Michael Fain :
Michael grew up in Chicago, attended public schools there,
and did so well at academics that, in 1952, he was admitted to the University
of Chicago at the age of 15. During his freshman year he discovered
both climbing and fencing, starting the UC Mountaineering Club and
joining the fencing team. At that time in the midwest, for most, "climbing"
meant mountaineering and rock climbing was seen simply as practice for
alpine adventures - an attitudinal environment similar to the one found
in Great Britain prior to the 1890s. Michael: "Climbing
in the 1950s, particularly in the midwest, was not very popular, and we
felt more as pioneers in the sport."
Michael Fain at Devils Lake, 1950s
Michael found that the two sports - superficially distinct
- had, in fact, underlying similarities: "What
was serendipitous was that both climbing and fencing had many of the same
elements that excited me: simultaneous physical (balance, conditioning,
coordination) and mental challenges (strategy, self reliance, thinking
ahead) where I was rapidly expanding the boundaries of what I had thought
I was capable of doing."
Michael became quite proficient in fencing, in all three weapon
categories, participated in numerous competitions in college and afterwards,
in both the US and Canada, and won a drawer full of medals. He and friends
did their practice climbing at Devils Lake and on various walls and bridges
in Chicago, learning technique and skills necessary for leading in the
mountains. In the mid and late 1950s climbers practicing at the Lake
frequently concentrated on lead climbs no harder than 5.7 or 5.8, feeling
that was a reasonable upper limit for larger scale mountaineering. A few
top ropes may have been a little harder. The spirit of bouldering was only
just beginning to be kindled by eccentrics like the onion farmer, Dave Slinger. By and large, the venerable
Chicago Mountaineering Club, directed by such notables as the Stettner brothers and Bill Primak - who wore
the strangest shoes I've ever seen on a climber - considered its organized
weekend outings training for the mountains.
I met Michael in the Fall of 1958, when I enrolled at the
University to study meteorology under the auspices of the USAF. He was
Engineering Supervisor of the Hydrodynamics Laboratory, and his boss was
Dr. Fultz, one of my instructors. We became friends quickly, and I joined
Michael and the mountaineering group for training sessions on the local
We made several weekend trips to Devils Lake during the Fall
and the following Spring. I had made a brief visit to the Lake in 1955
and was delighted to return to the beautiful quartzite cliffs and pillars.
Those trips are among my fondest memories, thanks in large part to Michael,
his brother Dave, John Ohrenschall, Ernie Kuntzle, Bob Kaylor, Peter Gardiner,
and a few other local enthusiasts. I can remember us driving all over Chicago,
picking up companions on a friday night, before making our way north to
Baraboo. On more than one occasion I slept in the back of Michael's station
wagon, as he slept in a small mountain tent. I can also remember drinking
beer and eating locally grown green apples - don't do this simultaneously
. . .
Those of you who climb there now may think "Michael's Project" was
my friend's undertaking, but in fact it was an aspiration of Peter Gardiner's
in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Michael had a playful side as well. One of my memories is of
Michael encouraging me to try Brinton's Crack as (what we would
now call) an onsight lead. It would be the second such ascent. In
cooler and drier weather at the Lake I had already on-sight led or free-soloed
(these expressions did not then exist) several climbs of 5.9 and greater
difficulty, so this should be trivial. Why was Michael grinning? After I
banged in a solitary piton for protection fairly high up, wearing frictionless
Zillertal climbing boots, and feeling some unexpected slippage on what seemed
to be large handholds, I began to understand. Damn, I couldn't get to the
small block of chalk I carried in a shirt pocket (years before the advent
of chalk bags) either. Indeed, Brinton's provided more of a
challenge than I anticipated - it was a hot, humid day in late May of 1959,
making the slick quartzite even more tenuous, and the whole time I was on
the climb I could hear a choir from a local church singing what I thought
were funereal hymns! By the time I topped out my face was as red from embarrassment
as from the sun. The things we remember years later . . .
Back at UC, there were afternoons when Michael would be practicing
his fencing while, on a different floor, I would be working out with
the gym team and assisting coach Bob Kreidler. I can also remember us
rappelling from the football stands, and trying to climb some of the many
flying buttresses on campus, as well as practicing climbing moves inside
the gymnasium (that was so unusual there are one or two people in the
area who still remember me!) But I never joined Michael when he would
venture out in midwinter onto the frozen slabs on the Lake Michigan shore
to practice chopping steps in the ice!
Michael was a wonderful friend in those days, and we dined
together as well as climbed together. When I departed Chicago during
July of 1959, it was with a touch of sadness at leaving such companions.
But the memories have helped compensate for the diverging paths we took,
as we each changed careers and adjusted to a world so very, very different
from the 1950s .
My wife Dorothy and I visited Michael and his wife Judith Barnard
at their beautiful home in Aspen in 2001 - a long overdue reunion for
Michael and I. Since that time we've kept in touch, and Dorothy and I drove
up to Aspen this summer to see Michael's photography show, for he has become
a superb black & white photographic artist. Several of his prints are
the best I've ever seen. He's published photos in Scientific American
and in Chicago newspapers and magazines. During the intervening years
- beginning in 1980 - Michael and wife Judith became best selling authors
of contemporary fiction, publishing under the pseudonym, Judith Michael. An eleventh novel will
appear in February of 2005.
Michael and I are about the same age, and, with our respective
wives, each have three grown children. But Michael has me punched out
in the next generation: He and Judith have 5 grandchildren, while Dorothy
and I have but 2 !
I encourage you to visit Michael's website and see for yourself
examples of his artistry : www.michael-fain.com