“I am glad / For every thought that puts my memory / On my past time.”
This piece is published in Volume 19 of The Climbing Zine. Banner photo of Layton Kor by Paul Mayrose
Nothing slowed Layton Kor. April, 1962, he drove to Yosemite with Jack Turner and wrote me a letter. This was a letter to cherish, a classic treatise on Yosemite climbing—and on climbing itself—hand-written in blue ink on Yosemite Lodge stationery. The letter began:
Just another rest day here, so thought I’d send out a few letters. Things are really great here, best climbing I have ever seen, long steep granite walls, any size length or shape you want, and all of them just waiting to be climbed.
Layton spoke of the North Wall of Sentinel and that he and Turner had climbed it in eleven hours and fifteen minutes, the fourth party to do the route in one day. He spoke of how he and Steve Roper did the first one-day ascent of the 2,200-foot North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, in seven hours and fifteen minutes. Roper later would describe this April 26 (1962) ascent as “an early free ascent…no memories except we sped upward like demons. Low down, we probably used aid on a hard move that had a bolt.” Layton continued his letter:
Just got down, so we are really beat.
Suppose things are really picking up in Boulder by now. It won’t be long and I’ll be back for a few days, about one more week, give or take a day either way. Have a couple of things to do there, money, climbs, etc. etc. Of all the places I’ve ever seen, this valley has the most concentrated climbing problems. Almost on any route here into the grade IVs and Vs there seem to be crux pitches, 5.8 or 5.9 problems, or very difficult nail-ups with excessive danger. Jam cracks and laybacks are common here, face climbing very little, and what there is of it is very difficult.
I was impressed with the detail of the letter, in view of how tired Layton said he was. He also climbed the East Buttress of Lower Cathedral Rock:
…with George Pastor (a New York climber). Right in the middle of this route are three leads, which go up a frightening, bulging, converging overhanging crack. On these three pitches one difficulty after another was encountered until our arms almost gave out. This mind you is common in Yosemite.
Layton concluded by saying he was finally getting into good shape—an almost humorous comment, in that his letter made that clear. He hoped he could stay fit for a while. Yosemite was a place I could only imagine. I hoped to find my own way there one day and make my own adventures on the huge walls upon which Layton expounded. Yosemite was a place of long, aesthetic hand cracks and slippery body cracks. Colorado had no walls as big as El Capitan but had walls nevertheless, such as the two-thousand-foot buttresses of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison or the big, elegant East Face of Longs Peak. Layton’s letter ended with words of gentle wisdom:
Well take care, and use plenty of protecting pitons. The more I climb, the more careful I tend to be. Climbers have a hard and lonely life. It only takes one fall to end everything. Hope to see you before too long. Berg Heil, adios, Kor.
His handwriting was akin to a scribble, energetic blue lines with twists and edges, then sudden large swirls and surges. My father, by comparison, had a beautiful “hand,” perhaps second only to my mother’s impeccable penmanship. I wrote a lot, had drawers full of poetry, but my handwriting was, and always would be, a peculiar alternating blend of print and cursive.
Layton returned to Boulder and then immediately went to Yosemite again, this time with Bob Culp, in Bob’s car. They climbed the difficult grade VI Lost Arrow Chimney. This climb was no easy task, and though they did well and made a relatively fast ascent, Bob began to realize it was not as fun for him to toil and moil up the big walls as it was for Layton. Not many days passed before Culp grew tired of The Valley and returned to Boulder. Layton stayed and again climbed the North Wall of Sentinel; this time Mort Hempel had to pull Layton up through the tight chimney: “the narrows.” Layton also climbed two thousand feet of vertical grandeur, the Northwest Face of Yosemite’s stately half of a fantastically huge chunk of granite, Half Dome, with Bob Kamps. He later would describe to me how they made a slow, leisurely ascent and spent a night facing outward, feet in slings and butts on a sharp flake that jabbed their rears all night.
Back in Boulder again, in June, Layton made the first ascent of The Naked Edge, in Eldorado, with Culp. Soon after that first ascent, also in June, ’62, Layton and I roared away in his blue Ford, tires well worn to a completely smooth lack of tread. When he showed up at my house, my parents didn’t ask questions. They trusted Layton and knew he had canyons to visit and climbs to do. As we sped toward Eldorado, he told me we would do The Naked Edge. He was eager to get back up there again and feel the route’s thrilling exposure. The day was perfect, with lots of immaculate sun and a pure blue sky, although it was somewhat cold at first. Layton started out in a greenish-gray cagoule, over a sweater, and I wore my thin, lightweight red down jacket (closer to a shirt than a coat). We stepped up through the boulders below Redgarden Wall. Far above our heads, a sleek razor-arête, The Naked Edge, commanded the sky, a corner angular and perpendicular, yellow, red, black, bare and bold, like a skyscraper on the north side of Eldorado Canyon. In striking magnificence, the slender edge progressively steepens until it overhangs its highest third. The formidable line towers to a summit approximately six hundred feet above the talus. Unlike a man-made structure, the rock is serrated, varied, and alive. Up there, even the bravest, calmest climber would have a few palpitations from the exposure.
Several climbers had attempted The Naked Edge before Layton. Once, while climbing Pseudo Sidetrack with Larry, I turned a corner and caught sight of Bob Boucher and Stan Shepard as they stood together at a spectacular foot stance at the top of the first pitch on the yet-to-be-climbed edge. Boucher wore a green shirt, bluish knickers, with long red socks, his colorful clothes a wonderful contrast to the sandstone’s bright yellows and pinks. I was inspired to see them in such a sheer place. I sensed their uncertainty as they gazed up the rock and pondered where the route might go. The view filled me with excitement, even a kind of thrill that shot through my entire body. Such a feeling was the adventure of Eldorado.
Before Layton and Culp climbed The Naked Edge, Culp wanted to name the route after the Hollywood movie. A few people started to call it that. Layton had not heard the proposed name until he and Culp stood at the top. Culp said, “The Naked Edge,” and Layton liked it. Culp was unable to remove two of Layton’s pitons and was not happy about this. The chromoly pitons they had begun to use were precious. Culp returned later and rappelled from the top, to try to retrieve those pitons. In this project, he did not tie a knot in the end of the rope and found himself in free space, uncomfortably close to sliding off the end of the rope. He did manage to Prusik up the rope and remove those two pitons.
I followed Layton up through boulders, past a few lean, thin-limbed trees to the bottom of the vertical sandstone. We were quiet and shivered less from the chilly air and more from the electric charge of what we were about to do. This was the best climb with the best climber. To reach the actual start of the soaring arête, we would first need to ascend part of the classic Redguard route. Layton thought it quickest to solo these initial three hundred feet. He placed the pack and one of the coiled ropes on me. He would carry a second coiled rope, along with all our carabiners and pitons clipped to a gear sling he slung over his left shoulder and that dangled at his right side. He wore a stocking cap, his usual loose, ragged gray knickers, with long socks, and his Kronhofers—our gray canvas-top climbing shoes with cleated rubber soles. I wore jeans I held up with string and long socks, like European climbers I had seen in photos in books. Under my coat, I wore a white T-shirt.
The day was clear and beautiful but, as I said, chilly—unusual for June. Perhaps it had stormed for a few days before. As we began to solo together, we continued to wear our coats. Layton began up the first ramp of the normal Redguard route, went left around a corner, and along an upward, left-angling crack ledge. I stayed a few feet behind, and we worked our way to where we could leave the crack ledge and move straight up a near-vertical wall. I had done this standard variation of Redguard several times and was acquainted with each hold. My hands, fingers, and feet went to the right places, my upper body constricted though by my coat, the pack, and the rope. I reminded myself, with a rush of excitement, that we were carrying our ropes and not protected by them. A fall would be the last of our fun in this realm. A few holds were wet. If one of us slipped or broke off a hold, he would go to the ground. Layton climbed with his usual urgent command, his intense demeanor. We were the only two people in the canyon. On rare occasion, the air and silence were broken by a few words.
We moved up left and away from the Redguard route toward the actual start of The Naked Edge. Our solo put us under and inside a large cave. The inner walls and ceiling of the cave were made of assorted loose, interlocking blocks—some highly suspect. I watched Layton traverse to the right, out under the hollow, under the overhang, stem, stretch, undercling, and reach the exposed outer lip of the cave. Bricklayer by trade, he understood each block and seemed to hold one or two of them in place as he used them. He knew their worth, pulled on a few in ways that seemed to tighten them into their place. He leaned back in a short layback, proceeded up over a bulge, and was out of sight at a ledge above—the start of The Naked Edge.
Layton did not have the slightest doubt I, though only fifteen years of age, could solo these airy moves out of the cave. He seemed to view this part of our adventure with a certain frivolity. And possibly he was correct in his assessment of my ability, and it would be validated, though I was highly aware of the straight three-hundred-foot free fall I would experience if I made a mistake. Perhaps some of Layton’s confidence infused me, as I properly judged each block, applied the necessary care, and put the least strain on each. Layton gave me absolute responsibility for myself. I thought I felt one of the hollow-sounding bricks shift slightly. It was not far from my imagination that one of them could pull wholly out in hand. That vision of those three hundred feet persisted, though I kept my eyes on the rock and on the moves in front of me. Adrenaline perhaps kicked in. A little power sprang up in me.
I have wondered why, burdened with my coat, pack, and rope, I did not ask Layton to drop me a rope and give me a belay. It would not have been easy for him to reach me with an end of the rope, under the cave. I was swept up in his will. It was not for me to wonder why, rather it was mine…to do or die. To do and live. Layton needed to get up this climb. I needed to get up this climb. Life was right there, and we needed to take it. It was Layton’s sense that time was running out. We had little time to waste. I kept my mind together and made it up to him, out and over the airy rock cave.
My parents were fond of Layton. They understood how important he was to me. My mother believed all things good would come from time I spent with Layton. It did not occur to her, and possibly not to my father, that Layton might be dangerous. For them, I was in safe hands. They might have had second thoughts had they been able to see me pull outward on those loose blocks, weighed down with a pack, choked by a rope, a block pulling out, causing a three-hundred-foot drop to the bludgeoning talus.
Layton had become an immediate household name in our family. I waited for his phone calls or for him to magically materialize, as he sometimes did, without warning. I was never happier than to be with him in that blue hot rod on the way to some life-ending horror story I would narrowly survive. I was nearly a teen clone of him and had taken on some of his mannerisms. I hunched forward slightly, self-conscious, as though I were six foot six. My actual height was five foot ten. I made my jaw rigid. My cheek muscles tightened outward. Each of us had his own characteristic quirks, a style of hair, an expression, or a crook of the neck. Anyone who climbed in Eldorado could, at a glance, pinpoint Layton from a distance, the way his elbow stuck out as he stood with a hand on his waist or those long legs and tenuous forward lean.
On the ledge at the start of The Naked Edge, safe now and together, warm, I took off my coat, and Layton was ready to shed his cagoule. We stuffed it into the pack, and I tied my coat around my waist. The sunlight felt good, as did the air, which blew on my bare arms and up the short sleeves of my T-shirt. We roped up. Mr. Layton Kor was anxious to move. I wanted to do my part and take a few of the leads—the normal practice with two qualified climbers. However, I respected Layton’s sudden burn to lead and, or more precisely, to take off upward. It did not bother me if he stole a lead or two, as long as we understood I held up my end of things. He free climbed most of the classic first pitch, a vertical finger crack that took pitons well. He used a few points of aid—whatever was fastest. We had in the last few days switched our aluminum-rung aid ladders to soft nylon steps made of thin one-inch webbing, called “aid slings.”
We stood together at the foot stance Boucher and Shepard stood on that day I peered around a corner of Pseudo Sidetrack. Layton and I were suddenly the climbers in that picture, that incredible many-colored panorama with two souls on the bright-yellow rock of The Naked Edge. The stance was small, hardly anything—rough and undefined—and to which we shaped our shoes. What better, more amazing place in the world?
Eldorado was a home for us poor in spirit. Blessed be the poor who wait on the world with joy and desire. We were asterisks high on a wall of rock. To whatever few people strolled up the narrow dirt road in the bottom of the canyon below, we were slight movement in peripheral vision high among the cut stone, if they noticed us at all. From far below, a good ledge might look like a typed dash, a short, faint line.
In the interest of getting up fast, Layton started the second pitch—which had been the place several different teams met defeat. After a few moves to the right, Layton worked up surprisingly elusive moves, then went left under a big headwall overhang. He had found this line, away from the most direct, sharp line of the edge, when he and Culp made the first ascent. The line straight above the belay was crackless and might require a bolt. He and Culp had made the first ascent without a single bolt, apart from a bolt placed to anchor the stance at the top of the first pitch by a party on one of the first attempts. Climbers would later discover the direct way, up the edge above the belay, and it would turn out to be actually reasonable, more so than it looked—possibly easier than the less spectacular way Layton went. He was creative and found his way.
To move left under the big headwall now, he first hammered in a couple of small pitons—and a RURP in a slab. Then he proceeded left, with a RURP and a knifeblade straight up under the left-angling crack formed by the bottom of the headwall. One piton went behind a thin flake that clung marginally, above the crack, on the headwall itself. This flake would later fall off or be pulled or pried off.
We arrived at the exposed fourth pitch of The Naked Edge, and Layton quickly moved up and right—to where he was above me, out to the right, and in profile on the vertical red rock. I took a photo of him in this amazing position. I used black-and-white film that day. To be with Layton these grand few hours in the sun was one of the best experiences of my life. Warm, bright, the temperature perfect, air superb, sky open and infinite, the rock flawless, and such a great person, my partner.
The climb was “outta sight,” as Layton put it. The bullies at my school at times stripped me of my dignity, but Layton gave it back to me high up in the blue sky and solitude of a route’s exposed heights. We moved as silhouettes against the now reddish-black sandstone. Not one thing went wrong on this climb, except that a wasp stung me as I moved up under the overhang of the fourth pitch. I was happy, far up among the mind-bending exposure—six hundred feet straight below my heels to the rocks and bushes. Soft wind blew my blond junior high school locks. I was anything but a seasoned climber, but I had some salt and cinnamon—so to speak. From the top of The Naked Edge, we gazed east, down at the old bedraggled cabins of Eldorado—those shack-house remnants of the resort. I thought of Ivy Baldwin, the three-hundred-foot high cable strung some five hundred feet across the canyon, from the summit of the Bastille to the top of the Wind Tower. To get that cable up there must have been as outrageous a feat as for the wire walker, Ivy, to master it.
I am a Janus personality, in that I see backward with as much interest as I envision the future. From a young age, I was drawn to the history of climbers around Boulder, and to characters such as Ivy Baldwin, to people who ventured first with primitive rope and bootlike shoes into Eldorado Canyon, who hammered crude iron into cracks. A few of my older friends were among those pioneers. Most knew Layton, and two or three had briefly partnered with my six-foot-six friend. The efforts of those older climbers befit the colorful 1940s through the 1950s. I wanted to learn more about what they knew and how climbing began to develop. I wanted to understand the context of their ascents, appreciate them, and never think less of them because the difficulties of climbing had progressed. It was wrong to think those people were “surpassed.”
Layton and I stood only a few minutes at the top of The Naked Edge. He had places to go and women to know. A night in Boulder lay ahead. At the dark hamburger-beer haunt, The Sink, he might gather with several climbers. In the smoke of that filthy Sink, on the Hill in Boulder, it was said people went down the drain. Through the 1960s, climbers gathered at The Sink, drank, and listened to loud music from a jukebox, listened to Hendrix and Dylan. People at The “Stink” smelled like Varsity Lake pond scum and carved their names, as well as various uncivil phrases, into heavy wooden picnic tables in the dark back rooms. Layton stooped to go through the doorways of The Sink, a tall shadow inside that beer blackness. Climbers portioned out their stories, their exaggerations and drivel, and drank a beer or seven. Layton, though, rarely got drunk. My evening would be spent with my parents and brother. I would step back from this climb into the tame world of family, homework, music, poetry, art, and of obedience and a few chores.
As Layton and I hurried away from the summit of The Naked Edge, I glanced back once more and took in the depths of the canyon.
Distinguished poet Mark Irwin has described Pat Ament’s writing as “total abandon of the heart.” Pat is a regular walking, breathing Renaissance when it comes to his many creative pursuits (music, poetry, art) and to writing that is based in the riches of actual experience.