The phone call came late one afternoon to my apartment in Lexington, KY. This was back in the late-1980s, in the days of push-button phones and no such thing as caller ID. I had no idea if the person on the other end of the call, who identified himself as the road manager of the David Lee Roth Band, was on the up and up. I had a lot of friends who were able and eager pranksters with scores to settle. Something like this would have been right up their alley.
After introducing himself, he told me that he was reaching out to me on behalf of Diamond Dave himself. “David has read your book,” he said, “and is eager to climb with you when the band comes through your area for a few shows next week. Will you be available?”
The book that he was referring to was Stones of Years, a climbing guidebook to the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. The first and second editions of that book sold well enough to finance a good chunk of my undergraduate tuition at the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. And it attracted at least one celebrity reader.
Writing books is a wonderful endeavor, and I think that I have a few left in me before the great wheel in the sky takes me home. When I published the first edition of Stones of Years, I received an invitation to a formal gala at the governor’s mansion in Frankfort to recognize the year’s published book authors in the Bluegrass State. A banquet with the governor and a bunch of celebrities. Tres professionnel!
There was a brochure created just for this annual event to acknowledge the invitees, which contained a biography of each author. This brochure went out to every library and to most of the bookstores in the state. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into a local shopping mall one afternoon and seeing my book on display in a chain bookstore window, along with the brochure opened to the page containing my bio.
Each year, the committee that planned this event invited a nationally known author, generally not from Kentucky, as the keynote speaker. The year I went, that speaker was Mickey Mantle: the Mick, the commerce comet, the New York Yankee who battled Roger Maris, his teammate, for the ‘61 home run record. That guy.
Mantle took a seat next to me at the banquet based on my photo and bio. “You look more interesting than a poet,” he said quietly. “Tell me about mountain climbing.”
I think that I might have peed a little in my pants.
Those were truly halcyon days. My friends and I felt like we were 10 feet tall and without fear or doubt. No one should go through life without feeling that way, even if it’s just for a little while. It’s a great comfort when the hard times arrive, as they invariably do later in life, just to have felt magnificent once. You can sustain yourself from that when circumstances change.
Even though I was not completely convinced that the phone call was on the up and up, I agreed to be at my store in Red River Gorge at 11 a.m. in a week to meet the band and go climbing. I didn’t even bother to tell anyone about it, lest my hunch that it was a prank prove to be correct.
At that time, David Lee Roth had recently split from Van Halen to form his own band with Steve Vai on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass, Greg Bissonette on drums, and Brett Tuggle on keyboards. Skyscraper was the second post-Van Halen album from Roth, featuring the hit Just Like Paradise, which spawned a popular MTV music video featuring Roth climbing in Yosemite Valley. As the band toured to support Skyscraper, they hired a succession of local guides to take them climbing around the country.
In Kentucky, that turned out to be me. I had just settled onto a bench outside of the store on a glorious early fall afternoon when I heard the unmistakable sound of diesel engines straining up the curvy grade that led to our shop. A few minutes later, three very large, very expensive custom tour buses pulled into our dirt parking lot, completely filling it. Oh sh*t, I thought. Before the bus doors opened, I was on the pay phone with one of my employees, telling him to get his ass in gear and get to the store.
A minute or two later, the person with whom I’d spoken on the phone came bounding out of the lead bus in a bustle of energy and with a smile brighter than the face of the sun. “We’re thrilled to meet you,” he said. “The guys are in the bus getting ready.” Noticing, no doubt, that there were no evident cliffs towering nearby, he asked, “How far is it to where we are going to climb?”
That was a great question that I had to think fast to answer, having not planned on actually having to go climbing that day. The obvious place for intermediate climbers who wanted to sample the best of the Gorge was a place about 20 miles away, of which 10 miles were down a gravel road. The problem was that the short way there passed through an old railroad tunnel that the buses had no chance of getting through, being both too tall and too wide. That meant the alternative route, which involved 25 miles of winding mountain roads just to get to the 10 miles of gravel.
As I explained this, I offered that we could get there a lot quicker if we left the buses at the store and took our cars. Looking over my shoulder at the beater Toyota SR5 pickup and a 1975 Chevrolet Impala sitting behind me, the tour manager grinned and assured me, with his megawatt smile, that the buses and the longer route would be just fine.
“The boys can take a nap.”
So off we went. Anyone who knows much about Eastern Kentucky knows that rural mountain roads are narrow and wind torturously through the steep hills underneath thick canopies of trees. If you could take a hammer and flatten out Eastern Kentucky, it’d be bigger than Texas. I was horrified to catch the occasional glance of quarter-million-dollar tour buses in the rear view mirrors teetering precipitously on the edge of major drop-offs on the side of the road while being raked by trees. A lot of expensive custom paint ended up on tree limbs that morning.
When we got to the roadside parking area at the climbing spot, the door of the lead bus opened and hurled a cruise missile straight at us in the form of a very angry tour bus owner/driver. The only thing more impressive in that moment was the speed with which the second man off the bus, the tour manager, managed to intercept the driver before he reached us.
The guy’s name, I kid you not, was “Vinnie,” and he looked like a hood who’d kill anyone who said anything bad about his mother or sister—or who scratched up his tour buses. A couple of the crew members actually carted Vinnie off while he was cursing at us. Turning around, with the megawatt smile still in place, the tour manager said, “Don’t worry about him; he works for us, and we’ll remind him of that when he calms down. The most important thing right now is that this does not interfere with David and the boys having a good time. Are we all good?”
Gerald, my assistant guide, and I both nodded our approval.
With timing honed by impeccable show business chops, off the bus came the band, or at least some of them: David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Greg Bissonette. They were incredibly polite, and the pleasantries exchanged seemed genuine. They did seem a bit surprised when we handed them packs to carry up the hill. I don’t think they expected that.
It took about 20 minutes for the six of us to hike up the steep 500-foot hillside to the base of the cliff. But it was an impressive place, especially with a hint of fall colors beginning to show. We could tell that everyone was jazzed to be there. As we unloaded the packs, we started asking them some questions to figure out what they knew and didn’t know about rock climbing basics.
It turns out that, despite having climbed with some of the most famous climbers in North America, they knew next to nothing about basic rock craft: knots, rope handling, belays, etc. They told us that almost invariably their climbing adventures consisted of some famous climber leading them to the base of a route, sans any conversation, putting them in harnesses without any explanation of gear or technique, climbing the first pitch without commentary, then telling them to clip in and follow.
Nothing about that surprised me. There exists a mindset among some involved at the top levels in many endeavors along the lines of what I’m good at is way better than what you are good at. The temptation among my famous fellow guides to trash some wanker rock stars and show ‘em who’s the real schizz-nizzle must have simply been too great.
That’s some ego for you right there. And it’s something that’s aggravated me to no end about many individuals with elite talent in various activities that I’ve been involved with over the years. You are great at climbing (or whatever), but you are an absolute bust as a good human being. How hard can it possibly be to at least exhibit graciousness if you can’t manage respectful?
So over the course of a few hours, the band got their first actual exposure to the basics of rock climbing. They were attentive and progressed rapidly through the standard beginner rock craft lesson. After a few hours, we were ready to actually go climbing.
It did not take long to figure out that DLR was the focus of the tour not only on stage but in the mountains as well; Steve and Greg were mostly along for the ride. I sent Dave off with Gerald so that he’d have his own personal guide, and I led Steve and Greg up to the base of the first route that we’d attempt.
A word on Steve and Greg. Steve Vai, who was at the time one of the most famous guitar players in the world, got his start at age 18, playing in Frank Zappa’s band. He was no slouch. He’s also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Greg Bissonette got his start with Maynard Ferguson. He is, similarly, one of the nicest people you will ever meet. We had great fun climbing some easy classics, and we all got along famously.
Steve ascertained that I played guitar—something that I was reluctant to discuss voluntarily. I think that my hand preparation might have given it away: coating both hands with tincture of benzoin, carefully wrapping them with pro wrap, then athletic tape over that, and finally using lots of chalk to create a protective, antiseptic, sticky high-friction gripping surface that was good for a day’s worth of punishment. He was very keenly interested in the steps that I took to minimize damage to my fingers from the rigors of using them to support my body weight when clinging to dime-sized holds. We managed to get his hands prepped just right.
After a bit, we all sat down for a lunch that the caterer dragged all the way up the hillside from the buses. It was awesome. And I took the opportunity to sit down with DLR for some one-on-one time. I found him to be quiet, introspective, articulate, and very intelligent. He was impeccably well-read. He was pretty much the polar opposite of his stage persona.
But the whole show was indisputably all about Dave. So after lunch, I decided to gather the whole band together and guide everyone so that Dave would not feel slighted by being handed off to the hired help.
We gathered at the base of a route known as Vector Trouble, which has two pitches. The first is fun and easy, and the second is fun and hard, though the major difficulties are short-lived.
The first pitch went without incident. After gathering Dave, Steve, and Greg on the belay ledge at the base of the second pitch, I climbed it first, leaving anchors at the top, and rappelled back down to arrange a “shotgun” style belay where the rope ran from the climber up to the anchors at the top of the pitch, then back down to a belay on the original ledge. I did this because an overhang at the top of the pitch makes it difficult to see climbers from the upper belay.
The other thing about a shotgun belay is that it makes it much easier to give a helpful tug on the rope at just the right moment. Experienced guides are able to do this without their clients noticing a thing.
So when Greg (who was a big guy) climbed the pitch, unbeknownst to him and everyone else, he managed to power over the crux with about 50% of his body weight being supported by the rope. When Steve climbed the pitch, it was with several strategic tugs on the rope.
Then it was Diamond Dave’s turn.
Dave had been full of good-natured ribbing for his bandmates as they climbed, completely unaware of the fact that they had made it look easy because I was pulling on the rope pretty hard. When it was his turn, not only was I not pulling on the rope, but there was a few inches of slack in it. So when Dave reached the crux, already having exerted himself more than his bandmates, he was unable to crank off the strenuous moves and took a big swing into space.
Now Dave, being aware of cutting-edge climbing ethics, insisted on being lowered back to the ledge to start over instead of starting again from where he was hanging. I told him that I was sure that the problem was that Greg and Steve had just greased up the holds with their meaty hands and suggested more chalk.
To make a long story short, this tableau repeated itself several times, with each attempt proving more desperate. Finally, exhausted, Dave rested on the rope at the crux. By this time, everyone else was in on the secret, including the crew who’d gathered below. While Dave swung slowly back and forth in space, I started singing, softly at first, one of his songs, “I’m just a Giglio.” Everyone erupted in laughter. Dave looked down and grinned, realizing that he’d been had. I can’t repeat what he said here, but it was sure funny. It was a great moment.