A WALK IN THE PARK PART 3
A historical perspective of the
first and second free ascents of City Park
Index Town Walls, Washington
by Jeff Smoot
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Hugh Herr during the second free ascent of City Park
If you haven't done so already, Read Part 2
For those who don't already know, Hugh Herr is a bilateral amputee. He lost both of his legs to frostbite in a blizzard. His story has already been documented countless newspaper and magazine articles, and even a book, so I won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Hugh had two prosthetic legs below the knee. He also had (and still has as far as I can tell) a strong spirit of determination. He had not let his disability stop him from climbing. Not only had he continued climbing, he had excelled at it. He has since gone on to become a leader in the field of prosthetics research and development, and his work has led to vast improvements in prosthetics, and has allowed countless amputees to participate in sports. Some of those guys can outrun you and me. Inspirational stuff. You can see Hugh on t.v. sometimes, usually on the Discovery Channel, showing off his inventions and innovations in prosthetic design.
Anyway, Hugh and I had struck up something of a friendship during his earlier visit to Index, and we had made plans to do some climbing when he came back to Seattle later that summer, to meet with Dr. Meredith Burgess, inventor of the Seattle Foot and head of the Prosthetics Research Study at Swedish Hospital. During one of our phone calls Hugh said he wanted to try to climb City Park. He told me he had developed some special feet just for that route. At first, it struck me as comical. I mean, really! A guy with no legs is going to climb City Park. I knew Hugh was a good climber, but come on.
Hugh flew out in August. The weather was very hot that summer. I had spent the previous day out at Snoqualmie Pass scrubbing moss and scraping dirt off of three potential routes on a little granite crag beside I-90, just down the way from Blondie Bluff. I picked Hugh up from the airport the next morning, and herded him directly out to do some first ascents. Jet lag hadn't set in yet, so Hugh was game. I led up the middle route first, a little arch with a creaky flake and mantel move, all with really poor protection, then a nice one-move 5.11a finger crack to finish it off. (FKA, "Flight to Mars".) Hugh followed nicely, and we hiked off. Next we tried a thin crack and flake off to the right. This was interesting. There was a rusty old bolt ladder running up the wall here, apparently left by someone practicing bolt placement, who chose to ignore the obvious crack systems. A couple of thin crack moves led to the flake, a fin of rock jutting out, requiring powerful pinches. I led up a couple of hard 5.11 moves and started pinching up the flake, but bailed. Hugh took a turn and fired it. (FFA, "Vulcan Death Grip".) For this route, he put on his secret weapon: hatchet feet. Actually, he just put on one hatchet foot. These were the special feet Hugh was talking about. They consisted of a prosthetic fitting, an alloy tube, and a rubber-coated acetyl wedge shaped like a hatchet head. Hugh's theory was that he could insert the tip of the foot into thin cracks, apply torque, and stand up. And he proved his theory on this route, basically standing up on foot jams too thin for ordinary feet. This got him halfway up the route, until the crack got too thin for his special foot. Here he had to rely on pure strength and his regular climbing foot, but after a couple of big grunts, he powered up into the easy crack and finished the pitch. Our next objective was a little roof and flaring crack on an arete on the far left side of the crag. I led this one, and found it to be a fun little exercise. (FA, "Wild Mouse".) Hugh, still pumped from his lead and starting to feel a little jet lagged, decided enough was enough, and we headed home.
Hugh's plan was to spend a few weeks in Seattle, hopefully climb City Park, then head off to Yosemite or Colorado or somewhere. He was talking about climbing Sphinx Crack after City Park, and was beginning to sound like Todd Skinner did when he proclaimed his quest to climb the hardest cracks in America. Actually, Hugh wanted to climb roof cracks. Hugh was eager to get on City Park, but he had other business to attend to. First he had a meeting with Dr. Burgess at the Prosthetic Research Center. I tagged along and found the meeting pretty boring. Dr. Burgess was a nice man, very obsessed but genuinely enthusiastic about all things prosthetic. He gave us a demonstration of his Seattle Foot, and he and Hugh talked about things while I stared out the windows. As luck would have it, another of Dr. Burgess's patients, Ome Daiber, showed up for a consultation. For those who don't know, Daiber made the first ascent of Liberty Ridge back in 1935, and was a living Pacific Northwest climbing legend. Hugh and I chatted with him for an hour or so. He talked about some of his climbs, and about his medical problems that had resulted in the amputation of both legs below the knee. He and Hugh compared prosthetics. Ome was impressed that Hugh was rock climbing. Hugh and I were equally impressed that Ome had recently walked up Queen Anne Hill. Given his age, affliction with diabetes, and amputations, that was quite an accomplishment. He died not long after our meeting, of complications from his diabetes I think. Dr. Burgess died just last year.
Another doctor, Al Rappaport, was at the meeting. He was also an amputee (just one leg), and he wanted to try climbing, so Hugh and I agreed to take him over to the UW rock so he could try out Hugh's climbing feet and so I could take some photos. When Dr. Burgess found out I was a "photographer," he became very excited and asked if I would take some pictures of Hugh and Al climbing at the practice rock. He fumbled for his wallet and pulled out a $100 bill.
"Here," he said. "Buy some film. Will this be enough?"
All he wanted was a few of the original slides to use for slide shows and promotional materials. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I took his money. Then Hugh and I piled into Al's big white Cadillac convertible and went cruising down Broadway and over Capitol Hill down to the practice rock, in style.
Hugh and Al got a lot of stares as they put on their climbing legs and started climbing on the UW rock. It was possibly the first time that an amputee had climbed on the rock, and here were two of them at the same time. Al had never climbed before, and gave up after we had managed to get him up and down one wall. Hugh spent a couple of hours traversing and climbing on the rock. I was tempted to show him some of the hard problems, but falling off didn't seem like a good idea for Hugh. His prosthetic feet were good for climbing, but not for landing, so he contented himself with doing easier problems and just enjoying himself. After awhile, he switched feet and did some crack problems using his hatchet feet. They worked fairly well, but Hugh wasn't satisfied.
That night and the next day, Hugh put his feet to the grindstone. Literally. He had packed along a grinding wheel, and he sat there for hours grinding and reshaping his feet. Then he glued on a thin strip of rubber. After several hours of work, he was finally satisfied. He was ready to try City Park.
We went out to Index the next day, and Hugh set right to work on the route. He didn't bother to toprope it or anything. He just racked up with a set of stoppers, RPs and cams and led up into the unknown. Well, it wasn't exactly unknown. He had beta from me, although the beta was not all useful since Hugh would be climbing in an entirely different style, using foot jams all the way up a crack too small for the feet of mere mortals. I led up Godzilla and rappelled down to take pictures. Once I was in position, Hugh started climbing. For his first attempt, he wore two hatchet feet, which were not exactly suited to face climbing, so the bolt ladder was a bit tricky, but he was soon climbing the crack. Hugh dogged his way upward, using straight-in foot jams where Todd had to smear on little features. The finger jams were no easier for Hugh, and maybe was more difficult since his fingers were a little thicker than Todd's, but the footwork was much less taxing. It was almost like front pointing with crampons, or at least seemed that way. Not that I wanted to try it.
Hugh grinds his feet super thin for his attempt on City Park
Amazingly, Hugh did every move free-albeit with many falls and hangs-on his first attempt. But in doing so, he trashed his feet. It would be a few days before we returned to Index. Hugh went back to the grinding wheel.
Meanwhile, I was contacted by Riley Caton, a photographer from Rhododendron, Oregon, who was on assignment from Patagonia to take pictures of Hugh climbing City Park. I had met Riley down at Smith Rock a few years earlier, and we had kept in touch occasionally. He called me to ask if I would help him get in touch with Hugh and rig him up to take photos. I don't remember how Riley found Hugh was climbing City Park, or how he knew I would know what Hugh was up to, but I said I would be glad to help and coordinated a photo shoot for Riley.
Since this was about to become a media circus, I called up the producers of Front Runners, a local show that highlighted the exploits of local celebrities, athletes, and adventurers. I told them about Hugh and his attempt to free climb City Park. They were very interested, but they couldn't fit him into their busy schedule. They asked if Hugh could come back in October. That was impossible, since Hugh would be back in school then, at M.I.T. or some such place. They said they really wanted to do a climbing story. Did I know any other rock climbers who would like to be on t.v.? Hmmm. Let me see . . .
So Hugh honed his feet and put new rubber on them, and was ready to go. Riley met us at the Lower Wall, and we got set up. I led up Godzilla again, for the umpteenth time that year, and fixed a rope off to the left this time. This required a pendulum over to the fixed pins on Bat Skins. Since I was already up on the rope, I talked Hugh into climbing up into position for his modeling session with Riley, and took pictures as he climbed. He climbed right up the crack, only hanging once to the midway point, where he hung out while I rapped off and Riley jumared up. This proved to be quite an ordeal. Riley wasn't really a climber, and told us he had heart problems. (Oh, now you tell us!) He had to be assured and reassured that he wasn't going to fall and die. He had never used jumars before, and didn't trust them. It didn't reassure him to hear that I didn't trust them either. I told him to tie himself into the rope every 30 feet, so if the jumars failed, he would be self-belayed.
After an epic struggle, Riley was finally in position, and the photo shoot began. It was interesting watching a real professional shoot photos. Not! About all that was interesting was watching Hugh change clothes half a dozen times while hanging out, then repeating the same moves over and over for the camera. Absurdly, although it was a warm day with no apparent chance of rain, Riley had Hugh put on a red-hooded parka. This old National Geographic trick (the "red shirt" school of photography) apparently worked, as Patagonia selected one of these photos for its catalog. After an afternoon wasted taking photos, we headed out and Riley bought us dinner and beer for our troubles.
For a diversion, I took Hugh out to Leavenworth for a couple of days of climbing. Russ Erickson joined us. We spent part of a day at Castle Rock, then went bouldering, then went into town to eat and hang out. Instead of camping out, we spent the night at my grandma's house in Monitor. My aunt Pauline was there. She was a nurse, and knew all about Hugh from reading a medical journal. A real celebrity, that Hugh!
After the obligatory 6 a.m. breakfast (it's hard to sleep in when the smell of coffee and bacon permeates the house), we were off to the Icicle for a crack at the Early Morning Overhang, a 25-foot roof crack below Careno Crag. Hugh had been asking if there were any hard roof cracks around, and this was the only one I could think of. As a bonus, it had never been free climbed, so if Hugh could bag it, it would be a first free ascent.
Russ, Hugh and I hiked up the dusty trail, then scrambled up the 5.7 pitch to the ledge below the roof. Hugh racked up pensively, squinting up at the dirty roof crack, wondering if it was worth his trouble. Russ belayed me up the slabby pitch to the base of the roof, where I plugged in some gear and hung out so I could photograph the spectacle. Hugh led up behind me, passing the loose blocks carefully, and after a short rest, started jamming out the crack. It was quite a problem. The crack varied from fingertips to off-hand, and was perfectly horizontal. Hugh took a couple tries figuring out the initial crux, then cruised out near the lip before falling off because one of his prosthetic legs came loose. It was, I believe, the first time I have ever heard a climbing partner complain, "My leg is falling off!"
Hugh lowered off, and I decided to give the roof a try. I jammed out a couple of moves, but soon found myself pumped beyond all recognition. Roof climbing was just not my thing, I guess. Of course, this presented a problem, since Hugh's gear was way out near the lip. Silly me had neglected to backrope, so falling off meant a big swing into space. I didn't want to let go, knowing I was in for a big ride, but it was inevitable. Either let go voluntarily, or hang on until my arms exploded. So I said some famous last words, took a deep breath, and released. Woooooosh! I swung down and out into space, then back toward the wall. It turned out to be harmless fun. It was so much fun, I climbed back up and did it a couple more times. Russ tried it, too. We took turns swinging while Hugh rested. Then we resumed our positions, and Hugh tried again. This time, he cruised the roof, and turned the lip. I got a great photo of Hugh's prosthetic leg dangling in space while he grunted up the headwall. He climbed up to the ledge above the roof and yelled down that he had done it. Someone watching from the highway let out a whoop. Hugh downclimbed to the lip, then pulled his gear, a strenuous exercise involving establishing on the rock, unclipping and taking out each piece, then letting go, falling off, then being yarded up by me and Russ to the next piece, and repeating the process.
Later that week, after Hugh had recovered from his free ascent of the Early Morning Overhang (FFA, Ride of the Valkyries, 5.12a), we went back out to City Park. As usual, because I had a camera, I was excused from belaying. This time I set up on the boulders and took long shots of Hugh climbing. It was very anticlimactic. Hugh climbed halfway up the crack, and took a 20-foot fall. He lowered off, rested, then sent the pitch on his next try. And that was that. In the course of three days, one of which was spent posing for photos, Hugh had free-climbed City Park.
Hugh, fresh from his ascent of City Park, tried to persuade me to go with him to Yosemite Valley so he could climb The Stigma. Wouldn't that have been something!? My article, "The Valley Syndrome," had just been published in Climbing magazine, and I had heard through the grapevine that some Valley locals had threatened to kill me if I ever set foot in the Valley. Still, it sounded hilarious. An amputee climbing The Stigma in better style than Todd or Alan, belayed by that asshole, Jeff Smoot. We imagined a clandestine raid on Yosemite, buzzing in to the Cookie Cliff, climbing The Stigma, then leaving the Valley without anyone knowing we had been there. But I imagined a different scenario, one where my car windows were smashed, tires slashed, graffiti spray-painted or scratched all over, and me hiding out somewhere in Curry Village, relegated to climbing Harry Dailey day after day after day so none of the Valley locals could find me. No, Hugh and I headed east, to Aspen, the South Platte, where Hugh tried to climb Sphinx Crack, and to Boulder. But that's a whole other story.
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