American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Desert Challenge—Shiprock

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Fred Beckey
  • Climb Year: 1965
  • Publication Year: 1966

Of the many formations that punctuate the American desert, none commands more attention than Shiprock, called "Tsabehtai” by the Navajos. Soaring 2000 feet above the plain of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, to the early Anglo-Americans it portrayed a gigantic schooner under full sail on a calm sea, rising more than a third of a mile from its base of only a few acres. Yet some day its ruins will crumble on the desert’s dusty floor, for here the incessant wind sculptures and gnaws at its peak.

In this setting the human imagination transcends nature. According to the Navajo legend, Shiprock was originally a great bird which carried their ancestors from rocky ground where they were being besieged by the Utes. The bird sailed away to leave the enemy behind and to alight on the San Juan plain. In Navajo land, the giant winged bird turned to stone and is now held sacred.

Only birds, in fact, had been to its summit when the new age of technical climbing was heralded by Bestor Robinson, David Brower, Raffi Bedayan and John Dyer in their famous 1939 conquest. Shiprock had had the reputation of the number-one challenge. That over a hundred ascents have since been made testifies to its continuing eminence as a climbing status symbol.

April of 1965 brought on the acceptance of a new challenge: an entirely new route up Shiprock. The original route, though ingenious in its complexity, is very circuitous. Climbers had been speculating about the possibility of completing a more difficult but "classic” direct line somewhere on the south or west faces to avoid intersecting the established route. Various attempts had been abortive. I had discussed possibilities with Layton Kor, Henry Mather, Harvey Carter, and others, but when I had free time, only Eric Bjornstad was available.

As we drove slowly along the bumpy road that parallels a radial dike of basalt, we stopped many times to marvel at the grandeur of Shiprock. It was our first trip to the area, but it was readily apparent why this was the desert’s most noted landmark and why the classic new route should scale the southwest buttress and a final arête that soared to the south summit. This was mainly on the side opposite to the established route. We studied several possibilities, from the gigantic doric column on the south to an amphitheater under the west face. To execute the most classical line, we agreed to start our explorations at a reddish rock where a chimney system breaks into the base of the southwest buttress.

Never had I been able to get a car so close to the beginning of a major climb. We unloaded, set up a large "McKinley” tent, and organized our array of technical equipment. The same afternoon we squeezed up a tight chimney that opened up to a basin with chimney systems forking in all directions. Rising sheerly above us for about 1000 vertical feet, the buttress soared for an initial climax, then veered back to a thin crest, invisible to us, that led to the south peak. The rock was rhyolite, pink-yellow in color, volcanic in origin. Its outer surface was scaly, but basically solid when this was cleaned off. Everywhere the wind had sculptured the rock into a myriad of tiny hollows and horns, making it difficult to decipher a route pattern. The rock in our basin, however, was of black basalt, one of many areas of this material on the peak. Leaving packs and ropes, we scampered several hundred feet west up the basin to a little ridge in order to survey the great buttress. A weathered piton indicated we were not the first ones to this point.

The route we had chosen from the entrance road was the one to attempt. Closer inspection showed connecting ledges and a "hidden” chimney start that we had not seen, but the final headwalls now appeared to overhang ominously everywhere. The absence of a really natural route and apparent necessity of placing many bolts took away some of the appeal. Though it had an easier beginning, we dismissed a possibility further west because of evil-looking loose flakes and obvious major pendulums. Our chosen line would have horrendous exposure, but it was a true classic. I soon found out how cracks expanded in this rock and how often it was necessary to replace a piton one, two, or three times before it would seem to be adequate. After leading into the hidden chimney for 110 feet, I placed some dubious protection and tackled a thin nose that split the crack. Finding the right combination was unnerving, for I could not use my feet for stemming. I had to back down about three times before it was possible to get emotional control and take a chance on desperately small holds. Although I was certain I would fall off as handholds gave way, I fought up to a stance and was able to hammer in a small bong-bong. The chimney now flared into a short overhang, which it seemed best to tackle fresh in the morning.

Morning dawned with an absence of cheerfulness; it seemed the seasons had reversed and winter was coming. From our high point, Eric squeezed up the badly flaring chimney, wearing out clothing while scraping for support. Once above this exhaustingly awkward place, there was a comfortable alcove for a belay. Continuing up the chimney, we examined several possibilities and finally chose a ramp leading left onto a ledge. This very exposed spot needed anchors, and here we found for the first time the problems we were to experience with bolts. Our large Dryvin bolts would not always tap in the full distance, and we were often forced to drill a new hole, using Rawl-drives when the expansion-type bolts did not work. All this meant additional work and experimentation, and the varying density of the rock added to our consternation. When we climbed the fourth major pitch, Eric used our entire stock of bongware in a deep, flaring crack. Placing each piton was an effort. Much of the climb here was overhanging, and while removing the iron, I found this pitch as awkward as any I had ever seen. Continuing from a special double-bolt anchor Eric had set up on the wall outside the crack, I climbed a quite difficult overhang and then scraped my way into a notch behind a pillar. This was to become the scene of our activities for some time. The wind shattered our spirits that afternoon, and as a standstorm raged below, we descended back to camp.

In the morning we merely climbed the first pitch, as the unreasonable weather brewed a special treat: sunlight filtered through swirling snowflakes. We had expected warm, sunny springtime. Instead, the wind howled and threatened to break off flakes above us. As we watched, small rocks flew out. We drove to town, as an afternoon consolation. It became apparent that we might only succeed by "waiting out” the weather.

A great windstorm robbed us of the next day, as sand blotted out most of the desert. Worse luck came the day after that, as a multi- hundred-pound chunk of rock broke off on the second prusik. Fortunately Eric was able to push himself away from the rock, but in the process he suffered a severely bruised elbow. We made a side-trip to Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona.

Although we wanted to do the climb continuously, the logistical problems, bad weather, sundry misfortunes, and finally the need for new participants forced us to use fixed ropes. Above the pillar progress was slow. The rock was flaky, rotten, with unremitting dirt in cracks. Pitons had to be driven over and over into incipient cracks, and scaly flakes of rock had to be chipped away as far as the arm could reach. The wind flew the hauling line out and jammed it behind flakes. Looking down, I could see the wind blasting Eric with sand pellets; only the complete absence of cheer made me feel better. After a pitch that required 27 pitons and 11 bolts, entirely vertical and overhanging, I reached a "bronco seat” that might serve as a semi-hanging belay. Though a nightmare to do so, I placed four bolts, which would serve both for the belay and the climb’s continuation. Apparently promising cracks proved barely usable; never had I seen a wall that required so much searching, trial and re-trial. Progress was worse than slow. While we rappelled, the inhuman wind blasted us so hard it would have been impossible to reach the lower anchor points if the ropes had not been tied in at the bottom.

A great storm swept snow over the Sierra Nevada and drenched the Southwest with rain. The white Carrizos Mountains to the west got even whiter. The cold froze and cracked our gallon water bottles at the tent. The wind bent the tentpole double. Fortunately we were near civilization and could obtain a steel pipe to serve as a new pole.

Fighting the elements was as much a problem as the climb itself, and took more of our time. The sixth pitch required only ten pitons but 28 bolts; mostly on an overhanging headwall. The hauling line floated out in space, bowed by the wind. Not only did we have the strain of overhanging bolting, piton trials, and tied-off knife blades, but the wind blew me back and forth as I stood in stirrups. A spare stirrup blew up behind and hit me on my hard hat. Our eyes were constantly full of blown sand, and the belayer had to keep out of sight to avoid falling rock, loosened by wind or hammer. Sick at heart, we quit for the time being, as Eric had to return to work.

Four days later I returned, this time with Alex Bertulis. The capricious weather had turned comfortably calm and sunny in these four days, but just as we prepared to launch a new assault, unseasonable weather began. The torrid sun baked the vertical walls of Shiprock, and the air was dead calm. Whereas just a week before we had suffered from wind and cold, we now were tortured by insufferable heat. To save on our quart-and-a-half daily water ration, we barely drank the first day, and this undoubtedly delayed our reaching the high point with Jümars. It was hard to pull up bags of sleeping equipment, ironware, and food; ropes stuck in cracks; communication was difficult; we had had no experience climbing together. I completed the final portion of the headwall pitch in a hard effort of rock-cleaning, pitoning, and a few more bolts.

On a sloping ledge big enough for one person, the two of us spent a disquieting night, hanging on our anchor slings. Looking straight down through our legs, it seemed as if we could easily hit the car and our white tent with rocks. The exposure here was stupendous. We could see the evening shadow of Shiprock, which Robert Ormes described "as long as Manhattan Island.”

The "white rope pitch” wound around a terribly exposed overhanging nose, into a small cave, and out onto a vertical slab; eventually we frictioned into a spacious, sandy cave—three bolts, five pitons, then two anchor bolts.

The ensuing pitch was a study in patience. The withering heat so dried our mouths that we did not talk. Free climbing and short overhanging moves out of cave-like depressions took us up a snub-nosed arête; 12 pitons were used here. Our red shirts must have stood out; we mistakenly thought a weekend crowd had gathered below to watch our progress. What we did not know was that the commotion on the desert was a result of a fatal rappelling accident on the normal route, on the opposite side of the peak from us.

Beyond this pitch a low-angle slab area began, where we stacked our bivouac equipment. We climbed the slabs rapidly and went up a chimney, unroped, and then explored the beginnings of two potential crack systems that led to the soaring final arête of the south summit. Careful study convinced us the westerly one would be safest and the most logical; also it was the most classic. Well into the afternoon, Alex began working vertically upward from the belay bolts I had placed, hammering in angles and bongs. Occasionally there was a short free move where the crack widened to permit jamming, but otherwise it was all aid. The heat was merciless enough to make me speechless while belaying. In the meantime we had used up our large stock of bong-bongs, most of these going into the 25 pitons used on the pitch.

This time the bivouac was comfortable, though we were parched. Miles away the lights of the town of Shiprock glittered. Cars crept along, illuminating their snail-like movement. The night, it seemed, reduced our troubles to their proper scale, restored our sense of proportion. It fortified our spirit. In the silent struggle with nature, our lust for adventure had brought its stimulation. The solitude gave us time to think. By a struggle with a tangible objective man can learn those essential qualities in his own self. Socrates stated that happiness is curiously related to pain. Climbing illustrates that satisfaction is greater after an experience of discomfort. In the discovery that there is a penalty for too much comfort, man longs to escape from the artificial to the natural order, to escape from the social, religious, and political creeds of the material world. The codes and regulations men lived by just a few miles away did not apply to us. We had made a complete escape from civilization, within full sight of it. We were of no concern, in fact almost unknown, to the man-made order in full view.

As we climbed to our high point in the morning, we could see the dust kicked up by Navajo tribesmen as they herded sheep. We had the same view as the circling hawks. Alex placed two bolts at the top of the pitch, for anchors; after I had cleaned out the crack in the enervating heat, he continued up the crack, eventually working left on knife-blades on a solid rock section to a tiny ledge at the entrance to a chimney- corridor. But five bolts had been needed on this pitch, slowing our pace. After worming my way up the corridor, I placed a high bolt to pendulum across to the high chockstone of a very overhanging section of our original crack on this wall. Because of the lack of cracks on the opposite side of the chockstone, I had more drilling to do. A short chimney led to a deep niche in the west arête of the south summit, and here I could study the remaining problems.

Our shortage of water and time, the risk of becoming stranded on the traverses, the difficulty of climbing to the south summit and on to the final peak, then the long descent down the same route made the situation too critical. We had underestimated the heat, as well as the final difficulties. And, since Alex had to be off the peak by morning to return to work, the risk of continuing did not seem justifiable. Though uncertain as to when I could return, we left our iron at the niche, ropes hanging on all the technical pitches, and bivouac gear and food where we had dropped them. On the overhanging headwall, we did not touch the rock on two rappels, and were only able to get back into the rock because the rope bottoms had been tied off.

Chapter three of the southwest buttress began over a week later, just a few days before the end of April, when I joined forces with Harvey Carter. The third time had its charms, as if to compensate for all the trouble Shiprock had given me. It seemed that nature began to feel kindly towards us, and in a sense, the certainty of victory lessened the remaining adventure. The heat was somehow gone; the chill gone; the air was crisp and cool in the morning. A comfortable breeze kept the temperatures perfect. The mountains west stood sublime in sunshine, their snows sparkling in the splendor of a clear sky. As we began the many prusiks, it seemed the spirit of restlessness that had brought us here would soon be fulfilled. We had earlier taken part of a day climbing to the top of the "black bowl” on the normal route, to leave a rope hanging in the hidden gully, where a descent is always made. Since we now planned to descend by the normal route, this rope was necessary to avoid being stranded.

A sparkling, starry night made the bivouac spot one of cheerfulness. Victory would soon be complete. After reaching the niche in mid-morning, we elected to make a full-pitch traverse across the terribly exposed west face of the south summit, rather than risk considerable bolting along the arête west of the top. As it was, I had to place some pitons for an aid traverse, and several bolts to surmount a short overhang. Now we were behind a gigantic pointed pillar on the upper west face, about 150 feet below the ridge connecting the south and main summit. Carter had his turn, and with a magnificent display of spirit fought his way up a difficult flaring crack. The most exhausting portion was throwing a sling behind a chockstone, deep back in the crack. After many efforts, punctuated by vocal discontent, he managed to loop it over the stone, and then take the tension pull needed to get over a flaring bulge. Near the end of the lead, loose rock was a problem, and some skillful chimneying was required. From the edge of the ridge a tricky but short friction slab led to the south summit, which is seldom climbed because it is slightly lower than the main summit a few hundred feet north. Hauling equipment had taken time, and to avoid dragging it around the traverses and descents on the normal route, we threw much of it off in duffel bags, dropping it down the perpendicular west face. Darkness caught us in separate positions, so we slept near the notch between the summits.

Now with the goal about achieved it seemed sad the other two climbers participating in the ascent could not share the final reward. The hardships were ended, and in the morning breeze we climbed the famed "horn” pitch and went on to the true summit to be rewarded by a magnificent panorama. My thoughts went back to 1939 when the desire for a challenge must have been as great as ours.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Northwestern New Mexico.

New Route: Shiprock by southwest buttress, April 1965. (Summit reached, April 30)

Personnel: Fred Beckey, accompanied on first part by Eric Bjornstad, on second part by Alexis Bertulis and to the summit by Harvey Carter.

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