Living the Dream

Taghazout, Morocco — It’s a postcard Malibu Beach view from the second floor balcony of a reclusive African surf camp. There’s a warm breeze. A few rocks and a broken formation of surfers crown the sea. The offbeat tinkle of a distant camel bell mixed with cries from trinket vendors is the lazy rhythm on this beach. The scene is so exotic you want to keep it a secret — then again, it’s such a beautiful place, you have to tell someone.

Horizon chaser Craig Martinson has been dreaming up adventure trips since he was a kid. He discovered this faraway Moroccan beach location while surfing online in his suburban Minneapolis home. As trip planner and co-founder of the Boys of Summer & Winter Adventure Club, Martinson has organized off-the-beaten-track, budget vacations for Twin Cities extreme sports enthusiasts and thrill seekers for over ten years. Aptly described by his wife Cindy as "a value-oriented traveler," Martinson and his buddies have skied the black diamonds and off-trail powder from Val d’ Isere, France to the Chilean Andes, and surfed waves off the Brazilian and African coasts on shoestring budgets. After visiting forty-four countries as a competitive athlete and roaming photographer, Martinson has thousands of photographs to show and captivating stories to tell.

The dream of getaway adventures in pristine surroundings began for Martinson after seeing a picture of Senator Bobby Kennedy climbing an Alaskan mountain in LIFE magazine when he was seven. He was a kid from Eau Clare, Wisconsin who routinely coaxed frightened third graders into exploring the woodsy trails around Half Moon Lake and thought mountain climbing would be fun.

After outgrowing the lakeside trails he moved to Crystal, Minnesota and played conventional team sports throughout high school. In his spare time he planned inexpensive wilderness canoe trips by requesting maps and brochures from government agencies, and read books about mountain climbing and indigenous mountain people. Decidedly nonviolent at an early age, Martinson discovered that bullies would sometimes take an interest in the outdoor sports he organized for friends. Thinking of himself as more of an organizer than a leader, the soft-spoken lad grew up believing that bullies simply "lacked maturity and common sense."

His boyhood dream of climbing mountains turned into the grit and substance of heart-thumping exhilaration after hooking-up with the Northstar Mountaineers of Minnesota at age 17, while studying photography at Hennepin Technical College in 1972. The following summer he wandered out west, living meagerly on granola and orange juice, like a hippie Boy Scout, out of a sleeping bag and junker car. He took the hazardous Gooseberry Route up Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and tagged the tops of the Bugaboo, Snowpatch, and Pigeon Spires in the British Columbia Bugaboo Range his first year.

"Craig was like a member of our family," said fellow climber and Twin Cities peace activist Roger Cuthbertson. "We used to pick him up and drive him to climbs when he was just a teenager. He soon surpassed me with his technical climbing skills, but I remember him as a person who would always help someone else."

By the fall of ’73 Martinson had set his sights on climbing abroad after being lured to the continent by Europeans camped out in California’s Yosemite Park. Soon he was tackling increasingly difficult mountains throughout Europe and Canada alongside top North American climbers such as Rick Sylvester, Henry Barber, Chris Jones, and George Lowe. On the European side, he roped-up with climbing luminaries Leo Dickinson and Eric Jones, from Britain, as well as Italian climbers Giorgio Bertone and Carlo Mauri, and the Czech Tomas Gross. Martinson thought, "Why would anyone not want to climb — it’s so much fun."

His feelings of "invincibility without cockiness" caught the attention of mountaineering living legend Fred Becky in a chance meeting in Yosemite Park during 1975. They soon became friends, spending nearly two years sniffing out new climbing trails from Arizona to Alaska.

"Craig Martinson was one of my favorite climbing partners: a natural athlete who always had a cheery disposition and a determination to be successful on a challenging route. One of our challenges was the first ascent of the West Buttress of the Fremont Peak, and the Sheer Face of the First Tower of Mt. St. Helen in the Wind River Mountains. While testing a series of difficult moves on Fremont, I took a short fall and scraped some skin. Craig took over with zeal and led right through — making it look very reasonable.

"Craig, Eric Bjornstad, and I once drove an old Cadillac along the Alaskan Highways to pursue the climb of the Tusk (a sharp spire in the Alaska Range). Despite fourteen flat tires, we reached Alaska and experienced grand weather in an almost unknown glacier region without any communication with civilization until a ski plane returned two weeks later. Then, we had to drive the car home, and Craig did his share of tire changes."

—Fred Becky, mountaineer; Seattle; Oct 18, 2007

News of the Becky/Martinson alliance spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before Martinson accepted a spot on the Soviet-American Climbing Team during the Cold War, under the Ford administration. Surmounting language barriers, the climbers moved cautiously around corners communicating with hand signals while trusting their lives to one another. "It was nerve-wracking if you couldn’t see the person ahead of you and didn’t understand his language — we had to be very careful." recalled Martinson. Climbers overcame political differences by sometimes using Communist propaganda sheets distributed at Russian airports for toilet paper.

After three climbs in the Pamir Mountains, Caucasus, and Tian Shan ranges of Asia, Martinson was considered one of the premier mountain climbers of North America. He became the new poster boy for Fila athletic clothing, and a smiling picture of him glossed department store windows across Europe.

Returning to America, Martinson took an interest in Native American culture, reading up on the Apache, Hopi, and Navahoe Indians before climbing the Moses and Titan Desert Spires with Italian climbers Mauri and Bertone, near Moab, Utah. He was a team member on the second ascents of the Moses and Sundevil chimney routes among the lofty, wind-carved Titan Spires pinnacled in the Fisher Towers region. A film made about Martinson and these climbers on high, vertical spikes in the American Southwest won an award at the 1977 Trento Film Festival in Italy.

His most memorable climb was the Corona Peak Route in the Central Asian Tien-Shen Range with American George Lowe and two Russian climbers. The most challenging route was the North Face of the Dru in the French Alps with Czech Tomas Gross. "The Dru was imposing, scary, dark, and foreboding; but it was exhilarating to reach the top," beamed Martinson.

It wasn’t all triumphant shouts and breathtaking views from the top, though. Martinson somberly recalled the disappointments of having his photograph
s rejected by National Geographic after working as a climbing photographer in the Canadian Baffin Islands, and the shaky exhaustion he felt after retreating from unsuccessful climbs. "Sometimes I couldn’t wait to get off a mountain. I didn’t care how far back it was to the car; it felt so good to walk on flat ground, and I’d tell myself, ‘I’ll never do that again.’"

But, he would do it again, and he did it until he stopped climbing professionally. After losing twelve friends in climbing-related accidents, Martinson recalculated the odds. He already had five major climbing expeditions under his belt, along with numerous side trips throughout North America. He’d climbed in Greece, across the Dolomite Region of Italy, near Chamonix in the French Alps, and around the Lake District and Devon areas of England. After earning the moniker El Tigre, Martinson decided to pack it in when he figured he had "better than a fifty-fifty chance of dying" if he continued the pace.

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