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.