Random Climbing Stories

How Many Pull-ups?

The UW Computer Science Department had weekly “graduate seminars” with invited speakers. These were followed by a get-together for tea, coffee and snacks (to ensure attendance by the ever-hungry grad students). At one of these post-seminar meetings a fellow grad student (who was an avid Lacrosse player) felt the need to challenge me to a test of strength, thusly:
"Who is stronger – a Lacrosse player or a mountain climber? Let's pick a test you are probably good at. How many pull-ups can you do?"

I was taken aback by this unprovoked challenge, and considered it for a few seconds. I did not know how many conventional pull-ups I could do and had every reason to suspect he could do more pull-ups than me. But I could change the contest into something for which I was probably stronger. The challenger's face showed surprise at my answer:
“I can do one pull-up.”

I walked to the nearest doorway and did a single pull-up on the lintel, which had a 3/8 inch reveal. This antic attracted the attention of the entire group. I then invited him to do the same.

When he tried to get a grip on the lintel, he could not. He then accused me of jumping rather than doing a pull-up.

To prove him wrong, I returned to the doorway, put my fingers on the lintel, lifted my feet from the ground and hung for several seconds before doing a pull-up. Upon returning to a hanging position I said: “Actually, I can do two,” and did a second pull-up without having touched the ground. I could have done several more, but was satisfied I had made my point.

I think the challenge was meant to be friendly, and perhaps he would have been satisfied to trust whatever answer I gave. He probably did not expect an actual contest, or for it to happen immediately and with an audience. What he did not know was that I regularly practiced doing pull-ups on the door lintels and had very strong fingers.

The Difference Between Stupid and Crazy

On a winter ascent of McClellan Butte with several friends, we snowshoed directly up from the car toward the summit. There were low clouds obscuring the mountain, so we were going by dead reckoning. Eventually we emerged above the clouds to a beautiful vista. Since we were not following the trail (which was under several feet of snow) we wound up at the base of a nearly vertical 20-foot snow covered “cliff” that was certainly not on the regular route.

Rather than make a difficult traverse around this obstacle, I decided we should attack it head-on. By taking off my snowshoes, plunging my arms deep into the snow cliff and kicking my feet in I was able to leverage myself up. The others followed. We put our snowshoes back on and proceeded to the summit.

On the descent, we made the mistake of following our tracks down (so as not to get lost in the clouds below) and arrived at the top of the cliff. I walked to the edge of the cliff in my snowshoes to assess the situation. The snow gave way and I plunged feet-first down the cliff onto a steep tree-covered slope at a high rate of speed. I found that I had a little control over my descent by using the snowshoes to steer and avoid colliding with trees — barely! I finally came to a stop as the slope eased.

As I lay dazed from my fall and considered my poor judgement, I heard a scream. I instinctively rolled to the side as a friend came racing by, extending the path I had created. Upon stopping about 30 feet below me, he stood up and yelled, "YOU'RE CRAZY!" I replied, "No, I'm stupid. You're crazy. I fell, you jumped!"

I Meet Jim Whittaker

In case younger generations have forgotten, Jim Whittaker was the first American to climb to the summit of Mount Everest (1 May, 1963). Thus, he was quite famous in the Seattle area. He was also the CEO of REI.

In 1970 I quit my job at Honeywell. As a (somewhat) well-paid engineer, I had been spending a lot of money on climbing and camping equipment at REI. When my rebate check arrived in early 1971, I had a rather healthy amount of money I could cash in for more goods at REI, or I could wait until July to get cash. I decided to get more equipment.

There were two REI stores at the time; both were in Seattle and one was quite near where I was living. It was a busy evening at the store. I grabbed a cart and started cruising the aisles collecting equipment and non-perishable food. When the cashier totaled up my bill she informed me that the amount was less than my rebate and she could not complete the transaction because she could not give back cash for a rebate check. I had to load everything back into my cart and head back into the store.

It was difficult to find anything else to top off my cart. When I figured I had enough, I headed back to the long line waiting for the cashier. The store was so busy that managers had started helping out. I noticed that Jim Whittaker was the bag boy for the line I was in. When I got to the cashier, she again totaled up my purchases and I again fell short. Jim Whittaker was absent-mindedly shoving items into bags but finally noticed there was a problem between me and the cashier. He looked at the line behind me, then at the cashier, and asked: “What's the problem?” The cashier told him my rebate was more than the amount she rang up, handing him my rebate check. He looked at the line of people again, at the pile of things I had bought and at the rebate check. He shoved the check back at the cashier and said: “GIVE HIM THE MONEY!”

That is how I became one of the few persons (perhaps the only person) to get cash out of an REI rebate check before July.

Ice Climbing "Ringer"

In my first year at Colorado State University I attended meetings of the Climbing Club. One of the members offered to teach an ice climbing course and I decided to take the course, thinking I had never really climbed “ice” in the proper sense. While I had traversed a very exposed ice apron doing the Ptarmigan Ridge route on Mount Rainier, my only other experience with ice was the compacted snow ice of glaciers, not the water ice common in Colorado winter climbs.

On the appointed weekend, students of the class met and carpooled into the mountains where we could find some ice. The course was rather dull for me, as the instructor covered very basic things that applied to any ice. We then did some easy climbing – I was beginning to think this was a waste of time. Finally, I suggested we hike to the top of a nearby cliff, lower students down next to a frozen waterfall and give top belays for anyone who wanted to try to climb it. Everyone agreed this would be a great idea, so we headed off. Having reached the top of the cliff we set up a solid belay. No-one appeared anxious to be first, so I volunteered. I down-climbed about 40 feet to a ledge, traversed to the frozen waterfall and started to climb.

At this point I should mention that I had cheap but very durable REI crampons plus a Chouinard ice axe and ice hammer. The instructor had the latest light weight, big-name crampons and the latest specialized ice climbing axes. I had sharpened the front points on my crampons to a razor edge. In addition to sharpening, I had filed the ice axe and hammer picks back for a negative angle of attack – this means they contacted the ice at a very sharp point rather than with an edge like an ice skate. The rationale for this preparation is that ice melts when pressure is applied; a sharp edge or point can apply a lot of pressure to a small area and will gradually melt into the ice as weight is applied. On snow ice (ice formed by compacted snow), a hard blow will drive a tool into the ice but on water ice (ice formed by freezing water), a hard blow will chip away ice without necessarily establishing a good hold. On water ice it is often better to rely on melting into a good placement. At least this was what I had read, but I had never tried it in practice.

I started to climb the very steep ice, axe in one hand and hammer in the other. The sharp points meant I only had to gently tap crampons, axe or hammer into the ice and apply weight for them to melt into the ice and provide adequate support for my full weight. The higher I went the steeper it got, until it was starting to overhang toward the top, where flowing water had frozen over existing ice before it could get to the lower parts. To complicate the situation, the rope had gotten caught on an outcrop, requiring me to tell my belayer to start letting rope out so I could proceed up. And, since I was technically no longer “top roped” I told him to prepare for a real fall. As the degree of overhang increased so did the difficulty of maintaining three solid points of support. Several times a new placement of crampon, axe or hammer would not hold and had to be redone. At one point the hammer and one crampon came out of the ice and I pivoted from the face on the axe and one crampon. I managed to get four good supports again, but felt that if I moved any one of them I would come off completely. I quickly pulled the hammer back, gave it a gentle tap into a higher placement and slowly applied weight; it melted firmly into the ice and held. That was all I needed to pull myself over the bulge at the top of the waterfall and onto the final few feet of easy ice. My hands and arms were so tight from the exertion I had trouble letting go of the axe and hammer.

At this point I think the instructor thought I was making too much of a show and decided he would go next. He rappelled down and started looking for marks that would indicate where I had climbed. Since I had relied on the sharpness of my equipment to penetrate the ice, the marks I left were quite indistinct. He finally located some marks and began to climb. Before he got to the overhanging part, he was slamming his equipment into the ice in an attempt to get good placements. The front points of his lightweight crampons bent from the force and he was unable to climb any higher. We had to lower him down so he could find an easy way up.

I taught the course for the remainder of the day. I did not intend to be a ringer, but I was.

Return to Climbing Index