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 “LicketySplits,” 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.
In August 1957 I decided to go west alone to the Tetons. My new climbing friends went generally west in July but I could not arrange my vacation time earlier from Henry Dreyfuss Studio (the celebrated American industrial designer) in New York. Going alone with no high mountain experience seemed daunting at the time but I decided that not to go would be to give up a taste of new adventure for no good reason.
I packed at 21 Jones Street and got Peter Pruyn to drive me to La Guardia. The week before at Camp & Trail on Canal Street, feeling very much the mountaineer I had not yet become, I purchased my first rope, carabiners, and some soft iron pitons. It excited me to heft and to coil and recoil the new laid rope, 120 feet of white 3/8 inch nylon, and to manipulate and to clip the forged iron into various of my brand new Bedayn aluminum ‘biners. I felt on the verge of an experience I could not have imagined even one year earlier upon having stumbled onto the Appalachian Mountain Club climbing training group in the Shawangunk Mountains (the ‘Gunks) the previous September.
In Denver, with an introduction to some friends of friends (the Elrick’s, now long out of mind) I stayed a night. In the morning, in an effort to save money, I found and arranged for a “drive-away” to Utah—the company would even pay for the gas. They gave me a used Rambler station wagon and, with my pack and camping stuff in the back, I headed west toward the looming Rockies for a world of the west I had seen before only on the wild west screen and in National Geographic magazine. The drive-away company gave me twenty-four hours to make it to Ogden, Utah 525 miles away.
What excitement! At Red Rocks, an outdoor theater above Denver, I stopped briefly to admire the wind-eroded sandstone turrets and went on over the Berthoud Pass eventually finding a dirt side road which permitted me more or less to conceal the car, my metal tent, for the night. In the fading light I cooked supper on the little Primus on the tailgate and settled in to sleep feeling uncommonly adventurous.
I did make it in one day to Ogden but it was a long haul without much time available for stopping. Rabbit Ears Pass was, according to the signs, closed and so I rerouted myself via Taponas and Oak Creek to Steamboat Springs. Along the way were mountains whose aspen-covered slopes almost glittered in the sun their silver leaves shivering in the breeze. I passed isolated sentinels of stone wondering the while whether they had been ever climbed and imagining myself, triumphant on their tops, coiling the rope and hurling it in loops and swirls into the void for rappel.
The highway after Steamboat Springs descended gradually from the green of the higher alps to the dusty desert below (most of this area is well above 5,000 feet in elevation). I began to see farther and farther and then to notice cactus by the roadside and to see cottonwoods marking the beds of distant washes. I passed Craig (I was to see Craig again in 1972) and then crossed the Yampa and miles and miles of desert to Vernal, Utah where the Green River crosses from the north. (At the town of Green River itself, 120 miles to the south, John Wesley Powell set out on his epic one-hundred day descent of the Colorado River in 1869.)
From here it stretched still two-hundred miles to Ogden on the Great Salt Lake but at last in the early evening I began to descend toward the valley, at one point I passed a strange geological feature noted as Devil’s Slide. It comprises two huge walls of harder rock, separated by about ten feet, and left higher by erosion than the surrounding sandstone, rising out of sight over a rolling hill like the parallel rails of an immense prehistoric railroad or roller coaster.
At first the drive-away man in Ogden refused to pay me for the gas but after a prolonged argument over the contract he agreed and I made my way to a hotel where they showed me to a shabby room in back on a high floor overlooking the Wasatch Mountains. I cooked supper on the dresser while watching a spectacular play of lightning over the mountains from a storm receding eastward into the night.
In the morning I caught a bus to Rock Springs, Wyoming and as we climbed out of the valley of the Salt Lake we again passed by Devil’s Slide. As a matter of interest I pointed it out to the little grey-haired lady at the window next to me. She looked for a long moment and then replied, “Oh my, they must have used that in the olden times.”
At Rock Springs I changed to a bus for Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. My seatmate told me his name was Bill Buckingham. We talked some and only months later did I find that he (and his father) were Teton mountaineers of some note. In the darkness at Jenny Lake campground, having seen nothing yet of the spectacular scenery around me, I found a site and set up my little army surplus poplin two-man tent.
Amphitheater Lake Camp
If you have no climbing partner you put a note on the bulletin board at the ranger station and wait until somebody shows up. I spent a beautiful day in awe of the panorama of high peaks to the west and took a boat ride across Jenny Lake. I bought Leigh Ortenburger’s Teton guidebook and set about getting my bearings.
At suppertime “Tink” Thompson appeared—graduated from Yale in June, a former summer ranger with some Teton experience, and with three days of vacation remaining. Tink wanted to do the East Ridge route on the Grand Teton, highest peak in the range. And so, after having exchanged the obligatory half-truths on relative mountaineering experience (of which I had none whatever) we agreed to hike to Amphitheater Lake (9,700 ft) to do a reconnaissance and to see how we would work out as a climbing pair. Tink wanted to view the ridge from the Teewinot summit (12,317 ft).
From the Lupine Meadows trail head (6,800 ft, Tink had a car) we spent the afternoon laboring up seemingly endless switchbacks to the Garnet Canyon cutoff and then northwest to climb to Surprise and on to jewel-like Amphitheater Lake. Tink knew of a cave where we could camp—we had not taken a tent. The cave, rocky and cramped, suffered the serious defect of having no mosquito netting which kept us uncomfortably awake most of the night. Camped near us were members of a major expedition organized to climb the Grand’s north face sponsored, as I recall, by LIFE Magazine. Among the expedition principals I recognized Hans Kraus, a world famous climber known to me from our AMC group at the ‘Gunks. He would barely have acknowledged me, a rank beginner. Surreptitiously though, I took his picture standing at ease in his characteristic blue skullcap. [Years later I came to present him with a copy of this photo as part of remarks I offered at a Kraus testimonial dinner in the ‘Gunks.)
The long summer evening lingered. The floor of Jackson Hole expanded into the distance three-thousand feet below us its flat expanse punctuated by the outcrop of Blacktail Butte. The glacial lakes gleamed in the dark under the fading light of dusk the Wind River range barely outlined far to the east. I suspended belief that I could really be here but not without some apprehension about what might be in store.
While cooking cereal and making coffee at dawn Tink abandoned his Teewinot plan and opted to do Disappointment Peak (11,600) instead. Disappointment rose directly above us, accessible via the snow filled couloirs in the headwall of the cirque that cradled the lake. (I have no recollection of whether or not I had an ice axe for this climb. Certainly at that time I did not own one.) In a few hours we sat on the summit pinnacle from which the east ridge of the Grand spread out before us in all its detail as though in a great photographic enlargement in place on an easel. Tink sat gazing at the route for the better part of an hour, making notes in his Ortenburger, and naively inviting me into speculation about its possible intricacies and difficulties.
At the cave that evening we decided to attempt the East Ridge route the next day. We would rise and go in the darkness well before dawn—a traditional “alpine start.” The night was muggy, oppressive, and the mosquitoes frightful. Near the hour set we were awakened, not by our alarm, but by a crash of thunder followed by a storm of lightning, torrential rain, and wind that persisted well into the coming of first light thus making our predawn start impossible. Owing to the known length of the route we had to abandon the ascent and, after breakfast in rapidly improving weather, we packed up and headed down. Tink had no more days of vacation. We drove into Jackson and treated ourselves to drinks and a steak dinner.
The next day my notice yielded an Irish professor of physics, Philip Gribbon who had just learned that his wife was pregnant. They were en route to the east coast from Vancouver—where he had enjoyed an exchange professorship for a year—now seeing America and climbing along the way. He was secretary of the Irish Mountaineering Club and hoped to climb the Grand Teton. Did I know the area? Did I know anything about good routes? Why, yes! I am somewhat familiar (at least from a distance) with the East Ridge. And (my close familiarity such that) I happen to know of a cave we can use to obviate the necessity of carrying a tent. And thus we decided to do the route that Tink had so hoped to have done two days before. We realized that I would need an ice axe and since Margo could not climb (Phil’s orders) I gained the use of hers.
The cave was, as before, a trial but we bore its tortures and rose before dawn to a calm, star-filled sky. By the time we had completed the descent into the great couloir between Disappointment and the huge mass of the East Ridge it had become daylight. The granite wall above facing the rising sun glowed orange and gold above us. We climbed the terminal moraine of the Teton glacier to gain the foot of the ridge and from there could clearly see tiny Delta Lake far below—made powder blue by its burden of glacial rock flour. We looked up. The route looked like a “piece of cake” to our unseasoned eyes. We fairly leapt upon the wall.
Roped but moving together, at first we progressed rapidly but slowed somewhat as the guidebook route description seemed less and less to resemble the maze of cracks, slabs, chimneys, and dierdres we saw endlessly before us. The physical scale of these features loomed so huge compared to those we knew and proved so inadequately covered by the few puny phrases in the guidebook that, at first, we felt overwhelmed. In a world without cairns or blazes Phil proved a master route-finder. Through his analysis of the terrain we recovered from more than one inadvertent detour. At one stage Phil led us down and to the left (rather than up and to the right as seemed evident to me) successfully to place us in a rocky couloir capped by the largest chockstone in the Tetons according to my friend Bob Larsen. Obviously we had returned to the route having traversed the base of the Molar Tooth, a prominent sentinel on the ridge. There we lost several precious minutes searching unsuccessfully in crevices for the strap to Phil’s axe which had slipped from his axe and wrist.
Having climbed the chimney formed by the right (east) side of the huge boulder (bigger than a large house) we crossed over its upper reaches and confronted our first really “technical” obstacle—a steep wall about ten meters high; class five but only of moderate difficulty. I had the more rock experience (and Phil the more on ice and snow) so the one pitch lead fell to me and we climbed it in a few minutes. There followed more and seemingly endless class four pitches above which loomed the most prominent feature on the ridge—the Second Tower, to be skirted on the right above the precipice, now more than two-thousand feet to the Teton glacier below. Time had passed—it had advanced to 2:30. Getting late. We climbed into the afternoon too naive even to have discussed the possibility of a “turnaround” time.
We heard the distant grumble of thunder and looked up, almost for the first time, to note clouds stealing in from Idaho to the west. Only minutes later we knew we faced a major thunderstorm and scrambled to find an overhang or a rock for shelter. The storm came on, fast and booming. Crouching in our quasi-cave we saw the Teewinot summit directly opposite us and at about the same elevation several times struck by multiple bolts of lightning. It rained, we put on our light parkas and managed to stay relatively dry. The clearing of the storm, as such things often prove, was glorious. The sunlit pinnacles emerged from the dark clouds; the thunder faded into the east over the valley; great gray sheets of rain slanting down to the valley floor from the overcast.
We had lost an hour. But we had gained enough height to see the lower edge of the steep summit snowfield above us. This patch of snow appears plainly visible from the valley. The air had become cooler and noticeably thin and we moved slowly and with great heaving breaths. On the snowfield it became a case of one or two steps (we were woefully unacclimatized), then stop, deep breath, plant axe, and kick another couple of steps in the snow. Phil shivered with cold; he had on only a pair of shorts. I felt better off in long pants. We huffed and puffed slowly upward. The slope seemed steep, exposed, endless. A slip here, as I would learn a few hours later, would have proven fatal.
At last we came again to rock and safer going. Soon then signs of the passage of booted feet; then a short steep but easy wall littered at its base with candy wrappers, rusty sardine cans, and cigarette butts. Up this; a few more steps and we reached the top standing on the Geodetic Survey marker (13,770 feet above sea level), the world at our feet, and a vast, yawning view in every direction. It was five-thirty.
Sign the register; take a couple of photos and it’s then time to head down. Down the backside, down the Owen Spaulding route at least as far as the Black Dike on the Idaho side. Down as far and as fast as we could in the waning light.
Phil led us unerringly to the first rappel and then to the top of the famous Owen rappel almost by divination. We had two 120 ft ropes so we knew we could reach its bottom even though it was unnervingly out of sight owing to the huge overhang of the wall at our feet. We tied the rope ends together at a mass of old laid rope slings and each of us in turn launched himself over the edge and into the void. About halfway down the wall arched under leaving feet in the air and body slowly twisting in the air until the welcome touchdown at the Upper Saddle just as the rope ran out. Quickly. Recoil the ropes. Onward and downward.
With Phil in the lead we hastened southward seeking the long east-west dike of dark basalt which cuts completely through the Grand to the south of us. It marked the place finally to turn left and east again to find a long chain of snow couloirs descending to Teepe Glacier and beyond into the great chasm between Disappointment and the Grand. Phil came through again and we arrived at a narrow notch in the ridge from which a steep snow-filled gully descended into the depths at an angle of fifty degrees or so.
We roped up. “Do you know how to glissade?” asked Phil. “Do you know how to do self-arrest (with the axe)? No? Well, you roll your shoulder over onto the pick like this and press it into the slope to stop the sliding. As for the glissade watch me,” whereupon he skied off on his boots, dragging his axe point behind him for balance in the snow as I paid out the rope—all 120 feet of it. He vanished downward into the gathering gloom. When the rope took up he stopped and called up for me to come on down. This worried me a little because, if unable to stop a fall, I faced a 240 foot slide.
I started out and, inevitably, I lost it after a few feet. My self-arrest proved ineffectual and I shot off feet first and then head first gathering speed rapidly. I must have rocketed past the horrified Phil at about thirty miles per hour with yet another 120 feet to go. Suddenly the surface changed from corn snow to snow and dirt, to dirt, the dirt to pebbles, and the pebbles to stones and rocks just as the rope took up with a jolt. Immediately ahead I saw jagged, killer boulders. My shirt, pulled from my pants, was completely stuffed with snow, mud, and gravel; I had painful raspberries on both arms; my ribs hurt; I was shaken but thankful that the rope had not been ten feet longer.
Night had come. Darkness fell. The flashlight I pulled from my knapsack was, of course, dead; on all day long in the pack. As Phil had none it was to have served as our only light. In starlight the snow gleamed faintly below us beyond the black of the rocky island of which more protruded from the snow below us at intervals along the route.
The time had come to operate by the rules. On the descent the leader (the most experienced) goes last. I would go first, belayed, followed by Phil whom I then belayed in turn but who had sufficient skill never to have any trouble zipping down on his boots. Then, inexplicably, dawn seemed imminent; there seemed a slight lightening of the snow and then miraculously, beyond a rocky defile, low in the sky, a truly immense and glorious full moon rose to meet us headlong over the Wind River Range! Almost joyfully then, and for hours we played on down the seemingly endless reaches of steep snow until we came under the shadow of the immense wall of Disappointment Peak at the point to re-ascend the steep and rocky trail, now in darkness, to our cave at Amphitheatre Lake. We had moved without rest for seventeen hours; it was half after midnight.
I wanted only to crawl into the cave and sleep but Phil insisted that we pack up and go on down as he had rashly promised Margo we would have been back by dinnertime. We took some time to cook and eat our remaining food then packed up and headed down bathed in legendary moonlight. It was near dawn and the moon had set below the peaks behind us when we limped into Lupine Meadows to find Phil’s car and return to the campground. In the morning (about 3:00pm) we cleaned up a bit, and had Margo take a victory photograph (shouldered ropes, open guidebook, crossed axes, etc.; really tacky).
People talked of a comet visible in the western sky and by walking and running some distance east out across the prairie we raised it over the mass of the darkening mountains. A beautiful comet suspended, its long tail glowing, in the deepening purple of the evening sky. Comet Mrkos, as I recall. We drove into Jackson for my second round of drinks and steak. We toasted.
Postscripts: The East Ridge, I later learned, is not often done owing to its length and to its route-finding difficulties. Some forty years later Jim (“Bobo”) Burwick, an Exum Guide, showed me a book, Ascents of the Grand Teton by Leigh Ortenburger. In it I found that we had made the 47th ascent of the route—the “oneth” having been made by our own Kenneth Henderson, et al, in 1929. Until 1957 at least, it seems to have been done, on average, about once every two years.
Some ten years later (and not having been in any way a JFK conspiracy buff myself) I read a long and detailed article in The New Yorker magazine about the tenacity and dedication of the conspiracy theorists surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. It concerned mainly a new book “Six Seconds in Dallas”. The book’s author: Josiah “Tink” Thompson.
Nov. 2017: I have just received the following link from my daughter who dabbles in such things (re Philip Gribbon): the Polar Medal.
Why, after all, I had none of the prerequisites. I was neither rich, nor British, nor possessed of a boyhood passed in Lederhosen in a village of the Haute-Savoie. I had not attended Harvard; my father was not a mountain guide, I hadn’t summers off from teaching. I never gave it a thought until, in 1956, I found myself at a Manhattan cocktail party in conversation with one Francis Medina who, it turned out, was a climber. A climber? Of cliffs? You’re kidding! Yes, with ropes and pitons and all? I reached out to touch him in the familiar gesture of hoi polloi toward the Gods. Where and how? The Appalachian Mountain Club? A training program for utter neophytes? He scribbled me a phone number—and my life was changed forever.
That September, having left the New York State Thruway , I drove through the village of New Paltz, across the Wallkill, and out onto NY 299 headed west. What gradually rose ahead was hard to believe; an endlessly wide expanse of distant cliffs arrayed above a talus three times as high as the cliffs themselves. Wow! Who knew? There is no better introduction to this region of New York than to drive west on NY 299 on a sparkling morning.
Eventually, almost under the cliffs, I encountered a wild hairpin turn in the narrow road followed by a few cars parked on the right below a steep wooded and boulder-strewn slope. I stopped next to a pipe from which water flowed from a hidden spring.
I scrambled over the boulders to reach a private road at a climbers gathering place—the “Uberfall.” I learned further that I was in the Shawangunk (Shongum) mountains, foothills of the Catskills, and in a place which came to be known to climbers the world over as the ‘Gunks.
After having joined the AMC people (the only climbing group there), I was shown a few knots, and tied at my waist into a rope which went up thirty feet or so to a man, Cran Barrow, perched on a ledge and holding the other end. Today I’m not sure where this was but it may have been on the ledges that in recent years have become the usual descent route from the close-by climbs.
As I climbed Cran absorbed the slack. It wasn’t hard; I suppose that the “leaders” were taking notice; and I don’t remember whether I then climbed down or was lowered by the rope. Cran’s rope handling, it was explained, was “belaying.”
We few “beginners” did not belay others; not until we had become “seconds” and knew the ropes, a process requiring passage through an “intermediate” stage over a dozen or so weekends, possibly even extending into the next fall or spring season. The Club advertised weekends in the tiny AMC NY Chapter newsletter as for “Beginners,” “Intermediates,” “Leaders and seconds,” and “Leaders only.”
It surprised me that next I was taken on an ascent of the cliff—continuously in two pitches—all the way to the top. The climb was called “The Easy Overhang.” Bob Larsen, now a ranger for the Mohonk Preserve, led us up. I loved it; it was exhilarating; I was hooked.
Rather than roping up more efficiently in pairs we roped as threes because beginners were not competent to belay and because the terrain was not amenable to top-roping.
In a few weeks they classified me as “Intermediate” which opened up the weekends for which I was eligible to register. We drove up on Saturday mornings to meet at the Uberfall. I went as often as possible, gradually getting to know the others on climbs, during the two-hour carpooling from Manhattan, and relaxing at day’s end around the bar at Schleuter’s Mountaincrest Inn where we stayed.
The inn was a kind of bed-and-breakfast on NY 44 a mile or so south of the present Brauhaus. Dinner followed “Happy Hour,” and often members showed slides or offered instructional lectures. The inn served breakfast and I think one could order a box lunch for Sunday. The Club kept its ropes and equipment in Schleuter’s basement.
The AMC was the sole organizing entity at the cliffs and, until the late fifties, pretty much oversaw all climbing activities. They supervised with what some others had begun to feel as an unwonted obsession with procedure–an understandable outgrowth of the fallout from a fatal accident at Arden earlier in the decade. Parties signed out for climbs and signed back in upon returning safely. The Club trained and the Qualifying Committee approved its leaders and ranked them by experience and ability as “all fours,” “all fives,” or “unlimited” leaders.
Increasingly the Club viewed, with suspicion and some hostility, unapproved leaders from other, especially unfamiliar, groups who had begun to increase in number. College outing clubs such as those from CCNY, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Syracuse, and the University of Pennsylvania showed up occasionally and increasingly put unwonted pressure on the AMC hegemony.
Friction gradually developed between the “Appies,” the self-appointed arbiters of safety and standards, and the outliers who chafed at the notion of restriction and formality. The AMC felt responsibility to the property owners and looked with suspicion upon the activities of those exploring new and more dangerous territory. A rift opened which culminated in the coalescence of a group of bold and skilled climbers under the rubric of the “Vulgarian Mountain Club,” and the history of their press into the realms of higher standards of difficulty, and of their raucous crusade to shock Appie sensibility, became legend.
Bob Larsen, who took me up many of my first climbs, had a foot in each world: he held a rating of “unlimited leader” with the Club; I smoked my first joint in his East Village apartment.
The leaders I remember included Hans Kraus, Bob Larsen, Bonnie Prudden, Kristin and Wally Raubenheimer, Bob Jones, Fred Saxe, Ted Church, Mary Sylvander, Bob Chambers, Barney Toerien, and Ira Schnell among others. The proportion of engineers and physicists was high. Bell Labs fielded William Shockley (the transistor) and Lester Germer (electron diffraction). Jones and Barrow worked at PerkinElmer (space optics) and IBM in Poughkeepsie was well represented. Cran Barrow and then Norton Smithe were the Safety Committee chairs of the time.
Climbing routes had difficulty ratings, e.g., “easy four,” “five,” “hard five,” etc.; outgrowths of the early European categories: 1 through 6. “The Easy Overhang,” for example, was an “easy four” (4), “Gelsa” a 4+, and “High Exposure” a 5. The Yosemite Decimal System arrived around 1960. The “Appies” repertoire included a group of some six dozen routes in the Trapps, Near Trapps, and at Sky Top pioneered in the ’40s and ’50s, and most within the rating “5+” which today would probably include all (Yosemite) 5.6s and some 5.7s.
People talked about guides to the routes and it fell eventually to Art Gran to write the first bound and published guidebook (1964). The old-timers had the routes firmly established in memory and we lesser folk walked the Carriage Road poring over dog-eared handwritten and typewritten lists of the climbs arranged in order down the cliff.
In this period, largely in the background and to some extent outside the sphere of the AMC, harder routes fell to the bold, and by the early sixties 5.8 and 5.9 routes had become relatively common and 5.10 had been established. Some of the familiar names associated with this expanding period are those of Jim McCarthy, Jim Andress, Dave Craft, Dick Williams, Art Gran, and Will Crowther.
In the warm weather we swam in Awosting Creek at a lovely cascade downstream of the falls and across route 44/55 on what is now Minnewaska property. The ‘Gunks were generally abandoned in the summer as most went West or elsewhere. I went up once with some visiting friends only to find that we were the only party at the cliffs. That first summer I went to the Tetons where I was able to scale the East Ridge of the Grand with Philip Gribbon of the Irish Mountaineering Club.
Belaying was much discussed. The approved maneuver was the “body” belay—friction devices had yet to appear. As a result of WWII research for the Tenth Mountain Division laid (twisted) nylon (Goldline, Perlon) mountaineering ropes had become universally available—replacing Manila hemp—the pre-war standard. Because of the known elastic limitations of hemp to contain high energy falls the mountaineering community had earlier developed strong views concerning the use of the rope for the purpose of security. Because hemp could not contain the fall of a leader Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s dictum “The leader does not fall” universally prevailed. The rope was carried only to secure the second.
Not enough was yet known about the new, obviously stronger and more elastic, nylon to allay the inherent fear of the leader fall. A fear that contributed strongly to the conservatism of the period, and which begat endless discussions and calculations about the need for the “dynamic” belay as a necessary means to reduce dangerous forces on rope, piton, and climber. To my knowledge, before and during my early years at the ‘Gunks, no AMC climber there had fallen on the lead.
Although the cliffs occupied the private property of the Mohonk Mountain House, the hotel had no presence at the cliffs. After about 1960 the management asked for fees from the Club to cover changes in insurance but there were never rangers or officials in evidence at the Uberfall.
In the late fall and early spring the Raubenheimers would organize a weekend at the
Mountain House when the hotel was closed for the season; host to a boy’s school. The Smiley family, Quakers, owned and ran the hotel. Limousines would meet us at the architecturally fanciful Gatehouse on NY 299 and spirit us to Sky Top for a day of climbing followed by set-ups (no liquor in the public spaces) in our private rooms (each with a working fireplace), dinner in the main dining hall (no smoking), and a box lunch for Sunday.
We climbed in sneakers—although stiffer soled shoes, suede leather “Kletterschuhe” better for edging, had begun to appear from Europe. We tied into the rope around the waist with a bowline-on-a-coil. The addition of a hammer, a few carabiners, and a pin or two made the sole difference in equipment between the leader and his second–the hammer to test the safe “ring” of the fixed pins and the ‘biners to clip the rope into the pitons along the way and at the belay stances. When capped by a small overhang the piton was strung with a chain of ‘biners to prevent binding of the rope. No leader protection existed between fixed pins unless he drove another, which was not common. On the positive side a “rack” didn’t weigh much.
A first ascent party placed pitons where it deemed them necessary and left them in place—the soft-iron was cheap and, at the same time, often difficult to remove. The pins served both to mark the route and to cement the claim of “first.”
Aluminum carabiners, produced by Yosemite’s Raffi Bedayn, had just arrived to replace their heavier steel predecessors. Carabiners, forged soft-iron pitons from Europe, hammers, and rope could be purchased at Camp and Trail on Canal Street—Manhattan’s only mountaineering equipment store, other than Midtown’s tony Abercrombie and Fitch. It was not long after the arrival of the Bedayn ‘biner that its virtue as a beer cap opener was discovered.
To complete the picture there were no special shoes; no slings (quick-draws); no nylon webbing, no harnesses other than self made “Swiss seats”; no Sticht plates, ATCs, or figure-eights; no helmets; no chalk; and no protection devices of any kind. Because of the lurking fear of a leader fall belayers usually wore gloves knowing for certain that in an emergency the rope would run.
In truth, toward the end of this period, slings of doubled and knotted quarter-inch Goldline made an appearance, but it was not until the sixties that nylon webbing and kernmantle rope showed up.
The lack of friction devices laid hardship on the rappeller who descended the rope using a Dulfersitz or body rappel. We all had to demonstrate an ability to do this and many had jackets and knee-pants with reinforced shoulders and crotch. No one mentioned methods for freeing the hands in mid-descent as is now common.
Eventually a so-called “brake-bar” appeared which, when laid across the width of a ‘biner, could act as a crude friction device.
We climbed always all the way to the top of the cliff and walked back to the Uberfall along a well-worn trail; a trail that today is almost obliterated by nature because “rapping” down has become almost universal. The last bit of the scramble down required an “uberfall” by which one crossed a disconcertingly wide gap using an upper-body fall, arrested by the hands on the opposite wall, and followed by a long step across the void. Today’s climbers hardly know of this way down.
After having climbed as an “Intermediate” for a season one became eligible to become a “Second” after having demonstrated a knowledge of knots and having passed the belay test–the successful arresting on belay of a heavy weight set up on a timber projecting out from the cliff in the corner to the right of “Boston“. Having passed this hurdle one could combine with leaders to take beginners on the rope. The next step: getting a “leg on a climb”.
One day in the spring of 1957 below the top pitch of “Baby” Bob Larsen asked whether I would lead the next pitch. Well. OK, I guess so. I knew there was a hard, thin move in the corner about halfway up and a strenuous bit at the end. Bob handed me a couple of ‘biners to augment my few—by then I had a hammer—and without too much “Sturm und Drang” I made it up the corner and over the top. I had just gotten my first “leg on a climb” from an AMC “qualifying” leader.
That fall, a year after my first climb and after having amassed some number of “legs” from other leaders, I was told that the Qualifying Committee had voted me permission to lead “all fours”.
After 1958, owing to marriage and children, my ‘Gunks climbing tapered off, ending in a move to Boston in 1963. Whether I had reached the leading of “all fives” I do not remember. But by the time I returned to the ‘Gunks in 1966 the question had become moot inasmuch as the Appies were no longer dominant at the cliffs.
References: For an excellent account of this period in ‘Gunks history see:
Waterman & Waterman, “Yankee Rock & Ice”, Stackpole, 1993, ISBN 0-8117-1633-3, pp. 133-147, 154-163.
The definitive (rare!) guidebook of the period:
Arthur Gran, “A Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks” AAC/AMC, 1964.
My copy was once found with a broken spine in the middle of NY Route 55 and returned to me by Bill Putnam, who wryly observed that I was off route.
Although this came along later; for a look into the ferment surrounding ropes and belaying see:
Leonard Wexler, et al, “Belaying the Leader,” Sierra Club, 1965.
A wonderful discovery of an 1955 AMC NY Chapter address book (courtesy Steve Jervis)
And, in addition, I remember Barney Toerien, Alex Hahoutoff, the Reeses, the Elricks, Ira Schnell, Bill Cropper, Fred Lazarus. . .