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Hello HelloHello

Steve Mammen
mid May, 2008

Steve Mammen
Steve Mammen Steve Mammen Steve Mammen Steve Mammen

FRB: Name?

Steve: Steve Mammen

FRB: Age?

Steve: 53

FRB: Height/Weight?

Steve: 6'1", 170 lbs.

FRB: How did you get started, Steve?

Steve: I grew up in So. Cal. and we would go to the desert sometimes on the weekends. I was maybe five and I scrambled up this slab. At about 30 feet it went vertical and my dad had to rescue me. We would climb trees and buildings and I remember traversing dirt cliffs pretending we were on Everest. We moved to Denver when I was 17 and I started climbing fourteeners. All I wanted to do was climb Everest until I saw Duncan Ferguson in a movie about the Naked Edge. After that I forgot Everest even existed. I was born to rock climb. A week later my friend Steve Bass and I took lessons from Duncan.

FRB: Who were your early partners?

Steve: I remember bouldering in Eldorado one day and a skinny kid came up and joined me. After a while he said, “We should climb together.” And I said I would meet him next weekend. He said, “No quit your job and lets go climbing full time!” So the next day I quit my job and met Dave Breashears in Eldo. I think I went up two grades that day.

FRB: Who were your early influences?

Steve: We were strongly influenced by Jim Erickson, Duncan Ferguson, Roger Briggs, Steve Wunsch. Back in the mid 70's it was all about scary routes. At the time people were trying to free all the old aid routes and after the A1, A2, routes had gone free what's left is A3, A4, A5 and the pro was weak. I remember Ferguson and Erickson set the bar pretty high, and Dave definitely wanted to make his mark. Other influences were Layton Kor and the old mountaineers and for bouldering of course, John Gill and Jim Holloway. Jim was a huge influence on my bouldering, he truly took it to another level. Not just another level of difficulty but another level of form and style. You try to tell people about him but it is difficult to describe his abilities. Most people try to bring his climbing down to three problems. They analyze them, try to rate them, (even though they have never done them) and then try to fit him into their concept of what bouldering is. When I think of Jim I don’t think about his difficult problems but more the style he climbed in. He had the power to float through moves with the appearance of no effort. It is like the difference between high school sports and Olympic sports. How the problem was done mattered to Gill and Holloway. It wasn’t just about jerking and slapping your way up something and ticking it off your list. It was about how you did the problem, form and style. I have rarely seen boulderers go beyond the high school level.

FRB: Did you meet Layton Kor or John Gill?
          Tell us about it.

Steve: I never met Layton Kor, but did meet John Gill. It was maybe 1977 or 1978. I looked him up in the phone book and drove down to Pueblo to see him. He hadn't been bouldering much, but he was happy to get out and show me his areas around Pueblo. It was good bouldering with him. I had read everything I could find by and about him, had traced his footsteps to all his areas and when I finally met him, he was really gracious and energetic about passing on the sport to young climbers. I have always tried to be like Gill, passing on what I know and encouraging young climbers into the sport.

FRB: Did you train for climbing back then?

Steve: Bouldering was training. We knew John Gill only bouldered and so did Jim Holloway, but at that time routes were where it was at for us. For me bouldering was just fun, after a terrifying day up on the walls, I could get all the nervous energy out bouldering. Also, I could kick Dave's ass at it.

FRB: Tell us some interesting stories
           from the early days.

Steve: I remember Perilous Journey. Dave and I had gone to a Roger Briggs' party the night before, and Dave and Steve Wunsch were talking about Jules Verne. Steve had been working on it for a while and was close. Dave asked Steve if he cared if he tried it. Well, of course he did and Dave was pissed because he knew he could do it. So the next day Dave said to me lets get out of the canyon and go up to Mickey Mouse. We hiked through the railroad tunnels and got to the base of the wall at 7 am. We had been looking at that section of the wall for a while, we had done a couple of scary routes close by, but Perilous Journey was the blankest. Dave started up and got to a hard section and down-climbed, then handed me the rope and talked me into trying it. I went up a ways but could see the lack of protection and the commitment the climb would take so I down-climbed too. Then Dave got really serious and started up. He passed our previous high point and started to fiddle with a piece of protection for a while, and then took it out knowing it was worthless. After a few more moves he was at a difficult move and worked it out. I knew that what he just did would be next to impossible to reverse so he was committed. Then he did something pretty remarkable, he leaned into the wall and took both hands off and shook out. I was kind of freaked until he yelled down to me and asked how did it look farther up, so I figured my job was to act calm and reassure him. I acted like he had a bomber piece of protection at his waist and walked around a little to scout holds. I could see the way was up and left, so I encouraged him to explore that way. He would move up a little, brush holds and move back to the no hands rest. He went up and down several times and finally said he was going for it. He made the move and easier rock led to the belay. He pulled the rope up and said, "Don't fall Steve, we want a clean ascent.” I looked up and the realization that he hadn't put anything in hit me. I climbed up to the no hands rest and it was hard to get the balance there. I looked down and thought how crazy it was to drop your hands here with no pro. I made the next move first time because I didn't think I could get back to the rest without falling and I really didn't want to disappoint Dave. He really did think of us as doing the climb together even though all I did was pay out rope and yell encouragement to him. It didn't sink in for a while what I had witnessed, but as word got out it was big news.

FRB: Tell us about the Roger Briggs party.

Steve: It's made out to be more than I remember it. At the time Jules Verne was the plum of Eldorado, but that is how it was back then. It was much more prestigious to free an aid route than do a new route, and attention went from one aid climb to another and each time it was usually for a harder, scarier route. So everyone wanted to put their name on Jules Verne and Wunsch was putting in some serious attempts. It was pretty much understood by Roger's party that Wunsch was one or two attempts away from doing it, and Dave knew this. I don't think Dave intended to go up on it with Steve that close, but he wanted to just voice his complaint at Steve's ownership of it. Back then, whenever climbers got together ethics were discussed endlessly. Dave and I had great respect for Wunsch, Dave's and Steve's style were the same, total control. Wunsch's attempts were drawing a bit of a crowd and I remember Dave didn't want to be there, so I remember going up to Mickey Mouse that day. I can't swear that Jules Verne and Perilous Journey went the same day, but it was significant because two things happened; the age of freeing aid routes was coming to an end, and freeing new lines was coming to the forefront where the limits were going to be pushed.

FRB: Tell us some more adventures you had
           with Dave Breashears.

Steve: When I was climbing with Dave, bouldering was mostly for training. When we were doing routes, we would rope up early in the morning and then head into town for lunch and chat with the guys at the Boulder Mountaineer or Neptune's. Then in the late afternoon we would go bouldering. Dave had a hard time with skin, I had always had good luck with building callouses. Dave would look at my callouses and get jealous. I remember one time we were in Eldo working a problem. The problem was thin with tiny footholds and the weather was hot and greasy. I managed it, but Dave couldn't get it. He was using some funky boots trying it over and over again. One time he popped off, sat down pulled his boots off and threw them in the river. When it came to highball bouldering though, Dave could pull off some impressive stuff. I was starting to realize that my forte was bouldering. One time we were heading up to the slab area at the South Platte. Dave had talked up a problem that was on the hike in. Everyone would look at it on the way to the slabs but no one could do it. We got to the boulder and booted up. After a couple of tries I could see the sequence, It was extremely thin and steep. I was able to levitate up it and as I scrambled down, I could see Dave's disgust because I had flaked a couple of holds off, basically a few crystals. Years later I returned with sticky rubber and did the problem again, one of the thinnest problems I have done.

FRB: Tell us about climbing in Fort Collins
           in the 1970’s.

Steve: Climbing at Horsetooth in the ‘70's was more fun than you should be allowed to have. Climbing was so much smaller back then, it was a much smaller community. I think that the bouldering community in Northern Colorado is still a great group of people. The energy is really strong now.

FRB: When/why did you start concentrating
          on bouldering?

Steve: After Dave went on to other things I gravitated to bouldering. I would rope up with Mark Wilford on occasion but he was a much better rope climber than me. By then my heart was in bouldering. For me it is the purest form of climbing. Then when the whole sport climbing thing happened I really didn't want any part of that. Watching guys in pink Lycra tights trashing the rules you had lived by, well it was just easier going bouldering, I dropped out of the climbing scene. Wilford, Mike McCarron and I would find new bouldering areas and do endless new problems. We would push our highball limits. I think maybe part of it was in opposition to the sport climbing movement. To us sport climbing was killing the adventure part of climbing.

FRB: Tell us about some of your experiences
          climbing with Mark Wilford.

Steve: Bouldering with Mark Wilford was great because he liked new areas. I don't remember what year but he was spending some time down in Telluride. He talked me into going down there in his Triumph. I froze my ass off. You could see the road between your feet through the hole in the floor. We explored the sandstone areas around Naturita, doing some great highball problems. Years later Mark showed me the latest issue of Climbing and our highball problems had been bolted, named and claimed as new routes. Bouldering with Mark requires checking your ego at the door, you had to know your own limits and never make the mistake that he had just made something look easy and you were going to go for it. You had better be climbing in control. During the summer I would hang out at Land of the Overhangs at Horsetooth, bouldering and swimming. I would get bored and so I started building a tower out of rocks at the beach, every day adding a few rocks. Over the course of the summer it got pretty big, maybe 7 or 8 feet tall. One day Mark and I were working on it. You would have to hold the rock on your shoulder, climb the tower and place the stone on top. We decided the game was to climb up place your rock on top, stand on it and climb down. Well it got really treacherous after a while, the last 2 feet were really shaky. It was Mark’s turn and he was going to end it with a really round rock. He placed it on top, stood on it and the top 2 feet gave way and he came crashing down and ended up in the emergency room for some stitches. Everything was a game for us.

FRB: Tell us some more stories, Steve.

Steve: I'll tell you my motorcycle story.
I had moved back to Boulder from Summit Co in the early ‘80’s. I had finished 'V':The Hot One and it had taken a big effort for me. After completing the project, I spent a lot of time exploring new areas with Mark Wilford. I got the great idea of buying a motorcycle and remember racing around with Mark. He had rebuilt his old Triumph and it was pretty fast. It was an adrenaline filled time. After work I would jump on my bike and cruise to Eldorado to go bouldering. One evening I was racing home and a deer jumped out in the middle of the road. He saw my headlight and froze. I had about a 1/4 of a second to react and hit him straight on at 85 mph. It was a hell of an impact! The face shield of my helmet was splattered in blood so I couldn't see anything. I assumed I was dead, I remember tumbling and sliding for what seemed forever and finally came to a stop in the middle of the road. I flipped my face shield up to see if any cars were coming and began to move my arms and legs to see of anything was broken, to my amazement nothing was. I got up to move the deer out of the road so a car wouldn't swerve and I grabbed an antler and realized it was only half of a deer the other half was 50 feet down the road. A car had stopped, so I walked back to see a freaked out driver. His hands were still gripped on the wheel and he just kept saying, “You flipped 3 times in the air." So I reached over and grabbed his cell phone and called 911. In the ER they took 30 X-Rays and it turned out I hadn't broken a single bone, but they scrubbed my road rash for 3 hours. While rehabbing from my road rash, I was reading Outside Magazine. They had an article about 10 things that would never be done. I don't remember all ten but the Lotshe face was one and the blank face on the Milton boulder in Eldorado was another. This was the motivation I needed to put my boots on and I started working on Never Say Never.

FRB: Tell us about Never Say Never, Steve.

Steve: Never Say Never was my type of climbing. I like blank faces and one that somebody said wouldn't go intrigued me. Climbers had been walking by it for 20 years. They would walk by, put their hands on the rock and keep going. It was known as a blank piece of rock that wouldn't go. That's how it ended up on Outsides’ list of impossibles. I started working the first move at the end of sessions just to end on a mental note and to draw me back to it. Sometimes just standing there looking at it like a chess puzzle. For me this is my favorite time in a project, you don't know if it will go and I like figuring things out. Once you have figured it out and done the moves linking it together is kind of like work. Eventually some weaknesses began to appear to me and I saw some possible ways the first move might go. I wanted to work the upper section so I would drag a trash can over to the problem and figured that out up to the last move which was going to be a dyno to the top. The first move was different than any move I had ever done. I would dyno off the ground to an upside down gaston for the left hand and dyno my left foot to a tiny foot hold as thin as a nickel, all in one move. After about a month of working the first move I was sticking it enough to begin linking it with the upper moves and maybe a week later did the problem. It is a great feeling doing something you have put so much effort into, especially a first ascent that required so much figuring out. I think it is the best of bouldering.

FRB: Do you still climb?

Steve: I consider myself retired, no one believes me though and I haven't given my gear away yet but my head isn't in it right now. At 49 I was ready to retire but wondered if I could get in shape at 50. I trained for a year and surprised myself but it took a huge effort. At 50 I kept a journal and I climbed 150 days that year, I don't miss hurting all the time. I also have a physical job, I am a cabinet maker so I also worked construction full time while doing all that climbing. My journal is riddled with injuries. The next summer I went to Font with John Sherman and my back hurt so much that most of the time I just laid on my pad. In 2007 I bet I didn't climb 20 times and it felt so good not to be in pain all the time. I've been really lucky, I have never broken anything as a mater of fact I have never even sprained an ankle but 35 years of climbing and 35 years of construction have taken there toll. I get out a little, its nice to go bouldering with my daughter Caitlin and her boyfriend James King.

FRB: Any word of wisdom for the aspiring climber?

Steve: Remember that climbing is about adventure. If you look at the history of climbing it has always been about exploring, being first, doing first ascents. Climbers have always measured themselves by their first ascents, don't just go around doing other peoples climbs do some of your own.

FRB: Thanks for the interview, Steve.

Steve: You're welcome.


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