Pioneer rock climber and legendary Aspen ski patroller Harvey Carter was one of my early mentors — and he even rescued me — more than once. Harvey passed away this past March 13 in hospice, Colorado Springs, Colorado. I’d written the below article a while ago, it describes Harvey so well I figured I should just bring it up to the front page as a eulogy. Harvey was a HUGE influence on me when I was in my 20s and had taken up rock climbing as what I thought was my life’s work. I got pretty good at it, but of course eventually shifted to my decades long focus on ski mountaineering. The thing is, any chops I have as a climber I indeed owe to Harvey, below gives you a glimpse into that process.
The second time Harvey saved me was when he dropped down Keno gully off the backside of Aspen Mountain and hauled me to safety in a patrol sled. But the first time, he talked me up a climb in Yosemite that almost killed me. Here is the story.
Fall, 1971, Harvey Carter invites my girlfriend and I on a climbing trip to Yosemite. (I’d been out in the Valley one other time, but hadn’t done much climbing due to weather and inexperience). After a late night arrival, the three of us head for a classic Yosemite free climb. It starts with what’s known as a bombay chimney, which is exactly what the words picture: a slot that narrows as it gets higher, thus forming an inverted funnel. At the time, experienced Valley climbers had developed techniques that allowed them to climb up such features like they were marching up a sidewalk — I hadn’t a clue.
By crawling to the back of the chimney, I’m able to use a series of jutting chockstones to work myself about fifty feet off the ground. I couldn’t place any protection (this was the day we were still carrying pitons and a just a few stoppers), so the cord dangles from my waist to Harvey in a graceful curve — the trajectory I’ll take to the ground if I fall. Above me the smooth walls of the chimney look tough, but I’d read about how you climb by bracing your back against one side and knees or feet against the other, then wriggle up in a sort of crabbing motion.
I brace my back, and by pressing my feet against dime sized footholds I am able to traverse out under the main part of the chimney. Harvey is now almost directly below me, with my friend sitting a few feet away from him. If I slip I’ll free fall to the ground like a base jumper with no chute.
The footholds evaporate, leaving me with my 1970s slick rubber climbing shoes squashed against polished granite. By lurching and scrabbling I climb about 20 feet higher, where the slot narrows. Now in a sort of vertical kneeling position, I have my knees jammed against the rock in front of me, with my back, butt, and feet on the rock behind. At first, my body jams into the crack perfectly, making it nearly impossible to fall, but as the crack narrows, the angle of my knees shortens and I end up stretched out, using strength instead of geometry to hold me in.
Wriggling and lurching, I use brute force and gain another fifteen feet. I’ve traversed farther out towards the cliff face, so my brutalized body is jammed in the crack above the wide part of the bombay formation. I’m breathing hard, my legs weaken. I slip down a few inches and hear the denim tear over one knee. I hook a shoe toe over a crystal and jam my back against the rock with all my strength. My bare knee seeps blood and fires pain like a blow torch. Every muscle in my body is working. I breath like a locomotive. I keep slipping downward.
I’m gripped by fear as look 80 feet down at Harvey and my friend, knowing I will either die or be crippled for life by the fall. By now I’m lurching and scrabbling, my breath mixing with fearful bleats as I slip inch-by-inch down closer to the bombay.
“Can you work your way back up to the narrow part?” yells Harvey in an angry tone.
“I … just … can’t… hold on,” tears spring from my eyes as I blurt out what words I can, “I might fall.”
“Just brace your back and knees and go,” Harvey bellows, his tone ever more gruff.
I try harder, breath harder, and rip the pants over my other knee. I panic, thrutching my feet against glazed granite like a mad parody of a bicycle sprinter. Friend can’t take it any more — I watch her stand up and walk away.
“Lou…Lou,” I hear Harvey shouting. His voice sounds different, like he knows I might die on his watch. He is standing up, moving in closer to the base of the cliff , “Calm down, just try to stop moving,” I pause, hanging by threads of flesh and denim.
“Now, just move really slow, look for small footholds for your feet,” yells Harvey, still in a tone I’ve never heard from him. (I’d hear that inflection again, six years later in Keno Gulch).
Harvey’s instructions sink in. I feel my mind and spirit lock into something I have never before experienced, a peaceful knowing I was out of options, had to try my best, but take what came. It is a powerful peace, because all the strength my fear was sapping suddenly flooded my body. In a moment I’m secure, with my back and knees jammed with firm strength.
Taking stock, I see only two choices: drop out of the chimney and hit the ground, or make careful upward progress no matter how scary the process is. I study the rock like Sherlock Holmes examining hair follicles with his magnifying glass. Yes, even though the chimney walls are polished like bathroom tile, I can see small defects and the occasional protruding flake or crystal.
Pressing my boot soles and hands against razor blade width flakes of rock, I push upwards. I make a few millimeters progress. Shooting pains stab my knees, but my mind is calm. I find rhythm: stop and stay calm, search for friction, push upwards, don’t try for much at once, just keep it slow and steady.
“That’s it, Lou, can you work your way to the back of the chimney now?” I hear Harvey yelling from the ground, still with an almost tender demeanor that was totally uncharacteristic of his personality.
Using my slow technique of making “mini moves,” I progress upwards and sideways, finally reaching the back of the slot, where a bunch of wedged rocks provided a place to stand and get a safe rest. Fiddling with my gear, I finally wedge an anchor device in a crack, snap my rope through a carabiner, and thus give Harvey the ability to catch me if I fall. With the rope providing safety, and my new found technique, the last 50 feet of the climb go smoothly, and I’d soon seated at the top of the formation, tied by the rope to several strong anchors, and listening to Harvey scrape and cuss his way up. He does much better than me, but arrives with holes in his jean knees that look remarkably similar to mine.
The chimney epic with Harvey was an epiphany for me, as it revealed a secret of climbing and mountaineering skill. I realized that strength and technique were big, but that hard climbs always go past the physical. If I wanted success on hard natural climbs (as opposed to climbing gym walls and rock with numerous artificial anchors), I’d have to control my mind. I needed a place to go where peace reigned — where I could focus on one thing alone: moving up one rock flake or ice crystal at a time, or hanging by a ski edge on the side of a mountain, as single minded and purposeful as a human being can get. For years I’d work on finding that place, and sometimes I did. Thanks to Harvey Carter.