By Larissa Phillips
Have you met Arlo? He teaches Intro to Top Rope, Boomers, Gym-to-Crag, and Learn to Lead. He's been crushing routes indoors and out for longer than anyone else on staff, and 2020 marks his 50th climbing anniversary! I sat down with him for an interview to find out how he got started and what his plans are for the future. There were more stories than we could fit in this article, so remember to say hi and pick his brain the next time you see him. I hope you enjoy getting to know this amazing, old school climber!
L: How old are you?
A: I turn 65 in March, but inside I'm 64 going on 22.
L: How did you start climbing?
A: I was born and raised in Rock Springs, WY, and the scouts there have a Mountain Man hike where you hike into the Wind River Range for a week. Myself and a few other guys did a 4th class scramble up the 3rd highest peak in WY. There were places where if you fell it would not be good. I was 15. One of the guys who climbed with me was friends with a couple scouts who were just starting to get into technical climbing. They had a rope and a little gear, and asked if I wanted to climb with them! There were four of us; three from Rock Springs and one from Green River, and we all bought a little gear, so when we put it altogether, we had enough to climb. There were 100 ft cliffs around Green River, and we started learning on those, using [the books] Freedom of the Hills and Basic Rock Craft.
L: So you were basically self-taught? You learned from a couple books?
A: Initially, yes. In our group of four, there were two valedictorians, I was 9th in a class of 450, and we had a vegetarian/artistic guy, but he was pretty smart too. We just read the books and understood them, and... [laughter] and this was when things were switching from pitons to clean climbing, so we did a little piton work, but basically learned how to clean climb on stoppers and hexes. My mom kept hoping climbing was just a phase, but after high school she sent me to RockCraft, Royal Robbin's rock school.
L: What was that like?
A: It was a week-long, and a bunch of Robbin's friends taught the course, so I got to meet Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard, Doug Robinson, Dick Erb, who climbed a lot in Boulder I guess, Roger Breedlove. The way his class worked, you thought you were climbing in Yosemite. The class was above Lake Tahoe on a bunch of granite domes and slabs. We'd do three days of technique on top rope, and on the fourth day we'd split into groups with a guide and do a real climb, like a 4-pitch climb on Lover's Leap. Then we'd do that again for the last few days of the class. After the class, I came home and passed on the knowledge to my three friends. We climbed the Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton later that summer.
L: Do you keep in touch with anyone from your original crew?
A: One of them had a full ride to MIT, but he got killed in a climbing accident in '74 or '75. I don't know where the other one is. The vegetarian. I don't see the other one much, but we keep in touch through Facebook. He's in Tucson and still climbs a little, but not very much.
L: How did you get involved with CityROCK?
A: I started at CityROCK when I had to have my pacemaker installed and I wasn't allowed to lift my arm above shoulder height for about 6 months. I hadn't climbed in a while and took CityROCK's Movement Class with Tilde and Jeff to fine tune my skills. Tilde approached me about starting a Boomers class in exchange for a membership, so we started Boomers during the day and had two or three people. A lot of Boomers are still working though, so we decided to move it to the evening, and now we're up to 12 people! So I started doing Boomers, and when Tilde asked if CityROCK could hire me, I said sure!
L: What do you see is your biggest strength and what could you improve on the most?
A: My biggest strength is varied experience. I've done all kinds of climbing: big walls, multi-pitch trad, sport climbing. My biggest weakness... Since I climbed for 20 years where the role was 'the leader does not fall,' I still have a hard time pushing to my limit, although it's weird because I can lead slab climbs that scare the sh*t out of everybody else. I'm just in my zen mode.
L: What is your dream climbing trip?
A: I have Mescalito on my bucket list. It's to the right of the Dawn Wall on El Cap, and blank. Absolutely beautiful. It's probably a four day climb because I don't climb 5.14. When I've done big walls we would free climb up to 5.9 or 5.10 and aid from there. We could climb harder than that, but for time, we aid because it's faster than trying to free climb at your limit. I'm trying to talk one of the guys in the Boomers class into going, but he likes free climbing better. So I told him I would lead aid and he could lead the free stuff!
L: What is your proudest climbing moment?
A: Topping out on El Cap was neat, but it might be topping out on the first 5.11 I lead. And of course, it was a slab in Yosemite where the crux was pushing out on a little divot with your thumb [laughter].
L: Do you have any climbing goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A: I'd like to be solid at 5.11 at age 70.
L: Have you ever been injured from climbing?
A: Yep. I was bouldering on Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder and one hand slipped and I fell on my left ankle and sprained it pretty bad. And I burnt holes in my fingers when trying to climb the south face of Washington Column. My friend got off route and fell because the rock was crumbly and a piece pulled. He hit his head and got a mild concussion because no one wore helmets at the time, and the rope burnt holes in my fingers. We ran back up a couple days later and climbed it though, so it wasn't too bad.
L: That's it in 50 years?
A: Yeah, I'm really safe! I read a lot and keep up with best practices. We climbed a lot in the Wind Rivers, so the closest town was Pinedale, population 1500, no hospital. A lot of places we climbed were an hour drive from the main highway on a dirt road and 3-4 hours to get to the climbing. No cell phones, no emergency SPOT devices so probably at least 24 hours to get help. We pushed the envelope in a very controlled and systematic way.
L: Have you had any epics or close calls?
A: Yeah! We were climbing in the Winds actually, on a beautiful peak called The Shark's Nose, and we were 5 pitches into this 10-pitch climb. We could see these thunderstorms start to build up, which wasn't unusual. I was planning to top out by 2:00 and be out of there before the storms hit. So we started climbing a little faster and within 40 mins you could see full on thunderstorms on the other side of the basin, about 60 miles away. We started simul climbing 5.8 trad crack to move faster and arrived at the next to last pitch where you can start rappelling off just as the first thunderstorm hit. Our hair was standing on end, there was sparking between the gear and our skin, and the rock above us was going vzzzzzz. The tower to the north was getting struck by lightning, and there was driving rain, and the wind was going about 50 mph. I think it's 4 raps to get off there. We did something like 2 raps while the storm was raging, but then our rope got stuck and we had to climb a wet rope to get it unstuck. But then we made it down. That was in the '80s, so I was mid 30s at the time.
L: What changes have you seen in the climbing industry over the last 50 years?
A: The evolution of gear is just short of amazing. There were climbs that were really hard to protect before, and now you have bomber gear. Ropes are lighter and stronger, and when sticky rubber came out, that was amazing! My climbing went up 2 grades just like that, especially for a slab climber.
L: Any advice for climbers aspiring to climb for 50 years like you?
A: Stay in shape. It's way easier to stay in shape than get back in shape, and rest is just as important as climbing. And I'd also say listen to that little voice in your head. That little voice is very wise. There's something to be said about your intuition.
There were a lot more stories in the initial interview, but we had to cut some out for this article. In the interview, Arlo talked more about his experiences with Search and Rescue, his work as a geologist, guiding his kids up the Grand Teton, and more about the climbs in his earlier years and the gear available at the time. He's a fascinating guy, a knowledgeable climber, and a fun conversationalist who is always smiling and keeping things lighthearted.
Arlo, thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me!