The Day I Learned My Cousin Is a Professional Climber

I learned a few things that day.

Like how someone can hum with crystal glass vibrancy–the kind you can hear and feel.

Or how a gleam in their eye is gonna stick to you like burdock burrs after a hike in the woods. There’s no escaping it.

That’s how it was, talking with him about climbing. 

Beer at the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


Perhaps my memory is faulty. If it is, I blame the craft beer.

We’d already drank two glasses each and they caused his cheeks to flush and my speech to slur slightly. It was summer in the Hudson Valley and the days were simple and long. Perspiration dribbled down our foreheads and the glass flutes.

We were sitting outside the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile talking about growing up and family. He was raised in Long Island and had longed to get away from the cramped quarters of that thin slice of land. 

He went to school at SUNY New Paltz and fell hard for climbing and mountain biking and his girlfriend. I can’t remember if he chose the school based off proximity to the Shawangunks. My memory is a bit hazy, like I said.

So the story goes, he climbed throughout college learning the trade of trad on the cliffs outside of town. Now he was the manager at the local climbing gym. “The Danager,” as the high school staff called him. 

This is where I sunk my teeth into climbing for the first time. That I do remember.

I hadn’t lived in a climber’s town before and wouldn’t have come through New Paltz if it wasn’t for the farm.

But there I was and I needed an outlet from the manual labor. The idea of climbing had been like a splinter in my brain, lodged in there from somewhere unrecognized long ago. I had wanted to try it yet never did. I started going to the gym, hence I met Dan.

As the season progressed, I fell into a rhythm and started climbing 3-4x per week. Mostly in the gym, go figure. It was like falling in love and the excitement of climbing got me through some damn drawn out days of hoeing and weeding.

I learned that the area had a long history: From Fritz Wiessner and Hans Krauss establishing lines in the 1930s and ’40s to a Nobel Prize winner coming up from Manhattan to set routes on the weekends (i.e., Shockley’s Ceiling, for William Shockley, a complicated character known equally for his racist ideas as his contribution to the semiconductor) to Lynn Hill’s first ascent of Vandals, which ushered in a wave of 5.13 climbs on the East Coast. 

More recently, Andy Salo, the almost Gunks lifer and local superhero had just completed the first ascent of Bro-Zone, a 5.14b extension, and the hardest route in the area.

On the other hand, it’s a quiet hippy-dip college town with plenty else going on. If you didn’t look for it, you could easily miss that this was a place pro climbers move to for their craft.

Dan asked why I was here in New Paltz.

I told him I had wanted to try farming for years, that I used to be in startups but wanted to pursue things that felt more right for me going forward. 

We clinked glasses to celebrate doing what moves you. As he raised his hand, I could see into his glass where his finger should have been.

Inside the bar of the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


He asked if I knew anyone in the area. 

I said not really, that my cousin lived here, but we weren’t that close.

“He’s sort a of semi-pro climber, actually,” I added.

“Who is your cousin?,” he asked.

“Andy Salo.”

Your cousin is AaaannDDDDYYY SAAAAlllOOOOO?!?!” He practically fell out of his chair.

“I mean, he’s sponsored by like La Sportiva. He’s not semi, dude, he’s pro. He’s like a local legend.” 

His eyes were teacup saucer wide. His voice rose a few octaves and he emphasized the “d”, “y”, and the “a”,“o”. Bingo was his name-o.

I knew Andy had been sponsored but never really paid attention to the brands. The whole idea of him living out of a truck for years, traveling around and climbing, seemed alien. It didn’t fit into my world view when I was younger. I guess I kinda ignored it, chalked it up to frivolous vagabonding. Still, there was an element of intrigue that I couldn’t shake.

Was he the source of the sliver?

To be honest, I wasn’t close with Andy and wouldn’t see him my whole time in New Paltz. 

Well there was one instance when I’m pretty sure he walked past the cafe I was sitting in. But you get the point.

He had always struck me as aloof, a “my way or the highway” kinda guy. He certainly marched to the beat of his own drum, and I often felt I wasn’t welcome to join his parade when our families got together for the holidays or that one summer vacation in Colorado.

Maybe it was because I was young and we didn’t share a lot in common back in the day. Maybe it was because he was a “step-“cousin; we didn’t grow up together and haven’t had the chance to get to know each other much. 

My impression softened when I learned about his feats, from someone else

Andy and I spoke at my sister’s wedding–his cousin–in September. It was probably the longest chat we’ve had to date.

I learned that Andy is a pretty humble guy, and that his motivations are driven as much by climbing as the history of a place. (He studied geology in college because, “it seemed the least terrible” thing to major in, which is his way of saying he likes history. That’s my take anyway). 

We talked about the pursuit of what interests you (and the sometimes friction against societal pressure). We like to think we are all going after what we want, but in practice that’s not true. Andy certainly has beat that drum a bit harder than most.

Like the quartz conglomerate cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, there’s more layers to my cousin than I could see at first glance.

Before we parted, he invited me to go climbing with him.

After we finished our beers, Dan packed up and headed out.

I stayed to enjoy the last rays and ponder: What was my judgement of Andy really about? 

Often, the things that trouble us about another is a reflection of our own desires or behavior.

Certainly, I’ve felt a tension towards devoting myself to one thing. That singular focus appealed to me. Was I jealous of him for actually doing it? Was I projecting my own “my way or the highway” nature unfairly onto Andy? Maybe.

The last seven years had been spent in startups and at one point I thought that would be my shtick. Yet, here I was working on a farm gaining a pointedly new perspective. 

I wondered about unfair judgements I have cast on other people.

Sunset over the Gunks. Photo by the author


All that summer I had been grappling with what to do (for a career, in life, etc.). 

By the end of the season there was just one clear-ambiguous thought: I wanted to keep gaining a broader perspective of the world. 

In rare moments when I let myself dream–without all that bullshit of what’s practical or not– what I really wanted to do was to travel through Europe for the next year. 

I wanted to climb more. I wanted to learn mountaineering. I wanted to write.

A round of cheers brought me to. Their clanging glasses clamored about in my ear.

I got up and walked back to the farm in the setting sun, a burdock burr was stuck to my pant leg.


Header Image: Andy Salo sending Bro-Zone, the hardest route in the Gunks. Photo source: Whitney Boland




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