When I first met Kelly Cordes, then in his early 30s, I thought, “how appropriate that he lives in a chicken coop!” Loose and scratched glasses slid down his nose, the brown mop on his head looked a five-year-old’s haircut experiment gone awry, and curly brown chest hairs stuck out haphazardly from a spider web of holes in his diaphanous T-shirt. “It’s my favorite shirt!” he said defensively when I half-grimaced, half-smiled at him by way of greeting. People regularly left bags of clothes on his rickety front doorstep, thinking he was too broke to buy new apparel.
Kelly’s 7’- by 11’-square-foot “Coop” stood, barely, on a gentle, sage-covered hillside on the outskirts of the small mountain town of Estes Park, Colo, and was filled with books, magazines, piles of climbing gear, and his computer. He moved into it after he was asked to leave “The Shack,” a ramshackle structure on Colorado Mountain School property that “probably qualified for condemnation from the health department,” where he lived with “The Danimal” (see photo below for explanation of his eviction). When I met him, he had just moved into the Coop after returning from a long rock climbing road trip. For an admitted “cheap bastard, who doesn’t spend money on unnecessary crap,” who had recently gone through a divorce, the $150 price and the space were right.
Kelly "the GIMP" and Dan "The Danimal" Gambino in The Shack. While there, he underwent a drastic transformation. It took three years, the blooming of his writing/editing career (he’s a freelance writer and the senior editor for the American Alpine Journal), and some help from a stylish, blonde girlfriend. Few noticed the first day a freshly coifed Kelly appeared at the bar wearing an unsullied button-down Patagucchi shirt. But when pints of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and expensive margaritas replaced the ever-present PBR, we all knew some significant changes had taken place.
Since then, Kelly has upgraded to a 580-square-foot cabin that “feels like a mansion” to him, which he loves. He wears the latest Patagonia apparel (because he’s one of their ambassadors), and though he’s no longer with the blonde, he’s happily ensconced in a relationship with an equally beautiful 23-year-old elementary school teacher named Jenna (he's 39). Thanks to his frugal nature, he doesn’t have debt, he travels extensively around the world on climbing trips, and he lives exactly the way he wants to. “I think it’s important to live within your means,” he explains, “especially since I have no aspirations of working full-time, year-round. There’s more to life than work.”
This past fall, 2007, I asked Kelly a few questions about his life and his climbing career. This is the mostly unabridged version of his responses.
Lizzy Scully:How would you characterize your early days of climbing? (Though he dabbled in rock climbing while an undergrad, Kelly became enamored with the sport in 1993 (age 25) while in graduate school at the University of Montana in Missoula, when he went ice climbing with one of his students and another friend.)
Kelly Cordes: I was SUCH an idiot … I’m thankful he—Jason Albert, an ice-climbing partner—didn’t plan an ice axe in my skull, as I surely deserved it. I was so arrogant. I wanted to lead everything and climb everything imaginable, all that, but I had zero skill, didn't even know how to place pro or build anchors, nothing. I was just too psyched, and figured that, as with sports I’d done before, ambition and drive could make up for deficits in skill. But with climbing, that can be a good way to get killed. I whipped all the time, off of everything—factor two falls onto the anchor, fell soloing once, took ground falls. Little did I know, but everyone around Missoula was calling me “Sketchy Kelly.”
LS: Have you ever gotten lucky in the mountains? (And we're not talking homo huddling. See addendum question #2)
KC: I’ve gotten incredibly lucky so many times that it sometimes scares me to think about it too much. Back in the Sketchy Kelly days, it came from sheer ignorance and arrogance. At least I always kept scratching and clawing when I got in trouble. For example, I tumbled 100-150 feet down the (1,000-foot) NW ice couloir of the Middle Teton in summer 94—50-degree blue ice. There’s no way anyone should live through … better climbers than me had died there, it turns out. I’d soloed up, no idea how to get down, and set a stupid, bad, rap anchor to get down a step near the top, and it blew when I weighted it. As I rocketed down the couloir, I kept kicking my crampons into the ice, which rag dolled me head over heels down the thing until one time it launched me into the rocks off to the side. I don’t remember all of it. I think I hit my head. By then it was dark, I was a bloody mess, and terrified but kept it together to downclimb and rappel through the night to my tent at the lower saddle. I spent the next several weeks on crutches.
Lots of times since, I've made stupid mistakes and got away with it for reasons I can’t explain. Subsequently, the scary times have been situations I got myself into with eyes wide open, not from ignorance, but from drive and confidence. It’s a weird thing, how getting into dangerous situations gives you the experience and confidence to keep doing it, but being there to begin with can be the last time.
Jim Earl and I did a new route on Nevado Ulta in Peru in 2003, punched it up an unclimbed, difficult face, went fast, got altitude sick, were hallucinating. Jim got pulmonary edema and whipped off the summit cornices onto our sketchy snow picket anchor. I took over the descent, Jim hung in there unbelievably—he’s so tough—we got down somehow, hallucinating the whole way, arriving back at our bivy something like 48 hours after leaving. There’s a six-hour or so chunk of time that I can’t account for. Other things we’re sure of because of sunrise time, moments we knew from looking at our watches, etc. We got separated in the talus somehow while staggering back to our bivy, and arrived several hours apart from each other. It was like being in a dream world the whole time. In a weird way that was cool, unique, but also horrifying when I think back on how close we probably came.
Josh Wharton and I were pretty strung out on Great Trango in 2004, too—48 hours without water, and rapping off a single RP backed by two horrible knife blades on our descent (we hadn't brought a bolt kit, and the wall we blindly rapped into grew blank), then sketching down a serac-riddled glacier in sneakers with strap-on crampons. As with the summer before in Peru, it was one of the most profound memories of my life, but also horrifying. I think I've become a bit more conservative in the last couple of years, since those climbs in '03 and '04. It's such a delicate line to walk sometimes.
LS: What was harder, the big new route you did on Cerro Torre, or all the time and energy you had to invest in trolling on climbingboulder.com back in the day? Explain.
KC: Probably the trolling, because it lasted an entire winter and was like a part-time job. I’m quite obviously a busy guy, and it took a lot of time and effort. Riding my bike to the library in a blizzard, so that the Internet geek losers couldn’t trace my IP address, for example—that’s time consuming. In a word, commitment. Cerro Torre only took a couple of days, and it was only climbing.
LS:Who are your trolling heroes? Climbing heroes?
KC: Trolling—the people who are so agro in their Internet squabbles and posturing that you’d think they were trolls. They were, in fact, the inspiration for Boss McGillicutty.
Climbing—tons of heroes. Jack Tackle, Charlie Sassara, Rolo Garibotti, Marko Prezelj, Colin Haley, Tommy Caldwell & Beth Rodden, Johnny Copp. Many more, but those are a few. I like many people for different reasons, but these people all inspire me. They’re dedicated to what they do and they’re good at it, but more importantly they’re good people with the right perspective. They’re not one-dimensional idiots, but thoughtful people who realize the difference between the personal importance of climbing and the reality that it means nothing in the greater scope of the world.
LS:Where did you begin your yournaling practice?
KC: In the Nangma Valley, Pakistan, in 2006. Since [having] spinal reconstructive surgery in 2005, I’ve had to get into yoga (I still don't bongo drum or slackline, though), along with a bunch of back exercises, regularly. I tend to keep a journal on trips, too. Josh (Wharton) does neither—either he’s sending awesome climbs, way above my head, or he’s playing his handheld Game Boy. I ignored his mocking me—I was being one with the goddamned universe, after all—but he figured yoga + “journaling” = yournaling. I should move to Boulder and open a studio. Seriously.
LS:You claim to be shy and not a ladies’ man, yet you’ve appeared in your underwear in Men’s Journal (no wait, that was Steph Davis in Maxim). You actually appeared in a suit in an article about sexy male athletes, correct? And over the past eight years since we’ve been friends you’ve had a series of gorgeous girlfriends, including your current 23-year-old hottie. Can you give some of the less fortunate climber dudes out there some tips?
KC: Well, the article wasn’t about “sexy” male athletes—obviously. Pretty funny. They fully dolled me up, and the second the final shutter clicked they pulled their expensive clothes off me so fast I thought I was being mugged. I honestly hesitated lots before agreeing to that photo shoot thing, but my mom said, “Do it! C’mon. Don’t take yourself so damned seriously!” Another friend said, “Think about it, when in your life will you ever again get to say you were a ‘model’?” Good points. It was fun, but I don't think I have a Zoolander-like future.
I am shy around women, and usually say something totally stupid, especially when first meeting someone. I’m not sure how it works, maybe people feel sorry for me because I’m short.
Tips? Hell if I know … I think it’s just dumb luck, because I don't understand any of it. My current situation simply proves the old saying that “even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while.” I'm so lucky.
LS:Also, how in the world did you manage to get girls to come back to the Coop? Did it have anything to do with your ruby red man silk undies? Do you still have them?
KC: No comment. The man silk things were a gag gift!
LS: What do you do when you get together with the boys for UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) night? What’s the typical conversation? Can you give me an example?
KC: First, I pour margs. Second, I pour more margs. I used to be all righteous about not having a TV, but fuck that, TV rules. I don't know what I'd do without it, and without the UFC on all the time. Conversations are like, “oohhhh! Yeah, hit him! Oh, choke him out, yes! Hey—can you get me another marg? Wow, that was a sweet arm bar.”
LS:Why won’t you fart in front of your girlfriend?
KC: Because she’s awesome, and she’s not a dude.
LS:What has the climbing life taught you?
KC: Everything. Maybe the same things other people get from following their passion in life. Doing so teaches you so much … some universal themes emerge, like the rewards from following your heart and doing what you love to do (as cheesy as it sounds), being committed to hard work to make it happen, friendships, and personal strength from challenging situations with real consequences. They all sound cliché, and I guess they are, though that last one seems somewhat unique in today’s world for most of us Americans. Hardly anything today has any real consequence to it. There's always an easy out, no need to commit, no need to worry about accountability. But I think alpine climbing provides some unique challenges in that regard, and it’s certainly made my life richer than I ever could have dreamed.
Addendum question, courtesy of Colin Haley.
Colin Haley: Does safety come first? Does safety come fifth? Does safety come at all?
KC: Definitely fifth. That’s Josh’s line, actually. Mine is “disaster style,” which came from climbing with my friends Brent Armstrong and Chris Trimble. All the style debates, which style (mine, or course) is better, blah blah—disaster style definitely reigns supreme. Of course we know this stuff is super dangerous, and like with many things that scare us, humor helps deal with it. But there’s also a real thread in there, given our modern-day aversion to damned near anything but sitting on the couch with your seatbelt on.
CH:You seem to do a lot of what you refer to as “homo huddling.” Have you ever wondered if you’re gay? What about bi?
KC: If we’re caught out without sleeping bags (which seems to happen far too often), hey, I don't care who it is—“c’mere, big boy, hold me. I wanna cuddle.” I always make my partner wear the wig, though. I will say that, for all the flack about homo huddling and Brokeback bivies, that I do own the distinction of having huddled with some of America’s best alpinists.
Article by Lizzy Scully. Special thanks to Colin, Matt Samet, Mark Kelly, and Jenna Olschlager for assistance with this article.
I keep meaning to write a short review of this fantastic show that I saw, but I've been bogged down with writing work.
Cirque Dreams: jungle fantasy is a wild theatrical performance with singing, music, dancing, and acrobatics that are on par with the more famous Cirque du Soleil. Like the CDS, Cirque Dreams redefines the circus using only humans. I like these shows not only because they avoid the potential animal abuses that seem to go hand in hand with traditional circuses, but also because the spectacular contortionists, strong men, aerialists, and other performers are just as (or more) engaging than animals, you know they are doing it for the pure pleasure of being able to perform (unlike the critters), and I think watching human beings doing extraordinary things with their bodies is very inspiring (being the rock climber that I am).
With that said, Cirque Dreams impressed me even more than the Cirque du Soleil show I saw four or five years ago. It was a nonstop whirlwind of people leaping, flipping, bending, and sliding across the stage, all in a neat, fluid imitation of how animals of the jungle might move, and complete with colorful, flamboyant costumes. It was a blast. I could hardly keep my mouth closed, and at one point I realized that I hadn't blinked in a while.
Though it is no longer at the Buell Theater, I recommend checking it out if you can find it playing in any other venue. Or, if another show by director Neil Goldberg and Cirque Productions comes to Denver, don't wait to buy tickets.
Despite the fact that I no longer write play/dance/performance reviews for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, the DCPA still sends me free tickets to various plays, dance and musical performances. I emailed them a few times explaining that I don't do the reviews any longer for the paper, but they never responded to those emails. I, of course, am thrilled that they still send me occasional free tickets to shows at DCPA, and because of that am happy to share my personal reviews with my small blog audience. It's been rare for me to not enjoy a DCPA show. I feel incredibly lucky that our Mile-High City has such a fine performing arts center.
My friend Jen and I went to see The Last Five Years on Saturday night. Written by Jason Robert Brown, this musical is a study of the failed marriage of Jamie and Cathy, and it's based on Brown's own marriage and divorce. Apparently, the original play inspired a lawsuit because Theresa O'Neill, Brown's ex-wife, felt the main character too closely resembled her. The play, in both its first incarnation and the latest version, has enjoyed success in theaters throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe. Part of its popularity resulted from a soundtrack recorded by Sheri Rene Scott and Sh-K-Boom Records.
Both Jen and I left the theater psyched because we enjoyed the wonderful singing of the main characters (who are played by Johanna Brinkley/Shannan Steele and/or Chris Crouch/Thom Miller). However, after discussing the theme of the play, we realized that the realistic portrayal of a failing marriage evoked some sadness and confusion in both of us. This musical tells a very real story of two people who seemed to be in a totally different relationship because they could barely communicate with each other.
Jamie and Cathy sing stories about their marriage, but from very different perspectives. This is emphasized by the actual telling of the stories. Jamie tells his starting from his early twenties, when he's just met and fallen in love with Cathy and while he's becoming a successful writer, until he and Cathy divorce. Cathy tells her story in reverse, starting from the divorce to when she just meets Jamie.
As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that the two very different characters have dissimilar ways of looking at life and varying levels of confidence. A struggling actress, Cathy constantly battles with her demons (insecurity and co-dependency), while struggling to find meaning in a relationship that could never give her what she wants--mostly because she really doesn't know what she wants. Jamie, on the other hand, is a confident and successful writer who probably could never understand or alleviate Cathy's insecurities, but who is so focused on his career that he is unlikely to ever try anyway.
When Jamie and Cathy actually do try to communicate with each other, they always talk past each other. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that they tell their story while sharing the same stage, walking around each other, and even sitting next to each other, but the only time they actually touch during the entire play is when their stories intersect--at the moment they get married.
Despite the slightly depressing message, both Jen and I agreed that the realistic perspective of this play was a fresh change from American stories that we are accustomed to hearing. Thus, we both recommend it to others.
What a fantastic weekend. I spent it rock climbing in Eldorado Canyon and Carter Lake. Although the wind blew hard at times, the sun shone and the warm air made climbing a delightful adventure. Marc and I got ten pitches in on Saturday, and Matt, Kristin and I spent three or four hours exploring sandstone boulders and hanging out with a variety of cool folks.
People have been asking me why I'm not writing. Well, I am writing a lot right now. I've got six columns to write for Rocky Mountain Sports this year, plus one feature article on the history of climbing on Longs Peak, which will appear in RMS in June, along with my column on Pete Takeda and Majka Burhardt, two climber/writers who have recently published books.
Plus, I'm writing a feature on alpinist Colin Haley for Rock & Ice magazine, which will appear later this year. And I've just published an article in R&I on my experience climbing with Alex Honnold.
I'm also working on a book on Sean Patrick, the founder of the HERA Foundation, a nonprofit that raises awareness and money for ovarian cancer. I've started a magazine called Moving Mountains, with The Mountain Fund (to read more, visit the Moving Mountains blog) Finally, I'll be writing plenty of grants in the upcoming months for both Moving Mountains and also for Girls Education International. For more info on Girls Ed, check out our blog or our website.
Let's see... I think that's about it. Oh yeah, I am working a bit for a local kindergarten in Lyons, which is great fun. The children are wonderful. That's all for now!