The Quickdraw: A Climbing Vignette (1980)

Or How the Speed-clip Lost Its Mojo

The original quickdraw was the product of trad route desperation. And had nothing whatever to do with “sport” climbing—which hadn’t yet been introduced  (1983).

The next pitch looks gnarly. You see a pin up there—or a possible nut slot—but, jeez, no place to rest while clipping the piece and wrestling up a bight of rope for the final clip. Maybe there’s a quicker way—a lesson from the Old West—and so the “quickdraw” was born.

Thus, be prepared: In advance, before committing, clip one sling end to your gear loop and the other free end to the rope. Then, at the pin, it’s just one quick draw from your gear loop to the piece. No wrestling with the rope.

To illustrate how well this works I commend you to the following memory of my climbing partner of forty years—Wes Grace:

I’ve known Bill since 1970 at which time he was an icon to me. After a year or so he
deigned actually to climb with me. From that humble start our relationship grew from mentor and novice to camaraderie. It was now possible for me to make suggestions.

Some time around 1980 we walked down the carriage road. Bill was reflective and silent. Eventually he looked up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about leading High Exposure.  I don’t know if I am up to it, but if I wait any longer I certainly won’t do it.

Bill, I said, “You can do it.” Of course I had no idea whether he could do it or not. It
seemed the right thing to say.

The first two pitches aren’t hard. But then we were under a gigantic roof where you can see what you can’t see, the entire top pitch. You know it goes straight up and you know that once you get started you pretty much have to keep going but you can’t see. You back up to the edge, get your toes right on the edge of a 200 foot drop, reach around for a pin you can’t see, and then duck under the roof and swing out into the void holding on with your fingers jammed in the crack. Bill clipped that first pin, and then there was just Bill from the knees down—then he was gone.

The rope paid out. Then…
The rope started to come back in. It came in bits and jerks and then stopped. For a long time. Then it paid out again.

I had my turn, gasping as I swung out holding on with jammed fingers, later diving into the little depression where it goes from dead vertical to easy for a few feet.
Then the top.

I, breathlessly:
Bill, what happened? In his excitement he had clipped the wrong ‘biner on his quickdraw to the second piton thus connecting his harness to the pin. He had to climb down until he could reach it, clip it to the rope and then unclip from his harness.

It wasn’t too many years later going down the same carriage road that Bill said he knew what we were going to do. We’re going to do High Exposure and YOU are going to lead it.”

Bill was good at knowing what others were going to do. On our annual trip to the west in 1999 he knew what we were going to do. A classic climb every day. Dark Shadows at Red Rocks, Mental Physics, Sail Away and Walk on the Wild Side at Joshua Tree and Cat in the Hat back at Red Rocks. And he knew I was going to lead every one.

Bill, that was a week I won’t forget. Thanks.


The Gendarme: A Climbing Vignette (1973-1987)

The Gendarme

Every few years we, in the Boston climbing group, would go for a week to Seneca Rocks in what was then the town of Mouth of Seneca, West Virginia. We would climb at the ‘Gunks on the way there and again on the way back.

As early as 1973 there was no climber’s shop—only Buck Harper’s general store and an old covered wooden pavilion with a stage at one end and no electricity. Here was where we camped. A wildly swaying suspension bridge over the Potomac’s North Fork gave access to the Rocks.

Sarah & Bill

We went again in 1980—by which time there was a new climbing store called the Gendarme—an eponymous reference to the fifty foot stone sentinel standing guard in Gunsight Notch between the north and south faces of the cliffs. On each visit it was considered obligatory to climb it.

But we climbed it with reservation owing to its precarious aspect, narrower at its base than in its body—more like a Popsicle than an obelisk. Topping out below it on the climb Banana one could actually see “air” through its base—the “stick” of the Popsicle—a slab of rock seemingly not more than three feet by twelve in cross section.  Over beer in the dark at the Pavilion we would speculate about the effects of the weight and motion of climbers or about how much wind it might take to de-stabiliz1987_WireBridge001e it. We marveled over what geologic forces might have produced it and wondered about its age. The cliffs in near their present form have been there for millions of years.

Again in 1987 I was at Seneca for a week in late September with my friend Sarah. The suspension bridge had been carried away by floods in 1985—replaced by two cables, one high and one low, for the hands overhead and the feet below. And, of course before we left, we had climbed the Gendarme.

Four weeks later at the ‘Gunks, at the end of a day of climbing, Sarah ran up to me and said:
“Guess what happened at Seneca?”

Without a moment’s hesitation I replied: “The Gendarme fell.”

And so, on October 22nd—a sunny, windless Thursday afternoon—the sentinel collapsed and, with a roar, dashed itself into thousands of shards below.

In contemplation of this event, in relation to the geologic time-scale, it seems Sarah and I had a pretty close call.

 More climbing vignettes:
Bobo to the Rescue
“Travails” With Charley


The ‘Gunks of Yore: Bob Larsen (1925-2018)

Remembering Bob Larsen (1925-2018)

Sixty-two years ago, in September of 1956, I arrived at the Uberfall—a total neophyte; an Appie beginner.

That first climb! All the way to the top of the cliff on a rope led by Bob Larsen.
Wow! Who knew?

It was The Easy Overhang.

Bob led many of my early climbs; I felt that he was looking out for me. The next spring he offered my first “leg on a climb” toward becoming an Appie leader.

It was the top pitch of Baby.

We became friends. On long drives from Manhattan I learned with fascination about the Merchant Marine, the arcane social entanglements at the Uberfall, and the stirrings of a new sub-culture unfettered by convention—a culture to which Bob was an early adherent:

There was a john in the kitchen of his East Village pad. There I smoked my first joint.

Eventually, inspired by Bob’s account of his own Teton ascent, I bought a rope and went west to climb the Grand.

And so, owing to Bob’s mentorship, a door opened to the world of mountaineering;
And my life was changed forever.

Bill Atkinson, 22 September 2018


Le Geant Manque (1998)

Le Dent du Geant

The travails of geezerdom in Chamonix turned out to be as I had expected—actually, almost too much for un vrai vieillard like me. Paul (a mere child) was the soul of patience. We had a fine week, even though having had to abandon our attempt on the Dent du Géant (4,000m).  I am sure that my potting along at about three times guide-book time tried Paul’s patience but he never let on about it.

Le Miroir d’Argentine

On arrival in Chamonix we settled in to our digs at the gite Les Grands Charmoz. For a week or so the weather—having been unseasonably warm—had prevented the névé from refreezing each night above 2,000m and the guides talked of the undue dangers of soft snow. And so, while awaiting some forecast cooler weather, we decided at first to go to Solalex in nearby Switzerland for a climb that I had heard of called Le Miroir D’Argentine. [1] From the valley its smooth, high limestone face—especially when wet—gleams like a mirror in the sky.

Our climb comprised ten pitches (one of 5.8+) on the 400m limestone face.  After slogging for an hour to the base Paul led the early—hard—pitches while I managed a couple above at the 5.6 level.  On the first pitch there was a desperate spot—La Boite des Lettres—where the protection was set far above the hard move; I don’t know how Paul managed it; I found it desperate.  We liked the climb—clean, challenging, and airy.

Attack goats (momentarily diverted)

The descent, however, proved a misery.  After losing the descent trail among flocks of fleeing, defecating sheep and curious, persistent attack goats we found a way down (not the guide-book route) just as an afternoon storm soaked us to the skin. The rain turned the steep, down-slabbing, and dusty trail into a quagmire down which we had to slip and slide on our butts through the mud, and even to rappel off trees with muddy ropes to save ourselves from slimy death.  We might better have rappelled the route itself.

Having no dry clothes in the car, and no possibility of finding a restaurant open upon our return to Chamonix, we stopped in Villars for an elegant meal, with wine and paté, which we suffered through shivering in our wet duds and sodden socks. We all understand that mountaineering has a well earned reputation for fun.

Les Grands Charmoz

After a day of preparation at the gite—ropes through the washer-dryer—the weather did get cooler and we set off early the next morning on the cog-train to the Mer de Glace station at Montenvers [2].  Having negotiated the steep local ladders down the cliff to the glacier we spent the day hiking its length; negotiating the tortured ice and morainal terrain. Fortunately the glacier was “dry”—no snow—making the crevasses visible. After a final 200 meters of vertical ladders and steps we reached the Refuge du Requin at 2,500m .  From there we could survey the entire Mer de Glace and its confluence with the Glacier de Leschaux [2], Les Drus and the backside of L’Aiguille Verte, L’Aiguille de Moine, Les Grands Jorasses, the Dent du Géant (our vaunted objective), and the tortured Seracs du Géant ahead through which we planned to thread our way the next morning.

Les Seracs du Geant (Geant upper left)

The maitress assigned us the bunk room for the Torino hut (up at 5:00a) and after breakfast we plunged into the ice-fall not having a clue as to whether we could or would find a path through to the Vallée Blanche above.  Paul proved a great route finder and, between the two of us, trying this, and probing that route in the jungle of crevasses and seracs, we soon passed most of the other parties (some roped and guided) who seemed to spend much time placing anchors and belaying instead of moving continuously along.  Occasionally roped, we jumped across voids and single-tooled up endless short ice walls with axes and crampons, gradually gaining easier terrain in the region of La Bedière above a rock prow jutting from the snow called Le Petit Rognon.

Our speed then subsided into my codger’s slow slog—we’d reached an altitude of 2,800m—which persisted through the rest of our long day’s journey into height.  We moved up and across the Vallée Blanche toward the Torino hut (3,400m) on the alps Italian side.  The sun blazed, we slathered on sun-block, argued over the route (I, naively, for an apparent direct route and Paul for the much longer but obviously well-traveled one), took photographs, and forged—I breathlessly—ahead. We descended the final and seemingly endless steps from the Col des Flambeaux down to the hut to exchange our loads (Paul had graciously carried the heavier one) and our boots for cold beer and  food.

Rifugio Torino

We shared dinner with some personable Alpine Club guys from New Jersey who had spotted my AAC t-shirt and hit the sack early in anticipation of an alpine start (3:30a) the next morning for our attempt on the Dent (4,000m).  One reaches summit pinnacle after about five pitches of technical rock above a small snowfield: La Salle à Manger (3,800m).

At 11,000 ft. I found the going agonizingly slow. At first it seemed that with our early start we might have a chance at the summit and our spirits reflected our hope.  However many parties passed us, first in the dark, and later on the final snow slopes and on the many class-four rock pitches below the Salle à Manger, which we did not reach until noon with several parties queued up ahead of us for the final technical pitches.  We rested and had a bite while the heretofore sunny weather suddenly loomed down in cold fog only to clear moments later and then to descend again in misty swirls for long minutes at a time.  We found this highly unsettling but our final decision to bag the climb hinged on the lateness of the day, the parties ahead, and my reluctant admission that I didn’t have five technical rock pitches left in me.  To have reached the summit at four or possibly six in the afternoon followed by a five hour return to the hut seemed unnecessarily daunting. We bailed.

Paul Dale and Bill Atkinson (Mt. Blanc, Aguille du Midi, Vallee Blanche)

The next day we descended to Courmayeur, the Chamonix of Italy, to look around and to have lunch after Paul had found some old prints to buy in an antique shop.  Courmayeur seems less frenetic, more forested, and more handsome than Chamonix.

Then we rode all the téléferiques in series—to the Punte Helbronner, the télécabine to the Midi high station, and thence down to Chamonix where we walked to the cog railway station to complete our circuit.  Luckily Cheryl Berry had a room for us at the gite where Yuki Fujita, a climbing friend from Boston, had just arrived for a three week stay.  We loafed around the next day and on our last went to Les Praz to take the téléferiques Le Flegère and L’Index to climb a fine arête on L’Index (an embarrassingly low number in Rebuffat’s 100 Finest [3]) reminiscent of the Whitney-Gilman ridge on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.


Paul flew back while I boarded the TGV to Paris and Rennes to spend a week with my old ice climbing friend at his house in La Bouëxière where I earned my keep at le bricolage as carpenter, plumber, electrician, and layer of parquet flooring.


[2] Today (2018), under global warming, the snout of the Mer de Glace no longer reaches the cog station at Montenvers (an erstwhile tourist mecca). And its confluence with the Glacier de Leschaux has vanished.

Confluence G. de Leschaux & Mer de Glace (ca 2000) [Editions ANDRE]
[3]  Gaston Rebuffat‘s Hundred Finest Routes.

Wyoming Towers (1990)

Wolf’s Head (12,200)                 Pingora (11,900)

The Cirque of the Towers

For an hour at the parking we sorted our jumble of climbing gear spread out across the tarmac. On a sunny July afternoon in 1990 Jeff Beyer had met me at the Salt Lake airport in his camping truck. We had yet to shop for food and so it was late when we embarked on the two-hundred mile drive to the gateway of Wyoming’s wild Wind River Range.

We passed Pinedale, Wyoming and by the time we reached gravel and dirt road country—fifty miles to go—night had fallen. The bouncing headlights startled an astonishing number of jack rabbits bounding this way and that as Jeff careened wildly left and right in attempts to avoid them. At Big Sandy Opening at last we stepped out into the quiet under a vast expanse of ebon sky framed by the ghostly tops of lodge pole pines and filled with to the brim with stars.  We set up our tent and tucked in for the night.

Big Sandy (9,000 feet) is the trailhead for access to the Cirque of the Towers, an immense glacial basin in the Wind River Range surrounded by spectacular granite peaks as high as 12,000 feet. The Northeast Ridge of Pingora (11,900) and the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (12,200) are listed in Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. We hoped to reach their summits.

90073020_BigSandyAt 10,400 the bowl of the cirque is 1,400 feet above Big Sandy but climbers must labor over Jackass Pass, an additional 400 feet, on the way in. Our acclimatization to altitude from sea level was effectively zero. Thus, with sixty pound packs, we found the gasping, halting slog to the pass almost un-doable. In fact, it was un-doable by sundown. We bivouacked for the night at the height of land by Arrowhead Lake and descended into the cirque just after dawn the next morning.

This cirque is vast—for those of you from New England—the width of about twenty-five of Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravines. We pitched the tent near a huge rock (easy to find—no?) and the next day climbed Pingora, but by an easier way than by the more challenging classic route. We switched leads to the summit from which we had a magnificent view of the first few pitches of Wolf’s Head’s storied East Ridge.

By the time we reached the tent again—it was hard to find—we realized that we had packed in nowhere near enough food to stay on without resupply, and reluctantly agreed that we’d have to hike out the next morning and return. I thought to fix the tent location using two lines of sight from the surrounding peaks and closer landmarks. On the way out, downhill and lightly loaded, we made good time and even detoured to climb close-by Sundance Pinnacle which featured a spectacular overhang on the very end of which to pose—an obligatory photo opp appropriately called the “Diving Board.”

On our return locating camp the next morning was easy. Walk to satisfy the first line of sight and then travel along that until aligning the second. Behold! The tent!

Before dawn the next day we set out for the classic route on Wolf’s Head.  Climbing the steep face to gain the east ridge from above the talus (p0) was unexpectedly strenuous. Following Jeff  I felt shaky and almost gave up at a hard corner, but his encouragement and some tension in the rope got us both safely onto the ridge.  From there its first five-hundred feet curve upward like a suspension bridge cable; spectacular chasms on either side. I led the first and Jeff the next pitch to the end of the narrow edge, up a steep crack system, and into the chaotic jumble of gigantic blocks and gendarmes that comprise the higher reaches of the ridge.

Wolf’s Head: Pitch 8

Somehow we found the route for which we had no detailed description [1][2]. We just kept venturing, squeezing through crevices between towers, stepping gingerly along narrow ledges, now passing towers on the south and now on the north, by turns in deep shadow and open to the brilliant sky. One long memorable balance traverse (p8) I led on my toes stepping gingerly off at the end with my heart in my mouth. Jeff followed, wisely instead, with his hands on the ledge—nothing for his feet but friction on the steep wall below—and at the end stepped gracefully and safely over to me.

It fell to Jeff to lead the most airy pitch of all on the north side of the final tower.

In the jungle of granite blades the summit was hard to anticipate. We rested for a while at a place that seemed the highest and then turned our attention to getting down. We had no guide book description of the descent, having been assured that the rappel points would be sufficiently evident; collections of pitons and old slings left behind by those before us. And just such a nest of old gear was visible not far below to which we rappelled straightaway without much thought. From there, however, the way ceased to look promising; we could see nothing below to indicate previous passage and so, choosing a likely way, we tossed the rope ends into the air and I went down. At ropes-end I found a small edge on which to stand but there were no fissures or features there with which to anchor the next rappel and so, laboriously, I re-climbed the rope to Jeff. It took forever. We tried another way; this time finding a piton and one weathered sling. It was not really a much better indication of the right route but we backed up the piton and sling anyway, and carried on. By now the light was fading.

Six rappels in all, almost a thousand feet, deposited us at the top of a steep snowfield in the dark—only to confirm what we had begun to suspect for a while—that we were now in the wrong cirque. An exhausting trek clockwise and completely around the massive base of Pingora took many hours of stumbling along over the boulder strewn broken ground.  Thankfully we had packed our headlamps and there were no serious technical obstacles. But, maddeningly, at the end we couldn’t find the tent owing to the invisibility of my daytime lines of sight. Eventually, after another exhausting hour of blind meanderings, we just happened upon it. Then ensued the sleep of the dead.

The Black Hills

We had a climbing date in South Dakota with some friends from Boston and so began a long drive east toward Rapid City. We camped out on BLM land near Ten Sleep Canyon, arriving the next day in Custer. Somewhere on US-16 near Moorecroft we noticed a barely visible speck on the northern horizon: Devil’s Tower.

Along the way we began to be aware of motorcycles. Then, more motorcycles. And farther east they seemed to fill the highway. What’s happening?

Mt. Rushmore

It wasn’t long before we had the answer: the week-long Fiftieth Anniversary of the Sturgis (SD) Rally [3][4]. By the time we reached Custer Harleys were ubiquitous, filling the streets and parked in endless (carless) rows along the curbs. We heard that there were 250,000 cycles and half a million riders. It was truly amazing. We camped again in isolation at the end of a long dirt road somewhere and all night—and in all of our four days in the area—we were never out of hearing of the proximate or distant roar of the infamous Harley Hog. The rumor was that ice—for the beer—had run out on the third day and was being trucked in by eighteen-wheeler from Denver.

Jeff, in an earlier incarnation, had owned a Moto Guzzi and had been for a while immersed in motorcycle culture. He became my guide to the Rally. Many of the leather jacketed and tattooed beefers were accompanied by their wives and girlfriends. However, there were many sturdy and confident women gunning their own throaty machines. Further, in the vein of the socially incorrect, along I-90 into Sturgis, hordes of bikers lined the sloping grassy banks, some with huge signs making inappropriate suggestions to the passing ladies riding pillion.

Jeff had his eye on a climb (5.8) called “Star Dancer” in back of the Presidential faces of Mount Rushmore. At the parking lot jammed with bikes the ranger estimated 25,000 for the day. We did the climb, a classic, and went on to visit the famous Needles where we encountered legendary climbing local Gene Larson [5]. He suggested “Overexposure” (5.8). I led a scary first pitch: a yard wide “chimney” between two of the “needles”; one foot and a hand on each wall and no protection until the first bolt fifteen feet up.

Devil’s Tower

Ultimately our friends from Boston were unable to join us and so we set off for Devil’s Tower [6] back in Wyoming—a hundred miles away.

90080703_DevilsTowerThe Tower was first climbed in 1893 by two local ranchers using a wooden ladder the rungs of which were stakes driven into the longest continuous crack they could find [7]. The first mountaineering ascent is due to Fritz Wiessner, Bill House, and Lawrence Coveny who established the Wiessner route in 1937. In 1941 a guy parachuted onto the top and had to be rescued. By 1985 some 2,600 climbers had reached the summit, among them our own Henry Barber, Chip Lee, and Ajax Greene via new routes.

When at last we could see the Tower we were accompanied, now as usual, by myriad bikers and upon seeing the huge lineup at the ranger kiosk our fear was that we’d not get a campsite for the night. The creeping line was nearly an hour long; in it were barely a half-dozen cars. Finally and surprisingly, though, there were plenty of tent sites. Bikers are by and large day trippers only; not into roughing it. By dusk all was quiet.

We made a mountaineer’s “alpine” start; up before dawn and well underway before sunrise, hoping to be the first on our route, the Durrance [8], the easiest way to the top. The sun was just rising as we left the visitor center permitting me to get a photo’ of the Tower’s shadow stretching far away across the western desert.

The route was open. The first pitch attains the top of a basaltic column broken off from the main mass of the Tower and leaning against it. I agreed to the first lead and, despite some misgivings, found it easier than I had feared. Jeff took the next, harder pitch.

The columns are largely hexagonal prisms more than a yard across and separated by inches wide cracks inside of which jammed hands and toes can find tenuous grips. This pitch was steep and our longest; maybe one-hundred feet. The uniformity of the column cross sections render each move upward an exact repetition of the one previous. The cracks make it pretty safe because camming devices fit into them but their continuous similarity meant that Jeff wished his varied assortment of cams had been all of the same size.

Eventually from high above I faintly heard “off belay,” disassembled my anchor, and followed the pitch.

Devil’s Tower Summit: Jeff Beyer & Bill Atkinson

In my recollection we climbed it in three or four pitches. The top of my next pitch had a scary (but very satisfying) “jump” across air and after another scramble pitch, we were at the top. In the center of this tiny elevated patch of desert scrub was a cairn and we sat for a while to enjoy the view and have a bite. The famous Vulgarian sign-post of yore and lore was gone: “No climbing beyond this point.”

I had a moment of difficulty on the first rappel. Near the end of the ropes I could see that I was inconveniently far to the left of the next anchor and that I would need both hands—as well as both feet—to make it over there. I had to think about what I was doing. Tying off the rappel, traversing over, and releasing the knot again to descend a few more feet to the anchor had to be accomplished free of error.

By the time we reached the tourist path around the base of the Tower the Harley hoards had arrived. While making our way back to the car, festooned in ropes and gear as we were, every group we encountered stopped us. And in every case their queries were the same and asked in the same order, over, and over.

“Are you going to climb it?”  We just did.

“How long did it take?” About four hours.

“Did you get to the top?”  Yes.

“What’s up there? A patch of desert about the size of the parking lot.

“How did you get down?”  We rappelled. (Rappelled? What? Etc.)

In the last leather jacketed biker group—with all the same queries—was a tall, stunning blonde in a white shirt open to an overhand knot at the navel, leaving nothing whatsoever to our poor, unwashed imaginations. We were poleaxed.

And so we had topped the “Towers” and gotten safely down and, almost, without pain. The roar and then the muttering of the “Hogs” faded away and we returned, until the next time, to the real and horizontal world.

[1] A wonderful SuperTopo log of the route with beautiful photo’s:

[2] First ascent by Fred Becky: Bonney, O.H. & L.G., Field Book the Wind River Range, Bonney & Bonney, 1960, pp. 480-481:

[3] Wikipedia:

[4] New York Times:

[5] Gene Larson:

[6] Devil’s Tower:
Also: NPS webpage.

[7] Gardiner, S. and Guilmette, R., Devil’s Tower National Monument; a Climber’s Guide, 1986, The Mountaineers.

[8] The Durrance route with many photo’s:
This one is the jump across.

The Existential Terror of Steep Friction (2017)

And the simple physics thereof:

I can assure you that any roped free climber, regardless of experience or ability, on a serious and committing friction lead has known the fear to which my title refers. This subject comes to mind in the wake of Daniel Duane’s recent brilliant piece in the New York Times [1] on Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of Freerider on El Cap. In it are evocations of the primal fear of having to trust the shoes while the hands are essentially useless, and of the fatal urge to lean in toward the false comfort of the cliff face.

A climber can easily sense any small increase in steepness which might lead to a slide:
“It still felt really insecure and I still always felt like the feet might slip,” [Honnold] said …

According to the Web the coefficient of friction of a climbing shoe sole in contact with various rock surfaces varies from 0.9 to 1.1 and is often higher if the surface is particularly rough. For my purpose here I will use a coefficient value of one.

This means, for example, that a shoe vertically loaded on a featureless forty-five degree slope has a friction resistance just balancing its tendency to slide. In this case there is no margin for error and to lean in from the vertical, however little, without foot slippage is virtually impossible. Slopes steeper than this are theoretically unclimbable by stepping-up alone, although there are steeper ones (on the Big Stone and elsewhere) with unusual roughness, or that yield to dynamic techniques, or to raw courage.

Desperate dynamic moments entail stepping up faster than the feet slide down, but have no place in controlled free soloing. Nor are we considering slopes with tiny ledges, or scoops, or places where the hands can do anything other than lightly kiss or even leave the face. Even roped, the friction leader has scant opportunity to set protection owing to a general featurelessness of slabs.

Tuolumne. Photo: Ed MacKerrow


More commonly one is on a lesser slope, say of thirty degrees, as is typical of our own White Horse Ledge in New Hampshire. Here the geometry is more forgiving although it takes real conviction to be convinced of it. In this case one need lean in from the vertical only fifteen degrees for the feet to give way.

Amazingly Alex learned to control the fierce reluctance to stand free, in effect, putting his hands in his pockets and tip-toeing to the next haven a dozen steps above.

Two-thousand feet above the Yosemite Valley floor!

Without a rope!


New York Times, Daniel Duane:  “El Capitan, My El Capitan
GQ, Tim Sohn:
Tommy Caldwell: Why-alex-honnold-free-solo-of-el-cap-scared-me.


Reflections on a Time-Scale for the Formation of the Alps of Chamonix (~1980)

Le Glacier de Leschaux et La Mer de Glace, Chamonix [Editions ANDRE]

At Geneva in Switzerland the river Arve flows a majestic and translucent milky white as it drains much of the province of the Haute Savoie—the French Alps.  As I stand on the point of land at the very confluence of the turbid Arve and, in sharp contrast to the right, the clear, black purity of the Rhône leaving Lac Leman, it occurs to me to wonder how this tenuous and ghostly passage could rationally be related in time to the magnificence of the mountains towering over the valleys of the glaciers and streams that produced them [1].

Rhone et Arve (ExtremeCollections)

I make a wild guess that the Arve carries an average suspended burden of erosional silt and glacial rock-flour in the amount of 1.0mm^3 /1000cm^3—a cube about the size of the head of a pin in one liter of water (one part per million).

The ultimate erosion rate is probably more than I guess for my estimate omits unseen dissolved minerals and organics, the mass transfer of material along the river bed itself in the form of the roll and wear of non-suspended sand and pebbles during floods, and the organic detritus which floats on the surface as dead twigs, grass, and leaves.  The erosion rate could have been hugely greater than this during the peaks of the many ice ages which have gripped the northern hemisphere in the last five-hundred thousand years.  But, it is interesting to reflect upon what the vastness of time can do with tiny resources.

I assume now—not so much of a guess—that a rectangle roughly 100km by 50km (5,000km^2 or 5,000,000,000m^2) represents the area, A, of the watershed of the river Arve and its tributaries in which the elevation of the average valley (500m) is 3,000 meters below that of the average summit (3,500m), a difference, of 3,000m.  I assume, further, that the volume of this mountainous mass has the form of a quadrilateral pyramid, i.e., of height h= 3,000m, and base A= 5,000,000,000m^2, and thus has volume equal to Ah/3= 5,000,000,000,000 or 5 quadrillion cubic meters (5.0×10^12m^3).  Subtracting this from an original solid block hA leaves a remainder 2Ah/3 which has eroded away over time. This equates to 10,000 cubic kilometers or 2,400 cubic miles of solid rock.

Assume the Arve at Geneva—I stand and watch it flow by—is 200m wide, 5m deep on average (10m in midstream), and flows at a rate of about 5,000m/hr (an average walk).  The volume of flow is then 5,000,000m^3/hr and, hence, carries a milky load of 5.0m^3/hr; the equivalent of an annual erosional volume of a mere 40,000 cubic meters per year.

However, at this rate the Arve (as it exists today) would have required only 250 million years to carry away the rock volume of the valleys of the Haute Savoie from an initially level plain of elevation 3,000m; a short time geologically, and well since the appearance of the first fossilized life forms 600 million years ago. The earth is 5,500 million years old and the life upon it about 3,000 million years. [2]

To translate this into a rate of average lowering of the terrain, we can divide the annual erosional volume (40,000m^3/yr) by the area of the watershed (5,000,000,000m^2) to get 0.000008m/yr, or less than one millimeter every 100 years.  This rate is pretty easy to imagine as happening everywhere, continuously and yet virtually undetected before our very eyes.  Of course the rate is smaller where terrain is more or less broad and level and higher where it is narrow and steep.

The Arve, of course, was not, and never was, as it is today.  It did not exist as such, even probably, as recently as 100 thousand years (several ice ages) ago.  Further, the highest points undoubtedly began as much lower regions gradually elevated during the erosional process by the inexorable northward drift and collision of the African continent through the process of plate tectonics.  Furthermore, the silt load varies with season. So then, of what use my estimate?  It serves only as an example of what deep time can accomplish with the tiny effects we see around us today; and to illustrate the feasibility and the fun of getting a feel for reality by simple and rational means.

This article first appeared in The Crux; a publication of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston Chapter Mountaineering Committee. Editors: Al Stebbins and Nancy Zizza.

[1] At Geneva the Rhone flows clear and black because its sediments have settled out at its mouth, far away at the eastern end of Lac Leman.

[2] Today the Mer de Glace at Chamonix has retreated so far up the valley that it is no longer visible from the tourist terraces at Montenvers. Its confluence with the Glacier de Leschaux (prominent in the banner photo’ ca 2000) no longer exists as this flow, too, has vanishhed almost to the base of the Grandes Jurasses.



“Travails” with Charley: A Climbing Vignette (1972)

Dick Williams 1972 guidebook

In the early seventies I had been climbing in the ‘Gunks off and on for fifteen years and, having been a cautious venturer, had just recently been getting into leading the “sixes.” Such classics as “Disneyland,” “Middle Earth,” and “High Exposure” were behind me and so, one day with Sam Tatnall in 1973, we happened upon “Travels with Charley”—a 5.6 in Dick Williams’ 1972 guidebook.

The left-facing corner on the first pitch seemed hard—and perhaps that should have told us something. However, I made it safely to the belay and brought up Sam.

The next pitch was steep and ended in a rising traverse up right, around a corner, and out of sight. It looked ominously as though there might be nowhere to stand in balance along the way. But heck, five-six? What could possibly go wrong?

The face was steep! Jugs up to the traverse but I was nowhere really in balance as I struggled with protection; years before SLCDs and still longer before TriCams.

At the traverse it was a relief to see a small Chouinard angle securely placed at its outset. I clipped, called down to Sam, took a deep breath, and set out. I wasn’t half way across when I realized my arms weren’t going to hold out. I shouted “Coming back!” followed almost immediately by “Falling!” The pin held. And I got my feet out just in time to swing safely into the wall. Sam came up, took the lead, and confidently did the traverse without stopping to protect it. I followed and just barely made it to the end. I had to un-crimp my hands at the belay.

The next year, having led more sixes and a few sevens, I found myself again at “Travels,” this time with my friend and uncommonly skilled climber Steve Angelini. The idea was that this time I would successfully lead the traverse. The pin was still there but when, inevitably I fell, my feet weren’t right and I banged my knees. Steve effortlessly did the lead and I followed with difficulty.

Then, in 1980, in Dick William’s new guidebook: “Travels with Charley”, 5.8. And, in subsequent volumes: 5.7+R and even 5.8-R! I guess the pin must long be gone.

Finally, sometime in the late seventies, I was yet again passing by—looking for “Gaston” with my friend Wes Grace. Yes! There was a guy just beginning the “Travels” traverse. I touched Wes on the shoulder and said “Hey wait, watch this.” We were not disappointed.

More climbing vignettes:
Bobo to the Rescue
The Gendarme


Two for Four on “Sam’s Swan Song” (~1970s-1981)

Cannon Cliff , Franconia Notch

Although Cannon Cliff had been pretty well tamed by then, forty-some years ago, we Boston folk still viewed its distant 1,000 foot face with some measure of mystery, and respect. Indeed, Cannon was not without a reputation for danger. In 1968 a Dartmouth climber had been killed as a result of rock fall, and earlier two inexperienced boys had famously died of exposure—benighted on the cliff.

We ventured north maybe once a year—often later in the season; the wisdom being that the icy stresses of the previous winter had to be given time to relax.

Aside from some classic route descriptions published in Appalachia [1] before the War, Bob Hall’s detailed typewritten pages of 1967 were then the only available guide.

After one had climbed some of the reasonable routes like Lakeview, Wiessner’s, Old Cannon, and Cannonade, and had savored the airy exposure of the Whitney-Gilman, it was time to venture into more challenging territory. We looked to Sam’s Swan Song [2] as the next serious climb to do.


And so, in the early seventies, Tom Hayden and I went up to give Sam’s a try. We switched leads. The first pitch fell to me, next the short hand traverse on the third, and the long rising traverse right on the fifth. Tom led to the “Cow Pasture,” and I gingerly ascended a notorious rotten section above that ending below a steep jam crack. Tom led the crack—it was hard. I’m sure I yelled for “tension”; at the top my fingers cramped into useless hooks refusing to straighten. That eighth pitch seemed to have been the crux and we negotiated the final three or four to the top with no trouble. Great climb! At the top was a screw-top glass jar containing a register and a stubby pencil. In the very bottom was a scrap of paper closed with a clip enfolding a small joint [3]. Its note read “To get a little higher.” Sadly, we had no matches.


A year or so later I went up on Sam’s again, this time with my friend Townsend Barker. The idea was that in swinging leads I would get to lead the pitches I had followed with Tom. And so it went to top of the rotten seventh pitch. I had just reached Townsend and tied in when, with a clap of thunder, the darkening skies opened loosing a torrent of cold rain which soon became hail—bouncing down the cliff and filling the cracks in the rock with little white marbles. The weather on Cannon comes in from the blind side. Soon we were soaked and shivering. To keep spirits up Townsend filled the moments with a long, inane shaggy-dog story at the end of which, and without much thought, we agreed that we’d best go down.

Townsend had a brand new, three-hundred foot bicolor rope. Two rappels, the second from the Cow Pasture, got us to the top of the rising traverse. We tied in to fixed pins and Townsend began pulling the recovery. In the middle of its “slither” phase the rope suddenly stopped coming. He pulled. Nothing. He pulled harder. Nothing. We pulled together to no avail. Townsend reached into his pocket and pulled something out—his knife. “Wait!” I said. “Let’s try one more time.” Against being unbalanced if the rope came suddenly free we tied into everything in sight. And we PULLED! Sproing! It gave way and a shoe-box sized rock hurtled, whispering softly by us to disappear crashing and banging below. As Town coiled the rope for the next throw I happened to look back out over the valley. “Town! Look!” And there below us was our reward—a magnificent double rainbow silhouetted against the green dark of the valley trees.

What next? The prospect of rappelling more or less sideways down the rising traverse was not appealing as, at forty-five degrees, it would have been hard to resist a strong side pull. Maybe we could have down-climbed it on belay somehow protecting against swings; and perhaps we should have.

Straight down the face was blank as far as we could see but there was a hint of a stopping place a long way down. I made sure I had the means to re-climb and started off. I went a long way, walking from side to side, and by the time I could see the rope ends I became concerned. Nothing was in sight. But, a little farther, a little farther, and—relief—there was a small ledge with a corner that would take protection. Only a foot or so of rope remained.

The protection there was good and two or three more rappels got us safely down to the top of the talus below.


Again, in 1976, I found myself up on Sam’s, this time as two ropes of two. It was our combined New York and Boston AMC Labor Day weekend trip. I had the lead rope seconded by a young woman whose brother led the second.

The climb went well and in pretty good time we reached the bottom of the penultimate pitch beyond which was one of class four scramble. And then (damn!)—it began to pour. There was wind and the rain was freezing cold. The squall passed fairly quickly but those without rain-wear got wet. I turned my attention to the next pitch which is steep and somewhat featureless, and has the unfortunate characteristic of offering hand and footholds that are largely upside down. The pitch was running wet. I traversed left and right seeking a way to get started and eventually concluded that I wasn’t up for it—not a good mindset for a leader.

The second rope declined to take the lead and we made the decision, probably too hastily, to go down. It was late. We might better have waited the hour or so needed for the pitch to dry. The young woman was shivering. Before starting the climb we had failed to do a thorough check on personal equipment and the result was that I was the only one with a headlamp. We realized then that we would be overtaken by darkness.

At dusk I reached the top of the rising traverse but the others had to set up and descend to me without a light in the pitch dark; a testament to the skill of climbers who know what they are doing.

And so here I was, yet again, at this spot facing a rappel into the void, but this time at least knowing pretty well that it was possible. The one problem might be if our ropes were not as long as half of Townsend’s 300-foot bi-color. If we had cut the rope that day I would never have known about the crucial ledge. And so, again making sure that I could re-climb if I had to, I started down in the dark. The headlamp beam (four D-cells) was pretty strong but faded out almost completely only eight or ten feet away, the ropes below vanishing into gloom. I went slowly, again walking from side to side peering down and sincerely hoping that what I had remembered was right.

Eventually I could discern the knots in the rope ends, but where were the ledge and crack? The knots were so close it seemed impossible that they would not be in sight. I paid out another couple of feet; end-knots now only a few feet away. Will I still be able to reach them when my weight is off? I think maybe to walk a bit farther to the right—and, suddenly, there it was! I had to stretch down to get my footing. There was not room for four here so one had to rap the next pitch before the others could begin their descent. It was slow going; we left gear behind.

Across the valley below there were lights at Boise Rock [4], among them police red and blue flashers. A distant bull-horn burst into stentorian sound echoing off the cliff and the distant peaks.

Are…you…all right?

If…you…are…all right…blink…your…light…two…times!

Not knowing whether to turn the lamp off for a bit and back on twice in succession, or to leave it on and turn it off twice, we blinked it more or less randomly and continued on.

We were met at the bottom around midnight by a New York AMC welcoming party who had delayed their long drive to New York to struggle in the dark for the hour it takes to climb the talus to bring us hot coffee and lights.


In July of 1981 I went with my Australian dear friend and climbing partner Ian Armstrong to the Tetons for two weeks. We warmed up on Baxter’s Pinnacle the first day, and then went up to do a two or three-day ascent of the East Snowfields route on Owen. Unaccountably I had new and surprising difficulty on this climb; Ian had to carry my pack most of the way to our first bivouac, and we failed on the route the next day because I was so slow on the ascent and totally exhausted by our retreat from the base of the East Prong, our highest point.

Bev Boynton, Ian Armstrong, Eric Engberg, Larry LaForge

We thought it was lack of proper altitude acclimatization, but on a subsequent “test” backpack to the summit of Table Mountain again I had excruciating difficulty on the descent. I booked an early flight home leaving Ian to finish out his two weeks with Eric Engberg, Larry LaForge, and Bev Boynton.

In August Ian had returned and we agreed to go up on Sam’s. We swung leads. Above the Cow Pasture I remember grabbing the bottom-most of a stack of dinner plates which teetered ominously but did not fall. The climbing seemed easy enough; perhaps my problem was the altitude after all.

However, scrambling down the Whitney-Gilman walk-off couloir was something else—and it certainly wasn’t the altitude. I could hardly take a downward step; lowering my weight on the quadriceps was painfully tiring. It must have taken me more than three hours to make it from top to bottom.

A week later I learned from my physician that I suffered from Graves’ Disease, an excess thyroid imbalance leading to hyper-metabolism and a gradual wasting of the body’s large muscles. Fortunately there was medication to correct it and I spent the winter in the gym to regain my former strength.

This article first appeared in The Crux; a publication of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston Chapter Mountaineering Committee. Editors: Al Stebbins and Nancy Zizza.
[1] Appalachia: The Journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).
[2] Sam Streibert inspired and organized the first (unsuccessful) foray onto his eponymous route, but life intervened and others later finished the climb [1964] graciously giving it his name.
[3] Actually this happened to Tom and me earlier on the Whitney-Gilman, but it’s worth the retelling.
[4] Boise Rock. A northbound turnout on the old notch road before the advent of I-93. Google it.


“Bobo” to the Rescue: A Climbing Vignette (1986, 1987)

Joshua Tree, Hall of Horrors- “Lickety Splits”. Photo: Bill Olszewski

The crack was petering out.  What, thirty feet below, had begun as a tolerable protection “eater” now had become so thin that I could “get in” nothing larger than almost my smallest wire nut.  It slipped into a little vertical crevice with rounded granite flanks about eight feet above my last pretty good piece.  A few feet above the steepness relented a bit, but there the crack ended in a fine line that vanished at eye level into the featureless upper reaches of the quartz monzonite dome.  We were in the high California desert in the Hall of Horrors at Joshua Tree National Monument.  Our climb was “Lickety Splits,” a 5.7 on which I had found it difficult enough to reach my present stance.  From here up it turned to steep friction with no further protection.

I ventured a step up the slab, hands palming the rock seeking out non-existent crystals or pockets.  Unaccountably my foot held.  I tried another step, and another, and I began to feel almost secure until arriving at a point where the slope steepened again, almost imperceptibly.  I tried another step—and froze.  I looked up—eight feet to the final roundoff.  And down—twelve feet to the little stopper and twenty to my last good piece.  I felt pretty sure that I didn’t dare make the next few moves.  The barely possible down-climb or the potential forty foot fall seemed unthinkable.  What to do?

Calling down to my belayer, Pat Stebbins, I shouted  “I don’t think I can do this next bit.  And if I can’t I’m in real trouble.”

“Can you belay me up to there?”

“No, not a chance.  No anchor here possible; I really don’t know what to do.”

After some further exchanges and long silences Pat called up.  “The folks on the next climb can drop you a rope when they reach the top.  Is that OK?”  Swallowing my pride I replied, “Sure.  That would be great!”

After a few long minutes a rope-end snaked its way over the bulge above me and I gratefully tied it in to my harness.

Then, from somewhere above, I heard “On belay!” and moved into the pitch.  The moves seemed tenuous and scary but, really, not all that bad—I’ve stepped over harder.  I felt vaguely as though I had cheated myself.  A leader shrinks from the idea that he may not exhibit self-sufficiency in any difficulty.  In this place, had we been alone, I am not sure what the outcome might have been.  I suppose I would eventually have successfully braved the necessary moves—after all, only 5.7.

At the top a suntanned mountain veteran of about forty-five greeted me who introduced himself as Jim (“Bobo”) Burwick, longtime Exum Guide in the Tetons, on a busman’s holiday with friends from Jackson.  He seemed reassuring and pleasantly dismissive of my embarrassment for having had to bail out of my precarious situation.  He asked my age (then 66) and expressed a lively interest in old climbers who had been around for much longer than he had. He invited me to come over to visit him and his friends at Ryan Campground that evening.  I did that and we sat around his fire under the stars, downed a few beers, and talked of climbing in the Tetons.

A Year Passes…

Outside Dornan’s store at Moose in Jackson Hole I tossed a bag of ice into the cooler in the trunk of our rental car and dropped the lid.  For a fleeting moment, just before the lid slammed shut, I had a vision of the car keys lying inside on top of a sleeping bag.

Instant panic!  It was Saturday afternoon.  It was four-thirty at the end of our last day in the Tetons and we were headed south to Salt Lake to catch the plane the next day.  It had been a good trip—we had climbed Moran and the East Snowfields route on Teewinot.  Brian (Fulton) emerged from the store, bags in his arms, and all but dropped them when I told him what I had done.  What to do?

On the pay phone at the door we called the rental agency in Salt Lake and they told us they could give us a key code for a local locksmith.  However, “the guy who does the keys isn’t here yet; call again in a few minutes.”  The nearest locksmith was in Jackson, twenty-five miles away.  We called him.  He would close at six.  No.  Sorry.  Not open on Sundays.  And, anyway, how could we get to Jackson without a car?  Seized by even greater panic.

We called back to Salt Lake.  Long, agonizing waits on the line feeding quarters into the phone outside the store.

The door to Dornan’s opened; a man stepped out and:

“Bill!  How are you?  Remember?  Jim from Joshua Tree.  What’s up?  Is there some problem?”

“Well, um, yes there is.”  And we explained our difficulty.

“No worry!  There’s my truck and I’m headed in to Jackson.  I’ll give you a lift and I can bring you back, too.”

At last we obtained the magic code and piled into the pickup.  Jim rambled on volubly as we sped along telling us of his guiding here and sailing in the Caribbean during the winter months.  I happened to mention that I had done the East Ridge of the Grand in ‘57 and Jim said, “I’ll bet that was hardly even the tenth ascent of that route.  We can find out in Jackson.”

Just barely before six the locksmith promised us our key.  While waiting Jim drove us over to the library, walked straight to a side room, then to a shelf, and pulled down a book: “Ascents of the Grand Teton” by Leigh Ortenburger.  Phil Gribbon and I had done the forty-seventh ascent of the East Ridge route.

Back at Dornan’s we held our breath—the trunk popped open.  “Bobo” Burwick had saved me again.

This article first appeared in The Crux; a publication of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston Chapter Mountaineering Committee. Editors: Al Stebbins and Nancy Zizza.

More climbing vignettes:
The Gendarme
“Travails” With Charley