Chris Thomas stood awkwardly in the kitchen of his modest home. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll just do this in brackets.” He straightened his lean frame, turned his dark eyes and tilted his chin to the left. I snapped away with my camera. We’d been at this for over an hour and he was only now beginning to relax. He’d just returned to Salt Lake City after winning the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell climbing competition in Arkansas. At the comp he’d teamed up with Hayden Kennedy and broke records set by big names such as Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter. Together, they climbed a combined 402 routes, 201 each, up to 5.12 in difficulty. And although his hands were too sore to make a fist, they were able to hold beer. This helped Chris ease into one of his least favorite subjects: himself.
I first met Chris in the fall of 2004, just months after he had moved to Salt Lake City from Howard County, Maryland. At the age of 21 he had already climbed 5.13, established ice routes up to WI-6, done first ascents on traditional mixed routes and been on multiple trips to Alaska and Peru. But you wouldn’t have known it. He didn’t talk much about what he had done and only did when he was asked.
In the nine years since moving west, Chris has quietly continued his journey by free climbing El Capitan, red pointing 5.14, authoring more ice and mixed routes and establishing hard new routes locally as well as abroad.
Raised in Columbia, Maryland, Chris began climbing when he was in high school. He would take weekend road trips to Seneca Rocks, the Gunks, the Adirondacks and New River Gorge, developing a huge respect for ground-up ethics and a mental reserve for his own climbing.
“All my climbing partners were much older,” Chris said. “For them climbing was about preserving the adventure. Style was more important than the climb itself.”
An image of Cerro Torre in a magazine motivated Chris to try ice climbing, leading him to spend many weekends in the Adirondacks. A typical trip involved leaving Friday after work for an eight to 10 hour drive, climbing as much as possible Saturday and Sunday, then rallying home to make a Monday shift. While staying at the Bivy, a hostel for ice climbers in Keene, New York, Chris fell in with a great crew of climbers. Among them was Will Mayo.
On New Years Day in 2004, less than 24 hours after having first met, Chris and Will agreed to go work on a standing mixed project. The climb was a massive ice dagger hanging off the lip of a roof, with a finger to fist size crack leading directly to the ice. Both Chris and Will took a lap on the crux pitch, hanging to work out the gear and tool placements. Feeling good Chris decided to give it a go.
“I went up there bare handed and bloody knuckled,” Chris remembered. He gave the rock section a huge effort and was surprised to find himself staring at the dagger of ice. “I had an ice screw or two, but there was no stopping to place them.” He was told afterward that he got Neanderthal-like, screaming, swearing and chanting. Will recalled it as being, “the most impressive lead I have ever witnessed.” After topping out, Chris noticed blood on the snow; his knuckles had been pulverized, but he was too amped to feel the pain. Nicknamed “The Fecalator,” this M-10 is still the most difficult traditionally protected mixed climb in North America.
Last January, Chris flew to Patagonia. On that trip, he and Jonathan Schaeffer climbed the Red Pillar on Aguja Mermoz and, with Ben Ditto as his partner, climbed to the summit of Cerro Torre via the Ferrari Route. “Climbing the final pitch to the summit of Cerro Torre felt like I had finished my apprenticeship,” said Chris.
But it wasn’t enough for Chris. Still in the region for a few more days, Chris teamed up with Whit Magro for a single push effort of the Southeast Ridge on Fitz Roy. Most parties take five days; they planned for two. Only bringing one 8mm rope, a set of cams, one pair of crampons, an ice tool, tiblocs for ascending and no ice screws, the approach went well, but the climbing was tiring. They made it past the WI-4 pitches near the summit and pushed on through losing their only tool, until they reached a final low-angle pitch of ice. Chris led out 150 feet with no ax, no screws and no chance of rock protection, when his right crampon popped off, dangling uselessly.
“Looking at a 300-foot fall onto a marginal belay, I was certain I was going to kill us both,” Chris remembered. Riding waves of emotions he screamed then cried, but eventually pulled himself together. Using a cam, he chipped a hold into the ice, then took the dangling crampon and used it as an ice tool for his right hand. He hopped his left foot, bit by bit, onto the hold. From there he could reattach the crampon and move to a band of rock and relative safety. Having been on the move for more than 30 straight hours, the weather deteriorating around them, there was no need for a discussion. Less than 200 feet below the summit of Fitz Roy they retreated, lucky to be alive.
In a follow up to the interview, I asked this determined climber, why? What drove him to push his limits? He answered:
“The rewards of climbing are impossible to quantify. They are illogical. They don’t make us rich or famous. As an animal-like creature pursuing its basic needs to survive, these activities are extremely counterproductive, but I can’t help myself.
“If it weren’t climbing it would be something else. Some people find their purpose in career, politics, family and religion. I’ve never found a better way than in climbing. If I hadn’t stumbled across this crazy sport and lifestyle, who knows what would have been? But I can say with certainty that whatever else it may have been, it would have just as much energy, love and focus thrown at it. In other words, the climbing isn’t the essential part; it’s just the outlet… and a goddamn good one.”