G is for Garibotti

November 10, 2008

I was sitting in Rolando Garibotti’s kitchen in Boulder, Colorado waiting for the tea to mash.

It was January 2004 and the streets outside lay buried beneath snow, the only colour the free newspapers wrapped in red striped plastic that littered the sidewalks,

The room was small and very un-American: sparse, the only indulgence the photos stuck to the fridge, showing young cousins, friends’ kids and cats, but dominated by the iconic glare of Che Guevara, The houses on all sides were occupied by students from Colorado University, who sat out on the icy porches and drank beer after dark, all thick hoodies and bravado. I wondered if the neighbours ever knew who Rolo was - how he was one of the most gifted climbers on the planet, the climber who most famous climbers wanted to be?

Probably not. But that was the way Rolo liked it.

He sat opposite me at a small table waiting for the green tea to mash, a pot of organic honey beside it ready to be stirred in to sweeten, his cat Floko on his knee. His features - half Argentinian, half Italian - looked striking in the late evening light, his raven black hair reminding me of the wild gauchos you’d see out on the road to Fitz Roy, always wet, coming from somewhere wild and moving on. For me and many others Rolo was Mr Patagonia - not because of his new routes, repeats and exploration, but because he represented what was special about the place, setting the standard in uncompromising style in a land that deserved nothing less,

On that evening Rolo seemed down, as he picked at some nuts and fruit, a diet designed to get him through the day, no wheat or dairy in case it robbed him of his strength. Maybe he was down because his wife, Beth, was away in Cuba, leaving him on cat duty. Maybe it was because I kept bringing up questions about his climbs, climbs he probably wouldn’t see the like of again,

Rolo never said what was really wrong with him, but it was obvious something was robbing him of the things he cherished; the ability to run across mountains where others would stagger, to charge up big walls in the same time it would take one to climb a single pitch, to be able to do solo laps on climbs that would make most climbers shudder.

It seemed that the seeds of the illness stemmed from a one-day ascent of Sunkist on El cap many years ago, a climb that had ended in a storm that Rolo had been unprepared for, dressed only in his thermals.

Once down he said he lay in his sleeping bag shaking for a long time.

This was only one of many body-thrashing epics he’d endured, overextending himself on marathon pushes from Alaska to Patagonia. It sounded like a familiar story, climbers who’ve pushed themselves over the edge, leaving their bodies exhausted and unable to bounce back for years,

I’d first met Rolo in Yosemite’s Camp 4 in 1994 and Rolo was already ‘the man’, carrying a great deal of respect among those of us who’d read his name in other climbers’ articles and news features. I thought he’d be in his 40s but he was only the same age as me.

Unlike many famous climbers, Rolo brought a human element to his climbs: tangible respect for routes, those who put them up, his partners and history. In a way he restored a little of the respect that was stripped away by commercialism - a side of the sport he never coveted unwilling to swap his high ideals for a free pair of socks.  But deep down you knew he was a monster, with an ambition that could chew you up if you got in the way - the difference was that Rolo knew this and had decided long ago not to let this lead him from the right path.

Sat in his kitchen, so many years later, it was hard to believe that he wouldn’t bounce back.  A great man - a friend - brought to the ground,

Rolo carefully lifted the cat down from his knee and began to stir the tea. I asked him if he had any plans.

“Me?”” he said looking up with a sad smile “no,” he said drawing out the word to give it emphasis,

“I don’t think I"ll do any more climbs, not now, It’s been a long time since I felt strong enough.” 

We drank tea two years now, but I suspected like other friends he’d be just getting through life from day-to-day. Then one morning a news piece caught my eye on the web, ‘Cerro Torre new route - Maestri Egger repeated’ I looked at it again, thinking that surely this couldn’t be true after all this was the climb that every climber wanted to do - that every climber wanted to get done.

I scanned the text: Alpine style, three climbers, mostly free, only two bivvies, no bolts.

Then I read the climbers’ names: Salvaterra, Beltrami and Garibotti and, at once, climbing regained some of its wonder and possibility.

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