[The Sports Issue]

Falling sports are fine’: On the rocks with climber Simon Peck

From touring with AC/DC to climbing El Capitan, he’s made a life out of hanging tough

Simon Peck relaxes on the rocks prior to gearing up for a climb on the boulders at Calico Basin west of Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area in Las Vegas Saturday, July 6, 2013.
Mona Shield Payne

Some people find a thing and just know it will be theirs forever. Simon Peck found his at age 15 on a “crappy cliff” called Symonds Yat west of London.

Peck was a Boy Scout then, and he had no intention of starting a lifelong obsession with climbing on that first weekend trip. But something about scaling the rocks connected.

“I honestly don’t know what grabbed me,” he says, “but it did, and it stuck with me for 33 years now.”

At 48, there’s still something scoutish about Peck as he reaches a lean, sinewy arm up the rock face at Calico Basin, finds a chalky hold and hoists himself skyward. He moves with an easiness born of countless hours spent getting cozy with cliffs all over the world, from Mount Kenya to Yosemite’s El Capitan. On solid ground he’s just as steady, talking with an innate nonchalance about expeditions in the Himalayas, racing Porsches and spending his 21st birthday on the road with AC/DC. “That’s as far as I’ll go with that,” he chuckles.

Simon Peck

Peck was kicked out of a college he chose for its proximity to climbing and found work as a rock ’n’ roll roadie, doing staging and lighting for Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden, among many others. He’d climb on days off, and eventually he turned skills learned on the mountain into a full-fledged career, rigging for trade shows and conventions and starting a rope access company that worked with hospitality and energy outfits to reach places that required a harness, lots of experience and no fear of heights. Today, he’s newly retired, though he still flies planes for a local skydiving company and has taken the plunge himself a time or two.

“Falling sports are fine,” he says. “Drowning sports suck.”

Peck took his first good spill on the same rock where he fell in love with the sport—scared and shaking, “just waiting for the moment.” He laughs at the memory, but he’s had his share of epic falls in the three decades he’s been trusting his life to ropes, hardware and climbing partners. In the late ’80s, his gear gave out while he was aid climbing in the Utah desert. He watched as the pieces of equipment meant to save his life flew by, and he fell 60 feet toward the ground before his gear finally caught.

He wasn’t so lucky in 1997, when a 30-foot tumble during a rigging job—“no rope”—left him with 15 broken bones, including his back, a new Achilles tendon and a plate and screws in his right elbow.

Today, the jobs are safer and Peck, who has an 11-year-old daughter, isn’t taking quite as many risks. His paragliding days are behind him; his free-solo climbing days, too. “Everybody goes through it,” he says of the sport where climbers tackle big walls without ropes or safety gear. “Plenty of friends are dead.”

Back on the tie-dyed rock at Calico, Peck gets a mischievous smile on his face looking down on his climbing partner, Dave Towse, from halfway up the boulder. “Let’s see if Dave is paying attention,” he says and lets go, his body free-falling for a moment before the rope catches and he jerks to a stop. He’s climbed this pitch a hundred times before, but it still looks like fun.

I ask about Peck’s most memorable climbs, and he goes right to Sea of Dreams, a challenging, multi-pitch route up El Cap that he was rescued off in 1991 before reaching the summit. He calls it a failure but doesn’t seem upset. Failure is a natural part of climbing, an inevitable occurrence. Besides, it’s the process Peck loves, not standing at the top and crowing about it.

“There’s nothing finer than sitting on a portaledge after a long day’s climb and drinking a cold beer,” he says.

“A warm beer,” Towse corrects. And they both smile.

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