In Memory of Brutus of WydeArticle by Dingus Milktoast, layout by me. Dingus transferred it to me when he left SP in order to keep the tribute in place
We climbers are tribal. It sounds trite, but it’s true. The brotherhood of the rope is real. It spans the globe, cultures, bitter national rivalries, languages. Climbers from the world over gather around a fire and by virtue of common experience and shared passion, they know they sit with brother and sister.
One of our brothers is missing today. Our tribe is diminished.
Oh Brutus, you left too soon. Too soon!
We met, as so many others, via rec.climbing. His stories were well told in a style all his own. Having treaded some of the same ground I began to perceive the magnitude of the climbs he was doing.
We corresponded and threatened to climb together. And then it happened – after a long drive down the east side and a late night bivi near Sherwin Summit, I drove into Lone Pine early one morning and stopped at the Mt Whitney Restaurant. I laid my eyes on The Cave for the first time.
Brutus and Em greeted me like an old friend. Right from the start I could see they had a special kind of magic when they were together. Chatting like we were resuming conversations begun long ago we went in and had breakfast.
We were planning on hiking up Tuttle creek that day. Yall know the place, up past the Ashram and on up under the looming South Face of Lone Pine Peak. Brutus had a beer for breakfast and encouraged me to have one as well.
‘What the Hell,’ I thought to myself. Em wisely declined as did their friend Pavel. I partook and Brutus and I tipped bottles of breakfast beer to our coming adventure. That’s how we met.
So it was just a while later really when we stopped in the Ashram. I’d never been there before but was acutely aware of its history. Climbers like Fred Beckey, Galen Rowell and Warren Harding had been in this building before me. And younger men like Pat Brennan and Alois Smrz.
We took a break. Brutus and Em liked to take their time on approaches, pause for naps along the way, smell the irises. I was sitting there on the floor of the Ashram. I could see the great South Face through the back door.
We’d brought too many beers bless his heart and Brutus said we had to ‘lighten the load.’ So we each enjoyed an Ashram beer too, before humping it up that wild ass canyon.
Pavel bolted ahead of us up canyon and we didn’t see him once after the Ashram. “Damn Rabbits,” Brutus muttered more than once under his breath. “Always running ahead, getting lost and slowing us down in the end.” He had tons of wisdom like that.
That night we bivied beneath the protected awning of a giant boulder, on a sandy flat floored grotto just big enough for four sleeping climbers. Of course those two produced the most amazing collection of food, seasoning, libations and good cheer. We dined to a world class meal out of rock soup.
Eating a meal with Brutus was always a delight. The next morning we had toasted bagels with a thick slice of good cheddar melted in, some hot French roast (my contribution on that first meet – Peets) and off we went.
We climbed the Milktoast Chimney that day, a stunningly beautiful line up the right side of Fred Beckey’s Red Baron Tower. I was so proud to have climbed that route with him. The name was a private joke between us but I still remember him showing me the sheep sh#t ON TOP of the Red Baron Tower. On… top…. They’d come up the 4th class descent I reckon, nipping at grassy ledges.
Not a year or two later we were back, or I should say Em and Brutus were back. Brutus always had so many projects going on! Climbs planned weeks and months in advance, partners and routes perfectly choreographed against an impressive vacation and overtime schedule. He farmed his time off and then used that time to climb. He did this for decades.
Brutus along with Pat Brennan had freed some stout aid lines up that canyon like the Beckey Route, and even opened their own. Our route up the Chimney was one of them. But what he really wanted was a line up the direct south face of Lone Pine Peak.
And once again I was in the Ashram, this time toting a haulbag instead of pack. The trek up the canyon had got no easier. After a day of climbing and brutal hauling, we were established up on the face, ready to cast off.
Night fell and because of our position the lights of Owens valley were blocked off. Sitting up on our bivi ledges, dinner and some drinks out of the way, we enjoyed the evening glow and silence. I’d climbed with them both quite a bit by then and had begun to get their measure, as they mine.
We just sat there, you know? I marveled at the position of it all. You know I’m a punter right? I didn’t deserve to be there at all. I hadn’t earned my place at the table. I could not have led the party to get us where we were. But sitting there with those two I suffered no doubts. I was one lucky dude.
And I told him really quietly, almost a whisper,
“Thanks Brutus.” He didn’t answer me. I silently wondered if he’d heard me at all. He certainly hadn’t flinched when I spoke. He was just looking out, as I was, taking it all in.
Down below us stretched Tuttle Creek, a manzanita choked canyon littered with giant granite boulders and flanked by massive walls. None as big as the one we were on though. Above us loomed a giant roof and Brutus had pushed the route to within one pitch of cracking that thing. Tomorrow was the day.
He just sat there you know? Like he didn’t hear me. His profile was etched against the steel blue of the evening sky. And he nodded forward, just once.
It’s a Brutus mannerism, that nod. Anyone who knows him knows that nod. It’s an affirmation, that yes, he had it right. It’s a confirmation that all his preparation and training were for a purpose. It’s a summation – he was pulling it together.
“There’s no lights out there. We have this canyon all to ourselves Dingus. This is what it must have been like for Harding, Robbins and those boys, back in the 60s in the Valley.”
That was all he said. He continued to look out across the void, musing on thoughts he did not share. I reflected on his words and felt a new appreciation for the wildness of his heart’s pursuits.
I bailed on them the next morning. A cell phone call from home – my wife’s mother was very sick. I knew there was nothing I could do… but I knew my wife needed me. And yet so too did Em and Brutus. I carry a large chip of guilt on my back to this day, for abandoning them on Wind Horse. I take small comfort in that fact I also did the right thing. But boy did I owe them. Big time.
Some time that same year while flying in a commercial jet over the winter Sierra, I spotted what looked like a pretty big cliff where none should be. Least ways, none that I was aware of. I scoured guidebooks later on – nothing. No mention of this place.
Time rolled on but I never forgot it and the next spring, before the snowpack melted, I skied in there solo to have a look. Holy… shit! The thing was real, off the beaten path and big! I was excited.
I eventually told Brutus about it and bing bang boom a year or two later several of us went in there to have at it. This ‘expedition’ turned out to be one of the great climbing adventures of my life. I was surrounded by my closest climbing partners; Angus, Burl, Brutus and Em, and we were going in to try and bag a first ascent of a big alpine face.
The hike was up this long dog leg of a canyon, our objective hidden from all popular vantage points and trails. You couldn’t see this thing from anywhere except the air. None of my friends had so much laid eyes on it. They were all there on my word, see?
And I’ve been known to stretch a C note into a D sometimes, nawmean? They were there for me but body language couldn’t lie, they were dubious. And yet they did trust me, with vacation, with money and most valuable of all, time. And then they saw my Leviathan for the first time and I could hear the sharp intake of their breath. It was real, after all.
The canyon approach is absolutely beautiful. The base camp was situated at the head of a grassy plain just below the terminal moraine of the last glacier to occupy this valley. We were a short 20-minute hike from the base of the first pitch of a thousand foot tall, dead vertical to massively overhanging chunk of orange granite and we so far as we knew were the only climbers on the planet who knew anything about it.
We had a big old dinner that night, our parties combined. Any guesses as to who did the cooking? Brutus and Em of course. We packed in frozen chicken and enjoyed roasted bird that evening, fresh salad with wild onions picked fresh from the meadow below. Lots of beer too of course.
Brutus was mesmerized by this prize. He heard me wag about it for a long time and now here we were. It was real. It was massive. It exuded a menace too, its base littered with blocks from the size of houses to battleships. Massive overhangs blocked nearly every line from base to summit and promised desperate climbing or aid.
There was one line and I had spied it long ago. It split the central dihedral to half height, then went up the right hand arête of the framing wishbone to gain a summit arête. It too had to thread an overhang but at least this line offered the promise of reasonable free climbing. Still and all, vertical to overhanging and incredibly intimidating.
We’d spent the afternoon glassing the peak from many angles, worked out the approach (my 2nd time by then) and stashed some gear. Angus and Burl intended on a different line so it was Em, Brutus and I to have at the main face. We were taking the Directessima and I must say the worm was turning pretty hard that night.
I walked away from camp, out under the stars, and there was Brutus, looking once again up at the face.
(Brutus was artist too. He drew this using a broken pen on a scrap of paper, sitting in Shangri La basecamp on a rest day. This drawing is incredibly accurate and you can trace our line up the right hand side of the great heart-shaped central dihedral. And then he GAVE ME the original drawing. This is a photocopy of that drawing, which I need to locate and get framed)
Standing there in Shangri La as we came to call that place, we might have been in Pakistan or even on some other planet. No other hikers, fishermen, no body at all, came up this canyon the whole time we were there We had it ourselves.
He was looking up you know, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. I didn’t invite any of my friends lightly and Brutus knew it. I could have recruited any old big gun to help with this, but that’s not what climbing is about for me. This was as much about my friends as it was that giant chunk of cold rock and it meant a lot that they were there.
Brutus turned to me, looked me directly in the eye and held it – and again with the nod. One firm nod forward, with all its connotations.
“Thank you Dingus.” Our eyes drilled into one another. I didn’t need to say anything in return, our look conveyed things that could not be spoken.
I was standing there with one of the motive forces of high Sierra rock climbing, a guy with a long list of FAs and FFAs to his credit, spanning 20 years and all over the west. I’d already climbed at my limit and beyond, following him up leads no man had travelled before him. I knew what he was capable of and what stoked his fires.
And he knew too, of my strengths. I am a pathfinder and one of my loves is to find new places, new promise, new ground. I had found this one. And I brought my friends with me out of love and I told them so. This was my gift to them, not ‘for’ anything, but just for being.
Damn we had such a great time sending that route we came back twice more in subsequent years! Shangri La was indeed a special, special place for Em, Brutus and I. We shared a special love and bond up there in that high meadow. We did and saw things as a team that no others saw before us nor will they ever see it just as we did.
We ice climbed in winter. We diddled around with sport routes up Sonora Pass way. Brutus was a relentless soul and he pursued climbing with an intensity and commitment rivaled by few. And Em was right by his side, an integral part of all he did.
Anyone who spent any time at all with them could see the special love and balance they brought one another. I was always a big Tolkien fan, even before the movies came out. Early on I had come to liken them to Tom Bombadil and the River Lady.
Brutus was Tom of course – possessed of a strange lyrical energy, seemingly unable to sit still for long. He always had to be doing something and of course in a camp, on a wall, at the base of a route, there are always a hundred things that wanted doing. And Brutus would do them all too.
It wasn’t his way to issue orders, he’d just do it himself. He wouldn’t like it though, he didn’t cotton to camp slackers, even as he served them with a smile. He expected everyone to pitch in.
He had a power and a magic. He worked equally well in the engineering world of high pressure water delivery systems as he did the musical world of French horns and orchestras. He was a gymnast and performed in Project Bandaloop too.
When in camp his energy could at times seem too manic. Like he might run out of jobs and just starting inventing them.
“Look!” he’d say with some excited glint in his eye. “I just figured out this cool new way to use this tool.” And he’d show you and you’d be all., ‘OKaaaaay., that’s neat.’ And off he’d go, attending to some other task.
He’d weave this way and that, carrying on conversations all the while, about friends, climbs, places. He loved to laugh didn’t he? And in camp, in the high country, attending to the loves of his life? Brutus of Wyde laughed all the time, virtually non-stop if you must know. Even in the mornings, after puking on the approach to some death climb, you could make book on a laugh, a real laugh! From Brutus. He was doing what he loved, make no mistake about that.
But if you stepped back from camp, stepped away from the fire as it were, and watched his manic goings and comings, from a distance? You’d quickly discern the center of his universe, his anchor, his reason for being – Nurse Ratchet; the River Lady; Elaine Holland. Em.
Zoom goes Brutus, off to attend to the tent. Trailing behind him like scented spring breeze is Em’s gentle River Lady laugh – “you go Brutus!" echoes her tinkling laughter.
She’d turn to me and smile, the most genuine and heartfelt of smiles on the planet, and she’d say,
“I love that man.” In such an elemental way that it filled me to the core with good will for these two. Oh how I had some good times with them, the best! She said this to me, of Brutus, many times. How much she loved him. And I never once hesitated in telling them both how much I loved them two.
We skied together in the back country, never at a resort even though we tried a time or two on that score. Shoe, or the ski as it were, was on the other foot when it came to that sport – I was master and Brutus and Em were the students. But characteristic of their approach to everything, they took lessons and fairly quickly became quite proficient telemarkers. I celebrated their newfound skills with a great descent from Angora Peak one Jan. with them – shooting deep pow pow through the towering Jeffery pines of the Tahoe basin.
Brutus invited me along for Atlantis Wall and I was crazy enough to say yes. I knew the short history of the vertical cliff shooting directly out of the deep cold water of Donnell Reservoir. Potter, Nortienger, Leversee. Anyone stopping at the Overlook on Hwy 108 can easily walk 5-minutes and stare at that big wall.
Getting to the base of it is another thing entirely. The trailhead is at the end of a 17-mile one way road that is rougher’n hell and has been the demise of many a car. Then an uphill hike gets you to the dam. From there you lower your boats into the water and paddle across the lake, loaded down with big wall gear. Talus Island, a scree pile at the base of the wall, serves as an excellent base camp and staging ground.
First pitch is right out of the boat – immediate 5th class climbing from the first step out. More or less straight up for a thousand feet from there.
The problems associated with the boat and the nature of a spring runoff reservoir led to some interesting ‘hoist your boat’ antics. That climb was so mind boggling! Again we found ourselves on this improbable wall, this one right under the noses of hundreds of climbers. I’d been yacking, as had others, about coming in here for years. Stu and I even planned a trip once, only to go to Wyoming instead.
But it took a Brutus to actually do it. He’d do the approaches that were necessary to snag those ‘last great prizes.’ The approaches no one else would do. I’m not the sort of detailer who should chronicle his accomplishments – but it is going to stand out. He will stand shoulder to shoulder with those he admired most.
We didn’t get up it that first attempt. We stashed some gear at our highpoint, stashed even more on Talus Island and left, intending to come back within weeks.
I shattered my ankle two weeks later, climbing with Beth on Arrowhead Arete. I was out of climbing commission for almost a year. And just as I was getting into the scheme of things again…. This is hard for me to even think about much less write.
Coming home from a successful first ascent with Munge and Angus, at Weeping Wall, the sister wall to Atlantis really, I fell asleep behind the wheel and got into a violent accident. I broke my neck in 3 places. I nearly died in a car accident on the way home from a climb.
Amazingly I survived and came though the healing process relatively unscathed. Oh I have some permanent side effects, don’t get me wrong. Spinal injuries have a way of jacking you up? Just none that are debilitating or that I can use as convenient excuses hehe.
Brutus had long waited to get on Atlantis Wall, let me tell you. He’d been thinking about that thing just as long as I – longer. We had gear strung out on the route, fixed ropes hanging there for those with the eyes to see them.
And there they hung. Brutus and Em wouldn’t go back without me. Patiently they waited, first the broken ankle and then the broken neck. I missed two summers of climbing back to back and it took its toll. I was a different person than I was just two years prior.
But through all that they waited, Em and Brutus. And in September, 4 months after breaking my neck in 3 places, we started back up Atlantis Wall.
Hehe, once again I had no business being there. My neck was still weak. Hell my ankle was bogus and couldn’t have sustained a 5-foot fall! My neck was such that I was terrified of even bumping my head. No way I was going to try to lead any of the remaining pitches. No way. I’d done one of the leads on this route, down low. That was fine for me.
I was happy to be alive and to have the steam to once again set foot on Atlantis Wall. A privilege in every sense, to be able to do that. And to have such fine companions, such loyal friends as these, to wait two years! Two years, they waited, for me to come back and finish that climb with them.
And it was so cool too. We topped out, scrambled up to the top of Broad Dome and signed or placed a register (I can’t remember which). And them smiling at one another. We started the 1st of many raps that took us a thousand feet back down Brutus’s amazingly unusual route, to land directly back in the bobbing boat.
Brutus and Em were always up for some back country romp. I’d found numerous lumps and incongruities up Sonora Pass Way and elsewhere and I always kept Brutus in the loop. We did some onsey twosy stuff up there over time – Wagon Train, Midas, 7 Up Crack. I brought them up to Sleeping Beauty and other little places of heaven, places only our own small band of miwuk climbers knew about.
It is nice little band in fact, though I haven’t seen some of my brothers in months now. We’d hang out around fires in open camp spots for free, then spontaneously split into teams the next day and head off in 3 or 4 directions. New routes would arise.
This has been our gig of recent years. They invited me on some of their outside expeditions but I rarely entertained the notion. With the demands of job and family I had to measure my fun in the ‘little adventures’ of the little FAs of Sonora Pass and leave the big stuff to those with time on their hands.
Weirdly, fitting, appropriately, ironically, however you want to look at it – the last big climb I did with Brutus and Em was the Thunderbird Wall on Norman Clyde Peak. Oh jeez that route ended up being stout and we got to the top, a mere few feet below 14 k, an hour before dark.
We got knighted on the descent and ended up sleeping on tiny ledges on the somber north face of Norman Clyde Peak. Some time during the night we heard a distant voice singing up out of the dark basin below – the ghost of Norman’s long lost bride?
I scrunched up over on one ledge and as they had so many other times, Brutus and Em faced the long cold dark of another forced bivi in one another’s arms, with good humor and a soft spoken bravery and gentle acceptance.
Brutus melted snow against his body that night to produce water, by magic, in his nalgene the next morning. That mylar madness stunned me frankly. Of all the ballsy leads I’d seen him send, that little act of melting snow against his body during a freezing unprotected bivi… well, it just seemed to sum up his constitution, you see what I’m saying? Brutus was tough.
He was quirky about his gear, fussy even. He’d come across as a gear hound and in a sense, in a big sense, he was one. He had all the gear, in all the sizes, and in several generations usually as well.
But different than a lot of REI Warriors, he knew how to use all that gear. And he knew how to improvise too. Plus when you looked at his gear? As well tended and loved as it clearly was, it was also well used.
Brutus used all that gear, all the time. He’d head up these leads with a massive rack, elbow and knee pads in place, everything situated just so, just like he wanted it. And if you climbed with him much you’d seen everything was just as he wanted not for some arbitrary reason. Things were as they were because he’d spent a lot of time ciphering on it.
Halfway up a pitch he’d produce that tool he showed you in camp. You remember that tool right? The one he showed you could twist around a certain way and use it upside down.
“Hey Dingus, check this out when you get here.”
People could and did jump to silly conclusions about him. But then you’d see him launch into a demanding unknown crack, first ascent, this is when Brutus and his kit came into his own.
This is what he loved.
We’re up on a ledge in a giant heart shaped conclavity. A nebulous ledge system disappears around a bulge and Brutus chases that promise out of sight. He’s battling a vertical corner system, it’s filled with dirt. Now he’s doing what he was born to do. I’m serious.
Climbing, cleaning, protecting – he works his way up. The silence is punctuated with his breathing, coming in gasps as 12k. He gags hacks and coughs, spits some. Suddenly you see some dirt clod fly out into space, then another. The rope wiggles, the clip of a biner, some blowing breaths, then a punctuated quiet followed by,
“All right, watch me here Dingus.” And he’d commit. I saw him do it over and over, Brutus would put himself in a position to succeed, he’d get himself in position with tools and skills to get the job done and like all the other great climbers I’ve known, he’d apply that incredible gift – his belief.
He believed he would succeed and so he did. And his enthusiasm drug me up many a route behind him. Brutus would commit, and then run it out for 30, 40 or 50 feet like he did on Milktoast Chimney. The dude could run it out on unknown ground, damn but could be do that.
He believed in himself and he believed in his friends. He celebrated his partners and commiserated our failures, helping us to plot our comebacks. Helpful and friendly he was a role model and like a big brother to me.
He always wanted to know what I was up to. He proof read some of my most private stories, ones I have not shared publicly. Em and Brutus couldn’t hide it – they thought for a time I was spiraling down a hole and I suspected they thought I was suicidal.
I wasn’t but certainly my recklessness had caught up with me in recent years. Some private family turmoil contributed to dark state of mind. We skied a really scary descent together one day, in really bad avi conditions, and they both looked at me really funny; worried. It had been my fault, that descent.
And I must admit around that time I penned some dark stories and dark thoughts too. I can see how they might have got those ideas. They were always there for me though, pulling me out of my funk, getting me back on the rock or skis under foot.
I was talking to my daughter earlier today, talking about Brutus. We were on our way to go climbing. First I wasn’t going to – go climbing. I didn’t know if I wanted to this soon after losing Brutus.
Angus called me last night. I told him the news of course and told him I probably wasn’t going to climb Sunday. I’d already begged off a similar invite from my friend Scuffy. Angus said he understood and rang off.
But he called back later. I saw it was him and emotionally raw, I didn’t answer it. But his voice mail said it all – in his short abbreviated way he said:
“Dingus, in case you change your mind I just wanted you to know, it was 22 years ago this weekend buddy. 22 years. Jeremy and I will be at the cliff by 8:30. Show up if you want.”
I thought hard about that message. See, Angus is my brother too. He is my oldest partner and still my go-to man of choice after 22 years. He knows how I feel about Brutus.
Angus has a remarkable memory for dates and he reminds me every year of ‘our anniversary.’ For Angus and I have done far more routes together than I was ever graced to send with Brutus. And Angus knows me like no other.
So yeah, Kaity and I met Angus and Jermey at the crag this morning and we climbed some routes. We didn’t dwell on Brutus, at least not out loud. I had to break the news to Jeremy – he’s a firefighter and used to taking in sad news but I could tell…
It helped me some, to move, to climb, to touch the familiar stone. It helped me remember and celebrate my friend, by doing, by climbing. Kaity is 12 and she sent a stout 5.9 crack today with impeccable style that really had me cheering her on.
It goes without saying Brutus – you’re hard wired into my soul buddy. You ain’t never going no where. Now we’re not going to get to free that last aid pitch on ‘A2 Brutus?’ We’ll never fill the meadow of Shangri La again with our laughter and enterprise.
Ours was a climbing relationship. We didn’t talk about work or sports. Politics just never came up. We didn’t ‘do dinner’ even though I wish we had. We just lived too far apart. The weird thing is I only saw Brutus when climbing. Only.
And the thing is? Mine is just one tiny piece of what these two did! In that same decade I had with Brutus they climbed amazing Canadian ice climbs, Waddington, up in Alaska, all over the southwest, b.c. destinations one after the other, over and over with a rich variety of friends from everywhere, old ones and instant new friends too.
I never met anyone like Brutus of Wyde and shall not again meet his like this side of the veil.
I miss you brother! I love you Em. Our tribe is diminished but we do not forget. Our hearts are stronger for having known you dude.
Montani Semper Liberi
U2 Brutus.... U2.