Thundercling Confidential: A Year in the Studio, Which is to Say, My Couch

I’d be stealing a smoke on the loading dock and John Sherman would walk up, holding an open beer, ignoring me with luminous disdain. One time Daniel Woods crunched up on a skateboard. We rang Alex Honnold while he lounged beneath a setting sun on the seventh pitch of “Zodiac” on El Cap. Royal Robbins promoted his memoir from a vineyard and John Long talked of dabbling in steroids a lifetime ago. Nina Williams and Thomasina Pidgeon shared a couch before Nina was a household name and while Thomasina was one of the strongest female boulderers on the planet. Never have I been so intimidated as by the beauty of Anna Stohr and Killian Fischhuber sitting 18 inches away from me.

For five years, from 2009-2014, I co-hosted ClimbTalk, a rock climbing radio talk show, still headed by the Boulder first ascensionist and ubermensch Mike Brooks. I do not recall the means by which Mike wrangled these legends onto the spongy, ratty studio couch. I still can’t believe I was allowed to speak to them, let alone look them in the eyes. I’m from Iowa. I’m a climber of limited gifts. I am not supposed to ask Timmy O’Neill why he’s talking like a pirate. I never felt remotely qualified asking Huntley Ingalls what made Layton Kor such an irascible climbing partner. But there I was.

And then I wasn’t. I met a lovely lady, I loathed my job, and I wanted to be a full-time writer, a heady stew of anguish and ambition. So, I quit ClimbTalk, bought a trailer that looked like an operational meth lab, and hit the road for most of four years with my girlfriend, writing and climbing and being very, very poor and very, very happy. ClimbTalk faded from mind outside of a grotesque potentiality of name dropping to anyone who remotely entered my orbit. [See above. And, eventually, below…]

Arriving back in Denver in 2018, fit and penniless, I found myself ruminating on those Friday nights in the studio with Mike, chatting with icons who turned out to be just ordinary folks with incredibly strong fingers and brawny work ethics. I missed hearing stories I could never tell, feats I could never accomplish, times passed never to be reclaimed. I missed sitting in front of a microphone, using it to catch my wheezing guffaws as some burlmeister pissed on the guy who’d mansplained beta on a route she could onsight with her eyes surgically removed.

After some prodding by Lynn (the lovely lady), I rang up another Iowa/Colorado transplant I’d shared a couple beers with, a couple boulder problems. He is a very strange fellow with a sense of humor I can both appreciate and marvel at for its profound bizarreness. I thought he might make a good co-host for this cutting-edge new thing called a “podcast,” what with the oddity and climbing passion and refusal to apologize for any of it. His name is Fidi. He said “yes” before I finished asking, which is the most Fidi thing imaginable.

And so the Thundercling Podcast was born, on the same day as roughly 60,000 other pods launched…half of which focused on rock climbing.

***

2019 marked our first full year of recording and it unraveled a kinked and coiled viper, nipping at us as we fumbled through our infancy. We lost connection during Skype interviews and asked ludicrous questions to strangers, got trolled by Cedar Wright and also trolled Cedar Wright’s dog. We built a tiny but loyal listener base and likely jettisoned others because of too many “fucks,” a couple Skype interviews, and strikingly peculiar outros. We created and produced a music video featuring many uncomfortable depictions of a naked Honnold. Despite my proclivity to learn nothing at all from seminal events, we took some lessons away from 2019. It wasn’t always clear sailing.

Turns out, podcasting is a veritable fuck-load of work, beginning with the humbling process of booking guests. No, that’s not quite right. Beginning with what kind of guests to book. And when. And why. And, most critically, how. Do you just cold call Largo because you once interviewed him on a talk show and a few years later drove him to the airport nervously mumbling about minor league baseball the entire time?

Yes, you do.

I had John’s phone number after a “Valley Uprising” screening we worked together, which led me to drive him to the airport the following morning. Best friends, right? A few years later…I dropped him a random text, inquiring if he’d be game for a conversation. He immediately and graciously accepted, instructing me to call anytime. A few days later, strolling to the gym, I phoned to set up a date and time. He picked up and croaked a number of words, few of which I understood.

“I just can’t do it right now,” he grated, his voice the sound of gurgling gravel.

“You can’t do…”

“I can’t do the interview right now. Got food poisoning.” Some sushi restaurant or Mexican, I can’t remember. The point is that he thought I was calling to conduct the interview on the spot, but I was just ringing him to set up a time. I stood in the middle of the street, headlights blinking around me. I couldn’t tell John Long that I was calling in a secretarial capacity.

I apologized and never heard from him again. Because I didn’t have the courage to reschedule, to correct his assumption. I am a noted coward.

We sat in front of mics as guests ghosted us. We fumbled questions with many of the bad asses we did land. We had USA Climbing commentators Brian Runnels and Chris Weidner on three days before they were sacked in favor of ESPN hosts. One climbing household name has agreed to and forgotten so many proposed interviews with us that David Lynch called asking for his screenplay back.

Although our guests inhabit the beating heart of Thundercling, building an infrastructure for the show provided even more drama. I mean, everyone has a podcast, right? It can’t be that hard. Well.

What I didn’t know about podcasting rivaled only what I thought I knew about podcasting. Turns out, neither Fidi nor I understood jack squat. How do you produce an intro and outro? Where do you find music? How much money is this Frankenstein going to suck into its ear bolts? Do sponsors just find you and give you cash and new wire gates and pithy copy? The audience simply arrives, out of some syrupy ether, downloading and rating and reviewing and adoring…right?

No, you feeble-minded twit. None of that happens according to any preconceived plan or strategy. Fortune rewards not the cocky and pompous, I knew, but it was jarring to find that fortune also ignores the happily ignorant. Fidi and I, if nothing else, are generally happy and distressingly ignorant. Luckily, as Euripides so aptly wrote, “Ignorance of one’s misfortunes is clear gain.”

We set to righting the ship. We lined up guests as quickly as possible, rarely worrying over audience reception and instead investing in folks we knew to be endowed with bracing history, quick wit, and admirable achievement. We punted strategy and recorded intros and outros entirely as ourselves…and for that I truly apologize.

The second baseman on a little league team I coached in college grew into a Midwestern troubadour and I reached out, asking if we may borrow a snippet of his music for our show. In one of my favorite moments in Thundercling history, Ryne Doughty, a climber and former little league infielder and successful recording artist lent us his entire catalogue (we also booked him for four shows during the Denver run of the Reel Rock Film Tour).

We performed a new “musical number” for each episode, in the beginning no lyrics or music and just the tape rolling and improvisation; an inside joke for Fidi and I to howl at. We eventually started composing ridiculous and sometimes offensive tunes to squire each episode’s conclusion, eventually resulting in the aforementioned video and song of negligible repute. I don’t know why we did this, why we still do it. Only because it’s fun for us, I guess. And we have listeners and friends who seem to (or pretend to) enjoy it.

There were plenty of speed bumps along the way, jangling our psychological and financial suspension. The travel, the edits, the anxiety; the terror of having to write a new song every two weeks…about rock climbing. The interview prep and reading, the tech side of working with a podcast server coupled with a zombie-like website. The sour comments on Mountain Project. Pull the curtain back on any podcast and you’ll see the hosts draped in loincloths, shrieking in terror as they attempt to jab a slathering monster with a USB stick.

The one thing we never worried about were the guests. Neither Fidi nor I booked a single person we had second thoughts about. We were sure, confident, and enthusiastic for every climber we’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a couple hours with. And what a banner year, for the two of us, at least.

Peter Mortimer, proprietor of Sender Films and Reel Rock, took us on a tour of his studio and offered us beer (two dozen sponsor-supplied cases stacked in the kitchen). We sat in Minko Nikolov’s house, he swaddled in gauze and bracing, as he unwound the story of a near-lethal lightning strike he’d bled from only weeks before.  Bruce Zou blew us and our audience to smithereens, an episode that put us on the map. Paul Robinson, Tony Yaniro; Maureen Beck talking about poop-related ephemera for 20 minutes. Rob Pizem getting grumpy, Roy bouldering and attendant management issues gaining a spotlight, Jason Kehl sipping wine on a Skype screen and being just the nicest guy you can literally imagine. Boone fucking Speed.

***

We’re still babies. We swim in the pool with the Enormocast, Power Company Climbing, Bad Beta, Firn Line, Training Beta, Jam Crack, and a handful of exceptional others. Thundercling, although confident in both intention and sincerity, has a lot of growing to do. A lot of goals to meet.

We hope to bring you an engaging and diverting 2020. The list of potential guests this year has my heart palpitating. The writing of a song every two weeks has me waking from defibrillator dreams…

Listen, Fidi literally climbs out of town/state/country/continent at all possible moments. I work a lot and also like to squeeze in a bit of punting at the crag. However busy or otherwise occupied, we have lit the fuse on some plans. Something about videos, music or comic or otherwise. Bonus pods for select listeners. A more literary presence on the website. A Patreon page to help us out if you guys find commensurate value. Nude photos of Chris Sharma that will be released upon pre-litigation bribery and threats.

Finally, thank you to those who have taken the time to listen, to follow the nonsense, to reach out with a message. I can’t tell you how much that keeps the embers glowing. Podcasting often feels like flying a kite into a fireworks celebration, intentionally and with crazed eyes. Knowing we have a few folks holding the string with us keeps that flaming kite sweeping the sky.

We’re having fun. I hope you guys are, too.

Take care out there, take nothing for granted. But also, give your belayer a wedgie. Pull down your pants before you spot. We’re not curing Brainerd diarrhea out there. It’s no big deal.

3 Comments

Niki Z

I love your show and everything you guys do. Dave, your writing is awesome. I connect with it and really enjoy it. Thundercling is weirdly a staple in my life so THANKS GUYS

Reply
Ryan N

Well written. I have been enjoying the pod since the start and this makes me so stoked for how you plan to grow this year. The songs are great, guests better, and hosts phenomenal. Over the years listening, an episode has always brightened my spirits.

Reply
Matt S

Best climbing Podcast on the Interwebs, or up there for sure. I’ve also learned lots of new words from Dave, like “fuck”—who knew this was even a word? I’m going to teach it to my kids now. What fun! Thanks, Dave and Fidi!

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.