The story of our desert tower-bagging mission actually starts in the mountains of California, so let me take you back.
Alex Honnold and I are full of bad ideas, and last summer we came up with an exceptionally terrible idea: We decided to climb all of the 14,000-foot peaks in California — a daunting task in and of itself, though to make it particularly heinous we planned to travel between each peak by bicycle despite the fact we had never road biked in our lives.
You see, Alex and I are similar in that we are both quite adept at underestimating the breadth of a challenge. (The fact that we aren’t big on planning probably doesn’t help matters.) I actually consider the underestimating to be an ironic strength of mine. There’s nothing quite like just diving in and seeing what happens, because it’s amazing what one can achieve when the gauntlet is thrown down. And fortunately, in the process of miscalculating Alex and I typically end up having a grand old experience.
Thinking our peak-bagging bike trip would be a fun, close-to-home climbing vacation we jokingly called it “The Sufferfest.” Well, the joke was on us: The trip ended up living up to its name and became one of the most prolonged and difficult experiences of our lives. But by some miracle, we survived the journey and made a little piece of Sierra climbing history in the process. On top of that I somehow amassed and edited the shaky video footage I shot on my point-and-shoot camera into a pretty funny short film about our misadventure (the film is currently touring with the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour.) The film has been well-received, and Outsidemagazine actually named it one of the best adventure films of 2013, heaping loaded praise on the film such as “Sufferfest probably won’t win any cinematography awards, but it’s funny as hell.” (Watch the full movie here.)
The Sufferfest was a traumatically awesome experience, and by the end of the adventure I was ready to sell my bike and spend a month rocking back and forth in the fetal position on the couch. As for Alex, the film ends with him saying, “We’ll probably be stupid enough to do something like this again.” At the time I swore I would never do another bike tour, but it turns out Alex was quite prescient.
As the months went by, what had been a terrible idea proved to be one of the great experiences of my life. And thanks to my uncanny ability to forget all the crappy parts of a trip and remember only the glorious bits, I called up Alex this winter with an idea for another bike-powered epic: “Sufferfest 2”!
“What about desert towers?” I posed to Alex. Though Alex would certainly deny it, he responded with, “That’s kind of genius actually.”
You see, Alex had just launched a non-profit called the Honnold Foundation, which he is using to channel funds into alternative energy solar projects that he feels strongly about such as the Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs Project. And one of Alex’s big goals for 2014 was to get more directly involved with one of the Honnold Foundation projects instead of just throwing money at it. So the idea of biking through the Four Corners of Colorado Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, and ending in the Navajo Nation, where thousands do not have electricity and where we could install solar panels, seemed like a good opportunity to raise awareness and actually help in a hands-on way.
To make the project work, we teamed with Goal Zero, one of Alex’s sponsors, which had helped fund solar installations in the Navajo Nation in the past. Additionally, we secured funding from Clif Bar, National Geographic, Backcountry.com, Gerber, and The North Face, giving me a budget to make a film. I was even able to hire a couple of young filmmakers to embed themselves for the ride, with the hope that maybe “Sufferfest 2” would actually have a bit of cinematography to go with the suffering.
We initially joked that “Sufferfest 2” should be called “Pleasure Fest,” somehow thinking that with a film crew to carry water and our climbing gear that it would be the fun biking-and-climbing vacation we had always dreamed of. In fact, we were wrong again. It turns out that when you name a trip “Sufferfest” there are karmic repercussions. Call the trip “Sufferfest” and it has a way becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We spent our days in a state of perpetual exhaustion and generally getting shat on by the weather. In the 700 miles we covered and 45 towers we climbed we saw only a few sunny days — we even got snowed on — and probably more than half of our climbing days were spent in 30- to 50-mph winds. Have I mentioned that riding 80 miles into a 30-mph headwind is a curse I wish on no man? Basically we got very worked.
(At one point we started to joke that our movie should be called “Screwed by the Wind,” but I think we have settled on a working title of “Desert Alpine” because Alex and I concurred that many days were windier than our climbing experiences in the notoriously windy Patagonia mountain range. We essentially felt like we were alpine climbing in the desert.)
Honestly the whole mission is an absolute blur, but I’m quite sure it was one of my great accomplishments just by the sheer scale and breadth of the undertaking. I may in fact be slightly traumatized and repressing some bad bits, but I figure I’ll make more sense of it when I start reviewing the footage for the “Sufferfest 2” movie (hopefully coming to a film festival near you this fall).
And I’m guessing that in a few months Alex and I will probably start planning an even more foolhardy test of our endurance and will to suffer, because the plain truth is that it’s a fine line between joy and suffering, and this sort of elective suffering can be hugely empowering. For Alex and I, I think it’s about etching a huge life experience into our psyches, so that we can grow old knowing that we went as big as possible — creating an epic goal and then seeing it through one painful mile after the next.
The Tower Tick List
Colorado National Monument
1. Ottos Route, 5.7, Independence Monument
2. Medicine Man, 5.11+, Sentinel Spire
3. Lizard Rock, 5.9
4. King Fisher, 5.10 C1
5. The Cobra, 5.11 R
6. Ancient Art, 5.10+
7. Finger of Fate 5.12+
8. Ivory Tower, 5.13b, Castleton
9. Coyote Calling 5.12a, The Rectory
10. Honeymoon Chimney, 5.11a, The Priest
11. Holier Than Thou, 5.11c, The Nun
12. Iron Maiden, 5.12a, Lighthouse Tower
13. Dolofright, 5.11d, Dolomight Tower
14. Infrared, 5.11+, Big Bend Butte
Arches National Park
15. West Face, 5.11 North Gossip
16. Be There, 5.11 South Gossip
17. West Face, 5.11 Argon Tower
18. The Owl, 5.8
19. Bullwinkle Tower, 5.6
20. The 3 Penguins, 5.10+
White Rim Trail
21. Chimney Rock, FFA, 5.12+ finger crack
22. Chip, 5.11 C1
23. Dale, 5.10
24. North Ridge, Monster Tower, 5.11
25. Washer Woman, 5.10+
26. Standing Rock, 5.11c
27. N.E. Arete, 5.12 r/x, Sharks Fin
28. Sisyphus, 5.11r, Zeus
29. Primrose Dihedral, 5.11+, Moses
30. Liquid Sky, 5.11+, North Six Shooter
31. South Six Shooter, 5.6
32. Learning to Crawl, 5.11
33. Sparkling Touch, 5.11
34. Easter Island, 5.10
35. Sun Flower Tower 5.10+
36. Hoop Dancer 5.11, Humming Bird Tower
37. Sacred Space, 5.11, King of Pain
38. Powders of Persuasion, 5.11
39. Ship Rock, 5.9
40. Chinle Spire, 5.10, C1
41. King Louie Spire FFA, 5.11d, R
42. The Pope, 5.11, C1
43. The Fluke, The Whales Tail, FA, 5.11
44. The Whale, FFA, 5.11 R/X
45. Eagle Mesa, 5.7X
Honnold’s extra credit: Freed Ivory Tower, The Finger of Fate, and Excommunication — three of the most difficult tower routes in the country.
To learn more or donate, visit the Honnold Foundation’s Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs Project webpage. And check out Alex’s post about installing solar panels here.