevertheless I wanted to see what it felt like to be on the route. Did the holds really get that much smaller? Was the angle less steep than it appeared? Through the start I could see that each move got progressively harder until the crux up high. So I racked up and headed up. Up into the unknown. After 15 feet of steep crystal smearing and I was already climbing at the edge of my comfort zone. I looked up. The positive footholds disappeared and the handholds were already long gone. I looked down, felt a moment of fear pass through me, and then swiftly and confidently retraced my steps to the ground.

So much for the famous Minaret, but the weather was splitter and despite the amount of climbing we had done in the last few days (well Drew had done a lot of climbing and I had done a lot of hiking), we were psyched and rested. We had East Creek Basin to ourselves, which meant the route Fingerberry Jam was wide open. So at 5pm I announced that I was ‘putting on my harness.’ That sealed the deal and within 30 minutes I was on the sharp end leading a splitter 5.11 finger crack. We continued through the crux in daylight and then drew took off and climbed an immaculate rope length in the twilight. It’s strange how we climb the best when we’re committed and the sun is going down, Drew remarked. After 4 phenomenal pitches characterized by spectacular cracks, bulletproof rock and a stunning sunset, the final stretch to the top was anything but that. With devious route finding, hollow flakes and suspect rock all covered in fuzzy black lichen, this pitch was some sort of page taken from a climber’s nightmare. By headlamp it held a Halloween allure. Yet with careful attention to detail and due diligence, it made a memorable finish to the route and soon we were atop Fingerberry Tower and scrambling back to camp.

Drew Thayer preparing for the crux traverse on Fingerberry Jam.

Drew Thayer preparing for the crux traverse on Fingerberry Jam.

With our food stores exhausted it was time to return to Applebee Campground and replenish supplies. Talk of hard routes on Snowpatch Spire quickly turned to the speed record on the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire. Determined to beat his own record, Guy Edwards figured that he had to go as lightweight as possible—stripping down to the bare essentials. We rested atop the Pigeon-Howser col finishing the rest of our food. Tactics included rinsing out the peanut butter jar with a protein shake and devising a centrifuge to attain the rest of the mayonnaise. With this final boost of energy we took off to the base of the West Ridge in the style of modern alpinism: light and fast. In fact very light. We figured that anyone vying for the speed record must do so in the same style that it was set. So we brought shoes and left everything else at the base. Soaring from the saddle to the summit in what we believe to be the fastest three man naked ascent of the West Ridge of Pigeon. We brought nothing and we were free.

Into the World

David Fay making his way to the Bugaboos.

David Fay making his way to the Bugaboos.

2013. Where to begin. At my completion of Colorado College last spring I felt trapped by the harsh realities of adulthood. No longer could I stand in front of Rastall with a cardboard sign and score swipes from underclassmen. No longer could I fist pump my way through a sweaty house party with impunity. No longer could I rely on chance encounters to see friends. Or walk into Rastall and know everyone. But that last one faded long ago.

Now I move through campus on a mission. To visit friends. To see professors. To access books. The space is transient. Campus Safety doesn’t reign over me, although I use Safe Ride on occasion. Now—with a diploma in hand, an intermission of sorts and the meager funds to hold me over to winter—it’s time to take off. I’ve always had trouble staying put.

Drew Thayer and I teamed up for bold adventures in the Bugaboos, the Black and our backyard the South Platte. Later Julian joined our ranks as we crashed the Creek, reliving block break shenanigans. Words such as first Mondays or the second weekend were tossed around camp, but had lost meaning to us. These kids might as well have adopted the ancient Egyptian calendar. I would never again date my class notes ‘Day 1-18’. Or perhaps even take another semester of classes. I have since reverted back to the Gregorian Calendar or the Western Calendar or the Christian Calendar or whatever you people in the real world call it.

Now I was free from school but trapped in the expectations of adulthood. In a world where people planned for their futures: for where they wanted to be in a decade or two. Hell, I can’t tell you what 5 years mean. Rewind. I was a senior in high school still living under my parents’ roof and felt on top of the world. I was still on my first pair of climbing shoes and my rack was way too shiny. Now, 14 pairs of shoes latter and there’s no way you’d find me gripped leading a 5.8 in the gym. 5 years ago might as well have been a lifetime ago. Who’s to say what another 5 years could bring. For now I’m taking life as it comes: one year, one month, preferably one day at a time. With a full belly and a full tank I can be anywhere. I can do what I love and keep the costs in check. As economists argue each person has the choice between free time and money. And I’d rather have the time.

One day I may want different things. But for now I find liberation in the simple fact that such a day can come on my terms, when I’m ready. For now it’s just the open road.

John Collis and David Fay contemplating the end of their career at Colorado College.

John Collis and David Fay contemplating the end of their career at Colorado College.


Work and Play in the Bighorns

L-R Mt Woolsey, the gargoyle, the innominate- climbed all three (David Fay)

L-R Mt Woolsey, the gargoyle, and the innominate- we climbed all three.

As my junior year came to a close, I was rapidly approaching an unspoken deadline. It’s customary for every geology major to devote a part of their summer to research, and I had no idea what I was going to do. This changed when I met Christine Siddoway who had recently joined a mapping team in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. My friend and climbing partner, John Collis, was already a part of the trip and scheming up ways to include a rope and a rack in our daily routine. We came up with the idea of gathering data from the top of several prominent peaks, and when we asked our professor about it we received a resounding yes. Who better to collect data from steep technical terrain? It was a match made in heaven— our rock climbing/geology expedition was set!

After a 9-hour drive and brief field orientation, John Collis, Dave Freedman and I horse packed 6 miles into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area and were dropped off just below the fire ban elevation of 9,200 ft. As we pitched camp, it became clear that this would be luxury camping. Our equipment included a folding table, a two-burner stove, three pounds of bacon, and four-dozen eggs. We were also loaned a loaded revolver from our trusted horse packer, Rusty.

As extended circumstances would have it, Dave had gotten stoked on a pair of firemen boots in Sheridan (i.e. very thick soles and no ankle support). On the first day of ‘work’, he attempted to jump between boulders. The soles ripped from the boots and he promptly tore his meniscus. The next several days we rested to give Dave some time to recover and process the natural denial that follows any injury of a proud man. It took some convincing, and an intimidating haze (We couldn’t tell if the wildfire was five miles away or 500), and before we knew it, we had loaded up all of our valuables (the rope, the rack, the whiskey and the revolver) and marched out. John had to sleep in an emergency blanket that night, but we were staying safe and one step closer to a doctor. This was Dave’s first hospital visit and needless to say, he was no longer stoked.

Yet in between the time of injury and our march out to find help, there were several wonderful days of limbo. Finally we had time to pioneer first ascents in the valley! We called our first route Who Dropped the Toaster (5.8) after a toaster-sized trundle high on the route that needed to go. Working left along the Toaster Wall we top roped Sliced Bread (5.10 R/X) and established two other chimney climbs, Hot Pockets and Lean Pocket. Our greatest first ascent was the Fortress of Solitude, which was a splitter 5.8 hand and finger crack within a dihedral. As traditional South Platte climbers, we felt that the Bighorns should be pioneered with similar principals of adventure, audacity, and understatement. These routes were fantastic and as John Collis said, “It’s a good thing we climbed here, before the crowds came.”

When the snow melted in the alpine, we knew it was time to move camp. Repositioned above Wilderness Basin, we set our sights on the Innominate. After 1,000’+ of fourth-class scrambling we pitched out two rope lengths of 5.6. We arrived at a large ledge system, but were still 25 feet from the true summit block— a boulder standing on its end in the shape of a giant domino. With a steep and blank face before us, it was time to use some techniques unique to this cowboy landscape. After tying all of our cordelettes into a 70’ loop, I picked my line, worked the sequence and stuck the toss. With this unorthodox lasso throw, we now had a top rope secured to the summit, and all in proper Wyoming style! While I later led this pitch on gear at 5.10 R, we both agreed that our lasso toss was the most pure and ethical form of ascent in such a wild western landscape.

David Fay lassoing the summit block of the Innominate.

David Fay lassoing the summit block of the Innominate.

The Gargoyle (the next tower north from the Innominate) steadily held my gaze–– not in pure stature, but in the precarious nature of its summit. Topping out with 20’ of 5.5 friction considered by our 1977 guidebook, “Holdless [and at the] maximum angle to which rubber soles will stick.” Due to the way the summit pinnacle curved and narrowed so suddenly, it looked impressive. And since there were no anchors or gear at the top, we both had to lead up and down this section.

In the Bighorns we found a healthy amount of adventure, camaraderie, discovery, and rocks! Between geology and climbing, the Bighorns have it all. In fact, if I could return to any climbing area in the world right now, it would be the Bighorns. 

Bighorn Range, WY
Who Dropped the Toaster, 5.8, FA (Collis-Fay)
Hot Pockets, FA (Collis-Fay)
Lean Pocket, FA (Collis-Fay)
Fortress of Solitude, 5.8, FA (Collis-Fay)


Refugio Frey

David Fay and Gustavo climbing on Aguja Frey

David Fay and Gustavo climbing on Aguja Frey.

I stepped off the plane in Bariloche, Argentina.  It was Valentines Day and I had just left everyone I knew—friends I met a month ago, but we had grown close studying ecology in Patagonia.  Now I was alone and my sole companions comprised JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and lofty dreams of granite towers.

Fast-forward through a whirlwind of hostels, buses, and broken English and I’m hanging from a belay 300 feet off the ground in Refugio Frey.  The sky is crystal clear, the sun is beaming and the granite is unbelievable.  My new Brazilian friend, Gustavo, is leading this pitch and even though we communicate in broken sentences and hand gestures, we both know climbing and communication feels flawless. As we swap leads, I take the final pitch charging up a splitter hand crack for 50 feet. I only have one #2 and one #3, but with solid jams and bomber rock, the climbing is secure. The company is good and the space is airy. How could alpine climbing get any better than here in the southern hemisphere? As we rappel back to camp and nestle into the Refugio with a large pizza and bottle of wine, somehow I know that this is only the beginning of many adventures to come.

Unnamed Tower

Atop an Unnamed Tower in Frey.