coonyard pinnacle-first ascent sept 1960


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Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 2, 2008 - 02:56pm PT
During a summer back in the States, I was able to sort and scan a number of boxes of climbing memorabilia that had been sitting idle for many years. What the rats and water leaks left behind, was a vast wealth of letters, clippings, slides and black and white photos that survived the neglect and inattention of many years. One original Ansel Adams 8x10 print was destroyed by a leaky roof. Damn, could have used that to pay for my daughter’s college education!

One of the sad truths of climbing in the early 60s is that very few climbers carried cameras. Some of my prints are from 110 film, others 35 mm and numerous are half-frame 35mm! All the cameras were primitive, hand-me-downs, or, one of my favorites, a Petri half-frame 35mm that Foott and I found in the back country. Simultaneouly we both made a dive for it. So we had to share it. Our deal was you could only use it on one climb and then you had to pass pass it along. From this shaky start Foott went on to become one of the finest wildlife photographers in the country.

The following is a short history of the first ascent of Coonyard Pinnacle. Although I climbed it numerous times over the years, nothing could compare to being on the first ascent with two really classic climbers from that era. Amborn, built more like a fullback in pro football, was a master on small holds and glacial polished slabs. He made a lot of noise, grunts and sighs but was a pleasure to watch. Calderwood, with his first ascent of Arches Terrace in 1957, had established himself early on as an excellent slab climber. I was a young kid along for the ride.

In Sept 1960, Bill Amborn, Rich Calderwood and I Joe McKeown, made the first ascent of Coonyard Pinnacle. Amborn, better known as BBA or “Bitchin Bill Amborn” was 19. Calderwood was 21 and I was a wee lad of 14. Still wet behind the ears they said. I had acquired the name “Little Joe” to differentiate from Joe Fitschen or “Big Joe” in Camp 4.

Amborn was the visionary that first conceived of a route above Monday Morning Slab onto the “blank” upper reaches of the vast Apron. We put up the first pitch one afternoon using aid to place two protection bolts. Returning the next day with Rich Calderwood we were able, except for one pendulum, to push the route free up 500 ft to a small pinnacle we named Coonyard. The only bolts placed were the two on the first pitch for protection. On the first ascent, on pitch #4, I believe, we made a long 80 ft pendulum left across a smooth wall that brought us several pitches below Coonyard. This is the section that Sacherer and Ostin climbed a year later for the FFA.

We named the pinnacle after Yvon whose name was mis-pronounced by some Gunk climber when Chouinard was in New York. Something along the lines of “You must be the Great Coonyard?” said in an irreverent way as only a Vulgarian could. Dave Brower, Sierra Club Bulletin Editor at the time, would not allow names of people to be associated with geographic locations while the person was still alive, so we honored Chouinard with the New York pseudonym.

On the second ascent of Coonyard, our original ascent party along with Mort Hempel and Chouinard managed to climb 400 ft above Coonyard. In October, Amborn returned with a young Jeff Foott, then 16 years old. The two had climbed the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel in September for what I believe was the 9th ascent. In the early 60s, the SS was considered a litmus test for whether or not you had arrived as a climber. They were able to push the route above Coonyard to within one pitch of the Oasis at the top of the Apron. No bolts were placed.

Climbing in T-shirts, unfamiliar with the Glacier Point Terrace descent route and unwilling to bivouac, Amborn and Foott headed back down the route with only one 150 ft Goldline. They had left a rope at the pendulum. Amborn recalls,“It was pitch black when we got to where you traverse back to get above Monday Morning Slab, and that is where Jeff, following and downclimbing, had a spectacular rolling pendulum type freefall. You could see the sparks and smell the ozone from the hardware hitting the rock. It was rather pretty except for Jeff’s grunts and ‘Oh God’ profanities. The most eerie memory is of all the bears at the dumps and us walking through there in the blackness and all these dark, shadowy figures about.” I remember there was a party that night and Foott had happily traded a cold bivouac for a night of classic Camp 4 debauchery.

In September Kor arrived for his first visit to the valley and he and Chouinard in late October teamed up to complete the route to the Oasis. Yvon asked BBA if he would mind if they did the route to the
Oasis. BBA said “sure, for the rock belongs to no one and I don’t want to appear as a ‘siege’ climber.” Yvon and Kor completed the climb to the Oasis but in the process placed a number of bolts. BBA was especially upset about a bolt placed at what we called “the Step”, the first move off the ledge which begins the last part straight up to Coonyard. BBA subsequently chopped that bolt. “Yvon said he did it for safety and considering his size in comparison to Kor, I can understand that if he was the belayer”.

Two years later, Amborn joined the Army, buried all his gear in the talus above Camp 4 and never really climbed again in Yosemite. Years later, following his intricate but complicated treasure map, I was able to locate and retrieve his gear.

In 1962 Bob Kamps and I, after climbing the classic Harding route on the west side of the Apron joined the Oasis with the rim via a route we named The Hinterland. Some of the early dangers involved with the Apron had little to do with the climbing itself. Nothing like a garbage can flung off the railing at Glacier Point to wake you up. Or the approach ritual of dodging the bears at the old dumps below the Apron. There was always a fire smoldering, smoke rising and bears cruising.

Sorry about the poor quality of the photos. After surmounting the learning curve of just posting photos I need a breather before “messing about” with Photoshop and the likes.

Bitchin Bill Amborn following 2nd pitch

Calderwood leading 2nd pitch

Calderwood belaying start of 2rd pitch

Amborn leading the 3rd pitch

Calderwood "messing about" on the pendulum

Summit Coonyard Sept 1960, Rich Calderwood and Bill Amborn

john hansen

Nov 2, 2008 - 03:10pm PT
Great stuff Joe, got any more?

right here, right now
Nov 2, 2008 - 03:14pm PT
Man that is some stuff too!!!
Supertopo rides again...

right here, right now
Nov 2, 2008 - 03:26pm PT
"Amborn returned with a young Jeff Foott, then 16 years old. The two had climbed the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel in September for what I believe was the 9th ascent."

So, Foott was a bit of a prodigy too?
That had to be something (Steck-Salathe at 16)...
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Nov 2, 2008 - 03:49pm PT
Thanks, Joe! A nice story and photos.

If nothing else, I'm sure the YCA, Ken and the museum would have a home for such memorabilia, especially if photos were labelled with who/what/where etc.

Funny, I remember all sorts of bears around Camp 4 in the 1970s, entertaining us and wreaking havoc. And a big production in terms of hanging food etc. But I may have been impressionable - Valley regulars may not have thought much of it.

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Nov 2, 2008 - 05:35pm PT
Wonderful post.
Great story and the photos are perfect for capturing the feelings of climbing on the Apron in those days.
Thanks Joe.
Carolyn C

Trad climber
the long, long trailer
Nov 2, 2008 - 05:42pm PT
What a great story and photos! The photos brought back some good memories of days gone by. Thanks for posting this.
ron gomez

Trad climber
Nov 2, 2008 - 06:21pm PT
GREAT POST!! Thanks a million, brought back some great memories of the route, did it with Dave Wonderly and others in the early 80's. Some really cool photos, post up more stuff like that....we LOVE it!
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Nov 2, 2008 - 06:33pm PT
Great retro trip report, Joe! Thanks for sharing.
And thanks for explaining where the aid was (pendulum) on the FA.

FA at age 14, that is pretty darn cool.
What kind of shoes did you use? Kronhofers?

Link to my photos of a recent ascent, plus BBA's recollections:

The climb is really about the same, although we have some belay bolts in place, instead of hammering our own pitons.
I might need to clip that pendulum point next time to protect the crux traverse!


Hardly Visible

Port Angeles
Nov 2, 2008 - 06:58pm PT
Great story Joe! I love this sort of thing.
Thanks for posting it up.

Sport climber
Venice, Ca
Nov 2, 2008 - 07:01pm PT
I could read those old trip reports forever!

Great stuff.

Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Nov 2, 2008 - 07:22pm PT
Well told Joe!! Thanks and keep the stories coming.


Trad climber
Nov 2, 2008 - 07:41pm PT
Great Story Joe,
Thanks for posting. Really looking forward to more.
John Vawter

Social climber
San Diego
Nov 2, 2008 - 07:43pm PT
Thank you Joe. Great Stuff.

Trad climber
The Great North these days......
Nov 2, 2008 - 09:13pm PT
wow great post. I remember doing coonyard a long time ago. I thought the first pitch off of monday morning was 5.9 in eb's.....did you guys do this in the early sixties without any type of rubber?
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Nov 2, 2008 - 09:20pm PT
hi Joe,

Nice write up and pictures. I like Yvon's bolt to protect against a Kor fall--great history.

Hope to see you at the Nose50th, if you are in the US.

Best, Roger
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Nov 2, 2008 - 11:00pm PT

> did you guys do this in the early sixties without any type of rubber?

They had rubber in the 1960s.
I tried some Kronhoffer boots in the mid-1970s, and they frictioned better than my EBs (not so good for crack climbing, though).

Where I once was,I think?
Nov 2, 2008 - 11:19pm PT
Man, thanks for posting up! I just eat that Historical stuff up.

Trad climber
Mountain View, CA
Nov 3, 2008 - 12:20am PT
Wow! Thanks Joe for an incredibly interesting slice of some of the most crucial moments in the history and development of rock climbing in Yosemite. You guys rock!


ps - personally, I find this stuff way more interesting than 15-year old Adam Ondra clipping up some difficult sport route.

Trad climber
Truckee, CA
Nov 3, 2008 - 02:26am PT
GREAT POST! Having done most of the Coonyard route in the late 60s in slippery RDs, I can relate a bit.

Regarding footwear of the day, yes, some of those guys did those heinous climbs in the crappiest imaginable loose boots. But anyone lucky enough to have Kronhofers at that time knew they were decidedly not hiking boots except in appearance. Properly fitted, they were great climbing shoes; I and some others kept using them at least right up until the first Boreal Fires became popular, doing numerous routes of solid 5.10 or even 10+ at all areas from Tahquitz/Suicide to Cathedral Ledge and the Gunks. I am sure others climbed a good bit harder than that in them.
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