Vintage climbers...your story


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Mountain climber
Templeton, California
Topic Author's Original Post - May 20, 2018 - 09:46am PT
I grew up in the southeast sector of St.Louis, Missouri, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Limestone bluffs bordered the river and it was there that I practiced rappelling as a 15 year old. I had come across a photograph in a book on the Alps showing a mountain climber descending on a rope that was merely wrapped about his body. Using a clothesline rope doubled a couple times (to get adequate thickness), I taught myself to rappell from a tree in the backyard. To negotiate the cliffs on the river, I bought a 200 ft. length of 5/16th manila hemp. The
tag said it tested at 600 lbs. I figuered that was more than adequate. Having some gymnastic ability, I soon was bounding down 80-100 ft. cliffs in 3 or 4 leaps, enduring numerous rope burns in the process and putting considerable strain on that rope, I'm sure. But the thrill was worth it!

I was 16 when the movie "White Tower," starring Glen Ford, came to the local theater. I sat through it 3 times that first Saturday, and several more times soon after. Though I had yet to see a real one, I had fallen in love with the mountains. That winter I applied for a summer job with the Forest Service in Idaho, lying about my age. Hitchhiking there the following summer, I well remember being awed by my first view of the Rocky Mountains from the east. During the next two years, while in the
navy reserve, I was able to make an occasional excursion out West, hitching rides on military aircraft. For instance, in May, 1950, I hitchhiked from Hill AFB in Utah to Jackson Hole, shouldered my seabag containing camping gear, and hiked up Cascade Canyon over snow to Lake Solitude. I spent three days there and never once saw the mountains.

My mother, brother and I moved to Glendale, California in August, 1951. I was 19. I got involved with the Rock Climbing Section of the Sierra Club and~for the next year attended climbing sessions at such places as Tahquitz Rock, Chatsworth, Joshua Tree, Mt. Pacifico and Eagle Rock. With coaching from Chuck Wilts, Jerry Hall, Don Wilson and others I learned the fundamentals of rope handling, piton placement and balance
climbing for the first time. We even practiced dynamic belays jumping from tree limbs!

After the Korean War, while in college, I began working summers at Grand Teton, first as a maintenance man, then as a climbing ranger at Jenny Lake. The fifties was a unique era in the climbing history of the Tetons, and I was fortunate to be acquainted with such greats as Buckingham, Corbet, Gill, Chouinard, Ortenburger, Unsoeld, Pownall, Emerson, Dietschy, Exum and Petzoldt. Some of them had already made their reputation. Others were soon to establish their place in climbing history. I climbed often with Bill Cropper, a nuclear physicist. We shared the same passion for alpine routes, not always lusting after the more difficult rock climbs. I did get roped up with Gill and Dietschy a few times, much to my chagrin. These fiendish men would tackle overhangs when they could easily be avoided a few feet right or left. On a wall in Garnet Canyon one day I grew weary cleaning the route behind Dietschy. He would let me lead
when no overhangs were in sight. So I started up this vertical, 100 foot pitch while he snoozed on a ledge below. I ran out a full rope length without placing protection and came up short of what appeared to be an adequate belay ledge. I managed to sink a wafer almost to the ring, and standing in slings called to Dietschy to come up. When he saw that we both were hanging from that lone wafer, he went ballistic! Needless to say, I never had to endure another overhang with him again.

In 1958 Jake Breitenbach and Dave Dingman asked me to join them
in an attempt on the West Buttress of McKinley. I got a commitment from Ford Times Magazine to subsidize our climb, but the others opted to fly to Anchorage rather than drive Ford's new station wagon. Three weeks before departure I had to abandon the venture. They made the second ascent of the buttress, and several years later both participated in the 1963 Everest expedition. That was as close as I ever came to doing a big mountain.

In 1962 I married a lovely, little German immigrant and, subsequently dedicated myself to raising a family. We lived for several years in an isolated part of Joshua Tree National Monument. There I met Phil Smith, the first ranger at Grand Teton National Park. Between 1925 and 1935 Phil and Fritiof Fryxell made most of the first ascents of the major peaks in the Teton range. Phil was in his 60's now and nearly blind, but together we rambled among the monsonite boulders and repeated many of the aid routes he and his son had established there.

In 1967 we moved to Pinnacles National Monument, an active rock
climbing area, where I honed my skills on volcanic breccia for the next 10 years. There I conducted mountain rescue seminars for the 7th Infantry Divislon, San Benito and Monterey Co. sheriff's departments and West Valley College.

I eventually became disenchanted with the National Park Service and transferred to the Department of the Army at Fort Hunter Liggett, where I served as the Land Manager until retirement in 1990. For many years I organized and led men and boys backpack trips into the Sierras. We frequently had groups with over 50 participants. Mountain climbing was always a major part of those trips. In recent years I cherish most the opportunities I have to be in the mountains with my sons and daughters on pack trips, and with my wife on numerous hikes to high places. We have
shared some wonderful adventures together.

~Jim Langford

Jon Beck

Trad climber
May 20, 2018 - 10:02am PT
Great stuff, thanks

Trad climber
May 20, 2018 - 10:57am PT
Wow Jim; thanks for sharing. I'm not as vintage as you but learned on stoppers and hexes. Did ice with SMC poons and Forrest tools. Good times. Your son has posted some pics of you. He gets a lot of grief here but in my mind he is a stand up guy.
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

Out Of Bed
May 20, 2018 - 11:00am PT
Vintage? ('68, '72 w/Fritz & Hans )So,yeah
but why dwell on the inevitable,I started climbing, have climbed & still try to climb.
And to add with the greatest of respect sir,
I was just reading this bit of related history & great picture.

May 20, 2018 - 11:16am PT
By gosh, Jim, what a pleasure to see you posting here! Your comments brought back some great memories. And your description of rappelling with a natural fiber rope conjured up recollections of dealing with the strands of fiber that stuck in my back the first time I tried doing it.

So happy to hear from you!

Your old friend, John
Fossil climber

Trad climber
Atlin, B. C.
May 20, 2018 - 03:01pm PT
Thanks, Jim - not many of us Korean war vets around any more. Lots of similarities in the way we started. Sure rang some bells! (Wayne)

Just livin' the dream on the California coast
May 20, 2018 - 03:54pm PT
Awesome to see you (Jody's dad) posting here, and what an interesting history!

I'm from Rolla--103 miles west of St. Louie--and grew up climbing trees because as everyone knows, Missouri has no mountains. Not even high hills.

But it looks like you found some worthy bluffs. Good on you!

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
May 20, 2018 - 04:56pm PT
There's vintage and then there's vintage; this is as good as it gets.

I had a toe in the fifties, as my first climb (guided by Exum Guides) was the Grand in 1957. I've had the pleasure and honor of climbing with a few of the elders on your list Jim, and was back in the Tetons last summer for something of a nostalgia tour, fifty years after my first climb there.

The changes in that half-century have been immense, but the mountains are, of course, the same. Except that I'm quite sure there's been substantial uplift; it's the only explanation for why the approaches seem much longer and steeper than I remember. :)


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
May 20, 2018 - 09:42pm PT
Nice remembrance...thanks for posting!

Big Wall climber
San Luis Obispo CA
May 20, 2018 - 10:31pm PT
Jody Langford has referenced his father, here on Supertopo so many times, it is wonderful to finally hear from The Man himself.

What a treat.

And what a great thread to start.

Entire books could be written, by many, recalling how they came to embrace mountaineering and climbing, and how it has enriched their lives, and why they would continue to pursue an ostensibly worthless and dangerous activity.

I am hoping that Jim, or Jody, will post a photo of Yvon Chouinard, and friends, distressing a ranger who was mandated to ensure that only "qualified" climbers were allowed in the Tetons(?). Yvon & Crew. appeared to be comically mocking the authority of the ranger with their absurd clothing and lack of proper mastery of basic rope skills. The ranger in the photo doesn't appear to be amused, at all, and may have been questioning his career choice at the time.

It's one of the funniest photos I've ever seen. I think Jody posted here on Supertopo a long time ago.

For me, it started with a Pomona College pre-med student, financed by the GI Bill after a tour in Vietnam, coming to Sycamore Elementary School, three blocks away, and showing off his ropes, carabiners and other gear. I was eight, or nine years old. My younger brother was there, too.

The giant eucalyptus tree in our backyard was no longer off-limits to puny men. A friend, my age, Tony Cisneros, used his bow and arrow and a string, pulling a rope, to get us off the ground, and up into the limbs. We found an old ladder, and tied it into place so we wouldn't have to drill past a blank section of the tree. My brother and I stole a shipping pallet from the railroad tracks, and put it near the top of the tree to make the best tree house in the neighborhood. Our grandfather gave us an old 1" manila rope. I tied overhand knots every two feet, which served as the elevator. Our mother was aghast, but compliant. It was not safe. My brother, sister, and all our friends would ascend the tree, and wander, back and forth on the limbs, free solo.

A few years later, my family relocated to Cambria, which is a tiny town on the Central Coast of California. It is a tourist town. Cambria's main attraction for people, from all over the world, is the opulent and vulgar Hearst Castle collection of ersatz and delicious artworks that have been arranged into an adorable compendium of a collection-addict's obsessive collection of world-wide loot.

It was there, in Cambria, that two hot-shot high school kids showed my brother and myself a box of REI climbing goods they'd bought. These guys would ski down the dry grass hills in the off season. They wanted to climb the rather nice rock across the street from the high school. But, as hot-shot high school kids are prone to do, they dismissed us, the "little kids", 12 and 13 years old, as not capable of climbing at a hot-shot high school level. So, my brother and I bought into the REI cooperative ourselves and received a trove of gear. We discovered The Granite Stairway store in San Luis Obispo later, and bought both of Royal Robbins' rockcraft books, which taught us how to use the rock climbing gear, and how to be safe when using it. I've never been physically hurt while climbing, only emotionally.

The very first piece of gear I ever placed was a Lost Arrow piton at the base of the high school rock, using a ball peen hammer from the hardware store that I drilled for a sling. Hitting something with a hammer was more childishly enticing than dropping a stopper into a slot.

It has all been uphill from there.


Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
May 20, 2018 - 10:49pm PT
Nice! Pulled in Jim Langford!


I'm not vintage, so I'll refrain from posting my story. :)

The Good Places
May 21, 2018 - 07:22am PT
Thanks for the share, Elder Langford!

Mountain climber
Redmond, Oregon
May 21, 2018 - 11:42am PT
Great read Jim!

May 21, 2018 - 12:37pm PT
The ranger in the photo doesn't appear to be amused, at all, and may have been be questioning his career choice at the time

John Fonda was in on the gag. He had a fine sense of humor. He died a few years later on an ice jam below the Jackson Lake dam. He was a great person.

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
May 21, 2018 - 12:56pm PT
Great stuff, Jim. I'd love to hear more about Phil Smith and you climbing out at Josh in the 50s and 60s. That history is almost entirely unknown, and it pertains to one of the most popular winter climbing areas in the world.

This bit: "Phil was in his 60's now and nearly blind, but together we rambled among the monsonite boulders and repeated many of the aid routes he and his son had established there."

I can safely say there are thousands of climbers who are dying to hear about you and Phil. Where you were nailing, and all the rest.

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
May 21, 2018 - 01:05pm PT
Thank you, Vintage climbers, for telling tales that make me feel a little less older at 65.

May 21, 2018 - 01:51pm PT
Dingus, about thirty years ago I was bouldering on Fort Carson land when a couple of soldiers drove up in a jeep. They played Good Cop/Bad Cop and ended by escorting me off the reservation. I lost a chalk bag in the incident, but never went back!

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
May 21, 2018 - 03:32pm PT
Great thread!

Mr Langford: Ditto what Largo said re: the early climbs at Joshua Tree.

Tom- your post brings up memories for me- I spent 4 years at that high school in Cambria (late 80s, early 90s), and often looked up at that rock (though for some reason never went to explore it). Though I did run near there until nearly puking numerous times over the years for football practice.

Social climber
Ridgway, CO
May 21, 2018 - 09:57pm PT
Thanks Jim Langford! Do tell us more . . .

right here, right now
May 22, 2018 - 07:47am PT
Jim, you wrote:
That winter I applied for a summer job with the Forest Service in Idaho, lying about my age.
My father was born just a year after you, and lied about his age to get into the infantry, serving in the Korean War as a BAR man.
In his autobiography Colonel David Hackworth praised the BAR as 'the best weapon of the Korean War'[59]

In 1974, just punks, my childhood friend suggested we rock climb. At the foot of the San Gabriel mountains, on a dry granite waterfall in Bailey Canyon, with Royal Robbins Basic Rockcraft and a "found" 40 meter goldline, we started figuring it out. The next year, we were on that monzonite in Joshua Tree National Monument. Now I'm still a punk, with hopeful dreams of climbing, just like way back when.

 Jim Langford: would love to hear your stories about climbing in Joshua Tree!
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