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Tom Higgins (1944-2018) remembers the 1976 first ascent of a Pinnacles classic

Posted on: April 4, 2018


Editor's Note—in memory of an influential climber

Tom Higgins wrote the following story in 2017 for Friends of Pinnacles (an organization focused on the preservation of climbing and the environment at Pinnacles National Park, California) to mark the re-bolting of the classic route Shake and Bake (5.10a R) with modern hardware. Higgins had originally established the route ground-up—drilling the bolts on lead from free stances without hooks—with Chris Vandiver in 1976. Friends of Pinnacles shared the story and photos with Alpinist in the aftermath of Higgins' death at age 73 on March 21.

Born November 7, 1944, in Huntington Park, California, Higgins became a prolific first-ascensionist and free climber during the 1960s. He was a staunch believer in a purist approach to climbing, and he penned the famous 1984 treatise "Tricksters and Traditionalists," in which he took issue with a range of tactics used by the top climbers of the era—including John Bachar's reliance on hooks to drill a few widely spaced bolts on the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c X, 400'), a climb often thought of, today, as one of the ultimate examples of a bold, ground-up first ascent. Higgins himself was a bold climber for his day, establishing some of the earliest 5.11 free climbs, such as Left Ski Track (130') in Joshua Tree in 1968.

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On a Supertopo.com online discussion thread following Higgins' death, John Long ("Largo") wrote, "If people only knew how hard those routes [are that] Tom...put up [at] Tahquitz, back in the '60s, in junk shoes. Try and climb the last pitch of Jonah [5.10+] in lug-sole shoes and you're looking at 5.12 for sure. And runout as hell. All of us Stonemasters followed Tom's footsteps...Tom was a special talent."

On the "About Tom Higgins" page of TomHiggins.net, Higgins wrote eloquently about his early introductions to climbing:

There is a moment when every devoted climber knows mountains are about to rule life. My moment came as a teenager at home in Los Angeles, watching on TV the grainy 1950 movie, The White Tower. In an early scene, a train emerges from a tunnel into the Alps. Dark turns to light. Bright, sharp peaks and glaciers cut across the sky. Suddenly, I knew I had to climb.

But how? There were no climbing schools, magazines or gyms, though rumor hinted at sandstone hunks at the far end of San Fernando Valley where a few Sierra Club nuts practiced the trade. And so, in the early 1960s, amidst blowing dust and abandoned car bodies at Stony Point, with soft pitons and hemp rope from an army surplus store, I scampered naively over boulders and cliffs with equally possessed friends Bud (later Ivan) Couch and Russ McLean. We soon met Bob Kamps at Stony who modeled the technique and safety we needed. Good, long days of climbing to come with Kamps were sparked by our trips to Tahquitz Rock and the first free ascent of Blanketty Blank where a touchy mantel Stony style got us over the crux. With Kamps and others at Tahquitz, I went on to several first ascents employing the techniques of my mentor: light hiking shoes with Vibrum soles, ground up climbing, and protection (including bolts) placed on lead....

Higgins had a special love for what he saw as the whimsical nature of climbing at Pinnacles, a place he celebrated in an article for Alpinist 27:

I'm drawn to Pinnacles for the stun-gun feel of climbing on the Hades cliffs and ruddy blobs formed millions of years ago, when an 8,000-foot-high mountain erupted and then cooled into the friable lava shells that charge and scare me as I move upward, testing, checking, wondering whether a solid patch might turn bad higher up. And also for the slow-moving tarantulas on the late-afternoon road; the warm air that gently ruffles the wispy digger; the fuzzy-eared bat that peers at me from a crack....

Pinnacles is a place of strange wonders: creatures, noises, sensations, night thoughts—and of the bright hot day and the angst...along the good rock and the crud, as you think, What am I doing, until you're up, calling to your partner, 'Oh, not so bad.'...

Pinnacles: for the sensory fandango of odd rock chunks, animals strange and fantastic; for the electrified brain testing with chalky hand the solid and friable; for zinging thoughts and talks of climbing characters and their ways, from the first bolt to now; for the full churning up in you of how and why we climb.

Higgins is survived by his wife Nancy Dyar, his daughter Alanna Higgins Joyce, two grandsons and numerous nieces and nephews.—Ed.

Tom Higgins belaying Shake and Bake, Pinnacles National Park, California, 1976. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, Courtesy Friends of PinnaclesTom Higgins belaying Shake and Bake, Pinnacles National Park, California, 1976. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, courtesy Friends of Pinnacles

Higgins on the first ascent of Shake and Bake:

I recall how ridiculous and impossible it seemed to try a free route on the main part of the Balconies wall, with the top of the wall seemingly bulging and overhanging in several places. Would it go? Could we down climb if it got too steep to put in bolts, or just run it to where there might be a bolting stance? Was the indented black streak rock good or bad, or good AND bad? We had minimal experience with water streaks at Pinnacles to know one way or another. Such thoughts made our stomachs churn as Chris Vandiver and I walked along the base of the wall scanning each water streak for its climbing potential. We selected the streak we did climb because a side view suggested it might not be as steep at the top as other lines we examined, but the view from underneath still shocked us so much we just stopped looking and thinking about what was up there.

As for the climb itself, I recall Chris baking off the second pitch start (I mean backing off, but baking, too, as it was high-80s to low-90s during the climb) because he felt he couldn't drill from any stances he tried. I found the trick to drilling overhead on the steep terrain was to tap very lightly to start, arch your back while squashing your hips into the rock as much as possible, and try to hold the tipsy feeling at bay. Once the drill was in even a quarter inch, griping the holder moderated the reeling sensation and encouraged me to continue, though pulling the drill out to clean dust brought back the sickening prospect of tumbling headlong into space.

Once I got a bolt in, I felt a burst of confidence, as if I had just bought another 20 or 30 feet to try, and so the fear quelled. We hooted back and forth at such moments. Surprisingly, the moves were not as hard as I anticipated, and the rock nubs seemed pretty solid. So on we went, continuing to take the thing in sections, telling ourselves any fall wouldn't be too long and we could always rap off if it didn't go, leaving it for others to try.

Higgins leading Pitch 1 on the first ascent of Shake and Bake, 1976. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, Courtesy Friends of PinnaclesHiggins leading Pitch 1 on the first ascent of Shake and Bake, 1976. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, courtesy Friends of Pinnacles

Chris Vandiver and Tom Fukuya scope Pitch 2 prior to the first ascent. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, Courtesy Friends of PinnaclesChris Vandiver and Tom Fukuya scope Pitch 2 prior to the first ascent. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, courtesy Friends of Pinnacles

The ascent took two days. As weekend climbers with busy work and school lives, I believe we didn't get back to it for a couple or three weeks. We didn't worry someone might make their own attempt as there were few climbers frequenting Pinnacles at the time. I don't recall anyone seeing us on the wall, and we didn't tell anyone about our try. As well, generally climbers of the day who discovered a work in progress left it alone for a good amount of time and then tried to fish out who was on it and if they were still trying or had quit. We climbed ground-up to our previous high point (I think partway up pitch two) on the second attempt day. Ground-up for all attempts was customary for first ascents at the time. We scared ourselves climbing again what we already had climbed, realizing it was tricky and run out in places. Chris joked, "Who did this?!" I used the same line with partners when repeating the route years later.

I recall I climbed left from the streak at some point where knobs seemed better, then crossed back to the streak higher up finally reaching the second belay point, a good stance for drilling. Chris followed more directly and said it was solid 5.9. I replied to the effect the little diversion felt the same, but maybe felt a bit more secure.

Looking up at the last pitch, we thought it might not go, as the dark channel curved outward at one point where a bolt might well be needed. Turned out I could stop to drill by bridging the sides of the channel, an airy stance but secure enough. I was very motivated to get something in quickly as a fall might mean hitting Chris not far below. So, I opted for a 1/4- versus 3/8-inch bolt in a hard boulder lump embedded in the softer rock. The bolt went in fast but with decent resistance. I felt confidence again from the tense feel drilling it, typical of the winging sensation poles of the entire climb. The move above the bolt was the last of any difficulty before the channel eased back to the top. Belaying Chris, I told myself I would replace it some other day with one of the hefty 3/8-inch split shafts we used elsewhere on the climb, but never did.

Bruce Cooke leading Pitch 3 on the third ascent of Shake and Bake. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, Courtesy Friends of PinnaclesBruce Cooke leading Pitch 3 on the third ascent of Shake and Bake. [Photo] Tom Higgins collection, courtesy Friends of Pinnacles

In the article for an old Ascent, "Anti-climbing at the Pinnacles," I tried to describe the feeling of luck, wonder and relief [that] burst within us as dusk descended and we made our way across a weedy ramp, and down. Over my years climbing, I found no more satisfying time than rounding a cliff or dome or tower to look back upon a first ascent hard won. There we stood surround[ed] with evening sounds of insects, frogs and birds and yellowing walls going to purple, this time not with trepidation but deep and abiding joy. Strangely, in that moment, neither of us wanted to do the climb ever again, as if that way we could forever imbue its impossible feel and honor the fates or gods allowing us to leave our flat and routine world to tiptoe up the strong, improbable and now somber wall before us. Of course, we both did climb Shake and Bake again, enjoying it in a different way than the first time, perhaps forgetting those gods or fates, but not what they permitted us.

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