A Personal Climbing History

Larry Hamilton

I began hiking and scrambling in the Front Range while I was a teenager, growing up west of Denver. A Stoney Point trip with the Mountaineering Club from UC Santa Barbara, where I started college in 1966, taught me how to belay and rappel. After that, my friends and I outfitted ourselves with hardware "seconds" that we picked up at bargain prices from Yvon Chouinard's shop in Ventura. Inspired by stories from Chouinard, Tom Frost and Dennis Hennek about the big walls of Yosemite, we began learning how to climb things on our own. We struggled through a long apprenticeship of epics in California, Colorado and the Alps that brought home the adage, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."

More than four decades later, the game is still fun. A few climbs stand out as milestones, looking back. (At right: Leading the summit pitch on the first ascent of the Rainbow Wall, 1973.)


Arrowhead Spire, Yosemite Valley, California, Spring 1968. Don Knight, Bob Funk and I spent 14 hours completing this grade I, 5.5 route -- our first real rock climb. Bob took a 20-foot headfirst leader fall, impressing us all. This proved that we were badly off route, but we carried on anyway. After reaching the summit around sunset, Don and I learned about stuck rappel ropes, and why real climbers bring headlamps.

That summer, Bob Funk and I bought crampons and headed off to the Alps. Evenings at the huts, we bragged that we'd climbed in the Valley. But when someone asked "What routes?" we could only say "Arrowhead Spire." Despite complete inexperience, we managed an off-route three-day excursion to the summit of Mont Blanc (15,771'), and then had a full-on Alpine adventure climbing Zinalrothorn (13,848') through verglas and storm.

Arrowhead Spire set the tone for these and subsequent adventures, where our goals consistently moved one step ahead of our abilities. By fall, back in the Valley, Don and I managed a grade II, 5.6 route (Lower Cathedral Spire) in only 14 hours, and the following spring we pulled off a grade III, 5.8 (Higher Cathedral Spire) in 15! Fortunately the cliffs were uncrowded, with no one to share our routes or let us know how inept we were. To us, each ascent was a major triumph.


The Naked Edge, Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, 1969. Through a combination of inefficiency and dogged persistence, Steve Weaver and I turned this crag route into a "big wall" experience -- complete with bivouac. The Canyon's cliffs were higher in those days. A year later, after graduating from college, I moved to Eldorado Springs.


Finger of Fate, The Titan, Utah, 1971 (6th ascent). Motivated by Chuck Pratt's beautiful Ascent piece, "The View from Deadhorse Point," two friends and I drove west for our first taste of desert climbing. A river of wind forced Jim Dunn, Ron Cox and me to spend an uncomfortable night high on this cosmic mud fin. The soft rock, awful old bolts and stunning views lived up to all of our expectations.


The Prow, Yosemite, California, 1971. John Byrd and I spent three long days getting up this climb and back down again. Running it out on hooks and RURPs by headlamp, with a thousand feet of darkness below, was an experience that remains vivid in my mind. Easy free climbing on the upper pitches turned into an epic struggle, as it snowed heavily through our final day. Wet and exhausted, we made our last bivouac in a campground bathroom.


The Nose, Yosemite, California, 1971 (approximately 85th ascent). My first grade VI, and first climb with Joe Herbst. After meeting just the day before, we started up the wall in a heat wave. Five days later, we topped out in a blizzard. Along the way we dropped a jumar, a rack of carabiners, and at Boot Flake, had to cut our haul line in half with a hammer. Apart from that it went smoothly.

The "85th ascent" estimate was based on the reckoning of Jim Bridwell, who also figured that the Nose had a 10% success rate at the time. Shortly after completing that climb, Joe and I headed back up the walls for an early (2nd or 3rd) ascent of Warren Harding's Lost Arrow Direct. Days were short and the bivouacs cold, but we enjoyed ourselves on this sunny and scenic line.


Pseudo Sidetrack, Eldorado Springs, Colorado, 1972. I had often soloed this exposed, casual route, which became a new milestone for me in '72: Pseudo Sidetrack was my first date with Leslie. It was her first rock climb, but she hiked the five pitches easily, sometimes not bothering to look for handholds. Les impressed me in other ways too. The next year, after a cold winter living in a small log cabin on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, we got married.


Salathe Wall, Yosemite, California, 1972 (approximately 35th ascent); Half Dome Direct NW Face (5th ascent), Liberty Cap S Face (2nd ascent), Yosemite, California, 1972. My last and least eventful Yosemite big wall trip. Joe Herbst and I warmed up for the Salathe by making the first ascent of Triassic Sands -- the earliest steep route in the Red Rock -- and then failing on Rainbow Wall, before traveling to Yosemite and climbing the South Face of Liberty Cap. I bathooked carefully up the Warren Harding's strange crux. Joe took a long fall on the friction pitch. But by the time we started up the Salathe, our big-wall skills were noticeably sharper than they had been on the Nose a season before. The Salathe's Hollow Flake crack, Ear, El Cap Spire and Headwall all made great impressions, as did several nameless pitches where the going just seemed tough. On the last mindbending day we traveled from Sous le Toit Ledge to the summit, arriving well after dark.

Finishing off a month in the Valley, I teamed with new acquaintance Roger Briggs to climb the Direct NW Face on Half Dome, while Joe joined an old friend on the Prow. Roger and I allowed four days for Half Dome, which proved to be more than we needed. Having plenty of food and drink, we quit working in mid-afternoon each day to hang out and look down on the Valley from the comfortable ledges.


Rainbow Wall, Red Rock, Nevada, 1973 (1st ascent). Red Rock was quiet, empty and unknown when my El Cap partner Joe Herbst persuaded me to join him there in the early 1970s. Almost nothing had yet been climbed. Joe and I had a nasty experience with loose blocks during our first attempt on the wall in '72. After rapping down what was left of our ropes, with goose down swirling like snow out of our shredded haul bag, we ran off to climb the less frightening Salathe Wall instead. A year later, on our second Rainbow Wall attempt, we felt stronger and wiser. It was a grand adventure, moving up the central line on this awesome cliff. Sunrise from the bivouac was brilliant. The summit overhang loomed overhead, all the way up.


Two Worlds Route, Candlestick Tower, Utah, 1974 (1st ascent). This climb began as winter-evening conversation years earlier, in Eldorado Springs. Bill Roos showed me the spire on a topographic map, and said that it was unclimbed. This caught my attention. After two failed attempts, I finally reached the top with John Byrd, Doug Snively and Jim Dunn. Our route involved some loose aid, and could not be called classic, but that hardly detracted from the elation of standing above Canyonlands on this never-before-visited summit.


White Room, Notchtop, Colorado, 1974 (1st ascent). Our journey up this steep face was tense, with several of those "don't fall or we'll both go" moments. In good 70s style, we carried no pitons or bolts. Sticky shoes and Friends were still years away. That evening, after Roger Briggs and I arrived home tired and dazed, we pondered the big question over beer: What route name could fit what we'd just experienced? (At right: Roger Briggs beginning the white corner pitch on the first ascent of White Room, 1974.)


Warhead, Arrowhead Peak; Northeast Corner, Ptarmigan Tower 4, Colorado, 1975 (1st ascents). Tom Gries and I made a project one summer of searching out unclimbed faces in the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. These two new 5.9 routes were among the best. John Byrd joined us for Warhead, where we raced up seven pitches of clean granite, topping out just as the lightning and hail came down. Tom and I had fine weather for the Northeast Corner, where again we had the excitement of pioneering the first route up a significant alpine wall.

Years later, I learned that Warhead had become lost, misplaced in several guidebooks and even claimed as a new first ascent. For the original route description, FA photos, and a favorable review by a recent party on Warhead, see [MountainProject.com]. Regarding Ptarmigan Towers, see [MountainProject.com].


Powell Peak, Colorado, 1976. Years earlier, I got up one morning planning to climb the northeast icefields. A fluke canceled that plan, possibly saving two lives, while two other lives were lost (story). Eventually, in October 1976, I climbed the route with Mike Gilbert. The deep shadows and yellow-sun imagery of late fall became a "farewell to Colorado" memory. We placed ice screws for belays and chose the steepest way up, playing with new attitudes and tools. Then we hiked over the summit, along the Divide and then down Chaos Canyon in the dark, at the end of a perfect day.


Yosemite Point Buttress, Yosemite Valley, 1980. Ducking away from a conference in San Francisco, I met Jim Mirabella in the Valley for a one-day adventure. Or so we planned. We were too casual by far, underestimating the approach, which led to a losing race against daylight towards the top. Climbing after dark became a nightmare when our one flashlight failed. Finally reaching the rim, we found the forest deep under icy spring snow, and had to bivouac in our shirtsleeves. We built a fire to keep warm, but other benighted climbers and hikers had long since stripped the area of firewood. We spent the cold night foraging for pinecones and manzanita twigs. Back at Berkeley a few days later, my brother told me that my hands looked like I'd been fighting cats.


Repentance, Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire, 1982. I moved from Colorado to New Hampshire in '77, and soon noticed that New England winters had a different personality. For five months of the year, there was more ice than rock to climb. As I worked through classics from Pinnacle Gully to the Black Dike, though, I saw that the harder ice climbs -- unlike harder rock climbs -- entailed progressively greater risks. With two young children, I was feeling less bold, and finally chose to retire from this part of the game. My last ice climb, Repentance, was one of the best. Steve Larson, Gary Lee and I made a cheerful ascent. It was enlivened by an unexpected fall on pitch 3, when high-pressure icewater ejected my tube pick from the ice.


Last Laugh, Crag Y, New Hampshire, 1988 (1st ascent). This climb marked the end of a micro-story, the frenetic development of Crag Y. During the "gold rush" of the first few months after the crag's discovery, about forty new routes went up -- some of them classics, a lot of them not. Competition arose, and friendships were damaged. I look back ruefully now, understanding that the Last Laugh was on me. But it was also a fine climb and a new sort of adventure, with days of hard work going into one two-pitch route. On the day we finished it, I hand-drilled the top bolt in the rain. After the rain stopped, Jim Ewing led the crux. (At right: Jim Ewing on the first free ascent of Last Laugh, 1988.)

[Text of the original Climbers' Guide to Crag Y]


Sliding Board, Whitehorse Ledge, New Hampshire, 1988. As the Crag Y story was ending, others were just beginning. Sarah Hamilton (11) joined me on her first full-length climb, the classic friction route Sliding Board. Through her eyes everything was mysterious and new, from the tiny toads that crossed our path at the base, to the ominous shade of the headwall. In too-large boots she cruised the crux, and continued to the top with a fine sense of adventure. Years later, Sarah would write an essay about this day for her college applications.


Lucky Streaks, The Vision, Oz, Golden Bars, Fingertips and other routes, Tuolumne Meadows, California, 1991. After years of work devoted to writing a trilogy of statistics books, I planned to celebrate with a full-on climbing trip -- my first such since leaving Colorado. A great gang of old and new friends including John and Shere Byrd, Alex Alvarez, Dave Lockett, Dave Bloom, Jeff Genest and Daryl Morgan eventually got involved. We ticked several Higgins/Kamps classics that I had dreamed about for decades, and tried the new game of sport climbing at Red Rock and Owens Gorge. It's hard to pick out the best day, but some of the most fun was on Fingertips -- a sunny slab where everybody got involved.


Ciebola, Cry In Time Again, Needle Spoon and other routes, Tuolumne Meadows, California, 1994. Tuolumne again, with a difference: Dave Hamilton (13) on his first climbing road trip. We rendezvoused with John Byrd, Phil Pearlman, Alex Alvarez and Dave Bloom, traveling through Red Rock, Mt. Charleston, Owens Gorge and the Meadows. Young Dave outclimbed the fogeys, and laughed when we passed ibuprofen around at a Lee Vining café. Despite the aches and indignities of being an aging climber, I resolved to make desert trips an annual event -- as they had been years ago, before my life got so serious.


Diamondback, Joshua Tree, California, 1998. I celebrated my 50th birthday by leading this route and Possessed by Elvis, then camping amidst the coyotes with Leslie, Sarah and Dave. For the first and last time, we had a real family climbing trip. Sarah and I took off early one morning to Walk on the Wild Side, and later that day Stick to What? Dave and I worked at climbs we fell off of. Leslie was more cagey about which routes she would attempt, enjoying a high success rate on the 5.10s that looked good.

Sarah turned 22 in Snow Canyon, Utah, the following spring. While she and Leslie went hiking, Dave and I were off Living on the Edge -- a fine route that started me thinking again about longer climbs.

(At right: Leslie Hamilton on a Clark Canyon 5.10, 1997.)

[MountainProject.com route description of Diamondback]

[MountainProject.com route description of Living on the Edge]


Prince of Darkness and Dream of Wild Turkeys, both done with Eric Dearing in fall 1999, were the next steps in that direction -- and my first steps into Black Velvet Canyon since Joe Herbst and I climbed Triassic Sands in 1972. Dave Hamilton and I returned to climb Triassic Sands itself in March 2000, on a "roots" trip through landscapes I used to know. After Triassic Sands, we visited the Fisher Towers (Ancient Art) and Indian Creek (The Wave) as well.

[MountainProject.com route description of The Wave]


Otto's Route, Independence Monument, 2001. Sarah and I had a cool time on a hot August day making the ascent of this tower, which formed the centerpiece of our first father-daughter climbing trip. A few days later, for a complete change of pace (red to green on my slides), we scrambled up the West Ridge of Quandary Peak.

[MountainProject.com route description of Otto's Route]


Flying Buttress, Diamond Buttress of Medicine Bow Peak, 2004. We started up early but the sun never rose on this leaden June day. The first pitch was stellar and long, with a layback too steep for me to stop and protect. Higher, Eric Dearing ran it out on loose rock as the rain started to come down. Powder from rockfalls coated the holds, with the consistency of soap flakes when wet. In short, a fine alpine adventure. We reached the car worn out and grinning after five hours on the move.


No single climb stands out, but 2006 was notable nonetheless. Over the past few years, I had experienced increasing pain and decreasing mobility from arthritis, which finally necessitated a total hip replacement in summer 2005. That autumn, limping around on crutches, I did not know whether or how I would be able to climb again. Trips to Joshua Tree in January 2006, and Cayman Brac in March, gave most encouraging answers. By year's end I could look back on many wonderful days with great partners, climbing modest-sized but often classic routes of across the U.S. and abroad. A set of photos conveys some of the joy.

(The Edge of Time, Jurassic Park; Eric Dearing on The Yellow Spur, Eldorado Springs; Leslie Hamilton on Turner's Flake, Cathedral Ledge; Dave Hamilton on Bird of Fire, Joshua Tree; Sarah Hamilton on Repulsion, Cathedral Ledge; Leslie and John Byrnes on Cayman Brac; Leslie on Freak Show, Snow Canyon.)




2011 update: I haven't added much to this for a while, and a visitor wrote to ask whether I was still active. The answer is "yes." It was a relatively slow year, but I still got outdoors when I could between business trips, climbing in 7 different states. Highlights included a stellar camping trip to Acadia where we climbed on the sea cliffs of Great Head and Otter Cliffs. Leslie and I were jointed by our good friends the Ewing and Dearing families. David Lucander hosted us on a visit to the Gunks; Joel Hartter and I climbed the best route at High Valley Crag in Oregon; Dave Vaughan introduced me to the "hero grades" of new Boulder Canyon. Somehow Leslie and I fit in brief trips to Joshua Tree (while visiting Dave and Sara at Thanksgiving) and back one more time to Utah, just the two of us.

( LH on Full Metal Jockstrap, Snow Canyon; David Lucander on Last Temptation, Cathedral Ledge; Eric Dearing and Jim Ewing on Head Arete, Great Head; Leslie Living on the Edge, Snow Canyon; LH on Le Teton, Shawangunks; LH on Cranny, Joshua Tree; Leslie on Parallel Universe, White Rock; LH leads Windward Roof on his birthday, Great Head.)


STORIES

California

El Cap, Yosemite Valley

Worst Error, Yosemite Valley

Back to Joshua Tree

Colorado

Black Canyon

Lemons, Limes & Tangerines, Golden Cliffs

Otto's Route, Independence Monument

Powell Peak

Nevada

Epinephrine and Nadia's Nine, Red Rock

Triassic Sands, Red Rock

New Hampshire

Albert Dow, Cathedral Ledge

Children's Crusade, Whitehorse Ledge

Recombeast, Cathedral Ledge

Humphreys Ledge

The Trunk, Crawford Notch

Whitney-Gilman Ridge winter ascent

Utah

Candlestick Tower, Canyonlands

(There Is No) Castleton Tower

7 Days in Utah (American Fork, Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, Maple Canyon, San Rafael Swell)

Gunsmoke, Long Canyon

Unknown Sister, Castle Valley

elsewhere

Akureyri, Iceland

Bad anchor story, Selnes

Cayman Brac, Carribean

Medicine Bow Peak, Snowy Range

Moses Little Dog, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota


Lawrence Hamilton home page