Climbing to Freedom

IN THE SUMMER OF 1972, I was living the simple life of a normal dirtbag, disaffected, counter to the mainstream-culture, climber of the time. The mainstream of the time, exemplified by Vietnam, conspicuous consumption, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, ran counter to the values, dreams and humanity of many but certainly not all American climbers of the era, and the dirtbag temptations included a freeform lifestyle in which I was most comfortable. That summer I roamed around western America in a 1965 green VW camper van with a built-in bed and some shelves for a stove and accessories to whatever sparsely populated mountains and crags—Yosemite, Lover’s Leap, Tahquitz, City of Rocks, Sawtooth, Wasatch and the Tetons—attracted the compass of the day, with sporadic detours to hot springs, folk/rock concert gatherings and even visits with friends whose homes had foundations rather than wheels.

My marriage had exploded a few months earlier, and I inhabited an emotional/psychic wasteland in which any reminder of my wife and our year-old son caused me to want to crawl into a deep, dark hole in the earth and never come out again or climb any of the steep, bright mountains and rock faces rising out of it. There is a great deal of freedom, though not much nutrition, clear thinking or good judgment in such landscapes, and climbing provided a healthy balm against the bleak demons residing there. As with the physical body, happiness itself requires more nutrition than sex, drugs and rock and roll can provide, and without it the skeletal bones of thought and judgment break easily. The words of Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee” resonated across the barrens:

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free”

One completely unexpected aspect of the fallout from the explosion was being contacted by an ex-girlfriend, nicknamed White Lightning. We had not communicated in years and our last attempts to do so had not been friendly, but we had a four-year-old son in common, she said I should get to know him and White Lightning suggested that they join me. Though she was not a climber, it seemed to be a possible ray of light in the darkness, but it was not and within a couple of months we would part again.


Dorworth, BITD

Dorworth Collection

My road, like all roads, was less congested and freer in 1972. Destinations and down times were often determined by where and when appropriate climbing partners were available. Early that summer, I climbed for a week with a buddy at the City of Rocks, Idaho, and never saw another climber. There were no guidebooks, so we would wander around until we saw something that looked like a route. Every now and then we would find a piton or a sling in place. There were no campgrounds, and so we set up camp wherever was convenient and close to water. Occasionally a local rancher would drive by and scowl at us, for “we” were long-haired, suspicious-looking people who spent their time crawling up the granite domes and spires that were their (the ranchers’) backyard, and “they” were hard-working, honest, short-haired, reliable Mormons. There were no restaurants in the nearest town, Almo, and the one store, Tracy’s, did not sell beer, so we learned to be self-contained. Since that time the earth’s population has doubled and the number of climbers in North America has much more than doubled. Any modern climber who visits the City will today enjoy restaurants, which sell all the alcohol money can buy (as does Tracy’s), a fine hot springs (Durfees), a hotel/motel, and more than 100 designated campsites that cost more for a night than we lived on for a week. Climbing is now a part of the mainstream from which we fled, and through writing, guiding and my part in the Fun Hog expedition and film I am as guilty as any of helping make it so. I still climb as often as possible at the City, but now I find freedom in the microcosm, focusing on the move at hand, whether it be a nubbin on a smooth face, a just right sized crack or a terrifying sloping mantle, each more significant in the present moment than rebelling against demented authority or surviving an emotional wasteland.

I MADE MY LIVING IN THOSE DAYS from teaching and coaching skiing, a few writing assignments, the rare construction stint, a month in Chile or Argentina coaching ski racing and the occasional gig as a climbing guide. When winter arrived, I would hunker down in a ski resort. A few years before I had tried swimming in the mainstream, including a year spent as a graduate student with the idea of becoming a professor and a few months in a San Francisco office, but I simply didn’t fit and couldn’t discern the value others placed in such efforts and I scurried back home to the mountains where I belonged. Such a lifestyle has never been conducive to stability, though whether the instability and its attendant pains and confusion are a consequence or a cause of peripatetic lifestyle is an interesting puzzle to ponder, and I did and still do. The closest I’ve come to an answer is in the Buddhist concept of The Middle Way: to live between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence instead of on or over the edge of either.

Come early August, White Lightning, our son and I were camped in the van in a secret spot by the Snake River between Wilson and Jackson Hole, where the water and wind masked all but the loudest trucks on the nearby road. On a morning when the Teton air was as clear as innocence, I was enjoying my coffee and watching ducks play in the riffles when a car I recognized came down the dirt road. Chuck Pratt emerged from a VW squareback and hobbled my way bent over like a crippled, smiling leprechaun. “I bring you great riches,” he declared with his usual understated, literary directness.


Memories: Dorworth's '64 bus, the Tetons, and an image of the late Chuck Pratt riding shotgun.

Montage by Brad Rassler

Chuck had somehow slipped a disc the night before and was barely able to walk, much less climb. He had a guiding client about to arrive in Rock Springs, some four hours south, and knew that I might be amenable to the great riches of guiding at a new destination—the Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Range. Pratt was a master of many aspects of life, including climbing and the minute details of his own often-solitary existence. More than two decades later I would work with Pratt as an Exum guide and live on Guide’s Hill as his neighbor. I would marvel at the firewood around his cabin, each piece stacked with the precision of considered thought, looking like the work of a master stonemason. The wooden clothespins on his clothesline, impregnated with linseed oil, looked like small pieces of fine woodwork. Some evenings, I would simply watch Pratt split firewood on a tree-round chopping block. He swung his ax with grace and a respect for minimalist efficiency. It always brought to mind the Zen maxim “Chop wood, carry water,” pointing the practitioner toward each moment and task with complete focus on the present, free of the carried burdens of the past and the anticipated dreams of the future.

Chuck soon illuminated and organized the darkness of my vast ignorance of the Cirque: how to get there, where to camp and what climbs were likely suitable. He also informed me that his client had been referred by Doug Robinson in the Sierra, and he had no idea how well she climbed.

Would I meet her at the Rock Springs airport, in seven hours?


Chuck had already bought most of the food, and he donated it to the cause. As would only be expected of an honors graduate of the Camp 4 Dirtbag School of Economics (and much more), Chuck’s food bag contained the very latest in reasonably priced, lightweight, easy-to-cook dinners for backcountry gourmands: Nissin instant noodles, later popularized as Ramen. I had never seen them before, but Chuck was always full of interesting surprises, and I ate Ramen likely more than was good for me over the next thirty years.

WE MET ELIZABETH THAT EVENING. This trim, dark-haired, well-groomed woman in her mid-forties adapted immediately and graciously to the unexpected circumstance. If she was disappointed at having some scruffy, unknown dirtbag, accompanied by White Lightning and a four-year-old boy, replace the iconic, well-known dirtbag Chuck Pratt, she never showed it. She expressed concern about Chuck’s back, and we spent the next day and a half getting our gear and ourselves into Lonesome Lake—Elizabeth, Lightning and the boy all performed this arduous task much better than anticipated. There are few places as pristine and beautiful and with such quality climbing and comfortable camping as was the Cirque of Towers in 1972. The colors of the deep-green meadow grass on the trail into the turquoise Lonesome Lake have not changed in the intervening years. Neither have the spectacular shapes and presence of the Wind River Mountains, though there are far more climbers, hikers, horseback riders—and impact—today.

Elizabeth turned out to be a charming, intelligent, well-educated, happily married housewife and mother of two who lived in the Midwest. Her husband was a successful executive with a large company. Every summer, she hired local guides to climb with her in a different mountain range of America. She had done this for several years, and it made sense to me. We had a fine week climbing moderate routes on the excellent granite of the Wind River Range. Elizabeth was never rattled, never complained and worked through every difficult move with a quiet, determined grace that exuded an obvious gratefulness for the moment instead of a battle with the stone. At the end of every pitch she complimented her guide and noted the fine weather, quality of rock, the spectacular views across the valley or the sight of the tents by the lake. She seemed to have a better appreciation of the experience than many I have guided.

One dark night, over a superb Nissin noodle feast, I asked Elizabeth how she had gotten into climbing. She did not immediately respond, savoring a few bites of dinner while she gazed into the campfire. Then she recounted a story that put climbing into a stark, perhaps primordial perspective, one that I’d never entertained or needed to entertain. Until then, I’d always held that one of the attractions of climbing is that, at least for the duration of the route, the physical/emotional/mental demands of the move at hand (sic) free the climber from the insecurities, conundrums, confusion and the mundane and dramatic traumas of the rest of life. In that freedom is clarity and strength that persist even after the climb is finished—for an hour, a day, a year or a lifetime, depending on the person and the significance of the climb. Climbing is not for every person and no two climbers climb for the same reasons or have the same experiences or learn the same lessons, but freedom is a word or at least a concept most climbers will identify with their efforts. For me, climbing, like skiing, provides the freedom of focusing mind, body and emotion into the present moment, the only moment that exists, and offers an escape from the baggage of all the past and future which don’t exist but which certainly burden the unfocused mind, heart and body. But when I heard Elizabeth’s tale, I learned more about the significance of such freedoms and the relative meanings of the very word than I’d learned in all my thirty-four years.

Her speech revealed no accent, so I was surprised to hear that Elizabeth had been born an Austrian Jew in the late 1920s. By the time she was fourteen she was an exile in France, and then one of the fortunate few to be smuggled across the Pyrenees into Spain to avoid German concentration camps. A Basque gentleman from a small village in France who was familiar with the Pyrenees guided her group of Jewish refugees through the mountains. The journey was arduous, dangerous, frightening and involved rain, snow and unprotected climbing as consequential as being captured by the Nazi patrols. In due time, Elizabeth made it from Spain to America. The details of her flight were not made clear to me, but today there is an annual “Chemin de la Ĺiberte,” a forty-mile hike across the Pyrenees to commemorate those fortunate enough to have escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. The journalist Edward Stourton, who made the hike in 2011, wrote,

“The Chemin de la Ĺiberte (in English, the freedom trail or route) takes four days. It involves climbing 4,570m (15,000ft) up and 3,350m down. The weather changes as if someone has hit the fast-forward button on the seasons. We experienced dank drizzle, boiling heat, freezing mists, snow underfoot and then more heat in quick succession. There was a point to putting myself through all this. Every time I interviewed a survivor who had done it ‘for real’ during World War II, I found myself brought up short by the chasm that separated my own experiences from theirs.”

Elizabeth and her group made the journey in two days and two nights, without stopping to sleep.


Fleeing over the Pyrenees

Some fifteen years after crossing the Pyrenees, she returned to the Basque village to thank her guide. She found the gentleman, who was astonished when Elizabeth introduced and explained herself. She was equally astonished to hear from him that by the end of WWII he had helped hundreds of refugees (not all of them Jewish) cross to Spain, and that Elizabeth was the only one who had returned.

After a few days of getting to know her old guide and his family and friends, and telling her story, she hired him to retrace their path of fifteen years earlier. This time, there was no need to hide from Nazis, no hurry or necessity to take risks, no fear. They had comfortable camping gear and sufficient food, and could converse freely and loudly. When the climbing got serious they used a rope. When they grew tired they rested. They took time to appreciate the scenery, listening to the sounds of streams and wind in the trees instead of for their hunters, smelling the meadows and flowers instead of their own acrid fear. When they arrived at the Spanish border, Elizabeth experienced a very different sense of freedom than on the first crossing. The first time, she had nothin’ left to lose except her life—that is, everything, the only thing she had left to lose. The second time, she had a rich life of freedom and, perhaps just as important, a hard-earned knowledge of its true, organic value. And so, every year since, she had climbed for a week or two to be reminded of what, exactly, her new life meant.

In the process, Elizabeth enhanced and expanded my own experience of climbing. It took a few years, but I eventually crossed the wasteland into the priceless, cornucopia of organic life in the free world, some of it on the road, some of it by rivers and streams, much of it moving up and down mountains. She did not tell me so, but after many years of thinking of her and her story I concluded that she was able to let go of anger, fear, heartache and loss and embrace the present moment just as it is, and, more, to be consciously grateful for that moment, the move at hand. If she had not let go, she might not have made it across the Pyrenees, or sought out a Basque gentleman years later to express her gratitude, or spent a week each year experiencing and being reminded of the true meaning of climbing to freedom. It took 40 years before I chose to write about her, but all those years were informed and reflected, sometimes consciously, by Elizabeth’s example. So, thank you, Elizabeth.

Dick Dorworth has skied and climbed in Europe, Asia, Alaska and South America, but he’s spent most of his life in the mountains of the West. He ski raced from 1950 through 1965 and set the world record for speed on skis in Portillo, Chile in 1963. Dorworth taught and coached skiing for years, served as coach of the U.S. Ski Men’s Team, and later was the Director of the Aspen Mountain Ski School. Dorworth was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2012. His writing has appeared in Ski, Skiing, Powder, Snow Country, Mountain Gazette, Men’s Journal, Climbing, New West, Mariah, Wild Duck Review, Summit, and Backpacker.

“Climbing to Freedom” is the first chapter from the book of the same name, Dorworth’s latest. Climbing to Freedom is “a collection of intensely personal stories of climbing, rock climbing and alpinism, around the world,” including profiles, meditative essays, and two selections of mountaineering fiction.

Night Driving, Dorworth’s first book, was published in 2007 by First Ascent Press. The Perfect Turn, a collection of Dick’s ski writing — ranging from expedition accounts, to biographies of remarkable and particularly engaging skiers, to ski fiction — won the Ski History Association prize for the best new ski book of the year. Dorworth’s next book, The Straight Course, a memoir of speed skiing adventures around the world in the ’60s, was published the following year. To purchase a limited edition of the hardback version of Night Driving, which includes additional essays, contact Dorworth through his blog, here.

Today Dorworth lives in Ketchum, Idaho in winter where he skis on his favorite mountain, Baldy, or in the backcountry. In summer he lives in Bozeman, Montana and climbs.on the many local crags. He writes all year.


The story was originally published in Alpinist magazine.

The name of the young girl whose photograph appears on the title page is Esther Gross. Her image was captured in Trzebinia, Poland, by Elimelech Gross. The photo was submitted to the Yad Vashem Photo Archive in 1986, by Yehoshua Bichler. Trzebinia was a forced labor camp situated about 12 miles from Auschwitz. In 1944, a group of girls about Esther’s age arrived at Trzebinia. The camp was bombed by the Allies later that year. It is not known whether Esther Gross survived.