A Short Life in Short Shorts

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A life filled with passion ends on a remote peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

Left to right: Alex Newport-Berra, Erik Skaggs, Nick Martin and Ron Braselton atop Vestal Peak, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Photo by Joy Martin

Boys running in mountains is one of the greatest sights on earth. Long, strong legs barely covered by short running shorts sweetens the view as summer goes on. Blinding white thighs darken to a sweet mahogany and the shirts come off, revealing chiseled, tan chests and sometimes even six-packs.

In short: H-O-T-T hot.

One bright July morning, monsoon clouds billowed low on the horizon still a few hours away. I leaned against the warm granite of Vestal Peak, 10 miles deep in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness waiting for the rest of our group.

Sitting below and above me on their own blocks of rock were Nick Martin and Ron “Braz” Braselton, my two most consistent partners in adventure, travel and beer drinking.

We definitely weren’t waiting because we were faster than the rest of the group, which consisted of ultrarunning machine Erik Skaggs and Alex Newport-Berra, the tannest white boy I’ve ever seen. Both were sporting the shirtless, short shorts fashion … and they looked good.

As the Oregon-natives ran up the sloping face of Vestal toward our perch, the three of us admired their athletic form. Skillful, quick, deft, like mountain goats. Really tan, hairless mountain goats.

The weather was perfect for a summit attempt on Wham Ridge, a San Juan classic featuring easy, 5.3 to 5.6 rock climbing. For the record, it’s all a no-fall zone; the exposure is thrilling, but the consequences of a fall would be deadly.

Alex would later write in his blog, “The centerpiece of the day was the ascent of Vestal Peak via Wham Ridge. A stunning, beautiful, exponential curved ridge that looked to be created more by a mathematician than by nature. The technical climb was fun, provided great views and a couple ass-puckering moves on exposed slabs. I love these outings mixing running with some technical scrambling.”

We reached the summit quickly but carefully, and the serious mood we held on the ascent faded with the lack of oxygen. General frivolity returned as we celebrated with a lemon-zucchini cookie split five ways (a bonus of bringing a girl along) while the boys flexed shirtless for the camera (see photo).

After they got their kicks making crude gestures and posing like they were God’s gift to women, the boys carried their blasphemous cajoling down the south side of the peak. I stopped to watch this band of brothers in short shorts bound playfully down the talus slope and glissade through the dirty snow as the sky darkened to a slate gray over the impressive Grenadier Range.

Every now and then, they’d look back to make sure I was still there. Such gentlemen.

From the base of the 13,864-foot peak, we noticed two young hikers starting the scramble up Wham. Braz mumbled something about stupidity under his breath as Skaggs’ warning was carried on the wind to the hopefuls.

“We got an eye on the sky,” they yelled back and continued onto the shadowed rock, now enshrouded in thunder and mist.

“Those guys are idiots,” puffed Braz.

The week before, he and some other runners had wisely but resentfully forfeited a Wham attempt due to stormy skies.

The boys all looked at Braz, who had been the most resistant to turning back. Dude, seriously. That was totally you. He insisted those guys were even dumber.

At the emerald meadow that serves as a campsite for those who don’t want to slam Wham in a day, we spied three mountain goats. Spooked by our gangly presence, the biggest one leapt for a giant boulder and started an agile climb.

But sometimes even mountain goats slip.

In Alex’s words: “We were treated to a National-Geographic-level display of mountain-goat bad-assery, and one actually fell while attempting a wicked V7 dyno.”

His entry continues with the perfect wrap-up to our perfect day outside: “The run out was a blur of rocks, roots, and good trail vibrations. We had some big dark clouds on our tails and we made it back to the car just as the first drops started to fall. Not to mention the fact that Erik is about as bad-ass and fast as trail runners come, so running with him is definitely an inspiring endeavor. Over the winter, I compiled a list of routes and objectives and the Wham was on that list. It seemed many local Durango runners talk about the numerous times they attempted the Wham only to be turned back by foul weather. I felt blessed and thankful to have made it on the first go. The route is beautiful, but it’s not a simple or easy approach.”

Alex Newport-Berra.

Two weeks later, on July 20th, Alex set out for more mountains on a solo run-mixed-with-some-technical-scrambling in and around Ice Lake Basin. Two days later, a search-and-rescue team found his body below the rugged peak Pilot Knob.

No one will ever know exactly what happened. Maybe a rock turned as he stepped on it? Maybe he was attempting a wicked V7 dyno?

Speculation at this point is painful and fruitless. A beautiful, tan 33-year-old teacher, writer, runner, biker, Strava-junkie, yogi, gift-giver, ocean-lover, brother, son and friend in short shorts is gone.

On Alex’s well-kept blog, Building Boats, you’ll discover that he loved intently and lived with intention and gratitude. His tagline reads: May each pilot their own ship, and may your life’s passion be a wind to fill others’ sails.

There are no words to describe the heart-wrenching sadness I feel for his family and friends. We’ve lost something grand too soon and all that’s left are the words Alex left for us and an empty space to fill with hugs and tears.

I never got a chance to ask him why he wore short shorts, but I like to think that little bit of fabric represents the best in the boys I love: they’re positively fearless.

Some guys would say that short shorts allow them more freedom of motion or make them fast like cheetahs. Erik Skaggs says he likes to wear short shorts simply “because my legs look so good.”

No one’s legs look as good as Skaggs, for the record.

Life is too short to not rock short shorts, boys, even if you don’t have tan upper thighs. Alex would tell you to pilot your own ship. Read: get outside for playtime in the mountains so your upper thighs see some UV rays. Chicks dig it.

Either way, may your life’s passion be a wind to fill others’ sails.  And please be safe out there.

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