Don Whillans in California in 1966


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Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Apr 23, 2012 - 01:23pm PT
So Whillans made a trip to the Valley in '66 ("I was overweight, full of beer and not at all fit," he wrote). He hung out at the North Face in SF, where noticed the marquee at El Cid touting stripper Gaye Spiegelman as the "Topless Mother of Eight."

“Topless Mother of Eight?” Whillans proclaimed. “Must have been bottomless quite a bit of the time, too.”

Then he went to Ventura to work for Chouinard Equipment. Yvon says he was the first climber he had to fire.

Anyone have any Whillans stories circa his California sojourn?

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Apr 23, 2012 - 02:32pm PT
Robbins mentioned his visit to the Valley in a Summit summary of 1966 Yosemite climbing. The article itself appeared in 1967. I have it at home. If I remember rightly, Whillans climbed the Crack of Doom, Crack of Despair, NWF of Half Dome and, I think, the Steck-Salathe. Not bad 46 years ago for being out of shape!


Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Apr 23, 2012 - 02:57pm PT
Not really a world class showing either. Being out of shape is an excuse. I oughta know, I use it too.....

He was scared of the walls in Yosemite.
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Apr 23, 2012 - 03:04pm PT
In 1966, those climbs would have been a world class showing, at least for Yosemite cracks. Sacherer's contribution to hard climbing existed but was still very new.

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Apr 23, 2012 - 03:08pm PT
Ascents of Salathe Wall, North America Wall, or Half Dome Direct would have been a little more world class.....

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Apr 23, 2012 - 03:15pm PT
He was drunk fat unemployed separated from his wife and living out of his van for weeks at a time, round about then.

Wasn't he supposed to be one of the toughest guys on the planet round about then????

Sounds like he qualified to be in the same vein with many hard men in Yosemite. Puss.....
Put some one inch webbing on your waist and get up there. Damn, what's the big deal? Just start at the bottom and go up til you reach the top.

(My Werner post for the day.)


Trad climber
Newcastle UK
Apr 23, 2012 - 03:46pm PT
Perrin's excellent biography The Villain' also credits him with; Enigma, the Left side of Slab Happy, Moby Dick, the East Face of El Cap, and the Lost Arrow.

Earlier in the trip he had done Ament's Supremacy Crack.

'Ament lured the two older stars onto his recent test piece . Leading above Royal and me, Whillans passed by all of the fixed pitons in a virtually unprotected solo lead. His rope hung down free along the yellow rock, passing between the rock and Royal, who was unanchored on the belay.. In my presumptuous way I informed royal that if Whillans fell the rope would pull Royal off. Royal answered in a kind of cold way, 'I'll take that chance'....

Pat may be able to add some other detail?

The Villain is an excellent account of Whillan's life, clearly a brilliant climber in his prime, he was a product of his time, a true pain in the arse, quite bitter in later life and not a man to leave your woman around!

Alan Rubin

Apr 23, 2012 - 05:07pm PT
I'm not so sure that Whillans was that out-of-shape when he was in the Valley that year. I recall Robbins writing about that visit and being very impressed by Whillans, comparing him to Pratt as the two most gifted climbers he'd ever climbed with. As Roger mentioned above, those routes were near the top of the game in free climbing at that time, especially for his first visit to the Valley. But his being fired by Chouinard--well, Perrin is very explicit about Whillans work ethic--or lack thereof by that stage of his life.
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Apr 23, 2012 - 05:22pm PT

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Apr 23, 2012 - 09:35pm PT
Dozier with Whillans on the Apron in 66.........................

"Whillans and a couple of other Brits, including Mike Kosterlitz, spent some time in the Valley in the summer of 1966. I had met them both in Chamonix the previous year and ended up doing some climbs here with them, and therefore remembering some good stories. Here are a couple:

Whillans had a keen wit about our free-climbing ethics. With Robbins, we did Coonyard to the Oasis one late afternoon. On the first pitch above Monday Morning Slab, Whillans just waltzed across the hard moves at the bottom, using both the inside and outside edges of his feet. When he got to the top bolt, he said, “Ah, here’s a good hold,” put his finger through it, and pulled up. Royal took it in good humor.

After climbing the Crack of Despair, Whillans was sitting shirtless at one of the Camp 4 tables, flanked by two babes, an arm around each. He was powerfully built, of course, with a bit of a paunch, and very little chest hair. Someone said, “Whillans, now that you have climbed Despair, you should do the Crack of Doom. It will put some hair on your chest.” To which Whillans replied, “Aye, it takes one ‘ell of a mon to keep the ‘air worn off his chest.”

Interestingly, when Whillans climbed the Crack of Doom soon after, he said he thought that Despair was harder.

At the end of their season, Whillans, Kosterlitz, and two others did the regular route on Half Dome. I believe this was the first British ascent of a Yosemite Grade VI."

Trad climber
Apr 23, 2012 - 09:41pm PT
randy, your memories jibe with mine.

my copies of the books are a bit closer. but i'm not gonna run that down.


Trad climber
Newcastle UK
Apr 24, 2012 - 03:11pm PT

I've checked my book, it's definitely Supremacy Crack that it's referring to. That doesn't mean it's correct. Perhaps Pat could comment on Perrin's accuracy? It wouldn't be the first time there was confusion in a biography.



Trad climber
Fresno CA
Apr 24, 2012 - 03:13pm PT
Kosterlitz di the West face of Sentinel that year, too.

Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Apr 24, 2012 - 04:17pm PT
Of course, as I told my good friend Jim Perrin, that was a noticeable
error in his book "Villain," about Whillans climbing Supremacy Crack.
Neither Robbins nor Whillans, who were there the day I led it,
were up to following that climb. It was a grade harder than anything
either had ever attempted and a grade harder than anything around at
the time. Royal made a good effort but couldn't even quite
get to the crux section, about a third the way up.
Whillans was a bit overwhelmed just to study it
and said it wasn't for him. The story about Whillans leading,
and the comment of mine to Royal, was on the climb
Ruper, earlier in the day. Perrin got that all mixed up.

I really don't understand some of the comments above, though,
which cast a negative light on my friend Don. He could be a pain
at times, but he was one of the great ones.
Whillans was a fantastic climber all his life, and often blitzed
on beer. That was the nature of his English culture. They spent
a lot of time in the pubs. He was a bit competitive with Royal
and didn't understand Royal very well. He liked me, for some
reason, and made a point to return to Colorado, after Yosemite,
and looked me up. We had some good times, and it was a very happy
meeting when we reconnected in England in '84. But in Yosemite
in '66, he also hit it off with Pratt who also imbibed freely
and often. Imagine coming to Yosemite for the first time and how
difficult that was for most climbers. Whillans made an exceptionally
good show, freeing such things as Crack of Doom and Crack of Despair.
As everyone, he had a little trouble in the offwidth of Crack of
Despair, and in part because he did have a bit of a gut. He had
no experience with off-widths, and most wouldn't make Crack of
Despair their introduction to those things. He did. Remember,
this was years past Whillans' heyday, when he and Brown were leading
5.10 in tennis shoes, with no pro, sometimes in the rain. He was
one of the true genius climbers of his day, and it was a bit
strange people would put him on such stiff climbs when he was up
there in years. I guess that shows how much they respected him
and had confidence in his ability. But he handled them just
fine, merely on experience.

Chouinard said one of the most fearful things he ever had to do was
fire Whillans. Well, Whillans really didn't come to America to work,
and so there he was at the Ironworks..., and at times he just
kicked back and needed a brew. I don't think he took that, or any, job
seriously. As for Whillans being tough, well, that's a relative
thing. He had enough fights in his day and became a kind of
opinionated guy who would challenge those who were full of it. He
had his own butt kicked a time or two, though, as he wasn't really
a fighter so much as just a tough guy....

Trad climber
Newcastle UK
Apr 24, 2012 - 04:47pm PT
Thanks for the clarification Pat.

Here in the UK Brown and Whillans's influence cannot be overstated. Their efforts pretty much overshadowed their generation, and most of their routes remain important ticks for the discerning climber of today.



Mountain climber
Anchorage AK, Reno NV
Apr 25, 2012 - 01:17am PT
From time to time something really exceptional and historical gets posted on ST

Thanks Patrick
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Apr 25, 2012 - 04:40pm PT
Thanks a lot, it helps to know a few care. I have so much
history that floats about in my brain. I get a little worried
sometimes when I wonder who will be the stewards of our history,
as so many get so much of it wrong.... If I can get moving again
I want to re-do my Wizards of Rock book. When I first submitted it,
well, it was twice the size it ended up. And in their cutting down,
a few errors slipped in. I'd like to expand and fix all that...
Alan Rubin

Apr 25, 2012 - 05:13pm PT
Pat, Alot of us care a great deal about history, especially here on The Taco (many of us are pretty much relics anyway). Even those who often post snide comments frequently reveal a not too well hidden interest in the history of our mutual obsession. So keep up the comments, insights and good work. Though I do worry if my bookshelves will be able to sustain the weight of an expanded Wizards of Rock--though I look forward to having the opportunity to test them out.

Apr 25, 2012 - 08:58pm PT
The impression I recall from reading Whillans' book many years ago is that he was as almost as impressed with the bears sniffing around his sleeping bag as he was with the climbing.

I have a copy on the shelf, I'll have to pull it out and review it.

Don Whillans "Portrait Of A Mountaineer"
mouse from merced

Trad climber
merced, california
Apr 25, 2012 - 09:21pm PT
For to seek a lack of redundancy again and again, as well as to keep show-boating noobs like me from rebuttal , confrontation, and consequent tears, I beg of you historians, has anyone posted the article on our mate, the one entitled, simply,


which appeared long ago in Mountain Magazine?

Not that I have it all, just parts of it on the wall,

along with other things relating to scrappy bastards like US Grant (who could be his double for looks--see a $50 bill), and Sonny Barger, and Cus d'Amato. Talk about clearing the Mtn. Room bar....

I'd love to read the whole article again and again.

Patrick, love your memory, love your story-telling.

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