The Tower Project: Interview with climber Bret Ruckman
December 3rd, 2019
Note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Keywords: climbing, climber, Indian Creek, tower, desert, guidebook, route, Texas Tower, Neptune Mountaineering, lead, Tim Coats, chimney, Boulder, pitch, Bears Ears
Matt Jenkins: Do you want to tell me your name and when you begin climbing?
Bret Ruckman: My name is Bret Ruckman and I started climbing in 1978.
Matt Jenkins: Where did you grow up? And what did you do when you're growing up?
Bret Ruckman: I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and that's where I learned to climb, was in Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of there - started with a lesson. My mom insisted that I have a lesson which is very good advice. I learned from a guy named Dennis Turville, who taught the lesson and he worked at Timberline Sports at that time.
Matt Jenkins: What did your parents do? And were they the ones that introduced you to the outdoors?
Bret Ruckman: Yes and No. My dad introduced me to, or introduced our family, to hunting, motor sports, water skiing, and that sort of thing. About the time I was in middle school, or junior high, we called it, we moved closer to the mountains. That was a big change for the whole family and I started to engage in backpacking, hiking, and that sort of thing. We sort of brought our dad along with us on that. Anyhow, we started when I was probably about 12-13 when I started really getting into the outdoors and recreating in it in a non motorized way.
Matt Jenkins: Were you going out with your siblings or friends? Who were you going out with?
Bret Ruckman: I would go out with my brother a lot. He's six years younger than me. We would go out and I would be the supposed expert, but honestly, I was pretty darn green. It's amazing we got through those early years. I remember rappelling with a water ski rope. That gives you an idea. It was really pretty sketchy at the beginning there. Even though I had a lesson, I would do dumb things like that.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me a little bit more about this lesson? Was it one lesson? Was it inside, outside?
Bret Ruckman: There was no indoor climbing. That didn't come into the world until maybe the late 80s. It was entirely outside. I remember setting up a top rope on a big boulder in Little Cottonwood Canyon and we tried to climb it. We learned how to rappel and we learned the various moves. We bouldered a little bit and learned what a mantle was or what a layback was. We didn't have shoes that were appropriate. I wore hiking shoes, I think, for that lesson. They were horrible, but I really got hooked. That was the sport that I really took a liking to.
Matt Jenkins: Do you know what drew you to it at the time?
Bret Ruckman: It was a transitional period for me. I was really into basketball, actually, until about the middle or the end of junior high. I didn't make the team going into high school. That was my big transition. I didn’t know I needed it, but it seemed like at that point I just steered away from ball sports and got into the outdoor sports. I started cross-country skiing, climbing. backpacking and loved it.
Matt Jenkins: Where many of your peers doing it at that time?
Bret Ruckman: I had a couple of friends that were, one guy named Gary Olsen. He lived in the neighborhood. He was very influential for me. He already had backpacked and I think he had better equipment than me. He showed me how to backpack and what the proper gear was for it. His dad took us up to Lone Peak One, which is a peak outside of Salt Lake. He took us on a trip up to Lone Peak. That was really cool, because we got to climb Lone Peak and then we looked down the west side of that and went, “Oh my god, this is a huge cliff. How do people climb this?” I knew people had climbed it. I was like, “How did they do that?” That was an important backpacking trip.
Matt Jenkins: Yeah, it's funny how backpacking trips can do that for you.
Bret Ruckman: Yeah.
Matt Jenkins: You finished high school. Did you go to college in Salt Lake or where did you go to college? What did you study? What were you doing in the outdoors at the time?
Bret Ruckman: I did finish high school and then went to the University of Utah. It took me a couple of years to decide what I wanted to major in, but I decided geology seemed like it would be cool. There were rocks and I'd be outside. I did get a degree, a bachelor's degree in geology. I learned a lot more about the rocks that I climbed on.
Matt Jenkins: Were you climbing throughout your college years?
Bret Ruckman: Yeah, that's when I really climbed a lot. I started to go to places like Indian Creek on spring break trips, et cetera. I took trips to Joshua Tree and Red Rocks. It started to really become a sport that was in my blood and was the major driver of almost all of my time. I got my degree, but the first job I got outside of graduating was to work at REI. I already had made this path change right then that I was going to not work in oil and gas or mining, but I was going to sell outdoor gear.
Matt Jenkins: Were you still living in Salt Lake at the time?
Bret Ruckman: Yeah, lived in Salt Lake - moved from Salt Lake in 1986. My wife Judy wanted to go to grad school here in Boulder. I don't recall us looking in any other place. She got accepted in Boulder and we're like, “Yay, let's go to Boulder. That sounds like a good idea.” That's what brought me to Boulder. We've been here for 33 years at this point.
Matt Jenkins: How old were you at that time when you moved to Boulder?
Bret Ruckman: I would have been 26 years old. Judy and I were already married at that point - married young, 26. She was 23.
Matt Jenkins: What was your progression as a climber as an adult then, especially once you were here?
Bret Ruckman: The progression here was - At first, I took odd jobs. I was working as a laborer, basically in landscaping. I worked for a famous climber, Tom Frost, at his light - he made softboxes for lighting for photography. I worked for him briefly. Pretty early on, I got a job at Neptune Mountaineering in sales. I think that was early ‘87. Then, I worked there for 10 years, so a pretty good, long time at Neptune's. After that I became a carpenter for 22 years. Just recently I returned to Neptune Mountaineering for my hobby job in semi-retirement, so that's what I'm doing right now.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me about your early experience at Neptune and the community there? What kind of stuff you guys were you doing?
Bret Ruckman: I remember these trips that Gary Neptune would take us on. Gary Neptune climbed Mount Everest, and I think he was with Dick Bass on that trip. Dick Bass owned Snowbird, a ski resort in Utah. We would be able to go on these - I think it was a four or five day trip to Snowboard and ski with Gary Neptune. We would do this in shifts - the first shift of people would go, and then the other shift would come later. Gary would ski for 9 or 10 straight days. And that was a great experience, because we got to try a lot of equipment and the camaraderie was fantastic. We really got to know who we worked with, and Gary Neptune was an amazing person to work for in that regard.
Matt Jenkins: Who was working there at the time?
Bret Ruckman: One of the first people that I met, even before I think I worked there, was Tim Coats, who I knew had climbed in the desert - his brother Larry, as well. I didn't really have that many partners when I first moved to Boulder and I knew Tim climbed in the desert. We made plans immediately to start going to the desert and climbing, and he was a great partner.
His experience came from - I think he lived in Farmington, and then Flagstaff. He climbed a lot in Sedona and the Grand Canyon area. It was really great to hook up with Tim.
Matt Jenkins: What kinds of trips to the desert where you're doing at the time?
Bret Ruckman: I think we would mostly go to places like Indian Creek. My inclination was to go to Indian Creek where I was the most comfortable. Tim would draw me out of that. He had climbed a lot of different places in southern Utah and northern Arizona. He would say, “Hey, how about checking this place out?” He would push me out of my comfort zone a little bit and we would do towers, more often than not.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me some of the towers you guys were doing?
Bret Ruckman: I am going to struggle a little bit here coming up with the names of all these things, but the one that comes to mind that was the most memorable was he talked me into going to Texas Tower with him. Texas Tower was not really on my radar, but Tim knew Tim Toula. I think he'd been already into that area. He had done Dream Speaker Tower. I think he did the first ascent of Dream Speaker Tower, which is right in that same area. Then he took me in to do that tower with him. Then he sort of sold me on the idea of going in and doing Texas Tower, and so that we did. I think we did it in 1991, but I can't remember the order of all the events and what towers we did when
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me about your Texas tower climb then? It's a little bit notorious.
Bret Ruckman: Yeah, that one was a big, big adventure. I think we got there late the night before and it must have been light enough that we could - I remember setting up a couple rappels, so that we didn't have to do them in the morning. Then we got up at four in the morning. It's just like, “Wow. It's like an alpine start for a desert route.” We got up really early. We started rapping down our fixed lines and descended a long ways down to the bottom of that canyon, Texas Canyon, I guess. We walked miles - it seemed like a couple miles up it and we got to the base of the thing and it was still dark.
Tim was doing the first lead and somehow we started up the wrong chimney, which Tim had to come back down. I guess he down-lead it. Then we readjusted. We started up the wrong route, because it was dark still. When it got light, we corrected and we started going up the correct route. I still hadn't opened my pack and got out all of my rock shoes and stuff. I opened the pack and out of the pack I pull one of Judy's Firé’s and one of my Firé’s- my wife’s Firé, size seven or eight or something and my Firé. That was what it brought. I had two right shoes. I was like, “Oh crap, what do we do now?” But, I had worn these fairly tight fitting Five Tennie approach shoes. I decided to go for it - just see what happened with wearing a Five Tennie on my left foot and a Firé on my right foot. We just started up the regular route. Tim was very adept at climbing chimneys. I was really leaning on him to get up this route, because the whole thing was wide. He had the protection for it. He had these homemade, or I don't know where he got them, but bigger number six cams. I think we had a couple of those. We had some a big bro, a tube chock, and big hexes. We didn't have enough big gear for this route so we were running it out.
The fifth pitch, which was the offwidth crux of the whole thing, was my lead. And, man, I remember that just being ferocious offwidth and it just took me so long to lead. I was using every means possible, which most offwidth climbers do. I just remember using face holds on the face and in the crack and doing all kinds of weird stuff. I was able to actually free that pitch. It took me probably two hours to lead it and this was late October.
We were quickly running out of time. It was probably, I'm just guessing, it was probably late afternoon by the time I finished that pitch. Then we still had two full chimney pitches and then the summit face climbing pitch to go. Tim came up and he's really good at chimneys. He just took off and started going up these chimneys with huge run outs.
When it came time to follow, I would more often than not climb a little bit - and, then we had a haul bag, so Tim had tried to haul up the haul bag and it kept getting stuck. So I would climb up a little bit, loosen the haul bag. H would try to haul a little bit more. It would get stuck. That was the scenario for the whole final part of that route.
I think Tim led all of the bigger bombay-chimney, squeeze chimney areas of that route. Then we finally got to the shoulder and we had one little face climbing bit to the top, with just janky pro. The belay was tied off half-driven angle. That was also the protection for the 5.10+ move, the face climbing move to the top. We got to the top and it was nearly dark. We had a headlamp with us because we had it in the haul bag. We immediately just started rapping down. The raps are down the other side of the tower, which is quite unnerving, because you have never been there before. You don't even know where you're going. They are full-length raps.
We managed to get down in one piece and we were very, very grateful to get back to the ground. At that point we did the long march back up to the car and the rim - got back to the car about 11pm. We were completely wasted - enough so that I remember sleeping in till 10 o'clock the next morning. We were hammered, but we still climbed the next day. We did Mexican Hat. We went down to Mexican Hat - did some aid climbing. That was our next day's endeavor. Yeah, that was a great adventure. One that was certainly indelible for me.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think that climb taught you about yourself?
Bret Ruckman: You need to be young and really semi-crazy to embark on some of these things. The wisdom of age would steer you away from such things. But, at one point, we were completely alone in Texas Canyon, and I don't think anyone knew we were on the route that day. It was entirely up to us to get up and out of there, and I guess that just taught me to be confident enough to be able to do that.
Matt Jenkins: Do you think your shoe situation helped at all?
Bret Ruckman: Yeah, I do think it helped. Maybe future climbers should try it. Try out a Five Tennie on their left foot and see what happens. Yeah, I think it was just a little bit wider shoe. It was helpful for sure.
Matt Jenkins: Can you describe your progression a little bit more from what you were doing that led you to Texas Tower? Why do you think you were ready for Texas Tower? It's not just the climb you go jump on.
Bret Ruckman: Yeah, for sure. I climbed in Indian Creek a lot at that point. Indian Creek is pretty unforgiving. There's generally not much to work with, but the crack. Whatever the face gives you is just a bonus. Then you try to utilize it every way you can. I think I learned how to be efficient placing gear and how to climb different size cracks the best way I could. Where to rest is really important. Even how I had my rack setup was important. I think all of that experience would have helped, and it's also confidence that's gained from that.
Matt Jenkins: Had you climbed any of the towers in Indian Creek, the Bridger Jacks or the Six Shooters? Which ones had you climbed?
Bret Ruckman: At that point, I think I had done the Six Shooters and I would have done the Bridger Jack Butte. I did a new route on that with Marco Cornacchione. Oddly, I did a lot of the Bridger Jacks later, some of the more moderate ones. I think I had done - I can’t come up with the name, sorry, but we had done some of the towers in the Bridger Jacks.
Matt Jenkins: King of Pain?
Bret Ruckman: No not King of pain. It was a Chip Chase route, Chip and Monika Chase.
Matt Jenkins: Ziji?
Bret Ruckman: Ziji. Thank you. It was Ziji, yes.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me about your experience on Ziji?
Bret Ruckman: That one's a little harder for me to remember. I did it with Marco Cornacchione. We just traded leads. I think there were several 5.12 parts to that route. I remember a section that went quite well for me when I lead it. I was kind of surprised it was 5.12, but I think I was also really psyched and I was probably climbing fairly well during that era - and, Marco leading the splitter crack pitch of that route. I think there was a runout first pitch or it had an R rating to it, if I recall. Yeah, so a little foggier in my mind talking about Ziji. I couldn't even remember the name just now.
Matt Jenkins: Why do you think experiences like that on Texas Tower are still so memorable and poignant?
Bret Ruckman: Texas tower is probably one of the three biggest days I've had in my climbing life. Going to review some of the most exhausting days that I've had, that would be in the top three. I think it was just a really all out effort to get up it. Tim Toula, doing the first ascent on that, was very impressive - with no information going up there, establishing the belays, and the rappels off the back and all that. Hats off to Tim for going for that.
Matt Jenkins: Pretty impressive.
Bret Ruckman: Way impressive.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think draws you to desert towers in general?
Bret Ruckman: Desert towers didn't come at first naturally to me. I did all of this climbing in Indian Creek and I remember talking with Earl Wiggins. Earl encouraged me to go. He said there's all kinds of great towers out there. They're just as good as Indian Creak in some cases some just better, more rewarding to climb, to get to the top of something. That's when I started to like branch out. He was right. They were more rewarding. It was great to get to the top of something and not know what the outcome was going to be, not be able to immediately rappel back down and go home. You gotta extricate yourself off this tower. It was great advice and I did that for many years. Then I had a kid and I've kind of slowed down. Honestly I've slowed down on all desert climbing as of recent years.
Matt Jenkins: What was your relationship to Earl?
Bret Ruckman: My only relationship to Earl was that he was doing a book called Canyon Country Climbs. He was soliciting photographs. I gave him a handful of slides. That was when I met him Moab. He and Kate Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, were living in a trailer in Moab and putting together that book. Judy and I just stopped there one day and I talked to him and gave him a handful of slides.
Matt Jenkins: How do you think your relationship with risk has evolved over time?
Bret Ruckman: With risk, I've definitely become more cautious with time and more conservative. I think that's probably true of most older climbers. It's just really hard to keep punching it to the next possible - maybe, maybe not - gear placement, and have the faith that you can pull that off. I have become more of a sport climber - as probably most older climbers would say with age - as I've gotten older - not entirely a sport climber, but definitely doing more of that these days. More gym climbing, more sport climbing.
Matt Jenkins: Earlier we were talking about just the desert in general, what compels you about the desert? What do you value out in places like Texas Canyon, climbs in the Bridger Jacks, places like that?
Bret Ruckman: I value the solitude - the beauty - and the incredible beauty in the sunsets, the red tinted cliffs, and blue sky. All of that is just so compelling to me, and wonderful. I am a little disheartened that the desert has become so popular. It's become really popular and it's increasingly hard to get away from people. I think you still can, you just need to be a little bit more creative.
Matt Jenkins: I bet you can on Texas Tower.
Bret Ruckman: Oh, yeah. That keeps away the hordes.
Matt Jenkins: How do you think culture’s relationship has changed with the desert? You've been going for three decades, or so. What changes have you seen?
Bret Ruckman: There's just so much emphasis on outdoor activities. So many people are drawn to it. Honestly, in 1980, there were not that many. There weren't that many people that would go to Indian Creek and climb. Very few even knew about the place, or let alone these other more obscure towers. Now a lot of people who know about all the towers. Indian Creek is virtually one of the top places to visit in the world for cragging - considered the best crack climbing in the world.
And so, yeah, it's changed. It's just changed dramatically. There used to be one climbing magazine that celebrated the sport. Now there's three. There's all these other publications and books - like a guidebook, for example. There was no guidebook to the desert until Eric Bjornstad came out with Desert Rock. Not that many people paid attention. Current days, there's all kinds of resources for routes, for route information, and where to camp, gear lists, you name it. It has changed dramatically. Yeah.
Matt Jenkins: Where were you getting your information at the time?
Bret Ruckman: The first time we did Castleton Tower - I can't remember if that was included in Fifty Classic Climbs - and, that's how we learned about it, or if we were ahead of that a little bit. But, the information was very sparse. A lot of hand drawn topos. Well, not a lot, but there were, if you were lucky enough to get your hands on a topo with information on it or anything written down. In American Alpine Journal, or a note in a climbing magazine. That was your source of information and it rarely had gear lists or pitch breakdowns, or any other valued information we take for granted now.
Matt Jenkins: Why do you think places like the Bears Ears or Indian Creek are important?
Bret Ruckman: Oh God, I mean, just preserving Indian Creek. I just can’t imagine that becoming privately held lands where you could do oil and gas exploration, mining, or whatever that may be. I just can't imagine losing that area. It's, in my opinion, it's as beautiful, or maybe even more beautiful than the national park right down the road. I have a very strong feeling about Indian Creek, but that extends all of the way through to Cedar Mesa, Grand Gulch, Grand Canyon, the whole area. Bears Ears encompasses that whole area.
And, boy, I mean, we just can't lose that protected land. I feel like we have to fight for that land.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think climbers can do to help that? And, what responsibility do you think climbers have to help that?
Bret Ruckman: Well, going there and appreciating it is a start. A lot of climbers and hikers and backpackers have done that. I've noticed that Bears Ears - it wasn't called Bears Ears, until, that I know of, until recently where many, many pieces of this southern Utah land were lumped together and called Bears Ears National National Monument. That's been nice to have that a name put to that whole area. I think your vote is the most important thing that you can do, I think as a climber - is vote for a candidate that's going to preserve that area. That's probably the most direct thing you could do. But, other than that you could support great organizations like Grand Canyon Trust, SUWA, which is Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. There's many other organizations you can be involved with. Motorized vehicles, especially ATVs or UHVs, are a big threat to that area and a constant battle to keep them at bay and away from the precious lands that we need to fight for.
Matt Jenkins: What keeps drawing you back to the desert?
Bret Ruckman: As I've gotten older it's probably being with friends or family. That's how I, more often than not, share that experience with friends or family. The solitude is a very big part of it. You're not always out there alone, but at least it's quiet and you feel like there's enough space between you and the next party down the canyon - that you don't hear them. That's a big reason to, for me, to go - continue to go back to those areas.
There's always the exploration piece of it. I've always loved to explore in the desert, to see what's around the next bend or the next corner. I have always been looking for new routes, or new cracks to climb, or more recently for ruins, or really cool rock formations, or things that you just stumble upon and you go, “Wow.” Yeah, there's a lot to bring you back for many more desert trips.