Layton the Great'n

Posted on: March 1, 2007

Wayne Goss on the first ascent of the Enos Mills Wall (V 5.7 A3), which he established with Kor in 1967 (Enos Mills was a turn-of-the-century guide and conservation lobbyist who climbed Longs Peak 297 times; Rocky Mountain National Park exists largely because of his efforts). The climb marked the first winter ascent of the wall, and Kor's third and last new Diamond route. Soon afterward, shaken by the death of his partner, John Harlin, on the Eiger, Kor became a Jehovah's Witness and abandoned serious climbing, but he left a legacy of proteges who would help shape the future of Diamond climbing. [Photo] Layton Kor

"Layton the Great'n," tall and rangy, a bricklayer by trade, legs like stilts and arms that always stuck out of his shirts, looked slightly awkward on the street, but on the rock he became supremely graceful. As I sat across from Layton Kor in the Sink—a Boulder dive—watching him swill beer and munch fries, his gangly form encased in a plaid, cotton, long-sleeved shirt and thick-waled corduroy pants cinched up around his tiny waist, I thought of a pelican, nondescript on land, breathtaking in the air. Next to him, in my short-sleeved shirt and shorts, I must have seemed a typical Californian with an abiding faith in sunny, reliable weather.

I'd met Layton in the Tetons a few years earlier and had slyly lured him to Yosemite Valley, thinking that hotbed of rock climbing would certainly inspire a little respect. To my surprise, and to that of a few other Yosemite specialists, in just a couple of visits, this Colorado climber demolished any Californian pretensions to superiority, climbing our hardest routes in record time, and, even more annoyingly, without comment. He never talked up his own climbs or belittled the efforts of others. (I, on the other hand, always got my digs in at those who, I thought, were transgressing our stylistic commandments in one form or another.) I wanted to climb with Layton because he climbed for reasons inside himself, not for show—and because he was so darn good.

And I wanted to climb the Diamond. Like other Yosemite climbers, I'd heard about this marvelous, formidable wall, high in the Colorado Rockies, and longed to make the first ascent, but Bob Kamps and Dave Rearick got there first. Now, four years after their success, my wife, Liz, and I had just hitchhiked to Boulder, intent on seeking out that famous face.

I put my beer glass down and casually mentioned my objective. Layton nearly jumped out of his seat: "Yeah man! Let's do it!" His voice quivered with enthusiasm.

The next morning Layton drove Liz and me at a furious pace toward Rocky Mountain National Park, talking nonstop along the way, his stories punctuated with comments about his threadbare tires. Liz and I were happy to reach the ranger station alive.

As we trudged upward, the Rockies, so bleak-looking from a distance, revealed a surprising, crystalline beauty: sparkling brooks and greenery leading up to snowfields and hidden lakes. In the late afternoon the next day—I think it was July 12—Layton and I left the Chasm Lake hut and set up a luxurious bivouac on Broadway. To get a good night's sleep before our big climb, we'd brought our sleeping bags and pads, intending to leave them there and race up the Diamond in a one-day ascent. While it was risky to carry no bivy gear, Layton was the fastest climber I knew, and I was no slowpoke, either. We trusted each other.

Over our gorp, salami and crackers, we didn't say much, both of us intent on the next day's business. Looking back now, I suppose Layton might not have found me that simpatico, a bit too serious and reserved perhaps. One of the things I loved about climbing was I could be myself, and if I climbed well enough I had to be accepted for who I was. In any case, he and I knew we made a great team: we both wanted to climb well and saw each other as a means to that end.

Eight hours later the sun reminded us how glorious climbing an east face can be on a cloudless morning. Layton swarmed up the first pitch. I got the second, and then, halfway up the third, Kor pulled a piton and took a ten-foot fall. We shrugged the incident off. Anxious to avoid a nasty night shivering in slings, we were climbing with one thought: up and off. After the sun moved out of sight, it was hard to believe it was still daytime. I trembled with cold, keenly aware that I was not in Yosemite anymore. Nonetheless, sixteen hours of climbing brought us to the top of Longs Peak, and my fears of an unplanned bivy faded away.

Layton grasped my hand—"Good going, man! We did it!"—then turned eagerly to the descent route. I was in a bit of a daze, but I stumbled after him as best I could. I was happy about our climb, although I had to stifle a sense of competition: I felt it had been Layton's achievement more than my own.

Two days later we were back on Broadway. Once more, we woke to a clear morning, this time intending to put up our own new route in another one-day ascent. The distinction between confidence and arrogance can be very fine, but we got away with it. Today, it's hard for me to separate the two climbs. Layton again swept up the first pitch, in his haste pulling off a gigantic block that would have killed anyone had they been climbing the North Chimney early in the morning.

We were more than halfway when a storm struck. My first thought was to rap off, but I reminded myself I was with one of the world's best climbers. So I gritted it out, climbing in my down jacket, my piton hammers a blur, higher and higher up the Diamond, as the wind and snow battered us. I wonder, now, if Layton was thinking, "Well, I'm with Robbins"; I for sure was thinking, "Well, I'm with Kor!"

Finally the last pitch appeared: I can still see Layton liebacking that steep open book, using his long arms and legs to full advantage. With so much counterforce, he wasn't going anywhere but where he wanted to go. Trying to imitate him, I struggled to the top and shook his hand in gratitude and happiness. We named our new route Jack of Diamonds. I don't know why we didn't name it "King" or "Queen." I suppose we didn't want to be caught crowing.

It's been many years since our last climb together in the Alps, but I still remember vividly not only Layton's genius, but his humility, humanity and genuineness. He remains, truly, "Layton the Great'n."

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