[Note: This is a pitch for a magazine article that I’d like to write. I don’t know how to write pitches but I think these few paragraphs stand well on their own. Enjoy.]

Pil’s eyelids are heavy with the tiredness of a man who seldom speaks to anyone but himself. He smokes hash, takes a pull of some local spirit, and hands me the dirty bottle. Its contents taste like acetone but warm me to the toes. Hiding under his thick stubble and nettled mane are the soft features of a fair-born Brit turned leathery by the remote places of the Indian subcontinent. He’d wandered into Chattru from somewhere to the north on this, my tenth evening in the valley. I found him sitting in the dhabba, a strange presence that I could not ignore: Pil is both farangi and sadhu; he is a hermit and an ascetic; he is a powerful and visionary climber; he is the holy-man of so many rocks; he is a climbing yogi, shanti.

The souls of expatriates have always seemed fragile to me, existing as they do in a state of displacement. Yet amongst the boulders of Chattru and nearby Jota Dara, clothed in a strange mix of Tibetan and Hindu mysticism, Pil’s own soul is so obviously light. His are not the concerns of the modern climbing lifestyle, its restive relationship with media, elitism, and celebrity. Living alone in a cave, hours from civilization, he is a climber in the most primitive sense. To the degree possible, Pil’s existence is a reflection on movement over rock and nothing else. To call him a sadhu, though, is to paint a caricature. In fact, it’s the contrast between his approach to spirituality and India’s ancient, baroque asceticism that brings something about my own “climbing life” into much deeper focus. Here in Chattru I see plainly for the first time that the thing that we are doing is unique in the world. It takes Pil to make it obvious that we trying to call a new spirituality from the abyss simply by climbing rocks.

Chattru is not remote by our standards, but our standards don’t apply in the Himalaya. A collection of mud-brick tea houses serves as a night-stop for truck drivers on their long trip between Manali and the villages of outlying Himalchal Pradesh. It’s here that the rough road from Rotang-La winds down to the valley’s narrow floodplain and crosses a turbulent river. The floodplain is a land of orphaned granite, miles upon miles of cast-offs from the five-thousand-and-more meter peaks that hem us in. While the rest of India heaves and sweats Chattru is dry and frostbitten, nestled in the monsoon’s shadow. Here is Pil’s hermitage, his life’s work, and the seat of his spirit. In this valley, waiting long unnoticed, is the best bouldering in all of Asia.

The man, the climbing, and the setting are all exceptional. What is truly compelling about Pil’s story, though, is that it greatly elaborates on the idea of climbing as a spiritual pursuit. Chattru’s austerity — barren earth rushing up to the foot of the Himalaya — and its primal mystique make the singularity of Pil’s life all that much more apparent. There is the resounding sense that if something as naive and idiosyncratic as rock climbing can open the door to Nirvana, it will happen in Chattru.

They are passing
They are passing in great waves
They are coiled wire
They are gasses, excited
They are fish pulling on empty, empty air
They are grapefruit in the summer heat, overripe and fallen from on high

The strangeness of other people, people from far away
The movements of their hands and the lines on their faces still familiar
Their warmth towards children; everyone everywhere is warm towards children

The woman is a sparrow with a crooked neck
The man is a man

Despite my trepidation about returning to the “real world,” being home for the holidays is nice. I’ve been spending time with family and friends, and trying to catch up on a bunch of writing. (Yes, you’re owed several stories from the final six months of my trip; they’re coming.) I also took a couple of days to put together a presentation about my life-on-the-rocks for the local Boy Scout troop. Florida being the place in America where you’re least likely to find a rock, these kids don’t get a lot of exposure to climbing culture. We opened the event up to the public and had a nice turnout. I also took the show on the road to a couple of local business groups, hoping to bring a little more exposure to the Scouts themselves. Well, as a consequence of all the publicity, the local paper got hold of me and wrote a nice article about my recent experiences.

This seems like as good a point as any to say some words of thanks to everybody who made my Asia trip such an outstanding experience. The support, at home, on the road, and especially via the blog, was amazing. It’s great to know that folks are following along. It’s not quite over, either: I’m heading to Mexico for the winter! Stay tuned.


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The Tibetan eyes are crying without crying. His mother looks beyond us with a kind of disinterest, never locking my gaze. A world is in the space between us.


I hoped the plateau would go on forever, but the road turns down and snakes away into a roiling mist. Soon everything is going down: cars, trucks, the cold air of the plateau, the mist riding its back, the sun. Everything descends except the great, fat lowland clouds. Fleeing the wet heat of the jungles far below, they numbly seek an escape from their valley confines. Watching the last sliver of blue sky, I see the oblivious clouds creep coyly up to the edge of Heaven where they are summarily shattered by the Tibetan winds.

In the last town in China, the crackle of neon is washed out by the falling mist. The street is a diffuse glow, the pavement wet and glossy. The whole town teeters on the edge of the cliff, itself threatening to slide away.


The altitude, the roads, the alcohol, the heights: each a kind of exposure, each of the variety that empties hearts. I’ve already forgotten more than I remember. What came before is a blur, a wandering narrative that barely makes sense. I try to replay the emotions, but cannot. I feel nothing but drunk on oxygen. I am someone else in these moments, and I know it as if it’s the only thing that ever existed.


The young woman has not yet lost the weight of a recent pregnancy. Her face is doe-like, mouth a slight smile. A newborn suckles her naked breast, its face finding the same cavernous expression as its mother’s, one that seems to anticipate a rapture or an oblivion in every beat of its tiny heart. The mother pours tea and the great vacuum emanating from them – the radiating peace of her womanhood, the spiraling torment of their earthly bonds – gives way to the cacophony of the nearby street. I look toward the door: people on the tops of buses, a wandering Brahman bull. The hot, wet air hangs heavy with the smell of masala, incense, and excrement. In the distance, I feel India again.



Gyalzen’s body is thin and bent. He is not aged, but his form is tired and weak. The light in his eyes wavers as he speaks, his face sometimes tending toward a subliminal expression of great distance, distance of the kind that we see in only in the mask of death. He is warm when he is able, feet shuffling lightly as he prepares tea.


The great canyon runs into the distance, hiding behind nearby peaks. Each peak is a new beginning, a vantage on a valley-world whose mysteries are yet unobserved. The people are awake, carrying baskets, breaking rocks, preparing food. The crow’s deep, guttural caw is both comical and menacing. I am alone – the aloneness of all infinities – but I do not know it, and I cannot say why.

The sun is quiet at this great distance, though the sun is also sleepless. In it’s shadow, my dreams are muddled. I think I’m at home but in a place I’ve never known. A cold breeze scratches at my cheek. My eyes roll open from that strange dream-home onto the wavering grass. Its blades are speckled with tiny globes of dew, the pre-dawn glow casting a delicate light on their otherworldly interiors. My eyes close again, dreaming mind waiting for the first rays. A woman sings in an unfamiliar language.


The window faces northwest and is still cold to the touch. Jagged spiderwebs of frozen moisture persist in its shaded corners despite a growing warmth, both inside and out. The dining car fills slowly as I wait for my breakfast, the train’s passengers undoubtedly not anxious to leave the comfort of their blankets. The ice crystals wither, final traces of the previous night’s rain evaporating into the great arid spaces of the Tibetan Plateau. I touch the window again, now leaving my prints in the fresh condensate of the first diners’ breath and sweat and steaming soup.

Dark harmonies played on the skies in the night. The crumpled earth south of the Taklamakan had trapped the cold and the wet. Trains sat idly on their tracks while clouds pummeled Xining with heavy rains. Alone in the station, caged by the rain, my thoughts turned to foreboding. Once again, I’d wandered down from a mountain and into the remote expanses of China’s west. A year before those places were still unimagined, but a summer of violence and ethnic unrest had shaken Xinjiang in the months come and gone.

As the stark walls of nearby buttes echoed the thunder’s chorus, the faces in the station – Han, Uighur, Tibetan, Westerner – began to seem dogged and anxious. Having traveled for many months in mainland China, I now saw the Han as a happy, open people. They are not unlike Americans in their ambitions, seemingly drawn forward by impulses that have no rational origin, that are accidents of place, time, and culture. Yet it was the ethnic markers of the Uighurs that drew my own anxiety. No longer an indication of the growing diversity of The People’s Republic, my newfound prejudice transformed them into reflections of the deepening angst of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, high on the Plateau, another tragedy waited to be scrutinized. With National Day quickly approaching, I wondered at the troubles that Han nation-building had spawned at the end of the train’s long track.

Finally the rain subsided to a drizzle and, bodies filling the berths with warmth, we set out. The track was pressed by the weight of our bodies and their carrying machine, going up toward Lhasa. I fell asleep quickly but had troubled dreams. My imagination fled west from the locomotive with the grassland beasts, hurtling itself toward a rising wall of rock and ice and, beyond that, a great vacancy of time that I could not penetrate. Along its borders the future was mute with an implicit belief that I was going to die. My tiny life-fire was at last blown to ash on a nameless peak of the sprawling Himalaya.

Now the sunlight of the Plateau fractures the bodies’ sleep and I struggle to see much beyond the frigid window. A great, rolling plain fills the horizon on all sides, frost peppering thick marshes. In the distance, the low hills are glazed with snow and painted red on their north faces by strange grasses. Here is a rippling earth, barely inhabited. These thousands of empty miles are the sky’s dominion alone.

Another train, another day. My birthday. In my berth a baby grows weary of the train’s rocking. He wears a small hat and smiles from time to time, his grip strong. A Han woman sleeps, hoping not to be awakened by the child. Her husband sniffles and so do I. My feet are cold – shoes soaked by the rains – but I don’t put on socks. The child is wrapped in a green blanket. Against my own will I look into its eyes and smile. It smiles at me. The tiny impulses in its frenetic, unstructured mind know the combination to my locks; my locks are opened. I wonder at the purpose of such things.

The old Tibetan woman, grandson under one arm, calls her daughter on a mobile phone. I marvel at the relationships that surround her, their peculiar closeness and the confines of skin, the touching of skin, her unwavering at the itch that comes with it. She shakes her sandal nervously, wondering what I’m writing. They seem a curious people, interested to know when things are hidden. She wonders what I’m listening to. She wonders about my bare feet. She does not hide it. It is a warm and open wonder, but an invasion of skin that makes me flinch. In it there is much to love, or maybe I just imagine that it’s so.

What will come in Lhasa? What will come beyond, in the places where the earth is pushed yet higher? The strange oblivion of the dream comes, perhaps, from my hesitation to do the one thing that I meant to do from the beginning: to look into the eyes of giants. Uncertainty emanates from those distant peaks, the Himalaya. Do I fear the pull of my own curiosity?

The sun is intensely bright outside. Clouds break, leaving dark trails on the grassland. Next to the track, the long road to Lhasa is heated by the sun. A caravan of trucks motors steadily on. I need to put on some socks.


I know when skin is bristling.
I know when skin is milk.
I know when hair is love.
I know when I make mistakes.


On September 10th, Bob Keaty (USA) and I set out to summit The Dragon’s Tooth (~5200m), an unclimbed pinnacle towering over remote Bipeng Valley in north-central Sichuan, China. To the best of our knowledge, only one other attempt had ever been made at this striking objective. Our efforts ended a week later at the base of a virgin granite wall adjacent to the pinnacle, heavy rains soaking the surrounding countryside and making vertical progress impossible. With these and many new alpine features appearing in the vicinity of Siguniang (“Four Sisters”) Mountain, we hope that our attempt will not be the last.


p1060310 (Modified in GIMP Image Editor)

The Dragon's Tooth (unclimbed, 5200m) on the right.




Bob hauling kit to our Halfway House, the large boulder/cave in the foreground.

Bob hauling kit to our "Halfway House," the large boulder/cave in the foreground.


Ground support in Sichuan is available from Jon Otto at Arête Alpine in Chengdu. See Bob’s blog for further details. For additional beta, please leave a comment.

It’s early, well before dawn. The girl standing on the balcony is an angel. She has the lamb’s head in her mouth, rolling casually between her tongue and cheek like a piece of candy. She’s small and pale, with Asian eyes and a close bob. Her face is serious, standing there in my wool shirt, a scarf around her neck. When she turns to me and smiles, my father’s fire erupts from between her teeth, and the room is blind with light as if the sun were rising on the sea behind her. She has the thing and she toys with it.

You may call me whimsical, but is God not whimsical? Here he carries me, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth, gently, only to be devoured at his table in the high grass. There’s so much I want to say: to tell him to fuck off, that I’ll do it on my own, that I don’t want her. But one discovers a simple, compact rationale when dealing with Creation and its currents, and I realize, finally, after these many years, that it’s best just to be silent and still. The angel on the balcony, thinking I’ve fallen asleep, crawls into bed and lays her head on my shoulder. She whispers in my ear, her hushed voice recalling a faint breeze on a stretched thread, the lamb’s head speaking too, its fire gently tickling my nose. I nearly sneeze. For a moment she looks longingly at me under the veil of sleep, but the dark harmonies of creation are pulling at her eyelids too, and at last she rests.

She is a beautiful thing, this machination. In my reveries I begin to think the way I did as a child, of the dark places that hide beneath the ground in forests, of caves and places where rain does not penetrate. I dream of kingdoms that not even animals have yet discovered, warm chambers of rock where she and I survive by speaking our own language. But even as I lose myself in her infinities, the mysteries in her eyes, so much is trapped in the past. The lamb’s head is there, speaking quietly in my father’s voice to a small bear. Then he’s the snow fox and the lightning from his mouth cleaves a great oak. I see the girl in the river.

In the morning, I cannot remember my dreams. The angel had said that she only wanted to lay next to me, but soon we make love. She’s clumsy and unsure of herself. When I kneel behind her and hold her waist I look for her wings, running my hands along the fragile lines of her back. With her back arched, I think I can make them out, folded in the hollows under her shoulder blades. When she kisses me, I feel the heat of the scorched oak, the lives of its mothers and fathers, the fiery echos of a tree’s wishes. Somewhere in her stomach, those fires are slowly quenched. In her womb, oceans wash upon coals, and the tree’s wishes become her wombwishes.




p1040958 (Modified (2))Typhoon

Everything descends: beds, hotel rooms, buses, subway platforms, escalators. I go, desperate and sleepless. Nights, days, and the rain follow. Waking rain, unceremonious rain, rain that talks out of turn, descending.


The color runs out of my face and my eyes itch. I don’t know why, but the moment makes me think about one point at a time – first my toes, then back, then mouth – and trying to stretch each the same way that life, all of it, is really just a stretched thread. It’s the shrill of the stretching thread that summons God down, brings angels through the veil, darkens the sun, and cracks time like cheap china.

Long dream

The thread, it’s the stitching of her blouse. The shrill is a dark fleck in her eyes. Her lips, a cutting edge, a devestation held back only by a weak smile.

In August, one of two things will happen. Either my not-so-secret project will find enough people to make it’s fall dates viable and I’ll come home, or it won’t and I won’t.

Regardless, the fates are kind to me. If I don’t come home in August, I’ll stay in Asia until the holidays. For this reason, I’ve pushed my Tibet/Nepal schedule back until after the decision is made. I want to have plenty of time in the Himalaya, and with a possible exit looming at the end of July, I’d rather put it off than rush through. Instead, I’m going to orbit around Chengdu for the next month, scouting out Gongga Shan and Changping Valley. I’m also going to make sure I get myself out to Beijing, just so there aren’t any gaping holes in my China ticklist. When I leave, bound either for Nepal or the US, I’ll definitely be able to say I’ve done China.

Right now, the name of the game is “visa run!”


visual transitivity






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