Who is Steve "Crusher" Bartlett?
I'm a Boulder, Colorado-based rock climber. I've summited more than 160 desert towers, over 40 being first ascents. My book, Desert Towers, distills a century of climbers’ fascination with spindly desert summits into 350 colorful pages.
Why should anyone care about desert climbing?
Because going climbing in 2015 is safer than finding a prime place to park at Whole Foods. It wasn’t always this way! Climbing was once a hazardous pursuit, at one time comparable with bull-fighting and racing motor-cars. Rock climbers, if they wanted to survive, learned to be self-reliant, cool under fire—and to never let go of the rock. They learned to rely on themselves and their partners, not their equipment, which was rudimentary. Along the way their singular vision and shared hardships forged deep friendships, tight bonds, a legendary community.
These days, the climbing community is much bigger and less well-defined. Equipment is foolproof, climbs are safe. We've gained a lot, but also lost something, too. But there are still a few backwaters where the old skills, self-reliance and quiet mastery, come into play: one such place is the Southwest desert. Even if the equipment is modern and reliable, the rock is anything but!
My first visit to the desert was in 1985. Coming from the UK, a land of lush green hills and pleasant charms, the raw landscapes and severe silences seemed overwhelming. The wildness and remoteness drew me back, over and over. I’ve learned to appreciate the colorful stones and the teetering hoodoos.
I’ve been returning to the desert for 30 years. 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, from the 1960s and even earlier, who have kindly shared their wealth of stories and photographs from a half-century ago.
I did not always listen, nor care about history. I began climbing in 1976, enjoying the thrill of being high on a cliff, able to stare down and around at the far-off ground. I enjoyed, even more, climbing with no rope, for the even more intense experience of being high above the ground facing grave injury if I let go.
And the name "Crusher," where did that come from?
Lew Brown, a fellow UK climber, came up with my nickname. Lew is supple, gymnastic, flexible. He would elegantly finesse his way up a route and I would follow, one fist with a death-grip on a hand-hold, the other clutching and grabbing blindly upward, “crushing” the holds, while my feet followed behind me at their own pace.
A book about desert towers?
I had high hopes that some else would write a book about the history of climbing in the desert. The stories and images of the colorful rocks and even more colorful characters really needed to be told, to be preserved. In the early 2000s I decided that maybe I should make a start on such a book myself. 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. Several more years of collecting ideas and information and interviews, culminated in the publication of Desert Towers, the definitive, award-winning book about desert-tower-climbing.