On Mentoring (or, “Who is Craig Pack?”)

I was prompted to write this blog (updated for factual accuracy) after several friends asked me recently who Craig Pack is.  My answer is about five years late (for which I apologize to Craig), but perhaps it will shed some more light on the history of homo climbing and the importance of mentoring in the gay climbing community.  Thanks for reading!  — Todd

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to create and sustain an intergenerational community of queer climbers who learn from one another, share experiences, and become responsible for passing knowledge down to others.  For me (as with Erik Carlson and many other climbers in the San Francisco bay area), our climbing “careers” started with Craig Pack.

I started climbing sometime in 1998, and it was shortly thereafter (probably early 2000) that I first met Craig at the Mission Cliffs climbing gym in San Francisco.  Craig grew up in Fresno, California, a short drive from the Yosemite valley, where he learned to climb as a kid from the masters.  But it wasn’t the most welcoming place for gay people, and he experienced tremendous bigotry, some within the climbing community itself. When I met Craig, he was splitting his time between San Francisco and Truckee, near Donner Summit in Lake Tahoe.

Craig had been climbing for decades and had scaled miles upon miles of vertical terrain.  For Craig, climbing was as natural as walking, and anyone who climbed with Craig was always amazed that he seemed to walk up unprotected, slabby, vertical faces (in Joshua Tree, in Yosemite, in Tahoe, in Tuolumne), as if he was on level ground.  He was never flustered when climbing; his legs never shook; he just stepped with elegance, regardless of whether or not there was protection.  I would call it the grace of a dancer who just intuits where to step and how to move.

As I would later find out, Craig was not only one of the founding leaders of Stonewall Climbers (purportedly “Earth’s first lesbian, gay, and bisexual climbing club”), but he also won the gold at the Gay Games in Amsterdam in 1998.  He had established climbs in the Needles and the Sierras, with several first ascents and many seconds under his belt.  Shortly after we met, he taught me how to lead climb and helped me get (quite modestly!) “lead certified” at the gym.  I wasn’t the only one that he mentored.  There was easily a half-dozen or more gay climbers that Craig was patiently training, not to mention a network of LGBT climbers across north America with whom he climbed.  In the early 2000s, we began making multi-day climbing trips all over California and Nevada, mostly climbing trad (and mostly me following).  He was a generous and extraordinarily patient leader.  He taught me how to build and equalize anchors, how to place and remove gear, how to climb multi-pitch, and how to read routes and understand sequences.  He also trusted me to catch his falls (which rarely happened).  Although perhaps one of the easier routes we did together, the Regular Route on Fairview Dome in Tuolumne Meadows is one of my most memorable: At nearly 1,000 feet, the climb starts with a 5.9 crack, before culminating in a stemming sequence leading to a four-foot roof, and topping out on large flakes and ledgy features.  It’s widely considered one of the 50 best climbs in North America.  As I got stronger, we started doing more sport climbing, pushing and inspiring each other.  We climbed in Joshua Tree, Donner Summit, Lover’s Leap, Big Chief, Red Rocks, Bishop, the high Sierras, and many other places.  He not only taught me how to climb, but he also taught me (perhaps without consciously knowing it) how to teach others to climb.  In essence, he taught me to share the love, experience, and knowledge of climbing with others.

Five years ago this October, Craig was climbing alone in Donner Summit when he slipped, falling to the ground.  He was found hours later (thankfully his cell phone worked), with two shattered ankles, head trauma, and massive disc compression in his back.  He had to wear a mobility-limiting “turtle cast” for months and later, when the cast came off, he hauled his decimated body up and down the stairs in his house by his hands.  Full of pins and metal plates, both ankles became infected and required numerous surgeries.  The road to recovery has been unimaginably long and arduous.

Many people shake their heads when I bring up the issue of soloing, muttering things like ‘how can you be so crazy/stupid?’ or ‘I would never free solo’ (as if roped climbing will keep you 100% safe).  Craig had bouldered alone and soloed countless times before.  He was on his home terrain, climbing well within his ability, although the weather conditions were hardly ideal.  He wasn’t, comparatively speaking, that far off the ground (I remember how, to my astonishment, he free soloed the first 70 foot pitch of Prince of Darkness in Red Rocks, belayed me up, then lowered to get his jacket, and soloed it again).  I truly believe that soloing is right—and even sane and meaningful—for some people.  Craig climbed with such grace that “protection” was, perhaps, intended for others, like me, who over-thought climbing, who hesitated, whose feet fumbled and whose hands clenched the rock too tightly.  Every once in a while, when I stop thinking and simply climb, I embody—if only for a moment—that grace and elegance of movement that defined Craig’s style.

Since his accident, I find myself wanting to share climbing with other gay climbers by helping to create a community of people, who will, in turn, mentor other young climbers. In its best sense, mentoring is not one-directional, but rather a recursive relationship, in which the seasoned climber both shares his or her wealth of experience with others and is open to learning new things from (and approaching new challenges with) lesser experienced climbers.  After Craig’s accident, I felt a strange emptiness, but I also realized that my own role in the climbing community was changing – and that, perhaps, like Craig, I could give something back by sharing the knowledge, enthusiasm, and experiences that he shared with me.

In climbing, we are all somewhere along the shifting continuum of mentors and mentees.  Every mentor has something to learn from others and has something to teach.  And every mentee has something to teach and also has something to learn.  Sometimes our primary roles reverse themselves, unexpectedly, as mine did after Craig’s accident.  These interactions and relationships of teaching one another through respect and caring are what constitute a climbing community.  It’s something that I find to be the most compelling part of participating in Homo Climbtastic.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t add, as I’m sure Craig would appreciate, the unending stream of eye-candy is a nice touch, too.

8 thoughts on “On Mentoring (or, “Who is Craig Pack?”)

  1. I updated the post with a more accurate representation of what happened! It’s interesting how numbers get exaggerated over time, but the reality of your injury certainly doesn’t change. I hope you are doing okay. The point of my post is less about soloing (which we’ve all done in various gradations, whether high ball first bolts, scrambling, or full-on soloing) and more about mentoring. I think it’s interesting that soloing gets so much attention/discussion — that’s really not the point of my post. Never the less, it’s worth discussing!

  2. Thanks for that, Professor Presner. It makes me very happy to see the GLBT climbing community grow and organize, thanks to people like you and Alex. I miss climbing with you so much. I have never encouraged anyone to free solo to great heights, nor have I ever heard another rock climber do so. It is a personal choice, and one that many of the best rock climbers of all time decided to partake, not that I ever came close to reaching their abilities. For me it was a natural extension of wilderness backpacking, mountaineering, scrambling, and to have the option to climb even when a partner wasn’t available. When I learned to rock climb, there were no climbing gyms, so all rock climbing was dangerous exposure to the elements. All climbing was trad, as there were very few if any sport climbs. If bolts had been placed on a route, they were far apart, and “run out”. I have heard many older rock climbers express concern over the false sense of security that learning to climb in a gym can bring, especially when those new climbers first climb out side. I hope you all are safe, and I thank Erik for reminding us to be safe climbers. I was actually bouldering when my accident happened, and only 15ft up. Yes, I was alone so maybe you could call that soloing. Regardless, many climbers boulder higher than 15ft, and many lead climbers reach higher before clipping the first piece of protection. So please, don’t be too judge mental, as it is our differences that make us special. Climb-On! -Craig

  3. I’m sure some will disagree with me and I mean no offense or want to diminish Craig’s status as a mentor to you and others personally but free-soloing is not something I would consider a skill you want to encourage. He is lucky to be alive! Yes climbing with a rope is not always 100% safe but free-soloing is always 100% a risk. To me free-soloing is no diffent than bareback sex. Discuss!

    • This will, indeed, be an interesting discussion, and I’ve tried for quite a while to wrap my head around soloing. I think it’s a deeply personal decision. I don’t encourage anyone to do it, but I also respect the decision many of my friends have made, at various times, to embark on risky journeys such a soloing. As you probably intuited, I don’t think someone like Alex Honnold is “crazy” or “just waiting to die.” I think he’s incredibly grounded. Craig engaged in certain activities that I wouldn’t personally follow (I’ll tell you about spicey descents one day), but that’s also part of learning who you are and what you are capable of and comfortable doing. As Michel Foucault, the great French philosopher, once said, “everything is dangerous.”

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