Layton Kor, the King has died


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Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
May 18, 2013 - 03:03am PT
Pat, I'll repost this in honor of Layton:

Mar 19, 2010 - 02:45am PT
I heard about Layton Kor in the Tetons in the early sixties. Layton was around the climbing camps, but I didnít really associate with him directly very much. Every once in a while Iíd hear another legend about him. In the Tetons I went with Joe Fitschen and his wife Linea over to Blacktail Butte out in the plains of Jackson Hole, where we tried to repeat a new route that Layton had done. The wall on Blacktail Butte is a steep flat piece of limestone with small sharp holds. We heard that Royal had repeated the route, but we didnít get very far with it.

In Yosemite I had seen this tall energetic guy charging around Camp 4 and been told that he was the Colorado G4, the great giant gobbling granite. Being from Idaho I was happy to see someone else from out of state. I have this image of Layton charging up the hill towards the boulders in Camp 4 where the climbers usually camped, looking a bit like a race horse coming out of the gate. He seemed to have more energy than anyone I had seen before.

Layton came to me in Camp 4 one day and asked if I would like to go with him to do the second ascent of the North Face of Lower Cathedral Rock. I was surprised and honored that he would think to ask me. I mainly knew Layton by reputation and considered him to be the best of the best; so he didnít have to talk me into it. He may have come to me because we are both mountaineers and this wall has loose, decomposed and dirty rock making it dangerous. Or perhaps nobody else wanted to go near that climb. The wall goes up for a pitch to a large difficult overhang. Then it goes straight up again behind a huge loose flake with no visible means of support, and on up to another huge overhang. Then it finishes off with some steep tenuous face climbing covered with lichen. The entire route overhangs the base of the wall. Layton warned me that it was probably the most dangerous Grade Six route. The first ascent by Robbins, Pratt and Fitschen took over three days. They had let it be known that this was a horror show that should not be repeated.

The night before as we sorted gear on a table in Camp 4, I was surprised at some of what Layton was bringing along. He had two steel-shafted CMI hammers of a sort that I considered to be the strongest available. He told me he expected to break at least one of them. He wondered if I also had a spare, which I did not. I just had the worn-out carpenterís hammer that Jim Baldwin had given me after he dropped mine. Layton also put several big bunches of celery and carrots in our pack, a couple of weeks supply to my way of thinking. My usual preferred food supply was a bag of trail mix and some hard salami. I raised an objection and he told me not to worry, heíd take care of it.

Very early in the morning we were on our feet hiking rapidly down the valley towards the wall. We arrived at the base of the wall and roped up with our swami belts and Goldline. Before I could take a deep breath Layton was running up the first pitch, up a short distance and then a long traverse ledge out to the right. I wasnít very comfortable traversing the long dirty ledge, but was pulled along by the sheer energy of his presence. I recall one move where I wanted to work it out a bit, and he said, ĎDonít think about it, just do it!Ē Thatís not my usual style and I was surprised when it actually worked and I didnít take a long swinging fall.

In moments I was tied into his belay stance at the top of the pitch and Layton was charging ahead on the next pitch. I will never forget watching Layton lead that pitch. I donít have the words to describe the experience properly. Up until that moment I had maintained a fantasy of being one of the better and faster leaders on difficult direct aid. Layton was in a league I hadnít guessed existed. That pitch is severely overhanging, dirty, crumbling, wandering up a black series of ceilings. Most of the cracks are not really cracks, just seams in the rock; using RURPs and knife blades.

I might have been able to lead it with a lot of care and thought and time. Layton was obviously applying the motto he had just shared with me on the previous pitch. Heís hanging up there with his feet swinging around, hammering on RURPs with rapid full arm swings of his hammer. Itís completely unreal to me that those RURPs could hold him while heís swinging around hammering the next shaky pin. Then several times he used my thin haul line to bring up some more groceries. So now heís a few pins up above me, hanging on very doubtful RURPs, swinging his hammer like an angry woodpecker; with moss, lichen, and rock chips flying in all directions; and stuffing his mouth with celery and carrots.

About half way up the pitch, the hammer gives up. First the steel shaft bends and Layton swears at it. A few more unsympathetic whacks and it breaks and the head goes sailing away. Without breaking his pace Layton has his backup hammer in action as he exclaims about how that one was already worn out from the last climb he did (El Cap West Face). By the time Layton reaches the top of the pitch I am in a lifelong state of awe; and a large portion of the celery and carrots have been consumed. I neednít have worried about hauling the extra weight in the pack.

Now itís my turn to follow and clean the pitch. I clean the belay anchor pins and clip my aiders to the first pin. While Iím hanging on the next one and reach back to take out the first one, the second one that Iím standing on falls out, sending me swing out of reach of the first one, if I didnít still have a sling on it. I have to reach back and bang it out while pulling on the sling. About that time the third pin pulls out before I even put my weight on it. Itís completely unreal how Layton with an extra hundred pounds got those things to hold his weight. I guess youíre just not supposed to stop and think about it! In any case the whole pitch went like that. I didnít so much have to clean the pitch as just figure out some way to get my body upwards while everything around me was falling off. In spite of the sense of compressed time, it must have been early afternoon by the time we finished the pitch. I had heard about Layton yelling at his partners, but he was actually very pleasant to me as I struggled to follow him up through the grunge. In retrospect I am very curious how this pitch compared to some of the other wonders Layton is know to have performed.

The next pitches were relatively straight forward. One pitch was a precarious stack of loose blocks covered with lichen and dirt that we climbed with great care and respect. At about this point Royal showed up in his car and yelled up at us that no one should try climbing that wall as it was too dangerous. Layton yelled back that Royal should move his car before it got hit by falling rocks.

The top of that loose blocks pitch is at the base of a 300 ft flake magically stuck to the middle of the wall. [This huge flake and the loose boulders of the previous pitch are now all part of the talus slope below the wall.] Iím standing looking up at this remarkable guillotine while Layton disappears inside a cave and up behind the flake. As he wanders around in the squeeze chimney behind the flake, he calls out that he doesnít see how Iím going to be able to get up through there with the pack. This pitch actually seemed to slow him down slightly and we are starting to run out of daylight.

When it gets to be my turn I wander out of the high exposure into the mysterious realm of vertical spelunking. You canít just climb straight up in there, because variations in the width of the chimney force you to explore back and forth to find a place where your body can fit through. At each move I was dragging or pushing the pack along with me. Now I understood why Layton was slowed down by this pitch; a big guy in a tight space. I gradually found my way up and left until I was standing on a couple of chock stones directly below Layton. Layton was standing on a small flake wedged crosswise above a mass of boulders at the left edge of the squeeze chimney.

At this point with the rope leading directly up, Layton offered to haul up the pack. Looking at another fifty feet of squeeze chimney, that seemed like a great idea. Then as Layton pulled the pack up close to his position it pulled across the stack of boulders that he was standing on. Somehow the pack knocked out a key stone and the whole stack started tumbling down the chimney straight at me. It was immediately apparent to both of us that I probably wasnít going to survive this barrage of rocks coming down through the confines of the chimney. Layton was yelling something above the din of falling rocks like Oh God, Iím sorry! I was busy trying to apply rule number one when facing falling rocks Ė watch the way the rocks bounce and donít be there when they make the last bounce. Except here there were lots of rocks making lots of bounces in a confined space. The chimney was a little bit wider where I was and there were two chock stones a few feet apart where I could hop back and forth. Somehow that was enough that I kept my wits under control and managed to dodge the bigger ones with the same mind set as running a ski slalom race course. I was left standing with my face and hair full of grit and just a few scratches and bruises.

Layton was so upset with himself and apologetic. I pointed out that neither of us could have anticipated what happened and he didnít need to beat himself up about it. Particularly since all I got out of it was sand in my eyes. We were pretty drained at that point both physically and emotionally. I worked myself up the squeeze chimney to Layton and tied into the anchors.

We both sat down on the flat slab, which was now perched on we knew not what, as it was now dark and we had no flashlight; but at least it was still perched. I got the inside perch jammed with my back into the chimney. Layton got the outside with his long legs. I was too tired to even check the anchors, which he assured me were not very good anyway. So we tried to get some rest. Layton kept getting cramps in his legs. Each time one of us moved the slab would go clunk like a restaurant table with uneven legs. I tried to keep myself wedged in well enough so that if our perch fell apart weíd still be there in some fashion.

At the first sign of visible light, without a word, we were moving up the second half of the squeeze chimney. Another couple of pitches above the flake went by mechanically in the cool morning light, taking us over the second barrier of overhangs; still difficult, but not in perspective to what we had already been through.

I remember the two of us standing shoulder to shoulder on a small flat ledge right at the outer edge of that second big overhang way out from the base of the big wall. We were starting to relax and Layton told me it was the most exposed position he had ever been in before. I was surprised and asked him if that included El Cap. He said yes it did because we jutted so far out from the wall we had just climbed and there was no way we could ever consider going back down that way. We just stood there for a little while chatting and looking across the valley at the sun on El Capitan. The final pitch is bare, unprotected, and lichen covered. But we just took our time very carefully as falling in that unprotected spot is not something anyone would want to do. Weíd done the route in a day and a half.

There is a large ledge just below the scramble to the summit. We sat for a little while and stretched out and sorted our gear. Then we scrambled down the Gunsight Notch between Lower and Middle Rocks.

Layton had torn out the seam of his pants and didnít want anyone to see him. So I went ahead of him down the trail and signaled each time some tourist hikers came along so he could run up and hide among the trees.

When we got back to Camp 4 he changed his pants and we went over to the Mountain Room in the Lodge, still looking scruffy. Layton ordered several steak dinners for us to share. As we sat there chatting, we noticed that waiters were setting up tables next to us with more settings. We laughed and let them know that we were not expecting anyone else. I ate two steak dinners and Layton ate three or four.

We hobbled back to Camp 4 and split up to our separate camps in the early evening. I couldnít tell you how long I slept, but by the time I woke Layton was probably off doing another climb.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
May 18, 2013 - 04:16am PT
That's a great story!

I especially loved Royal yelling up to Layton that nobody should be climbing there and Layton yelling back down for Royal to move his car before it got hit by rocks!

I too had the experience of climbing things with Layton that I probably couldn't have done if I'd stopped to think abou them.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
May 18, 2013 - 04:40am PT
Nice piece.
Michelle Gill

Redding, CA
May 18, 2013 - 12:51pm PT
I found a link where we can help out his wife with expenses. Don't know if it is still up and running. But I am going to find out. The TacoStand helped me out in my time of need. Thank you.
Layton passed away with significant medical, funeral, and other expenses. Friends of Layton's have set up a website for donations in Layton's memory to help Layton's wife, Karen Kor, with those expenses. The website address is: All donations go straight to Karen with no intermediaries and no fees. Please give generously and spread the word!
Chris Archer - 04/26/2013 2:53:28

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
May 18, 2013 - 01:08pm PT
Thanks Michelle, the site you mention is posted here already but you reminded me to bump it.
Allen Hill

Social climber
May 18, 2013 - 09:25pm PT
Great story Tom. He told me how much fun he had flying about with you in your plane. What a treat.
Thanks for the story and a bump for the Kor's.
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