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A Climbing Life

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 80, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 80 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Derek Franz on Ecclesiastes (IV 5.9) on Mitchell Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, in 2019. [Photo] Todd Preston, Derek Franz collection

Derek Franz on Ecclesiastes (IV 5.9), Mitchell Peak, Wind River Range, Shoshone and Ute land, Wyoming, 2019. [Photo] Todd Preston, Derek Franz collection

IT MUST’VE BEEN BEFORE Christmas in 2002, because my family had yet to leave for a New Year’s trip to the Bavarian Alps. I was home on winter break during sophomore year of college, working at the gear store, when a buddy introduced me to the latest title on the magazine rack by the front register, Alpinist 1. On the cover, Alex MacIntyre and Voytek Kurtyka appear on the east ridge of Changabang, the Shining Mountain, descending along the line of light and shadow. This new publishing experiment spoke to me. It was raw. Real. By lifers for lifers, with minimal ads. There were photos and stories of places I’d been to and wanted to visit, and epics I did/didn’t want to have–I recognized Utah’s Canyonlands and Fisher Towers, Yosemite and the Needles of South Dakota, and was transported to the otherworldly environments of the Garhwal Himalaya and the Alaska Range.

At the time, I was a journalism major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When I told one of my advisors that I wanted to work for a glossy magazine like Alpinist, he scoffed, “That’s like saying you’re going to play in the NFL.” What he couldn’t appreciate is that there are a few things I will do until I die or become incapacitated: climb, study climbing and write about climbing. The obsession I’ve had with trying to capture the experiences of my adventures, and those of others, feels akin to what Marko Prezelj articulated in Alpinist 21: “The essence of a climb burns out in the moment of experience. The core of an alpinist’s pursuit will always lie in ashes.” Pursuing life as a dreamer, I am most often rewarded with ashes. Nonetheless, I chase the fire that burns just beyond the horizon. Like all climbers, I would rather embark on a difficult route than take the easy path around the back.

ALL THE BEST THINGS begin as fantasies, and imagination is informed by reality. By sharing stories of what we have lived and seen, by learning from each other, we build a vision for the future. Like following a topo map, climbers build upon the passages of those who came before. Storytelling bridges the gap between reality and fantasy. Meanwhile, as Michael Kennedy wrote in Alpinist 26, “Climbing…merges imagination and action with the raw power of the natural world, offering us a canvas for boundless creativity.” I’ve been staring at the canvas for as long as I can remember.

I was born in Longmont, Colorado, a small city on the plains overlooking the Front Range, where Longs Peak (Neniisotoyou’u) and Mt. Meeker dominate the western horizon like crests on a huge, breaking wave above the flat prairie. I can still picture the view of countless sunsets from my bedroom window. The purple mountains against the orange-and-pink sky stirred fantasies of adventures to come. How could I not grow up with curiosity about the land that had loomed over my dreams since I was a newborn sleeping in a crib aglow with that evening light?

My parents were not climbers. Mom has had a lifelong fear of heights, but her mother was a climber before severe arthritis crippled her at a young age. Grandma Penny saw the bug in me when I was crawling around the campground in diapers, investigating all the rocks within reach. “He’s going to be a climber,” she warned Mom.

My first climb is also one of my earliest memories. In the middle of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, several stones rise up from what used to be giant sandbox of pea gravel (the gravel has since been replaced with rubber turf). The highest and pointiest one stands about four feet tall, lists slightly on one side and is polished so that all the edges are rounded and slick as glass. To a toddler, it might as well have been Midnight Lightning, the famous highball boulder problem in Yosemite. Whenever I passed it while walking the mall, I threw myself at the smooth, steep face, careful not to use another nearby stone as a cheat. Intrinsically, the route and style of ascent mattered.

While Mom and Dad were not climbers, they were avid skiers, backpackers, fly fishers and cyclists. They raised me to know the mountains. I remember being towed in a bike trailer through hailstorms when I was about three; the feeling of frozen fingers and white-nipped cheeks as I linked my first turns on the ski slope; plucking wild raspberries next to frothing streams that teemed with trout. Later, I wrote trip reports for various English assignments, trying to discern the deeper stories that underlay my adventures.

By 1990 we had moved to a house on the outskirts of Lyons, a little town in the foothills about thirty minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park. I desperately wanted to learn to climb, but to be eligible for basic lessons at the Boulder Rock Club, children had to be at least eleven years old and big enough to fit the smallest harness. You can guess what I received for my eleventh birthday.

After those first climbing lessons, I was able to glean more information and experience thanks to some family friends and a cousin, Ryan, who is five years older. Kim and Carlton were a couple living near us who sometimes brought me along with them to the climbing gyms. They also lent me stacks of books with glossy photos of the Shawangunks and Yosemite. A photo of Ray Jardine upside down and sideways on the roof crack of Separate Reality in Yosemite made my heart race the first time I saw it, because I knew it was something I would have to experience for myself despite the trepidation I felt. (I’ve now climbed the route a few times.)

Soon I began receiving mountain-related stuff for every birthday and Christmas, including subscriptions to Climbing and Rock & Ice along with more books–from K2, Triumph and Tragedy and Touching the Void to How to Rock Climb! and Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Whenever I told people that I wanted to be a climber, the common response was “Oh, so you want to climb Everest?” For eighth-grade English, I wrote a paper about K2, because most media seemed oblivious to the significance of the history surrounding K2 and why that mountain was at least as deserving as Everest for status as an ultimate peak.

Eventually, I learned how to build toprope anchors and started dragging Dad around to random outcrops. We didn’t follow any guidebooks. Exploration, finding the rocks, was part of the challenge. On one family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I bushwhacked in the woods above the campground until I found a cliff that was both tall and steep enough to have appeal, and short enough that my fifty-meter rope could reach the ground when doubled over for the toprope. I returned to camp and recruited Dad and our friends to trade belays. The first cam I ever owned got stuck building that anchor. I wrenched so hard to get it out that I broke a spring. When I was fifteen, I tried to climb the Diamond of Longs Peak with Dad. It was a stormy day; I was too confident. I slipped and took my first lead fall, a thirty-footer, and we were ultimately lucky to get off the wall alive. I’m still writing about it.

What I’ve learned from writing about my adventures is that there is a transcendent beauty to be found beneath the immediate suffering. Through writing, I’m able to revisit those moments when everything felt so difficult and miserable, when discomfort and dread tinted the view, and as I articulate what I saw and felt, I often come to realize that I was closest to what I love most all along. Details emerge, like squeaking bats in the moonlight.

Words can transport us to other worlds and new perceptions. As a musician feels a note land on listeners simultaneously, like rings on water where a drop has fallen, a writer can feel something similar when people respond to an article that connected with them.

After graduating with my journalism degree in 2005, I began working as a copy editor and writing a column for the Glenwood Springs newspaper. In the late 2000s, I bumped into Kennedy, then the editor-in-chief of Alpinist, in the same gear store, Summit Canyon Mountaineering, where I’d picked up Issue 1 years before. “MK,” as I now know him, recognized me from my newspaper column and introduced himself. “Send me some stories sometime,” he said. It was a compliment that he had even noticed my column. It helped me believe that what I was doing was worthwhile. Several months later, Katie Ives started working with me to develop my first story for the magazine, which was eventually published in Alpinist 36. The story needed a lot of work, but she believed in the idea and in me, patiently imparting new lessons with each round of edits. I’ve never forgotten how those moments of honest encouragement from both MK and Katie helped change my life.

Now it is with great humility that I find myself as only the fourth editor-in-chief to helm the magazine since it was launched twenty years ago. Much has changed in climbing and media since those early days, but here I am, and my love for climbing and storytelling remains.

This is a dream that began almost as soon as I was born. It was certainly there at age fifteen when I hiked up a dark trail in the wee hours to attempt the Diamond with Dad that drizzly morning. Our frosty breaths rose through the beams of our headlamps, and our boots clomped through rivulets of rainwater. The dream was more of a nightmare that day, but it remained a year later when we returned on a clearer day for a successful ascent. The most spectacular shooting star lit the sky in a dazzling arc above the 1,600-foot wall that we were about to climb. The bright contrail hung in the twilight, and the pink hues of the granite blushed against the backdrop of night. I knew immediately that, like a flash photo, the moment had been imprinted upon me forever. All those years watching sunsets from the window, and finally, there I was. Here I am.

Many more dreams still burn brightly on the horizon! Dear readers, let us carry the fire together.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 80, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 80 for all the goodness!–Ed.]