It was love at first sight with me and Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. Rotten rock, mosquito bogs, and the annual July plague of biting flies: all failed to dampen my ardor.
In 1971, I discovered Elephant’s Perch. It is a massive dome of beautiful pink granite (Leucocratic quartz monzonite). Its’ very clean and solid 1,200 foot high west face, is the best big wall in Idaho.
I started technical climbing in the Sawtooth Range in 1970. I was a Ketchum native and my summer job on a Forest Service fire crew in the area gave me weekends off. Unfortunately, two years after a high point in 1971 of 28 days in the Sawtooths, I found gainful employment running an outdoor store in Moscow Idaho. After that, my time in the Sawtooths became the typical “long-distance” love affair: with short visits throughout the 70’s and early 80’s.
In 1971, I learned that Fred Beckey, renowned Seattle Mountaineer: had done a Grade V route on Elephant’s Perch. Rumor had it: a convenient belay ledge capped each 150-foot lead. Before the mid 1970’s there was no Sawtooth Range guidebook. Other than an occasional note in climbing journals, climbing history in the Sawtooth Range was all word of mouth.
While climbing in the area in 1973, I spotted a line of weakness on Elephant’s Perch that I assumed was “The Becky Route.” It took me two years to find the right partner for the route.
Summer of 1975, Chris Puchner and I decided to climb Fred Becky’s route on Elephant’s Perch. Day one: we lugged large packs full of big wall climbing gear into the lakes at the base of the wall. To carry both climbing and camping gear: each of us carried two packs lashed together. These masochistic bundles of equipment exceeded 70 pounds each, and had been dubbed “Sawtooth Overloads.”
At that point in my life (age 25) I had climbed one Grade V direct aid route: Leaning Tower in Yosemite. My chief background in direct aid was occasional use of it on an otherwise free climb. Chris had done a small amount of aid climbing, but he was a natural athlete, and always game for anything that entailed suffering.
Following what we thought was Fred Beckey’s classic line: we proceeded for seven slow leads up a suspiciously easy route, just north of the center of Elephant’s Perch’s massive face. (In current terms we were in the first major-crack system to the north of “The Mountaineer’s Route”).
Mostly we free climbed, but on our last pitch Chris ended up doing some direct aid as well. At the end of lead seven: a nice flat 10 x 10 ledge waited below a slightly overhanging, very thin crack. Since we had brought bivouac gear, we decided to wait for morning before attacking the wall above.
During the short night: a cloud of mosquitoes raised unseen from the lakes below, and in our sleep we were both savagely attacked. I remember Chris mocking my puffy face the next morning. However bug bites on a bivy were much better than a thunderstorm: always our major fear in the Sawtooths.
The next morning we discussed our growing certainty that we were on un-climbed terrain. We felt excitement about pioneering a new route, rather than depression at not being on “The Becky Route.” We always enjoyed doing something different.
Thus inspired, but stiff and bug bitten, Chris attacked the aid crack above our ledge. The crack ran vertical about 20 feet to a small overhang, then continued thin, vertical, and unrelenting for a full 150 feet to where the crack finally widened. He went up a ways, bitched about not having enough thin pitons and retreated. I accepted his judgment and we rappelled off the route.
The summer of 1977 I was back with a secret weapon and a fantasy.
The secret weapon was Mike Paine: a very good climber, who I suspected would be of great help in climbing Elephant’s Perch. I had also found more information on Elephant’s Perch and was certain that instead of repeating the Becky route: Chris Puchner and I had stumbled upon an actual new route.
My fantasy was: to do the route with Mike, and my girlfriend Jennifer Jones, just before my 10th high school reunion in nearby Hailey.
Fritz, high school social retard and non-athlete (voted most likely to be a nuclear physicist): would show up for the class reunion having just knocked off a prestigious first ascent in the Sawtooth Range. I would of course have my tanned and muscular woman on my tanned, muscular, and hopefully slightly scarred-up arm.
Once again, we had to haul a huge load of climbing gear into the base of Elephant’s Perch. However, we had stashed three climbing packs full of food and climbing gear at the entrance to the canyon that goes up steeply to Elephant‘s Perch on another climbing trip into the Sawtooths, a few days before.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the place where I had hidden the packs under bark and vegetation: they were no longer there. Some searching revealed fresh bear scat with aluminum foil in it. A wider search revealed two destroyed packs, no food, and some climbing gear scattered around.
Finally we found the third missing pack over two hundred yards away. It had been full of only climbing gear, weighed about 30 pounds and was intact, but covered with tooth marks. United with our gear: we were short of food, and low on water containers, but had enough equipment to proceed.
Mike and I had been climbing together a lot that summer; but Jennifer had climbed not at all: since she had been off on an archeological dig in Washington. We humped our “Sawtooth Overloads” up the steep climbers trail from Redfish Lake Creek into Elephant’s Perch Valley. Then Jennifer and I spent the late afternoon on a short warm-up climb for her.
Early the next morning we were off and up: burdened with bivouac gear and water for a two-day climb. Mike and I swapped leads, making rapid progress up the first pitches; which had taken Chris Puchner and me a whole day two years before.
Unexpectedly, early in the day, we found ourselves back on the fine flat bivouac ledge: just below Chris and my high point of 1975. We had turned the seven leads into five leads: with my knowledge of the route, and Mike’s willingness to run out the rope. Mike had also free climbed through an area where Chris had resorted to much slower aid climbing. Directly above us, in a right facing corner: stretched the thin aid crack.
As the direct-aid expert, or more correctly, as the only person with much direct aid climbing experience: I got to lead the long, thin, aid crack. I had brought every thin piton and nut I had available for the aid crack. I used them all.
The small overhang was not difficult to aid over; but above that the crack stayed unrelentingly thin: accepting Knife Blades and thin Lost Arrow pitons only. It finally started to widen just as I was running out of thin pitons.
I must confess: my lack of aid climbing experience and the vertical wall kept me placing aid pitons more closely together than good style dictates. The “clean-climbing, throw away your pitons & use nuts for protection” revolution had occurred in the early 1970’s. We were fervent users of nuts, when possible. In this crack it mostly wasn’t possible.
Somewhere, well up the aid crack, I ran so low on thin pitons I was forced to resort to very small wired-nuts (Copperheads) for aid placements. Some of these did not exactly fit well into the skinny crack: so I resorted to bashing them into place while nervously humming that old British ditty -- “When is a chock a peg?”
It seemed like I was approaching a likely spot for the dreaded “zipper” fall. I was aware that below me were a bunch of fairly insubstantial nuts and pitons. Of course, one of the nuts I had hammered on: popped out of the crack, just after I fully committed my weight to it. Thankfully, my “zipper” fall only pulled two more pieces of aid out of the crack before the rope stopped me.
I was used to taking lead falls, but generally there was nut protection I trusted, in cracks below me. Here, the little demons inside my head were chuckling loudly about my good chance of taking a huge fall, when every thin piton below me zippered.
I pushed my fear into action, and renewed a controlled struggle back up the crack. At almost the end of the 150-foot rope the crack widened slightly and accepted several large nuts. I felt relatively safe.
WOOHOO! I had a decent semi-hanging belay, with even a slight footrest. I had vanquished the thin, vertical, aid crack.
Mike jumared up the rope to me, shared some water that I was very grateful for, and attacked the next lead. Above my belay: the crack was wider and in a much larger right-facing corner. Mike was forced to aid climb up the crack, and suffered considerably.
There were two problems. First, although Mike was a great free climber, he had done very little direct aid climbing. Second, the suddenly wide crack demanded large nuts, which we did not have a copious supply of.
I had convinced myself the worst was over after my lead: but Mike’s thrashing and muttering above me indicated otherwise. However, I knew that even if Mike ran out of nuts for the crack: we had brought along “the bolt kit.” This consisted of a ¼ inch drill in a steel holder, and a small supply of bolts.
Although we knew "bolting" was accepted technology for rock climbing: we knew it was also considered to be “bad form”.
A possible slide into the low morals of using bolts for upward progress was taken out of our hands. During Mike’s struggles, the drill and holder: which had been in his pant’s pocket, worked loose. I heard a melodic ding, ding, ding, a muttered “oh sh#t,” and the bolt kit came flashing by me. We were now limited to cracks for placing our protection.
After more struggles, Mike finally called down to me that he was giving up on the crack he was in. He wanted me to lower him from a secure nut he had placed at his high point and he would pendulum to another crack about 20 feet to our right. I started lowering Mike back down to my belay point to make the pendulum. However, when he was about 15 feet above me he started rolling his eyes and groaning.
Mike had a mild form of epilepsy from a high school football injury. I had seen him have seizures twice before, and the symptoms he was exhibiting now were identical to those starting a seizure. I knew he would instantly be fine: if he could take his medication pill, which he always kept handy. I feared he might not be able to access those pills without my help. The consequences could be horrible.
I dropped Mike to my belay quite quickly. At that point he looked at me with alarm (as he was bouncing up and down) and exclaimed: “Christ, Fritz, what are you doing? The nut I’m dangling from isn’t that solid.”
I quietly asked, “You’re not having a seizure?”
“No way man,” Mike replied, “The climbing harness was just killing my kidneys.”
So, with that crises over: Mike was able to run back and forth on vertical rock, supported by the rope, and grab onto the crack 20 or so feet to our right. He scrambled up some lower- angle rock a few feet, put some nuts in for a belay, and I thought we were all set to go higher.
The maneuvers I would have to perform to follow Mike’s pendulum were a little complicated to me, and put me at risk of a considerable fall onto Mike’s belay. For that reason, I asked Mike to reassure me that he had a good belay: just in case something went wrong.
He wouldn’t give me any mental comfort. I just wanted him to tell me it was ok. We proceeded to have a fairly loud discussion on the subject, that ended with him shouting: "Christ Fritz!” “When is a belay, ever, really good!”
At this point: we decided to call it a day and retreat to our bivouac ledge 150 or so feet below.
By this point Jennifer had been waiting patiently on the bivy ledge for about six hours. She had been alarmed by increasingly urgent yells between Mike and me, and had early on noted the passing of our bolt kit.
Somewhere in that long stressful afternoon, she decided it looked a lot like Fritz and Mike might well go ding, ding, dinging, down the wall: just like the bolt kit.
After that epiphany: she prudently untied from the potential mutual suicide pact that she suspected the climb had become. Securely tied to her ledge, but not to us: Jennifer had somewhat tearfully, waited for the drama to play out.
I should mention, in a 40-year climbing history, I have only witnessed one other incident where a climbing party member had decided to un-rope, before a possibly deadly group fall could occur.
I was climbing in the Canadian Bugaboos in the mid-70’s with Chris Puchner. We impressed a couple of very competent female climbers with our ice-climbing abilities. They subsequently dumped the English lads they were climbing with, and went off to the Canadian Rockies to climb with us.
Climbing conditions were horrible, due to recent heavy snow. In desperation, we ended up doing the tourist route on 11,100 foot Mt Victoria: which had enough fresh snow to make it “very interesting.”
On the descent from the summit of Mt. Victoria, I belayed my (more competent than me) female climbing companion down a steep, but very snowy, chimney. She exited onto a ledge and vanished from my sight. After a few minutes, she called “On Belay.”
I climbed and skidded down the mixture of loose rock and snow in the chimney without ever finding a substantial hold. Several times I believed I was about to fall, but knew the rope to my partner would catch me. After a while, I reached the ledge and walked around a corner to see her tying back into the climbing rope.
She looked up and saw me, then quite calmly said: “I couldn’t find any anchors to protect a belay with.” “Didn’t see any reason to die with you, if you fell.”
Women are so practical!
Once Mike and Fritz rejoined Jennifer safely on the bivouac ledge, all was soon better. A little food and water led to a good night’s sleep. No mosquitoes or thunder storms arrived during the night; and the next morning we woke ready to continue the climb.
Mike and I jumared back up to my high point. Mike cleaned the nuts from his pendulum lead, protected by my good belay anchors, then jumared up to his doubtful belay. With more nuts he was able to improve the anchors and pronounced it “pretty good”. (Of course, if we hadn’t dropped the bolt kit we could have set “bomb-proof” belay anchors with it.) I then jumared up to Mike’s belay, while Jennifer took up my old belay station, as a safety backup.
At that point, Mike took off on the most difficult free-climbing lead of the route. It involved a delicate balance of friction and crack climbing on a very steep slab. Mike thought it was 5.9 and after following the lead with jumars, I was willing to agree.
My next lead took me into a huge lower angle chimney. When I reached the end of the rope: I propped myself into the chimney, placed anchors very carefully, then belayed up my partners. The problem was: the back of the chimney, about 5 feet below my belay, was piled with loose rock. If our climbing ropes disturbed any loose rock, those below me would not have enjoyed the subsequent projectile shower.
As I belayed up Mike and Jennifer, I coiled the rope over my legs to avoid disturbing rocks. Mike led on up, Jennifer went next, and about 1 ½ hours after propping myself across the chimney; I could finally move. I immediately discovered a problem. My left leg had gone to sleep: it was numb from the knee down.
After doing all the standard things you do to wake up a numb limb: I gradually accepted I had a problem. The leg worked; I just couldn’t feel anything with it. I climbed up to Mike and Jennifer and informed them I had a slight incapacity.
Mike led the final three easier leads and we were on top of Elephant’s Perch at about 1:00 in the afternoon. We loitered around the summit for a while; then decided that if we were going to make my class reunion party we had better start down.
Since my leg still had not awakened, Mike and Jennifer took most of the weight for the climb down. The easiest routes off of Elephant’s Perch are mostly walking down talus. I soon discovered I had to pay very careful attention to foot placement with my left leg: otherwise it would buckle under my weight.
Despite my care, I took a couple minor falls getting down to camp. Once we hit camp, we immediately jumped in the lake for a much-needed bath.
Cleaner and much revitalized: we set off down the steep trail to Redfish Lake Creek. We had also picked up our backpacks and camping gear and now had more weight. Mike had martyred himself: carrying a huge amount of weight, but I had about 50-60 pounds of gear in my Kelty frame backpack. Of course, my leg was still numb. The mile or so down to Redfish Lake Creek is very steep and I had to be very careful. I took more minor falls along the way.
Finally, we hit the creek bottom and some smooth granite slabs for walking surface. In the dim forest light of early evening, I failed to see a small stick that rolled under my right foot. I lost my balance and quickly threw my left foot out to catch myself. My left leg collapsed: (it was numb-you remember) and I found myself stumbling faster down an inclined slab with the heavy backpack and gravity forcing my upper-body head first toward the granite.
About two inches before I slammed head first into the granite: the frame-extension on my pack hit the slab first. I somersaulted over into a sitting position and screamed: “That’s it!!” I think my bulging eyes nearly touched the rock just before the frame extension hit! I had been acutely aware my skull was about to be shattered like a ripe kumquat!!
It was not in my stock of outdoor trivia that a pack frame-extension could also function as a “roll bar.”
There was still a delicate log to walk over Redfish Lake Creek, then two downhill-trail miles to the lake, and hopefully a waiting motorboat. After we reached the far end of the lake, we would have had a 65-mile drive to Hailey and the party. We camped right where I had fallen instead.
Yes, I gave up on making the class reunion party!! They probably would not have been impressed with our smelly bodies and matted hair. I didn’t have any good scars on my arms either.
Next morning we cleaned up the remains of the picnic the bear had made of the two stashed climbing packs a few days before and had a mellow walk out. My leg recovered in about six months. I made it to my 20th class reunion.
One disappointment was: we only took one picture the second day of our climb. I have discovered that the number of pictures taken is inversely proportional to the difficulty of the route. Somehow the camera never got much use when I was suffering through an epic. I think it all has to do with priorities: for us, staying alive was more important than taking pictures.
I wrote up the route as “Pacydermial Pleasantries” for the American Alpine Journal. They published the description, but not my cool route name.
I indignantly protested: since I had achieved a pinnacle of status in the climbing community with a free charter membership in the DFC&FC (Decker Flat Climbing & Frisbee Club), as well as a paid membership in the American Alpine Club.
My protest was ignored. The rumor mill told me the AAJ editor only allowed route names that were in Webster’s Dictionary, or were proper nouns. “Pacydermial” was not in Webster’s and did not make the cut.