The Love Letter: An Interview With Fitz Cahall
For 10 years, a dream lingered, but the clutter of modern living pressed it into submission. Still clinging to the pull of wild places and adventure, Fitz and Becca Cahall revived their youthful vision of summits and faint trails by abandoning work and the city for the wilderness. The Love Letter follows a pair of climbers in search of new and classic routes along the difficult to reach stretches of the Sierra spine, focusing not just on the summits themselves, but the process of attaining them. In the clutter of the modern world, can wilderness still restore the human spirit? We would like to think so.
We caught up with Fitz Cahall, one of the masterminds behind The Love Letter, and asked him some questions…
It sounds like The Love Letter was a dream in the making for a long time. What first sparked your inspiration for this project?
I was 22 living in a van that I didn’t own in Yosemite. We were scrambling to find a camp spot and this woman came up and said she had room in her campsite for another car. She was a scientist doing a project in the national parks. She was pretty old — 32. So ancient, I know. Oddly during that time, I’d keep running into her in the Sierra at various parks and campgrounds. She told me about this three week climbing trip she and her husband had done in Sierra and I thought that’s pretty cool. I thought about that trip a bunch then, but I never had the focus required to do a trip like that. I told Becca about it a while back and it was just always something that stayed in the front of my thoughts.
Later I found that Muir had done a similar trip. David Brower, the father of modern conservation, did an 8-week continuous climbing trip in 1934 and followed a similar course. He ticked off 54 peaks in that time. These men began their careers as climbers and writers and evolved into powerful voices. It’s not to say that I think I’m John Muir or David Brower, but they are certainly heroes of mine, and if I can some do a fraction of what they did for the American West, I will be content.
Anyway, Last year, I was 32. I was now ancient, but didn’t feel ancient. I just sort of snapped and realized that if I wanted to go do something I should go do it. I had been working on my career and business non-stop for five years, and I’d kind of forgotten about the dreams that brought me into this career. I think at some point, last spring, I told Becca that I wanted to do this. She felt the same way. I was struggling mentally. Drinking a little more than I should. Struggling to sleep. I developed stress-induced shingles just as we set out. I think I knew I needed this trip.
You say “In the clutter of the modern world, can wilderness still restore the human spirit?” How does wilderness restore your spirit individually, and as a couple? How do you think it restores others?
I think that’s the million dollar question and not an easy topic to veer into without sounding too cliched. We create words for feelings. Peace. Focus. Stillness. I find these things when I follow a sun/shade line across a frozen lake on a cold January day. When I give everything I have to a climb. When Becca and I start to finish each others thoughts without ever saying a word. These moments are what radiate through my memories.
I love technology. I love tinkering with it. I love being creative in that sphere, but I also believe that it’s killing us to a certain extent, or to the extent that we let it. Technology takes away the peace and stillness and focus. I get that back in the wilderness. Even if it’s just for a pre-dawn tour. It doesn’t have to be a 300-mile pilgrimage.
What was the biggest challenge/obstacle you came up agains on your adventure in the Sierras? How did you overcome it?
It was a high-gravity trip. No doubt about it. If something was going to go wrong it would, but we just worked through it. Becca had giardia. I had shingles, which is something really old people, people suffering from auto-immune diseases, and 30-somethings who aren’t taking care of their bodies get. Avoid it. Becca cut open her hand, severed an artery and chipped a bone with 10 days left in the trip. The Thermarests kept popping. We got hit by a massive early season blizzard — that ended the trip with 16 hours of ridiculous hiking through near white out conditions. [But] it’s not what I’m going to remember… well maybe the blizzard. It’s the joy. And so I made a movie about joy, not about the tiny hurdles and unpleasantries you encounter along the way.
What is your most cherished moment of the trip?
There were a lot. The day Becca sliced open her hand — it had been a great day. We had climbed the classic 5.9 East Face of Clyde Minaret in a few hours. Taken our time on the summit, worked our way down a pretty annoying loose descent. She fell when talus shifted on the approach trail. When I got to her, she was bleeding pretty badly and it was obvious that with exposed bone we had to get her to the hospital. We went back to camp, got her cleaned up, ate a bunch of food and got prepared. We decided that speed for her was best, so she took a tiny pack with water and food and just went ahead with her arm slung towards the trailhead and hopefully a ride into Mammoth Lakes. I would start to pack up camp and carry as much as I could and try to catch up. It was dark. We’d been on the go 18 hours. There was no way I was keeping up with that girl. It was hard enough when she had a pack on.
To me, I made peace at the moment with the trip being over. I just slowed in the night. I could see her head lamp down canyon occasionally, getting further and further in front of me. I slowed even more, just happy to be there on a warm September night. It had been a good trip. We came up 60 miles short. We tried as hard we could. We claimed nothing. Gave everything we had. And it seemed so strange that we weren’t going to finish it together, but separated by a few miles of trail I couldn’t make up, I started to feel a little sad, and then I just knew she was experiencing the exact same emotion. We could have been standing next to one another, and I would have heard her just as clearly. And then, I thought, “well, maybe we could keep going without the climbing gear. It had never really been about climbing all along. It was about this range. Each other. The process of following imagination into mountains.”
And I knew that she was thinking that at the exact same moment. A day later, while we were resting in a motel, she turned to me and said, “Last night, I just kept thinking of ways we could keep going.” So we did. You asked earlier, about how wild places can connect two people. Becca and I have always had a powerful connection, but the wilderness has only strengthened it. This trip more than ever.
Often when people embark on adventures like this, the reaction is “oh, I wish I could do that too.” What’s your response to that?
You can. It’s difficult to see that all the time. Sometimes, it is actually difficult to do something like that. Frightening too. Possible though. For sure.
You say in one of the trailers “have we fallen for something that cannot love us back?” Do you have an answer to that question? If we give ourselves to nature, how does it give back?
I don’t necessarily think the wilds give back to us. I think we derive what we want to from them. Those who’ve never spent time inside the mountains irrationally fear them. Once you begin to explore them, inspiration sets in. As we age, these places become like old friends. I’d imagine, once I spend a lifetime in them, I will fear, find inspiration, and commune with them all in the same breath.