The Width of Life

DAN MIRSKY IS one of the most dedicated climbers I know. He loves sport climbing, and has since the day he first discovered it as a freshman at Colorado College in 2000. Since then Dan has meticulously arranged his life in a way that has everything revolving around his climbing habit.

In our alternative world, we climbers celebrate this kind of lifestyle: working to live as opposed to living to work, and having the dedication to fearlessly pursue your passion to climb as hard and as often as you possibly can. Dan embodies all those traits and wears them quite well, which has always been a source of inspiration to those around him.
BUT SOMETIMES, big things happen that shake our worlds to the core and rattle these painstaking routines; suddenly all that dedication to climbing harder begins to feel downright selfish. Sometimes, climbers, who are our friends, die. And when that happens, it’s natural to wonder what the hell we’re doing with our lives, and why we aren’t spending more of our energy curing cancer, or at least reaching out to help those who need us, as opposed to just reaching the top of yet another chunk of rock.

These were just a few of the self-defeating thoughts that I had while sitting in a bar après climbing one cold day in November 2014, after getting the call that Dave Pegg—climber, guidebook author, prolific route developer and de facto King of Rifle—had committed suicide.


IT WAS AROUND 2004 when Dan Mirksy and I met, as we each began our own deep relationship with the climbing in Rifle Mountain Park, a scene without comparison in America. People here were dead serious about their projects, and taking a year (or more) to redpoint a single route seemed to be par for this course.

The most famous serious climber of Rifle was the Very Serious Climber (VSC) himself, Dave Pegg, whose wife, Fiona, had written about her husband using this acronym, in a series of popular humor columns for Rock and Ice magazine. In her stories, the VSC was always tinkering with some new stringent diet or training program that he believed, much to his wife’s patient eye-rolling, would be the Rosetta Stone to decipher his latest proj.

Dave was born in England, and started climbing in Sheffield, cutting his teeth as a trad climber and route developer on the grit. In 1996, he came to the United States and took a job as an associate editor at Climbing Magazine. Being behind a desk and grinding out reviews of chalk, however, wasn’t Dave’s cup of tea, and he eventually left the magazine to carve out his own slice of the American Dream by starting a business: Wolverine Publishing. His first guidebook, Western Sloper, was a guide to Rifle.

“Dave’s first favorite thing is a secret, and his second favorite thing is bolting new routes,” Dave wrote about himself in that initial guidebook.

Dave Pegg was a climber, guidebook author, prolific route developer and the de facto King of Rifle.

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OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS, Dave became a prolific route developer on the Western Slope of Colorado, adding hundreds of new routes not just in Rifle Mountain Park, but also the Fortress of Solitude, Main Elk, the Pup Tent, the West Fortress, the Distillery and Hogwarts, a crag he named after the Harry Potter books that he was absolutely crazy for.

Wolverine Publishing took off and began publishing guidebooks to crags all over the country, not to mention cycling, kayaking, hiking, equine and skiing guides, too. The guidebooks were works of art, printed on heavy-stock paper with gorgeous photos, accurate route descriptions and historical and cultural essays penned by locals. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dave’s guidebooks created communities and brought people together in a way that no climbing guidebooks had before.

I remember the day Dave ticked a 5.14a in Rifle—20 years after sending his first, and only other, 5.14a, back in the U.K. He had been projecting it for at least six years, maybe longer. I remember the day because I was working on Dave’s horse ranch, chopping wood for $15/hour in a bit of part-time work Dave had thrown my way, as I had hit a rough patch and needed the money. When he got back from climbing that day, he was over the moon.

Sending that route was a big deal for Dave. All those years of Very Serious Climbing had paid off for the VSC, and just as he had always been happy for each our redpoints over the years, everyone in the Rifle community was extremely proud of Dave.

But it was almost as if the very next day Dave started struggling with an inexplicable onset of insomnia, which got worse, and worse, and worse over the next year. He found himself less psyched to climb, less motivated to develop new routes and just not his typical happy self, though he hid it very well. I saw Dave two weeks before he committed suicide, and he told me he was still having trouble sleeping, but there remained a bright, happy light shining through his words.

Receiving the news of his death in November 2014 was the last thing I ever expected to hear that day. I struggled to wrap my head around how someone who had built his own successful business, climbed as much and as often as he wanted, and was loved by so many could ever lose sight of all that.

Along with everyone else in the Rifle climbing community, I struggled as I wondered if I could’ve done more.


DAVE LEFT BEHIND quite a lot: dozens of incredible stoke-inducing climbing guidebooks, hundreds of first ascents (some great, some utter choss), and thousands of smiles and tears. But he also left behind more worldly items: draws on projects, fixed ropes on new crags and unfinished lines that needed either more bolting or a first ascent.

At his memorial, Dave’s good friend and frequent climbing partner Bill Ramsey, a philosophy professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, spoke about how it’s not the length of one’s life that matters most; it’s the width. Bill observed that Dave, in touching so many of us, whether through his hilarious writing, his informative guidebooks, his many new routes for us to climb or his consistent, if quirky, friendship, led a very wide life, and that is to be admired.

In other words, Dave had found a way to pursue this very selfish sport called climbing in a way that was, in fact, not selfish at all.

Dave’s death affected all of us differently. For Dan, Dave's passing reminded him of another side of climbing, one that in nearly 15 years of being in the sport, he had not explored. Dan had still never placed a bolt or established a first ascent. His dedication to the sport had been solely about seeing himself to the top of his the next hardest redpoint. Each of us had to find our own way to best honor Dave’s life, and for Dan that meant finishing up a route that Dave had started.

Each of us had to find our own way to best honor Dave’s life, and for Dan that meant finishing up a route that Dave had started.

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THE DISTILLERY AND HOGWARTS are two limestone crags poised like a yin-yang at opposite sides of a tight north-running canyon through which East Elk Creek flows. Both crags are what they are today in large part because of Dave’s voracious appetite for sinking bolts into virgin limestone. For years, folks had passed these crags by as they drove onward to the routes of Rifle. At these walls, Dave spent some of the best days of his life, bolting and climbing hard new lines. It’s hard to not feel his presence here.

White Lightning, a route bolted by local Josh Gross with Dave’s support, is an excellent 5.13b that ends two-thirds of the way up a 40-meter cliff, yet above the anchors lies a deceptively blank shield of bone-white limestone with curious pockets and razor-blade edges. Dan wanted to carry this route to the top of the cliff, as Dave had envisioned, but he needed my help to teach him how to bolt.

I, by no means, am an expert route developer, but I have done some of the good lord’s work, as we call route-setting out here in Western Colorado. Much of that knowledge came from my time spent with Dave. It felt good to spend a day out in the mountains with my friend Dan, passing on some of the information that Dave had given to me.

After Dan placed some new bolts, sunk an anchor and cleaned the line, he set to work figuring out the V10 boulder sequence. Two redpoint burns later, Dan was falling off the very last moves of the boulder problem. He didn’t quite manage the send on this trip, but plans to finish the route up in May.

They say the best climber in the world is the one who is having the most fun. But what’s even better is finding ways to give back and build up the individuals and community around you, while at the same time having fun and pushing yourself to be the best. Dave’s death was a reminder to all of us to pursue a wider life because, at the end of it all, a bunch of hard redpoints amassed don’t mean shit if those achievements are pursued to the exclusion of all the good in life.

Words: Andrew Bisharat
Photography: Andy Mann & Mattias Fredriksson
Historical Photography: Darek Krol collection; Andrew Bisharat, Tara Kerzhner
Videography: Spindle

It’s not the length of one’s life that matters most; it’s the width. Dave, in touching so many of us, led a very wide life, and that is to be admired.