Echoing across the vista

The High Art Project’s musical ascent

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Willis Kuelthau and Colin Doyle are the creators of The High Art Project, an artistic initiative to explore the intersection between nature and music.
Courtesy of Willis Kuelthau

After hauling backpacks weighing almost 100 pounds to 13,300 feet above sea level, waiting out a snowstorm and finally reaching the perfect spot on the east face of Longs Peak, Willis Kuelthau had to rappel down to retrieve his tambourine. He attached it to his belt with a carabiner and proceeded to pull himself back up, jingling festively, panting as he reached the ledge. Kuelthau, along with his best friend, Colin Doyle, needed the percussion — along with the battery-powered keyboard, violin, guitar and amplifier they had also brought up to the ledge — to accompany their concert, which they performed to an audience of mountain rocks. While they fought off exhaustion from the trip and vertigo from the altitude, they kept their focus on the music.

“Playing while looking out over a vista made me feel both smaller and larger,” Kuelthau recalls. “It was more intimate because it was just about us on this tiny ledge on a gigantic wall, but it was also the biggest stage imaginable. It was this very weird moment of being on the wall and just focusing on this thing we were doing that probably no one had ever done before.”

In a video of the concert —  titled “Songs on Longs” — the camera angle presents the duo in profile on the Diamond, their eyes resting on something beyond what the viewer can see. (Doyle and Kuelthau brought multiple cameras to get various angles but lost the footage from all but one.) What lies beyond the frame captivates the two musicians for the entirety of the performance, and as Doyle’s voice floats in a rendition of Richard Schumann’s “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai” — the opening of both the song cycle “Dichterliebe” and the duo’s mountain-side concert — it’s easy to imagine the two have seen something otherworldly, something that has inspired an emotion so intense it could only be expressed through music.

Kuelthau and Doyle are the creators of The High Art Project, an artistic initiative to explore the intersection between nature and music. From playing folk on top of the Crystal Crag, a cliff above Mammoth Lakes, California, to singing Italian opera on the Shawangunk Ridge in upstate New York, the duo pushes the boundaries of climbing logistics, as well as musical performance. On Aug. 1, they embarked on their ascent of the Diamond — the most ambitious component of their project thus far.

Although they didn’t have an immediate audience, Kuelthau and Doyle believe that filming the experience to share online is a necessary component of the project.

“We wanted to go up and play the music and it was an important goal for us, but we also wanted to be able to show what that was like,” Kuelthau says. “Music in some ways must have an audience, so we wanted to be able to bring people there with us.”

The two met in sixth grade at Summit Middle School and became best friends, later singing together in the rigorous choir program at Fairview High School. In his senior year at Fairview, Doyle gave a memorable performance as Jean Valjean, the impoverished hero of Les Miserables, in a school production of the musical. The role of Valjean is a vocally and emotionally demanding role for anyone — let alone a 17-year-old — but Doyle delivered a performance so riveting that Kuelthau says strangers recognize him for it whenever he returns to Colorado. Even seven years after the show, someone asked Doyle about the performance in the parking lot at the base of Longs Peak before he and Kuelthau were about to make their musical ascent.

Doyle and Kelthau on Crystal Crag in the Mammoth Lakes basin. Its rocky form tops out at 10,364 feet. Courtesy of Willis Kelthau

Growing up in Boulder, rocks weren’t foreign to Doyle and Kuelthau, but it was only after they left the valley that they first began to climb. After spending a year at CU, Doyle transferred to study vocal performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and soon after he started to make climbing trips to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Reunited in Boulder the summer before their junior year (Kuelthau was attending Williams College in Massachusetts), Doyle brought his friend with him on his climbing adventures. With Doyle double-majoring in math and vocal performance and Kuelthau in physics and philosophy, the pair already demonstrated an interest in uniting the humanities and arts with the calculative mindset required for planning complex climbing trips.

Now 25, both reside in Philadelphia, where Doyle works as a classical vocalist and Kuelthau as a writer and filmmaker.

The first inkling of what would become the High Art Project came to Doyle as an image of pulling a piano up the side of a cliff. The concept seemed absurd, but it was an image he couldn’t get out of his mind.

“A lot of times what tends to happen is that Colin gets super excited about something and then I figure how we can make it happen,” Kuelthau says. “We’ve been able to do some really wild and cool things that way, though we have a habit of getting in over our heads, which we also did this time.”

When Kuelthau heard Doyle’s idea, he was immediately enticed by both the visual and the complexity of the logistics. As the “more analytical” of the pair, he wanted to figure out if such a project was possible and how it could be done.

The original draft of the project had been to summit El Capitan, located on the north side of Yosemite Valley. They had planned for months — crafting setlists for three nights of concerts, planning out the logistics, practicing on smaller cliffs in New York and California.

“One of the really cool moments was the first few times that we played music on cliffs,” Kuelthau says. “We were learning what it would feel like to sing out over a void, and that combination of feelings, of being high off the ground, of trying to figure everything out and make art there.”

But as soon as they traveled to California and drove toward Yosemite, they knew they would have to revise their plan. The Ferguson Fire was blazing dangerously close to the park, filling the air with thick smoke.

“We drove into Yosemite Valley to see if it was going to be remotely possible, and both of us had headaches in about half an hour,” Kuelthau recalls. “It was impossible to breathe. You couldn’t even see it through the smoke. Climbing was pretty much out of the question, let alone singing and playing instruments and filming.”

So they changed course and brought their gear to Colorado, where they had a short amount of time to make a new plan. While driving to the base of Longs Peak, they were still figuring out their route.

“By the time we got to the actual Longs Peak adventure, the logistics were pretty wild because we had the two of us carry all of our gear, which involved a lot of climbing gear in addition to all the instruments,” Kuelthau says. “It was shockingly brutal.”

Courtesy of Willis Kelthau

In addition to figuring out how to get all of the instruments and equipment up the side of the face, they also had to rearrange the programming of the concert, which they would have to cut to one night instead of three. Although they tried to select a variety of tempos, genres and composers in choosing a setlist, the only real guideline of the music was that it had to be important to them.

“The whole experience was about being calm and being in the Rocky Mountains on one of our favorite lulls, playing our favorite songs,” Doyle says. “We’re best friends and we’ve been best friends for a really long time, so it was about stuff that’s close to us.”

Even with the careful planning, Doyle and Kuelthau recount the trip as harrowing.

By the time they reached the ledge, they remember feeling a level of exhaustion more intense than they had ever experienced.

“I don’t know how to not understate this, but it was periling on a level I don’t know that either of us had experienced before,” Kuelthau says. “Getting up was hard because of hiking with the packs, and the next morning we had to repel into the ledge where the climb started, and that took a long time because our system didn’t work well with heavy bags.”

On the trip down, it began to rain, and hiking was like walking on river rocks. Even with headlamps, the boulder field was barely visible.

“There are some pretty sketchy moments where you could slip and break your leg, you could take a huge fall very, very easily,” Doyle says. “We’re lucky that nothing terrible happened, but I was worried when Will took a pretty big fall. He was kind of motionless and didn’t say anything for a while.”

At 3 a.m. they reached the base, where hikers on the Keyhole trail were preparing for the next day.

“We were walking their direction and they would stare at us, these two blank-faced, mysterious men with keyboards sticking out of their packs, stumbling down the trail, unable to speak,” Kuelthau says.

While reflecting on the progress of the project, Doyle and Kuelthau emphasize the experience of completing a goal that many — including the two of them — initially thought impossible.

“We fought for this project to happen, and we fought really hard,” Doyle says. “That’s a really cool thing to show people, to remind them that they can take obstacles that people are telling them are insurmountable and then surmount them. Part of our project is just to remind people that that’s important in life.”

Tackling seemingly impossible tasks is part of Doyle and Kuelthau’s relationship, which both say played a large part in the experience of performing the concert.

“For us, it’s been a part of our friendship for a number of years, that we every once in a while have crazy ideas and admit that they’re crazy and do them anyway,” Kuelthau says.

With the recent release of an extended video documentary about their experience on the Diamond, the duo is looking to the future of what other “high art” they can create. Doyle and Kuelthau hope to continue the project with even bigger endeavors, including an eventual summit of El Capitan, staging an opera on the side of a mountain and even a performance with a grand piano on top of a cliff.

“Beyond that, even, I’m trying to figure out a way we can get grant funding and bring other musicians with us, cover their travel expenses,” Doyle says. “We do have a system in place where we could bring people who have almost no experience, and they wouldn’t have to do any climbing, but they could still come up the wall with us and play. I think that could be really valuable, having people with us who aren’t climbers and who don’t have experience being that high up.”

Sitting on the ledge of the Diamond, Doyle and Kuelthau closed their concert with Mark Knopfler’s “Sailing to Philadelphia,” their eyes still fixed on the abyss before them. The sun started to dip below the horizon, and as soon as they played the final note, a peaceful silence resonated across the mountainside. All the other climbers had left, leaving the two musicians to receive the silence alone, on the biggest stage they could imagine.

“It was the best applause I could ever get, just the silence of the mountain and being there on the ledge with Will,” Doyle remembers, “being done with something that was so much bigger than us and so much harder than we ever could have imagined it would be.”