This photo by Chris Frankenstein shows Chris Van Leuven leading.
A slide show of Chris Van Leuven leading the pitch
I usually did not migrate to Tuolumne Meadows in the heat of the summer since I knew of many routes in the Valley, both old and new, which lay in the sanctuary of shade and which were all worth doing. But the summer of '72 was a little bit different. Granted I had honorable reasons to be in the Meadows and that was a promise to a friend, but a chance meeting would transform it into a romantic interlude which by its nature created an emotional complication. Were it not for my steadfast friend Roger Breedlove, I might have fallen into love-intoxication and indolence and a debilitating stupor called Puppy-love.
While I drank coffee from the Grill sitting on a nearly flat boulder on the edge of the parking, scout Breedlove informed me there were better things to do than watch Hippies throw a Frisbee and smoke pot. I squinted up at him, my eyes burning from the aerosol mosquito repellent recently offered and delivered by a young girl in the parking lot, while he delivered his inspirational report. Apparently, the potential climb Roger was describing had had a previous attempt by none other than Tom Higgins, a talented well-known climber from southern California.
I like doing routes others had tried, that is other than people named Tom Higgins. I had climbed a few Higgins' routes, and they were all hard; I knew the day ahead would not be an easy one--that was a given. The route was a crack in a steep corner, ranging from hands to fingers, with a previously placed bolt just above a small ledge about 30 feet up. And it was on the North Whizz Dome, which I had never been to. Beyond that little else was known.
I parked the old ‘55 Ford Chuck Pratt had given me in the small parking place Roger pointed to while leaving space for another car and a jerk. Roger led the way since he was the only one of us who knew the way. I was surprised to discover how near it was to the road and that I had never seen it or even knew it was there. Granted it wasn’t like I had been missing Fair View Dome tucked away: it was small, but worthy. There was a fears’ looking route near our proposed climb, Thy Will Be Done, climbed first by--guess who--Tom Higgins. I liked Tom’s imaginative use of Biblical reference in naming some of his more appropriate routes.
A little farther down along the wall there was our baby, a beautiful little open book shooting straight up. We plopped ourselves down and had a good look at the climb and planed our strategy. My first observation was the bolt above the ledge only a short way up the climb and a bad place to belay. Belaying from the ledge with the obvious crux not far above almost assured the leader would hit the belayer with a fall at or just above the crux. I wrote it off as a mistake or, the best option, a bail bolt, or for any other reason we didn’t know. But I would soon have a firsthand look for myself. It was my lead.
It was not my intent to one-up Tom Higgins but to share in a mutual challenge, do the best I could and offer the results as an adventure to others in the future. With that as my goal, I arranged the pitons from small to larger on my right side in accord to the right facing corner and started climbing. The climbing was right up my alley: good hands and occasional foot holds for placing protection. I was soon at the small ledge with the bolt. The scrutiny below foretold that the difficulties lay a few meters above and, surely, it was reality. Where the left side of the corner bulged out there was water seeping, around which moss grew. I could see now this would have to be removed before it could be free climbed. After clipping the bolt, I moved up higher before placing another piece but not high enough to hit the ledge and break something. The crack became thinner and climbing testier as I moved closer to the seep zone. I got a good piton in just below the mossy section.
Clinging by the fingertips of my left hand, I yanked at the moss with the other hand. Most of the moss came away but dirt and goo still filled the crack, so I took a thin piton off the gear rack and started digging it out. With my strength waning, I climbed down to better finger locks to get a little recovery rest, but it wasn’t that good. I climbed back up and started digging frantically, but quickly realized I wouldn’t succeed. I grabbed the pin just before falling and clipped a sling to it to stand in while continuing cleaning out the mud from the crack. Standing in the sling didn’t completely eliminate the need to cling to the crack with my left hand for balance, but now I could reach near the top of the wet grungy bit of the crack.
This was cheating, though not so much for the resting, since I could negate that advantage by starting anew at the lower piton, but for previewing every nuance of the crack at the crux, previewing which could be described in no other words. This dilemma was an evolution of ethical ideals contradicting cosmic reality. It just don’t work that way, and no matter how much even a saintly disciple of purity wants it to be different, it will ever be the way it is in the real world. Maybe in history only Jesus could be said to have both talked the talk and walked the walk.
I briefly discussed my disgust to Roger of this unavoidable sin against man made ethics, but so it is written and so it shall be. I finished the cleaning by mopping as much of the moisture away with what I could reach with my shirttail then Roger lower me down to the last resting place.
Then I started to climb back up to the crux. This whole preparation process had taken greater effort than I had first thought leaving me more pumped than I realized. My ethical concerns had possibly been over played and now the situation was in question. What a puritanical idiot I was being, now I had to deal with damage control.
I remember that the sequence I’d worked out required starting with the right hand from a certain finger-lock but, in my present state of fatigue, it seemed not so certain. The location for the fingertips of my left hand was oozing liquid goo, leaving the situation no longer questionable but doubtful. A mixture of water, mud and chalk paste greeted my fingertips, producing a feeling response best described as trepidation. Time was short, so I reached for my chalk bag, grabbing a handful of chalk which I threw at the crack, followed quickly by my fingertips and then pulled fearlessly and without hesitation. This at first sounds heroic but it was not because, after all, the protection was at my waist, with the result being maybe at most a three feet fall. But that innate fear of falling I had kept dear since my beginning years of climbing. The fewer falls you take the less the chance of the inimitable “Murphy’s Law” manifesting itself with unfortunate death as the result. I gave the heads-up to Roger as I committed to the dubious left hand. It was tense for about three moves where upon a good finger-lock allowed me to get in a great piton and a sigh of relief. Although the climbing was still difficult, it was within my comfort zone. Fifteen more feet and I would have been laughing, instead I was kicking myself for the near blunder incurred by rookie idealism.
Procrastination is the deadly enemy of evolution: in the words of Bob Dylan, “him not busy being born is busy dying”, or as my father would say, “do something even if it’s wrong.” The platitudes are many, varied, and appropriate, but my favorite is the analogy between the gun fighter and the Alpinist wherein the survivors are only the quick and the only remainders are dead. I pondered these thoughts while Roger applied himself to the day’s endeavor.
I could hear Roger’s labored breathing as he struggled to remove my protection at the crux, which I can assure you, was no easy task for truly it was welded. I hadn’t placed this piton for easy removal, it was meant to hold a fall, not to be the weakest link in the chain. Roger would soon be the victim of his own idealism. Seldom does human idealism prevail over reality and the reality was that he if he persisted in removing the piton he would necessarily run out of strength and have to hang on the rope. I suggested leaving the damn pin and fetching it on rappel, but this was not ideal. Ideally the second on the rope would climb to the protection, remove it, and carry on sequentially. Hah ha hah...! As Roger’s breathing reached a crescendo his cry for tension soon followed as did my beckoned administration of his request.
I felt bad for Roger, but I had to hand it to him though, he never used his polio induced handicap as an excuse nor did he ever once whine about it, just as he didn’t bitch about the over driven piton I had placed. Roger seemed a little physically and emotionally tattered when he arrived at the ledge, and from his demeanor, I surmised disappointed. So, I said, “what did you learn today grasshopper”? to paraphrase the Kung Fu master on television. I didn’t wait for his answer but instead offered, “leave the damn pin, I said."
Maybe if we were on a big wall he could be concerned, but on a one or two pitch climb, we can always rappel down and fetch the piton after the climb. You can’t be climbing for other people. That can get you killed, so climb for yourself and you’ll learn more…stuff.
In the fall of 2014, Jim called and said he had written accounts (in 2011 according to the Word.docx properties) about our first ascents of The Handbook and Hoodwink. He wanted to sent them to me and was confirming my email address. I was not clear why he was sending them to me, but gathered that he was unable to get anyone interested in publishing them. I thought of the pieces recently and found them on an old back-up drive. The Hoodwink piece was truncated--I will ask Peggy and Layton if they have the full account--but The Handbook piece was complete. I edited out most of Jim's rants as well as too much about me to stay mostly focused on climbing. I know that several people have asked me about the bolt midway up the first pitch, and Higgins mentions hanging onto pins in his diatribes on style, so this account addresses both of those points. Jim's account seems accurate to me, except for maybe the Kung Fu quote. I looked up the TV show and the pilot was aired in 1972. I don't think I have ever seen the show, and certainly not in 1972--no TV. If Jim was back-casting, he is entitled: foreshortening is a part of our memory. Historically, this would have been very early for 5.11 and me wasting myself on removing a pin would not have much changed the odds of my pulling the crux, not in 1972. I had forgotten that Tom had previously tried the route, maybe he was sore about it. I had also forgotten that I instigated our ascent. Regarding the style, cleaning potential routes was not well established, especially while hanging onto protection. This is one of the style changes Tom complained about, but cleaning was soon part of the foundation of some of the best new routes in Yosemite, either on lead with a back-down to the last rest, or on rappel (for me, I hung onto protection to clean Beverly's Tower on the Cookie cliff for the FFA and rappelled down Crack-a-go-go to clean it out, although I didn't get the FFA). From the tone of Jim's account, he seems to be addressing Tom's complaints about the way climbing styles were evolving both with irony, sarcasm, and scolding. We all had great respect for Tom and everyone liked him--he was a great guy--but most of us thought that his views on how climbing should be conducted should be restricted to his personal views, which we all agreed he had the right to express, but not broadsides against the whole community. Anyway, Jim's account seems to be responding to this as well as describing the first ascent.