I’d never heard of anyone bringing a cat to the cliff until I helped a couple in a van look for their lost kitty at the Superbowl camping area in Indian Creek one fall night in 2007. They’d been out for the weekend and it was time to leave, but the cat was nowhere to be found in the desert twilight. They searched a couple hours and gave up in the darkness as the yellow glow of our fire glimmered against the ring of dead, bone-white oak trees under the stars. The coyotes howled in the distance and I gave up any hope that the cat was still alive even then. It was a sad moment that ultimately twisted into a happy reunion, for the couple returned the next weekend and the cat came strutting back as if nothing were amiss during its week in the wild.
For a long time, that was the only crag cat I knew of until my fiancée and I encountered a couple guys with a yellow tabby in Rifle Mountain Park in 2010. The striped gato was on an extend-o leash that got tangled up in the trees while the two pot-bellied men smoked cigarettes and contemplated the glassy holds on a 5.10 that reflected the sun like chrome wheels.
“What’s this route?” one of them asked.
They didn’t seem to have much idea what they were doing. I told them the route was a notoriously slippery 5.10 and that if they were set on doing the route right then, it might be wise to use my stickclip to protect the crux at the bottom.
“I haven’t done a 5.10 before,” said one, but he sacked up, his cigarette still in his lips, and they started slipping and swinging away with abandon. Mandi and I couldn’t bear to watch any more and took off. I might not have remembered them so well if it wasn’t for the leashed tabby prowling around the belay with its little chest harness.
Mandi later dubbed them “the Chuckos with the cat on a leash.” We saw them many more times that season and the season after that, and they always had the sly Chester on his extend-o chest harness, leaping around in the bushes while they chain smoked. They were nice guys and we got to know them a little. One was from Grand Junction and the other from Boulder, and they met at Rifle almost every weekend, where they would go off by themselves on easy routes and seemingly reinvent the sport of climbing according to their own understanding and motivations, with no apparent care for improving style. Simply getting to the top appeared to be enough for them, and their safety habits looked to be self-taught. We couldn’t help chuckling about the Chuckos with the cat – I certainly felt a little bad for it, but the more I got to know them, the more the nickname seemed to stick, unlike their feet on the rock.
Climbers tend to be rather unusual people anyway, but it’s been my experience that climbers who bring cats to the crag are in a whole new subset, especially if we’re talking about a man with a cat at the cliff. For example, this last spring I met a woman who had her feline with her at Rifle’s Sno Cone Wall and I didn’t think much of it. “Hmmm, maybe I’m actually getting used to cats at the cliff,” I thought, because it hardly seemed unusual, like everyone was suddenly doing this. Then I met a lanky man with a bald-shaved head as I walked into Rifle’s Wasteland Cave one morning with my dog.
The man had been camping out of his Prius in the canyon all summer and held a smoke-colored cat in his arms as I walked toward him on the footpath.
“Is your dog friendly with cats?” he asked, his large hand stroking the head of the feline in slow, heavy pets, like a villain in a James Bond movie.
“Sure, my dog is good,” I started to say but he cut me off.
“Because Meow Meow is really high right now.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him right until he went on to explain that Meow Meow had “eaten a nugget” of marijuana off the floorboards of his car and was likely to freak and run away and never come back if my dog spooked it.
The man was simply a different kind of dude. Some of my friends got to know him better than I did – commenting how he’d lose Meow Meow almost every day and go driving around the canyon calling after him – but I never established much of a personal connection. He was normal enough and nice enough, but definitely different, clicked into his own unique way of living.
I like to think of myself as someone who celebrates diversity. But when something seems odd to a person, can he or she help that? Sometimes it seems like climbing culture is getting weirder right in front of my eyes, even as it continues to become as mainstream as ever. I’m not saying the weirdness is a bad thing. Just that it’s weird. And it does make the cliff more interesting, just like this story.
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Derek Franz writes for SplitterChoss.com the first week of every month. To find more of his writing, visit derekfranz.com.