In a humorous yet sincere tribute to the late Dean Potter - who died in a BASE jumping accident this week - Niall Grimes talks about his brief flush with fame in a Moab coffee shop toilet. This piece was written three years ago.
Did I tell you about the time I was hung from the lip of the overhang, pumped, looking down at the strew of blocks far below, calmly waiting for death to take me into its bosom? Can’t be bothered. Boring. Or the time I was marched away at the point of a Kalashnikov in the remote Central Asian uplands by ‘soldiers’ wearing Adidas and Enjoy Coca-Cola T-shirts? Why bother. You’ll have heard one just like it I’m sure. Let’s not forget the time, laybacking the thirty-ton obelisk of granite on that forgotten island off Greenland and the entire thing started coming towards me. Oh not that one again.
The big stories are often too big. Bloated carcasses of derring-do pumped full of the gas of bravado; long, lifeless and left floating face-down and naked below the waist in the putrid water. The pressure of intestinal gasses farting out the same yarns time and time again.
“And then I... And then I...”
Let’s face it, if you’ve climbed long enough to have gone through your first block of chalk then you’ve heard all these stories already and you’ll know how they work out. They’re too fat to have any truth or magic left in them. They are dead behind the eyes. Goodnight.
But the little stories, they are a different matter. Stories that at the time you hardly noticed but years later you’d reflect on and see small signs in them that pointed in the most curious directions. That gave you insights into other people, other ways, that perhaps might shine a light into one’s own life. The mouse that got into the impregnable castle.
Kevin was the perfect partner inasmuch as he was desperate enough to climb with just about anyone, as was I. I had been set adrift in Zion. Chance in a million, the coffee shop owner replied to my inquiry that there had indeed been someone hanging around who was looking for a partner. He appeared some time later and, his cut-off denim shorts notwithstanding, I asked would he want to form a rope. He did. Result.
Through Touchstone Wall, Iron Messiah and Moonlight Buttress (with a rope, and aided, just so you can rank us in the grand scheme of things and relax into the story), we became friendly. Sensing an opportunity my other option took the car and drove off back to LA whereupon it was suggested that I join Kevin and his truck and we go on the road together. It was the only option, and not a bad one.
Weeks of fantastic sandstone followed. From Zion we headed towards the Canyonlands, Fisher Towers and Indian Creek. I can’t recall the details of what we did but there was definitely something involving a parallel-sided crack. The town of Moab was the centre of our travels, sometimes treating ourselves to a night in a hostel, frequently punishing ourselves with one-dollar hamburgers from a McDonald’s.
Sometimes on slack mornings Kevin and I would make our way to a particular coffee shop on the south side of town that was the choice of hangout for the local climbing scene. At least that’s how it appeared. It may just have been a place of congregation for badly dressed men without jobs and who owned trucks, but every now and again a rope would appear from the back of a vehicle or a crux would be mimed. We went there not for the coffee nor to meet a rendezvous, more just to be there. For despite the fact that Kevin and I enjoyed each other’s company there was something about the wide desert that left us, both social and chatty types, with a hankering for some sort of ‘action’ every now and again.
We seldom found it. We would arrive at the coffee shop just as trucks were leaving, irrespective of what time we actually got there. If we did get there to coincide with some of the climber-style people we often failed to set light to any great interactions. We often sat consciously on a table slightly within their personal space and tried to make eye contact. We were generally ignored. Not that I blamed them, however. Kevin was still in his denim shorts and I had a very tourist tan, my white Celtic skin reddened on one side of my head and my big sunburned nose peeling unattractively. In my desperate need to shade my skull from the sun I had taken to wearing one of those hats that paedophiles wear. We both wore office-worker-style glasses. If I had been them I wouldn’t have spoken to us either.
One morning, we must have mistimed it completely because the parking lot was filled with people, girls included. We found a spot, parked up and tried to mingle. I joined the queue while Kevin went to the bathroom and I came out with two coffees for us. Kevin appeared from within, took his coffee and we both went and relaxed in the shade of the shop so we could observe the crowd.
“Shit me!” Kevin said, springing out of his slouch into an upright alertness. “It’s Dean Potter.”
A truck that had been in front of us moved off and there, revealed, was indeed Dean Potter. I recognised him instantly from the magazines.
One of the jokes Kevin and I shared was pretending that we were into spotting climbing celebs and we would make up over-the-top stories of what we would do to meet them. Classically, it was funny because it was true. I did indeed know who was who in the climbing world and the vast collection of climbing mags that Kevin toted around in his truck identified him as a true train spotter.
"He was like a big scruffy lighthouse with wave upon wave of hangers-on breaking onto his rocks."
I had seen Dean Potter in the mags and in videos and he seemed like a true ancient spirit. I loved the whole thing he had about being the bird and how different he was from all the other climbers and how lucky climbing was to have characters like him. I thought he was great, still do. He was obviously hot property here for he stood ridiculously tall in the centre of a small group who arranged around him protectively. He was like a big scruffy lighthouse with wave upon wave of hangers-on breaking onto his rocks.
We were psyched. I wished I was breaking onto his rocks, and I bet Kevin did too.
We waited around for some time conspiring strategies for approaching him, all the while drinking more and more coffee in our rising excitement. Eventually the backed-up caffeine imploded onto my intestines and I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I rapidly evacuated myself and was on the brink of leaving the bathroom cubicle when I heard the main door of the bathroom open. I don’t like meeting people in that space so I sat down again momentarily to allow them to themselves but the door to the cubicle beside me was opened and the person came in. I looked down and in the gap under the partition I could see an enormous left foot, bare, tanned and streaked with street dirt. I recognised it. It’s Dean Potter's foot. Dean was in the cubicle beside me.
Was this my chance? Should I wait till he’s finished and deliberately open the door at the same time as him and swan into a fulfilling conversation about the desert towers I had already done? No, that space was no place for conversation. Perhaps I could just speak to him from here, call under the partition and ask him about base jumping or slack lining, whether he had ever climbed in Britain or perhaps I could even slip my foot underneath for him to autograph it. Would that be inappropriate? I wasn’t sure. But what could I ask him in this situation that would be appropriate?
“Excuse me,” I called out. “May I have some toilet paper please?”
I stuck my hand under the gap and waved my fingers around like a nude glove puppet. I heard a grunt, a turn of a roll dispenser and something being pressed into my hand. I pulled it back and there in my grasp was a sheet of soft white paper. I had spoken to Dean Potter. I panicked now, re-flushed the toilet, exited the cubicle and quickly left the room leaving Dean famous and alone. I ran into the light.
“Kevin, Kevin, I spoke to Dean. I spoke to him and he gave me this.”
I waved the sheet like a flag of surrender.
“He gave you that, Dean did?”
“Yes, he was in the cubicle beside me and I asked him for it and he passed it to me.”
“Is he still there?”
“Yes. Go and get yourself a sheet.”
Kevin made to go toward the entrance when Dean burst out of the building, turned sharply right, got straight into a truck and drove off. Another truck followed. In no time the crowd that had hummed in the parking lot seemed to evaporate and we were left, as usual, alone.
We went climbing again that day and in the days that followed and I think it took Kevin a day or two to get over his jealousy of me, especially as I kept going on about being within Dean’s aura and how sublime that felt.
“I can’t describe it Kevin. Only those who have been there would understand.”
The sheet of toilet paper itself got lodged onto the dashboard, one corner under an air vent. It became the subject of some discussion and we were curious if it had been imbued with some of the aura, soaking it up like acid onto blotting paper. A concentrated super-hit of Dean-ness.
In my Catholic past my mother would sometimes produce little medals from religious holiday destinations. These had small glassy centres and set in the glass were squares of frayed cotton. I was told these were cuttings from the cloak of St Anthony or from St Christopher’s trousers. A piece of wood maybe, chipped from the One True Cross. She would wear the medals and make me kiss the glassy bits on Sundays or other feasts. They were called relics, although I’m pretty sure she got the joke.
Dean Potter relics. There could be a prophet in that. I suggested we chopped the paper up into 200 pieces, set it in resin and sell it in Moab at twenty dollars a hit to Potter Pilgrims. Four grand, I said to Kevin. Four grand.
But ultimately, like most failed businessmen, we never got round to it. Our time together was nearing an end and we had lined up Primrose Dihedral as our last climb. The big one. Kevin drove his truck down the roughshod trail late one desert afternoon and we camped that night under the mighty totem of Moses. In the early morning we stared at the line over cups of coffee and as the caffeine hit our bowels we looked at each other, both as of one mind realising what we must do.
I went to the dashboard and freed the sheet. It was somewhat drier now but I wiggled it and loosened one of the plys from the other. I handed Kevin one of the magical gossamers and took the other myself. We both went off behind our respective rocks and with my eyes on the summit I carried out my ritual. Swiped, I then took a lighter from my pocket and holding the relic by a corner set fire to it. A small blackened ghost left the earth in the desert wind.
The climb. Intense. We both struggled on the first three pitches. I felt awkward and lacking commitment but on the fourth pitch I started coming up. A new flow aome over us both whereupon corners, cracks and walls went flapping by no harder than feathers. Such things as belays seemed tiresome chores. We summited and looked out, or in, at the world and its great forces, at the patterns in the cosmos.
I couldn’t help myself but quote from Ted Hughes’ poem, Crow.
“An egg of blackness
Where sun and moon alternate their weathers
To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
“Nevermore,” he responded.
We embraced. Magically a black bird appeared and circled the tower. In its caw I heard the fabric of everything and understood where we fitted it.
“The air,” the bird said. “Not only mine. Yours too. Come.”
Perhaps. Mundanely, we rappelled Pale Fire back to the red ground.
I have lost touch with Kevin and hope he’s doing well, but still there was one part of the episode we didn’t touch upon at the time but which I often find myself reflecting upon today. It remains the true fascinating jewel in the whole thing and through it I fancy I see into another life. It is this:
When I asked Dean to pass me some toilet paper he passed me one sheet. One single sheet no more than five inches by five. I think that’s fascinating. What did he think I could do with one sheet of toilet paper in that situation? Is that all he needs? Or did he have me figured as a goon and was tossing the gag back at me? Did the bird tell him? Was he actually telling me I shouldn’t waste so much and this one square would suffice? A metaphor? Did he think I was wasting my life? Am I still wasting it, Dean.
Niall is working on a compilation book of his articles from across the years. For more of his writing follow Niall on Twitter: @grimerclimber
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