“It’s not that you find the thing. No, you don’t find the thing, you create the thing. You decide the thing. And it’s all not going to be on the pros list and nothing on the cons list when you’ve found your place. No. You accept the challenges and you welcome them with the benefit that you get out of having Place.”
Calvin Laatsch calls his place the Upper Skagit Climber’s Dojo.
I first met Calvin at a Wilderness First Responder course on the Oregon Coast. We discussed our shared respect for kung fu movies and slow-cooked meats. When I recently heard about his Climber’s Dojo, I thought of throwbacks to poorly dubbed dialogue with amazing martial arts.
After visiting, I find the Dojo holds true to the name as a training room adjacent to its temple. In Calvin’s case, the temple is the available vertical rock of the North Cascades. Calvin has poised himself, with no small effort, to share both with fellow climbers, family, friends, and students of the outdoors.
Finding Calvin doing just that, sharing, first thing in the morning was no surprise. Outside the cabin, a stone’s throw from the upper Skagit River, where a sweet family of four had parked their camper truck overnight, Calvin was playing cards with the eight-year-old son on a picnic table and just finishing up breakfast. It was idyllic and a glimpse of the type of community Calvin might cultivate.
“What I’m doing is counter to the mainstream culture,” Calvin explains. “But at the same time, again and again in conversation, I hear how many people really want community and yet haven’t made the decision about the place to have that. The language about that is very interesting. You don’t find it, you make it. “
Calvin purchased a home with 4 acres across from the upper Skagit. When he took over the property, it was overgrown and fortified with a tall rough wood plank perimeter fence encircling a caboose-looking cabin that had black-plastic-covered windows. About 50 old rubber tires littered the yard. Threatening and aggressive signage warned trespassers. There was a pit toilet, and the county encouraged Calvin to get the building on a proper and approved septic/well. As he was purchasing the property, he received raised eyebrows and disbelief. Anyone buying the place would have to jump through hoops to bring it up to code, and by the way, you have to be a special kind of person to live out here. Winter brings long consecutive nights of power outages, and rain. And snow. The highway closes, creating a dead end just miles beyond the Dojo. But Calvin, with the many lessons learned in the outdoors, believes that he can make it work. He has fortitude and commitment.
Up the highway, Calvin puts in his nine-to-five work at the North Cascades Institute. The mission of the institute (connecting people, nature, and community) really compliments Calvin’s passion, rock climbing, and his personal endeavor as the self-appointed upper Skagit liaison to The Access Fund, North Cascades National Park (NCNP), and Seattle City Light. His role at the Institute as events coordinator has prepared him to communicate with finesse. This skill comes in handy when dealing with the variety of entities stewarding the recreational land.
The Diablo Wall, conveniently located minutes from Calvin’s office and inside the Ross Lake Recreation Area (part of the North Cascades National Park Complex), was lined with bolts at some point in the 80s, by a mysterious Russian climber whose name is unknown. No completed routes were evident, and during the last few decades, the wall became ignored and dormant, until Calvin and a handful of other invested climbers adopted the wall. Calvin can be seen here climbing a route he established called ‘Shiny Yellow Crane’ a 5.12a (one of four of his own). He spent most of last year hanging from a self-belay, scrubbing holds, securing bolts and creating challenging but exciting climbs. The wall now has six complete routes.
Calvin, with the help of the Access Fund, is also in the process of negotiating usage and development of two other priority areas that need approval by the NCNP. Many climbers and others might wonder “why not just ask for forgiveness rather than permission?” But Calvin and the majority of the local climbing community believe that it is in their best interests to get proper approval first. It’s one of many steps that Calvin is taking to change the prevailing climbing culture.
Calvin says, “The predominant attitude is to keep things a secret, and to keep it within a small community and not openly share information online. Not spraying about new areas.
“There is this thing of ‘I’m a visitor here, I wasn’t born here.’ You know, none of us are. This drama plays out over who gets to call it their own, who gets to call themselves local. And I see why there are a lot of reasons to keep things under wraps in areas where there are land use conflicts or challenges with access. That turns it into an elitist, inside culture. I’m not interested in perpetuating that. I want it to feel welcoming.
“This is a national park. This is, as much as it can be, public land. These are our public lands. If climbing can help people feel like they belong here, I know how amazing that can be. I’m not worried about it being loved to death.”
Calvin has taken up the task, while also gauging the pulse of the local climbing community, to get the proper approval from the park. Being a landowner and full time resident gives a sense of stewardship that he fully embraces.
“Better to ask forgiveness than permission only gets you so far when you want to have a long term intentional relationship. We are on the cusp of this area rivaling Leavenworth or Squamish, where you see high-use by climbers right now, where it largely wasn’t planned or anticipated. Hopefully this will allow more forethought or planning for that to go well.”
Another step that Calvin took in challenging the dirtbag culture (which he has definitely participated in the past) is choosing to grow roots.
“I spent my 20’s charmed with Jack Kerouac and Chris McCandless (Into the Wild). There’s a lot about the idealized traveler/vagabond/seeker that was a big part of my identity as a young man. I think where I found a new perspective and stepped into something more permanent was realizing there are limitations in that lifestyle. I’ve learned when you take on more responsibilities and you’re in one place you create different types of freedom. So it was a process.”
Having experienced the contrast of living in the desert and time on the road, brought Calvin back to the NW.
“There are standard migration paths for the van-life climber, and there is community but it’s uniquely disjointed from the community where they are existing.
“The huge popularity of van-life in the climbing world and other sub cultures, I noticed, wasn’t done very responsibly,” Calvin says. “So that’s where I had to be real about, ‘Oh, no. There’s real impact. Oh, it’s just one cat hole I dug. It’s just me sleeping in the parking lot.’ But the moment you multiply that out, you see the real impact of the 100 people living in their van at any given time and stealing the grocery store wifi, and taking their gas station shower in the bathroom. I just had to accept that now I know better. I did that, but when I have an opportunity to be more accountable and thoughtful it feels better to me. The other part is having the right place.
“When the van-life takes over the North Cascades, the way it has in Squamish, dozens of climbers in vans will try to live the simple life and it’s super romantic, but the volume now is not no-impact. The van-life culture is so big it isn’t fringe anymore and there are real impacts. So if we aren’t identifying where they can park or take a poop, there’s going to be a problem really quick.
“I am rebelling against that in a way,” Calvin explains. “I am exploring another way where I can have the same fulfillment while also addressing a totally natural urge to have place and community.”
“Climbing emphasizes the more you carry the more difficult it becomes. So you have to find that sweet spot of having just enough. And when I can extrapolate that to my life, oh yeah, I have an outdoor shower, but I have hot water in my outdoor shower. I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Tearing down the old fortress fence surrounding the Dojo is symbolic of Calvin’s endeavors for welcoming community at the Dojo, on public lands, as well as in the climbing world. When I left, Calvin walked off cursing the deer that now target his young garden and orchard with new easy access. But I hope this challenge will also bring reward, and he’ll receive some unforeseen gratification for removing both the personal and physical borders in his life.