Kor and Pratt, the tall and the short of it... by Pat Ament


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Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Topic Author's Original Post - Apr 30, 2013 - 06:08am PT
Much of the work I did during the 1990's and early 2000's had a
journal nature to it. That is, I scribbled pieces down and did not
do much revision. My book "Everything That Matters" is a
collection of mostly journal entries, many of which could be
shortened substantially and/or edited. The piece below had a
few good spontaneous moments. I have combed through it somewhat,
shortened it, and made edits, though it remains in essence
what it was when I wrote it.

The Tall and the Short of It

One day amid an orderly universe, the towering Layton Kor stepped onto rock and moved upward. Almost immediately there was no other method than himself. It's a foreshortened world, and Kor had no idea how far he'd climb or how much rock there was.

Kor was capital letters, while others around him, during the 1960’s, were a lower-case idea. Sitting on the exulting ledge, he made that ledge seem small. Yet somehow, if you were his partner, you knew where his liver was, smelled his sweat, loved his giant, lonely, lovely fingers. To fit with such ease into the world, at six-foot-six, made Layton a marvel. Indeed he was perhaps Colorado's most wonderful madman. There aren't words to name the beauty of his face, a somewhat square jaw-line, long, sleek eyebrows, and penetrating eyes, like those of a young Clint Eastwood or James Dean without the angst.

Relatively devoid of humans in the early 1960’s, sandstone and its promise of adventure were Kor's to explore. Imagine extremely long legs, knicker pants loose around each knee, a ripped crotch from making too wide a stem. His upper body widened above a thin waist to broad shoulders, arms long and having their own natural swing and daring — in view of the spare few holds that often supported them. It's strange, what with Layton seeming always to go from one place to another and the force and speed he used to do so, that memory should affix him now, cause him to freeze, on a move of rock in an arrested gesture where he reaches for a hold. Perhaps it's my desire to make stop for one moment that frenetic, upward movement that made him one of the world's great climbers.

To climb during the 1960's did not appeal to the general public. For Layton, there was nothing of comparable vibrancy and love — every climb an effort to possess an alluring breadth of rock and to remain permanently a child.

During the early and mid-'60s, as a boy in Boulder, Colorado, I was partner to such joyous fury on many occasions. With Layton's affinity for rock, he became an elemental force himself — like wind, or rain. The storm was sometimes unpredictable or even reckless. Now and then he wandered upward into an area of seemingly unstructured rock, shapes that violated sense, and this was where his gift came alive — to work out the sequence, find a line, create a solution, do it quickly. To this day I see vividly his troubled expression. He communicated fear, as he passed through a section by some unknown levitation. From a safer place above, he gazed down with a shudder followed by a mischievous chuckle. He coerced quite a number of us up into these dangers with him, in need of a partner as he frequently was. He never was a climbing instructor, though. Had Kor taught, I imagine he would have said little about balance or technique. He would have put his students on the rock. To be understood, rock has to be climbed.

It was not Layton to be too careful or too responsible. On occasion he simply fell, luckless, stopping, as the rope came tight. His long body was brought to a hanging halt like a jack-knifed truck. A story might fit into the long instant of how he sailed past me one afternoon on the Bastille Crack, a fall he took from above me that I'm grateful to have miraculously held when it ended with him rather far below. Both of us were preserved, to climb again. He was unbelievably resilient and continued with the same hurry, even in winter with snow like sable on Eldorado Canyon ledges. In memory my fingers are frozen in a borrowed pair of Layton's bricklayer gloves. Or sun beats down, with no water to drink.

Layton's shrieks and frightened comments were no laughing matter at the time but served as wonderful lore later among friends and were included among our best memories.

He suddenly could neutralize your terror with the most inane of puns: "Sandstone is very rotten, and you should never take it for granite." His smile alone made you laugh. You anticipated one of his amusing insights, or saw into his mind. I recall, from above, a rushed, "I've got you on belay, but don't fall. My anchors aren't very good."

On another climb, the Wisdom, after he led over a huge overhang, he got in a couple of anchors and, as he hung in slings, belayed me up. The one small bolt, half placed, and a loose army-angle piton held his weight, as under the big overhang thin Simond pitons behind flakes supported his large body as he worked his way outward. I was fifteen, half scared to death. When I followed that roof I was too frightened to look back and retrieve a few of the pitons, as I gingerly shifted my weight from one piton to the next. With both of us together, above the exposed lip of that overhang, he said, "These anchors are shifting. I've got to get out of here." He traversed away, to get his weight off the belay and find safety out on the rock to our right. After a traverse of fifteen feet, as he hung from uncertain finger holds, he moaned, "My arms are giving out. I'm coming off. We're both going to die." I said nothing but suddenly became aware of the rock's red, purples, and yellow. The sun suddenly came through a cloud, and the moment seemed mystical. He fought his way impressively upward. Burned into my memory are how vivid things were that cold day in the snow-covered canyon.

So many are like clones of so many others. Kor stood out as entirely different than anyone. He was separate from society — his own energy, his own look, his own diet. He ate lots of carrots and celery — a somewhat off-and-on vegetarian. Rumor was, he suffered from a lung condition. A bricklayer by trade, his huge hands always seemed to have on them a trace of dried, gray-white mortar. I watched him lay brick one day. He did it with the same efficiency and determination as in climbing. It was a good profession for Layton, as he could work for a short time and earn enough money for another few weeks of climbing. He might have been out of money one night in 1967 when he siphoned gas with a friend. Layton was cornered by the police after they chased him down an alley with a gas can and hose. My father handed me the small police report and did not share his privileged interpretation or seek an explanation from me. Both my dad and mother were extremely fond of my tall friend. Years later, as Layton settled down, and there were none of the juvenile or felonious moments, it would almost seem a certain essence had been lost.

Layton's eyes widened with nervous excitement, as he conversed or as he clung to a climb and at the same time seemed to encircle it vastly. I remember each tambourine-jangle morning I went following him, from the shadowy, vertical wall of X-M, in Eldorado, to Tiger's Tooth, a ferocious crack in Estes Park, to the icy rain of Overhang Dihedral on the East Face of Longs Peak, or the giant roof of Exhibit A in Eldorado. We did many of those roof routes on Redguarden Wall, all first ascents, and found lovely climbs such as Grand Course and Grandmother's Challenge. We often climbed easier routes, just to relax, such as Satan's Slab. We soloed the Third Flatiron up and then down its steep Friday's Folly on the backside. One of my clearest memories is a day Layton had me skip school to go with him up Rogue's Arete, a route above Boulder's Bear Canyon that ascends the middle of a narrow, sheer wall Roger Briggs later would describe as "futuristic." That was 1963, and today the climb is rated 5.10. Thus that would have been one of the first 5.10 routes in the country. On Rogue's Arete, Layton took one of his gigantic leader falls from twenty feet above me, without protection, past me, and was stopped half by the rope and half because he landed in a bush/tree that absorbed the tremendous force of his fall. After that slight delay, he climbed brilliantly. I recall especially the final pyramidal finish, a fifty-foot, vertical -- if not slightly overhanging -- headwall without cracks or protection. He moved up the center of this final wall with incredible mastery.

Layton was well liked by women during the 1960's, rarely without female friends, though probably he was lonely at the soul of himself. A pervasive intensity about him, he sometimes intentionally oppressed me with his silence or his gaze. I'm sure he could see my own inner troubles.

No one could guess what powered Kor, fast always but also graceful and well mannered in his climbing. A unique kind of cosmic miracle commands each man, and often a certain mentor is responsible in part for one's success. Kor's climbing, though, had not been taught and could not be. The rock was not able entirely to hold the spirit it had conjured up. Many of his techniques were make-do: a knee awkwardly on a small ledge, a quick reach, risking a fall, a surge of energy to get past a tiring section. He had no pride in how the moves looked.

While Kor moved upward, at times as though in an agitated hunt for his own originating mystery, the mystery occurred for Chuck Pratt as he immersed himself in an atmosphere of artistry and agreement between himself and rock. Pratt's climbing had something to do with the reality of a place and the metaphysics of grace. A difficult Yosemite crack always seemed to succumb, its dark reaches illumined by Chuck's disparagement of the world and astute mind.

It's easy for me to believe climbing came with both Layton and Chuck to this life. All by themselves they arrived at their gift and to the quiet that followed a storm in Eldorado or the light that drifted down in the grandeur of Yosemite. For both men, to climb seemed a stylizing of identity. Each in some sense simply inhabited his life, answered to his solitary story. Both dropped out of mainstream society. Kor left high school, and Pratt, a promising student, abandoned college to climb. Both in large part ignored those forces in society that compelled them to conform.

Kor held nothing back. He quickly followed landmarks of hand and footholds, to be at the center of a moment. His tall, thin body burst upward into sunlight that seemed altered a little, or intensified, by his presence. Pratt acceded to the shape-subtleties of a difficult crack. He saw from his mind and heart. Kor rode that crack like a bucking bronco or slithered up it, in a race, like a kid up a pole. Layton’s thoughts at any other time than when he climbed seemed to be carried away toward some kingdom of imagination or a woman still in mind, or route, a cluster of past and future possibilities too difficult for him to bring to order. He seemed to ascend toward the elusive answer, as though it were clouds or air. The faster Layton climbed, the more pronounced the facial grimaces.

Kor selected climbs for their line, an act of getting from here to there. He couldn't resist, for example, the Crack of Fear, that striking, thrilling slash above Estes Park. The sinister beauty of certain cracks was itself the appeal for Pratt, as he contemplated what qualities and techniques might be drawn from his being by necessity. Chuck often chose the most preposterous, difficult, and unprotected climbs, a single tiny mistake away from a death fall, and he climbed them with watchful docility. Casually stopping to speak to an ant, he muttered, "Grown men," or he calmly admired the rock's decoration and simple, geometrical form.

Somewhat obsessive-compulsive, Layton was easily irritated with friends who were too slow. His complaint most often took the form of a tight rope, to suggest speed, or as he outright hauled someone past a section that slowed them down. There were stories of this or that person suddenly being lifted, as it seemed, out of their shoes, without warning, by that tight rope, or sometimes in mid-move, as they took the time to solve an appealing free step. More than once, as a kid, I heard Kor yell down rudely, "Climb the rope."

Kor went through partners like a chain smoker goes through cigarettes. Those various partners seemed at times resentful of one another, as in a struggle for apostolic succession. Dozens were ready to go to their doom to get into the magic of Layton's dangerous, however assured, success. Their sense of the myth of which they might be involved propelled their dwarfish enthusiasm. For me to climb with Layton was an impassioned freeing of spirit, though not necessarily one of wisdom in each case.
Pratt had no such Pied Piper effect, no group of young he perpetually recruited. He held himself distant, emotionally restrained. One senses his coolness of spirit in his fine writings. They point inward to the unspeakable, for example in his article where he tells of a quality of comradeship with Warren Harding and Yvon Chouinard on the South Face of Mt. Watkins, in Yosemite. He describes an eagle that stayed near the wall the several days of that thirsty ascent. A reader gets a view of Pratt's deep appreciation for Yosemite and for his friends, as he depicts heat, moon, and granite and reminisces about Valley climbing history.

Chuck did not always give much visible or verbal evidence that he was a warm person. I and his friends felt his warmth, though. I longed for his company. He was more of a loner than Layton, with a particular revulsion to the tourist masses. He never exploited his fame and remained to the end of his life, as is the case with many great artists, a stick of firewood short of abject poverty. Strange, the little things we remember about people. If there happened to be a bottle of Worcestershire sauce around, Pratt quickly swigged a capful. I watched him juggle wine bottles a sunny day, in the later 1960's, at Church Bowl, in Yosemite. Another day, he easily balanced, like a veteran tight-wire walker, on the 30-foot slack chain I strung between two trees in Yosemite's Camp 4. Had Chuck been a little shorter, he might have resembled a circus midget. Drunk one night, he took to the Camp 4 boulders in army boots and pioneered a steep, smooth, lichen-covered slab on the southwest side of Columbia Boulder. High off the ground, in broad daylight, I found the route anything but easy. I wondered if Pratt's uninhibited state made the route easier.

Whereas Pratt knew every element of his perfection, Kor was like a mural painter under an urgent deadline. These were different temperaments. Layton pulled the rock down past him. Moves came and went, almost without cognition, whereas Chuck was aware. He saw the little place to put his fingers or set the edge of a boot.

Both were marvelous pioneers, each able to take off in his own direction, Kor probably more of a pioneer than Chuck. Not quite so driven, Pratt had a secret grip on the situation. Kor did not always benefit from such control and double-stepped away quickly toward each new, wild thing. Pratt strolled toward the next challenge — everything in its place. Chuck used no protection on his unimaginable, calm first ascent of Twilight Zone, a preposterous Yosemite off-width crack.

When Layton and Chuck climbed with each other, Pratt was perhaps more impressed with Kor than the other way around — even if Chuck was in certain ways, such as when he climbed an off-width, the master. I imagine the two together on a ledge, ravens quothing, Pratt quiet, extremely insightful, very funny at times when verbosing under the influence of a slight bit of beer. I would not call Pratt introspective, so much as sentient. I never enjoyed climbing with anyone more than Layton or Chuck. A day in Yosemite in 1968 on the North Wall of Sentinel, Pratt and I found the right spirit of friendship. We said almost nothing during that several-hour ascent. We knew and trusted the connection that unites comrades on rock. I will never forget how I looked up and saw Chuck at the top of Sentinel. He sat there in bright sun and crystal drops of rain.

My first reaction isn't necessarily regard for supremely powerful climbers. There has to be something more, in Layton's case the classic spirit that hovers behind the form, and in Chuck's case his individual beauty, as opposed to the chrome attitude of the muscle-bound, self-loving athlete. Kor had no such self-love. Nor did Chuck. Yet on rock they were visual phenomena, artists of ascent — Kor madcap and Pratt mastermind. Neither arrived at any summit in a great ecstasy of recognition. The climb was alive in them, though, and would remain so after its many vanishings.
We knew the gumball, harried Tarzan behind Layton's handsome, impish face. On almost any climb, he ascended with a violence — as though to race to life's brink, or to sanity's edge, and look over. He then raced to the next desert rim. He risked his life and everyone’s at times in ways so humorous and compelling no one could help but love him, that child in that imposing frame.

I see Layton fall through the air because he raced up the rock too fast to realize he'd moved into unclimbable territory. On the other hand, he could be methodical. Layton seemed to hold rotten sandstone together as he climbed past it. A definite maturity characterized his ascent of the Salathé Wall of El Capitan, with Galen Rowell.

Pratt and Kor differ, as I've noted, but in ways were alike. Both had integrity. Layton Kor enters, and the rest of the surroundings diminish. Surfaces of stone grow more distinct at the presence of Chuck Pratt. The climbing of these two continues to speak. Maybe it was a great emptiness, within, that each felt the need to fill. Kor and the rock would settle their differences by force. Pratt made his existential way by a gift of quiet inner strength.

I could recall certain stories, Pratt's "ultra dangerous" lead of the Pratt Chimney, in June, 1959, on Middle Cathedral Rock, or Kor's bold foray up into the 1000-foot, unprotected, northwest face of Chief's Head in 1961, or…. The danger would be to drift toward hero worship. The two were heroes, but I did not worship them. They had plenty of the despair, waste, unknown motives, lapses, delirium, lack of sympathy, sweat. They had the heartbeat of humans. They both could be difficult. Both were prodigals, not extremely receptive to the ideas of others, and more attuned to themselves as they stood apart from people in general.

I've saved letters both Layton and Chuck sent me from Yosemite. I especially love one note Layton left on my car window in Eldorado. It addresses me by middle name. "Oliver, will see you later today and work on the walls tomorrow."

I see Layton hunched over the steering wheel of his blue Ford, or how he arched forward in his walk, the way his eyes widened and face stretched down tight. I see him during that LSD year of 1967 from which a number of the strongest of us failed to come away unscathed. I see his tears at the foot of the Eiger, when he discovered John Harlin's body. Layton painted, a pastime with which he began to experiment, as I recall, in '67. I have images of him as he fished in the Black Canyon and when he became a Jehovah Witness. He married, raised a family, divorced, re-married, with an occasional modest return to the rock. Stories had him sea diving and spear fishing in the Phillippines.

Yosemite and Pratt. I never would have imagined they ever would part. When the hoards of climbers began to infiltrate the Valley in the 1970's, it was clear the age of mystery was gone. Pratt quietly removed himself forever, but I think he continued to live in among those great walls somewhat in his heart. I envisioned him among pines. He took work as a guide in the Tetons. His loneliness and drinking were problems at times, and his responsibilities became limited, though he never would be fired. All the same, we felt the depth and goodness of his soul. Friends loved Chuck in corners of the Jenny Lake bar or when they visited him at his small cabin, or stood with him in a meadow, or together ambled a ridge.
Likely by now you'll feel you know Kor better than Pratt. In real life it would be the same, Kor so hung out there to see, as he was, and Pratt more in shadow. Both appeared to be wounded in some way. I speak of a wound that existed throughout their lives, and that they did not understand. They kept their torments in subjection mostly. Pratt stepped through the door of infinity, not long after the turn of the century. In his last years, at his small guide's cabin in the Tetons, or as he wintered in the low-cost environment of Thailand, he remained a solitary person, perhaps an alcoholic ascetic, if such might describe the paradox of his tragedy and genius.

After having lost touch with Layton for a spell, my friend Royal gave me an address in northern California. I sent a letter, but it was returned. He already had moved somewhere else. At last we reconnected and grew closer and closer, the deepest of friends, right to his passing.

Both Layton and Chuck always had the saving laughter to break up a moment's philosophic argument. Such laughter echoes bittersweet through the rocks of memory, as though life were a lovely Shakespeare play and those two believable in their roles as important characters in the plot. Wind in pines holds for me the voices of these two gifted souls. A bright sun holds Kor's nervous, hypnotic majesty. I see him in every brick wall, every shattered heap of sandstone, sense his company in any magic-lantern adventure up rock. A wall of granite, where a crack slices up through it, reminds me of how Pratt turned climbing into art. Both loved to listen to music. I remember how, in 1967, Layton enjoyed Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." A favorite of Pratt's was Judy Collins' rendition of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" Indeed.

Had I the power I would make them young again, so that other new generations might discover and love them. Had I been some great mystic, I would have healed their wounds. I was little more than a sort of talented, fumbling friend.

Trad climber
Spokane, WA
Apr 30, 2013 - 07:48am PT
Beautiful as always Pat. Thanks for sharing.

Eric Barrett
Spokane, WA

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Apr 30, 2013 - 08:06am PT
That's the best depiction of Layton I've read so far. You perfectly captured the Layton I knew in the 1960's.

As for Chuck, it seems he was much more forthcoming about his feelings with women than he was with men.
Delhi Dog

Good Question...
Apr 30, 2013 - 08:16am PT
Thank you for a fine read and a peek into those two incredible men.
Wonderful closing.

I look forward to reading more, as I have over the years.


Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Apr 30, 2013 - 08:29am PT
Charlie D.

Trad climber
Western Slope, Tahoe Sierra
Apr 30, 2013 - 08:57am PT
What a treasure to have witness to such forces of men whom we've admired for so long, thank you Pat for sharing your gift of perspective.

Charlie D.

Trad climber
Apr 30, 2013 - 09:51am PT
What beauty in those words. Thank you Pat.

Apr 30, 2013 - 10:55am PT
Thanks for sharing that and leaving the wonderful imagery for future generations Pat.

Apr 30, 2013 - 10:59am PT
my two favorite climbers. thanks patrick.

Ice climber
Happy Boulders
Apr 30, 2013 - 11:05am PT
I enjoy the history

Apr 30, 2013 - 11:17am PT
Beautifully written Pat.

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Apr 30, 2013 - 11:39am PT
thank you, thank you, thank you. x 100

Apr 30, 2013 - 11:45am PT

Thanks Pat!
rick sumner

Trad climber
reno, nevada/ wasilla alaska
Apr 30, 2013 - 12:40pm PT
As a speaker for the dead ,Pat brings times and lives into a focus in which the texture,flavor,the emotional feel are almost close enough to answer that eternal question-why? And he is offering these priceless, simply and well written observations for free-thanks Pat.

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Apr 30, 2013 - 01:00pm PT
[Click to View YouTube Video]

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Apr 30, 2013 - 01:25pm PT
What an insightful and moving tribute. Thank you.

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
Apr 30, 2013 - 01:25pm PT
Pat, you have the gift of expressing the essence of persons, climbing, and life in a way that gives one the feeling that he has understood all the disparate parts of these items and somehow "groked" them in their totality.

Reading this made my morning, history through introspection and knowing....Bravo!!!!
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 30, 2013 - 01:30pm PT
Jan, you have to read between the lines. Chuck conveyed his feelings,
but he did so in subtle ways, with a look, with a wry smile... I think
a few of us knew how to read his mind. Everything had significance, for
example that he would invite you to do a climb. That meant something
in and of itself. It meant he appreciated you enough to climb with
you. He sent postcards to me, a man of few words usually. That he would
take the time to send off such a card and tell me to get to the Valley,
that he would save some of the best climbs for me, well, that was to
go into a deep place in his heart, his love for Yosemite, and for him
to say he desired to share such things with you. Yes, the way he
conveyed his love was quiet and subtle....

Trad climber
Elk Creek, Idaho
Apr 30, 2013 - 04:21pm PT
Momentous, profound writing, Pat.

...seldom have I read characterization that moved me as immensely.

Social climber
Apr 30, 2013 - 04:39pm PT
Whereas Pratt knew every element of his perfection, Kor was like a mural painter under an urgent deadline. These were different temperaments. Layton pulled the rock down past him. Moves came and went, almost without cognition, whereas Chuck was aware. He saw the little place to put his fingers or set the edge of a boot.

Beautiful writing, Pat!
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