Rock Climbing

What if he falls?

What if He Falls?

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin produced, directed, and shot the movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s free solo of the Freerider route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. This behind the scenes piece for The New York Times is incredible and the movie will no doubt be incredible as well.

Zoom it out. Wow!

Two Nineteen Forty Four

Two Nineteen Forty Four from Tristan Greszko on Vimeo.

Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds setting a speed record for climbing the Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. They climbed it in 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 44 seconds.

To me, speed records seem insane but hey, I’m an old fart who climbed in traditional ways. But, this video is well worth watching because it’s a great piece of work in itself, documenting an amazing achievement.

[via PetaPixel]

Climbing the Lost Arrow Spire

This post is part three of a three part story: Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire (1977), Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face (May, 1979, and this post which takes place in July, 1979. If you missed the first or second, I recommend reading them first before reading this one. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for lost arrow spire Yosemite or a Google image search or a youTube search will give you many more modern and clearer images and videos although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.

I wish I had more pictures of this climb but in fact, when looking at the slides on a light table only about half of them were scannable, the rest had faded terribly or were so damaged as to not be useable.

The other interesting piece about all of this is that at this point in my life, over forty years after doing this climb I didn’t remember many details until I looked at the images. Having the images, even less than wonderful images, helps bring back the memories. In fact, these images warp time and allow travel through a wormhole to an experience that happened a long time ago. In all seriousness, I get a bit creeped out (scared) thinking about various parts of this climb when I look at the images and think back. That’s powerful.

Not all photographs have to be works of art to help tell stories. Those of you reading this who consider yourself photographers need to remember that. Snapshots are useful and important as well as images that might be framed and put on a wall. This is one of the many reasons point and shoot and smartphone cameras are so important: you always have them with you and they’re easy to use to take a picture.

Both Faye Nakamura (my then girlfriend and climbing partner) and I were both potters (ceramic artists) at the time of this climb. Faye was to go on to become a well known and successful artist in the Pacific Northwest, I was to go on to other things.

Lost Arrow Spire and Yosemite Point

Looking up at Yosemite Point (right prow) and the Lost Arrow Spire from Yosemite Village. Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in the valley) is just left of the left edge of this frame.

When we first decided to do this climb (1977) we’d hiked up to Yosemite Point with day packs, lunch and water. To actually do the climb, we’d need to do the same hike with both camping and climbing gear. Because we were going to fix ropes (leave them in place) from the rim to the notch (between the cliff and the spire) we needed four ropes: two to fix, and two to do the climb (a lead rope and an extra rope for the long rappels (two ropes tied together).

And, given that this climb had been done initially with pitons and the main crack was pretty messed up from larger and larger pitons being pounded in and removed, we’d need to bring a variety of protection, including some pitons and hammers (one to put pitons in, one to remove them).

Richard (me) sorting gear

Richard (me) sorting gear for the hike and climb: stove and white gas, some pitons on the ground beside me, knee pads (we didn’t use them), hooks (under knee pads) for extreme aiding, large chocks, two hammers, stoppers, ascenders and a lot more not shown. It was a load.

The hike up the Falls Trail is a real slog: 2000 feet of climb and many switchbacks. When the falls are running one can get a bit wet in places; the falls were dry when we did this. We left the valley mid morning and were up at the bridge across Yosemite Creek (which forms the falls) by about 2:00 pm.

Richard resting at Yosemite Creek

Richard (me) resting and eating beside Yosemite Creek which isn’t running. Note the packs, they were extremely heavy.

The creek was inviting and there were other folks swimming there so we figured it was early enough and only a short walk east along the rim to Yosemite Point so we decided to cool off.

Richard (me) swimming in Yosemite Creek

Richard (me) bouldering to the edge of the pool on Yosemite Creek.

Richard (me) swimming in Yosemite Creek

The water was cold as I remember but we were hot.

Faye swimming in Yosemite Creek

Faye swimming in Yosemite Creek.

Upper Yosemite Falls (dry)

Yosemite Falls (not running). Our swimming hole is just beyond the notch.

After we were done swimming we packed up and hiked the rim trail toward Yosemite Point. It’s not far but as we approached the place we’d been at the year before it felt different: this time we were going to do the climb.

I can honestly say that during the hike up neither of us was dreading the climb but as we approached the area on the rim just above the Lost Arrow we both got the willies. There was no one there, no one on the climb, and it was getting cooler and a bit breezy.

We looked around and found a spot behind the rappel point (a lone tree) to set up camp.

Campsite on rim above Lost Arrow Spire

Richard setting up camp on the rim above the Lost Arrow Spire. Note Sentinel across the valley. The rappel into the notch is directly behind me and that tree is the single anchor point for the rappel and the fixed rope for the return from the notch.

We’d come to Yosemite from Eugene, Oregon to spend two to three weeks climbing and this climb was one of many we’d do on this trip. Still, it was one we’d planned for a year and it had more exposure (it was higher off the ground) than anything we’d ever done. It was also probably (we didn’t know) the hardest aid climbing we’d ever done and this had me, in particular on edge.

Richard (me) looking down on Lost Arrow Spire

Richard looking over the edge down at the top of the Lost Arrow Spire and the notch below. It was starting to get cold and windy (why I was wearing shorts I don’t know) and it creeped us out.

Honestly, I don’t remember if Faye and I slept much that night. I’d like to think we did being tired from the hike but we were both nervous about the climb.

The next day we got up although no doubt were in no rush to get started, had to let things warm up a bit. And, we had to sort out the gear and get the camping stuff stowed so animals wouldn’t get into it. I’m pretty sure there was no way to do that so it’s possible something ate whatever food we left behind but I don’t really remember. That was a common occurrence in Yosemite when a pack with food was left on a ledge for even a short time.

We also had to run through the logistics of the climb: fixing the ropes down to the notch, doing the climb, rappelling back down to the notch (two rappels) and climbing back up to the rim. We re-read the Roper guide description of the climb just to make sure we were fully prepared.

Lost Arrow Tip
From the 1971 edition of Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley by Steve Roper

Grade III, 5.5, A3. First ascent in September 1946 by Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold, Anton Nelson and Robin Hansen. This party gained the summit after engineering a Tyrollean traverse. The first climbing ascent was masterminded by John Salathé who, with Nelson, climbed the pinnacle on the fifth day of their route from the base. From trees 300 feet west of the railing at Yosemite Point, rappel 130 feet to a large flake. Next, rappel 115 feet into the notch. Both these ropes must be left in place for the return; the lower end of the lower rope should be secured in the notch to prevent its swinging out of reach.

From the sinister notch walk out a narrow ledge on the east face. Nail and free climb 35 feet to a good belay ledge. Climb left around a rotten corner, then nail 20 feet to Salathé Ledge, an excellent, relaxing belay site. The 3rd pitch is the crux: traverse left a few feet, nail for about 20 feet, then move left and nail up to a sling belay at the base of the “flint-hard and flawless Arrow tip.” On the last pitch, use bolts and 2 pitons for aid. Two rappels (125 feet and 70 feet) lead (back) to the notch.

The nailing on this magnificent route is continually changing and challenging. Nelson, speaking of his 1946 ascent, has written: “as we further diminish the crack’s possibilities, it becomes doubtful that many others will ever climb the Lost Arrow.” By 1970 the pinnacle had been climbed over 200 times and the cracks were still getting worse. What were horizontal piton cracks in 1960 are now inch-angle cracks. The rating remains the same, but the hardware changes. A 1971 selection should include about 15 pitons: one- third horizontals and the rest angles to 2″.

Topographical Maps
When we did this climb there were no published topographical (topo) maps/charts of climbs, just verbal descriptions in guidebooks like the Roper guide above (no internet). A few years later a great book called Yosemite Climbs by George Meyers came out and it had topo drawings of all the climbs in Yosemite. It was extremely useful.

Here is the topo of the Lost Arrow Spire climb minus the pitch ratings from a newer edition of the Meyers book (I don’t have my original copy of the book anymore):

Lost Arrow Spire topo (old)

Here’s a topo map I just drew, also minus ratings but with notes on pitches and belays:

Lost Arrow Spire topo

We got everything sorted and we tied the first rappel rope around the tree (this rappel point has been replaced with bolts to save the tree) and tossed it over the edge. While we were both a bit creeped out, I loaded up the extra ropes and gear and started my rappel to the notch. I had Faye belay me on a second rope (not a normal way to do a rappel) although given that I wasn’t sure exactly where the ledge I was rappelling to was, it wasn’t a bad idea. One doesn’t want to rappel off the end of a rope!

Richard (me) rappelling into the notch, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard rappelling over the edge into the notch with the arrow tip behind.

Why I wore shorts on this climb I will never know. Idiot! Oh well, I lived. I found the little ledge at the bottom of the rappel with its anchor bolts for the second rappel into the notch. I clipped in so Faye could take me off belay. I then uncoiled a second rope, tied it into the anchor and tossed it out and it fell to the floor of the notch.

I waited for Faye to reach me before tying the lower end of the upper rope to the anchor point. It would have been a real drag had there been enough wind when we returned here so that the end of the rope was blown out of reach. Thankfully the Roper guide route description (above) recommends this for the bottom rope, I decided to do it to both. I’m not sure we’d have thought of it otherwise.

Then we each rappelled into the notch and fixed the bottom of the second rope to some rocks there.

So far so good and while the rappels were a bit scary we’d done them without problems and we felt a bit less nervous and a bit more energized for the climb in front of us.

Richard (me) in the notch, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard in the notch gearing up for pitch 1 of the Lost Arrow Spire. My late parents had this picture blown up and had it on their wall. My parents lived in Los Angeles and visited Yosemite often and had taken me there as a kid (we saw the fire fall off Glacier Point). They were both in awe of my climbing and it also frightened them. The standing order was to call home at the finish of any climb that took a whole day or more.

The first pitch out of the notch follows a thin ledge around the east side of the Arrow. It’s mixed free and aid although given that you’re stepping out into 2000 feet of exposure without having acclimated by having climbed up to that point, it’s “breathtaking” and if memory serves, when possible, I used aid to stay in the comfort of my stirrups.

Richard (me) on pitch 1 of the Lost Arrow Spire

Leading the first pitch out of the notch on the Lost Arrow Spire. Note the hammer, slings, and all sorts of junk hanging off me.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

That awkward place between free and aid climbing. There was enough exposure behind me so that I doubt I pushed the free climbing all that much. Easier on the brain to stand in stirrups.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Getting clipped into the first bolt on pitch 1.

Richard at the first belay, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down from the top of pitch 1. The rope is fixed and Faye is coming up.

We did this climb in the big wall style we’d done the west face of Monkey Face: leader leads on belay from second, anchors rope to top of pitch, second uses ascenders to clean pitch while leader hauls pack and/or rests.

Faye ascending pitch 1, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye cleaning pitch 1. Note the exposure below her. Also, the dark “hole” off to the right of her in the frame is the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Faye leading pitch 2, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye leading pitch 2.

The first two pitches on this route are short and relatively easy mixed free and mostly aid climbing. The protection was good and while communication was difficult around a corner, it wasn’t too bad. Had the waterfall been running communication might have been tough. These days these pitches are free climbed (leader uses the rope and protection in case of a fall but not to hang onto) but in our day it was common to aid the entire climb. We no doubt made a few easy free moves but for us, just being out on that exposed place, even with the security of slow aid climbing was quite something.

The top of the second pitch is Salathé ledge, a very nice belay ledge with plenty of room and a nice anchor point. This would be where Faye would spend the next few hours (maybe more) as I struggled up the last pitch.

When this climb was first done, climbing ropes were 150 feet long and it wasn’t possible to do pitch 3 in one go. Because of this there’s a two bolt sling belay (no ledge, you hang from your harness and stand in stirrups) about three quarters of the way up the pitch which can be used if one runs out of rope. We had two 165 foot ropes and we were pretty sure they’d make the last pitch in one go. The problem with that is that a pitch that long that goes around a corner is bound to have rope drag (the rope is tough to pull through the protection because it’s not hanging in a straight line) and I brought extra slings to extend protection to avoid this. As I was to find out, the rope drag remained terrible.

Looking down at Yosemite Villiage from Salathe Ledge, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down on Yosemite Village from Salathé ledge.

We took a bit of a break on Salathé ledge. It’s comfortable with a breathtaking view and frankly, I was no doubt a bit un-nerved about what I was getting into next.

Faye setting up belay, pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye settling in for what was going to be a long belay.

Richard (me) starting pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard on the west end of Salathé ledge getting started on pitch 3.

Pitch 3 works its way both up and left around a corner so almost immediately there’s potential rope drag. There’s no other way to set it up; the belay bolts are on the other end of the ledge where it’s easier to sit down and wait.

Pitches like this that go around a corner not only make for rope drag, they make it difficult to communicate. Each time I’d put in a new piece of protection I’d ask Faye to give me slack so I could pull some rope up and clip it in. At times, the calls for slack were within a few minutes, at other times when things got rough it was a lot longer.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Working my way up the beginning of pitch 3.

The exposure on pitch 3 is breathtaking and while I was to go on and do many more exposed climbs in the years ahead, this was my first experience of this kind of “air” and it was really something: both scary and amazing at the same time if you can imagine that. They say once you’re up a hundred or so feet you’ll probably die if you fall off so what’a another thousand or two? It’s not the fear of falling that’s a problem, it’s the feeling of being untethered (even though you’re well tethered) and being in a very unfamiliar place. There is no doubt that the more of these big climbs I did the easier this got, including taking falls in exposed places.

Faye and I were more than ready for this climb: we had the skills and fitness to do it but the psychology of being on something like this was new to us.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Almost disappearing around the corner on pitch 3.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down on the belay from the beginning of difficult climbing on pitch 3. This was the last time Faye saw me for many hours.

We don’t have pictures of the last pitch. She had the camera and frankly, I was too busy to stop and take pictures. But, since our climb lots of people have done it and I found a video that documents part of it (the goPro ran out of card space just before the top). The video below, shot in 2013 will give you a good idea of what the pitch is like: the protection is very tough. No doubt it was tougher when I did it than it was when this video was shot simply because tools have improved and the climb is done more and better documented but needless to say, it was hard when we did it, definitely A3 in places. That’s tough aid climbing and relatively dangerous in that there are numerous marginal placements in a row so if one pulls, the ones below it will most likely pull creating a zipper fall.

This is shot with a GoPro on a helmet so it can be a bit dizzying as his head moves around. Also, the didgeridoo soundtrack, well, use your discretion but I turn it down as it gets annoying after a while. The last pitch starts at about the 3.0 minute mark but the whole video is worth watching.

All of that said, this is one of the best documentation videos of what it was like for us to do that climb, especially the last pitch. They did a Tyrollean traverse to get off where we rappelled back down the route but this video will give you a good idea of both the exposure and the difficulty of protecting the last pitch.

Here’s another video, shot in 2014. I like the way they set up their Tyrollean with a big dip in it making ascending on the cliff side a lot easier. Smart. A tight clothesline is much more awkward. But, we didn’t do that when we did the climb.

We did this climb during a transition in the climbing world, from the use of pitons to protect climbs to the use of nuts, stoppers and expandable protection and other pieces of metal on wires and slings that one can wedge into cracks so as to hold falls.

In the early days, pitons were made out of soft iron and because of this, they bent and deformed when pounded into cracks. They held well, but it was difficult to take them out and if one did remove them they were usually bent up and distorted, difficult to reuse on a climb.

This meant that in order to do a long climb, one needed to either carry enough pitons for the entire thing, or, climb up a few pitches, then retreat to the ground to pick up more pitons to go higher.


Three types of pitons: on the bottom is a soft iron knife blade. I never used this one, found it on a climb in the Grand Tetons. Center: Chouinard angle piton made of chrome-molly. Top: Chouinard bong (big angle) made of bent sheet aluminum. It’s called a “bong” because of the sound it makes when pounded in. I bought the two Chouinard pitons (among many others) from Yvon Chouinard at The Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California in the early days, before he sold it to Black Diamond and branched off to start Patagonia.

In the 1950’s the Yosemite climber John Salathé (who Salathé ledge is named after) made some pitons out of high-carbon chrome-vanadium steel. These pitons were extremely hard and didn’t distort when pounded into rock. This was great for climbers (for a while) in that they could climb a pitch using pitons, then the second could remove the pitons and they could be used again higher up. This made it easier to do big walls and much longer climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere. Yvon Chouinard learned how to make these pitons from Salathé and continued making and selling them as “Chouinard Equipment” part of The Great Pacific Iron Works.

The problem with hardened steel pitons is that they are so tough that when you bang them out (back and forth and wiggle them out) you break of a bit of rock with them. In time, wider pitons need to be used in the same placements and over a long time, what started out as knife blade pitons ended up 1″ angles. In other words, pitons destroyed the cracks.

By the time Faye and I got to the Lost Arrow Spire the cracks were in bad shape and tough to protect without at least a few pitons which we carried.

Chouinard Rock Hammer

A Chouinard Yosemite rock hammer for placing and removing pitons and other “hammerable” protection.

Both Faye and I carried rock hammers, one to place protection, the other to knock it out.

Bashies, hook, RURP, nut

A variety of odd placement tools we took on the Lost Arrow climb.

One of the transition tools between pitons and completely clean climbing was something called a “bashie.” Take a small block of aluminum (soft metal), drill a hole in it, pass a sling through the hole. I made my own, pictured above. They were small enough so I used parachute cord to sling them. They could just hold body weight but not much more. One did not fall on these things. Used solely for aid climbing when things got tough. I used and left at least four of these on the Lost Arrow. I doubt they lasted long but who knows? You can see some in the rock in the videos in this post.

In the early days of the transition away from pitons, climbers in the UK who climbed routes near railroad tracks would pick up stray steel nuts, pass a rope through them and use them as artificial chockstones, wedging them into cracks above constrictions such when they pulled down on the sling, the nuts would wedge tighter. I almost always carried one just to bow to the Brits and the one I carried and used on the Lost Arrow is pictured above.

The term “chock” is used for any artificial chockstone. These are also referred to as nuts.

Later Chouinard extruded aluminum in an odd hexagonal form so it was easier to wedge and torque into cracks (hexes). And, for thinner cracks he (and later many others) made smaller aluminum tapered blocks on steel cables called “stoppers” that we had many of for this climb and they’re still used to this day. Place a stopper, clip a carabiner to the loop of cable at its end, and clip a sling and another carabiner onto that and the rope through the last carabiner.

At the time we did this climb, in the mid-1970’s there were many climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere that were done completely clean, without carrying pitons or a hammer and we did many. The first one, put up by Royal Robbins was called “Nutcracker” for good reason. But, for big wall routes, pitons and hammers were carried just in case, even if they were avoided.

You’ll notice in the first video above the lead climber is using a hook creatively (torquing it rather than using it as a hook). The hooks I had (pictured above) weren’t big enough for that kind of placement but I did use the hook above in the traditional way to hook a flake and stand on it. Not for the faint of heart.

RURP pitons were made by Chouinard and while I carried the one above on the Lost Arrow, I never used it there. RURP = Realized Ultimate Reality Piton. In other words, a RURP is used almost as a last resort when the crack is so thin nothing else will work. I used the one above one time and one time only. That was enough.

Carabiners have been around a long time and are one of the most essential tools in a climber’s collection.

A carabiner allows the connection various other climbing tools. A piton is driven in, a carabiner is clipped into the hole in the end of it, and the climbing rope is clipped into that carabiner protecting the climber. A nut is placed in a crack, a carabiner is clipped to the loop in the end of its sling, and the climbing rope or another sling and carabiner is clipped into it.

On Salathé ledge, Faye tied a figure eight knot on a a loop in the end of the rope and used a carabiner to clip it into the bolt she found on that ledge (she actually used two for redundancy). When I got to the top of the Lost Arrow I used a carabiner to tie into the anchor I found there (again, two).

Every piece of protection we placed on the climb had at least two carabiners associated with it. The belays on each end had four or more carabiners used to set them up. It’s not uncommon to carry as many as fifty or more carabiners on a climb like the Lost Arrow Spire.


Two carabiners. Top: a Chouinard solid aluminum carabiner. Bottom: A Robbins hollow aluminum carabiner made by the German company Salewa. Climbers mark their gear with colored electrical tape so as not to get it mixed up when partnering. The yellow and green taped carabiner came to me from my old climbing friend Dale Allyn long after I stopped climbing and was using carabiners for arborist work. The red-taped carabiner is mine and was used on most of my climbs, including the Lost Arrow.

The two carabiners pictured above will hold the same amount of weight (they’re equally strong) but the hollow one (the one with the red tape on it) is a bit lighter. When you multiply that slight weight savings times fifty or more carabiners that savings is significant. Because of this, I bought as many of the Robbins/Salewa hollow carabiners as I could find (they were only made for a few years and tough to get). At one point I had one hundred of them but most are gone now. I still have about fifteen.

Modern carabiners that are used today are better yet: lighter, stronger, and better shaped to allow easier use with one hand under extreme pressure of hard free climbing.

Belaying and rappelling
When Faye and I started climbing we were taught a technique called a “hip belay” to hold the rope for both a leader and a follower. The hip belay uses the friction of the rope running around one’s body (hips) to hold a fall. During the time we were using this technique thank god neither of us took a big leader fall but we did get to hold falls of folks on top ropes and followers and trust me, it’s not comfortable. Couple that with the fact that we were using “Goldline” (twisted nylon) ropes back then and it wasn’t fun.

Rappelling (descending a rope or a doubled rope) was done with six carabiners with a technique called a “6 carabiner brake” and it worked just fine although took extra time to set up.

In time manufacturers started making devices dedicated to both belaying and rappelling and the two pictured below are the ones Faye and I used on the Lost Arrow.

Belay and rappel devices

On the left is a small belay device that one runs the rope through so it can be pinched and locked off. It works very well. On the right is a tool called a “figure 8” which one or two ropes are threaded through for rappel. It creates the necessary friction so that one can descend a rope safely without having to set up a carabiner brake. The small end of the figure 8 can also be used as a belay device, similar to the one pictured here.

As I said above, when Faye and I started climbing the least expensive rope we could find to learn how to climb at our local top-roping place was called “Goldline” which was a nylon twisted rope that was very stiff and not great for holding leader falls. Coiling it was like coiling a stiff garden hose, awkward.

There was another kind of rope around although it was more expensive: kernmantle. “kern-mantel” (core-sheath) was a great improvement over Goldline. Kernmantel ropes cover a twisted core with a woven mantle that makes both rope handling, and designing custom rope strengths possible.

In the early days of climbing when leaders climbed on hemp ropes, leaders could never fall because the rope didn’t stretch, it broke or, it broke (injured) the climber. The invention of nylon allowed ropes to stretch which for leaders, allowed falls without as much damage to the rope or the climber. However, one doesn’t want the rope to stretch under body weight (Faye or me ascending a pitch to clean it). One only wants the rope to stretch under the heavy load of a leader fall and then, not too much or the leader might hit the ground.

In our day, if a leader took three good size falls on a rope, the rope was retired. The nylon/Dacron fibers in the rope can only absorb so much stretch and then they don’t stretch anymore, they break.

Over many years rope manufacturers have designed climbing ropes that can absorb more falls and good thing because sport climbing has pushed leaders into numerous attempts on hard pitches and a lot of falling.

And, in case you think there is no place for static ropes, they’re used in both arborist work, caving and yachting. Rope stretch is something to be avoided if you’re descending and ascending a deep cave or climbing a rope to top a tree or pulling in a boom on a sailboat.

For our climb and most of the climbs we did, Faye and I used an 11mm lead rope and either a second 11mm haul/rappel rope or later, a 10mm second rope to save weight. On the Lost Arrow Faye and I had four 11mm ropes with us: two to fix to the notch, two for the climb and rappel back to the notch.

Ascenders are mechanical devices used to climb a rope. Before these devices were invented various friction knots were used to climb ropes. The most common among climbers was the prusik knot.

The idea of both the knots and mechanical devices is to easily slide the device up the rope, but through friction (the knot or a cam in the ascender) have the device lock on the rope when pulled down. With two ascenders (or friction knots), each tied into one’s harness and aid slings for one’s feet, one can climb a rope by sliding one up, putting weight on it, then sliding the other up once weight is removed from it.


Two modern ascenders, one with the rope attached, the other with the cam disengaged so it can be attached or removed from a rope.

Once weight is removed from an ascender the cam can be retracted and it can be slid down the rope, or, by retracting a safety mechanism, detached from the rope completely.

Mechanical ascenders made big wall climbing much more manageable and with the use of a pulley, one can use two ascenders to haul heavy loads up a rock face. By hanging one ascender upside down to hold on the downside of the pulley, and placing the other one on the upside of the pulley, a climber can use body weight to lift a heavy big wall bag up and the ascender on the downside will stop it from going back down.

Back to the Climb
I’m reposting an image I shot of another climber finishing pitch 3 below:

Leader topping out on the Lost Arrow Spire

A climber finishing pitch 3 of the Lost Arrow Spire

The last fifteen or so feet of this climb is relatively easy free climbing on a smooth slab. The climber in the image above has just stepped out of his aid stirrups and is probably faced with a some rope drag because the rope is running down and around a corner.

When I was in the position the climber above is in I thought for sure I’d fall off trying to pull enough slack in the rope so I could finish the climb. And, I wasn’t sure Faye was hearing me when I yelled for slack, or if she was, maybe the reason I wasn’t getting any slack is that we were out of rope. While that climbing was relatively easy, I remember having a tough time there. Thinking about that now makes me nervous.

When I finally got to the top car horns in the valley below went off and the sound of it all, even at a distance startled me. I had no idea that folks were following us with binoculars but in fact, a lot of folks were and I was wearing a red shirt which made it easier (I hadn’t chosen the shirt for that reason).

I tied into the belay and yelled down to Faye that I was off belay so she could start up.

My guess is it took Faye an hour to get the belay cleaned up and come up the pitch with her ascenders cleaning all of my weird aid placements. She was a fast climber (faster than me), but I was no doubt cooling down after settling in on my perch at the top. Faye had our small pack with sweaters and a hat for me but I’m guessing I got pretty cold up there waiting. Again, stupid me for wearing shorts.

Once Faye reached the top and got clipped in I remember her saying that she had wondered what took me so long, but after seeing the weird protection I had to put in she got it. It was impossible to see what I was doing from Salathé ledge.

Richard (me) on top of the Lost Arrow Spire

Richard on top after Faye came up behind him.

Faye took a shot of me before we rappelled back down. We didn’t stay up there long, it was getting cooler and we still had to get back down to the notch and back up our fixed ropes, which we could now see (still there, thank god) on the wall behind us.

Coins in a pothole on top of the Lost Arrow Spire

There’s a small pothole on top and folks have put coins in it. Wish we’d had some coins to leave.

Richard (me) rappelling off the top of the Lost Arrow Spire

The start of the rappel off the top. Note, you can see the knot tying both ropes together and its placement means we would need to pull the orange rope to keep the knot from jamming into the anchor ring.

We needed both ropes tied together to get back to Salathé ledge. The ropes are knotted and it’s important (essential) to remember which side of the rappel anchor the knot is on so you pull the correct rope and don’t jam the knot back into the anchor. The anchor was two bolts with nylon slings running through their hangers with a steel ring on the end. We cut one of the old slings off to make room for one of our newer slings.

I might have tied a knot in the end of the doubled rope so I couldn’t rappel off the end but I don’t remember. Frankly, to this day I’m not sure what climbers do when rappelling into unknown territory. No doubt they bring ascenders with them so they can go back up if they get in trouble.

I remember taking this rappel slowly because there wasn’t a lot of rope left when I reached Salathé ledge. Once on the ledge I clipped into the anchor there and yelled to Faye to come down.

Richard (me) on Salathe ledge, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye took a picture of me waiting on Salathé ledge as she came down.

After Faye came down we tied one end of the pull rope into the anchor so we wouldn’t lose both ropes over the edge as they came down, and pulled the other rope through the anchor on top. There was a lot of rope drag but we did get it down.

As I remember, we were able to rappel pitch 1 and 2 together in one go as they were short. It was an awkward rappel as it spiraled around the spire back to the notch.

Richard (me) ascending fixed ropes, Lost Arrow Spire

Using ascenders to climb the rope we’d left fixed down to the notch.

In the image above I’m climbing a rope and tied into a second rope. Faye might have been belaying me although it did no good. Had the rope I was ascending failed I’d have fallen back down to the notch. Maybe it was a mistake because we were tired, who knows?

When I got to the ledge I tied in and she used her ascenders to come up. Maybe I used the second rope to belay her, I don’t remember.

Richard (me) ascending fixed ropes, Lost Arrow Spire

This is our last picture of this climb. Me ascending the second fixed rope back to the rim. Again, Faye is probably belaying me for no good reason.

When I got to the top I signaled for her to come up on her ascenders behind me.

As I remember, after we cleaned up our gear and got things loaded back into our packs we had just enough daylight to get back on the falls trail and head down. I don’t think we were using headlamps in those days but we had flashlights and probably made it back to our camp which was my VW bus in the dark.

I don’t have a clear memory of the rest of that trip but I’m guessing we took a day off to rest and then got back to climbing. Probably nothing as serious as the Lost Arrow but we did do a lot of great climbs in Yosemite over many years.

I posted a shorter version of this clip in my first installment but I’m posting it again because it’s one of the clearest looks at what the Lost Arrow Spire is all about. It was shot in 2017, our climb was 38 years earlier. I’ve included all of their Lost Arrow climb this time, not just the drone footage at the end (they also did the “snake dike” route on Half Dome which is the first half of their video. Rewind all the way if interested). Note the waterfall in full force. Same place we were swimming.

I love looking back at this but to be honest, it’s tough to imagine having done these things in an earlier time of my life. I know myself well and I was never a natural at any of this (in fact, I’m a polio survivor), but over many years with great instruction (thanks Bob Ashworth) I got into it and improved. While I never took it as far as some of my other climbing partners I feel good about how far I got.

I climbed for another eight years and I’ve got plenty of other stories to tell; the slides have been scanned. Stay tuned.

Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face

This post and story is part two of a three part story: Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire (part one), preparing for the climb (this post), and doing the climb. Stay tuned for part three. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape, so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for “monkey face smith rock” or a Google image search will give you many more modern and clearer images although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.

When Faye and I returned to Oregon from our 1977 Yosemite trip we had our sights set on a climb at Smith Rock, a climbing area on the other side of the Cascades in the high desert of central Oregon. We lived in Eugene, a good half day drive away (more if the VW bus was acting up). Smith was popular back then but it became a lot more popular after our friend and fellow climber, Allan Watts brought sport climbing techniques to the area (rappelling and placing bolts to allow harder free climbing without having to place protection). Many new difficult free routes were opened up and people started arriving from all over the world to do them. In the mid 1970’s Smith might have had only a few dozen climbers in the park on a weekend. In the 1990s and later things got a lot more crowded.

Because we were trying to prepare for a steep aid climb on the Lost Arrow Spire, we figured we needed a steep aid climb that would help us get faster at rope handling, placing marginal protection, hanging belays, and doing aid on an overhang. Both of us had done the Pioneer Route and West Face Variation on Monkey Face so we were familiar with the tower but the West Face Route was longer, involved at least one hanging belay and at that point in time was done almost completely by aid climbing. It had been put up (climbed first) in 1962 by Dean Caldwell, Byron Babcock, and Bill Lentsch. They followed the initial crack and put the expansion bolts in on pitch two and in the back of the monkey’s head to the top.

Neither of us had done the route before and the route traversed the back of the monkey’s head which is a large cave with a relatively flat floor so we decided to plan a bivouac there to add to the fun.

Here are some recent shots of Monkey Face at Smith Rock by a variety of Flickr photographers:

smith rock

A nice Smith Rock landscape taken by Flickr member scott zarnegar from the Crooked River looking north showing a line of cliffs and Monkey Face in the back. The west face is on the left skyline.

Monkey Face 2

A nice shot showing the entire Monkey Face Tower and the entire west face route by Flickr member Jeff Johnson.

monkey face

Three climbers on the west face route on Monkey Face (the route we did). They’ve just finished pitch one and are starting on two. This image was taken by Flickr member scott zarnegar.

Monkey Face, Smith Rock, Oregon - May 2015

Flickr member Thomas Shahan shot this unusual view of Monkey Face, looking south. The west face route goes up the right skyline (note the overhang on the top half). You can see the Crooked River below and the Oregon Cascades in the distance. This is a brilliant shot.

The 1979 Climb
We didn’t actually get to climb the West Face of Monkey Face until May of 1979.

Faye and I drove over to Smith Rock Park and spent night one in one of our VW campers in the parking lot. Then we assembled our gear and hiked over Asterisk Pass and north on the Crooked River to the base of Monkey Face.

Pile of gear at the base of the west face of Monkey Face

We unloaded and sorted out our gear before the climb. Note the two packs (mine eaten by marmots in Yosemite), foam pads to sleep on in the cave, rack of hexagonal nuts (small protection underneath), slings, a load of carabiners (long aid pitches and sling belays require a lot of them) two ropes, and stiff climbing shoes to make standing in aid stirrups less painful. We had no sleeping bags, we slept in our clothes on the pads.

Faye sorting gear

Faye sorting gear at the base of Monkey Face.

After we got all the gear sorted and me set up to lead the first pitch, we found a place for Faye to anchor to belay me. We also tied the two packs together and I hauled them when I got to the first ledge as one would a larger pack on a bigger multi-day wall climb in Yosemite (or elsewhere). Remember, we were rehearsing for our future Lost Arrow Tip climb as well as learning and practicing big wall techniques for other longer climbs we planned to do in the future.

Faye putting on knee pads

Faye putting on knee pads.

We experimented with knee pads on this climb because aid climbing involves resting with a knee against the rock and the rock at Smith is volcanic “welded tuff” which rips up pants and skin. In the end, we didn’t continue to use the pads as they got in the way on mixed free and aid routes but this route was all aid so we figured they’d be useful. If memory serves, they were.

West face of Monkey Face

Looking up at the west face route from the ground.

I realize that as I write this in 2018 the west face route on Monkey Face is free climbed (5.12b) but the free route does not follow the original aid route. At least at this point, it would be impossible to free the overhanging bolt line on pitch two (the top of the image above). The free route goes to the left (north) a bit and follows the corner.

Notice on the image above that the first pitch is mostly a thin crack which can be protected with small stoppers and nuts. There are a few bolts on it but it’s mostly a thin crack. Pitch one ends where the red rock changes to tan. There’s a small ledge there.

Richard (me) on the first pitch, west face of Monkey Face

Richard (me) aid climbing pitch one on the west face of Monkey Face. Note: the blue rope is the lead climbing rope, the red rope is the haul rope and will be used to haul up the packs.

The protection on pitch one was not hard to place as I remember. It’s a great place to get into the rhythm of leading an aid climb:

  1. Place a piece of protection.
  2. Put a carabiner or two or a sling and another carabiner on it for the rope to run through
  3. Clip the lead climbing rope through to protect yourself and not lose the protection as you test it
  4. Clip an aid sling (webbing ladder) onto the carabiner and gently test the protection by shifting weight to it
  5. Put all your weight on it and reach down and unclip your other aid sling from the lower protection
  6. If you need to rest, clip the second sling next to the first, put your foot in it, clip a short sling from your harness to the carabiner and lean back and rest
  7. Climb to the top stirrup in one of your slings reaching as high as you can
  8. Place the next piece of protection
  9. Repeat.

More on this here: aid climbing.

Richard (me) on the first pitch, west face of Monkey Face

Richard (me) approaching the first belay on the west face of Monkey Face.

Because Faye and I were doing this climb in “big wall style” when I reached the small ledge belay at the top of pitch one, I tied off the lead climbing rope (blue) which tied me into the anchor point and also secured the rope so Faye could ascend it with mechanical ascenders and clean the protection out of the pitch without an active belay by me. This allowed me to use the red rope and my two ascenders and a pulley I was carrying to haul the packs up to my ledge.

In fact this is how big walls are climbed and this technique, developed by Royal Robbins and others in Yosemite Valley in the 1950’s is still in use today. Most of the individual tools have been modernized but the technique remains the same: leader leads on a belay from follower, ties off rope, hauls bag while follower ascends and cleans pitch. Switch places, repeat x times up the wall. When a route is shorter and involves more free climbing (less aid) and less stuff to haul the leader might belay the follower up a pitch so he/she can climb it free. For more on this see Big Wall Climbing.

Looking down on the first pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Looking down pitch one from the small belay stance.

Faye cleaning the first pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye using ascenders to climb and clean pitch one. Notice that the red rope and packs have already been hauled up.

Faye cleaning the first pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye continuing up pitch one.

Faye cleaning the first pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye almost done with pitch one. Note: using ascenders like she’s doing here is strenuous although like leading aid, one gets into a rhythm and that involves short rests.

Faye at the first belay, west face of Monkey Face

Faye finished with pitch one resting at the belay.

Notice Fay’s harness in the image above. The style in those days was to wrap a thick, tubular piece of 2″ webbing around your waist 3-4 times and tie it with a water knot (an overhand follow through). Then either take a long sling and make a figure 8 out of it and step through it for leg loops and secure them to the waist webbing with carabiners, or, buy sewn leg loops. We had an industrial sewing machine and made our own leg loops which you can see in later images. They worked well and we used this setup for many more years until pre-made harnesses got more popular and we had more money to buy them.

The bolt ladder on pitch 2, west face of Monkey Face

Looking up at the bolt ladder at the start of pitch 2.

When there isn’t a crack to bang a piton or slip a nut into, bolts are used to climb blank walls.

What you have to remember is that the guys who did the first ascent of this stood here and used a hand drill to drill 1/4″ or 3/8″ holes in the rock. These drills were a drill tool that looks like a screwdriver handle with a drill bit on the end and a hardened other end for hitting with a hammer. Place the drill on the rock, hit, twist, hit, twist, hit… repeat dozens of times to make a hole deep enough to put a bolt in. Later with the invention of better batteries folks carried electric drills and extra batteries up walls like this to drill holes for bolts.

Once the hole is drilled and cleaned out there are a few different types of bolts that can be put in, depending on the strength of the surrounding rock and what the climber has in his or her pocket.

The easiest to place is an expansion stud: a short rod, 1/4″ which with a bulge in the middle and threads on the outer end. You pound it into the hole and the bulge collapses making it tight with the walls of the hole. Alternatively, a sleeve is pounded in with threads on the inside of it and the threaded stud is screwed into it.

Each of these techniques leaves a threaded stud sticking out of the rock. Onto this stud one places a bent piece of sheet metal called a “hanger” which has a hole on one face for placing on the stud and a larger hole on the other face for clipping a carabiner to. Once the hanger is in place a nut is threaded onto the stud. Some folks used to put epoxy on both the top of the nut and around the hole to prevent water and ice from getting inside.

For more on this, see Hand Drills vs. Power Drills and anchor bolt.

So, the idea that the first ascent party put in this ladder of bolts going up (not hanging on a rope coming down which was later popularized in sport climbing here) is amazing. Then think about some of the other big wall climbs with hundreds of bolts on them and you get a bit tired in the arms, back, and neck.

I’ve put one bolt in on a climb in my entire life and that was more than enough.

Climbing a bolt ladder, as long as the first ascenders weren’t too much taller than you isn’t all that hard and as memory serves I was able to climb pitch 2 relatively easily although I’m only 5′ 6″ so no doubt some of the reaches were long for me.

The cave at the back of the monkey's head, west face of Monkey Face

The cave at the back of the monkey’s head at the top of pitch 2 on the west face route.

After finishing pitch 2 I entered the cave at the back of the monkey’s head. I anchored the lead rope so Faye could clean the pitch and I hauled our bags up. The last bit was tough as I remember as it was over a rough edge.

Faye setting up the bivouac in the cave on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye assembling rocks for our campsite in the cave. Note the long shadows as the sun goes down and it gets colder.

Faye and I had been on top of Monkey Face numerous times on other climbs but we’d never been in this cave and we weren’t sure what we’d find there. Maybe mice, bats, or some other beast was living there and we were prepared to keep going and sleep on top if we had to but in fact, the cave, while rough, wasn’t too bad and we were able to find enough loose rock to build a wind break.

We just had some extra clothes and foam pads so it was going to be a less than fully comfortable night but hey, when you’re young you can do stuff like that.

Morning view looking west from the cave on the west face of Monkey Face

Looking west out of the cave toward the Cascades. Three Sisters (mountains) on horizon.

Faye getting ready to lead the last pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye getting ready to lead the last pitch on the west face of Monkey Face

Faye geared up to lead the last pitch out of the cave and around the back top of the head.

Note: Faye was a very strong climber. I was the one who got us into climbing in the first place and mostly drove our interest in it, but she could do most anything I could do, including leading the toughest pitches we did at the time. We didn’t compete with one another, if I didn’t want to lead something she almost always did it which is exactly the kind of climbing partner you want to have. We got along much better as climbing partners than we did as a couple.

Faye leading the last pitch out of the cave, west face of Monkey Face

Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three.

Even though the last pitch was mostly bolted, it started out on an extreme overhang and the roof was tall enough so that as I remember it, we had to pile some rocks up for Faye to reach the first one.

In the image above you can see her wearing our home-made leg loops, she’s got her two blue ascenders on a sling and her left knee pad is earning its keep on the rough rock. Behind her is 380 feet of air to the ground. She’s reaching up to clip into the next bolt.

Faye leading the last pitch out of the cave, west face of Monkey Face

Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. Note the hang of the ropes and overhang. My image is not very level, the overhang is more severe than it looks here.

Faye leading the last pitch out of the cave, west face of Monkey Face

Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. Note the hang of the ropes and overhang. She’s putting extra slings on the protection because the rope drag over the back of the head is horrendous.

Faye leading the last pitch out of the cave, west face of Monkey Face

Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. She’s resting, clipped into the anchor and catching her breath. The overhang makes this pitch tough. Good thing it’s not all that long.

The image above is the last one of us on this climb.

Needless to say, we got to the top and did the notorious free rappel off the monkey’s nose.

Monkey Face, Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

Here’s a more recent shot of that free rappel by Flickr member Dan I. This is looking at the east face of the tower (the west face climb is on the other side). The rappel ends in the notch between Monkey Face and the main wall. Note: the east face of Monkey face has been free climbed. Amazing. I did the north face (right in this image) of Monkey Face a few years later with another climbing partner.

After finishing the rappel we packed up our gear and hiked back out to our VW van for the trip home.

It was a great climb, well within our abilities and while the Lost Arrow Tip in Yosemite was going to be tougher in many respects, we both felt like this climb helped prepare us for it. Rope handling (fast and safe technique with the gear) on climbs like these is almost as important as climbing ability and both of us felt we learned a lot on this climb.

We weren’t going to return to Yosemite until the following summer so we had plenty of time to continue practicing which we did, both at Smith Rock and at other Oregon climbing areas.

Next installment, climbing the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite Valley.

Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire

This post and story is part of a three part story: getting the idea for a climb, preparing for the climb, and doing the climb. Stay tuned for parts two and three. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape, so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for “lost arrow spire” or a Google image search will give you many more modern and clearer images although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.

Just to whet your appetite and give you a sense of what this is about, here’s a small piece of a youTube video shot with a drone above the Lost Arrow Spire in 2017. This is a modern day look at the same formation this post is about. The images in this post were shot in 1977, 45 years earlier.


In the summer of 1977 my then girlfriend Faye and I were in Yosemite valley on a climbing trip. We were what would have been called, solid 5.8 climbers (not beginners, but not hotshots). Occasionally we did harder stuff, but we were both leading moderate climbs like The Nutcracker, Royal Arches (the rotten log was still in place) and a variety of great climbs on the Glacier Point apron.

We both had Volkswagen buses which had camper interiors and we travelled and stayed in one or the other on these trips. It made it possible to get some sleep and avoid the all-night Camp 4 climber parties.

Faye in her VW Bus


Faye in her VW bus in Yosemite Valley, 1977

Both of us had done easy aid routes back at Smith Rock in central Oregon (the Pioneer route on Monkey Face) and had practiced aid climbing at our local climbing spot in Eugene, the Columns, but we hadn’t done a big wall or a route in Yosemite with a lot of exposure.

From almost anywhere in the central part of Yosemite Valley (the “village” as it’s called), you can see Higher Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point. If you know what you’re looking for, between the falls and the point is a detached pinnacle called The Lost Arrow Spire. It’s like a thumb sticking out from the cliff face, about 200 feet tall from where it detaches.

The Lost Arrow Spire from Yosemite Valley


This is the scouting picture I took from the valley floor in 1977. The falls (dry here) is behind the tree, Yosemite Point is the high point and the Lost Arrow is between.


The complete Lost Arrow (from the ground to the tip) was one of the first big walls climbed in Yosemite using modern methods: pitons, ropes, carabiners, webbing stirrups (aiders), a leader and a belayer. It was done in 1947 in a five day push by John Salathe and Anton Nelson. They went up the chimney on the west side (left in the image above) of the arrow from the ground to the top. When they got to the notch, where the pinnacle becomes detached from the wall, they camped out there and spiraled around to the east side, making their way up two ledges and then precariously, up the last 150 feet to the top.

Since then the popularity of the complete climb, from base to tip has diminished as the lower climbing isn’t all that aesthetic. The tip has remained a bit more popular although during the 1970’s, an era of extreme free climbing, this particular climb was not done often, maybe ten times a summer, if that.

To do the tip by itself, climbers hike up the Falls trail to the rim of the valley, just west of Yosemite Point. There they set up a rappel into the notch and climb the arrow tip. That climb is documented in the 1971 edition of the Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, by Steve Roper. No doubt later editions of the Roper book and other newer guidebooks have updated route information but below is the route information that Faye and I had as we contemplated this climb.

Lost Arrow Tip

From the 1971 edition of Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley by Steve Roper

Grade III, 5.5, A3. First ascent in September 1946 by Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold, Anton Nelson and Robin Hansen. This party gained the summit after engineering a Tyrollean traverse. The first climbing ascent was masterminded by John Salathe who, with Nelson, climbed the pinnacle on the fifth day of their route from the base. From trees 300 feet west of the railing at Yosemite Point, rappel 130 feet to a large flake. Next, rappel 115 feet into the notch. Both these ropes must be left in place for the return; the lower end of the lower rope should be secured in the notch to prevent its swinging out of reach.

From the sinister notch walk out a narrow ledge on the east face. Nail and free climb 35 feet to a good belay ledge. Climb left around a rotten corner, then nail 20 feet to Salathe Ledge, an excellent, relaxing belay site. The 3rd pitch is the crux: traverse left a few feet, nail for about 20 feet, then move left and nail up to a sling belay at the base of the “flint-hard and flawless Arrow tip.” On the last pitch, use bolts and 2 pitons for aid. Two rappels (125 feet and 70 feet) lead (back) to the notch.

The nailing on this magnificent route is continually changing and challenging. Nelson, speaking of his 1946 ascent, has written: “as we further diminish the crack’s possibilities, it becomes doubtful that many others will ever climb the Lost Arrow.” By 1970 the pinnacle had been climbed over 200 times and the cracks were still getting worse. What were horizontal piton cracks in 1960 are now inch-angle cracks. The rating remains the same, but the hardware changes. A 1971 selection should include about 15 pitons: one- third horizontals and the rest angles to 2″.

Notes from this description

The grade (in this case III) is the length the overall severity of the climb. Very few three or four pitch climbs are rated grade III and the fact that this one is is because of it’s location: 2000 feet above the valley floor. That means that while the climb itself is challenging, the exposure from doing the climb at that height is part of the challenge. Given that Faye and I had not done climbs with similar exposure, this certainly gave us pause. We had done the Royal Arches Route, another grade III but that climb, while over 1000 feet long is low angle and has little exposure (except for what was the rotten log pitch which was terrifying).

The free climbing rating, 5.5 was well within each of our abilities to lead although doing anything like that with exposure certainly adds to the difficulty. Free climbing ratings work like this:

3rd class: no rope, not too dangerous but don’t fall.
4th class: leader has a rope, no protection used. Follower is belayed up.
5th class: leader has a rope, is belayed, uses protection in case of a fall.

Because most climbing is 5th class that class has been divided into a decimal system to describe the difficulty of the climb. 5.0 is very easy, initially 5.10 was the toughest, but as climbing has advanced, the decimal system has expanded to 5.10 a, b, c, and 5.11, etc.

For those reading this who don’t know, free climbing works like this:

The leader and belayer tie into each end of a rope. The belayer anchors himself to the rock such that if a leader falls from above won’t pull him up or off the rock. The leader climbs up, say, 20 feet and puts in a piece of protection (piton, chock, clips into a bolt, etc.) and attaches a carabiner and most likely a sling and another carabiner to it, then clips the rope into the end carabiner. If the leader then climbs up another 5 feet and falls, the belayer holds the rope and the leader will fall a bit over 10 feet: double the distance to the last piece of protection plus some rope stretch and slack and the length of the sling. When the leader gets to the top of the pitch (a bit less than a rope length or a convenient stopping point) he anchors himself and brings (belays) the belayer up with the belayer taking out all the protection). This is how all roped climbing works. With free climbing, the leader just uses the protection as protection, he doesn’t hang onto it to advance. With aid climbing, the climbing is hard enough so it can’t be free climbed and so, protection is also used to hang onto to advance. Of course, over many years, what was aid climbed now might be free climbed, as free climbing standards have pushed on.

Many pitches have mixed free and aid on them: a few free moves, hang on a bolt, a few more free moves, stand on a piece of protection, etc. This is all determined by the skill of the climber and how good the protection is in case of a fall. Bad protection means less risky moves.

The aid rating, A3 is what gave me pause. Given the description and the rating I wasn’t sure we had the equipment or the skill to do aid climbing at this level.

Aid climbing can be as simple as climbing a bolt ladder: clipping into a series of expansion bolts, each about 5 feet apart (placed by earlier parties). Clip into one, attach a nylon ladder or aid stirrup to it, climb up as high as possible, clip into the next and repeat. Or, if there are no bolts, aid climbing can involve inserting various things into a crack to hang off of. Pitons, chocks, hooks, mashies, bashies, copperheads (some of these are soft pieces of metal on a swedge wire that are hammered in) or “rurps” (“realized ultimate reality pitons”). These last gadgets are precarious and many placements of these will hold body weight but won’t hold a fall. This means if you place two or more of these in a row to advance and the top one pulls, you’re looking at what is called a “zipper” where a whole line of them will pull out and you’ll fall further.

Given the Roper description of the crack on the Lost Arrow becoming messed up through years of piton use, I wasn’t sure what shape it would be in when we found it and what gear to bring. Most importantly, I wasn’t sure if either of us had the skill or guts to place the gear to get to the top. Once you’re in the middle of an A3 pitch, turning around is difficult so I didn’t want to do this climb if we weren’t prepared. Also, at this time, 1977 climbing was going through a transition from the use of pitons (dirty, destroys cracks) to the use of stoppers and hexes (clean, leaves cracks un-harmed). Later expandable protection would be invented but we didn’t have it at this point and most people carried a mix of pitons/hammer and chocks for a climb like this.

So, all of this gave us pause but it’s great to have dreams and we decided to do a scouting trip up to the Arrow itself to check it out.

Checking it out

We packed water and lunch and hiked up the Yosemite Falls Trail, crossed the stream that forms the falls and hiked over to Yosemite point. To our amazement and luck there was a party of three doing the climb so we were able to watch how they set it all up.

Remember, there was no internet in those days so looking up pictures or videos online wasn’t possible. All we had to go on was the Roper guide. There was an early version of George Meyer’s Yosemite Climbs topo guide out but we didn’t have it and we didn’t know anyone who had done the climb. This made it quite a bit more “adventurous.”

The climbers had helpers who were staying behind on the valley rim. We later learned why: they were going to toss a rope to the climbers once they reached the top of the Arrow so that the climbers would do a Tyrollean traverse to get off the tip. This seems like a scary proposition but in fact, while very strenuous it’s not as scary as it seems. Still, Faye and I decided we’d try to do it the traditional way by doing the climb and then depending the outside of the spire back to the notch and leaving two ropes in place to climb with ascenders. This is what the Roper guide recommended and it seemed doable to us.

It was tough to find a good vantage point to watch the three climbers from but we found one just west of the rappel point.

Rapelling into the Lost Arrow Spire notch


Rappelling into the notch

Here you can see the first climber rappelling down. The rope he’s descending is hard to see but its there. The ledge he’s going to stop on is just below him. Note that he’s got another rope over his shoulder. He’ll anchor that rope to some bolts above the ledge and drop that rope into the notch below. Then he’ll rappel into the notch and the other two climbers will rappel down. Traditionally these ropes are left in place to ascend out of the notch when the climb is done. These folks got off the Arrow tip via Tyrollean traverse (below). You can see a small piece of the Arrow in the lower right of this image.

Aside: The ledge he’s going to is almost exactly level with the arrow tip and slack liners set up a slack line between that ledge the arrow tip and walk it. That wasn’t done in 1977 but it’s been done for the last 25 years or so. Search around on Google and youTube, you’ll see many images and some videos of folks walking the line here.

The first two pitches of this climb were out of our sight; they’re on the east and southeast face of the spire. The next time we caught sight of these climbers they were at the second (last) belay ledge in the lower right of the next frame. Because of foreshortening it looks like they’re close to the ground but in fact, the boulders under them are about 2000 feet below.

Climbers on the Lost Arrow Spire

Climbers on Salathe ledge

The long aid pitch above Salathe ledge is the crux of the climb and it took the leader many hours to climb it. In the Roper guide its recommended to stop before the top and clip into two bolts and do a sling or hanging belay to bring the second climber up. It was essential to do this on early climbs because climbing ropes were 150 feet long, not the later 165 feet. That extra fifteen feet makes it possible to do this crux pitch in a single push but it also makes the rope drag at the top tough.

The next image is the leader doing the last bit of free climbing up the arrow tip. Given the length of the pitch below him and the amount of protection he had to put in, the rope drag (the friction he’s got to work against) is horrendous as he makes that move. It’s easy climbing but between lack of protection (the last bolt is ten feet below him), rope drag, and exposure, it’s tough although when I took this picture I had no idea and if memory serves, he made it look easy.

You can see a red nylon sling to his left near the tip, that’s the belay point and there are at least two bolts there. He’ll tie into that and belay the others up.

Leader topping out on the Lost Arrow Spire

Leader doing the tip of the arrow

In this next shot the leader is on top, not doing much (not belaying) because the rope is tied off and the second climber is ascending the rope with devices called ascenders. You can see the second climber on the right edge of the arrow. Ascenders are metal handles with enclosed cams that allow a climber to slide one up the rope but the cam will pinch the rope and not allow the handle to slide down. Attach stirrups to each of the ascenders and you can easily climb a rope. This is how big walls are done and in this case, the second climber is cleaning the protection from the pitch and the leader doesn’t have to hold the rope for him.

Climbers on the Lost Arrow Spire

Follower cleaning the pitch

The next image shows two of the tree climbers on top and the Tyrollean traverse is all set up. The folks on the cliff side have already tossed a rope over and pulled ropes back and the “clothesline” is all anchored and ready. The third climber has already crossed and two climbers are getting ready.

Tyrolean traverse off the Lost Arrow Spire


Tyrollean traverse set up

This last image shows the leader crossing the Tyrollean traverse. He’s using his ascenders and pulling himself across. As he gets closer to the other side it gets steeper and tougher. The last person will go across and then they can retrieve the ropes by pulling them through the anchor.

Tyrolean traverse off the Lost Arrow Spire


Leader on the Tyrollean traverse

We stayed until the end and talked with them. I made notes on the gear they’d used on the crux pitch although if we did the climb a year from now that might change if the climb was done a lot. No way to know for sure.

The next step was to get back to Eugene and find someplace to practice. I had an idea and Faye agreed: The west face of Monkey Face at Smith Rock. A three pitch aid route with exposure and we’d haul a bag and camp out in the back of the monkey’s head.

Stay tuned.

Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face

Remembering Fred Beckey

The above trailer is for a documentary: Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.

Fred Beckey died on Monday, he was 94. Beckey was one of the greatest mountaineers of all time and he was also quite a character.

Robert McFadden at The New York Times does a great job of summarizing Beckey’s amazing life in climbing: Fred Beckey, Conqueror and Chronicler of North American Peaks, Dies at 94.

In the late 1970’s I went to a presentation/slide show that Beckey gave at REI in Seattle. It was amazing, less for the number of first ascents he’d done at that point (and since then he’s done a lot more), more for his lifestyle which was the epitome of the climbing bum, known among climbers as a “dirtbag” lifestyle.

At that point Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, two other pioneers from Fred’s era had already moved away from climbing into business startups (Patagonia and Royal Robbins clothing). But, Fred was all about climbing. He wasn’t a people person either, he was rather gruff during the Q&A after the slide show I went to.

These days climbing is a totally different sport than the sport Fred Beckey took part in: he didn’t compete, he had no sponsors, and he didn’t really care if he was well known beyond the world of serious climbers. He definitely was well known in the world of serious climbers who know the history of their sport and he will be sorely missed.

Here’s Fred Beckey’s Wikipedia entry.

Update: I heard from my friend Chris Jones who shared a Beckey story:

I once got one of Beckey’s famous I-need-a-climbing-partner calls, while he was on his way from Seattle to Smith Rock. This was one of his things – he’d head off somewhere with a climb in mind and go through his call list on the way, and by the time he was there he’d have at least one (sometimes several, just in case) partners lined up. I somehow ended up on his call list for Smith Rock, and he wanted to climb Monkey Face by the Pioneer Route (he would have been 82, though at the time I thought he was closer to 70).

I met him at Smith, but it started to snow. As it started to snow, he asked “What do ya think about the weather?” This was exactly one of the lines he was famous for, heard by many climbing partners through the years. I had read about his penchant for this particular line, and recognized it as he said it. But oblivious that I might have this recognition, he was just asking (for real), what I thought about the weather. We decided the weather was too poor (I pretended this wasn’t completely obvious), so we didn’t do the climb. Right about then a second potential climbing partner showed up, so he had arranged a backup in case I didn’t work out (or maybe I was the backup and I just got there first).

So, I didn’t actually get to climb with Fred, nor did Fred get to climb Monkey Face that day, but I did get to hear him say “What do ya think about the weather?”. And that was better than doing the climb.

Valley Uprising

Valley Uprising is a well produced, entertaining, and informative history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley, California.

I climbed there in the mid to late ’70s, know this history well and I think they got it right which is amazing for an old “trad” like me to say.

Excellent archival images and footage, great interviews with many of the historic figures (Steve Roper is hilarious), toward the present show extreme free climbing and free soloing on big walls, timely given what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have just accomplished on the Dawn Wall on El Capitan.

If you’re a Yosemite climber from any part of it’s history, you’ll enjoy this excellent documentary. Even my wife watched the entire thing and I was pretty much done with climbing by the time I met her, although we visited Yosemite Valley in 1990 as a family.

You can buy the DVD from Sender Films or on Amazon.

Rooster Rock, Julia King, and a climbing trip that changed my life


I recently scanned over 400 slides. I shot most of them on movie reversal film I bulk rolled to save money. The upside was I saved money. The downside was and is, they’re not in great shape compared with the (few) Kodachrome slides I shot. I recently had them all scanned with ScanCafe and while my slides were a mess (very dirty) the service did a good job on them.

This is the first of many posts telling some of the stories the slides illustrate. What I’ve learned in looking at these scans is that in order to tell a story you don’t need a perfect image, just a good enough image to illustrate the story. Of course, it’s only in retrospect that a story can be built out of images like these. Interesting to think about going forward.


In the late 1970’s I got deeply into rock climbing. I started small and local in Eugene, Oregon and eventually did quite a bit of climbing all over the Northwest and in Yosemite Valley, California. Those were great years and I’ll be posting lots of images from many of the climbs I did back then. I shot most of them with one of two Olympus XA cameras I had back then (a fixed prime lens clamshell compact rangefinder camera).

I taught climbing classes for the Eugene, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and did a bit of private guiding on routes too remote or difficult for classes. In 1981 I dropped out of the climbing scene and pretty much everything else for a while to try to get to the bottom of a problem I’d had my entire life: dyslexia. In those days I wasn’t much of a multi-tasker: I found it difficult to do the work I was doing researching my reading and writing problems and at the same time carry on the rest of my life, so, I stopped everything until I got a handle on the reading and writing problems.

Richard and Olympia typewriter

Richard writing on his Olympia manual typewriter.

One of my most significant early tools was an Olympia manual typewriter. It solved my handwriting problems completely and for the first time in my life I could read my own writing. And, it allowed me to write without pain in my hands from bearing down too hard. But, the typewriter was just the beginning.

Julia King

When I came up for air in 1982 I decided to put an ad up at the local climbing spot that I was guiding again. I needed money and for me, this was a way to make some.

Richard's climbing instruction flyer

Richard’s climbing instruction flier.

Not long after I put up the ad I got a call from a women named Julia King. She had been on a mountaineering expedition on Mt. Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades and had watched as her then boyfriend slid down a snowfield to his death. That had shaken her up so badly that she got out of climbing. She wanted back in and wanted a gentle instructor to take her up a climb to break the ice.

We made a plan to drive up to a climbing spot called The Menagerie which is a collection of odd shaped rock formations in the western foothills of the Oregon, Cascades. The formations have names like Rooster Rock, Chicken Rock, and Hen Rock. The most well known climb there that I’d done numerous times was on Rooster Rock and that’s what Julia and I planned to start off with to see how she did.

Rooster Rock

Rooster Rock

We drove up to The Menagerie and hiked in to Rooster Rock. To be honest, even though I made this trip many times I have no memory of the various logging roads, trails, or route finding to get to this place. But, in those days I knew it all well. I carried a rucksack with a small rack of gear and we probably only brought a single rope as the rappel off of Rooster rock is short on the uphill side.

I have no particular memory of this but it’s a long enough drive so after picking Julia up, we had a few hours in my VW bus to get to know one another. Knowing what I know about her now, my guess is the conversation was wide ranging. Even though I’ve not seen Julia in 25 or more years, she remains one of the most interesting and brilliant people I’ve ever known (my wife has met her and agrees), but, I didn’t know any of this then, just that we were off for a climbing adventure and I was hoping to make it as much fun and as easy as possible for her.

Julia King under Rooster Rock

Julia King sorting slings and flaking rope under Rooster Rock.

The climb was uneventful as I remember it thirty two years later. Julia had climbing experience and knew about rope handling and belaying. Still, she was nervous and that meant I did a lot of talking to reassure her that I was well aware of her and taking good care of us while I led and she followed.

This climb was probably two pitches with a belay on a ledge between them although there are many routes on Rooster Rock and I don’t really remember which one we did. No doubt an easy one.

My foot and Julia King on Rooster Rock

Looking down at Julia belaying while I led the first pitch.

Julia King belaying on Rooster Rock

Julia setting up the belay for the second pitch.

At the top we sat on a ledge and had some food and water and talked both about her experiences climbing in Oregon and trekking in Nepal and my experiences of the past few years coming to terms with dyslexia.

Julia King on top of Rooster Rock

Julia on top of Rooster Rock.

The connection

In our discussion Julia mentioned that she thought that given the types of problems I was having with writing, writing with a computer would solve some problems for me. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about the effects of editing text electronically, but Julia explained what she thought would make it work for me in a way that was both clear and convincing. She said that her then boyfriend Greg Estes had an IBM PC and I should stop by their house when we got back to Eugene to try writing with it.

I don’t remember talking much more about this on our walk out and drive home. Climbing is an exciting thing to do and the purpose of our trip was to get Julia over her fear and it seemed like we’d done that. She was extremely happy which made me happy. And, I was happy that after a period of time away from climbing I could still climb well and safely lead someone up up a moderate climb. Most importantly, I’d met an amazing person who would remain my close friend for many years to come.

programmer's journal

I can’t remember if I went to their house and tried Greg’s computer that very day or a day later but it was very soon after we returned to Eugene. Greg Estes was a DBase programmer who wrote and published a magazine called Programmer’s Journal which Julia helped edit and lay out. They’d both trekked extensively in Nepal where they met and they were both my kind of people: informal, well informed, easy going, and worldly.

After meeting Greg, he booted up his IBM PC (no hard disk or PC AT yet) and put in a disk with a simple writing program on it. He typed in the command to launch the program and backed away from the computer, leaving a green screen with a flashing cursor and a keyboard.

He told me to sit down and type something out on the keyboard. At this point you should know that even though I could tell right away that there was little chance of humiliating myself in front of these people, I was petrified, not of the computer, but of exposing anyone else to my spelling and writing. Even though I’d spent the previous two years hunting and pecking on a typewriter and my writing had improved tremendously during that time, it was still crude and I was still sensitive about it.

I wish I could remember the first sentence I wrote but it might have been something like, “hello my name is Richard.” Whatever it was I made a few mistakes which was good as it gave Greg something to teach me with. He told me to use the arrow keys to back the cursor up (the term cursor was new to me at that point) and put it just after the problem I wanted to fix, then use the backspace key to delete the problem letter and type the correct letter, fixing the problem.

Anyone reading this in 2014 takes all of this for granted and has for decades, but back then only a small number of people had experienced electronic editing and they tended to be of the nerdy persuasion. Greg talked me through a bit more writing and editing doing a few different things, then he sat down and demonstrated some other things which blew my mind.

We’re talking rudimentary word processing here, nothing fancy. But in those days just a “block move” (cutting and pasting) was a big deal.

Then he and Julia walked out of the room to fix dinner leaving me with the computer and writing software. I continued to experiment and pretty soon formed a thought that has stuck with me to this day:

Writing with a pen or a typewriter is very much like sculpting stone, the consequences of making a mistake involve a complete rewrite. Writing with a computer is very much like working with clay because writing/editing and printing are separate pieces of the process, the consequences of making a mistake are eliminated because the writing remains plastic and editable at all times.

Note: I have both a BFA and an MFA in ceramics and while I was pretty much done with ceramics at that point, working with clay remained and remains an important piece of my life.

I would later go on to write numerous articles about “mistake tolerant tools and processes” comparing older analog tools with their newer digital counterparts. I had a gut feeling about this that very first day but it was unformed, just excitement and wonder.

We had dinner, talked more about it and about lots of other stuff and Greg offered to help me if I decided to get a computer. It was an incredible evening.

In the next few days I went to my local bookstore and did some research and poured through The Whole Earth Catalog which was just beginning to mention computers and got a copy of Peter McWilliams’ The Word Processing Book. In the end, I decided to get an IBM PC, MS DOS and WordStar mostly because I had Greg as a local resource and I really liked him.

Richard and IBM PC

Richard writing with his IBM PC, image by Gary Sharp

Writing with my computer

Once I got set up using my new computer one of the first things I did was a lot of enthusiastic writing on what it was like to write with a computer.

whole earth software reviewsoftalk for IBM PC

I did a piece for The Whole Earth Software Review, Issue #1, Spring, 1984: Word Processing Computers as Remedial Writing Tools. I also did a piece for the June, 1984 issue of Softalk for the IBM PC Personal Computer: Bridge to Clarity, the computer as a compensatory writing tool. And I did various software review pieces for Greg and Julia’s magazine, Programmer’s Journal reviewing various writing and editing software for the IBM PC.

I did a lot of other writing as well, some of which was published in both tech and learning related magazines I’ve long since forgotten.

Here are two later pieces that were posted online describing that early process:

Tools for People With Writing Problems

How computers change the writing process for People with Learning Disabilities

Greg was a member of the Eugene IBM PC user’s group (he may have started it) and I joined up for a while as well.

During this time a woman named Norma Fuller who lived near Anchorage, Alaska read one of my pieces and called me up to see about bringing me up to Alaska to do a series of workshops for a group of dyslexic adults there. I taught there numerous times and made a great connection with her and others in Alaska (that will be another post with more scanned slides).

During the first few years I got involved with computers I was not only writing about my experience as a dyslexic writing with a computer, I was also trying out lots of writing and spelling/grammar support software which was pretty crude in those days compared with what it’s like now. During one of my trips to a computer store in Eugene, I got to play around with Apple’s new Lisa computer. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but it was definitely interesting. At $10,000 it was far out of my reach but it did get me thinking about another way of using these new tools.

IBM PC to Macintosh

In mid-1984, Greg and I decided to go down to San Francisco to attend the West Coast Computer Faire. Greg was trying to drum up new subscribers to Programmer’s Journal and I was always up for a trip to San Francisco and I’d never been to a computer trade show which were relatively new.

I don’t remember much about the trade show except that at some point I lost Greg and stumbled into Apple Computer, Inc’s booth which consisted of a fifteen foot 128K Macintosh with a projector in it such that a person operating a real Macintosh on a podium off to the side could demonstrate on it. The Macintosh had recently been introduced so it was new but the booth, amazingly, wasn’t all that crowded.

The person running the demo was Andy Hertzfeld and much of the first Macintosh team was hanging out in the booth, including Steve Jobs who I recognized immediately.

I watched the demo for a bit, then I walked up to Jobs and told him I was planning another trip to Alaska to work with adults with learning disabilities, I was taking twenty Compaq computers and I thought it would be great to have a Macintosh along so that we could see what LD adults could do with its mouse and graphical user interface.

Jobs loved the idea, called Mike Murray over (Murray was the first marketing manager for the Macintosh at Apple) and told him to send me a Macintosh immediately. Jobs gave me his card (with AppleLink email address) and told me to get back to him with whatever happened in Alaska.

I eventually found Greg and told him what had happened. In those days it was still possible to meet Steve Jobs in an Apple trade show booth and while it sounds amazing in retrospect, I did have small a sense of how important that encounter was. But, I had no sense of what was to come: my eventual migration from PC to Mac, starting the Eugene Macintosh User’s Group, presenting at numerous conferences for Apple on the Macintosh and LD in the next 6 months, moving to Connecticut to start the first Mac lab in the country for dyslexic high school students (with Apple’s backing), writing, editing, and publishing The Macintosh Lab Monitor with international circulation (also with Apple’s backing), meeting my wife at that school, continued consulting for Apple for the next twenty years, a few more meetings with Steve Jobs, many hundreds of workshops and presentations on the Macintosh in education all over the world, and much more.

Julia King, Richard Wanderman

Julia and Richard after the Rooster Rock climb.


Looking at these pictures of Julia and me on that climb brings back a flood of memories and what’s almost telescopic about it all is that the tool I’m writing this on and viewing the digital images on (a computer) is one that she helped lead me to and one that she and Greg were very early adopters of. They were both out in front of the digital revolution. I caught up fast but these two people were my introduction.

Julia also taught me how to make “sherpa tea” (she guided treks in Nepal before we met) and to this day I think of her when I make it. Of course, like many things, she was out in front of the wave: now chai is everywhere but back then…

Wherever you are Julia, thank you. You too Greg.

El Capitan, the film

El Capitan, the film documents three climbers doing the classic Nose route in 1968 on the largest rock formation in Yosemite Valley, California: El Capitan.

This film is not full of hero shots, not full of free soloing and is humble compared with many modern films on Yosemite climbing (see embedded videos below). But, it documents in amazing detail what it’s like to climb the Nose route on El Capitan, still one of the classic big wall rock climbs on earth by three (four including the cameraman) pioneering and excellent climbers.

The cinematography by Glen Denny is incredible as is the sound reproduction. This climb was made before the invention of “clean climbing” so the climbers are carrying pitons and hammers and a lot of heavy gear and that gear clanks around, and all of those clanks are recorded and in the movie. Of course, Glenn Denny also did the climb with a lot of heavy film and sound gear which was and remains a feat in itself.

Here’s a great history of the project and review of the movie by Michael Ybarra for Alpinist: El Capitan: The Movie. Highly recommended.

I’ve owned the VHS (videotape) version of the movie El Capitan for a long time and I was extremely happy to find that the film was painstakingly transferred to digital video including blue-ray.

I climbed extensively in Yosemite ten years after this movie was shot. For more on my climbing history, see A Climbing Story. Yosemite was a magical place before it got overrun by too many tourists and too many climbers. No doubt it’s still magical but I like to think I experienced it during a more innocent time.

Yvon Chouinard and Glen Denny’s book: Yosemite in the Sixties has photographs of many of the pioneers of Yosemite climbing who were active just before this film was made. You can see more of Glen’s photographs here: Glen Denny.

Buy the DVD or Blue-ray of El Capitan

Western Eye Press

A more modern El Capitan climb of the Nose route by Mark and Janelle Smiley:

The Nose on El Capitan from Mark Smiley on Vimeo.

A french team does the Nose route (the GoPro footage while a bit dizzying is useful for seeing what a climber sees):

The Nose – El Capitan from Capexpe on Vimeo.

Here’s Mark and Janelle Smiley on the Salathe Wall route on El Capitan (a more difficult climb):

Salathe – El Capitan, Yosemite from Mark Smiley on Vimeo.

A Climbing Story

Climbers at the Columns, Eugene, Oregon

Climbers at The Columns, Eugene, Oregon, 1975. Left to right: Pete Pollard, Jude Pollard, Chris Jones, Dale Allyn, Richard Wanderman. Picture taken by Faye Nakamura.

Note: This piece was written in 1999 and originally posted in 2004.

In 1975 I hung out at The Columns, a local climbing place in Eugene, Oregon. The Columns is an old quarry of columnar basalt that’s right in the middle of town and was cleaned up and turned into an outdoor climbing gym. It’s a great place to climb.

One day I was there with a bunch of folks, talking, climbing, resting. It was a busy day as Columns days went; there were people on many of the climbs, some leading, some top-roping.

An old Datsun pickup pulled up and I noticed because it was beat up, rusty, and had the back cut off with a small flatbed on it. A middle-aged guy got out. He was in city clothes and did not look the part of a climber. He reached back in behind the seat and pulled out an ancient looking pair of old, beat-up EBs with duct tape all over them. EBs were early climbing shoes that did not have sticky rubber on them which made climbing with them much harder than current shoes. Even 15 years ago anyone owning, let alone wearing EBs for climbing was from an earlier generation of climbers. I had had a pair of EBs myself as well as the earlier “klettershoes” which were like modern day hiking boots: stiff, non-stick soles not so good for friction although decent for edging and aid. I appreciated what climbing in EBs was like and the situation with this guy and his EBs looked interesting so I continued to watch him. Note that now (1999) shoes are like suction cups compared with EBs.

He sat down on the berm separating the parking area from the climbing area and took off his shoes and put on the EBs. He hardly looked up at the rock or the folks around him.

This was definitely interesting.

There were some very good climbers up on the rock with hardly any room for another rope or for this guy to play around on the bottom of the rock. None of us knew it at the time but some of the climbers up on the rock that day were to go on to become some of the best rock climbers in the world. That day they were agonizing over relatively easy climbing problems.

The guy waited until some folks moved, then quietly, with no eye contact with anyone else, left his shoes on the berm and walked over to one of the harder climbs at The Columns. He stood under it for a second, contemplating or planning or praying. He had no ropes or any equipment except the old shoes on his feet, no gymnastic chalk or harness. Nothing. And, he was in city clothes.

It should be noted that a few of the very best climbers free soloed climbs at The Columns in 1974. This means that they did the climbs without the protection of a rope. At that point no one had ever seen anyone free solo the climb that this guy was under. This added to the intensity of the moment.

This particular climb was a near vertical crack that started out about finger-width and ended up too wide for a fist. Because it was columnar basalt there were no other holds besides the crack. Climbers use a technique on cracks called “jamming” in which they insert fingers or hands and toes or feet (depending on the width of the crack) in the crack and twist the inserted body part so that it will hold body weight until another body part can be jammed in higher. In this way a climber moves up cracks. For the uninitiated it can be an awkward and sometimes painful technique. The closer the crack is to vertical the more weight there is on the inserted body part. The climb this guy was doing was about 40 feet long, very close to dead vertical and it leaned a bit to one side. Even harder.

All of us regulars at The Columns had tried this crack. Few of us had done it at that point although many of us, myself included, would go on to do it eventually. It was what climbers routinely call a “test piece” in that once you did it you were initiated into a more select group of climbers called “hard men” (yes, women were initiated into that group too).

The other significant piece of history about this crack is that many years after this event I tore my left rotator cuff leading it and ended my semi-serious climbing career.

So, the particular crack that this guy decided to have a go at was significant and by now others had noticed the disaster that was about to happen.

Many of us felt responsible for the place and for the safety of the people who climbed at it and I know a few minds, mine included, were trying to figure out how to stop this guy without causing a fight.

Then without warning he was moving up the crack. I’d never seen anyone climb like him before: smooth, effortless, the best jamming technique I’d ever seen. He moved up the crack as easily as walking on level ground. It was almost like levitation.

My jaw had dropped and I noticed quite a few other open mouths as well.

He never stopped moving. When he got to the top he walked off the side of the cliff and back down to where his shoes were sitting, took off the EBs and put on his shoes and was back in his truck and gone. This entire event took all of 10 minutes from the time he drove up until he was gone.

I turned to my friend Chris and asked if he knew who this guy was? Chris said the guy was Wayne Arrington, a climber who had been a pioneer of Oregon rock climbing over 10 years earlier and had dropped out of sight, helicopter logging in Alaska or something like that.

Arrington was legendary in Eugene climbing circles as one of the few people who was crazy enough to fly a helicopter upside-down in Vietnam. I have no idea if this was true but the thought of it coupled with some of the climbs he had put up was enough to make him a legend.

All I can tell you is that what I witnessed that day was spectacular. Not just the climbing but the way he drove up, was so calm and unconcerned, did the climb easily, and left without a word.

This was the definition of cool.

I knew I wasn’t a good enough climber, nor secure enough personally to do what he’d done. But, I secretly wished it had been me.

Arrington had done his early climbing in Oregon with a guy named Bob Ashworth who, after pioneering hard rock climbing in Oregon had gone down to Yosemite and stayed. Arrington had done some walls down there, including a very early solo of El Capitan, but had then dropped out of the climbing scene. Ashworth had stayed around and had become a guide and teacher at the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Ashworth had been my first climbing teacher five years before. I knew the names well because I had climbed many of their routes in both the Cascades and in eastern Oregon. To us at The Columns these guys were legendary and larger than life.

Ashworth, my teacher, was also a legend in climbing circles because while he was guiding in Yosemite during the summer he was also running the ski rental place there in the winter. One winter a small plane carrying a very precious (and illegal) cargo went down in a lake in a high canyon east of Yosemite Valley. It is said that Ashworth along with another climber went out and bought a load of equipment (scuba gear, metal cutting chain saws…) and went up to “salvage” the cargo. How much of it he got (if any) or what he did with it none of us knew. We did know that he continued to work in Yosemite and live out of the camper on the back of his pickup truck. Still, the story helped make him a legend.

Arrington had put up a climb I had done recently in the western Cascades called “Barrad Dur.” This climb, which I had done with a much better climber than me (I went along for the ride, so to speak) was so scary and so intense that it really made me appreciate what Arrington had done so many years ago.

So, seeing this guy at The Columns, even as an old, retired climber, was a cherished moment.

And, most importantly, the way he had done this hard crack climb, a climb that he had been the first to climb, helped cement his status.

15 Years later after I’d stopped climbing, had settled down in Connecticut far away from real mountains, and had a family and a new life, I found myself on a family vacation (not climbing) in Yosemite Park. There was my family: my wife and two step-daughters, and lots of friends, including two friends with severe physical disabilities. One of these friends was on crutches and one was in a power wheelchair. In all there were about 15 people in our group and we were definitely not climbers.

I was the tour guide for this group because I’d spent so many summers in Yosemite in my youth climbing and living out of the back of my VW bus.

I thought it would be a good idea to show this group Toulomne Meadows and I thought the place to go would be where I had done one of my first climbing classes with Bob Ashworth many years earlier: a small dome near the highway called Puppy Dome.

To get to Puppy dome is an easy walk for an able-bodied person but our friends with physical disabilities needed a bit of help to get in there. When we all finally got settled on a small river near the dome it was about mid-day. It was a wonderful day and various members of our group scrambled around on the rocks and swam in the river. No one mentioned anything about climbing and I thought it best, for some reason, just to enjoy the day without boring everyone with stories of Bob Ashworth and my first free rappel off Puppy Dome.

Eventually a group of real climbers showed up and started bouldering around on low stuff near the dome. I watched them from a distance, jealous of their youth and the fact that they didn’t have a bunch of “city slickers” with them.

They spent much of the afternoon working on a short boulder problem which looked quite hard. One of them would go up on it, struggle, yell some profanity, then fall off onto the dirt below.

As members of my group dropped off into afternoon naps I wandered over to these climbers and watched the action more closely. They were so graceful and I had little memory that I’d ever been able to move my body that well.

While watching I remembered something very clearly: I had been on that boulder in years past. Not my first time to Puppy dome but on a later trip after I was already a more experienced climber. As I wracked my now forgetful brain for what the solution to this boulder problem was, or, if I’d actually made it to the top, the climbers noticed me (I must have looked like a kid looking into a candy store window). They looked at me the way I must have looked at tourists when I was young, in shape, had all the right climbing clothing and paraphernalia, and was just plain cool.

I got the thought in my head that it would be fun to try this boulder problem and I very politely asked if I might have a go at it. They seemed to not hear my question but I thought I heard one of them snigger and of course, knew they were sniggering at me for being so ignorant to think that I could even get off the ground, let alone do this problem. After all, I was in Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt, socks (not knee socks thank god) and hiking shoes.

As they were packing up to leave I decided that I might as well give it a try, I had nothing to lose and I might enjoy myself although I too thought I had little chance of even getting off the ground on this very hard problem. I was also worried that I’d hurt my out of shape body by putting too much effort into doing this thing to look good in front of these climbers.

I walked over in my hiking shoes which they noticed right away, rolling their eyes and now sniggering more. I looked at the problem for about 30 seconds, and then, somehow, levitated up the rock like I had every move memorized. To this day I have no idea how I did this and I doubt I could ever do anything like it again.

When I got to the top I just kept on going off the back side toward my napping family.

As I looked back I saw that their jaws were dropped, just as mine had been when a similarly middle-aged Wayne Arrington showed up at The Columns and free soloed one of the hardest climbs there in his old EBs.

Ain’t life wonderful.