Posted on: November 27, 2006

Chongo Planet

In response to the letter about Chongo Chuck ("Letters," Issue 14), I'd like to present an alternative perspective. During spring break 1988, when I was still an undergrad at the University of Washington, I hitchhiked to Joshua Tree with a backpack full of climbing gear and my banjo. My first night, a strange man wandered through the parking lot gathering people to go on a trip through the "Great Chasm." Nobody could tell me what this place was, but soon an international assortment of climbers was tentatively following this weird, somewhat short, beer-bellied guy into the rocks.

"No lights," he kept saying. "Absolutely no lights." Eventually, after some heated negotiations in German, all headlights were off, and Chuck took us down a narrow corridor. For the next forty-five minutes, he led fifteen of us through a unique sensory odyssey, single file, deep under the main cliffs, through the "Cookie Oven," a tight slot you have to lie down and slither through (so called because "it'll let you know if you've been eating too many cookies," according to Chuck. No one grunted and cursed going through more than he did). Winding halls of high-desert granite ended in a forty-foot vertical chimney. In the dark there was no telling how far off the ground we were—a spooky and exhilarating end to the experience. Afterward, everyone walked back to the parking lot in subdued, blissful reverence. That night the bonfires, songs, stories, slacklining and Hacky Sacking all seemed tinged with magic.


Five years later my life was drastically different. Rather than the next climbing trip, the next road tour with my rock band, Sage, consumed my every waking moment. En route to the South, we had one night off between LA and Flagstaff, and I harangued my bandmates into doing a layover in J-Tree. Shamefully, I didn't even have a pair of rock shoes with me.

As imperturbable as an astronomical event, Chongo was making the rounds again. It took me a bit of work to convince Marc, our dainty-fingered guitar player, to come, but soon the three of us joined the swelling group. Chuck had even more trouble getting through the "Cookie Oven" this time ("Too many Safeway cookies," he muttered). Marc's face was so pale by the top of the final chimney that it was the first light I'd seen in almost an hour. This experience broke down barriers for us, making us a better band and better people, too. Chuck has probably led thousands of people like us on that journey for free, for fun.

I'm currently a home-owning, family-supporting musician/builder who can deal with all the crap daily legitimacy demands because I know people like Chuck still survive. The Chongo I met would have shared anything with me, though he didn't have more than could fit in his Dodge Dart. His lengthy handstands (he claims that his "well-marbled" belly only aids him) and his slacklining grace are unrivaled. I've never met anyone with a more deeply rooted love and absolute dedication to the climbing life. He's the heart of what climbing is about.

I understand that the ranger is just trying to do his job, but he needs to remember how impossible it is to squeeze all of humanity's varied permutations into set rules. Sometimes, an enforcer needs to take a compassionate, flexible approach to the law and realize that the overall goal is harmony. Any national park is an intersection zone, where nature and humans collide; I propose that Chongo Chuck be considered more on the nature end of those encounters. As such, the ranger, who seemed most concerned about Chuck's illicit "scarfing," should consider clumping the Chongo problem with the more-pressing Yosemite bear problem. Lock up the food and let them both be. That way all that suffers will be Chuck's well-marbled belly.

—Guy Davis, Seattle, Washington

[Illustration] Tami Knight

Basketball, Anyone?

In a three-hour reading of a brilliant Issue 16 (I mean this), I saw a few fuckups.

Page 15: Sierras. Are there two in California? Please put the singular on your style sheet.

Page 43: The caption says "sixty pitons." Elsewhere, correctly, the article calls them "sixty bolts." Very poor.

Page 51: Jardine, not Jardin. Very insulting. Apologize to the poor fellow.

Page 66: The claim that Harvey T. Carter has done 5,000 new routes (Page 66) is patently absurd. Wilt Chamberlain fucked 10,000 women? Equally absurd. For HTC to do this [climbing—Ed.], assuming forty-five years, that's a new route every 3.3 days. If we count his entire seventy-four years, that's a new route every 5.4 days. We should all be so prolific! See my book, Camp 4, Pages 88-89, for a rather different view of the man.

I despair. You have the finest climbing mag ever done, yet it could be 0.01 percent better.

—Steve Roper, Berkeley, California

Large Junk

Though I enjoy a bit of history as much as the next guy, if I ever have to bear witness again to a photo of Senor Largo's junk packed so tightly into a pair of 1978 grape smugglers (Back-cover ad, Issue 16), I will be forced to gouge my eyes out with a rusty Crack-n-Up. Holy cameltoe country!

—Mike Tea, Denver, Colorado


Just got Issue 16 because I was up in Michigan kayaking and drinking Labatts. Re: Richard Sale ("Letters," Issue 16): man, if he objects to Samantha Sacks' "Revision of History" (Issue 15), he won't much like what I've said about his nasty little book in the AAJ. The ironic thing about his letter is that the idea that [Marcus] Schmuck and [Fritz] Winterstellar "disappeared into obscurity" is practically the premise of his Broad Peak book—hardly a notion of Sacks. In addition, he can scarcely admit to owning half the publishing company [Carreg] and also claim, in the same breath, that his book is not self-published (what other books has Carreg published to date?). Although Sale claims to be a champion of truth, the main impression his book leaves on a sensible reader is that it's biased. The last line of my review is something like: "Avoid this muck." But perhaps I should have just ignored the book altogether.

—David Stevenson, Macomb, Illinois

Czech, Mate

Two things bother me about Issue 16. Ms. Destivelle's ascent of the Bonatti Route ("Mountain Profile: The Matterhorn," Issue 16) was undeniably a magnificent achievement, but it certainly was not, as implied by the French press at the time, and to a certain extent by the excellent Herve Barmasse article, the second ascent of the route. The Bonatti Route was in fact climbed four times within two and a half years of the first ascent: by a Polish team, August 1966; by Czechs, that same month; by Czechs, again, March '67 and August '67. During my first season in the Mont Blanc Massif in 1968 (gulp), I met one of the Czechs in the Col de la Fourche hut. He was just off to try to make the third ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney (he would turn back in bad weather). He told me he'd climbed the Bonatti Route in August, and it was the coldest he'd ever been in his life. Quite possibly, Ms. D.'s was the second solo ascent of the route.

Mr. Parnell's article on the Piolet ("Victors of the Unwinnable") was very good, but "British racing driver Nikki Lauda?" Come on! [Lauda is Austrian—Ed.]

—Lindsay Griffin, Gwynedd, Great Britain

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