Climbing 40 For Al

Last October, I headed down to Arizona to complete a birthday goal I’d set for myself and to also honor the memory of a childhood friend, Albert Nugue.

It was around 1987 when I first met Al. We were on a swim team together and would compete around town and neighboring states, taking road trips and getting into your typical childhood rascality. While we had a lot of good times during those years, we couldn’t have been more different. I was into skateboarding and he was into sports. It wasn’t until we ended up in the same school that we became completely inseparable.

Al was a natural athlete with a strong penchant for trouble. He was gifted with the passion and ability to excel at whatever he set his mind to, whether it was charming the pants off the ladies or any sports that interested him. Had Al and I not been so close, I doubt I would’ve ever played the sports I did when we became teenagers. Eventually, he was the one that got me into climbing during our freshman summer.

After high school, Al went to off to college in North Carolina and I took some time off to travel and climb. I ended up in Arizona for school and after nearly a decade, I moved back to Virginia at the same time he’d move to Yosemite to work as a climbing guide.

We’d miss each other on a few trips over the years but our communication and history of unforgettable adventures kept us together like brothers. All of it changed in 2010 when I received a call from our mutual and close friend Len, that Albert lost his life in a tragic accident.

This was taken the last day I climbed with Albert.

This was taken the last day I’d get to climb with Albert.

One of the things that Al always did was plan annual trips to climbing places around the country and overseas. On these trips he’d set the challenge to climb as many routes as he was old, commonly referred to as the Birthday Challenge. While nothing new to most climbers, Al was the first in our circle of friends to make it part of his life. Since his passing, I’ve tried to follow his footsteps to honor his memory and influence for making so much of who I am today.

Albert on one of travels - climbing in Thailand. photo by Crystal Irwin

Albert on one of his travels – climbing in Thailand. Photo by Crystal Irwin

Al would’ve turned 40 this weekend and I’m standing at the base of climb #1, in Jacks Canyon, Arizona – one of Al’s previous 30-something challenge sites. Leading up to this day, I’d sustained yet another shoulder injury the year before that left me grounded for 10 months. I’d only been back on the rope for the last 6 months and training with the mantra that “failure wasn’t an option.” While the majority of my climbs would only be around 5.10+, leading 40 routes in a day left me in an anxious and mental purgatory. The fear of blowing my shoulder out again, my muscles cramping out midway, or just simply not finishing at all weighed heavily on my mind. But in spite of my self-inflicting sophistry, I took a deep breath, grabbed the first hold and started my day.

My company and partners were Len Rittberg, Chad Keen, Randy Yao, and Vance Peterson.

Randy, Chad, Me, & Len


Me and Vance

Me and Vance

I met Len through Al when we were in 9th grade. Len had taken the more pragmatic road to life when we left high school and led himself to a successful career in the Bay area. I truly love this guy. He’s one of the most genuine people on the planet and he’s someone I know that would do anything for me. Like accepting the challenge of belaying me on every lead for this mission…despite never having belayed before in his life. After an hour of lead belay training the evening before, Len was feeling anxious but willing to spot me the next day. The trust goes deep with this one.

Chad and I have climbed and worked together for almost a decade at Wilderness Adventure At Eagle Landing in rural southwestern Virginia. Currently living in Alberta, Chad’s accompanied me on two of these now, and has also completed the birthday challenge himself. There’s only a few people I’d be more willing to take a 30′ whipper on.

Randy, a 20 something software designer out of Seattle, is one of my Asian sport bike motorcycle gang members and fellow climber. To have him accompany me on this trip was great – his patience for my constant harassing and banter  is only rivaled by his motivation to climb.

Vance has been my big brother from another mother since we met in Flagstaff almost 20 years ago. We were each others best men at our individual weddings and even though he still lives in Flag and I’m in Seattle, there’s never a time where a phone call picks up as if we had just hung out the week before.

The temperature was almost 90º by the time I’d reached number 20 and we were down to our last cumulative pint of water.  It was a rude reminder of how brutal the desert could be. This month was averaging 15º hotter than normal. Not even the slightest of breezes would roll through as we baked, futilely trying to synchronize our climbs with the moving shade. As soon as I’d finish one climb and look to the next hoping for reprieve, the sun had shifted the shade 5 more climbs away.

Len and I were a bit ahead of Chad and Randy at this point, but I was feeling dehydrated and nervous that it would lead to my muscles cramping up. I sat and choked down a few bites of food in the shade of a lonely juniper, the only coverage along the entire wall we were climbing. We were out of water.

Randy, who has a reputation with me as the kid that has to eat and drink on a precise schedule and without compromise, eventually gave in and decided to head to the car to bring back some water. I owe that man a lot. Sucker.

I continued to climb as we coincidentally reached the walls with the tallest climbs. I would climb 10 more routes without a drop of water before Randy made it back. I gave him a hug and could’ve kissed him but instead I planted my lips on the water jug. Sweet relief.

The last 10 went down surprisingly easy. I was only feeling slightly tired – each time I’d grab the first hold, I’d flip my emotions off and drive. I felt great. When I reached number 40, I sat back on the chains and looked to the sky. I thought about Al. I thought about the completion of my goal. I was elated. I smiled, I shouted, I laughed, and finally thought to myself, “Where would I be without you, Al.”

#40! Photo Randy Yao

#40! Photo Randy Yao

One for Al

One for Al

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