Looking back on a life defined by climbing

By NATHANAEL JOHNS/Montana State News

“I just thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. I mean I’d seen nothing but snow and ice for almost a month and eaten just freeze-dried food, and the beauty was just overwhelming. And I wasn’t the least bit sick and tired of it.”

Growing up in Kentucky, Larry Day has always had a love of nature and being outdoors. He was fascinated by the unexplored landscapes that surrounded him, especially the Red River Gorge. It was there that he was first introduced to climbing, seemingly by accident.

Day’s first climb came after he was invited to join a spelunking club. Before one expedition the leader told them that he had loaned out the equipment, and asked if they would want to go rock climbing instead. His first ascent was a climb in 7-degree weather up Tower Rock.

This incredibly difficult climb had a profound effect. “I was hooked. It was just the greatest thing I’d ever done.”

Day explained that while exploring caves was fun, it held a stifling quality of being inside all day. But climbing was different.

“I can’t tell you how many times, at the end of the day of doing a climb…this sense of elation was just so powerful,” he said. “I was exhausted, but I felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground.”

It wasn’t long before he started mountain climbing as well. He and some of his friends would go out West each summer to climb the mountains of Colorado. After climbing his first mountain, Longs Peak, Day said that he, “knew that it wouldn’t be long before I was moving west.”

At the time, climbing was still a relatively new sport, and much of the area was still unexplored. Day said that people thought he and his climbing buddies were freaks for wanting to do such a dangerous sport and some of his friends’ parents even forbade them from doing it, although those warnings fell on deaf ears.

When thinking about the stereotypical climber, one sometimes conjures up pictures of daredevils seeking out danger for the fun of it, but this wasn’t the case for Day.

“I always told people that the only downside to climbing was the danger … I hated the danger,” he said. “My opinion was we had to survive this, you know, that I was climbing for fun, and getting killed wasn’t fun.”

He had good reason to be apprehensive of the danger. Only a few years before he started getting into climbing, one of the worst climbing accidents in North America took place on Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Andy Hall describes in his book “Denali’s Howl” how seven people lost their lives after being trapped in one of the blizzards that are all too common on this mountain.

Day admits that the danger added to the excitement, and often the most dangerous climbs were also the most sought-after, but for him the appeal was “trying to make a dangerous route safe.”

Many of the carefully made routes he created while climbing the Red River Gorge are still used today.

“I didn’t know that until recently someone told me and said, ‘Larry, I don’t know if you know this, but doing the Larry Day Routes is a thing back here,’” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that, especially since climbers get better all the time, and still some of those routes I did a long long time ago still garner respect, and that’s fun.”

Although it is easy to romanticize this sport, Day said that a lot of it is technical, methodical skill, and that he never just relied on luck. You can’t afford to be impulsive with climbing.

This careful attention for detail made him well suited for later guiding mountain climbing expeditions. When he was given an opportunity to follow climbing as a career, he had a pretty good job as a photographer, but he took a risk and quit his job and left school in order to pursue his passion.

And it seems like it was a move that paid off, if not monetarily, then at least in experience. He guided expeditions all over the world, and although he didn’t make much, he made enough to keep doing what he loved, and that’s all that mattered.

“I was guiding so I could keep climbing,” he said. “I climbed hard; I climbed in a lot of different places; I met a lot of wonderful people, and I only got hurt one time. So it was a great experience.”

All in all, he climbed for about 20 years. Hearing his experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him stop.

“I climbed for an awfully long time with no friend of mine, nobody I ever knew getting killed, I mean for years and years, and then people started getting killed,” he said. “And I don’t know how much of it was just bad luck and how much of it was undeniably that we were climbing harder and more dangerous routes.”

“When the 20th person – I kind of kept count of friends I’ve lost over the years – died, I quit counting. There were a lot of people I knew who kept climbing that got killed after that.”

“Somebody would get killed, and people would say, ‘well at least he died doing what he loved,’ and I always went, ‘No, he lost the game.’ The game for me was to live to tell my grandkids about this, you know, to go off and have great adventures and live to tell the tale. I never thought that death was an acceptable outcome, but I knew of people that did.”

Although it was a factor, Larry’s own safety was never his biggest fear.

When he was around 37 years old, he said he came to realize that, as hard as he tried to keep his clients safe on the expeditions, it would only be a matter of time before someone would get killed. He said he couldn’t live with the thought of being responsible for that.

He recalled the naivety of the tourists he led on his guided expeditions. “… (T)hey thought this was all sort of a formality, that ‘nothing’s going to happen, nothing’s going to go wrong, this guy’s a professional, and sure I’ll sign that.’ But I started thinking, do they really understand how dangerous this can be?”

One day, his seemingly good luck had to run out.

He was leading a group up Longs Peak, a peak he had climbed many times before, and he came to a place where a large rock had come loose due to frost heaving. Before he knew it, it started a rockslide headed straight towards the party below.  He yelled out a warning, and they dove behind a rock wall for cover. The rocks fell just inches from where they were.

Day said that if it had hit them, someone would have certainly gotten killed, or at the least, had a limb chopped off. It was then that he decided to leave the sport that he had devoted nearly half his life to.

The American Alpine Club states that in 2013, out of 300,000 climbers there were 154 accidents and 25 fatalities in North America. In 1974, there were 31 fatalities out of only 2,000 climbers. So while climbing is a dangerous sport, it is getting safer. Part of this is due to the experience of people like Larry Day that others are able to learn from today.

Other factors affected Day’s decision too, such as the fact that he wanted to have a family someday, as well as a “real job and make real money.” Not surprisingly, there is not much money in climbing, nor was there back then.

He was able to get a job with Patagonia and share his climbing expertise with others. It was here that he was introduced to sales, something he found that he enjoyed and was good at. This helped him later get a job in a car dealership.

“It’s funny, when I left school to go climbing, I thought, ‘Opportunities would present themselves.’ And they did … I told myself to never count on luck, but I look back and I think, ‘yeah, I was somewhat lucky.’”

Now 64, Larry’s love of nature hasn’t diminished, but he has found other things to replace climbing, most prominently fly-fishing. He tells me that the feeling he gets from fishing and the feeling he got while climbing are almost the same.

However, when asked if he misses climbing, he said, “Oh yeah, I still dream about it. I have these really powerful dreams sometimes … Yeah, I’ll always miss climbing.”

As he looked out over the pastures surrounding his house, seemingly lost in thought, He remarked on the almost uncanny silence and stillness at this time of the year. Sitting on his back porch in the warm spring sun, it was hard to imagine the minus-40 degree weather and 100 mph winds on Mt. McKinley that he described earlier.

When asked about what he thinks of modern climbing, he says that one of his concerns is the lack of respect for the land, when people leave trash on the ground and bolts that can eventually damage the rocks. He then tells me a bit more about fly-fishing, and the fact that he hardly ever eats the fish, because it’s the experience of being outside that’s important to him.

This reflects Larry’s attitude of care and conscientiousness, whether for the clients he took climbing or even the natural environment that has been a source of inspiration for him throughout his life.

– Edited by Mikal Overturf

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