"I’m not sure if hiking has changed me or if I hike in order to stay me": Marina interviews Skip Haswell
When I first met Skip, who also goes by William George Haswell, I asked him to describe an experience he had while hiking that frightened him, thinking that he would talk about a broken water filter in Ojai or losing a day’s supply of food to an Eastern Sierra creek. Instead, he briefly mentioned his experience trying to extricate himself from the wrong side of the Kanderfirn, a glacier in Switzerland. He was alone, surrounded by crevasses, cliffs, moulins and waterfalls, and night began to fall. Okay, I thought, I’m glad he’s not the one interviewing me.
Although we have mutual friends, Skip and I met when he commented on a photo I posted of Glen Pass, a steep, 12,000-foot pass in Kings Canyon National Park that hikers on the famous John Muir Trail and Rae Lakes Loop must climb on one taxing day of their journey through the Sierra Nevada. Through our correspondence, I learned that Skip had climbed Glen Pass once in 2001. Upon exiting the trail at Mount Whitney, he heard from a ranger that he had missed something important a few days earlier: September 11th, 2001.
I asked him if I could interview him about this experience, an evocative illustration of remoteness in an increasingly overconnected world, one where it is nearly impossible to miss documentation of the president golfing, let alone catastrophic events that alter the course of history. Perhaps missing both important and unimportant events, especially post-smartphone, is an experience unique to the wilderness. Now that Verizon is building cell phone towers throughout the Sierra Nevada, that kind of solitude and distance that so many of us seek in the mountains may soon exist only in our memories.
I was lucky to meet Skip at a time when I thought the Sierras had eclipsed too much of what I had previously known about myself. Some friends, growing accustomed to my unavailability on weekends, imagined I had abandoned my other interests and taken up residence in the woods. Meeting Skip reminded me that there is always someone out there who is more devoted than you, who has been hiking up mountains for much longer, and who has allowed the mountains to shape their life in ways that I hadn’t even considered. Talking to him, I felt like a person who generally played it safe and was firmly rooted in the material world, towing around my gadgets.
Skip doesn’t even really use trails, for example. He finds more isolated routes than those offered by the park service. We have never hiked together, but our mutual friends have confirmed that hiking with him is a different kind of experience: he appears to store a topographic map of the sierras inside his head, they say, and he seems to sleep just fine without a tent, even in the rain. I thought of a magnet inside the beak of a homing pigeon, guiding him smoothly towards a distant peak and then back to his property in Bridgeport, unscathed.
It is also clear that Skip found a way to bring home the mountains even when he returns to his residence in Los Angeles, which transports visitors to another place and time. Although he travels for his work as a professional grip, he lives most of the time in Highland Park, where he built a bothy overlooking a meadow. Up in Bridgeport, just off US Route 395, he also owns some land and a converted garage next to the Eastern Sierras, allowing him to regularly access the mountain range, which he refers to as a member of his family. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I am grateful to have met him.
MK: Did you hike as a kid, and did you enjoy it? Or was it something you started to do later in life?
SH: I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania, so exploring the woods has been a lifelong occupation. I’ve been organizing camping outings since middle school. I quit the Cub Scouts when they had a meeting on Halloween. That was it—Halloween was about freedom. I didn’t need the Cub Scouts—the Cub Scouts needed me.
My dad grew up in a similar way. We bonded on an alchemical level in the woods near our house and up north in Cook Forest, an enchanting piece of old growth forest hugging the banks of the Clarion River. I remember gathering big rocks with him from the little nameless creek along Shenango Road. He used the rocks for landscaping projects, rock gardens and rock walls.
My cousins had a farm a few miles away and the woods and fields around their old farmhouse seemed even more primeval. I spent a lot of time over there down in Darlington, Pennsylvania.
Was there a specific hike where you remember thinking you were going to buy a backpack and go out into the wilderness?
I began to get more serious after a ski trip to Winter Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving break sophomore year of high school. Jim DeGori, John Hendrickson and I flew to Denver by ourselves. We were avid snowboarders and skiers in Pennsylvania, but this was our first time in the big Rockies. I remember looking into the dark boreal forest of northern Colorado and feeling a bit afraid.
After graduation my friend Josh went to UC Boulder and was planning to do the Colorado Trail, so I planned on taking a greyhound out to meet him on the trail somewhere near Molas Pass. We hiked up Pikes Peak a year earlier in winter together. Pikes Peak gave me a visceral understanding of the size of mountains. Once you internalize the size of mountains, and can spot a false peak, you have a fighting chance.
We had a great New Hampshire-based store at the Beaver Valley Mall called Eastern Mountain Sports where I bought a 20-degree sleeping bag, a 2-pound North Face bivouac tent, and a copy of Climber’s and Hiker’s Guide to the World’s Mountains by the Utah eccentric Michael R. Kelsey. That book opened me up to this exhaustive, joyous pursuit of obscure high places. I found a pair of Vasque Sundowners at Sol’s in Ambridge, circa ’96.
I like what you said about feeling afraid of the dark boreal forest in Northern Colorado and having a visceral understanding of the size of mountains on Pikes Peak. I've always felt like fear is an integral part of any experience in the mountains. What is the most afraid you have ever been while hiking?
Getting over Hunchback Pass Colorado during a lightning storm; a disheartening fall near the top of Matterhorn Peak CA; nearly overdosing on mushrooms coming down from Piute Pass; alone trying to navigate out from the wrong side of the Kanderfirn Glacier in Switzerland, surrounded by a maze of crevasses and cliffs and getting dark, immersed in the mad roar of waterfalls and moulins.
I think about that first time in the Rockies as a kid looking into the lodgepole forest at the edge of the motel, trying to fathom what that feeling was. I hesitate to use the word ‘oppressive’, but I sensed the oppressive vastness, the monstrous enormity of the forest. Was it fear? Or more a feeling of disgust, sensing the dark past, the primeval, the unknown, looking directly at the living earth, which is the living primeval.
When I'm alone and hear a big rock becoming dislodged and falling in a nameless crevice somewhere high above, the echoing rockfall amplifies my solitude, the absurdity of entering into this realm of the ghostly cackling, the high mountains.
There was another time, in Wales, after a quick sunset walk to the top of Snowdon, heading back down past the cirque lake as darkness settled in, a bat swooped down at me repeatedly so I ran, the bat kept coming harder and harder so I started sprinting until I was almost back to the car. Being chased off Snowdon by an angry bat deserves honorable mention, and hiking alone through grizzly country in Alaska, singing songs and being loud to tell them I’m coming.
Wow, you have a lot of amazing stories! How did you end up in California?
I was drawn West as though in freefall, studied maps of California all my life. In my rural youth I was obsessed with urban landscapes, skyscrapers, futuristic cities, the way Los Angeles was used in Sci-Fi films, equally utopian and apocalyptic.
My first taste of the West was in 1983 at the age of 7. Dad took the family to Phoenix for an F.O.P. convention and from there we drove to Vegas, Hoover Dam, Sedona, Grand Canyon and down to Nogales, Mexico. I fell in love with the desert, the distances that one can see. In Pennsylvania grand vistas are seen only fleetingly through the filter of thick woods. Once in a while you luck out and get to view the open landscape, but usually your view is obstructed by woods and steep ravines. Once I was introduced to the biblical and poetic vistas of the West, it was pretty much over for me. Under its mysterious spell since ‘83.
What do you remember about September 11th, 2001?
[Skip kept a journal on the trail]
“freezedried spaghetti and tea, I made a stove out of Pepsi cans, weighed nothing. Tuesday night, bivouac’d by Lake Marjorie, a magnificent red sunset, clouds moving aflame epic glorious, a wartime sky, sky of far Gondor. Lake Marjorie sits just under Pinchot Pass (12.1). Supper of cup of noodles and instant cappuccino. Sun came and went, looks like I didn’t bring enough fuel. Very cold.”
I had read The Lord of the Rings a few times by that point and my head was in Middle Earth for most of the trek. Also, the chances of me comparing a red sunset to a harbinger of war are pretty good, generally. That said, it’s still eerie for me that I wrote that on September 11, 2001 sitting in the soft tundra grass on the gently lapping shore of Lake Marjorie, unaware that we had gone to war that morning.
Do you remember how your conversation went with the ranger who told you about what happened? What was his description? Did you think it was too surreal to be true?
In my notes, it says the top of Whitney was crowded, but I’ll take crowded by 2001 standards any day. It was Saturday September 15, 2001. I came up from the West, the empty Guitar Lake side, made it to Trail Crest, the notch where you intersect the Whitney traffic coming up from the Portal. I noticed nearly everyone had little American flags gracing their backpacks. I thought they must be an alpine club or something. I cache my pack in a boulder nook and ascend the boulder field to the top.
Coming down in the afternoon sun I met Bruce the ranger. He had long hair for a ranger, straight brown hair.
Howdy, how long you been out?
Since Sunday, came in from Bishop Pass.
[I show him my permit, he looks it over and hands it back]
So, did you hear what happened?
[takes a deep breath] Terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. One went down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Both of the Twin Towers collapsed. There’s nothing left, they’re gone... thousands were killed. We’re going to war.
[Tears began trickling down his tanned cheeks]
I don’t remember what I said. It was hypersurreal. I felt like Charlton Heston arriving back to earth from outer space to find the Statue of Liberty washed up on Point Dume. Now I understood all the American flags on the backpacks.
I ask him to take my picture and hand him my disposable camera, I used those a lot in those days.
“Here, stand there in front of Thor” he says, composes it vertically and snaps it.
I ask the time, “Plenty of time ta get down there and have a cold beer!”
“Thank you Bruce! I sure will!” and we parted ways. He goes up and I go down.
Did you take any photos from that trip? It makes me wonder, if you did take some pictures, how I would look back on them differently knowing what was happening while I was hiking.
I carried one disposable camera with me that I think was a 36 exposure. The mountains seem to exist independent of world events. I know that’s false, but I pretend that it’s true. When I’m up there, sometimes I like to pretend it’s a long time ago in a pristine galaxy far away. So, I’m not sure if I’ve ever looked at the pictures in that way. Also, the pictures were not very good—they did only a modicum of justice to the experience, and the mountains look the same today as they did in 2001, save for wildfire, deforestation, and the irreconcilable big tree die off on the western slope.
I'm sure it feels like they are completely different realities. Have you been back to any of those places on the JMT since?
Yes, they are completely different realities, regardless of the attacks. I’ve been back to some segments of that trip, but my life objective has always been to walk every marmot trail in those mountains, so I usually head for unknown territory. I do love to revisit old favorites though, absolutely.
Mountains have always stood by while wars wash against their sides. I try to see them in the context of their timescale and see what they have seen. They have seen all of human history which is brimming full of blood and guts as natural as a pool of morning rain. So, there is this brutal side that must be acknowledged.
I do the same thing in the mountains, pretending I'm looking at them long, long ago. I agree that it’s a false assumption that the mountains have always been there, but considering that humanity has only existed for only 200,000 years, the mountains have looked the same way for longer than most of us can comprehend. I think it’s telling that what we cherish about the mountains is their apparent continuity relative to our lifetimes. Sometimes its even difficult to imagine a world without instagram, which didn't even exist until 2010. I have always been a nostalgic person, not in the #MAGA way, but longing for a time without screens and when nature was more wild.
Our nostalgia is understandable. Looking at a globe, it makes sense that the Sierras, while being among the world’s youngest mountains are home to the world’s oldest living things. California’s geographically endowed, last holdout flora is a lucky glimpse of the Early Holocene, a relic of greater days when the vast range of redwoods and sequoias and bristlecones spread across the whole hemisphere, Scandinavia to Kamchatka—I need to verify, but I’ll bet they were down in the Andes as well—after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. For whatever reason, they remain only on the west coast of North America, this paradise, seemingly removed from the bulk of the rattle of human history.
The climate continues to favor their glorious last stand, until it doesn’t. As is the case with beautiful ancient things, one can’t be surprised at their passing. They carry on in pockets, but I fear their olden ways are too foreign in this rendition of the earth. We seem to be living witness to this great dieoff, the switchover of epochs. I hope I’m being overly fatalistic.
I have spent very little time hiking outside of the US, but its something I would like to pursue in the coming years. How did you decide where to go?
I’ve always been curious about the woods around the bend—forgotten places where a lonely stream babbles through eastern hemlock groves and overgrown remains of someone's dumped carpet and tires. I had this Reader's Digest tome called Natural Wonders of the World that I studied and consumed from an early age, vaguely plotting to someday vagabond across the earth.
I had to explore the West, obviously. I had to explore the Alps, of course, the archetypal centerpiece of the Western mind. I had to explore the dark Viking lands—still plenty of Orkneys I need to see. I do favor the regions around the poles, up around timberline, the Isotherm—they show their Ice Age scars so vividly, fjord country.
I still haven't roamed the great regions from Baffin Island to Labrador, still haven't landed in Greenland, Svalbard, Antarctica, Patagonia. I still need to press against that bedrock, and find that city on the hidden shores of Lake Vostok.
A friend recently said to me that she feels like people who know her only within the context of her urban existence don't really know her at all, and that her true self is who she is in the wilderness. Does that resonate with you? How has hiking changed you, or how does it continue to change you? Do you ever come back feeling like a different person?
Yes, that is my true self: an advocate of the wild, of smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings. I’ve always moved through the woods like a natural, ducking branches, hopping streams, finding routes, that’s what we do. These movements help you in the city life, too. The flow, it’s like a dream or a life lived long ago. Everything has meaning in the mountains. It’s really the easiest, simplest, most natural thing we do: walking the earth, finding poetic boulder arrangements and hidden springs, feeling ancient people who too walked here, seeing their ancient wear marks on rocks, hearing all the sounds, what it does to you. It’s time travel, all the birds talking and singing, and you thinking about the ancient Chinese poets.
I’m not sure if hiking has changed me or if I hike in order to stay me, to stay close to family. There’s so much to say about mountains of the West. They’re an endless inspiration, holy islands up where the freedom fighters and the outlaws sleep.
I remember standing on my friend’s balcony in Colorado Springs in the 90s, staring up at the snow patch patterns on Pikes Peak, glassy-eyed and realizing, joyfully, that I had my entire life to devote to mountains, that it was just beginning, like the beginning of a wonderfully prepared feast.
I want to know more about the bothy in Highland Park, Los Angeles, and the garage in Bridgeport. How did you acquire or build these places, and what do you intend them for? How does all of it relate to your experiences in the wilderness?
When my parents sold the house, I inherited, among many other things, all the old tools my father collected over the years from both of my grandfathers, my great grandfathers, and an old man neighbor named Mr. Riddle, who lived across the field.
The house and the land it sits on has a looming presence in my life. My parents bought the half acre with only a shed on it in 1977 and built the house. The neighborhood was all apple orchard at one time, rumored to be one of John Chapman’s, aka Johnny Appleseed. I remember the thick old apple tree in the front yard, covered in spiders in my memory.
I packed a trailer full of everything—great grandparents’ furniture, eerie old military and police memorabilia, the baseball card collection of my youth, my dad’s unopened beer bottle and shot glass collection, all the cool old haunted tools of yore—and shipped it out. It was a momentous few weeks.
Some months later, I returned from a job in Nayarit, Mexico one sunny January morning and walked through my yard. There’s this little patch of forgotten hillside woods with a native California Black Walnut grove covered in an impressive wisteria vine. I noticed an area near the old walnut where, if I cleared away the wisteria, there would be a cozy setting for a little shed cabin with a great view of Debs and Mt. Washington, a quiet little outpost. So that was it, I decided, or the spirit moved me to decide, and I was glad at the thought.
I saw in front of me the joy of a year-long project, the best answer to my inner woes of not having the house in Pennsylvania: build a shed/museum/Pennsylvania church/writer’s desk/shelter/press box. It would serve many common needs, such as ancestor worship, recreating the old family room, a bar, workshop, a place to sit out of the rain and plan trips, a place to bring other haunted items acquired in mountains and wild places, my own private Pennsylvania.
So, as luck would have it, I broke ground on Groundhog Day 2015 to begin work on my west coast ode to Western Pennsylvania, aligned astronomically to the sunrise and sunset on Groundhog Day, a day traced back to the ancient Gaelic feast of the start of spring, Imbolg. By aligning to Imbolg it also aligns to Samhain, i.e. Halloween, the day I quit the Cub Scouts.
Around this time I had read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, which introduced me to bothies. A bothy is a howff, an enclosure, a basic shelter, a booth. They’re found throughout the remote and mountainous parts of the Gaelic world, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In olden times, bothies were commonly used as drinking dens and hideouts. This bothy sits on a paper street according to the city's plat maps. Possibly long ago the dirt road of Avenue 59 continued steeply up, but now it's a coyote path and overgrown patch of unofficial countryside with an illegal, unpermitted bothy on it. This dovetails well with my anti-authority personality, growing up as the antagonistic son of the local Scots Irish Police Chief.
So, Bridgeport. Bridgeport, oh Bridgeport, the little Mono County Seat gracing Big Meadow is the closest thing California has to an Inuit village. It's an outpost, a glorified camp. Everything up there still revolves around hunting, fishing and working all summer to survive the winter. It's where the Marines train for cold steep mountain warfare. It feels more akin to a town in Wyoming or Montana, those dangerously cold interior outpost towns. Bridgeport is the Stanley Idaho of California. It was love at first sight in 2001, and that was before I knew about Bodie, oh Bodie.
Each place relates directly to my involvement in mountain wildernesses. The bothy is an attempt to bring aspects of the wild into my urban existence to keep me company while I’m unable to fully detach from the city. The garage in Bridgeport I've repurposed as a staging outpost on the edge of the wilderness, easily accessible just off 395. It’s not my dream property, but I love it. It’s unique and has an interesting creator, the late Robert Barnes of Gardnerville Nevada, "born in Oklahoma before it was a state," and from what I've been told by locals, one of Bridgeport's many living legends while alive: good looking, small and fierce. Another legend is 90-year-old Smitty, originally from Connecticut, the prizefighter who plumbed the whole town. I recently met him when he appeared out of nowhere to see if he could locate my water main that he put in 30 years ago.
What do your parents think of all this?
My father doesn’t like my mountain adventures at all. He knows too well that even the most mundane activity can turn deadly in an instant. He imagines the worst in any situation. Although he trusts my talents in the woods and understands and shares my love of nature and life in all its forms, some tales of mine I hesitate to share with him, to not pile on pointless worry and stress. I send him videos of blissful mountain streams he’d love to lay beside and we leave it at that.
My mother is more philosophical about it, knowing she has no control over it. She doesn’t worry so much and takes some comfort in the fact that I’m happy, I think. She’s the predominantly German side of the family. She taught me how to ski when I was 3 and it's from her side, the Hysell’s and Shumaker’s, I get my artistic abilities and eccentricity, I think. The people skills I have, if any, are from my father as is my interest in music and history, I think.
Speaking of Hysell's, the only Hysell's I've ever heard of all my life were the few Hysell's that made up my mother's paternal side, and then I get to Bridgeport, where I learn a whole clan of Hysell's have lived there since Bodie times.
My dad took me camping at a young age. I remember he complimented me once, saying, “You’d do well in the bush”, meaning the jungle. Well, I prefer the cool mountains. Everyone has all these specific classifications and categories nowadays for moving through mountain terrain. For instance, I personally specialize in cross-country, off-trail, un-permitted route-finding. We said bushwhacking growing up. It's how I like to tap into some mystical primeval language, some ancient yet living relationship, especially enjoyable above timberline, the alpine zone. I hardly ever stop to bother with getting a permit. If by chance I meet any rangers, I know I can outrun them, and most rangers are intimidated by "cross-country off-trail".
I'm thinking about your experience at Hunchback Pass in Colorado during a lightning storm, or being on the wrong side of the glacier in Switzerland. It seems like you're capable of pushing your experiences in the wilderness past the point of no return, and yet you continually return, both to Los Angeles and then later, back to the wilderness again. Do you ever worry you will never return? Why do you come back, and what do you learn from being (what some might say is) close to death?
Have I been past the point of no return? I've been past the point where it would be foolish to turn back, where turning back is more work than going forward. I do look over my shoulder to see the landscape the other way, to admire and to recognize the way back. Even when you turn back, I think you're still going forward. I could have returned the way I came on some of those occasions, but that can be a sad feeling, unlike braving the elements and pushing forward, a triumphant feeling. Certainly there were a few times I turned back when I feared for my life, but mostly I've turned back before that, when things felt a little weird. Of the times I was turned away, it was still usually a triumphant feeling. To be beaten by a mountain is not a loss. One of the reasons we go to the mountains is to be denied access by her worshipfulness. It's an honor to see her wrath in all its forms, but to force oneself upon these foul beacons is folly.
There is no getting around the fact that beauty is danger and danger is beautiful. Beauty is cold, windy and hostile. Belloch's last words before his face was melted off when he opened the Ark of the Covenant were "It's beautiful."
Sometimes when the wind and hail is blowing me off the mountain I hear a voice, my great grandmother, Lily Shumaker, saying "Skipper go down, come back tomorrow." If I don't heed the will of Lil, I may get whipped by the old leather strap she keeps in the top drawer. “You’re gonna get The Strap”, she’d say. So I heed. I want to live to be a spry old man in these mountains, a simple goal.
Likewise, if I worried about death I'd worry more about dying in a city or getting whacked accidentally. If I’m lost in the mountains, it would not be such a tragedy. If my plane ever went down in a snowy mountainous death trap like Alive, or like that Liam Neeson wolf movie, I see myself walking out of the wreckage and back to some remote village drinking den for last call. My biggest fear is not losing my life but leaving my parents without their son, so another obsession of mine is to not die early. Assuming all of this is real and not a dream.