Video by Mike Call

I don’t remember when I met Russ for the first time. All I have in my memory about him is a sense of warm realness. He’s genuine, thoughtful, no bullshit, and intelligent. He’s become something like a beloved uncle. He has lived an amazing life, and not without struggle. I connect with people over climbing – it’s true. But it’s also cheap and easy. My path in life has always been deeper than just climbing, and most of my real friendships are rooted there. Russ’s presence has been stable support and guidance. He is always positive and light-hearted, calm, and pragmatic. I’m emotional, reactive, impulsive and he helps me to chill all that out, even if while using his nickname for me -- “Darkness.”

There just aren’t pretenses with him. Russ is just a good man. Kind. Hardworking. He is who he is, and at this point he’s unapologetic about it. He’s massively respectful and aware, but he lives his life and crafts his surroundings exactly as he wants. He knows what and who and where he loves, and he’s going to straight up do those things till his dying day.

If Russ would’ve been born in Cali and done his thing out in Yosemite, the climbing world over would know who he is. Instead it was in New York, and the Gunks. It honestly makes no difference to him, or me, or the Gunks, but you if you’re a real climber – you know. His life as a climber and steward of the outdoor industry is worthy of great respect and admiration.

The trouble is that the very definition of climbing is incredibly varied, and in addition it is rapidly evolving and changing. New age climbing, fitness, gyms, comps, commercialization, birthday parties, climbing as a sport and an after school activity – none of these are interested in documenting or preserving the history of climbing in it’s essence – it’s soul – it’s roots. I suppose it doesn’t need to matter to everyone, but it matters to me. The people and the stories matter. There is a continuum of perception and motivation about climbing, and I accept this, but I’ll always strive for depth, texture, reverence, and purpose.

Despite the boom for climbing, it’s still a very young sport/pursuit/lifestyle, especially in America. We can still have contact with some of the founders/innovators/craftsmen/standard setters. That’s a really special thing. But for as fast and climbing is growing, so too is it losing people and stories. And look, if the present technology was available 30/40/50 years ago, then all of this would be preserved on the internet and Instagram and Facebook for people to dig up. But today, Russ and many like him ain’t going to sign up for Facebook/Instagram and backfill all their content on there. So, it’s on the younger and younger generations to care and seek, and to do the work to dig it up and learn. Quality content – lessons – life lessons and growth needs to be earned. It is sacred, and nothing sacred is obvious. It comes through exploration, devotion, curiosity, and effort.

This project was an opportunity for me to further pay my dues as a climber by spending time in the Gunks with Russ to learn. Also, I want it to be an example of what rich stories and characters still exist out there in the climbing world. They are the threads of fabric from which the whole climbing world has been woven from, and for the time being it’s still possible to contact them, and learn directly from them. We’re lucky to still have these experiences available. I hope this story inspires people to go out and seek some new knowledge and wisdom. The collective climbing history is painfully rich.

—Sam Elias