Posted on: December 1, 2002
PFC Steve Roper
March 18, 1965
It was extremely good to hear from you after all these months. You may be certain that once you are free and with us again, the army will never be mentioned. As you say, there is never any need for the subject to be discussed by those of us who have "served." I know and understand only too well what it is like. So on to other things.
Your letter asked many questions which are important to you and knowing you as I do, I was able to read a great deal between the lines. Some of your questions are easy to answer and I'll start with the least complicated ones. I have been working at Gerry's for one month now. [Steve] Komito is still there but he has only one week left before leaving for California to join Doug Tompkins in The North Face. Gerry's has treated Komito and all others who have worked there like shit. And believe me, [Gerry] Cunningham is literally going to pay for this. Every demonstration of pettiness and intolerance on the part of these profit-mongering, vegetized unpeople is going to hurt them where it hurts most—right in their goddamned wallets.
Komito has continued to perform many favors and acts of kindness for me and for many other climbers. Colorado's loss is definitely California's gain. I hope that he will be treated well and will be happy there. He probably isn't fully aware of how many friends he has in the climbing world. I shall remain perhaps another month after he leaves, provided that I will be able to stomach Komito's replacement.
Tex [Boissier] is married and living in Boulder. I have seen him only twice since I've been here so I don't really know how he is, although many people have told me that he is not too happy because his wife makes life miserable for him. [Glen] Denny is back working in Yosemite. He didn't do too much climbing in the Valley last summer but he did have a great trip to South America. [Layton] Kor is as great and nervous as ever. Right now he is making a winter ascent of a route on Longs. He is climbing solo a lot now.
Everyone plans to hit Yosemite this year. Your guide has really sparked a lot of interest in the Valley, as I hoped it would. Climbers from Canada, SLC, Boulder and England are definitely going to arrive this spring.
I shall digress for awhile to slightly less savory subjects just to get them out of the way for more important questions, although right now I imagine that an early out is very important to you. There are three types of early release from active duty. One is the hardship discharge. It is the best because there is no specified time limit for release. A person may get out any time if his application is approved, but it is also the most difficult to obtain since it involves an extremely serious hardship at home (death of father, mother paralyzed type of thing) or serious problems with one's business. This is how [Yvon] Chouinard got out early. However this procedure involves all sorts of supporting documents from family physician, lawyer, accountants, etc., all difficult to forge.
Then there is an early out for enrolling in school. This is the surest way of getting out early but it involves enrolling in college somewhere because the army must have letters from the school accepting your application as well as evidence that you have paid tuition before an early out is granted.
I think the best way is the method I used. I was released ninety-two days early for seasonal employment. As far as the army is concerned, seasonal employment means cotton picking or corn harvesting or lobster fishing or some other such crap. So many guys have tried this ruse to get out early that they started clamping down when I was in. But, if you use some really far out job, seasonal in nature, they think it must be on the level. The weirder the better. I think you could use the same thing I did and have a good chance of getting out in September. I used a completely fictitious climbing school, wrote a letter to my C.O. which stated that I had been accepted as an instructor on condition that I could be released in September—and I got out.
Don't make the mistake of requesting an early out for something like corn harvesting or hay picking or some other type of farm work—the bastards know most of those are phony. But something far out and completely new to them like a climbing school will have a good chance of getting you out. You also have the advantage that there really is a climbing school in California now. I am sure Tompkins will let you use letterhead of the California Mountaineering Guide Service to add authenticity. I can also send along one of the brochures of the climbing school for verification of the school's existence. Then the ass-holes won't even have to bother to check up on it. Let me know when you are ready to start the thing and I'll send all necessary papers. I welcome the chance to screw them in any small way I can.
On to more pleasant things. Last Friday was Komito's last day at Gerry's. He left without shedding a tear. Although I think he would have appreciated some show of gratitude after three-and-a-half years of labor for the "company." He will be in Boulder for one more week and then take off for California. [Eric] Beck, [Mort] Hempel, Mac [Frank Magary] and others are preparing a rousing welcome for him which I hope may alleviate his feelings of sadness upon leaving a place (Boulder) that he loves.
Christ [Chris Fredericks] is down for the weekend to visit his girl. Yes, he has a girl now and is quite happy, even though his mining job at Climax is not too pleasant. While I am on the subject, I would like to deny any rumors or reports that you might have heard about me having a mistress. You should know better than that. There was a girl with whom I spent some time last summer, but she was in no way my mistress, nor could she ever be. I haven't seen her for several months and it is quite likely that I will never see her again. Boulder has been equally fruitless despite the promises of Kor that I would have a woman within three days. For years I've heard Boulder touted as the little Paris of America, but the fact remains that, after all, Boulder is in America, and therefore no different from any other city. The weather has remained miserable now for six weeks. I have been climbing three times since I arrived and probably won't be able to do too much more before I leave in April.
Which brings me to the climbing. The season is going to start like all other seasons. I have to work all summer because I'm broke. Kor has to work. [Royal] Robbins, [Tom] Frost and Chouinard are going to Europe in the early spring, etc., etc. The truth of the matter is that every one of us will be in Yosemite by the middle of April. Robbins, Frost and Chouinard really are going to Europe eventually, but only after they knock off all the climbs they didn't get done last year plus as many new ones as possible. Robbins, [John] Harlin, [Jim] McCarthy and others are going to Kangchangunga (spelling?) this year also. Kor will spend some time in Yosemite and then take off for Canada, Alaska, or Europe. As usual I have plans for the Tetons, Bugaboos and Wind Rivers but will undoubtedly spend another five months in the Valley.
When I was released from the army, I was faced for the first time in seven years with some real and very disturbing doubts about climbing as a way of life. Would I still be able to climb? Would I even have the same feeling for it? My doubts were partly erased by the Tahquitz trip and even further erased by our desert trip. Yet still I would not know until I was back in Yosemite. The questions I asked myself were the same ones you asked me. How long did I think I could go on climbing? Could I accept death in climbing as the final end result? Was I really finding meaning and value in this way of life or was it just an exciting, pseudo-adventurous game from which I derived some degree of self-glorification?
Last summer I found out. Never have I been so completely sure that the life I have been leading and the life I intend to continue to lead is right. Although climbing contains some ass-holes, they can be ignored. I will continue to climb until I am killed or until I am no longer physically capable of doing even the easiest routes. My feeling for the sport has not lessened in the least; if anything I am more enthusiastic than ever and I do not intend to change or modify my basic way of life in the slightest. Since my release I have found climbing even more satisfying and more personally valuable than ever before. Killed climbing? Do you think I would rather die in an automobile wreck or of old age brain rot, or in some ass-hole politician's war? I'm not going to let anything get in my way.
The army did teach me one thing. That doing something you don't want to do, especially when you are forced to do it by something like the army, is the complete negation of my own concept of freedom. As far as I am concerned, freedom has nothing to do with politics. To me, freedom means the right to travel, to participate unmolested in any goddamn activity you want and the freedom to choose your manner of death. I know exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it. There's nothing more to be said. Consider all the really great people you know—Chouinard, Hempel, Frost, Robbins. These are the people who do not change and remain the really sane, decent human beings in the world. As far as I am concerned, the rest are ass-holes, some sort of alien life-forms.
You say you have read Catch-22? I agree wholeheartedly with Yossarian's definition of the enemy: "Anyone who is trying to kill me." Likewise, I feel that my enemy is anyone who would, given the power to do so, attempt to restrict individual liberty and this includes all officials, law officials, army sergeants, communists, Catholics, and HUAC [the House on Un-American Activities Committee]. Of course I'm prejudiced but I cannot imagine a sport other than climbing which offers such a complete and fulfilling expression of individuality. And I will not give it up nor even slow down, not for man, nor woman nor wife nor god. Celine sums it all up beautifully in "Journey to the End of the Night:" "I piss on you all from a considerable height."
I sincerely hope that the army does not change you one whit. The Roper whom I knew should be the Roper who is now and who should remain after the army. Or, to paraphrase the Bible: "As Roper once was, so he should be." I accepted you as you were because I believed that your opinions and outlook were right. If society disagreed with you, society was wrong. The history of mankind is a history of 99.9 percent of the people being wrong. The enlightened few who remain must either be martyred or suffer self-imposed exile. I prefer exile to martyrdom and so I do not choose to mix with people beyond my narrow little circle of climbers and people of similar temperament. It is the world that is insane, not those few harmless individuals whom the world judges as insane. Remember this: we are not ordinary men and so we do not lead common-place lives. What we have chosen to follow is the right way. I am irrevocably committed to that way and every day I spend climbing confirms it. We are all waiting for you, the Valley is waiting, the desert will always be waiting. Hang on. Give those insane, inhuman sons-of-bitches their twenty-one months. If you come out the Roper I once knew, then you have won.
Chuck Pratt (1939-2000) was one of the main protagonists of Yosemite's Golden Age. In the time that followed the reception of the letter, Colorado regained Komito. Kor completed his ascent on Longs. Robbins, Frost and Chouinard went to Europe. Roper was sent to Vietnam, where he served without distinction. And Pratt remained committed to the end. —Ed.