About Tom Higgins

Article Index

Introduction

There is a moment when every devoted climber knows mountains are about to rule life. My moment came as a teenager at home in Los Angeles, watching on TV the grainy 1950 movie, The White Tower. In an early scene, a train emerges from a tunnel into the Alps. Dark turns to light. Bright, sharp peaks and glaciers cut across the sky. Suddenly, I knew I had to climb.

But how? There were no climbing schools, magazines or gyms, though rumor hinted at sandstone hunks at the far end of San Fernando Valley where a few Sierra Club nuts practiced the trade. And so, in the early 1960s, amidst blowing dust and abandoned car bodies at Stony Point, with soft pitons and hemp rope from an army surplus store, I scampered naively over boulders and cliffs with equally possessed friends Bud (later Ivan) Couch and Russ McLean. We soon met Bob Kamps at Stony who modeled the technique and safety we needed. Good, long days of climbing to come with Kamps were sparked by our trips to Tahquitz Rock and the first free ascent of Blanketty Blank where a touchy mantel Stony style got us over the crux. With Kamps and others at Tahquitz, I went on to several first ascents employing the techniques of my mentor: light hiking shoes with Vibrum soles, ground up climbing, and protection (including bolts) placed on lead. With Mike Cohen and Roy Coats on the first ascent of Jonah, climbing into unknown, blank terrain proved costly. A broken drill made protection impossible on the final pitch.

Struggling With Jonah 


My fascination with alpine peaks of The White Tower drew me to the Sierra. Sporting crampons and knickers from the movie, I did the first ascent of the East Buttress of Agassiz Needle Temple Crag with Couch, then the North Face of Mt. Morrison with Charlie Raymond. In 1963, Couch and I decided to see the Alps as part of a bicycle tour of England and France. We packed no ropes or pitons, wanting to go light and knowing we were ill equipped for mountaineering. Still, at the last minute, we threw in our climbing shoes for God knows what. In Wales, we watched wool clad “hard men” scale dark, damp cliffs. Wanting to try, we borrowed a rope and slings threaded with machine nuts for protection as pitons were forbidden. We did a few edgy routes bearing ratings with some inexplicable combination of “hard,” “moderate” and “severe.” Then, in Chamonix, France, the beautiful tan spires of movie memory swept me away. With scolding English partners, I rashly went with light shoes and clothing onto first free ascents of the East Face of the Moin, the M Metago Route and Albert West Face. Only luck got us by bad weather. "The British Are Coming" on the site recounts the contrast of our 60’s California climbing style born of sunshine with far off ways and weather.

I moved to Berkeley in the late 1960s for graduate school at Cal and took to Yosemite for weekend flings. Here, the clean, dry, high granite stole me away from any further ventures into alpine mountaineering. Scared by its size, but drawn to the gold colored flakes and undulations of the NE Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, Kamps and I edged our way to the first free ascent. Similar footwork rooted in Stony and Tahquitz experience won the first free of Serenity Crack (more face than crack) with Chris Jones and other first ascents of the time (Punch Bowl, The Peanut, The Void, Owl Roof, others). Then, shamed by Jim Bridwell on a flailing flop of Crack of Despair, I realized Yosemite demanded a slithering crack-climbing style I had not yet learned. I built and practiced on an adjustable, wooden crack machine nailed to the side of my house. A crack climbing binge followed. Tips on off-width crack methods and selected routes are on the site.

Climbing giants of the period influenced me almost as much as the walls themselves. From an admiration for the great German climber Hermann Buhl, I solo climbed some in Yosemite, leading with a jumar for protection. Solos included the Owl Roof and the first ascent of Thy Will Be Done in Tuolumne. My veneration of leading Yosemite climbers of the day led me to write the play "In Due Time," memorializing them against the oncoming fate of commercialism in climbing. The article is on the site.


In the early 70s, I turned to golden walls of Tuolumne Meadows teamed with Kamps, Vern Clevenger, Pat Ament, Chris Vandiver, Tom Gerughty and other partners. I have never felt so fully joyous as climbing on the domes of Tuolumne. Knobby, largely unclimbed faces beckoned under a cool, deep blue sky. The same face climbing and protection techniques honed from the past worked to create new routes on seemingly blank faces - ground up progress, protection along the way, no tension rests and minimal repeat attempts. We stood on edges and smears, hammering our Rawl drills to place quarter-inch bolts where necessary. Journal and magazine articles under the Climb Histories section of the site detail my early excitement, fun punning with Kamps, and eventual farewell to the Meadows atop Fairview Dome. For good lines and rock, my favorites include Lucky Streaks, The Vision, Fairest of All and Piece de Resistance. Outside the Meadows during the same period, my two other favorites are Hair Raiser Buttress with Clevenger at Granite Basin and first free of The Line with Frank Sarnquist at Lover's Leap.


Fairview Dome in Tuolumne Meadows 

As the 70’s closed, climbing styles in Tuolumne and elsewhere changed. Climbers began placing protection from hooks and rappel. Rope rests and hangs for progress came into play. I wrote a critique and reconciliation piece on the style change, "Tricksters and Traditionalists" for the Sierra Club publication, Ascent. It seems the term I coined for the prevailing style up to the mid 70’s now denotes an entire camp and philosophy of climbing - "traditional" as opposed to "sport." Several style articles, letters and web posts are on the web site.


As climbing grew in popularity in the 80's, I sought out lesser known and attractive areas to regain a sense of adventure. On the Balconies at Pinnacles National Monument, unpopular for loose rock and munge, I climbed Shake and Bake with Vandiver, and first free ascent of the Sacherer, Bradley & Roper route. With Sarnquist, I did first free ascent of Resurrection Wall. "Anti-Climbing at Pinnacles" recounts all the  heat, foxes, bats, fragile rock and protection on uncertain terrain. Domes of the solitary Southern Sierra also called. With Ruprecht Von Kammerlander, I did new routes on Fresno Dome; with Kamps, new routes in The Balls. "Commuters on Chiquito Dome" tells of the quirky joy in venturing onto crackless Chiquito (Elegance and Sahib routes) and straining to place numerous bolts on lead.
 
The pull between the “flat world” of regular life and “sanctuary” of the mountains, as I noted in “In Thanks” on the site, indeed has “nourished.” My wife Nancy and I, first wooing one another in Yosemite long ago, are blessed with daughter Alanna now a doctor in Chicago where she and her husband are enjoying their first grandchild. 

I find the fire of days on walls still with me. I'm especially intrigued by the never-ending style debate in rock climbing appearing in climbing literature and on web sites. A follow up ramble on "Tricksters and Traditionalists" is included on the site.

May your climbing days be good and long!
 
Tom Higgins
2014