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

1970_SamsSS
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.

81080500_Grand-LaForge
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.


References:

[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.


 

The ‘Gunks of Yore: The Clean Climbing Revolution (1966-1974)

Chouinard Catalog
Chouinard Catalog (1972)

A farewell to iron:

It is little appreciated today that the completion of the protection revolution at the ‘Gunks preceded Ray Jardine’s introduction of the “Friend”—the first camming device—by about six years, the Tri-Cam by eighteen, and that by the time of the publication of Doug Robinson’s “The Whole Natural Art of Protection” in Chouinard’s 1972 equipment catalog it was virtually over.

In 1966 I returned to the ‘Gunks after a move from New York City to Boston and an absence from climbing of about four years. I went down with an interested friend from work and, as I drove along, I wondered whom I might greet among my old “Appie” friends at the Uberfall and whether they still hung out at Schleuter’s Mountaincrest Inn.

The changes in the area and the climbing scene were surprising and substantial. The highway had been repaved and considerably widened, permitting parking on both sides along a new metal guardrail. There were many more cars than I had remembered and, at the Uberfall, a pickup truck full of climbing gear (mostly ironmongery) was parked and presided over by one Joe Donohue who had a small business going and who collected fees for and looked out informally for the property interests of Mohonk (later the Trust, and later still, the Preserve).

But what seemed most astonishing was the total disappearance of the former influence of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Uberfall was bustling with activity but nowhere did I find a single Appie friend from four years earlier and what is more, with very few exceptions, I never, ever did. The turnover was virtually complete. Soon I made an effort to meet and establish myself with the Boston AMC climbers. Among them then: Wes Grace, Bob Chisholm, Harold Taylor, D Byers, Bob Johnson, and Bob Hall and thus began a period of many, many years of coming often to the ‘Gunks.

BrauhausThe after-climbing conviviality had moved from Schleuter’s to the bar at “Emil’s” Mountain Brauhaus at the bottom of the hill, and the comforts of the inn had given way to camping out on Clove Road just beyond the second bridge over Coxing Kill. Above some open rocky slabs there was room for tents among the trees at a place that came to be known as Wickie-Wackie after a small sign on the main road advertising a bar farther down the clove. But we gave up this area in 1970 after I had a large tent stolen. Not long after that Mohonk prohibited camping there and gave the AMC, still a more or less coherent entity, permission to use the area around a small abandoned farmhouse off US 44. For many years thereafter we crashed there at the “AMC Cabin” until the Mohonk Preserve finally reclaimed it as an historic site: the Van Leuven farm.

Mohonk had also established permission for limited tenting near the Steel Bridge in an area which came to be known affectionately as Camp Slime. Years later John Ruoff, Emil’s nephew, was horrified to learn from me that “Slime” was Emil’s spelled backward.

09091001_PitonsAlthough there was a continuing AMC presence at the cliffs the old Club restrictions were gone. One led what he felt he could negotiate safely, and confidence in the rope was increasing. Goldline still ruled in 1970 but climbers were gaining experience with the new strong and resilient kernmantle rope introduced in the fifties in Europe and which now was gradually replacing it here. By the end of the sixties slings of knotted quarter-inch Goldline had been replaced by nylon webbing, and the bowline-on-a-coil waist tie-in was giving way to safer and more comfortable home-tied Swiss seats of the same material.

Shoes had changed to designs made by climbers specifically for the sport. There were now imported RDs, PAs, and EBs eponymously initialed by their French makers: smooth rubber soles with canvas or suede tops—greatly improved over sneakers—and Kletterschuhe for edging and friction. Royal Robbin’s bright blue suede RRs (what else?) came along in 1971.

77070001_MonsterTree
The Monster Tree

At first, from the point of view of the cliffs and the protection, the climbing seemed to me pretty much as it had been in 1960; leaders carried and hammered in the occasional soft iron piton where it was deemed needed and, often as not, the second left it behind–they were hard to remove and soft iron was cheap. Resident pins tended to remain in place, as before, although some were beginning to show signs of age.

Joe Donohue had newer stuff in his truck; stuff forged by Chouinard in California and developed largely for the burgeoning aid routes in Yosemite. He stocked “angle” pitons made from hard chrome-molybdenum steel, in form like the softer sheet steel Norton Smithes of the fifties that preceded them here. The arch of the angle spread slightly, spring-like, on driving for a quick solid grip, but the grip was easily broken by a few side-to-side whacks administered by the second. Pretty easy, but–importantly–these new pins weren’t so cheap so that increasingly seconds were loath to abandon them.

Straight Lost Arrows were also of chrome-moly, stiff and more easily removed than their predecessors. Joe had thin “knife blades,” too, for fine cracks and the RURP (“Realized Ultimate Reality Piton”): a mere chip of steel for aid climbing via incipient fissures. Earlier, in 1961, Chouinard’s Bongs had arrived—the final expression of the angle concept; large pitons—some fat enough for three-inch cracks that rang with deep authority when driven: “Bong, bong!” Not long after their introduction the steel version was discontinued and replaced by light-weight hard aluminum.

The author in 1966

Gradually we updated our racks—replacing the old soft iron with the new, pricier hard stuff. My view, shared at the time by most, was to leave the occasional newly placed pin behind as a modest contribution to the general weal. Why take it out if the next one along could clip it? And so it was with shock one spring that we looked down from our stance midway up the cliff to see an approaching soloer methodically removing and racking chrome-moly. He had amassed a useful collection. It turned out to be Dick Dumais who, when challenged on this shameless lack of proper public spirit, countered that he was merely assembling his rack for an imminent trip to Yosemite.

There was, in Yosemite at first as the sixties advanced and soon at the ‘Gunks and elsewhere, a growing awareness of looming disaster—the actual destruction of the cliffs; of the cracks and small features that made climbing in any form (free or on aid) possible at all. The continued placement and removal of hard steel was having an ugly erosive effect even, we heard, on durable Yosemite granite. Piton cracks widened, even to the point where some crucial pin placement was no longer feasible. Some incipient cracks had become fingerholds.

Already locally we noticed new areas of tinted rock, long protected from the elements, where a sizeable flake had been pried off from behind; large and widening pockets, especially in horizontal cracks; and a great diminution of the fixed pin protection that had been taken for granted for years.

Voices were heard in favor of reducing piton use by adopting a suspect British tradition. The Brits had a history of eschewing pitons, not so much owing to an adverse impact on the cliffs, but simply as not really very sporting. They had become used to girth hitching slings over chicken-heads and jamming sturdy knots into vertical cracks. They filled their pockets with small pebbles to be wedged like natural chockstones and slung; and those who approached their routes along railroad tracks picked up stray machine nuts for the same purpose. Later they bored out the abrasive screw threads. Thus, the “nut” was born.

But the coming revolution was as yet unforeseen.

Gear
Illustrated Nuts: 1, 2 “Nuthatches”; 3 Bong; 4 Hexcentric; 5 Stopper; 6 Titon; 7 Clog; 8 Cog

Early aluminum nuts began to appear; at first as curiosities and then gradually with suspect experimental value to augment placements where pitons weren’t feasible. Nuts manufactured specifically for climbing first appeared in England around 1961. Most resembled little Chinese take-out boxes, tapered on four sides. Others (Clogs, 1966) were made from hexagonal bar-stock cut to various lengths and drilled for bails. As the seventies dawned many variations appeared (Troll Big-Hs, Forrest Titons, Clog Cogs). Racks of pitons were more and more seen interspersed with the aluminum intruders. The small ones had braided wire bails and the large required knotted Goldline or webbing laboriously forced through the often inadequate holes provided. The wires seemed OK but the cord and webbing wanted to be as thick as possible.

Another insult was noticed. After its introduction by John Gill, gymnast’s chalk had come widely into use and some complained of the unsightly white residue left behind on once pristine and unobtrusive hand holds; although many tacitly admitted that clues were welcome as to where previous fingers in desperation had sought a home.

Piton use continued unabated. However, a consensus was building among the environmentally conscious toward the absolute necessity of abandoning reliance on them before the cliffs were chipped to pieces. The result was the “Clean Climbing” revolution.EasternTrade001The lead was taken by John Stannard (of Foops fame) as it was in the West by Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Yvon Chouinard, and others. Stannard began the publication (1971) of a newsletter, The Eastern Trade, devoted to the conservation of the cliffs; educated climbers by taking them up the routes with nuts; and collected old steel angles to be cadmium plated, painted a distinctive gray, and placed as permanent “residents” where all agreed they were necessary. I believe that some can still be seen on the cliffs today.

Climbers “town meetings” were called and supported by Mohonk; letters written; votes taken.

And so climbers began, tentatively, reluctantly to try nuts. Very few were falling on lead and so it was a while before safe falls on nuts became common enough to begin to engender real trust. They didn’t work well in parallel-sided cracks, and especially not well in the horizontal ones that abound at the ‘Gunks.

And then, in 1971, two game-changing events occurred: the ever innovative Chouinard came out with Hexcentrics, and the All-Nut Ascents blank book appeared on the counter at Dick Williams’ (new in 1970) Rock and Snow shop in New Paltz.

Because of their eccentric “hexagonal” cross-section Hexcentrics began, sort of, to solve the problem of the horizontal crack. Rotation of the shape tended to jam it in the same way that the modern (1990) Tri-Cam does so well.

The book at Rock & Snow invited climbers duly to record “First all-nut ascents” and the result was a stampede to claim the prizes. The easy routes fell early and it was less than two years before the final, hardest routes were climbed “clean.” Actually, Royal Robbins had made the first ever recorded all-nut first ascent in Yosemite in 1966. He called it Boulderfield Gorge, although his clean 1967 Nutcracker Sweet is the one that became classic. By the end of 1972 the last open ‘Gunks route had fallen so that, at least among the skilled and the bold, the protection revolution was complete. Rock & Snow refused thereafter to stock pitons.

The next year Stannard published a list of all the new clean ascents with an additional rating: “a, b, or c” as a measure of the difficulty of protecting with nuts and fixed pins. Out of this grew today’s familiar ratings taken from the film industry.

All right then, OK for the bold, but we more timid folk were not so sure.

Stannard, Frost, and Robbins [Photo: Anders Ourom]
By this time our own tentative pure efforts had begun. I most associate this period with my climbing partners Sandy Dunlap, Tom Hayden, and Wes Grace—worthy nut-men all. We made our own “clean” ascents; my first, as I remember it, was Double Chin. “Clean” meant that we even eschewed the clipping of resident pins.

Stannard taught us how to “stack” nuts. That is, to place them in tandem with opposing tapers so that the extracting force on one caused the assembly to expand. I can remember a fascinated group at the Uberfall standing around Stannard as he worked a hydraulic jack to load a stacked set in a slightly flaring horizontal crack with an outward pull. The nylon sling gave way.

We practiced the stacking and figured out how to use two placements in opposition, each so situated as to secure the other from lifting out as the attached sling was urged upward by the moving rope, or to protect the one from being snatched in the wrong direction in a fall. We socked them in to the point where our seconds complained they couldn’t get them out. We became clever; we invited our seconds properly to admire our elegant placements before their dismantlement with the nut-pick. The pick, itself, a new development owing to the difficulty of removing jammed or hidden nuts in awkward positions, was often a homemade affair. We made picks out of kitchen spatulas and called them “nut hatches” and discovered the art of “gardening” with the pick to clean the mud and grass out of promising cracks. We mixed charcoal with chalk to dull its glaring whiteness and promoted it as “dirty chalk for clean climbing” (a lousy idea as it turned out because it sullied the beautiful, new kernmantle ropes). We modified our nuts by filing deep grooves in them and by epoxying the wire bails so that you could push on them to urge them out.

The three-nut belay anchor became our standard; we arranged equi-tension sling arrangements wherever possible.

In 1972 Chouinard came out with graded Stoppers and stacking became even easier. His improved Polycentric Hexcentrics showed up in 1974 giving us more confidence still in horizontal crack placements. Yet, we retained our doubts. For several seasons I climbed with a rigger’s energy absorption pack between my harness and the tie-in—the equivalent of the modern Screamer—it was supposed to rip three feet of stitches under a load of six-hundred pounds, but it never came to the test.

Increasingly the nuts seemed better than the pitons and, in general, placements could be found more often. Nevertheless, the 5.6 second pitch of SoB Virgin had to wait five years for the really small SLCD’s and, later, the Tri-Cam before giving up its long held reputation as a “death lead.”

Who knew that a big hex would fit the ceiling crack on Shockley’s and a smaller one go in behind the huge flake on CCK; that you could slot a perfect stopper over the bulge at the tops of High E and Madam G’s” and on the first pitch of Frog’s Head; and set a large bong endwise into the off-width on Baby? I remember getting a huge hex to stick before the desperate under-cling traverse left just off the ground on Moonlight. My first under-water hex gurgled into a solution hole on Whitehorse. When an old ring-angle pulled on Cannon it was the stopper ten feet down that saved me. And how many have clipped into the long-suffering resident wired stopper on Limelight before negotiating the delicate traverse at the top? Gradually we gained faith.

Nevertheless, while getting used to nuts, we climbed always with our hammers and a small supply of pins “just in case.” Occasionally we would clip a pin, but we had stopped placing them altogether. As Sandy recalls: “We climbed carrying pins and hammers for a long time,” until Tom said finally, “If we don’t leave the hammers behind we’ll never get any good at this.”

And so, one morning, probably around 1974, as we started out for the cliffs, I stepped back to the car, reopened the trunk and, after long hesitation, tossed my hammer into the back. I thought that it might be my last day on earth.

We survived the day; I never again climbed with a hammer at the ‘Gunks. Our own clean climbing revolution was complete.


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


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.193-200.

See also:
Bernstein, Ascending”, Profiles (Chouinard), The New Yorker, January 31, 1977.
Y. Chouinard, T. Frost, “Chouinard Equipment” (catalog), Sandollar Press. 1972.
Chouinard catalog:
http://www.frostworksclimbing.com/gpiw72.html
http://climbaz.com/chouinard72/chouinard.html
J. Middendorf: http://www.bigwalls.net/climb/mechadv/index.html
Stéphane Pennequin: https://www.needlesports.com/content/nuts-museum.aspx
Piton Antiquities: https://www.mrpiton.com/p2.htm
Stannard, “The Eastern Trade, Vol. 0, No. 0, 1971 – Vol. 6, No. 3, 1978.