Tit for Tat

Posted on: March 1, 2006

I looked down twenty feet to see my rope hanging free from the piton and carabiner through which it should have been running. Somehow I had managed to unclip it as I maneuvered past the sole protection for a long vertical pitch on Rubaiyat Spire. It was the late 1950s and my Cortina climbing boots, curling up as usual on small edges, added to my insecurity. I was not disappointed when my inexperienced companion demurred and we rappelled off.

I would return to the Black Hills each August for almost ten years, meeting others at the Oreville Campground for an informal rendezvous. Over large campfires in the evening, infused with Black Hills tea (tea plus apricot brandy plus... ?), we laid plans for the next day's projects. My time in The Needles was fairly evenly divided between bouldering and longer routes or soloing. However, after my climb of the Thimble's north face in 1961, I became circumspect in my choices.

Convinced my conjectured line on the diminutive Thimble would go, if just barely, and emboldened by a new pair of tight-fitting Pierre Allains, I returned several times to choreograph the bottom half of my project. A young airman named Higgins from my Air Force Base accompanied me on at least a couple of occasions. I had trained by pulling myself up on small boltheads protruding from the wall of the gym, doing one-arm pull-ups on half-inch ledges, and climbing the inside of the Operations Tower—part of my regimen during my brief commitment to serious free-solo exploration—so that on my final visit, once I reached the midpoint of the problem with little effort, I was able to grip firmly the nubbins of the upper half. On top, rather than elation, the first thought that came to mind was: "Thank God this is over!"

I put the Thimble behind me and turned to more reasonable challenges—and became more sociable, climbing and bouldering with several of America's most accomplished rock gymnasts.

Royal Robbins made an appearance in the summer of 1964. He and I played on my twenty-foot bouldering wall below the northwest face of the Incisor, around the corner from the route Bob Kamps and I had taken on the 1961 first ascent. Royal said he wanted to try leading the wall above, and I was happy to belay, although I could tell the climb would be tenuous. As I watched his assertive and confident climbing style, it occurred to me that his performance might, in part, be a successful effort to impress a peer. Were it so, I would indeed be flattered. Nevertheless, it took Pete Cleveland on toprope to finish the route several years later.

In August of 1964 Pete and I made the first ascent of a spire in the Picket Fence. At the top I swung around a blind corner for a handhold, prompting Pete to say I didn't need to make such a risky move—although he found himself repeating it when it was his turn. Why did I do it? Probably my own unconscious urge to show off before one of the premier rock climbers of my generation.

The following season several of us got interested in Paydirt Pinnacle. Bob and Mark Powell did a nice 5.9 route on the southeast face, stemming over from an adjoining rock, then climbing up an unprotected vertical gully. I managed, after some effort, to climb the section below the stem that resulted in a significant route variation. But I may have been sandbagged for my transgression: Bob had done a route around the corner, and when I asked about it, I could have sworn he said, "Oh, it's about 5.2." Thinking it would be a nice climb for my wife, Lora, I started up with only the rope around my waist. The cliff got progressively steeper—and thinner—and I kept saying, "Where's the 5.2?" Eventually I realized my predicament and became aggressive, getting to the top, then belaying Lora up probably the hardest climb she had done. That evening, when I confronted Bob, he said, "Oh no, that's 5.8! You must have misunderstood me." Well, perhaps, or perhaps not. I loved the guy—the best face climber of his time. But the rules said I had better retaliate—and I did, by climbing out of a root cellar-like cavern to establish a nasty, alternate start to the darned thing.

Two years later—perhaps on the day Pete made his breathtaking benchmark climb of Super Pin—I did a nice twenty-foot problem at the base of the Flying Buttress, which I thought would make a great start for a longer route. I told Pete about it, suggesting he might like to climb the chimney above it to the summit. The next day, as I approached the Buttress through the forest, I heard a soft thud, and then, "Damn that Gill!" Pete and Ron Cox were staring in consternation at my little climb. In a noble effort to quell my titillated ego, I revealed my technique, whereupon Pete moved up the pitch with studied indifference, then squeezed his way up the remaining chimney to the top.

A karmic comeuppance was in the reckoning, however, when several days later, as I was bouldering at Sylvan Lake, a young lady—after watching for a few moments—asked who I was. When I told her, she said, "You're not John Gill. He climbs much better than that."

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.