Who is Steve "Crusher" Bartlett?

I'm a Boulder, Colorado rock climber. I was born near London, England, lived as a teenager in Cardiff, Wales, I started rock climbing in 1976 when I went to college in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in the far northeastern corner of England. The nearby countryside of Northumberland features windswept moorlands, from time to time abruptly broken by crags of steep, golden sandstone.

The cliffs were small, but protection was sparse, there were few trees or boulder to belay from, so the default became to climb, ropeless, as high as one dared, then either go for the top-out or downclimb until it was deemed safe to jump off. Fortunately the holds were usually large and the moves positive. Strength and bravery were an asset. The name "Crusher" came from the style; Lew Brown, a fellow UK climber, came up with this nickname. Lew is supple, gymnastic, flexible. He would elegantly finesse his way up a route; then I would climb the same piece of rock, a death-grip on one hand-hold, the other fist grabbing blindly upward, “crushing” the holds, while my feet followed behind me at their own pace.

Some people don’t like heights; me, I love heights! Holding on by my fingertips, high above the ground focuses and calms my mind like nothing else. In November 1982 I visited the USA on a vacation to climb in Joshua Tree. I bought a motorcycle and on rest days explored landscapes far wilder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen. Next summer, I learned to aid climb on the granite walls of El Capitan. A year later, I rode that same Honda 350 over the Rockies a in a snowstorm and ended up in Boulder, Colorado. I’m still here, 35 years later. Somewhere along the way, the hardscrabble life of construction laboring, living in a VW bus, and window-washing with Clean Dan Grandusky, in support of maximum time to play on the cliffs gave way to homeownership, marriage to my long-time partner Fran Bagenal ... but I digress.  

My first visit to the Utah desert was in 1984. The raw landscapes and severe silences seemed overwhelming, the perfection of the Indian Creek cracks more a novelty than a serious destination.

My attitude changed, without me even noticing. In spring 1988 Eric Bjornstad’s encyclopedic guidebook, Desert Rock, was published. There was, we learned, much more to the desert than Indian Creek. My friends and I began a deeper exploration of the Colorado Plateau. The Fisher Towers were first on the list; in the late 1980s this was a remote, unknown place. The formations were dark, foreboding and frightening, the climbing grossly unpleasant. But to succeed on the climbs and summit these magnificent towers required embracing the mud, filth, looseness and all; with an adjustment of attitude, what appeared repellent became enjoyable. And those summits, so tiny and high in the air! At the time, fewer people had stood on top of Cottontail or even the Titan than had stood on top of Everest. A small band of likeminded aficionados reveled in the Cutler Sandstone experience, and a not-much-larger band appreciated the entire range of varieties of desert-climbing experiences. While the rest of the US climbing scene shifted gears and began pursuing athletic excellence and safe routes that one could fall from, over and over, the desert rats toiled in silent, remote canyons.

In the Fisher Towers, the culmination of my climbing there was the first ascent of Beaking in Tongues, in 1997. To this day the only route to one of the big summits that has no bolts for aid. After this, I began exploring the free climbing around Monument Basin, in Canyonlands National Park. The steep, intricately textured sandstone there produced routes akin to those of Northumberland, bold, steep, juggy. More recently I’ve been exploring farther afield, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon Recreation Area.

At home, I changed careers in the mid-1990s from concrete form-setting to tile-setting, then to editing and laying out climbing guidebooks for Sharp End Publishing.

Along the way I’ve met, listened to, and climbed with many patient, wonderful people and formed lasting friendships with many. I've been privileged to meet desert pioneers such as Layton Kor, Harvey Carter, Eric Bjornstad, Fred Beckey, Bill Forrest, Jerry Gallwas, Jimmy Dunn, Kyle Copeland, Alison Sheets, Ed Webster, Earl Wiggins, Todd Gordon, many more. Geographically and generationally isolated from each other, they yet share a particular vision.

Here was a history, always been always obscure and slowly disappearing. I did not always care about history. My first decade or more of climbing, I was wrapped up in pushing myself, to be the best climber I could be, absorbed in the simple joy of mastering steep, hazardous cliffs. But this changed, slowly. The real mastery never really was of the rocks but of myself; as I learned to understand myself, I could better appreciate the aspirations and struggles of others. 

I had high hopes that some else would write a book about the history of the desert tower climbers, while I quietly got on with getting more towers done. Earl Wiggins and Katy Cassidy published a book, Canyon Country Climbs, that hinted at the delights of desert climbing. A fuller accounting needed to be told, to be preserved. Eric Bjornstad, coming to an end to his guidebook writing career, expressed an interested but was then sidetracked by starting his own memoir project, chapter by chapter. By the late 1990s he was writing less and even this project stalled out. 

In the early 2000s I started writing. Meeting Jerry Gallwas, all-round nice guy, low-key pioneer of several groundbreaking first-ascents from the mid-1950s, pushed me into a higher gear. He was astoundingly helpful and supportive. So was Layton Kor, who I’d visited and interviewed a couple of years earlier. Several more years of collecting ideas and information and interviews culminated in the publication, in late 2010, of Desert Towers.

Since publication, within the last seven years, the great 60s desert pioneers, Kor, Carter, Bjornstad, and Beckey, have all died. But some of their stories are preserved in my book. And, the vast, wild desert is still there. I’m still finding and climbing new desert towers, keeping one step ahead of the crowds, and will be for as long as I can still stand upright.