Who is Steve "Crusher" Bartlett?

I'm a Boulder, Colorado rock climber. I was born near London, England, lived as a teenager in Cardiff, Wales, I started rock climbing in 1976 when I went to college in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in the far northeastern corner of England. The nearby countryside of Northumberland features windswept moorlands, from time to time abruptly broken by crags of steep, golden sandstone.

The cliffs were small, but protection was sparse, there were few trees or boulder to belay from, so the default became to climb, ropeless, as high as one dared, then either go for the top or downclimb until one could jump off without injury. Fortunately the holds were usually large and the moves positive. The name "Crusher" came from my response to this; Lew Brown, a fellow UK climber, came up with this nickname. Lew, supple, gymnastic, flexible, would elegantly finesse his way up a route; then I would climb the same piece of rock, a death-grip on one hand-hold, the other fist groping blindly upward, “crushing” the holds, while my feet followed behind me at their own pace.

Holding on by my fingertips, high above the ground focused and calmed my mind like nothing else, before or since. In November 1982 I visited the USA on a vacation to climb in Joshua Tree. I bought a motorcycle and on rest days explored landscapes far wilder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before. Next summer, I learned to aid climb on the granite walls of El Capitan, reveling in the outrageous exposure of the Salathe Headwall, 3,000 feet above the ground. A year later, I rode that same Honda 350 over the Rockies a in a snowstorm and ended up in Boulder, Colorado. A year later, my new girlfriend, Fran Bagenal, made me return to Yosemite and do the Salathe Wall all over again so she, too, could fully appreciate that same mind-blowing exposure. I’m still in Boulder, 35 years later. Somewhere along the way, the hardscrabble life of construction laboring, living in a VW bus, and window-cleaning with Clean Dan Grandusky, in support of maximum time to play on the cliffs gave way to homeownership, several years serving on the Eldorado Canyon Fixed Hardware Committee, a third decade of marriage to that long-ago Salathe Wall partner... but I digress.  

My first visit to the Utah desert was in 1984. The raw landscapes and severe silences seemed overwhelming, the perfection of the Indian Creek cracks more a novelty than a serious destination.

Life in the cosmopolitan city of Boulder was changing me. In spring 1988 Eric Bjornstad’s encyclopedic guidebook, Desert Rock, was published. There was, we learned, much more to the desert than Indian Creek. My friends and I began a deeper exploration of the Colorado Plateau. The Fisher Towers were first; in the late 1980s this was a remote, unknown place. The formations were dark and foreboding, the climbing grossly unpleasant. But to succeed on the climbs and summit these magnificent towers required embracing mud, filth, looseness and all; what appeared repellent became enjoyable. And those summits, so high in the air! At the time, fewer people had stood on top of Cottontail or even the Titan than had stood on top of Everest. A small band of likeminded aficionados reveled in the Cutler Sandstone experience, and a not-much-larger band appreciated the entire range of varieties of desert-climbing experiences. In the early 1990s, while the rest of the US climbing scene shifted gears and began pursuing athletic excellence, the desert rats toiled at an older game, in silent, remote canyons.

The culmination of my Fisher Tower climbing was the first ascent of Beaking in Tongues, in 1997, with Dave Levine. To this day this is the only route to one of the big Fisher summits that has no bolts or drilled holes for aid. In 1999, I began exploring the free climbing around Monument Basin, in Canyonlands National Park. The steep, intricately textured sandstone there produced routes akin to those of Northumberland, bold, steep, juggy. Plus, the 1995 decree by Superintendent Walt Dabney banning bolts and hammered aid in Canyonlands National Park added spice and commitment to the climbing on these new towers, a new and intriguing challenge; Thanks to Kath Pyke, Nigel Gregory, Stu Ritchie, Ralph E Burns, Ralph Ferrara, and Jonny Copp for shared adventures on these formations. A first hammerless ascent of Islet In the Sky, solo, is one of my fondest ever desert ascents. In the new century, I’ve been exploring farther afield, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the San Rafael Swell, and Glen Canyon Recreation Area.

At home, I changed careers in the mid-1990s from concrete form-setting to tile-setting, then to editing and laying out climbing guidebooks for Sharp End Publishing.

Along the way I’ve met, listened to, and climbed with many patient, wonderful people and formed lasting friendships with many. I've been privileged to meet desert pioneers such as Layton Kor, Harvey Carter, Eric Bjornstad, Fred Beckey, Bill Forrest, Jerry Gallwas, Jimmy Dunn, Kyle Copeland, Alison Sheets, Ed Webster, Earl Wiggins, Todd Gordon, many more. Geographically and generationally isolated from each other, they yet share a particular vision.

There was a history behind this vision, in danger of slowly disappearing. I did not always care about history; my first decade or more of climbing, I was wrapped up in pushing myself, absorbed in the simple joy of mastering steep, hazardous cliffs. But, the real mastery never really was of the rocks but of myself. And, as I learned to better understand myself, I could better appreciate the aspirations and struggles of others. 

I had hopes that some else would write a book about the history of the desert tower climbers, while I quietly got on with getting more towers done. Earl Wiggins and Katy Cassidy published a book, Canyon Country Climbs, that hinted at the shared vision of desert climbers. This book showcased another vision, of the coffee-table climbing book, with larger-than-life photos. A fuller accounting needed to be told, to be preserved. Eric Bjornstad, winding down from his guidebook writing career, expressed an interested but was sidetracked by his own memoirs. By the late 1990s he was writing less and even this project stalled out. Meanwhile, I began writing several magazine articles about desert towers.  

In the early 2000s I on a larger, book-size project. Meeting Jerry Gallwas, all-round nice guy, low-key pioneer of several groundbreaking first-ascents from the mid-1950s, pushed me into a higher gear. He was astoundingly helpful and supportive. So was Layton Kor, who I’d visited and interviewed a couple of years earlier. Several more years of collecting ideas and information and interviews culminated in the publication, in late 2010, of Desert Towers.

Since publication, within the last seven years, the great 60s desert pioneers, Kor, Carter, Bjornstad, and Beckey, have all passed on. But some of their stories are preserved in my book. And, the vast, wild desert is still there. The game is the same, keep the adventure high and the bolt count low. Leave others a challenge, but an honest one. I’m not sure I’ll ever write another book, but I’m still finding and climbing new desert towers, keeping one step ahead of the crowds, and will be for as long as I can still stand.

Crusher, 2018