Bouldering Companions

Pete Cleveland Pete Cleveland : Here is a portrait of Pete done by Pat Ament. And this photo of Pete on Steak Sauce at Devils Lake was apparently taken in the 1970s.

I first met Pete in the Tetons in the 1960s. We bouldered there, and climbed and bouldered together in the Needles of the Black Hills. Pete is probably the most undersung of the great American rock climbers. This superlative climber was ahead of his generation, and I found him to be a top bouldering competitor, as well. In the Tetons in 1966, after Bob Kamps and Yvon Chouinard had retreated from the north face of the Crooked Thumb (Yvon took a horrendous and spectacular swan dive of a fall when his pin pulled out - this dampened their enthusiasm for such a rotten and dangerous piece of Teton rock), Pete's the guy who went up there and did it (18 pitches, 3 days). On the Jenny Lake boulders, he may have been the first to do the static variation of Gill's Route on Red Cross Rock.

In the Needles, he and I worked on the FA of the Outlet Boulder Overhang together. Pete had managed to squirm his way up a tight dihedral after he and I had tried this several times, and he had almost gotten the problem when he came off, fell through my spot, and ended in a cloud of dust on the gound, flat on his back. As he lay there panting, and with dust curling up around him, he said " I can DO this!". Unable to squeeze my larger frame into the folded rock, I had fallen behind in the contest. But then, fortunately, I discovered a dynamic method of passing the initial part and reached the critical handhold unfatigued. We both got the problem, but we had a helluva time in the process!

On another occasion, we went up to make the FA of a thin spire I named El Mokanna , in the Picket Fence Area. Climbing up the north side, the top crux pitch was essentially a large slightly overhanging boulder problem. I got a piton in at foot level in the corner of a small shelf we were standing on below the crux, then climbed up the thin nubbined bulge for a few feet, reaching an apparent impasse. After a moment's non-deliberation I trusted my Needles' instinct and made a blind dynamic move up and around a corner. Fortuitously, there was a hold there that could not be seen from below, and I was able to instinctively lock onto it and then climb to the top(5.9-5.10). Pete said "You shouldn't have to do that, it looks too risky". When he reached the same spot he hesitated, then did what I had done. If it weren't for my desire to impress my extremely bold companion, I would have studied the rock more intensely, and found a less dramatic sequence. (In 1969 Mark and Beverly Powell found a route on the south side that went at 5.6).

I recall watching Pete as he did one of the longer and more barren Needles. I believe he scrambled up a tree rising next to the long, downhill side of the nubbly spire, and fastened a sling in its upper branches for protection on the otherwise unprotectable bottom section of the climb, although I could be confusing this with either another climb or the first reconnaissance of this one. (Using a tree sling was standard, reasonable, and acceptable practice at the time - for instance, the regular route up the Incisor , done by Bob Kamps and me, involved a tree sling). I do recall with more clarity the great calmness and deliberation Pete exhibited as he climbed the final thin and exposed 30 or 40 feet to the top - as risky a lead as I've ever seen. He had the finest control of his nerves (and climbing demeaner) of any climber I've ever known. At that time I would not have tried doing what he did. Henry Barber, who arrived on the climbing scene several years later, had the same kind of nerveless and bold climbing style.

At Devil's Lake, Pete floated past my hardest 1959 routes and put up a number of truly new-age climbs, stunning in their difficulty. His top-rope of Phlogiston set a new standard for that time (it was given a bouldering rating of B2 for a while).

Pete didn't have much interest in auxiliary training for climbing. He avoided my gymnastic approach, and I can remember a comment he made to me: "You need to remain fairly thin and avoid gymnastic exercises that bulk you up. The fingers are the weakest link between climber and rock, and hard climbing is the best exercise for them." He also speculated that the fingers would be the first point of weakening and failure as one grew old, and I agreed with him. As it turns out, we were wrong about that.

I admired Pete even more because of the tremendous intellectual content of his life: he earned a PhD in Chemistry from Iowa (his thesis yielded information on the deterioration of nylon ropes and slings), and when he found jobs were scarce and he didn't enjoy teaching, he earned an MD. Later, he worked in the state prison system in Wisconsin – avoiding the big bucks of private practice and going to a place where he was needed the most. Kudos to this multi-talented climber and professional – unquestionably, one of the top rock aces of his era!    (2003)