My Friend Lee: A Story About Mentors

Five summers ago, I met this guy named Lee Smith while climbing with a big group of people at Castlewood Canyon. At the end of the day, I think he said something like, “Give me a call if you ever want to do some trad climbing.”

What he should have said was, “Wanna be friends? It will last for years, and include bad jokes, dark humor, pre-dawn meetings in parking lots, post-dusk hikes back into parking lots, pain, sweating, bushwhacking, freezing, getting lost, getting scared, and then we’ll talk about how fun it all was later.”

Or, “How about I teach you to lead trad climbs?” Which means: “Hey, have you ever smoked crack? Let me hold the pipe for you.”

I remember where I was when Lee told me he was getting divorced back in 2009: At the base of Wind Ridge in Eldo on Martin Luther King Day, racking up to do the 5.8 start. We talked about relationships, and climbed. As I started to lead the third pitch, I pulled the awkward moves on the roof, desperately pawing for handholds with one stopper between me and broken talus on the belay ledge, Lee calmly said, “Your nut just fell out.”

Lee got divorced, a few months after I had gone through my own much younger divorce. Then I met a new girl, and he met a new girl. Then things didn’t work out with his new girl, and he met another way awesomer girl. Then things didn’t work out with my new girl. We climbed in Eldo, in the Flatirons, Boulder Canyon, on Lumpy Ridge, in Rocky Mountain National Park, everywhere in Colorado it seems like. One time we did a quick alpine route on Mount Evans, and when it took us a half-hour to find someone willing to give two dirty climbers a ride back down the road to our car at Summit Lake, I said to Lee,

“You know, if you were better looking, or a woman, we’d have gotten a ride 20 minutes ago.” Actually, he might have said that to me. I can’t remember. Neither of us are very funny, but we are prolific.

Lee taught me how to place gear, build anchors, talk to myself while leading scary pitches, and how to sharpen crampons and swing ice tools. You can’t really take a quick course on mountaineering and leading trad climbs — you have to either seek out someone willing to take you out and teach you everything they know, or you get lucky.

I got lucky. I went from following Lee up White Whale on Lumpy Ridge and having no idea if cams and nuts would hold a fall, to swinging leads with him, sometimes taking up the slack during his high-gravity days. He’s 20 years older than me and I’ve never once kept up with him on an approach hike.

Five years ago, Lee took me on my first alpine climb, the North Ridge of Mount Toll in the Indian Peaks. It was cold the day we did it, belaying in the shade at 12,000 feet when it was 90 degrees an hour away in Denver. I remember I wore these mushy purple Five Ten Spires, my first-ever pair of climbing shoes, and how rad I thought it was pulling 5.6 moves on a ridge with a goddamn mountaineering axe lashed to my pack. Then we got showered with graupel on the summit. It was a big day.

A couple weeks ago, Lee and I decided to go back and try the North Ridge again, kind of an anniversary climb. Except it was October, and a lot colder. Windchill forecast for the altitude we’d be climbing at was -2. We took ice tools and crampons and planned to climb the route in mountaineering boots.

After 3 1/2 miles of approach, we scrambled up loose talus partially buried in new snow. Five years later, I said to Lee, we are wiser, but no less foolish. He laughed. Then I broke off a flake the size of a bowling pin with my left hand. I handed it down to Lee and said, Here, you want this handhold?

At the base of the climb the wind ripped over the ridge, first only about 30 mph, then 40. I stood in the shadow, longing to be 150 feet away in the sun, where it was probably 45 degrees. I flaked the rope and ran in place while Lee racked up and tried to get some feeling back in his fingers. As he led up the first pitch, my hands went numb, then my toes. It was dumb, but not dangerous yet. When my nose and upper lip went numb a bit suddenly, I yelled up to Lee and made a slashing motion across my throat, like fuck this shit, let’s get out of here.

We bailed, circle around to the west side and scrambled up a 4th-class route to the summit through the snow, took a couple photos up top, and slogged out the descent and get some pizza down in Nederland. And that was another day of five years of days up in the big hills with my goofball friend, who I almost wouldn’t recognize if he wasn’t wearing a helmet and a 30-liter pack.

I don’t think Lee and I would be friends if it wasn’t for climbing, as is probably true with a lot of friendships in the outdoors — you meet people you would have never been open to if they had just sat down next to you at a bar or a coffee shop. If I was just looking for a climbing partner, there would be a lot of times in the past five years I might have tried to find someone who was stronger or ballsier than me, somebody who would push me and get me on harder routes. But you climb with someone long enough, and they become your friend. And I’d rather climb with my friends.

Plus Lee comes up with a few new jokes every couple weeks.


10 replies on “My Friend Lee: A Story About Mentors

  • Aaron F

    Every once in a while we find good people in this life, people that make our hearts happy. Remembering them can be as prolific as finding them.

  • Mtnlee

    “We are wiser but no less foolish”. Damn I love that saying.
    Thanks for the awesome tribute Sir Brendan, of which I am not sure I deserve. Five years ago I thought, “This punk has the spirit; perhaps we could make a climber out of him”. It was an understatement. But it is you who made yourself the incredible semi-rad climber you are today. I just held the crack pipe.
    I wish I was as eloquent as you and I could tribute right back at Ya. But since I ain’t, I’ll just say this: You wanna do something stupid in the mountains next weekend?

  • Eric O'Rafferty

    Thanks for that. I can completely relate. You do end up climbing with some people you’d probably never even try to engage with otherwise. Mostly, I’m the richer for it. The rest? Well, that makes for some good stories!

  • @ginabegin

    Love your post, as always, Brendan. I agree about making friends with the folks who are out there risking their life along side you on the wall. It creates a pretty strong bond; hard to break. In fact, I have stayed friends with my climbing friends longer than any other friends even after we have all long been separated by miles. For some reason, that climbing bond remains and keeps us connected.

    Thanks for sharing your story of your friend here. (BTW, did he accept the handhold? 😉

  • Titanium

    This has got to be one of the toughest things to wrap words around, and you did it with finesse. Guys like Lee are few, very far between and pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime find.

    Fully, fully rad. Both of you.

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