Bringing people together with his zany personality and love of climbing
By Chris Van Leuven
RALEY’S GROCERY STORE, SOUTH LAKE TAHOE. It’s Thursday, midday, and Seth Zaharias is charging through aisles of foods and goods. In one hand is his phone, which he dodges to and from his ear as he shares stories with me about his life. With his free hand, he pulls items from the shelves for an event he’s organizing for the coming weekend at nearby Lover’s Leap, a several-hundred-foot-tall climbing area in Lake Tahoe, frequented by visitors from all over the world. He only has two days left and everything has to be just right — one of his clients has asked him to arrange an eclectic, all-frills vertical outing, where the client will be proposing to his girlfriend. Over the phone, his excitement is so intense — nervous, even — that it could be Zaharias who is getting hitched.
Though this wedding engagement is a first, wild outings aren’t new for Zaharias. At 42, he is co-owner and operator of Cliffhanger Guides based in Joshua Tree, California; his wife and business partner, Sabra Purdy, owns the other half. Their company’s mission statement is: “The more you give the more you get,” and in an adventure occupation where reputation means everything, it’s that signature style and go-for-it energy that makes his business work. That’s why his clients find him through word-of-mouth and positive referrals on the Internet. “We’re not stodgy, formal,” he says. “It’s about having a damn good time.”
From October 1 through April 30, in the town of Joshua Tree at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, he operates the eco-conscious Cliffhanger service out of a solar-powered, up-cycled shipping container with a faux old-west façade. The town is a stop on the tourist circuit that employs baristas, restaurant workers, and climbing guides.
To keep from interfering with other climbers’ experiences, Zaharias’ guides spread out over the various golden granite rocks (there are some 8,000 routes in the park), making sure to take clients to areas with as few people as possible. During peak season, they run 100 trips a month in the northwest corner of the 792,510-acre park.
Zaharias has called Joshua Tree (colloquially known as “J Tree” or simply “Josh”) home for the past 19 years and, to date, he’s climbed a thousand routes in the park.
But every summer when temps in the arid Mojave Desert soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, he and his wife head north to seek cooler environs. During this time, he guides in Devil’s Tower, Wyoming and in California’s Sierra Nevada, home to Lover’s Leap, where he takes clients up single-to-multi-pitch routes for memorable outings.
While Zaharias is guiding, Purdy works as a fish restoration ecologist, often in streams in field waders “counting fish and saving rivers for future generations,” he says. They base out of Purdy’s grandfather’s 1929 cabin west of the town of Bridgeport. The cabin is so remote that it requires either a boat or a footpath to access.
Back at Raley’s in June, Zaharias tells me he’s scheduled another climbing guide (in addition to himself), three porters, a cinematographer, and a rock-climbing violinist for the wedding proposal. It took him weeks of searching climbing forums on the Internet to find the classically trained violinist to serenade the client’s would-be bride from hundreds of feet up a vertical rock. “I just hope she says yes,” he says.
Born in Walnut Creek, California, Zaharias was raised by “divorced hippie parents,” and his half-brother Byron came ten years after he was born. His father owned a restaurant and bar in Sonora called Whilma’s Café and the Flying Pig Saloon, and his mother worked as a hospice and oncology nurse. His parents divorced when he was three; soon after he and his mother moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. But young Zaharias was a defiant child, and after seven years in Indiana his mother sent him packing to live with his father in California. “I was a punk rocker with a big purple Mohawk; a rebellious kid with baggage,” Zaharias says. During his freshman year in high school, in Sonora, he got expelled for fighting (he had a knife).
From there he was sent to a boys’ ranch in Northern California, from which he was kicked out a short time later. Then came an at-risk youth outdoor school in Trout Creek, Montana, which was a better fit. It was there that he earned his high school diploma. Trout Creek is where he was introduced to mountain biking, snowboarding, rafting, rock climbing, and sailing. “It saved my life, quite frankly. I got introduced to climbing in 1990 and it was a total game changer.” The following year the school took him on as an apprentice and he got his start in guiding.
After high school, in 1994, he moved to the ski town of Whitefish, Montana, where he continued his work as an instructor in at-risk youth programs. There he lived out of his vehicle “ski bumming all winter and climbing bumming all spring and fall.” His first home on wheels was a 13-foot Toyota Chinook, out of which he also sold weed. And he took off on road trips to the west coast’s most famous climbing areas: Yosemite National Park, what many consider America’s climbing mecca, and Joshua Tree, an area frequented by the influential, hard-climbing Southern California Stonemasters in the 1970s. Less than three hours’ drive from Los Angeles, Josh attracts eccentrics, artists, and international tourists in addition to climbers,.
Based out of his micro RV, Zaharias ascended Yosemite’s big walls, free climbed long routes and bouldered hard. His friends were elite climbers who slept in the boulders by night and climbed all day, every day. But soon Yosemite Valley became too busy for him, so Zaharias began frequenting nearby Tuolumne Meadows, a range of granite domes and trickling rivers in a heavenly setting, a place where visitors and locals gather nightly to watch wild pink and purple sunsets. Winters were spent in Joshua Tree.
“I dirtbagged hard from the early 1990s to early 2000s, like a decade,” he says. (A dirtbag is an endearing term for climbers on a tight budget who bed down in their sleeping bags in the dirt). Over the years he’s lived in five different Toyotas.
Today, he’s helping those new to climbing get the most out of the activity that he fell in love with all those years ago, back when he was a teen. His work also provides the opportunity for new friendships. Bringing people together is not only how he makes a living, but also how he lives his life.
In 2002 Zaharias spent $9,000 to buy property near Joshua Tree, then a shack in the desert. In 2006 he bought the area’s local climbing shoe repair shop Positive Resoles, and in 2011, he opened Cliffhanger Guides where he not only teaches rock climbing, but also creates custom father-daughter outings, and one-on-one custom adventures. In order to make his trips personal and memorable, he keeps the guide-to-client ratio low, with no more than four clients per guide. He only employs certified guides, ones who provide the same level of customer service he would and who are deeply familiar with the park. “We’re befriending all our guests,” he says.
“I’m not a dirtbag anymore,” he says. “During season, I have to come up with 10,000 to 15,000 dollars every two weeks for payroll.”
Now, instead of living on the road, he and his wife reside at the “Sethspool,” a 10-acre desert spread. His mother coined the name the day he moved in and painted the words on a board with white paint. Today that board is nailed to the front of the residence. He and Purdy share a one-bedroom 600-square foot house surrounded by their collection of vintage trailers from 1947 to 1961, including one Airstream, two Spartans, and a Jet Stream. The trailers cost him a total of $30,000 and he and Purdy use them to house their guides. Decorations on their land include Purdy’s 50 different types of cacti and Zaharias’ metal sculptures. His lot is in an 85-acre community, far out in the desert and surrounded by only a handful of neighbors. He also lets some dirtbags park and live out of their cars at his place. And he throws epic yearly parties.
The parties started fifteen years ago, soon after he purchased Positive Resoles. The early gatherings had highlining (slacklining but higher off the ground), and kegs, but over the years the parties have grown into something of a festival, like Burning Man but with a theater flair. “Burning Man is for tourists; this is more personal,” Zaharias says. The theatrical touch comes from Purdy, who learned about performance from her theater-running parents (they were also college professors).
“Every party is different. Last year 400 people showed up in my yard and we had to shut it down,” Zaharias says. “The year before we did [an] alien invasion complete with a crashed UFO in my yard and a flaming alien charging the crowd.” One year Purdy and Zaharias convinced the town — they were pretending — that they planned to shoot themselves out of a canon. Artists, climbers and desert dwellers came out of the woodwork to attend, including Carl Rice, Harrison Ford’s stunt double. Zaharias hires Rice every year to perform stunt work and setup pyrotechnics for his parties.
In addition to planning the next party for this coming autumn, Zaharias is also arranging the next “Lynn Hill Experience.” Now in its third year, Zaharias works with his idol and climbing celebrity Hill, who dirtbagged in Yosemite and Joshua in the ‘70s. Hill was the first woman to climb 5.14 (1990), and the first individual to free El Capitan (via the Nose, 5.14, in 1993). For decades she traveled the world, from Kyrgyzstan to Morocco to Cuba establishing hard climbs. This autumn will be the third Hill and Cliffhanger event, where clients sign up for a four-day immersive in an intimate group of ten. Hill will provide tips, pointers, and tricks she’s learned over forty years on the rock.
Three days after talking with Zaharias at Raley’s, a video appears on my Facebook page of the classical violin serenade he told me about. In the video the sun is shining and the couple are holding each other close in a setting of dark granite and green forest. I call Zaharias to find out how it went. “She said yes,” he tells me.
To book a trip with Zaharias and Purdy, visit CliffhangerGuides.com or call (760) 401-5033.