Sometimes we fall, and we get right back up again.
Other times, we fall 1,400 feet down a snow bank and feel pretty sure that’s the end of our lives. Unless you’re Joaquin “Jack” Menendez — then you get back up again.
Not only has that kind of fall happened to this Eugene resident, but he’s also been knocked unconscious by a bolt of lightning, broken several ribs from falling, and made a “beginner’s mistake” by tripping on a rope, flipping over head first, and spraining his ankle.
Yet, these are just blips in a lifetime of climbing some of the toughest peaks on the West Coast, from Cathedral Rock in Arizona and Yosemite’s El Capitan to the volcanoes of central Oregon.
“To me, the best part of climbing has always been moving over the rock,” Menendez says. “You are completely in the moment, doing this one thing. Your attention is completely on, ‘What am I going to do next, how much weight will I put on my foot and where will I put my hand?’ Nothing else is going through your head. Then, you get to a ledge and look at what you did. You look around and it’s always in an incredible spot.”
He’s built this legacy from a family of achievers and proudly shares stories of his ancestors who taught him the value of hard work, a love for the outdoors and athletics, and finding your next step in life both on the ground and on the rock wall.
An early start
He started climbing in the mid-1960s as a young boy on a hike with his grandfather.
“He was this John Muir-like character, he loved the outdoors,” Menendez says. “He traveled with a compass, and he would take me out on hikes. One day he had a rope, he put it around me, and took me up a little mountain in Colorado. I was 9 years old and it was so much fun. He would climb up, then I would come up to him. Then, he would climb up again, and I would repeat. That’s how people were climbing then.”
Menendez grew up in California. When he was 14, a friend taught him to climb. Then, Menendez taught others. As neighborhood friends, they’d hop on their bicycles, ride to the rocks and start to climb. Their parents bought them lessons, but the boys were largely unsupervised as they learned the sport.
“My high school produced a number of world-class rock climbers,” he says. “I loved the idea of going out, being in nature, the camaraderie, being in the mountains.”
He also loved soccer, and played on a Division 1 team for the University of California-Berkeley, then played semi-pro. His younger brother Dan Menendez played soccer for San Jose State, and now works internationally as an entertainer who specializes in comedy and juggling.
Menendez earned a math degree and worked as a software engineer for 35 years in Silicon Valley, before retiring and moving to Central Oregon to work as a farmer. He spent 13 years on a farm directly across the road from Smith Rock State Park.
While there, he loved to watch a visiting climber — an 80-year-old man from Austria.
“He was my hero,” Menendez says. “He was climbing at a very high level, he was just so fit. He would solo, but he would use a rope. He eventually had to quit when he was 90 just because of arthritis in his hands.”
The sport of rock climbing can be hard on the body, and Menendez says now that he’s 66, he understands his own limits. “There are things I just don’t do anymore,” he says. “But a person can start climbing at any age. Especially now, with the rock climbing gyms, it allows for climbing at every level, even without a rope. I’ve been with people who are in their 60s and are doing their first climbs.”
Menendez is always ready to climb. In fact, he climbs Spencer Butte in Eugene four times a week, and on one of those days, he climbs it twice. Whenever it’s a sunny day, he spends at least two hours on Skinner Butte to the columns. If it’s raining, he’s at Crux Gym.
“That’s my regiment,” he says. “I love it. I can ride my bike to the columns. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
His best time up the difficult trail is 13 minutes. For the average hiker, it takes 23 minutes. “But I’m almost running,” Menendez says. “Then there’s another route that’s not marked. It’s very steep and much longer, much steeper. That takes a long time, but I do it.”
This past December, he climbed it 31 days straight. “Weather isn’t a factor for me,” he says. “Rain or shine, I love it. It’s just the best hike ever. It’s a gem.”
A family legacy
On hikes, he thinks about his family who came from the northern part of Spain, and who spoke a “dead” language called Asturian. They thought they were speaking Spanish, until they actually heard Spanish. But it was enough for his father, Julius, who later learned Castilian, and eventually became the Olympic boxing coach in 1960, 1972 and 1976. His most famous athlete in training was Mohammed Ali.
“My dad was Mohammed Ali’s boxing coach,” Menendez says. “We grew up around someone who everybody knew, my dad was a very famous guy, a superstar. When he was Ali’s coach, he was the world’s number one expert on boxing. I could go into a store and say my name, and people would always ask me if I was his son.”
In fact, Ali learned the art of trash talking during a boxing match from Julius Menendez, who taught Ali how to distract his opponent, causing him to make a mistake.
“My dad was the inventor of trash talking in boxing,” he says. “You’re taking a big roundhouse punch from someone who is fast — you want to talk to the guy, constantly be trash talking him to get him to be angry and make a mistake. That’s when you nail him.”
His mother’s story is quite different. Rather than growing up on the tough side of St. Louis, Missouri like Julius, she grew up in the 1920s as the daughter of a missionary in mainland China. Her first language was Mandarin Chinese and she told stories of living in a gated community where it was vital that the residents found themselves within the walls at night.
Her father was eventually caught and imprisoned in Nanking by the Japanese, and his young daughter was brought back to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen.
Because he loves their stories, Menendez wants to write about them and share them with others. But first, he needs to finish his first attempt at writing science fiction in a book he has titled “Scuba.”
The characters are fictional, he says, but they are based on people he’s known throughout his life, with a little bit of modern-day politics thrown in.
“My mom’s dad was a storyteller,” Menendez says. “He would sit around after dinner and tell stories. He was born in 1879, and that’s what they did back then. They played music, sang and told stories. It’s part of the culture.”