“Give Your Sprinter to a Real Dirtbag!”

9 Apr

“There’s too goddamn many climbers,” I grumble to my wife, Nellie, as we drive up and down Colorado’s Rifle Canyon searching desperately for a place to park. The three-hour drive from Boulder has left me a little nauseous and grumpy. “I feel like I’m at a fucking cargo van dealership,” I say, as we pass an endless train of 4x4 Sprinters, shiny new Ram ProMasters, and the occasional Ford Transit, each taking up one and a half parking spots in the limited space that Rifle State Park has to offer.

Finally, after 30 minutes of patrolling the canyon, a Sprinter pulls out, leaving plenty of room for my trusty minivan. In fact, by blocking in the passenger side of the adjacent ProMaster, I’m able to leave enough room for another car to park next to me!    

It’s a typical peak-season weekend in the beautiful-from-afar—but far from beautiful—limestone canyon that is Rifle. Which means hundreds of weekend #vanlifers from the Front Range to the Western Slope and beyond are here to test their gym-honed tendons on the chossy, blocky overhangs that are, sadly, some of the best sport climbing we have in America. Much like the parking in Rifle, the warm-ups are limited, and we spend a good 30 minutes waiting for our turn to climb on the Meat Wall, home to the greasiest, most polished moderate sport climbs in the world. 

As Nellie and I wait, I marvel at two couples spread out at the base, complete with babies in blinged-out luxury strollers, several dogs, and some comfy-looking camp chairs. It’s a far cry from the scrappy dirtbag cragging scenes I grew up with. I eavesdrop on their friendly debate over the pros and cons of the Sprinter versus the ProMaster. It turns out the ProMaster has a square interior and is easier to build out, and maintenance is cheaper and more widely available. I assume—with no small amount of prejudice—that the couples are probably in the tech industry in Boulder and raking in nice six-figure incomes. Having finished their warm-ups, the two couples maneuver back to their massive vans.

“I bet they have separate quarters in there for the housekeeper,” I joke.

“You’re just jealous that they can stand up in their van,” Nellie says.

“We’ll see who’s laughing when I pass them going 85 on the way back home in my soccer-mom mobile,” I tell her.

And it’s true: minivans are fast these days! Apparently soccer moms need to get their kids to the game quickly, because my Dodge Grand Caravan hauls some serious ass and handles pretty nicely, too. “Maybe I should go down there and tell them about #MinivanLife,” I say.

I have to admit I’m also a bit emotionally attached. I’ve held steadfast to Big Blue, my trusty minivan for the past five years, as I’ve watched one friend after the next fall victim to the temptation of the massive tricked-out cargo van. Conversely, the build-out, or lack thereof, in my minivan is simple: I took out the four back seats and put in a mattress.  Nellie, myself, and our two mini dogs, Gus and Bernie, have gotten many a solid night’s sleep in the back, and I have privacy inserts for all the windows.

For sure, the build-outs in some of the many vans I’ve toured over the past few years have been slightly more luxurious than Big Blue. I’ve seen Sprinters with showers and flat-screen TVs. I’ve had people offer me fresh-baked cookies from their in-van ovens. Some of these vans have so many gorgeous wood panels and stainless steel fixtures, they make my town house look a little dumpy.   

It’s not that I don’t see the attraction. Eight years ago, when I was still living on the road full-time, I definitely couldn’t afford a kitted-out cargo van, but it would have made my life a little easier. Tragically, now that I can afford the down payment on a Sprinter, I just don’t need it anymore. In fact, not owning a Sprinter has become a point of honor for me, and you can find me at Whole Foods trying to talk my bougie climber friends out of buying them.   

You see, I’ve always been a bit of a grumpy, hold-out ascetic when it comes to my vehicle. Through most of my extensive dirtbag career in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, I lived out of Silver Lightning, a reliable 1989 Toyota Camry. (May she rest in peace.) Only now that I’m a relatively successful, married, older professional climber have I begrudgingly opted for the comfort of a vehicle I can sleep in.

And since I embarked on #minivanlife, it’s been pretty damn glorious. Big Blue has seen me through some epic times, from big walls in Zion to first ascents in Yosemite to my first 100-kilometer flight in my paraglider. Big Blue got me there and gave me a place to sleep, and for that I am grateful. Would a Sprinter have intrinsically changed anything? No. (Also: How much comfort do you really need? I can sit up in Big Blue; do I really need to stand?)

It’s not that I blame today’s climbers, necessarily—it’s just that I think they’re getting a little soft. And I see these kitted-out homes-on-wheels as a symptom of that. Everyone wants to boulder and sport climb, but no one wants to run it out above RPs anymore. Everybody wants to go to Rifle for the weekend, but nobody wants to pitch a tent or sleep on a pad. 

After warming up at the Meat Wall, Nellie and I moved to more difficult climbs down the canyon, and, as is the tradition in Rifle, we both got our asses kicked whipping off of our projects. That evening we slept comfortably in Big Blue, climbed the next day, and then headed back to Boulder so that Nellie could get back to work. We ripped along the highway at 15 over the speed limit the whole way home, passing an endless parade of converted utility “climber vans.” 

As we pulled into the Boulder city limit, the three-hour drive almost behind us, I saw the mother of all four-wheel-drive Sprinters, decked out with all kinds of after-market racks and add-ons that made the vehicle look like, well, one of the most badass vans I’ve ever seen. If wings had popped out the sides and it had gone airborne I wouldn’t have been surprised.  

We pulled up closer and I looked at the license plate: it read Camp4. I couldn’t believe the irony. Camp 4, a walk-in campground in Yosemite, the very emblem of dirtbag culture, plastered onto the license plate of an extremely expensive, borderline-ostentatious camper van almost certainly owned by someone that was as much a dirtbag as Warren Buffet. “Arrrggh!” I screamed, waking Nellie up from her slumber. “Give your Sprinter to a real dirtbag!”

“Honey, Relax,” Nellie told me. “It’s not that big a deal.”    

And she was right. It wasn’t a big deal. The poor folks had probably worked really hard for that van, and for all I knew the vehicle was their home. (Though I doubt it.)

As I left the most baller of all baller vans in my rear view, the foam in my mouth receded and my breathing returned to normal, but I had only become more resolute in my anti-Sprinter campaign. I turned to Nellie and started preaching. “When did it become normal for climbers, who have roots in dirtbagging frugality, to drop upwards of $100K on a vehicle?” Nellie smiled at me, realizing, perhaps sadly, that if I could help it, we would never own a Sprinter.

In the last miles home, I started calculating the number of weekends your average climber could spend in a motel right next to the canyon if they didn’t spring for the Promaster, and came up with over 700 weekends. So, to the weekend warriors with full-time jobs who are considering buying a Sprinter or the like, I’d like to dissuade you: think of all the money you could save for that trip to Spain, or that nice rack of cams you have been lusting after! And think of the parking spots you’ll save in Rifle.

Brad Gobright Is Alex Honnold’s New Nemesis

17 Mar

I opened up my Instagram a week ago and had to chuckle. At the top of my feed was Alex Honnold in all his selfie glory at the top of Epinephrine in Las Vegas, one of the best multipitch 5.9 climbs in the world. The caption read: “I just climbed Epinephrine in 39:40, which I think is a new speed record…all I care is that it beat Brad Gobright’s time.”

Ignoring for a moment what could be interpreted as the slightly desperate and slightly petty tone of this Insta post—not to mention the mind-melting, life-risking record that Alex had just clocked on Epinephrine’s 2,240 vertical feet of technical climbing—let’s answer a few questions that will help shed light on this budding and unlikely climbing rivalry: Why does Alex Honnold care so much about beating a nobody named Brad Gobright? And more important, who the hell is Brad Gobright?

If you do, in fact, know who 29-year-old Gobright is, I probably had a hand in that. Let me explain.

Brad came onto my radar six years ago when he free-soloed the Rostrum in Yosemite—not necessarily an earth-shattering solo, but one that certainly puts you in a small club of brave climbers. Over the years, we ran in similar circles and became good friends. When Brad moved to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I knew he was someone to keep an eye on, and boy was I right. Once in Boulder, Brad started working as a busboy and, in his spare time, quickly became a front-range climbing legend. One after the next, Brad dispatched Boulder’s most dangerous traditional climbs, broke the speed record on Colorado’s most famous route—the Naked Edge—and, most notably, climbed ropeless in Eldorado Canyon with a boldness and fervor unlike anything I’d ever seen.

As a soloist myself, I had a lot of respect for what Brad was doing. As a filmmaker, soloing was, for me, the most compelling branch of our sport to document. I filmed Honnold on Sendero Luminoso in Mexico a few years ago and really enjoyed the experience. When I approached Brad about filming some of his solos, he was amicable, if not a little indifferent to the idea. He wasn’t the type who climbed for attention, but if being in a movie could maybe get him a free pair of shoes or some new pants, it seemed like the right move.

We weren’t sure where it would lead, but my filmmaking partner, Taylor Keating, and I began following Brad around the front range documenting the highs and lows of his approach to climbing for what would eventually become our film Safety Third. In the process, we documented the historic solo of Hairstyles and Attitudes, a heinous and slippery 5.12 multipitch in Eldorado Canyon. We also witnessed Brad breaking his back on a dangerous roped climb in Boulder Canyon.

Gobright soloing during the filming of 'Safety Third.' (Cedar Wright)

So why does Alex Honnold care so much about beating Brad? It may surprise some readers to know that Alex and Brad are actually longtime friends and often climb together. That’s why, when Safety Third was starting to take shape, I reached out to Alex for an interview. As we set up the camera, I began to rib Alex a little. “Dude, I think Hairstyles is up there with your hardest free solos,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be funny if he free-soloed El Cap before you did?” (This was before Alex had soloed the Freerider, but a few close friends and I knew that he was actively training for the feat.) “I think Gobright is the new Honnold,” I joked, knowing full well that Brad was his own unique and probably slightly less put-together free soloist. “Dude,” Alex said, “if he were to go up there and solo El Cap, first of all I would be like, ‘Whoa, that’s scary,’ but I would also be like…Respect…Sometimes the bold man wins.”

In Safety Third, we used Honnold as a bit of a foil to Gobright, painting Honnold as the millionaire, sponsored, vegetarian perfectionist and Brad as the underdog, dirtbag, junk-food-fed, junk-show badass. While there was a lot of truth to this comparison, it’s worth noting that in a lot of ways, Alex was just being a good sport and was happy to play the bad guy a little if it helped his friend gain some deserved notoriety. “If I didn’t exist, [people] would be like, ‘Oh, rad, nobody else is really soloing hard like that in the U.S. right now. That’s pretty cool!’ But it’s just sort of unlucky for him that I’ve already kind of stolen some of that. I’ll give him a free pair of shoes as a consolation prize,” Alex joked during our interview.

At the time, Brad being competition for Honnold was more of a joke than anything. The reality was that, as a soloist, Alex was certainly more accomplished, and Brad’s solo of Hairstyles was just a single breath of the rarified air that formed Honnold’s daily oxygen. And it’s worth mentioning here that a few months after we wrapped, Brad headed to Las Vegas and, while out climbing with Honnold, fell down 100 feet of wet slab while descending from the Rainbow Wall and broke his ankle—for the third time. Honnold spent several hours into the night carrying him out.

Between his broken back and his broken ankle, Brad was actually taking a step back from free soloing. While he healed, he became increasingly obsessed with the speed record on the Nose, which Honnold just happened to hold along with Hans Florine. Once his ankle was fully healed, Brad went full-bore into his obsession, and on October 12, 2017, after countless tries, Brad, along with partner Jim Reynolds, did what many people never considered possible: He took an Alex Honnold speed record, trimming a respectable four minutes from Alex’s blistering time, bringing it down to an Olympic-worthy 2 hours, 19 minutes, 44 seconds.

I happened to see Alex just a few days later at a North Face athlete meetup, and I immediately gave him shit for losing the Nose record. “You used to be somebody,” I said. “I’m sure you can get a job designing carabiners or something.” His reaction wasn’t what you might expect. “Dude, I’m psyched,” he said, “It’s actually really motivating. Now I have a reason to train, and climbing the Nose fast is fun. And Brad deserves it—he worked really hard—but I am going to smash his record in the spring. I’m recruiting Tommy Caldwell.”

Make no doubt that Alex will be back on the Nose. Taking Brad’s Epinephrine record was just a shot across the bow in what is becoming an exciting yet friendly competition between two unlikely climbing heroes. Brad doesn’t seem all that worried, though. “I have no doubts that he’ll take my Nose record,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure I’ll be too frightened to try and take it back. The Epinephrine speed record is just a side project. It’ll be easy to take that back.”

When I interviewed Honnold for Safety Third, I half-jokingly asked him if perhaps Brad and he both suffered from some kind of personality disorder that allowed them to take such huge risks so nonchalantly. “Possibly,” Alex said, “but everyone has their quirks, and maybe the world would be a better place if more people were like us. All the Brads could work in the fast-food restaurants!”

Climbing has a ripe history of rivalries, but too often they turn out petty and mean-spirited—think: Royal Robbins and Warren Harding—which makes the competition between Brad and Honnold refreshing. Knowing them both well, I can confidently say that all the shit-talking is in good fun. When I reached out to Brad to congratulate him on his ascent of the Nose, he said, “The reward is in knowing that I’m four minutes better than Honnold.”

Cedar Wright is a filmmaker and professional climber