Managing a world-famous climbing publication remotely from Carbondale
Derek Franz runs Alpinist from his Roaring Fork Valley home
Special to The Aspen Times
There are many people in the Roaring Fork Valley who telecommute. There are doctors who do online consulting, filmmakers who edit from a distance, and financial whizzes who offer advice and perspectives via all sorts of connectivity.
But one of the more interesting stories around here involves Derek Franz, a longtime valley resident who manages the editorial content of the world-renowned mountaineering magazine “Alpinist” — remotely.
Alpinist delivers more than 200 foreign newsstand copies per edition, more than 450 Canadian copies per issue, and has subscribers in 42 countries — which is to say it has a very global reach.
Franz is the editor-in-chief and lead content decision-maker for the famed and highly respected magazine, whose corporate offices are in Jeffersonville, Vermont. Meanwhile, his deputy editor Paula LaRochelle works remotely in Minnesota while the publication’s assistant editor Abbey Collins and art director Mike Lorenz are at the Vermont headquarters.
While one-on-one consulting might be fairly straightforward, as anyone who’s ever been in an editorial team knows, having a group that truly functions cohesively as a group stretched across three time zones is a bit more challenging.
“After my time in newsrooms, I know how helpful it is when you can simply ask the people working around you — ‘What do you think of this cover photo? Is this headline too risky? How do I fix the printer?’ and so on,” Franz said. “Not to mention the levity and camaraderie that develop from sharing funny moments or challenges in the office. Plus, beyond the writing and editing, it’s important to make time for philosophical conversations and joking because that is often where the best ideas arise and where we as editors can explore our evolving views on subjects and events.”
While meetings can be scheduled on Zoom and punchlists can be shared by any number of messaging systems, it’s the spontaneity that comes with publishing that’s missed.
The time differences don’t help. While one editor might be up and well into the workday by 6:30 a.m. Colorado time, Franz might still be waking up, stretching, and thinking about coffee.
Born into climbing
Franz was more or less born to have the role he holds today. The first 22 years of his life (he’s now 40) were spent in Front Range communities, including Lyons, a small town that was interestingly the home of climbing gear designer and American climbing legend Jeff Lowe while Franz was growing up there.
“My parents built a house west of Lyons, that backed up on BLM land,” he said. “I lived there from age 5 to about age 12. It was a very formative time in my life — we were surrounded by wild animals, hills, rocks, and creeks. When I was 5 or 6, we found a dead mountain lion while rock scrambling 20 minutes from our house. As I got older, we would go on overnight backpack trips from our front door. I was a lucky kid and had no idea how special that place was until my parents divorced and we had to move.”
After a brief stint in Berthoud, Franz moved with his mother to New Castle in the seventh grade. He started out as a freshman at Rifle High School and did three subsequent years at Glenwood Springs High School.
“I was a climber, skier, snowboarder and kayaker, not a football player,” he said. “I imagine the student body at Rifle is a little more diverse nowadays.”
Franz attended the University of Colorado in Boulder and earned a degree in journalism in 2005. Like any proper climber, he then spent a month in Yosemite before returning to the Roaring Fork Valley to do an internship at Rock & Ice magazine (which was formerly based in Carbondale). After the internship, he landed a job as a copy editor for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. It was there he learned about the power of newsroom camaraderie.
“I immediately fit in with a newsroom full of many great people,” he said. “There was maybe 12 of us — four copy editors, two photographers, four reporters, plus editor Dale Shrull and (the late) community editor Kay Vasilakis. It was perhaps one of the best summers of my life, but near the end of 2008 I felt the need to hit the road and broaden my horizons. When I returned to the Roaring Fork Valley about a year and a half later, I had renewed appreciation for what we have here — high, snowy mountains with beautiful rivers and the desert landscape of the Colorado Plateau nearby.”
During his three-year tenure at the Post Independent, he watched the staff dwindle until it was down to a “bare-bones” crew. The heady days of big newsrooms was over.
With an eye on the publishing world around him, he started sending out freelance writing and one story in particular caught: a piece he wrote for a newish magazine called Alpinist.
Alpinist had been founded in 2002 in Jackson Hole, and after a warehouse fire in 2007, then going into bankruptcy in 2008, it was brought back to life by a company called Height of Land Publications the following year.
Today, Height of Land, Alpinist’s parent company, also runs Backcountry (a skiing magazine), Mountain Flyer (a mountain biking magazine) and Cross Country Skier magazine.
By the time Franz submitted his writing in 2011, Alpinist was thrumming along in Vermont. Alpinist bought his piece, and he was, the saying goes, on his way.
“I wrote a few more stories for the magazine over the following years and was hired as digital editor in September 2016,” he explained.
His new boss was a woman named Katie Ives.
The literary challenge of Alpinist
The literary aspect of Alpinist is what makes it different to every other American climbing publication. For example, there has never been an American magazine with a dedicated fact-checker until Alpinist (although arguably some editors claim to perform that function while editing).
And while Alpinist’s previous editors are legends within their own rights, it was Franz’s predecessor Ives that strove to make Alpinist stand head and shoulders above … well, everything. But Ives had another character on her own shoulders.
Ives — a Harvard literature and Iowa MFA writing grad — was hired by the magazine’s first editor, Christian Beckwith, in 2005. Beckwith had a philosophy that every story going into the magazine should “represent the best story that that writer has ever written,” Ives said. And with some of the caliber that was being drawn to the magazine, “that could set a really high bar.”
Apparently it did.
“I took that really seriously,” Ives added.
For her part, Ives was interested not just in the climbing experience, but in pretty much everything related to the human psyche and how it might relate to climbing and sometimes just the mountains. It made the magazine as much about the human condition as anything else.
While most climbing magazines talk about who’s bouldering the hardest and who’s done the latest 5.15 (a hard climbing grade), Alpinist explored the human dimension of being in the mountains as much as anything else.
And while there was a lot of deep, very spiritual outdoor philosophizing going into the magazine, Ives knew it also had to be accurate.
Alpinist publisher Adam “Howie” Howard has his own thoughts.
“Nobody goes to the lengths that Alpinist goes to get things right,” Howard said. “Arguably to a fault. It’s silly. Compared to the rest of the brands we have, it’s its own animal.”
A lot of the rigor is legacy, Howard said.
“Short of the AJ (the British Alpine Journal) and what the American Alpine Club does (via the American Alpine Journal), nobody goes to the lengths we do to get the story right,” he noted.
One of the challenges running a magazine like Alpinist is the climbing community itself.
“Climbers in general tend to be pretty heady, intelligent, educated, and a little nutty, and wrangling those people and their ideas into something that expresses their ideas as well as their style is a huge task,” Howard said. “There are very few people that can do what Derek does. In climbing, you’re kind of writing for the ages. And you want to make sure it’s right. And we hang our hat on that. In short, Derek’s doing a great job. And it’s a hard job.”
Taking the job to heart
Franz has another, very serious challenge: his heart — and I don’t mean his love of the mountains.
In 2014, he learned he needed his aortic valve replaced.
“It came as a bit of a surprise and might be related to a case of strep throat that I chose not to seek treatment for in college because I thought I was too strong and healthy to bother with doctors,” he said.
That valve needed replacement in 2022.
“Last year, I had a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) to put in a second tissue valve, since the first bovine valve was beginning to fail after nearly eight years,” he said. “The TAVR operation goes in through the femoral arteries, so there’s barely any cutting involved, and I only spent one night in the hospital — pretty cool!”
Pretty cool? Okay, Derek.
Franz will likely need another operation — the open-heart kind — so that surgeons can install a mechanical valve. Franz thinks that will then require a life dedicated to blood thinners.
For a guy who spends a lot of time in the backcountry, climbing, skiing, and generally taking it all in, blood thinners are a concern.
“I wanted to avoid the blood thinners as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of bleeding out in the backcountry from what might otherwise be a minor injury. I could do it over again, I might have gotten the mechanical valve on the first go-round to avoid the hell of multiple surgeries. The original tissue valve lasted half as long as what doctors predicted, with most heart patients being closer to 50 than 30, and with me being a very active person who enjoys testing his physical limits. Medical technology is evolving fast, however, and there may be more options a few years down the road.”
Perhaps the great irony is that earlier in life Franz had considered going into medicine — even heart surgery.
Import of place
Still, for Franz, he wouldn’t do his job if he couldn’t do it from Carbondale or somewhere in this area. He’s come to love this chunk of the Western Slope.
“Growing up with Rocky Mountain National Park at my back door, I overlooked Independence Pass for many years because the cliffs are fairly short, with the longest climbs being only a few pitches,” Franz said. “But it turns out world-class climbers have plenty to enjoy there, thanks to the variety of climbing styles, from slabs and cracks to big overhangs, with some routes clocking in at a solid 5.14 (near the highest level of difficulty in climbing). Couple that with the headwaters of the Roaring Fork that have carved slot canyons and swimming holes, plus the alpine views surrounded by aspen trees, all just minutes away from Aspen’s food and music, and you have a place that is undeniably very special.”
Asked what would he be doing if he weren’t Alpinist’s top man?
“There are two answers to this question,” he said. “The first is more immediate. If I suddenly found myself out of a job at Alpinist, I might become a climbing guide or property manager and continue to write freelance articles on the side. Journalism is a tough way to make a living and I’ve regularly questioned my sanity to stay in this line of work full time. The hours are long, the stress never seems to relent, and as long as you’re in the public eye you remain a target for criticism, sometimes from people who don’t bother reading past the headline or the Instagram post.”
Still, despite the challenges — both professional and personal — Franz says he’s prepared to stick with it.
“My goal with Alpinist is to maintain the continuity of a literary journal that has been published with very high standards since 2002,” he said. “To me, Alpinist is a journal of much more than just climbing — it is a record of how the timeless human spirit meets the challenges of the future. My goal for the magazine is to see that it remains relevant and continues with the same standards of excellence for decades to come.”
While I love to travel, it seems that more and more the best part of any trip I take these days is the part where I come home.