Climbers at The Columns, Eugene, Oregon, 1975. Left to right: Pete Pollard, Jude Pollard, Chris Jones, Dale Allyn, Richard Wanderman. Picture taken by Faye Nakamura.
This piece was written in 1999
In 1975 I hung out at The Columns, a local climbing place in Eugene, Oregon. The Columns is an old quarry of columnar basalt that’s right in the middle of town and was cleaned up and turned into an outdoor climbing gym. It’s a great place to climb.
One day I was there with a bunch of folks, talking, climbing, resting. It was a busy day as Columns days went; there were people on many of the climbs, some leading, some top-roping.
An old Datsun pickup pulled up and I noticed because it was beat up, rusty, and had the back cut off with a small flatbed on it. A middle-aged guy got out. He was in city clothes and did not look the part of a climber. He reached back in behind the seat and pulled out an ancient looking pair of old, beat-up EBs with duct tape all over them. EBs were early climbing shoes that did not have sticky rubber on them which made climbing with them much harder than current shoes. Even 15 years ago anyone owning, let alone wearing EBs for climbing was from an earlier generation of climbers. I had had a pair of EBs myself as well as the earlier “klettershoes” which were like modern day hiking boots: stiff, non-stick soles not so good for friction although decent for edging and aid. I appreciated what climbing in EBs was like and the situation with this guy and his EBs looked interesting so I continued to watch him. Note that now (1999) shoes are like suction cups compared with EBs.
He sat down on the berm separating the parking area from the climbing area and took off his shoes and put on the EBs. He hardly looked up at the rock or the folks around him.
This was definitely interesting.
There were some very good climbers up on the rock with hardly any room for another rope or for this guy to play around on the bottom of the rock. None of us knew it at the time but some of the climbers up on the rock that day were to go on to become some of the best rock climbers in the world. That day they were agonizing over relatively easy climbing problems.
The guy waited until some folks moved, then quietly, with no eye contact with anyone else, left his shoes on the berm and walked over to one of the harder climbs at The Columns. He stood under it for a second, contemplating or planning or praying. He had no ropes or any equipment except the old shoes on his feet, no gymnastic chalk or harness. Nothing. And, he was in city clothes.
It should be noted that a few of the very best climbers free soloed climbs at The Columns in 1974. This means that they did the climbs without the protection of a rope. At that point no one had ever seen anyone free solo the climb that this guy was under. This added to the intensity of the moment.
This particular climb was a near vertical crack that started out about finger-width and ended up too wide for a fist. Because it was columnar basalt there were no other holds besides the crack. Climbers use a technique on cracks called “jamming” in which they insert fingers or hands and toes or feet (depending on the width of the crack) in the crack and twist the inserted body part so that it will hold body weight until another body part can be jammed in higher. In this way a climber moves up cracks. For the uninitiated it can be an awkward and sometimes painful technique. The closer the crack is to vertical the more weight there is on the inserted body part. The climb this guy was doing was about 40 feet long, very close to dead vertical and it leaned a bit to one side. Even harder.
All of us regulars at The Columns had tried this crack. Few of us had done it at that point although many of us, myself included, would go on to do it eventually. It was what climbers routinely call a “test piece” in that once you did it you were initiated into a more select group of climbers called “hard men” (yes, women were initiated into that group too).
The other significant piece of history about this crack is that many years after this event I tore my left rotator cuff leading it and ended my semi-serious climbing career.
So, the particular crack that this city guy decided to have a go at was significant and by now others had noticed the disaster that was about to happen.
Many of us felt responsible for the place and for the safety of the people who climbed at it and I know a few minds, mine included, were trying to figure out how to stop this guy without causing a fight.
Then without warning he was moving up the crack. I’d never seen anyone climb like him before: smooth, effortless, the best jamming technique I’d ever seen. He moved up the crack as easily as walking on level ground. It was almost like levitation.
My jaw had dropped and I noticed quite a few other open mouths as well.
He never stopped moving. When he got to the top he walked off the side of the cliff and back down to where his shoes were sitting, took off the EBs and put on his shoes and was back in his truck and gone. This entire event took all of 10 minutes from the time he drove up until he was gone.
I turned to my friend Chris and asked if he knew who this guy was? Chris said the guy was Wayne Arrington, a climber who had been a pioneer of Oregon rock climbing over 10 years earlier and had dropped out of sight, helicopter logging in Alaska or something like that.
Arrington was legendary in Eugene climbing circles as one of the few people who was crazy enough to fly a helicopter upside-down in Vietnam. I have no idea if this was true but the thought of it coupled with some of the climbs he had put up was enough to make him a legend.
All I can tell you is that what I witnessed that day was spectacular. Not just the climbing but the way he drove up, was so calm and unconcerned, did the climb easily, and left without a word.
This was the definition of cool.
I knew I wasn’t a good enough climber, nor secure enough personally to do what he’d done. But, I secretly wished it had been me.
Arrington had done his early climbing in Oregon with a guy named Bob Ashworth who, after pioneering hard rock climbing in Oregon had gone down to Yosemite and stayed. Arrington had done some walls down there, including a very early solo of El Capitan, but had then dropped out of the climbing scene. Ashworth had stayed around and had become a guide and teacher at the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Ashworth had been my first climbing teacher five years before. I knew the names well because I had climbed many of their routes in both the Cascades and in Eastern Oregon. To us at The Columns these guys were legendary and larger than life.
Ashworth, my teacher, was also a legend in climbing circles because while he was guiding in Yosemite during the summer he was also running the ski rental place there in the winter. One winter a small plane carrying a very precious (and illegal) cargo went down in a lake in a high canyon east of Yosemite Valley. It is said that Ashworth along with another climber went out and bought a load of equipment (scuba gear, metal cutting chain saws…) and went up to “salvage” the cargo. How much of it he got (if any) or what he did with it none of us knew. We did know that he continued to work in Yosemite and live out of the camper on the back of his pickup truck. Still, the story helped make him a legend.
Arrington had put up a climb I had done recently in the western Cascades called “Barrad Dur.” This climb, which I had done with a much better climber than me (I went along for the ride, so to speak) was so scary and so intense that it really made me appreciate what Arrington had done so many years ago.
So, seeing this guy at The Columns, even as an old, retired climber, was a cherished moment.
And, most importantly, the way he had done this hard crack climb, a climb that he had been the first to climb, helped cement his status.
15 Years later after I’d stopped climbing, had settled down in Connecticut far away from real mountains, and had a family and a new life, I found myself on a family vacation (not climbing) in Yosemite Park. There was my family: my wife and two step-daughters, and lots of friends, including two friends with severe physical disabilities. One of these friends was on crutches and one was in a power wheelchair. In all there were about 15 people in our group and we were definitely not climbers.
I was the tour guide for this group because I’d spent so many summers in Yosemite in my youth climbing and living out of the back of my VW bus.
I thought it would be a good idea to show this group Toulomne Meadows and I thought the place to go would be where I had done one of my first climbing classes with Bob Ashworth many years earlier: a small dome near the highway called Puppy Dome.
To get to Puppy dome is an easy walk for an able-bodied person but our friends with physical disabilities needed a bit of help to get in there. When we all finally got settled on a small river near the dome it was about mid-day. It was a wonderful day and various members of our group scrambled around on the rocks and swam in the river. No one mentioned anything about climbing and I thought it best, for some reason, just to enjoy the day without boring everyone with stories of Bob Ashworth and my first free rappel off Puppy Dome.
Eventually a group of real climbers showed up and started bouldering around on low stuff near the dome. I watched them from a distance, jealous of their youth and the fact that they didn’t have a bunch of “city slickers” with them.
They spent much of the afternoon working on a short boulder problem which looked quite hard. One of them would go up on it, struggle, yell some profanity, then fall off onto the dirt below.
As members of my group dropped off into afternoon naps I wandered over to these climbers and watched the action more closely. They were so graceful and I had little memory that I’d ever been able to move my body that well.
While watching I remembered something very clearly: I had been on that boulder in years past. Not my first time to Puppy dome but on a later trip after I was already a more experienced climber. As I wracked my now forgetful brain for what the solution to this boulder problem was, or, if I’d actually made it to the top, the climbers noticed me (I must have looked like a kid looking into a candy store window). They looked at me the way I must have looked at tourists when I was young, in shape, had all the right climbing clothing and paraphernalia, and was just plain cool.
I got the thought in my head that it would be fun to try this boulder problem and I very politely asked if I might have a go at it. They seemed to not hear my question but I thought I heard one of them snigger and of course, knew they were sniggering at me for being so ignorant to think that I could even get off the ground, let alone do this problem. After all, I was in Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt, socks (not knee socks thank god) and hiking shoes.
As they were packing up to leave I decided that I might as well give it a try, I had nothing to lose and I might enjoy myself although I too thought I had little chance of even getting off the ground on this very hard problem. I was also worried that I’d hurt my out of shape body by putting too much effort into doing this thing to look good in front of these climbers.
I walked over in my hiking shoes which they noticed right away, rolling their eyes and now sniggering more. I looked at the problem for about 30 seconds, and then, somehow, levitated up the rock like I had every move memorized. To this day I have no idea how I did this and I doubt I could ever do anything like it again.
When I got to the top I just kept on going off the back side toward my napping family.
As I looked back I saw that their jaws were dropped, just as mine had been when a similarly middle-aged Wayne Arrington showed up at The Columns and free soloed one of the hardest climbs there in his old EBs.
Ain’t life wonderful.