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Lepton

With Whom We Climb - in honor of Russell Machine

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During my misdirected youth I was so entirely focused on climbing the hardest routes I could, and putting up first ascents or first free ascents, that I often relegated the choice of partner to whoever was willing or able to work on the projects I wanted to work on. This was often to the detriment of enjoying friendships. In 1982 I made a climb that impacted me more than any other, for it really brought home to me the total enjoyment of climbing with someone that brings an element of joy and energy to the sport. I speak of Russell Erickson, aka Russell Machine.

 

Those of you who climbed during that time will know Russell. He was a gifted climber, totally excited about the sport and very humble and unassuming. A perfect day for Russell was to hang out and work on difficult top rope problems or belay for those of us who were working on hard single pitch climbs. As a belayer he was like a personal psychology coach, constantly giving encouragement, "You can do it! Go for it! You got it!". He was unconditionally supportive and I can never recall a hint of upset or anger in him.

 

Like many of us, he spent a month or two in Yosemite each spring. In 1982 I had it in my head to free climb the West Face of El Capitan. Wayne Kamera and I trained on several multipitch free climbs to prepare for our attempt. Russell helped us haul our gear to the base of the West Face and departed to leave Wayne and I to free climb the first 4 pitches and fix ropes for a fast start the next morning.

 

Unfortunately the next day Wayne develop a viral flu as he was attempting one of the 5.11 pitches about 8 or 9 pitches up the climb and we had to abort. We were both very disappointed. Wayne was out of commission and I had no partner to do the West Face. I immediately asked Russell, but he declined because he had never done a multi pitch route before!? In all the time I had known him I never understood the fact that he had only done short climbs. Wow! After letting this sink in I realized that his entire joyful being was happy to hang out and do the most ridiculous problems of the day. But he always tried to shun attention to his accomplishments. Earlier that Spring someone came up to me and told me that he had just fired off A Separate Reality on sight! When I asked Russell about it he was embarrassed, "Oh I just did a little climbing today". That was his character.

 

In desparation I started asking anyone I knew or met in the Valley to do the West Face with me, even if they couldn't climb at that level I just needed a belayer! Each evening I would share with Russell my frustrations and ask him again to do it with me. Finally, after about a week of trying to find someone Russell came up to me and said he would do it on one condition, that I could not tell anybody that he was going to do the climb!

 

We snuck out of Camp IV (Sunnyside) early one morning and hiked to the base of the West Face with a new plan. This time we went very light, with one small daypack. We fixed the first 4 pitches (meandering and giving you two full ropes to jug) and settled in for a bivouac at the base. In those days, before Fire's or other ultra sticky soles, and before RP's, the opening pitches had some dicey 5.11 runouts over old aid terrain.

 

The next morning we started jugging at first light, and were underway with climbing by 7:00 am. The rest of the day was a flow of beautiful climbing, very efficient leader changes, and a no fall no aid point free climb of the West Face. We finished at about 5:00 pm. The extra liters of cool aid and snacks in case of a forced bivy were consumed to gluttony as we watched the evening grow in the valley.

 

The memories I have of that climb are centered around the pure joy I felt, the privelege to be able to share this outstanding climb with Russell. I also remember with laughter the intensity of his desire to climb FAST so we wouldn't be forced to bivy, and how he would look at the smallest cloud in a perfect sky with great concern for a gathering storm. There was also the most amazing 20' tall band of pure quartz crystals that stretched across the wall as far as I could see, crystals so big that I tied one off for protection as a joke. Mostly I felt pride to be able to share with Russell the first big wall he had ever done.

 

After this climb I determined that I would never again allow my ambitions to get in the way of making sure that the climb was an extension of friendship. The reward is so much greater than the climb itself.

 

If any of you know Russell, please have him get in touch with me.

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And yet again, pure eloquence from Mr. Lepeska. thumbs_up.gif

 

Dan, although I do not know you, I somehow get the feeling that your talents may be wasted in sales (but then again, maybe not). You should write a novella. I would buy it just to read what you have to say, and the way in which you would say it.

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Dan,

 

An excellent and welcome story, and I knew immediately from the title who you were writing about. ROTC in sneakers, is that the next installment? He was last seen in So Cal. Jonny Blitz may know his exact whereabouts. I'll ask him tonight.

 

MFT

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DeskDriver, you know the man! The notorious sneakers. The VILE Sneakers!

 

I remember driving from Yosemite to Smith Rocks with Russell, with his Vile Sneakers strapped to the roof of his VW station wagon, with half a bottle of Lysol anointing them, in the hopes they could be resurrected and continue service.

 

They were resurrected for one of the most extreme downhill runs I have ever witnessed. I can't remember the name of the area at Smith Rocks, but as you face the main cliff after crossing the bridge and hike to the right there is a steep scree and scrub slope going up to the upper cliffs. Russell enjoyed the sport of speed descent on slopes like this almost more than climbing. He flew down that slope at a full tilt run, wearing leather gloves the better to slap the ground to keep his careening center of gravity. Totally wild. I believe he was powered by the Sex Pistols on his Walkman.

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I remember Reese Martin mentioning in an e-mail that he had spent a fair amount of time climbing with Russell in southern California in recent years. I don't remember the details. As you probably know, Reese died last spring in a paragliding accident. They probably had common friends. I remember Russell but never knew in personally. Thanks for a great post.

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