Never Heard of Ed Speth (RIP)?


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Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 16, 2017 - 03:59pm PT
I met Ed Speth in 1962 at North American Aviation where I worked as an aerodynamicist from 1955 until 1971. I was introduced to him by an engineering colleague and fellow mountaineer. It seems Ed was interested in rock climbing. So it was that he became a good friend.

Ed was 23 years old, tall, about six feet, dark hair, lanky, handsome, and bespectacled. Ethnically he was white – culturally he was black. He was a graduate of a small college in New York and had just moved to the Los Angeles area to take his engineering job at NAA. He had an obvious New York accent and a tendency to use phrases that he picked up from his fellow black students in NY – sort of “jive talk”. He lived near USC in Los Angeles with a beautiful black girl in a predominately black neighborhood. My concentration on ethnicity here should reflect no bias – it was an important part of his personality. He would sort of bounce into the room, snapping his fingers, and never quite stand still. “Let’s beak on down to Stoney, man.”

As he developed as a rock climber, he was a decent boulderer, but a lousy trad climber – couldn’t place a decent piton to save his soul. He was the brunt of a lot of derision for his lack of “nailing” talent. My family loved him and he was a frequent house guest and climbing companion.

Ed and I went to the Tetons in 1963. We climbed Symmetry Spire and Exum Ridge on the Grand. Coincidently, Exum, Corbet, Sinclair, Jackson, et al, where escorting the Sherpas from the West Ridge Everest expedition on the Ridge. They were just ahead of us and we all summited together.

Ed accompanied me on our first attempt on Pingora’s north face in 1963. My wife and three kids had hiked in with Ed and a Sierra Club family group, where my family was safely stowed with the Club around Big Sandy Lake while Ed and I hiked over Jackass Pass. We, in our ineptitude, without climbing any other route, just walked up to the base of Pingora from Lonesome Lake, skirted around to the north until we found a weakness in the verticality and began our ascent with absolutely no idea what was above. The idea of scouting a route from afar was not in our mutual repertoire.

As I was finishing the fourth pitch, the weather began to abruptly change. I set up a belay on a small ledge that allowed be to sit with my legs dangling over the edge. Then came the thunder. The lightning was getting closer. She–it! Now we have to bail. So while Ed waited below me, I placed my first-ever bolt right between my thighs and attached one of those Gerry pop-top hangers. I brought Ed up and we rappelled off the hanger (according to Kelsey, it’s still there and is one of the very few ever placed in the Winds). I also now admit to Joe that I lost “a sense of the sport’s dignity and a reverence for the rock”. My excuse was “there was no other way to safely escape the wrath of the oncoming storm”. Little did I know how important the bolt would become the following year.

Aaron Schneider was another engineer from New England that I befriended at North American Aviation. He and his beautiful wife, Ruth, and their dog Shane, had become family friends. They both were climbers and frequented the Valley, in fact Ruth did the first ascent of After Six with Yvon. Aaron, Ed, and I returned to the Cirque of Towers in August of 1964 to finish the North Face route.

As Kelsey relates in his guide, the North Face is “a perverse classic”. His description, I think, is apt. The perversity begins were Ed and I left off in ’63. We three swung leads up to the bolt, where I belayed with Aaron as Ed led a traverse right around a corner and out of sight. “Days” passed.

“Ed are you alright”? We could hear him pounding in some protection. “Lauria, you’d better come over. I can’t get up this”. Okay, I was anxious to get on with this and began, according to Kelsey, “a long terrifying traverse”. Around the corner, standing on a small ledge was Ed. Getting to him was terrifying. “Helluva lead, Ed!”

I was happy to have been anchored to that bolt. If he had fallen on that very delicate traverse with no intervening protection it would have been drastic. I’m sure that anyone who has done the route will agree that the bolt is and was appropriate – even Kelsey.

Ed was stuck. He couldn’t manage the vertical crack leading off the small ledge. I got to him and thank god he didn’t attempt it. The anchors to which he was attached would have probably pulled if he leaned over to tie his shoes! I quickly replaced the pins and led off the ledge. Many pitches later, much later, we finished in the dark. Luckily we had climbed the South Buttress the day before and knew the rappel route. We also knew that our ropes wouldn’t completely reach a ledge on one rappel, so we tied my swami belt (about 12 feet of 1” tubular nylon) to the ends of the rope. We had no headlamps, so this was backcountry Braille.

After Pingora Ed began getting involved in the civil rights movement. Eventually he moved to Alabama and participated in a lot of protests, including those in Selma. All this time he was writing me letters, keeping me apprised of his involvement. In the summer of 1965, he mentioned in a letter that he was scared he might be killed and that he would be leaving for the Tetons shortly. He had a girlfriend waiting in Jackson.

On July 10th, I received a letter from his girlfriend. “Don, I’m writing to let you Ed was killed yesterday in a climbing accident on Symmetry Spire. He had hooked up with a climber from Colorado in the climber’s camp and they were a few pitches up when, while leading, Ed fell. Some pins pulled and his rope [9mm] caught on a flake and was cut. He fell about 300 feet …”. It went on, but I was unable to finish it. The tears that ran down my face that moment are still visible on that letter. Ed was the first person and climber that I ever knew that died in an accident and it was a shock to me and my family that none of us has ever forgotten.

We live on, as does Ed in our memories.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 16, 2017 - 06:20pm PT
Wonderful story! I am glad you brought this stellar person to our attention 52 years after his untimely death. It makes you wonder what sort of things he would have achieved.
Bad Climber

Trad climber
The Lawless Border Regions
Sep 16, 2017 - 07:44pm PT
Wow, Don, that's quite a profile. Thank you for sharing this. It must have been quite a shock to lose him. This kind of writing is the best thing about ST.


Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Sep 16, 2017 - 07:45pm PT
Keep it up Don, I'm sure there are a wealth of tales to be told................Just remember the
"statute of limitation" clause old boy!
john hansen

Sep 16, 2017 - 07:51pm PT
Thanks for the story Don.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 16, 2017 - 09:57pm PT

I'm well aware of how time is overtaking me. I'm trying to dig out all those memories from the cobwebs and get them into print.

San Diego
Sep 16, 2017 - 10:06pm PT
Sorry about your friend but you honor him nicely with this write-up. Thanks for taking the time.

Trad climber
Bend, OR
Sep 16, 2017 - 10:39pm PT
This is why I read Supertopo every night before bed. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your friend.

Social climber
joshua tree
Sep 17, 2017 - 07:17am PT
Great write, Thanks for sharing.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Sep 17, 2017 - 07:32am PT
Your remembrance is like climbing, Don: moving and touching.

Many thanks.
Vlad Pricker

Mountain climber
The cliffs of insanity, inconceivable
Sep 17, 2017 - 08:52am PT
Wonderful story Don, sad about the ending.
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Sep 17, 2017 - 09:08am PT
thanks Don - a great little read.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 17, 2017 - 11:41am PT
A real positive about ST. Real climbers from all generations writing poignant sketches about people and things that otherwise would be lost.
Podunk Climber

Trad climber
Sep 17, 2017 - 05:49pm PT
Bump for the uninformed

Sep 17, 2017 - 08:58pm PT

Thank you Don for the most excellent tale. Ed Speth will live on now, thanks to your interesting, heartfelt and sad story.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Sep 18, 2017 - 03:18am PT
Thanks for sharing the stories of your friend.
It's one of the big downsides of climbing -
sometimes people underestimate the risks and die young.

It seemed like he was aware that he was unsafe when placing pitons,
since he stopped short on that one climb.
But maybe he forgot that lesson during the time between then and his final climb.

Jim Henson's Basement
Sep 18, 2017 - 05:30am PT
Thank you for teling us the tale. Stories like that are the reason I still check to ST. Your friend lives on through the sharing.
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Sep 18, 2017 - 07:06am PT
Don Lauria, thanks for an outstanding story and a right proper tribute to your friend. All of us who have climbed for any length of time have lost friends to this passion we all love so dearly. It hurts, but all of us are much richer for having shared time with these beautiful souls.
Thank you, again, for sharing.

Social climber
Butterfly Town
Sep 18, 2017 - 07:24am PT
Thanks so much, Don, for the great recounting of Ed's presence in our early climbing days. I hadn't thought of his tall, lanky physical self in many years, but I do remember his smile and also how I avoided climbing with him for safety concerns. I also remember his easy smile and positive attitudes.

RIP, Ed!

Mountain climber
Anchorage, AK
Sep 18, 2017 - 11:53am PT

Nice write up Don
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