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If you had shown us this video as we were preparing to go on the road back in 2011, we would be very, very confused. We would have had no reference points for anything contained therein. I don’t think we even knew what “micaceous” meant.*

Clay with more natural sparkle than Beyoncé.

If you told us 6 years ago that we would be the ones to make the video…

I’ve pointed out in the past that climbing is a wonderful way to access adventure. I’m trying to sort out how I feel about the fact that climbing in general, and our own climbing in particular, has played a diminishing role in our adventures per se, lately. But that’s for another day’s musings.

Today, I want to tell you about the guy in the video, Felipe Ortega. He is:

That last one is pretty significant. Stage IV prostate cancer¹ had him with one foot in the grave, but when we met him in the fall of 2015, he had jumped right back out and was as vigorous as a man 20 years his junior. Since then his condition has oscillated between what might be called “fair,” and what most would call “dire.”

Felipe, in all his glory. On the wall at Owl Peak Studio. ‘In a recent workshop, Ortega asked students what kinds of pots they wanted to make. One replied that she intended to create “a prayer pot,” used in Buddhist tradition to hold prayers written on slips of paper. “Not with this clay!” the teacher snapped. “This is the only clay you can put on an open fire, right on top of the stove. You can make a prayer pot with any other clay.” The student opted for a soup pot.’ – From this Smithsonian article. *For the record, that is a toilet seat, but the brown on the wall is not doo-doo, it’s clay

We first met Felipe at Owl Peak Studio during our stay in La Madera in fall 2015. The never-ending search for awesome rock climbing is what brought us there. And, while the rock is indeed something special, at a certain point a rock is a rock. But the mysterious town that straddles the highway and borders the boulder-zone, well, suffice it to say that it ain’t called the Land of Enchantment for nothin’.

One morning we stepping into his studio and watched him work, and immediately sensed that something special was happening. We’d stop by just to marvel at the magic happening between his hands, against the backdrop of shimmering vessels ready for the gallery.

Being documentarians, we asked if he’d ever been the subject of a documentary film. He wailed theatrically–“no no no, no more documentaries!”–and suggested that we film an instructional video instead. (Here’s a mini-doc on YouTube that showcases Felipe’s unique wit…you’ll see he is gifted at weaving the sacred and the pragmatic together with humor and kindness.)


At this point, Felipe was teaching regular classes, but that obviously wouldn’t be the case forever. So we spent 3 days filming Felipe while he demonstrated and explained the techniques and cultural significance of his craft. We edited the footage into 15 chapters comprising about 2.5 hours.

We didn’t release it in 2015, though. Felipe can be hard to get a hold of, and we hadn’t finalized a few details. Other projects came into the foreground.

Suddenly, it was almost 2 years later. We stopped in to see the Ortega family just before Thanksgiving in 2017. Felipe was in and out of the hospital, but was able to sit and chat with us a while. We ironed out the final details, but more importantly, Felipe expressed to us his gratitude that his legacy would be preserved even when he could no longer teach students directly.

And the timing couldn’t be better. Constant care is costly, so we agreed to get the video up for sale as quickly as possible, and to give Felipe the better part of the proceeds in order to help pay for the care he needs.

So here we are. I know it’s not super likely that any of our followers want to spend $300 (well, $299) to learn an esoteric form of pottery, but maybe some of you know people who might be interested?

If you’d prefer, you can donate directly to Felipe’s medical fund at

Anyway, thanks for reading. I realize the last few posts haven’t really talked about climbing at all, and I swear we’ll get back to that soon. Then again, isn’t it cool to think that the pursuit of climbing brought us, weirdly enough, into the world of Jicarilla Apache micaceous clay pottery?

*Micaceous clay has abundant mica flakes in the clay body itself, which lends the resultant vessels some amazing properties. Thin-walled yet strong, these are the only ceramic pots that can be used directly on the stovetop, directly on the coals of a fire, in the microwave, or under the broiler.

I can also attest that a meal cooked in micaceous clay is imbued with a complexity and intensity of flavor that can’t be explained by the ingredients. There’s an Apache word for it, but I have no hope of spelling it, even phonetically.

¹originally written as “Stage IV liver cancer” and corrected on 1/2/2018.


  • Jimmy Ortega Jr. says:

    Awesome video! Thank you for all you guys have done. This video will always show who he is and the skill he was most passionate about.

  • John Long says:

    I went to one of his sweat lodges then learned about the pottery in the process. I had made a black ware coiled pot for a Native American art class I took in college. Ive been wanting to make another one since then. I have never forgotten Felipe, or the few hours I was honored to spend at his place. I still try to remember his kitchen, all the eye candy in there, and him cooking away. That was a magical day indeed. So I said to hell with my credit card and bought the video and ordered some micaceous clay from still waiting to hear back from Owl Creek about any clay they have to sell, as I will buy as much as I can afford. Thanks for doing this video. Glad to see that Felipe lives on in some form.

    • Spenser says:

      Thanks for writing, John. Every time we hear of someone who’s life was touched by Felipe, we feel honored to have been in the right place and time to be involved in this project. I know that one of Felipe’s nephews has been digging and cleaning clay over the summers, and hopefully you’ll get a delivery soon!

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