In his January/February 2020 editor’s letter, Editor-in-Chief Matt Bean faces his fears on a Wyoming mountain, and contemplates what “wellness” means to him

Matt Bean on the Via Ferrata Jackson Hole

Photo courtesy of Lauren Steele

The route was called The Crystal Cave, and I figured the worst thing we’d come across climbing this snow-slicked cliff in Jackson Hole might be some of Tolkein’s trolls. But this was no mere hike with a side of fantasia. This was an exploding form of rock climbing apparently named after the Italian for “Life Insurance.” 

The so-called via ferrata offers a gymnastic test of mettle with training wheels, thanks to a length of braided cable anchored along the route. Your job is to gambol between natural rock protrusions and U-shaped rungs hammered into the face of the wall. The rest is “easy:” You simply clip and unclip your safety restraint around each anchor while stifling the desperate cries of your inner soul. 

I write this from the comfort of my desk as we’re putting the finishing touches on our annual wellness issue—but up there on that rock face I was feeling anything but calm. All “cave” claims aside, this route was straight up. Worse, it had started sleeting. My gloves were smart—they stayed home. Hands went numb, rungs got slick, and I started to wonder if I could still chew a banana after my face had been whiplashed into the rock. Was this the “soft” kind of rock? Did that even matter? 

My guide had cheated death all over the world and looked, like most guides in this situation, like he was trying his best not to seem bored. He leaned back calmly over the 600-foot drop while my left leg shuddered like a newborn foal’s. “You’re doing great!” he play-acted. 

I’d tackled one of these in Telluride earlier in the year, which gave me false courage. That via ferrata, situated at the end of a beautiful box canyon with views of Bridal Veil Falls, had but one moment of extreme “exposure”—another misleading climbing euphemism. The Crystal Cave was all exposure. And yet, somehow, we made our way up. Rung by rung, section by section. What had curdled my blood in Telluride was nothing in Jackson Hole. Progress. 

Eventually, we reached a vertical grotto, an inclined chimney of sorts, into which Connie Kemmerer, the owner of the property, had stashed a few tusk-like crystals. Crystals exude wellness to some people, something to do with vibration and energy and all that. I’ve never been much of a “crystal guy,” but when I came across each one on the final push you’re damn right I tapped it for good luck. 

Later, I found a photo of Connie climbing the same pitch, beaming like she was on a stroll through the woods. Energy or not, those crystals were her way of giving meaning to that raw, unforgiving geology, assigning spiritual resonance to an otherwise adrenalized, Point Break pursuit.

Wellness is a frame of mind, one of those fuzzy concepts that means everything and nothing. It’s used to sell shampoos and supplements, and yet… it’s crucial to define what it means to you, to be supportive of—and accountable to—yourself. To mark those moments, with crystals or memories or whatever you choose. I started life wanting to be the bravest or the fastest. These days I’m just looking for progress. And the next time I hit the Crystal Cave? I’ll be smiling like Connie.