A tribute to Matt "Honky" Ciancio, an Eastside Legend

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Andy Puhvel

climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Jun 7, 2017 - 02:16pm PT
A true modern Sierran legend, Matthew George Ciancio died on May 24 in a parachuting accident in Lodi, Calif. He was 42 years old.

The Eastside of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains has always attracted a special breed of person—one seeking solitude, vastness, space, and extremism. This holds especially true for the climbers who have forsaken the realm of crowds and scenes, and who have chosen to follow their hearts to the mountains where they feel at home.

Having visited the Eastside throughout my teenage climbing years, I eventually moved here with my wife Lisa 12 years ago to start a family out in the desert near the Nevada border east of Bishop. We moved from the Santa Cruz Mountains where we lived for 15 years, where the only rock we could climb was the forested sandstone of Castle Rock. As climbers, we were jumping out of our skin when we finally had the abundant rock of the Eastern Sierra at our fingertips.

I soon began meeting some of the locals and within a year or so came across a group of guys who seemed particularly motivated to climb all the styles in this immense place. I got to know many of them and discovered that other than being hardmen, they were also misfits—guys with quirks, originality, craziness, and neurotic, fun-loving behavior, combined with a deep, deep devotion to the mountains. As I got to know this small tribe of dudes, I became familiar with the nicknames. There was “Coach,” “Jakey Twigs,” “Pops,” “Fast Eddy,” “Professor.” And then there was the guy that gave everyone their nickname; they called him “Honky.”

Honky lived alone in a small cabin at the foot of Carson Peak behind June Lake. His friends called it Honky Heaven. Located next to a verdant Sierran meadow at the end of a narrow, dead-end street, it was the kind of house that a single man in his twenties—only a true loner—would buy. But Matt didn’t spend much time in his home—about five to ten days a year he once told me—and he only worked three days a week as an X-ray tech at the hospital in Bishop. So where did Matt go? What was he doing? For as long as any of us can remember, he was out charging four days a week, harder than anyone we knew, for two decades straight. His level of energy output and dedication were unprecedented even among the hardest core of Eastside climbers.

Matt Ciancio—aka “Honky,” “Styles,” and, most affectionately, “Pooch”—grew up in suburban Connecticut. His mom and brother have countless stories of Matt getting into trouble as a kid. When he landed in the Eastern Sierra at age 20, he was, as he described himself, “the chubby kid.” Like many of the skiers and climbers who fall in love with the Eastside, Matt quickly knew this place was for him, and he wanted a slice of the pie. But, unlike others, he chose to buy the whole pie, and proceeded to stuff it in his face.
He rooted himself in the Eastside and began his long, steady climb toward legendary status. For years he worked his way up the grades by chipping away at route after route, mentoring with the likes of Scott Ayers and Urmas Franosch, making his way through the grades—5.10’s for years, 5.11’s for years—working hard to tick everything of the grade around him. Matt hit 5.12 and 5.13 after over a decade of dedication, and eventually he became such a solid rock climber he could pretty much climb 5.12+ of any style of climbing, well-protected or not. By the time Matt had reached his peak, you could rely on him to lead any pitch anytime, regardless of how hard it was, how cold it was, or how he felt that day.

Honky was the kind of guy who people seemed either to love or feel really suspicious about. He carried himself like a kid who was always trying to stay out of the principal’s office. He had the ability to be the most polite, friendliest person you ever met, but his backstage personality was the greatest sh#t-talker and slanderer that ever lived. He had nicknames for everybody, and two-thirds of them would probably hate what they were called. I remember talking to a friend’s wife one time about Matt, and I remember her saying, “Oh, he’s so sweet and polite,” and thinking, “We must not be talking about the same guy.” But Matt was never mean, he always said the right thing to people’s faces, and he always felt bad if he hurt someone’s feelings. But normal was just plain dull to Matt, so he turned everything into his own version of life’s comedy. This was Matt’s Mythology, he was on his own ride, and his friends got to relish in the comic genius that was his interpretation of the world.

Honky flew well below the radar. He didn’t really care much for humanity or people in general, but he was fiercely loyal and unconditionally giving to his friends. In climbing he lived by a strict personal code of standards, one that pushed him beyond exhaustion with the aim of steady improvement. He never trained because that would take away from being outside and having fun. He rarely—if ever—talked about himself, and he never posted on Supertopo and Facebook or took part in any kind of social media forums. As one of his close friends and partners Jason Lakey put it, “Sometimes you wouldn’t even know what he did last week, but it’d come up while you were out skiing. He would mention some insane adventure and you’d say, ‘Tell me that again, what did you do last week?’ He was very humble and authentic. We would spread the legend of what this guy was doing.” Unsurprisingly, Matt disdained posers and those who flaunted their accomplishments. When it came to the bevy of sponsored “professional climbers,” he’d always say, “If you ain’t Tommy, Honnold or Sharma, get a job.”

One of the first things I heard about Matt was a story about him at work as an X-ray tech. He would sneak into one of the hospital rooms on his break and set himself up with an IV of electrolyte-laced glucose water and lie on a gurney for half an hour to help with his recovery. “Really,” I thought, “can’t he just take some rest days?” It took me a few years of knowing Honk to realize the answer was a consistent “no.” The IV made perfect sense when I saw how he spent his weeks. He would climb El Cap house-to-house in 20 hours, take a rest day, then head over to the Incredible Hulk for a 5.12 big wall house-to-house, and on the fourth day drive to the Valley and solo Snake Dike on Half Dome and fly off. Three days of work at the hospital, and let’s do it all over again!

These weekly mind-blowing routines would baffle his buddies. If you asked Jason “Coach” Lakey, “Jakey Twigs” Whittaker, Brent Obinger, Cody Simms, Dave “Pops” Lane, and Lonnie Kauk about Matt, each of them would say that they probably climbed more with Honky than with anyone else in their lives. The body of work that Matt amassed as a climber is unfathomable. Routes on the Incredible Hulk—such as Venturi Effect, Positive Vibes, Blow Hard, Sun Spot, and Red Dihedral—he had done over a dozen times each, earning him yet another nickname, “The Mayor” at the Hulk. For twenty years he was the most frequent local at pretty much all Eastern Sierran crags: Tioga Cliff (where he earned the nickname “Chains”), Bear Crag, Pine Creek, Dike Wall, and his beloved Gorge (where he was deemed the “Gorge Troll” for his short stature and his stores of random gear stashed in caves, such as the propane heater he used for warming his hands below his beloved Eldo Roof on really cold winter days). Matt climbed in the Gorge so much every winter that by February he would rant about how much he hated the place. Really it was the social aspect of the Gorge that got to him. A real loner, he squirmed at seeing all the same people all the time, and would have quit the sport if he had to go to a climbing gym every week.

Living only two hours from the Valley when the pass was open, Honky was there almost every week most seasons. He had free-climbed classics like Astroman, the Rostrum, Hotline, and the Crucifix a dozen or more times each, often in mega link-up pushes, like the time he and Brent Obinger linked the Crucifix-Astroman-Rostrum in-a-day. He had free-climbed The NW Face of Half Dome, done the Nose of El Cap-NW Face of Half Dome in a day link-up, and in his proudest, biggest effort, spent over six years constantly questing all season to work the Freerider on El Cap, which he eventually freed in a three-day effort, leading all the pitches.

In the High Sierra, Matt seemed to dwarf the range with his limitless energy. He had done almost all of the Sierran traverses, sampling sections repeatedly for fun—the Palisades, Evolution, the Minarets. Once he and Jason Lakey chose to climb Mt. Russell car-to-car. They ended up doing five routes on Russell that day (that's right, five), summitting in the middle of the night under a mind-bending moon and then wandering in the darkness back to the parking lot at Whitney Portal. Another big day he was honored to team up with his good friend and hero, Peter “Captain No-Rope” Croft, as Matt called him. The two Hulk masters ran up four major Hulk routes in-a-day, summitting each time.

Beyond Matt’s mega-list of climbing accomplishments, the days Matt spoke about that stuck with me the most were the staple of easy backyard free-solos and local circuits he seemed to live for, the ones that made him feel like he truly did live in the greatest place on Earth. One drought winter a few years back, everyone remembers that Tioga Pass stayed open through most of the winter. Although word spread and folks showed up a few weekends to check out frozen Tenaya Lake, Matt had his backyard to himself all winter and every week for three months was all alone soloing Cathedral Peak and all the classics on Stately Pleasure Dome, through glorious warm winter days without so much as a car passing on the road below. When the pass was open, his favorite staple that couldn’t be beat was driving to the Valley in the afternoon, soloing Snake Dike on Half Dome in his approach shoes, then flying off the dome into Tenaya Canyon, a routine he repeated around 25 times, almost always by himself.

The Eastside has lost perhaps it’s “greatest fun lover” as Jake Whittaker put it, a devoted Dead Head and merry prankster with a magnetism and sense of humor like no other, a man who motivated all who knew him to work harder to reach our goals, to grab the sharp end and quest off into adventure, to get out the door and experience the mountains and live life on our own terms. Thanks, Honky. This place just won’t be the same without you.

WBraun

climber
Jun 7, 2017 - 02:27pm PT
All glories to "Honky" ......
James

climber
My twin brother's laundry room
Jun 7, 2017 - 02:40pm PT

HONKY! What a legend of rock! Thanks for writing that Poo-vel!

pyrosis

Boulder climber
Bishop, CA
Jun 7, 2017 - 03:51pm PT
Thanks for this, Andy. The last day I really got to hang out with Matt was that day at the Happies with you guys. I feel lucky to have gotten to work with and climb with him when I did. What I will never forget is the way he could always make you laugh, even if you were in a sh#t mood, even if he were in a sh#t mood too. Somehow, he'd find a way to make you laugh. It really won't be the same around here without him.
snowhazed

Trad climber
Oaksterdam, CA
Jun 7, 2017 - 04:00pm PT
I got to meet the Mayor at the Hulk- though I didn't know him well I've always felt fortunate to cross paths with the legends.

Fly free
guyman

Social climber
Moorpark, CA.
Jun 7, 2017 - 04:17pm PT
Andy.... Beautiful tribute.


bran_daid

Trad climber
santa monica, ca
Jun 7, 2017 - 04:29pm PT
a beautiful tribute
phylp

Trad climber
Upland, CA
Jun 7, 2017 - 06:37pm PT
Thank you for that beautiful tribute.
jlecorps

climber
Bishop, CA
Jun 7, 2017 - 06:43pm PT
Thanks for this beautiful tribute and insight to this Eastside legend.
The Wedge

Boulder climber
Estes Park, CO
Jun 7, 2017 - 06:49pm PT
Thanks for sharing Andy . I only got to meet Matt 2-3 times, mostly with Lakey. I never did know Matt's earlier background, as you said he flew below the radar. I know he was one of your closest buds as he was to many of my other fiends on the Eastside. -Eric Owen
Chad Umbel

Big Wall climber
Las Vegas
Jun 7, 2017 - 07:55pm PT
Back to the top....nice one Andy
katiebird

climber
yosemite
Jun 7, 2017 - 08:25pm PT
Great post, Andy!
Dick Erb

climber
June Lake, CA
Jun 7, 2017 - 08:43pm PT
Nice writing Andy, you describe him so well.
GDavis

Social climber
SOL CAL
Jun 7, 2017 - 09:05pm PT
Great tribute AP.

I feel the fire that ran in him being lit under my ass to strive to be better, do better and be in the moment. Thank you for honoring your brother and for sharing the truest spirit of climbing and adventure.
enjoimx

Trad climber
Yosemite
Jun 8, 2017 - 02:29am PT
awesome!
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
Jun 8, 2017 - 02:58am PT
He sounds like a great friend,
Here's to a life well lived!
Lurking Fear

Boulder climber
Bishop, California
Jun 8, 2017 - 03:14am PT
Andy,
Really nice tribute to my friend Matt. I unfortunately worked for eleven years where our schedules were opposite so I didn't climb with him much after the first few years when I moved here. I use to look forward to Monday mornings to hear his adventures, although he didn't tell me half of what he did. Like Tavis, I'm gong to miss his sense of humor; he always made me laugh at work with his irreverent sense of humor. He's way too young to be gone, but he sure packed a lot into the life he lead. I never really understood his nick name for me, but I'm sure there's a barb somewhere in it.
Andrew "Santa's Little Helper" Stevens
telemon01

Trad climber
Montana
Jun 8, 2017 - 06:34am PT

Larger Than Life

great tribute!
Impaler

Social climber
Oakland
Jun 8, 2017 - 11:08am PT
Thanks for writing up this awesome tribute, Andy. I never got to meet him, but heard a few bits about his exploits over the years. Your tribute really put things in perspective in regards to how much stuff he really did way under the radar. Sad that the world will miss out on another great person due to a parachuting accident. Rest in peace!
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Jun 8, 2017 - 12:40pm PT
Very well written tribute. Thank you for sharing and sorry for your loss. I saw many Jason's posts on FB. Seems like a lot of people are bummed. Must of been a great guy.
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