American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Shiprock

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1940

Shiprock

Bestor Robinson

RISING out of the Navajo country in northwestern New Mexico is a 2000-ft. volcanic plug of tuff-breccia shot through with a few basalt dikes. This is Shiprock. According to Navajo legend it has been ascended twice. It was, they say, originally a great bird, which carried their ancestors on its back from an inhospitable northern land into the plains of the San Juan, where they now reside. This was the first ascent. The second was by one of their twin gods, for the purpose of slaying a man-eating winged dragon which made its nest in the huge summit bowl.

The third ascent was made on October 12th, 1939, by a Sierra Club party, consisting of David Brower, John Dyer, Raffi Bedayan and the writer. The records indicate it was the thirteenth attempt by white men. Perhaps it was the magic of numbers, coupled with the fact that the ascent was made on the four hundred and forty- seventh anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world, that broke the mystic spell with which the Navajo gods had defended their mountain home.

Viewed from the prosaic standpoint of technical mountaineering the ascent presented three problems. First was to gain the summit ridge. This had already been done by the Colorado group by way of the N. W. basalt dike.1 We merely followed their route to the scene of Orme’s spectacular fall.

The second problem was to get over, around or through the perpendicular transverse fan which sat astride the main ridge, separating us from the summit tower. The Coloradoans had tried to go over it. A full day of telescope reconnaissance had convinced us of the possibility of a traverse low on the eastern side. So we roped down a long steep chimney, leaving ropes for return hoisting and spent two days ferreting out the minute finger-holds that finally evolved into a route onto a shelf just below the summit bowl.

A double overhang lay between us and the bowl. It was obvious that two days of continuous climbing would be necessary to complete the intricate route. Accordingly, our third and fourth days, with the intervening night, were spent on the mountain, the night in the summit bowl itself in the legendary nest of the winged dragon.

The summit bowl was achieved by using pitons on a double overhang connected by a delicate friction traverse. On the summit tower an attempt by way of the N. ridge ended under an overhang 75 ft. from the top. The S. ridge begrudgingly yielded a piton route to the actual summit.

The climb was possible only because of the varying capabilities and everlasting teamwork of the party. Brower was the human fly, who could stick to slight discolorations on the rock and balance on narrow ledges. Dyer was the chipmunk, light of weight and capable of squirming up any crack. Bedayan was the powerful anchor man, who gave to the others the assurance that any fall could be successfully held.

The equipment also did its share. Eleven hundred feet of rope and all of it needed; 54 pitons, fully half of them used for direct aid on otherwise unclimbable overhangs; and finally, four anchor bolts used only for safety where inadequacy of stance and lack of piton cracks would otherwise have plunged the entire party to their deaths in case of a fall.

I’m a rock engineer and proud of it. I climb mountains for the same reason that the purists do, because of the sheer joy of accomplishing the difficult. To use pitons for direct aid on a pitch that can be climbed without is to destroy the difficulty that is the basis of the sport. But show me the man who has hung over space suspended by a chest loop from a piton, meanwhile searching for a narrow crack that will admit another, all the while squirming into a position that will enable him to swing the pesky hammer and trying not to get tangled in his ropes—show me such a man who has led real overhangs on pitons which he has put in and you will find an enthusiast for rock engineering who will tell you that such a job is more difficult than climbing a Mummery crack.

And how about No. 2 man, the belayer? Is it not more difficult and does it not require more knowledge of technique to handle two ropes with the proper amount of alternating tension than to idly pay out a single rope over either the body or a belay point ?

I can understand why those who have no love of gear, of tools and of gadgets, who in short are not mechanically minded, can find no joy in rock engineering. The maze of ropes will confuse them, the hammering of pitons will annoy them and the leaving of an occasional unremovable piton in the mountain side will offend their overdeveloped aesthetic sensibilities.

I do not begrudge them the right to climb mountains their own way if they get more joy out of it. But I do protest against these purists attempting to enforce their personal predilections upon the other members of the climbing fraternity and upturning noses of self-righteous scorn upon those who do not agree. The Puritans, it is said, “came to America to worship God as they pleased and see that no one else did the same.” The mountaineering purists have followed in their intellectual footsteps.

Let us be tolerant of differences in taste. Let us drop this childish prattle about the immorality of artificial aides. If some climbers really wish to eschew all artificial aides, let them abandon ropes and shoes for surely these are products of a mechanized society. Let them establish a “Nudist Climbing Club” if that is the way they enjoy climbing, and let the rest of us who like our gear and gadgets be tolerant of them so long as they do not actually interfere with our pleasure in climbing.

1 ‘A Bent Piece of Iron,’ Saturday Evening Post, July 22nd, 1939.

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