A walk with McCarthy in the Winds


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Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 1, 2009 - 11:44pm PT
The following reminiscence, here slightly improved, didn't last a day over on rc.com. Here's hoping it fares a little better here...

Jim and Laura McCarthy, Barbara Thatcher and I, climbing as two ropes of two, found ourselves on the summit of Steeple Peak with storm clouds brewing. For a moment we thought the buzzing sound was some loose material flapping in the gusts, or maybe even some kind of insect nest, but in a flash we realized the summit was discharging electrons and we were acquiring a positive charge, the lightning equivalent of a target painted on your back.

We quickly reinforced some old rappel tat with an extra piece of webbing an got the hell out of there, and not a moment too soon: rain and hail started immediately and lightning seemed to be striking everywhere, setting off large rockfalls and making us feel like we were in a WW II movie.

Huddled 150 feet under the summit, pelted by hail and hunted by lightning and rockfall, we discovered that we couldn't pull the rappel lines. (We were in such a hurry to escape the buzzing summit that we neglected to have the first person down test whether the lines would pull.)

Our situation was immediately critical. Hail and verglas were rapidly coating the rock, making even fourth-class terrain extremely difficult. Our ropes were stuck on the summit. The storm cells were coming in waves, with new and nastier versions appearing on the horizon all the time. And the lightning seemed to be striking everything but us---so far.

An instant passed as we contemplated our situation in dumbfounded silence. It was Jim who galvanized into action. "We've got to free up those ropes!" he shouted over the apocalyptic rumblings of thunder and stonefall. He slapped two prussik knots on the rope and proceeded to hand-over-hand his way up, pausing whenever he could let go to slide the prussiks up as protection.

This was a stunning performance, genuine heroics. Jim was heading to the only place more dangerous than the one we were in. It was clear that the slow methodical process of conventional prussiking on sodden ropes would leave us all exposed to further bombardment for a long time, and in spite of the obvious immediate danger, Jim made an instantaneous calculation that he could manage hand-over-hand and that it was the best thing under the circumstances.

The military gives out medals for heroism under fire. Jim certainly deserves one for his actions that day. He reached the top, rearranged the ropes rappelled back down, and we pulled the ropes.

After a slippery traverse, we faced a slabby descent, probably fourth to easy fifth class when dry, but now coated with verglas and hailstones. We could find no rappel anchors. Shod in smooth-soled rock shoes, we would have to downclimb this newly-iced terrain. Jim went first, a braced but unanchored upper belay from me his puny reward for the risks he had just undertaken. He climbed down 100 feet without being able to place any protection. Finally he found a sloping ledge and managed to fiddle in a single mediocre nut. This forlorn trinket was our belay anchor.

Laura and Barbara followed with tight upper belays, and then it was my turn. The icing had gotten somewhat worse during the three descents, and I looked down 100 feet at my three companions, huddled miserably in the storm, clipped to that one questionable piece. If I fell climbing down, I would surely take them all with me. There followed the most frightening moments of a climbing career that had had its share of R- and X-rated leads. Can anything be less secure than climbing down an icy slab? Nothing at all for the hands, a foot lowered down and placed, the weight transfer bringing with it instant total commitment with no chance of adjustment or recovery. It seemed like an eternity to me, and it might have been even worse for the three spectators whose fate was linked to my tentative and fearful movements.

Somehow, I made it to the "anchor" without slipping. We began to enjoy some spacing between the waves of thunderheads, some blue sky and even a sunbeam or two illuminating our way for a few minutes before the next cell arrived. These breaks and the lower altitude were enough to make the rock merely wet rather than iced, and we made steady and uneventful progress to the lush meadows surrounding Deep Lake.

The green alpine mosses greeted us with the moist fragrance of the valley, our stoves roared into action, water was boiled and infused, and the sun made a tardy appearance, painting the peaks with an alpenglow made more dramatic by the dark background of storm clouds scurrying off to the East.


Haystack reflected in Clear Lake

RG Photo.

A shot of Mac early his climbing career, on the summit of Devil's Tower with Dave Bernays in 1954. (Jim is on the left and Dave is the guy with the tight pants.) Note the advanced footwear. Jim came back a year later to do the McCarthy West Face route.,

Photo on www.climbaz.com from the John Rupley collection.

Jim and Laura in the Winds (on Pingora or Wolfs Head?) a year or two before our epic on Steeple Peak.

Credit: Gene Smith

Photo cropped from Geno's SuperTopo post (where the area is misidentified as the Sawtooths).

Barbara Thatcher on a variation on the East Ridge of Wolf's Head. Steeple Peak can be seen in the background, appearing as a barely significant point beneath the bulk of East Temple peak.

RG photo.

Jim and I, just slightly the worse for wear, at the Gunks reunion last Fall. (Burt Angrist to the right and Myriam Bouchard in the background.)

Rick Cronk photo.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jul 2, 2009 - 12:10am PT
those recollections, electrical discharge followed by hail, rain, lightning all while terribly exposed, offer some of the most vivid memories of climbing in an alpine landscape.

I remember huddling under boulders on Wolf's Head letting a storm pass hoping the blue boltz would not find us in our hiding. Having survived, life continues as if nothing had happened... except you always have the memory.

Thanks for the story of McCarthy's heroism, Richard... probably should be more about him written here than there is...

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jul 2, 2009 - 12:32am PT
Jim has had quite a climbing career. He was a pioneering climber in the Gunks with numerous first ascents that were among the most difficult climbs of their era. If you visit the Gunks stop by the McCarthy Wall. He also ventured into the alpine realm with first ascents of such classics as The Grand Traverse in the Tetons and the Lotus Flower Tower.
As you all may have gathered from this post, he's a damned good man to have on your side.

Jul 2, 2009 - 01:05am PT
Holy mother of God that's a palm-sweater story Rich. Thanks for sharing it....my worst story doesn't touch it, and it sure made my hand perspire reading it!

Glad you all made it down alive.

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:25am PT
great story rgold!

now this Jim McCarthy, are we talking THE Jim McCarthy of Devil's Tower's "McCarthy West Face" fame?

The same route that was put up in 1955 and rated 5.8 A3 as of the 1986 Gardnier Guilmette guidebook?

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:36am PT
Great story, Rich! Nothing beats a level head during wartime. I have been up the Great North Chimney on Steeple on a nice day and had all hell break loose not too far away, off route on Mount Mitchell with a single rope and nowhere to run but upwards into trouble! Your words certainly resonate with me! No lugs and verglas. Place, twist and let the ice melt and repeat...It really doesn't get much scarier, while waiting for the big flash!

Thanks for the reminiscence. What did your better halves think of the days entertainment? LOL

Social climber
the local crag
Jul 2, 2009 - 06:37am PT
what a story. nothing but heroism on jim's part. down climbing verglas must have been a nightmare. all testimony to man's instinct of survival and courage under pressure.

Hobart, Australia
Jul 2, 2009 - 07:41am PT
Great story! Thanks.

Jim's not only a legendary climber from way back, but has helped with many climbing causes over the years via his professional expertise. He has been a great leader of the American Alpine Club, recognizing new trends and broadening the club's relevance through it's transition in the 90's. He was also a key player in the saving Camp 4 project, and has been a good friend to me in many ways.

Glad to hear of his recent clambering adventures!

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Jul 2, 2009 - 08:54am PT
What a great story. I hope it fares better over here too Rich.

I'm always frustrated by how so many good threads slip away too quickly.

I'm sure glad you guys made it all in one piece!
I had a similar event last summer on Hallet Peak with an old El Cap partner. We made it too!

Beautiful weather on the way up.


Getting a little safer finally.

The happy wet rat.

Trad climber
Sittin' Pretty in Fat City
Jul 2, 2009 - 10:55am PT
It's only under adversity that we become our best. Great story, Rich.
Doug Hemken

Madison, WI
Jul 2, 2009 - 11:31am PT
great story!
Will Buckman

Jul 2, 2009 - 11:46am PT
Great Story!! I get to spend quite a bit of time at Devils Tower and Jim's North Face and West Face routes are two of my favorites. Thanks Mr. McCarthy.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jul 2, 2009 - 12:01pm PT
A shot of the exquisite lightning rod from Cirque of the Towers & Deep Lake by Steve Bechtel, 2008. Great little guidebook!


Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Jul 2, 2009 - 12:12pm PT
East Temple, I've seen a shot of that somewhere else on this forum. hrm...


Trad climber
the east
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:10pm PT
Great story RGold! Thanks for sharing.


Just takin' the long way home...
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:26pm PT
Awesome Trials-n-Tribulations TR, Richie! Complete with your trademark stellar photos, too.

I was gripped...down-climbing icy slab, when a fall meant all of you went for "the long ride"...holy moly. Yeah, Jim gets kudos for Courage Under Fire, but you deserve the same as far as I'm concerned.

Muy thanks for posting that here!

Trad climber
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:42pm PT
great pix.

and the story's a lot more readable broken into the smaller paragraphs like this. the format here is terrible for longer chunks of prose.


Trad climber
Lee, NH
Jul 2, 2009 - 01:45pm PT
in a flash we realized the summit was discharging electrons and we were acquiring a positive
charge, the lightning equivalent of a target painted on your back.

The inner scientist takes note, as things go to hell and the outer climbers fight to survive.

I've been caught high in thunderstorms, and know that buzzing, target-on-back feeling, but never
had to combine it with life-or-death climbing as you did. Quite the story!

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Jul 2, 2009 - 03:29pm PT
Epic bump!
Quality thread bump!
Sweaty palms bump!
Climbing content bump!
Bill Hutchins

Trad climber
Jul 2, 2009 - 04:10pm PT
Wonderful story of a great adventure. Thanks.

I started clmbing in the gunks in 1963; Jim has always been a hero for me.
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