Killing Legends

Posted on: July 1, 2006

[Left] Harvey Carter during the first ascent of Ghost Rider, Tanner Dome, Colorado, in 2004. By the time the author first met him, Carter had established more than 5,000 new routes. The two started climbing again in this area several months after Carter's accident. [Right] Carter during the first ascent of West Side Story, Cottontail Tower, Fisher Towers, Utah, June 1967. Carter, part of the first generation of Colorado climbing bums, founded Climbing magazine three years after this photo was taken. [Photo] Steve "Crusher" Bartlett and Harvey T. Carter collection


Harvey Carter during the first ascent of Ghost Rider, Tanner Dome, Colorado, in 2004. By the time the author first met him, Carter had established more than 5,000 new routes. The two started climbing again in this area several months after Carter's accident. [Photo] Steve "Crusher" Bartlett

This was a new route, so each hold got a knuckle knock. After twenty feet of stemming right above Harvey Carter's jaunty green cap, I climbed an easy ramp up and left. Carter told me I should belay thereabouts, but I was only twenty-five feet up, and he was now out of sight. One more bulge seemed to lead to another ledge, with nice jams connecting the two. I stemmed my right foot out. As I pressed my weight on it, the foothold broke. A toaster-sized chunk of granite cartwheeled down.

I swung from my jams. "Rock!" I yelled. Twenty-five feet below, a green Frisbee spun out from the cliff.

But it wasn't a Frisbee. It was a cap.

"Harvey! Are you OK?"

Silence and a spinning cap. I took a deep breath. We were in Newlin Creek, a little-visited canyon near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Birds were singing. The sun was out. On the surface, nothing about the day had changed. It would have been easy to stay put and pretend everything was still fine.

But I knew it wasn't.

I threw in three cams, untied my rope and retied my end directly to the new anchor. My fingers were shaking. I fumbled the rope into my rappel device and shoved myself downward. "Harvey! Speak to me! Harvey...?"

Carter was still sitting upright on his belay ledge, rope held firmly in his hands. No silly rock was going to knock him off his perch. Blood stained his brown corduroy pants; a dark pool of it collected between his feet. His head was slumped. He was unconscious, probably dead. Harvey T. Carter—the most prolific first ascensionist in American history, founder of Climbing magazine, a veteran of 5,000 new routes, including some that were my all-time favorites, and of more than sixty years of climbing—I'd killed him. After climbing for twenty-five accident-free years, I'd killed Harvey Carter.

Or so I thought.

This was not the first time Carter had been killed. In 1961, after making the first ascent of the Priest in Castle Valley, with his bride, Annie, and Layton Kor, Carter was the last to rappel. During a stormy descent a lightning bolt struck him momentarily dead. Most would have been simply relieved to wake up again at all, but when he came to, Carter was so angry he'd been knocked unconscious that he punched the rock before continuing down.

There was also the time in Aspen in the 1970s when he was working on the ski patrol. He had jumped for a beam to do some late-night pull-ups—just a silly climber's stunt. But the top of the beam was round, not flat as he had supposed. He leaped, flew off and ragdolled down the concrete stairs below. He was dead for a minute or so on that occasion until his heart started back up and he began breathing again.

How many lives could one person have? By the time I tied in with him in Newlin Creek, Carter had been working the odds for more than half a century, often on the least stable rock in America.

Carter during the first ascent of West Side Story, Cottontail Tower, Fisher Towers, Utah, June 1967. Carter, part of the first generation of Colorado climbing bums, founded Climbing maazine three years after this photo was taken. [Photo] Harvey T. Carter collection

Some of his wildest routes had been in the Fisher Towers. My own fascination with this area began in 1988, when Eric Bjornstad's new guidebook, Desert Rock, came out, dedicated to Carter, whose "record of desert climbing is unequaled." Bjornstad credited Carter with more than forty new towers, all listed in the book. Of these, his Fisher Tower routes seemed like reasonable objectives. Prompted by Bjornstad's book, by the recent advent of Friends and by plenty of big-wall credentials, I went to explore them with the few partners I could find to join me.

But nothing about the place was straightforward: on our first climb, a route Bjornstad had described as "relatively clean and easygoing," my experienced partner took a sixty-foot whipper and nearly hit the ground. On later climbs old bolts fell out, just by being looked at; ropes sprouted core shots; Friends wouldn't fit in the flared Cutler Sandstone cracks; fingers grew swollen and infected from the desert grit. Around us, as if to heighten the dreamlike menace, extravagantly wrinkled rock formations strained under unbalanced headstones. Mummified giants blocked the sun. Their innards leaked and dribbled and clotted into nasty stains, green, red, bleached.

As I sat in my truck and drank sun-warmed whiskey after one particularly unsuccessful day—my belayers, beset by rockfall each time I moved, had mutinied, and I had rapped off and left them to deal with the gear strewn all over the climb—I brooded. I knew I was hooked on the Towers. I just wasn't sure who might share my addiction.

In my search for partners, I met Bill Roberts, whose love of the movie Repo Man seemed to indicate a promising taste for the surreal. Tall and high-strung, Bill hid any fears about the place behind a late-seventies moustache. He'd already been up the Titan via Sundevil Chimney, Carter's masterpiece, and wanted to do more.

West Side Story, another Carter route, looked long and demanding and perfect, and led to the summit of Cottontail, a wavy cathedral topped with a bobble. When we got to the base of West Side Story, I started up a seam with obvious pin scars. Only they were not pin scars—they were little cobwebs, and eighty feet of fussy nailing took me most of the day. In our excitement we'd screwed up this route too. The real start was hiding around the corner.

After we regained the route, Bill romped up the easy second-pitch chimney. Pitch 3 brought me to a dead stop. It looked as if someone had regurgitated several tons of chicken mole over the route. Bill was amused at my splutters and curses as I burrowed upward, but shut up once he realized the next pitch was just as filthy. And on it went, for five days and thirteen pitches. High on the route a pitch that started as perfect hands (in forty-grit sandpaper) worked its way, an exhilarating ropelength later, to back-and-footing up the split below the summit, a stone tabletop floating in the heart of the Fishers. We spun around on it like little children, ogling the delights in every direction.

A chunk of galvanized plumbing pipe held a register, which told us we were the fifth party up the route, and the eighth party to have summited this tower. Carter had been first, of course. On our right the huge bulk of Kingfisher elegantly tapered to a tennis-court-sized summit. Carter had been there as well, for his first Fisher Tower route, up the northeast ridge, in 1962. After Kingfisher, Carter had sweet-talked Bjornstad and Fred Beckey up a deep chimney for his second Fisher Tower summit, on the nearby Echo Tower. South of us the Titan strained its massive head toward the sun. Carter had missed its first ascent, but made up for it by adding two new Titan routes: his 1971 Sundevil Chimney, hidden on the south side, and Scheherazade, on the great northwest face, climbed two years later. Dwarfed by the Titan stood a 300-foot tower, shaped like a colossal chicken, called the Sidekick, yet another Carter first ascent. Behind the Titan was a skinny, serrated ridge, crowned by a parade of wobbly stone elephants. Bill told me that Carter had summited this formation in 1970.

How had one person found so much time, and energy, to keep returning? We were exhausted. If repeating these routes was this hard, what was it like to climb them for the first time?

The Fisher Towers weren't the only place I encountered Harvey's legend. In 1990, inspired by my friend Derek Hersey's recent free solo of three routes in a day on the Diamond, I thought I'd solo three Rocky Mountain National Park routes of my own, but on the mellower terrain of Hallett Peak. The Culp-Bossier went quickly, but as I started up the Northcutt-Carter (put up by Ray Northcutt and Carter in 1956) the route finding became subtle, and the signs of other climbers few. Still, the climb was rated a grade easier than the Culp-Bossier, so I was not too concerned.

A couple of pitches up, feeling lost, I spied some tat hanging from a pin and sauntered above it to reach high around a bulge for holds. There were none. My strength began to fail, and the climb back to safety became too tricky to contemplate. I lunged. Fingers darted and clawed an unseen crimp. Feet, forgotten for the moment, scrabbled below me somewhere, then caught on something. Fingers reached again—and found jugs. Everything was under control once more. But for a couple of seconds there.... This old-style route, opened thirty-four years before, had almost killed me.

During the late '90s other climbers were starting to appreciate Carter's climbing, particularly in the Fisher Towers. Rob Slater referred to Carter as His Royal Harviness, because Rob knew that whatever desert feats he was attempting—all the Fisher Towers, or all the Monument Valley towers—Carter had been there long before. Carter was the original Fisher Tower aficionado. Yet by the time I'd joined this small band, he had vanished, presumably having given up climbing.

Steve 'Crusher' Barlett on the second-to-last pitch of the Carter route Fantasia on the Oracle in the Fisher Towers. Bartlett found himself drawn to the routes of the Fisher Towers, and by extension to Carter, who had established many of his favorite climbs there. [Photo] George "Chip" Wilson

In February 2003, after a decade of hearing the stories and climbing his routes, I decided to track Carter down. Perhaps Slater had helped prompt my new interest in climbing history; his obsession with outdoing others entailed first figuring out exactly what they had done. But the immediate cause had been a magazine editor's provocation: "You can't write an article about the Titan without talking to Harvey Carter!"

Through friends of friends I found Carter's phone number. Carter now lives alone, high up on Pikes Peak, and between winter storms we agreed to meet at a near-empty Mennonite camp at the base, and then head up the road in my Toyota pickup to his house. I expected to meet a retiree: retired from climbing, retired from being active, and accepting this state with a greater or lesser amount of contentment, the usual old-man persona. At forty-eight I'm on my way there myself.

The person I met looked the part: old, confident and comfortable with himself. His voice got my attention. Soft and melodious, it had an undercurrent of authority that suggested he was quite capable of raising it if necessary. His hands—a bruiser's fists, minus the tattoos—floated in midair, gently emphasizing his words. After giving me a tour of the Mennonite building, he suggested we continue to his place.

Carter's "driveway" turned out to be several miles of tortuous curves and hills. "We kinda ran out of money for grading," he said, as I spun and then backed down one steep bit.

After my third slide, deeper than ever, into the same snow bank, just below the top, Carter leaped out of the truck and threw his snow shovel around wildly. "I'll drive the goddamn truck," he said. We dug the truck out, Carter muttering about how the doctors had told him never to use a snow shovel again "fifteen damn years ago...." I backed downhill in silence, handed him the keys and shuffled over to the passenger side. From the base of the hill, Carter threw it in first, revved it hard, and we fishtailed skyward. At the apex he coaxed the truck into a perfect top-of-the-mogul short-radius turn onto the next straightaway.

We pulled up to a compact box of a house amid cold trees. Inside was spacious, with furniture neatly arranged in a clean, comfortable living room, but it wasn't much warmer than outside. Carter relit the wood stove, then fine-tuned the damper for optimal drawing.

The house was just below tree line, and a bank of south-facing windows opened up to a big view. To the left spindrift plumes rose from Pikes Peak's wide shoulders; to the right miles of treetops undulated below sharp Crestone teeth.

I hate dealing with the cold and the wetness and inconvenience of winter—not to mention driving on snow—but this panorama got my attention. Carter, finished with the stove, joined me. "Yeah, I climbed that over there," he said, pointing at a hulking black mass, two or three hundred feet high. "I had to solo it. It's about 5.8." He broke into a mischievous grin. "Old-style 5.8." Under my feet a row of water jugs warmed in the sun. Water had to be brought in. There was no heat, other than the slow-to-start woodstove. This was not the house of a person who wanted to be retired from anything. I'd miscalculated completely. I would soon learn to watch out for that mischievous grin as well.

A couple of weeks after my visit to Carter's house, we met at The Spice of Life, a coffee shop in Manitou Springs, supposedly so he could answer more questions about the Titan. Instead, as he sipped black coffee from his own special mug—a faded yellow one that sat behind the counter waiting for his arrival—he told me about his history.

Tom "Cardo" Merrill and Carter rapping from the first ascent of Big Bend Butte, River Road, Utah, in 1970. Cardo was one of Carter's regular partners for his '70s desert trips, including the first ascents of the Sundevil Chimney on the Titan and the Oracle route Fantasia, both in Utah's Fisher Towers. When the author showed Carter Eric Bjornstad's Desert Rock III, which features, for a cover shot, a pair of climbers on Sundevil Chimney, he responded, "Look at all them damn bolts. We sure didn't place that many." [Photo] Harvey T. Carter collection

Carter had taken up climbing in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, he spent two years in the Army, teaching soldiers to climb, usually around North Cheyenne Canyon, Colorado. In the process he amassed a huge collection of pitons for later use. "When I was guiding on Graduation Rock, they'd give ten pins to each guy to use. Then I'd go out again later and bing! bing! bing!"—take them out. "When I got out [of the Army] I had 3,000 pins!" As he smiled, the rest of his face turned into a momentary maze of canyons and ridges.

After a while of sitting, Carter's attention seemed to wander. "Well, you wanna go do a route?" he said with that grin. The question took me unawares; I'd assumed that he'd quit climbing. Not knowing what to expect, but curious, and figuring that I probably wouldn't embarrass myself too badly, I agreed.

Carter jumped into my truck, stubbornness and strength substituting for agility. Like me, he didn't put on his seatbelt. "You don't wear a seatbelt?" I asked. "I like to be able to move around," he said. I nodded; I'd always thought that if no one wore them, we'd all drive more carefully.

We drove to Carter's local crag, Garden of the Gods. At the base of North Gateway Rock, I geared up with a rack of cams, nuts and quickdraws. Carter just grabbed the rope, passed it loosely around his waist and cinched up a bowline.

"You don't wear a harness?" I asked.

"Well, I never used to—and now my back's so bad it wouldn't make any difference anyway." He shrugged. "I tie in real loose, so the rope comes up under my ribs; that way it won't hurt so much." He'd brought no lunch to the crag. No water bottle either. He draped a few slings—some of which looked as though they might have been commandeered during his Army days—around his neck. A number of chewed-up wires and pins hung from one of them. He produced a hammer, the head of which was rounded, its pick worn to a nub. He'd worn out about ten hammers over the years, he said.

Carter led a 5.6 pitch, the start of the Boucher-Twombly, up to a moderate-but-runout ramp. We swapped leads for three pitches, then Carter, using a gearless "Firm Stance" belay atop a shoulder, directed me around the south end of Gateway Rock and onto the west face. He then scampered up something he called Upper Tidricks. It looked easy, but following, I found myself trying hard not to fall out of a flared, protectionless chimney. After a brief pause on a windy stance, where he grinned again and told me, "I always like chimneys," he sent me onto an airy shoulder. The wind made the initial unprotected moves worrisome... especially since I was still not too sure about that waist belay.

Past the crux the ridge became narrower until I had to sit, clench the sides with my knees and hump my way along. I realized we were on the Kissing Camels formation, a Colorado Springs landmark that resembles a pair of amorous camels. Climbing over these camels' heads is actually illegal these days, but that was the least of my worries, because although from the ground they look robust, once you're sitting on top, they turn out to be frighteningly exposed and wafer fragile. Old seams, filled with epoxy to try to keep the camels kissing a few years longer, were now eroded out, and ribs of epoxy stood inches away from the current surface. At the far end there was nowhere to place my Friends and Camalots and other widgets, so I had to resort to a Firm Stance belay myself. Carter waltzed across with a smile.

Carter Leading Pumpkin Crack (5.7) on North Gateway Rock, Garden of the Gods, Colorado, in the 1960s. The Garden of the Gods, where Carter established numerous routes, taught him how to deal with poor rock. He also invented the drilled piton, great for soft rock, here. [Photo] Harvey T. Carter collection

As we wandered down the descent, I felt as though I'd stepped back to that brief period just after I started climbing in the mid-1970s, when my friends and I knew so little we thought we were indestructible. Back then we had no gear beyond a handful of slings, but that was OK because we didn't really know how to use what we didn't have anyway. We climbed by merely keeping a firm grasp on the rock. I knew better now, but I'd never adjusted well to the idea of trusting your gear more than your grip. I appreciated climbing with a fellow "crusher of the handholds."

Carter and I met up again at The Spice of Life a few weeks later, this time specifically to climb something new. My concerns about his age and his climbing equipment were overwhelmed by curiosity: he continued to undermine all my expectations. Over coffee he explained that he'd always wanted to contribute to climbing by pioneering his own routes. He had then, and still has today, very specific ideas about how a new route should be done. It has to be climbed ground up, cleaned of loose rock, and—long before climbers put much thought into preserving the rock—it should be left, if necessary, with just enough fixed gear that a competent party will be able to repeat it without having to resort to a hammer.

To this end Carter developed some novel techniques. The drilled piton, great for soft rock, was his invention. The Garden of the Gods taught him another skill: dealing with poor rock. In an age when most climbers used any means to go from bottom to top, and speed was the only criterion of ability, Carter climbed slowly and with great care. By meticulously testing each hold and breaking off the really fragile bits, he could free climb where other climbers would turn back, fall off or resort to aid.

We finished our coffee, headed to Newlin Creek and climbed a new three-pitch route on the scruffy buttress by the parking lot—not a great route, not a hard route, but fun. Back at the base of the cliff, we examined the rock some more. I told him I was impressed by how he could piece together the line we had done, with such certainty, from the ground.

"Out of thousands of people I climbed with, Layton Kor was absolutely the best at picking a line," Carter said, casting his sharp gaze over the crag. "He can see what the rock is telling you. He can see ledges and cracks and overhangs, and he can see whether these features will make it harder or easier to climb. In this respect, he is exactly like me. Layton had so many climbs in his mind. He was great at picking routes...," here Carter made his grin and leaned forward for effect, "so I'm glad he quit climbing."

After a few routes I started to worry less about climbing with Carter. His equipment and techniques appeared old-fashioned, but he knew his limits and always climbed comfortably inside them. In sixty years, he reckoned he'd fallen ten times. He told me he was comfortable climbing with little or no gear, because he trusted himself to get out of trouble; even today he frequently solos new routes. The Harvey T. Carter style, it turns out, is to climb carefully enough that you rely on yourself and your own ability to move around on the rock. You don't rely on gear, luck or adrenaline.

"Derek Hersey was the only person that I thought definitely was going to die climbing," Carter told me one day. We were in my truck, headed for another crag he had spotted some years before. "Because Derek soloed so close to his leading limit."

I thought about Derek, laughing, soloing, drinking, making loud jokes about vegetarians. He used to climb with an appetite similar to Carter's. It always seemed to me that Derek lived because he was able to solo so close to his leading limit, but he died because he started thinking he could do this every day. And that is Carter's great skill, to have figured out exactly how much he could do, and safely get away with, for sixty years.

Harvey Carter relaxing at a belay on Tidricks, West Gateway Rock, Garden of the Gods. Note the lack of a harness; the author discovered that little of Carter's gear or technique had changed since Carter's youth. (The cam in the picture belongs to the author.) [Photo] Steve "Crusher" Bartlett

Until now. One hundred feet up the side of an obscure cliff in a side canyon in Colorado's Front Range, I'd killed him. "Harvey," I said, just to break the silence. "Don't die on me, Harvey...."

Then came a low groan. He was alive! He'd lost lots of blood, and he'd been unconscious for a couple of minutes, but he was coming back.

I examined him as best I could: the blood continued to flow from his battered face, soaking his corduroys and pooling near his feet. Fortunately, the injuries seemed limited to his head—which, I had learned, was quite hard. Still, we had to get down. Fast.

Carter wore no harness and was barely conscious, so we couldn't rappel. "Here, hold on to this," I said, tying a small loop near his end of the rope so he could grab it, "and I'll lower you. Keep hold of this loop—it'll keep you upright."

He nodded, seeming to understand. Those great paws gripped the loop. Down he went. Once on the ground, we hobbled to the car. I phoned 911.

"How old is the injured person?" the man on the phone asked.

I looked at Carter as he moaned beside me. "Seventy... um... four."

In the hospital they replaced Carter's smashed cheekbones with plastic plates. They repaired his nose and sewed up his ear. "Yes, these facial injuries do bleed a lot," the doctor said, as I tried to explain what happened.

I'd dreaded calling Carter's son, Scott, but he let me off lightly: he'd wondered whether something like this would happen. He was, he said, relieved it had happened when Carter wasn't alone.

Scott's kind words helped, but I stopped climbing. The accident was all backward. I was the well-equipped person, with helmet and harness and everything else. If an accident were to happen, it should have been Carter's fault: he was the one without modern gear. Just how much had I learned in all my years of climbing?

After a couple of months, Carter's injuries were seemingly healed. Before long he was phoning me and talking about getting out climbing again. Perhaps even with me. "There's something called 'the odds'," Carter explained on the phone one night, with a generosity of spirit that I hope I can muster if some doofus ever tries to do me in. "You do this long enough and the odds catch up with you."

A couple of weeks later we went to Tanner Dome, to do a line we'd looked at a year ago. I brought a spare harness and helmet. At the base of the crag, Carter declined to wear either. I shrugged my shoulders and set off above him anyway, running it out, tapping the holds, trusting a waist belay from a seventy-four-year-old. The first pitch was a 5.9 face—golden, steep, all nubbins and knobs—and angling (so I couldn't easily drop anything on my partner) up to a ledge. I fretted over the gear, but the fretting wasn't serious. We were playing the odds. This time, I figured, they owed us.

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.