Tool Users

Posted on: September 1, 2008

the skyhook By the mid-1940s the epicenter of American climbing was beginning to shift from the Tetons to Yosemite, but the tools necessary for the Valley's steeper, more committing climbs had yet to be designed. It would take a Swiss emigre, born in the previous century and trained in the art of blacksmithing, to create them—and an attitude informed by angels to challenge the bigger walls.

When John Salathe first appeared at the San Francisco Bay Area Rock Climbing Section of the Sierra Club, he was already forty-seven years old. A blacksmith (his family had encouraged him to take up the trade to avoid the meager prospects of a farmer), he had immigrated to North America in search of a better life, but he had yet to gain the eccentricities that would overwhelm him in later years, when he reported regular conversations with angels, as well as a paranoia that convinced him his wife was trying to poison his dates.

Only five months after he began climbing, Salathe set his eyes on Yosemite's Lost Arrow Spire, which the Sierra Club climbers called "the nightmare of all those who have inspected it closely." Salathe had arranged to climb it with his new friends; when they failed to show up, he started rope-soloing. On his first attempt he reached what is now known as the Salathe Ledge, retreating when it grew dark, but he soon returned with John Thune Sr. for another go. Releading, he pulled a piece and took a fall—presumably onto a piton he had forged himself.

Disappointed with the soft-iron pitons from the Alps, which deformed in Yosemite's granite cracks, Salathe had already begun making his own in his shop, Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. These would become the Lost Arrow pitons, named for the object of his fascination. He would also create an early bolt kit—and this skyhook.

With Thune, on his second attempt, Salathe made it to within forty feet of the Arrow's summit, where the rock blanks out. To continue would require drilling a bolt ladder, which the imminent dusk and Salathe's dulled bits precluded. Soon afterward, Fritz Lippman, Robin Hansen, Jack Arnold and Anton "Ax" Nelson threw a fishing line over the top of the Arrow from the valley rim. Arnold and Nelson rapped into the notch and climbed up until they reached the line. Pulling on it, they dragged a climbing rope over the summit, then prussiked to the top.

Salathe, miffed, dismissed their scoop as "just a rope trick." The next year he returned, with Nelson, and climbed from the base, via the Lost Arrow Chimney, in a historic, five-day effort—the formation's first "true" ascent. Before his adventure, no one had bivouacked to achieve a Yosemite climb. A forty-seven-year-old man who had been climbing for less than a year had made the era's most significant climbing accomplishment.

Dick Irvin donated this skyhook, which measures six inches from top to bottom and has a stabilizing bar to keep the hook from rocking, to the American Alpine Club's Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in 2003. He discovered it on the ledge at the end of the first pitch, hidden behind a flake, during an attempt to climb the Spire with Bob Swift and Jon Lindbergh (son of the pilot) in 1952. Evidently it was left behind by Salathe and Nelson during their 1947 ascent.

Of Salathe, Yvon Chouinard remembers, "Between his bolts, his hooks and his pitons, he was out there. The Valley climbs before [Salathe] were piddling one-day affairs. No one had spent five days on a wall in the States like the Arrow Chimney. The [advances] that he made weren't just a progression—they were leaps."

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.