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




It Won’t Go: On Breaking Up After a Climbing Trip

I’d never wanted a vacation to be over before it started.

Maybe it was because I knew we’d be over when the trip ended. Maybe I was trying to delay the inevitable.

But we were 10 months in and things still weren’t working. 

We tried of course, but when it came down to it, you kept holding back. Something didn’t feel right, you said.

We decided it was time to move on. But not before some fun.

A two-week climbing trip in Turkey awaited. A nice way to end things after the shit that was Kraków. Let’s go out on an upswing, we thought.

Photo by the author

I knocked on your door in Budapest. 

We hadn’t seen each other since that fateful weekend. We were filled with trepidation.

I entered. You gave me a look. I threw myself into your arms. 

We moved to the bedroom and eliminated the distance between us. We fucked then held each other. Hours passed. Sometimes it was so easy.

They were good days. Then we left for Geyikbayiri.

Maybe this will work.

Budapest went well, maybe this will work. Maybe.

I repeated those words to myself like a prayer. I had a bad feeling but tried to be hopeful. My stomach began to knot up at Atatürk airport, not a good sign. 

We caught a flight to Antalya, then took a shuttle to our hostel. I’d tip the driver too much.

Photo by S

It was dark when we arrived. 

The air smelled sweet. Oranges and pomegranates wafted ripe around us. 

There was something else too, the citrus masked a pungent aroma. I breathed a sort of goat, orange, mountain air mélange. It reminded me of the farm. A memory of mixed associations: The smell of verdant life and an imminent season of change; Of the infinite cycle and of confinement. 

The bungalows where we’d stay were coupled off with fruit trees in little vistas of privacy. They were small cottages like gingerbread homes with a Turkish twist. Inside, an Ottoman gourd diffused light through shimmering gems of red, orange, and green. The lamp was too weak to read by.

That night we settled around the fireplace to shoot the shit with our new camp mates. She’d sync in with the rhythm of the place more easily than I would.

She was so god damned cool with everything. 

It was the lightest I’d ever seen her, just carefree and enjoying herself.

I wasn’t able to match the buoyancy.

Why? I didn’t quite understand.

How could she be so at ease when nothing (and everything) was on the line?, I questioned myself. I questioned her.

Photo by the author
Photo by S

We’d talk again about our thoughts on love — how we love.

She’d say, I’d rather give and receive love when it’s there. 

I admitted it sounds good in theory.

I’m not sure why it is like this for me, though. I do find the clarity of knowing things will end to be a relief. It makes it easier. 

Not that I’m happy about things ending, but it helps to have resolution.

I do wonder if I’m the one with the weird strategy, she offered.

She’d told me before that she always feels the emotional pains of a breakup months later. I wondered about the mechanics of regret and grieving.

Photo by the author

The trip would be a tug-of-war with myself.

I was frustrated as hell and felt uncomfortable with us. What we were. It was hard for me to love so freely knowing it was over. It felt pointless at times.

I wondered why I put myself in this mess.

Days passed. It wasn’t working. I needed to get away.

Away from the room, away from the camp, away from her.

We talked and I said I wanted to go for a hike the next day, to get some space to think. She misheard me and thought I was asking her to join.

The next morning, I left two hours before sunrise. Mostly, I stumbled around in the dark. My headlamp was too dim in the blackness, it made me near-sighted. I kept going off-route. 

Come on sun, rise and take me with you. I want to go fast. I want to go far. I want to explode.

In time the sun came. It shone out onto the kingdom in long streaks of color and flare. My feeble eyes tilted towards the sky. I could see a path forward. I ran.

I needed to feel the freedom of movement. 

Photo by the author
Photo by the author
Photo by S

We settled into an up-and-down rhythm.

We had a cadence of a few good days then a fight. I was mainly the instigator. She was always the more understanding one.

On one day the Slovakians went into town for a rest and to re-stock on cigarettes. Only the ear, nose, and throat doctor stayed behind.

We invited her to join us climbing, which made four. We paired off and I chose to climb with Doc. I wanted a day away from her. I felt tight and distracted. Not good for belaying.

I’d lead my hardest climbs to date.



On another day we’d hitchhike to town to buy food. We’d end up with bottles of wine from the driver’s private vineyard and Toblerone. S has her unique social charms, and conversational German. 

It was my first hitchhiking experience. We’d toast to our fortune later on.



On another day I’d surprise her by dressing up the bungalow with birthday decorations. I got her some small things and we enjoyed the morning sipping coffee and talking on the porch. I decided not to make a cake.



Yet another day I’d be cold and distant.

We’d talk through our frustrations and challenges which ironically brought us closer. When we were relaxed we found harmony in continuous laughter. At points we’d feel the closest we ever felt.

It was emotionally taxing.

Photo by the author

The days marched on.

Nearing the end we looked back and wondered where the time went.

I had been agonizing, which had made the days feel slow. Now our time was fleeting and it felt like everything was slipping through my hands.

We left camp and drove down the Turkish coast along the Mediterranean Sea, taking the D400 from Antalya to Çıralı. Three days left, just the two of us.

We each chose one activity: She wanted to go hiking, I wanted to see ruins, and we both wanted to climb.

Photo by S

We walked among the dead.

The mausoleum had fallen into the sea. The foundation was washing away and the walls now spilled into the sand. The cacophonous chambers were aired and quietly filling with empty water bottles.

I seek the ancient world because it reminds me that it was once the present. We will all topple some day.

Phaselis was a prosperous port city that passed hands from Greek to Roman to Persian and on and on, before eventually falling out of favor for larger ports nearby. The slow decline lasted until the 11th century when it stopped being of any importance. Quite a good run, though.

That night she’d tell me, When we were in the car, you were talking with Nico about something — I was only half-paying attention — I was looking at you in the sideview mirror and just felt this overwhelming sense rise up; This swell of love for you filled me.

We did love each other after all.

I pulled her close, held her. What am I supposed to do with that?, I thought.

Quite a good run, though.

Photo by the author

December first. Our last night.

We jumped into the Mediterranean naked.

We’d swam in the ocean — in December — and were all giggles and shivers over it.

Over it. That’s what we were. Tomorrow we’d both fly out from Antalya. You’d leave half an hour before me. We had separate flights because I had bought my ticket later. Because I wasn’t sure if I’d want to jet before the trip was done.

It had been hard. But I was glad I stayed.

A small part of me hoped that I’d run into you on the layover in Istanbul. That wouldn’t happen.

The ocean waves bristled with electricity, the shock absorbed us. We swam with the current then broke the circuit. The lights dimmed.

Photo by the author

We left on good terms.

We had a joke that these were the best breakups we’d ever had. Or maybe it was only me that said that.

Parting at the airport was confusing, difficult. We both admitted we felt closer, more open, more honest. We agreed not to talk for awhile.

Back home she’d show pictures of the trip to her grandmother.

I popped up on the screen here and there. She asked who I was. She said something about a complicated relationship.

Her grandmother said a few words and they both moved on. She told me she really liked her grandmother because she didn’t judge.

In Istanbul I was going through some old emails.

I can trace our time together in the flight details in my inbox. We covered a lot of miles.

In the end, no matter how far we went, we couldn’t bridge that final distance.

Photo by S

The Black Magic and Heart Break of Zakrzówek Quarry

We walked to the quarry and had our first talk of the end. 

She’d come to visit from Budapest and was staying for a long weekend. We’d last seen each other five weeks before and spent the ensuing time apart on separate continents. We left on good turns.

Now we were back in Krakow and a lot had changed. I hadn’t realized how much. She had no idea.


We were feeling claustrophobic in the apartment, and in our own heads.

We needed to get out.

Krakow contains several parks. We sought refuge in nature.

The Zakrzówek quarry is rumored to contain black magic. Pan Twardowski, a sorcerer from the 16th century, made a deal with the devil for great knowledge and supernatural power. He allegedly practiced his dark art among the rocks.

Pan is said to still be alive: He lives on the moon and keeps tabs on Krakovian gossip via a spider’s thread spun down to the city center.

Zakrzówek Quarry


Today, we were trying to disentangle our own web.

We walked from the apartment to the quarry, 4km west from Kazimierez. We strode along the Vistula and atop hard concrete sidewalks desperate for fresh air.

The weather was cold, clouds hung heavy and damp. It smelled of decaying leaves, slightly sweet. Like stale black tea. Oranges, reds, yellows and dark grays were sprayed along paths and dusted the windshields of parked cars.

At the conclusion of a few sharp turns, the quarry strode open and evoked an antediluvian fortress or a secret garden. Sheer limestone walls enclose old apple trees and a shrunken deciduous forest. The trees were lithe and thin. We walked in. I had to piss. She kept on.

Zakrzówek Quarry
To our right, chalky stains ran along the wall. It’s the closest outdoor climbing in Krakow and the cues are all over.

There were signs marking our relationship too: Difficulty fully committing to each other, a chasing of narratives and expectations across cities, countries, continents. In the process we ended up in different places and at different conclusions.

It sucks.

We moved to the long crack in the rock face and played on the limestone in street clothes and inappropriate shoes. We scaled a short traverse, the stone was slick. Climbing had been a way for us to bond. I had learned to lead climb with her.

All around it was quiet. The winter breeze rushed into the valley and swirled around the posthole quarry. It felt like a day for endings.

We made our way to the top of the rock and peered about. We sat at the edge and observed the pastel colors of fall and a sunken sky.

Zakrzówek Quarry


We talked about us and the future.

It was the first of several conversations we would have that week.

I moved away and became cold and despondent. We walked on and spoke in terse tones.

Tension was strung between us, the spider’s line might snap at any moment. I wasn’t being compassionate.

We walked around the lake. The vibrancy of the fall palette and crisp air remained fixed in view. I was moving down a hole.

“You don’t have to wait here for me,” she urged as she sat staring out glassy-eyed over the water. “I need some time to myself, since I’m not getting any empathy from you.”

I was being a jerk, detached. I was falling into old patterns. Needs were met with ice. A stonewalled heart. My gut tightened with regret. Past car crash moments flashed by. My shoulders and back tensed, the breath became shallow and rapid. It’s fight or flight.

I tried to get out of my own head, to stop the record and listen. There she was, right there, you could reach out and touch her, offer support. You could throw a lifeline.

You’re iced through.

Cold to the touch, prickly.

Why? Why do this? You ask yourself often over the coming days.