How quitting professional football launched Mugs Stump’s climbing career
How quitting professional football launched Mugs Stump’s climbing career.
If you pull on something hard enough, it breaks. For the late, legendary alpinist Mugs Stump, who almost became an Nfl football player, that thing was the body itself— in his case the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. When strained by 485 pounds of force, the ACL is stretched twice as tight as a piano string. Slowly, at first, the ligament’s millions of tiny collagen fibers begin to fray. The individual breakages increase exponentially until the ligament explodes with an audible “snap.”
THE TOWN OF GLENRIO, sitting astride the boundary of Texas and New Mexico, is a model of confliction. With a surveyor’s mistake in 1859, Glenrio was cleaved down the middle by the border. Even its name is a pastiche of half English, half Spanish that means “valley river.” But unassuming Glenrio (pop. 30)—or a nearby border town, depending on which of Stump’s contemporaries you ask—was the scene of a significant moment in American alpinism. On a raw spring day in 1972, Terry “Mugs” Stump pulled his Ford panel van off the road, his bald tires pawing for traction. The day prior, he’d departed Aspen, Colorado, after a winter of ski bumming. Just over the horizon, crews were laying the blacktop for Interstate 40, which, in bypassing the unincorporated community, would reduce Glenrio to a ghost town by year’s end. Stump, a muscular 23-year-old with shaggy, dark hair, climbed stiffly from the driver’s seat, bent at the waist, and massaged both knees. After a long night’s drive, it was time for coffee—and to make a decision.
Mugs Stump would become one of America’s most visionary climbers, spearheading a fast-and-light approach to alpinism during the 1970s and 1980s when siege-style expeditions were still the norm. His style was a form of artistic expression: He
sought purity through simplicity. Examples include the first ascent of Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face, a breakthrough climb on Mt. Hunter’s
Moonflower Buttress, and a speed solo of the Cassin Ridge on Denali ( see “The Big Four,” p.58). This kind of idealistic vision, combined with restless determination, let Stump accomplish much in a brief career. Though he made significant achievments in the mountains, Stump described his life not as a calculated rise to greatness but as a “dreamlike wandering.” These peregrinations took him from the gridiron to the mountains—football, in fact, was Stump’s first passion.
As he sat in that nearly empty café, listening to the West Texas wind rattling the grimy windows, Stump pondered his next move. He was heading east, to try out for the Dallas Cowboys, closer to realizing a boyhood dream than he’d ever been. But the retreating Rocky Mountains tugged at his heart as well, with their promise of skiing and climbing. As he sat in that nowhere diner, Stump drank cup after cup of coffee, trying to decide in which direction his path lay.
Summer 1978: The cold metal of John Barstow’s camera stung his face as he tried to steady it in the helicopter. Barstow— a climber and photographer— had volunteered for a rescue on Mount Robson, high in the Canadian Rockies. Despite the seriousness of their mission, Barstow could not help but raise his camera when the chopper swung around a ridge and the Plexiglas windscreen filled with a foreboding, ice- clad, 8,000- foot face. A few weeks later, a manila envelope from Barstow arrived unexpectedly at the home of the American alpinist Jamie Logan ( then Jim). Logan opened it to find an exquisite 8x10 of Robson’s Emperor Face, an Eiger- like wall— only bigger— that had rebuffed her several times. She traced a sinuous line up the cliff, then called her friend Mugs.
ON AUGUST 28, 1949, ghostly plumes of fog rose from the streets of Juniata County, Pennsylvania, as thick sheets of rain beat down on the hot asphalt. Inside the local hospital, Florence Stump struggled to deliver her third son. Her baby had not been planned. Early in the pregnancy, she nearly suffered a miscarriage. And now, her eight-anda-half-pound child was lodged sideways across the birth canal. Terry Manbeck Stump was carefully coaxed into this world in a delivery that Florence would later describe as “stormy.”
Stump would have an active and rambunctious childhood amid the rolling fields and shady forests of central Pennsylvania in the farming community of Mifflintown. It was the kind of place where a business is passed from father to son—where Stump’s father, Warren, returned to his old job in his father-in-law’s warehouse after serving in World War II. Warren and Florence enforced order, and often herded young Terry and his three brothers into the town’s Presbyterian church. But the Stump boys were also free spirits who roamed the streets and woods in search of adventure. “We lived at the edge of this small town,” recounts the youngest of Terry’s siblings, Thad. Often, Thad and his brothers would “come home from school, grab a shotgun, and go down to a limestone quarry and meadow that was behind the house.” Frequent practice with their firearms helped to keep the boys sharp between hunting seasons.
Much of what we know about Terry Stump’s childhood comes from an autobiographical essay assignment that he wrote his senior year of high school. In his telling, Terry had always felt corralled in school, chafing at the structure, acting out and clashing with teachers. His first-grade teacher, he wrote, “got so sick of me crying she put me in the corner behind the screen and slugged me with her Ping-Pong paddle.” But it was also in school that he discovered “the most enjoyable thing in my life: athletics.” “Terry was just a natural athlete,” Thad says. “Pretty much anything he picked up, he could do well.” His mother played softball and field hockey during her teen and college years, and his father had been recruited to play baseball and football by several colleges. But Warren Stump never made it into the college stadium; at age 18, both of his parents died within a year of each other. Warren and his older sister were left to care for seven younger siblings. His only significant time away from Juniata County was his service in the Army quartermaster corps, enlisting on May 16, 1942.
In first grade, football began to take root with Terry. He would practice in ad hoc scrimmages at recess, and then take part in games with his siblings and their friends after school. Despite being the youngest on the field, Stump stood out for his speed and agility, according to a biography compiled by Florence after Terry’s death. In his high school autobiography, Terry wrote, “I can remember how a dream was being formed.” Football became more than a pastime—to Stump, it was something very real and challenging. It also made him feel powerful, especially when matched against older and bigger players. Stump wrote: “I remember the time in fifth grade, during a noon-time recess. The score was 60 to zero and I had scored all 60 points … That was the day I was sure I wanted to be an athlete.”
In high school, Stump drove himself to excel, going beyond the regular training regimens of his teammates. Many mornings, he would sit in class dripping sweat, having already run 50 laps around the school. School continued, however, to be a source of grief: Stump was troubled not only by the strictures of institutional learning, but the social niches enforced by peers. Despite being a star athlete—Thad remembers him being starting quarterback all four high school years—Stump was an outsider, with his closest friends almost all girls.
“He was, in some ways, a prototypical jock,” says Thad. “He had the swagger; he had the attitude.” Yet he also had little patience for bullies. Florence wrote that Stump felt “compassion for anyone being humiliated”—even a teacher. At age 15, he complained to her, “There are a couple of guys in our homeroom I would like to beat up on, because of the way they treat [the homeroom teacher] Duffy.”
Low on the Emperor Face, downsloping ledges of snow and rubble striate the shattered shale. It’s mid-July 1978, and Stump balances on a shelf, slotting a knifeblade into a brittle, discontinuous crack. He taps the piton with his ice tool, measuring his blows to avoid losing his balance. When he doesn’t dare strike the pin any harder, he clips the piece and continues. With a gloved hand pawing on a flat hold, he mantels and stretches, reaching until his axe hooks a sloping ledge. Just as he moves his other hand up, his frontpoints slip. Stump’s boots swing away from the overhanging wall, causing his pick to skate across the ledge before it flies off in a shower of sparks. It’s over in an instant, and Stump finds himself hanging from the rope, staring down at the glacier 2,000 feet below. A wide grin breaks across his face. “How hard do you think this is, Logan? 5.9?”
IN 1961, future Super Bowl winner and Hall of Fame player Joe Namath was a high school quarterback, chosen to represent Pennsylvania in the Big 33 Football Classic, the “Superbowl of High School Football.” Six years later, it was Stump, now a high school senior, who walked out under the lights of Hersheypark Stadium to lead the huddle for the state team. Before the game, Stump told a reporter, “I guess I have confidence because I called almost all the plays for my high school team in the three years as quarterback.” But the game was a bitter embarrassment: The Pennsylvania Coal Crackers were routed by the Texas All Stars that night, losing 45 to 14. Stump threw three interceptions, each returned for a touchdown.
Later that same year, in the fifth game of the season as Stump dropped back to pass, a defensive tackle broke through the phalanx of linemen, delivering a crushing blow to Stump’s knee, tearing cartilage and snapping ligaments, including his ACL. In a traumatic impact, the ACL, which joins the femur to the tibia, can rupture with a sharp pop. The knee quickly swells, and, lacking the stability created by the ACL, the lower leg may wobble when weighted. The damage can be so severe that the knee itself may feel hot, as bleeding from deep within the joint seeps toward the skin. But in the face of what most would consider a crippling injury, Stump continued to play football—still able to pass and hand off, he finished the season. “I think that [injury] was what spurred him to do a lot of working out,” remembers Thad.
Later that year, on the day after Christmas 1966, Stump was wheeled into the operating room. After surgery, his leg was immobilized in a cast and he endured “the most miserable winter I’ve ever spent,” noting that “nothing seemed to be of much importance.” Whether in school or
resting at home, he was locked away from the world, gazing through icicle-barred windows, a hibernating bear waiting for spring.
“Stump is a do-everything type of player, sought by numerous big name colleges,” declared the local paper. The spring of 1967 was a dry one in rural Pennsylvania, with the pale-pink mountain laurel slow to bud on the hillsides. For the third time since the snow had melted from the yard, a man in a simple suit climbed the creaky stairs to the Stump household. Despite Stump’s injury, college recruiters had been coming to Mifflintown to impress, cajole, and flatter him into playing football for them.
In the end, Stump wouldn’t have to go far. He attended Pennsylvania State University where in his first year he was quarterback on the freshman team. On his first night in the dorms, Stump was doing sit-ups, pushups, and leg raises in his tiny bed. “He was determined to be a great football player,” recalls his roommate, Fran Ganter. Fearing a flair-up of his knee injury, Stump strove to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of his lower body. In his only letter home that year, Terry would tell his parents, “This is all I want now, but then it’s the one thing I’ve always wanted.” After a furious few minutes of calisthen- ics, Ganter says, Terry knelt by his bed, caught his breath, and prayed.
Though Stump’s spirituality shifted from the Christianity of his upbringing to a more Eastern philosophy later in life, he always felt a connection between physical exertion and a higher power. “Being an athlete and reaching my highs (communicating with God) through finely tuning my mind and body, I have found the ultimate way of communicating with Nature (God),” he wrote his parents. “Everything is brought down to the simplest level—me and the earth—but is heightened to an ultimate level of communication.”
Stump’s white jersey signified his rank as a member of the freshman football squad, where new players try to prove themselves to the coaching staff. Partway through the year, Stump was asked to host a high school player whom the team hoped to recruit. When Eric Bass walked into his host’s cramped room in fall 1967, it was Stump’s intense, welcoming face that struck him. “Hi! I’m Terry,” Stump said, pulling open a dresser drawer filled with rotgut Firebird wine. He tossed a bottle at Eric, and a weekend of partying began. “I was sick for a week,” Bass recalls, 51 years later. And yet, by the following season, Bass would be playing alongside Stump at Penn State.
Stump’s fall was soon forgotten as he and Logan swarmed up the Emperor Face. They’d climbed the height of El Capitan when they stopped for their first bivy. The pair balanced on tiny seats they’d chopped into a 70- degree rib of snow. But each time they drifted off, spindrift would pile behind their backs, acting as a frigid wedge. The moonlight caused Berg Lake, studded with its eponymous icebergs 4,000 feet below, to shimmer like mercury. Beyond, the frozen Canadian wilderness stretched uninterrupted.
AFTER HIS FRESHMAN YEAR, Stump was eligible for varsity. No longer cloistered among freshman, he found it harder to be noticed. Chuck Burkhart, a quarterback one year older than Stump, was leading Penn State to back-to-back undefeated seasons. Meanwhile, one of the most conspicuous athletes in the locker room was Mike Cooper, in the running to become the first African-American quarterback for the Nittany Lions. Though it was 1968 and America was witnessing the changes wrought by Civil Rights, the school and surrounding community still experienced a measure of discomfort with the ascension of a black player to a leadership role only a generation after the university first began enrolling African-Americans. Reflecting the novelty and curiosity surrounding Cooper, a university press release mailed specifically to The New York Times described his summer at home as a return “to the ghetto area [where] he was raised.”
But Cooper was a standout quarterback, and coach Joe Paterno was an early proponent of minority collegiate athletes. While Stump felt eclipsed by the shadows of Burkhart and Cooper, it was Cooper, famous for doling out nicknames, who would bestow upon Stump his enduring moniker. After a day’s workout in late 1969, Cooper walked past Stump and noticed his moonlike face framed by wide ears, with that mountain of a nose perched above an outsized grin. “I’m gonna call you ‘Mugsie,’” he decreed. The nickname stuck, later shortened to “Mugs.”
Armed with his new name, Mugs sought to be reborn with a new position. Though he’d trained as a quarterback for five years, Stump was humble enough to realize he’d never beat out Burkhart or Cooper, and so set out to rebrand himself as a defensive player. He approached Paterno—an authoritarian for whom he never felt much regard. “You’re not gonna play over there [on defense],” Paterno admonished, according to Ganter, who heard the story from Mugs. “You’ve got a bum knee and we’ve got good people. You think about that for a couple days. If you decide to make the change, you’re gonna be fourth-string.”
Still, Stump persisted. Not soon after, Ganter was on the practice field with a few fellow varsity sophomores when he noticed Mugs jogging out in a lowly white jersey—the color for freshmen and those too far down the roster to be assigned to the varsity or JV squads. “I felt so bad for him,” recalls Ganter, “but he bounced onto the field… and worked his way up.” Perhaps as a reaction to Paterno’s doubting, Stump doubled down on his greatest strength, his work ethic, becoming a nearly constant presence in the weight room and at practice.
College was also the birthplace of the famed “Mugs-mobile.” This was not one vehicle, but rather the first in a long series of beat-up panel vans in which Stump crisscrossed North America. Each van was beloved, until a blown head gasket or trashed transmission necessitated the purchase of the next. Peggy Simok rented an apartment adjacent to Stump, near campus. The two had a short romantic relationship, and then remained close friends for decades. “He was always, when I knew him, just a laidback, free spirit,” she recalls. Simok helped create one of the original Mugs-mobiles: “My roommate and I sewed. We decorated one of his multicolored vans with cushions and curtains.” She and Mugs went to a fabric shop one day, where he eyed a bolt of orange, paisley polyester cloth.
“He just carried the bolt out of the store,” says Simok, “and didn’t pay for it! He was just so easygoing and mischievous.”
Stump, Simok, and several other friends caravanned in two vans to the Kentucky Derby that May. “His van never made it,” Simok recalls. Mugs and his friends, she says, “Were smoking dope, driving down the wrong side of the highway, and got stopped [by the police]. He wrapped himself in an American flag and jumped out of the van… He would do what you least expected him to do, or what the average person would never think of doing.”
Stump spins in the breeze, unable to reach the overhanging rock that guards the top of the Emperor Face like a gargoyle. He slides his worn yellow Jumar up a rope that Logan has fixed, testing to make sure it grips. He doesn’t dare look down. After a seemingly endless repetition of this process, he reaches Logan, shivering
at a two- piton belay. Logan’s hollow stare reveals how nerve-wracking the pitch has been— it’s taken her nearly the entire day. Quietly, Mugs organizes the gear: a few pitons and dulled ice screws. To his delight, the steep rock quickly gives way to moderate snow. Logan, totally spent, leaves their final anchor in the rock. ( Forty years on, Logan was asked why, with a 7,000-vertical- foot onsight descent ahead, they abandoned these two precious pitons. “Because I was so tired,” she said, before adding “and maybe there was a little bit of, ‘ Fuck you, we were here … We just did this amazing thing.’”) A few hours later, after tunneling through a cornice to gain a ridge, the two exhausted climbers celebrate by climbing into sleeping bags that have frozen stiff.
BY HIS SENIOR year of college, Stump’s hair had grown to shoulder-length. Despite ongoing knee issues and a penchant for partying, he’d done the one thing everyone had thought impossible: “He was just determined, and he surprised everybody,” remembers Ganter. “He proved the coaches wrong and ended up as a starting safety … When a running back breaks through the line, that’s your last resort.” On the field, Ganter says, Mugs “was reckless, and he was tough.”
When Stump returned home during school breaks, his father would demand that he get a haircut. Stump declined, happy to be berated as he lounged around the house. Other chances to escape the campus were spent skiing in Vermont. Though he wasn’t introduced to downhill skiing until his later teenage years, Stump was a quick study.
As Stump’s final season with Penn State drew to a close, he had succeeded in producing the fairytale storyline that had so painfully eluded him in high school. But now, there would be no recruiters: Stump had a smaller build than most NFL safeties, and was “half a step slow” for the pro game, according to a teammate. So, as a handful of his closest friends packed for their NFL training camps, Stump spent the spring skiing and hiking in Aspen, Colorado.
By summer 1971, Stump had signed with the Norfolk Neptunes, a semi-pro team in Norfolk, Virginia. This tightknit group of players was united in their desire to make an NFL team, but also by the understanding that, in any given week, they could lose their jobs, which many did to make room for guys just cut from the big league and in search of a paycheck. With this sense of impermanence came a culture of living in the moment. The house on Virginia Beach that Stump shared with several other players hosted raucous parties, and their
couch was frequently occupied by the team’s most recent addition.
Housemate Greg Berger recalls the lengths Stump would go to whenever he needed gas money. Relaxing with other players in front of the house one day, apropos of nothing, Stump interrupted: “How much would you give me if I run down Atlantic Avenue naked? Will ya’ each give me five bucks?” “Sure, Terry, we’ll give you five bucks.” Before the agreement was even reached, Stump stripped and ran down the road in 4 o’clock traffic. His teammates never paid.
Most of the Neptunes worked other jobs, reporting to practice every evening. Games were grueling, with players trying to make an impression on any NFL scouts in the audience. The third Saturday of August 1971 was hot and sticky in Norfolk. In the fourth quarter, the Neptunes were dominating the Malden Suburban Colts, 84 to 0. Stump, the second-string defensive back, was put in to relieve Berger. A light-footed Colts running back managed to dart between the scrum of linebackers with a sharp pivot. As Stump bore down on him, the running back angled off toward the sideline. Expecting Stump to make a wild, diving tackle, the running back braced for impact. But the crushing hit never came—the runner gained two extra yards before bumping up against Stump on the boundary line.
As Stump jogged back over to the huddle, a teammate grabbed him violently by the facemask. With the bars of their helmets locked together, flecks of spittle splattered on Stump’s face.
“You gotta want it!” Stump’s teammate shouted. “You coulda hit him. You didn’t hit him.” Stump was no longer a spry teenager, and the thought of risking his already-damaged body weighed heavily.
Once the season ended, Mugs returned to Colorado, skiing and dwelling in a mountainside cave above the town of Basalt, though he was still determined to make it in the NFL. Some of his reluctance to give up on his goal may have stemmed from familial pressure. “From [our] dad’s perspective, it was like, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” Thad Stump says. “He couldn’t understand” Terry’s bohemian lifestyle.
Whether he was invited or not remains unclear, but after a few months as a ski bum, Stump decided to attend tryouts for the Dallas
Cowboys. But then, as he drove toward the barren plains of West Texas and the mountains receded in his rearview mirror, he finally considered letting go of his dream. That winter in Aspen, he had tasted a degree of freedom never yet experienced. Did he really want to return to the structured, high-intensity life of football, not to mention face bigger, harder-hitting players? Leaving the diner on the Texas border, he pointed his rickety van back west. With a turn of the steering wheel, Mugs Stump headed instead into the annals of alpine climbing lore.
The slight respite provided by icy sleeping bags lasts only until the first rays of sunlight hit Logan and Stump. They are out of food and fuel— and thus water. The duo briefly discusses whether to continue to Robson’s summit, at nearly 13,000 feet. Doing so will commit them to descending the complex, corniced ridge above the Kain Face, as well as deposit them on the opposite side of the mountain, far from their basecamp. Already exhausted, they instead decide to drop onto the then- unclimbed south face.
“I was way more beat up than Mugs,” recounted Logan recently. “He was a strong guy, and he didn’t have to lead that stupid [ crux] pitch.” Near the bottom of the face, the climbers circle around to the northwestern aspect of Robson, searching for a way through a large cliff band. Their rack, already anemic to begin with, was thinned further during the ascent. Neither climber wants to rappel a large, unexplored cliff with only their remaining eight pitons. Fortuitously, the pair soon finds a narrow chimney they are able to shinny down, palms braced against its walls. The slot splits the entire cliff band and lands them just a stone’s throw from basecamp.
BY 1973, Stump was itinerant. “I’ve been living in my truck all summer and camping out,” he wrote his mother. “It saves the rent money but is a little inconvenient and heck-tick [sic].” Stump eventually landed in Utah, where he worked as a janitor at the Mid- Gad restaurant, partway up the ski slopes of Snowbird. This job, at what friend Randy Trover called “the haven for outlaws,” came with a major perk: The manager allowed him to sleep in the building each night. Before long, Stump was taking part in freestyle skiing competitions. But it was backcountry skiing that Mugs found most magnetic. He would venture out into the quiet corners of the Wasatch, making early descents of untracked lines. “No lift lines, no people, no cut trails, just untracked snow everywhere you turn,” he wrote.
Skiing and hiking only whetted Stump’s appetite for the mountains. By the mid-1970s, he began paragliding, soaring on updrafts in Utah and Colorado. In spring 1975, Stump would experience his first roped climbs. With fellow neophyte Bill MacIlmoyl, Stump climbed Open
Book on Lone Peak, a 600-foot 5.8 in the Wasatch Range. The men wore leather boots and are said to have climbed with a clothesline. “Rock climbing is the ultimate spiritual communication with our center—God!” he wrote his mother.
Stump would go on to excel in almost every realm of climbing and mountaineering. With each new discipline, he rapidly became proficient. During an early ascent of Bridalveil Falls, a 350-foot WI5 outside Telluride, Colorado, Stump was dispatched by partners Jon Turk and Logan to lead the crux, third pitch. However, Stump had only a handful of days of water-ice experience, and the pitch had formed into an especially friable, overhanging pillar. Using the rudimentary tools and crampons of the day, Mugs gardened away bad ice while clinging to the pillar with unflagging endurance, at one point dislodging a large chunk that cracked his helmet and bloodied his face. “He didn’t even slow down,” recalls Turk.
Later that winter, Stump and Turk attempted a winter ascent of the Diamond on Longs Peak via D7. Battling difficult aid in frigid conditions, the climbers progressed slowly up the route’s thin cracks. Without bivy hammocks, the pair decided to retreat. After many rappels, they settled in for the long, dark slog back to the road. Suddenly, Stump’s headlamp swung around, cutting through the inky night. He grabbed Turk by the jacket and pulled him toward him, until the two were eyeball to eyeball.
With a piercing intensity in his eyes, Stump declared, “We acted like geeks up there, Jon. We acted like geeks, but we’re not geeks. Let’s go to the Valley and get good.” With that, he released Turk and turned away, walking down a darkened path, sure in the knowledge of where he was going. NICK AIELLO-POPEO IS A CLIMBER AND GUIDE BASED IN CONWAY, NEW HAMPSHIRE. HIS HOMETOWN’S EXCEPTIONAL ICE AND ROCK ARE HIS TRAINING GROUND FOR EXPEDITIONS TO PLACES LIKE THE ALASKA RANGE AND THE HIMALAYA.
Mugs Stump i n full Penn State regalia during his time on the Nittany Lions.
1. Stump en route to Gasherbrum I V ( 26,001 feet), Pakistan, i n 1983. He and Michael Kennedy would reach 22,500 feet on the West Face ( the “Shining Wall”) i n a 9- day alpine- style push, eventually retreating due to avalanche danger. On the route, they topped the notorious Black Towers, with Stump l eading a “spectacular and difficult double pendulum” pitch ( AAJ 1984).
2. Stump at his and Kennedy’s bivy site below the Black Towers, Gasherbrum I V.
The i mposing Emperor Face of Mount Robson, Canada.
Stump on the West Face of Gasherbrum I V. After five feet of snow fell, pinning him and Michael Kennedy at their bivy site below the Black Towers, and with dwindling food stores, the climbers retreated. I n July 1985, Wojciech Kurtyka and Robert Schauer made the first ascent of the wall.