Bouldering at Flagstaff Mountain - The Early Years
by Pat Ament

Boulder's climbing history could be an encyclopedia, if a writer were to delve more extensively into its possibilities. Of interest, but with no likelihood of knowing their full stories, are early boulderers, such as Corwin Simmons. I knew a fellow by the name of Dave Husbands who had climbed with Corwin and attested to his remarkable ability. I knew Dave from Junior High School. He was the smallest person on the heavyweight football team, and a feared competitor. He invited me to try to tackle him one day, and as I jumped up onto his shoulders he elbowed me hard in the solar plexis. I was prone on the grass for about 10 minutes, trying to get my air back. Dave was quite a good climber himself although quickly went another path, after his young involvement with it. Through him, though, I had the second-hand impression of one Corwin Simmons who apparently was of relatively small physical stature. In heavy mountain boots Corwin had ascended the north face of a boulder on Flagstaff Mountain that later was named after him.

This north face is very close to vertical, smooth but for a few ripply layers that tend to underhang. The face narrows upward, like a pyramid, finishing at a sloping crest that continues to the top. In one of my first climbing classes, with Baker Armstrong, in about 1960, we stopped at Corwin Simmons rock to try a few of its classic and interesting routes. No one of the routes was easy for this collection of enthusiastic beginners. My partner and friend, Larry Dalke, was in the class, and at one point he and I slipped away from Baker's discussion group and started to play on the north face. I knew nothing then of the significance of this little climb, but Larry had gone to school with Dave Husbands and knew there was a famous route here. Larry was half way up the face, by some mysterious ability to adhere to what looked to be a holdless wall, when Baker turned and called us back. He didn't want us to be off climbing by ourselves, unsupervised. If I recall, Baker then spoke of Corwin Simmons and informed us that the route we were trying was the hardest one on the rock, done in the early 1950's. That stuck in my mind, a sense of the seriousness of the route, and I later returned, within the next couple of years, after I had done a lot of bouldering, and managed, in good kletterschuhe (Kronhoeffer's) to do the route. Today it's still a slippery, very thin face with tiny finger-nail nubbins you scratch for balance, as your feet smear on the down-sloping ripples. You have to fight not to simply step right off of it and drop to the sloping, grassy ground. I can't imagine how difficult that route was in mountain boots.

Now a lot of bushes have grown up and somewhat obscure the north face, a historical climb hidden for the most part, although one can climb it by pushing a way through the bushes to start and then having the bushes there against your body on the lower half. I doubt any of today's boulderers would even know the route exists much less view it as something they would need to do. I suspect, however, that many of today's gym-trained climbers, with so much upper-body strength, would feel every bit as uneasy on this climb as we did years and years ago, as they would not be able to simply power a way up. It would require balance, footwork, delicate technique -- so delicate at times, that one almost has to hold his/her breath to keep from sliding off.

As many of the good climbers of the early years around Boulder, Corwin Simmons disappeared into obscurity and was never seen on the rock or heard from during the golden age of the 1960's. Yet his spirit was felt, at least by me, and I know by a few others, such as Larry Dalke, Dave Husbands, and Baker Armstrong.

There were other names that circulated, such as Bob Beatty, Prince Willmon, Ray Northcutt, and Dallas Jackson. None of these climbers viewed bouldering as more than a little side fun to climbing, although each had talent. Prince Willmon, of course, died tragically in a storm on Longs Peak and did not have a chance to realize his talents. Bob Beatty, from whom I took a climbing class at a very young age, was already quite "up there" in age. Yet he was skilled on rock, a very quiet, humble man who knew how to use the mountain boots he climbed in. I didn't know about Dallas Jackson, other than that he was with Dick Bird, Chuck Merley, Cary Huston, and Dale Johnson on their 1956 ascent of Redguard Route, in Eldorado. Dick Bird led the famous "Birdwalk," the initial pitch on that climb, still a real forearm pumper (stiff 5.8+). These climbers, along with Al Riordan, were no push-overs on rock. In the 1950's Cary Huston led a 50-foot off-width in Boulder Canyon that is still a tough challenge today, the "Huston Crack." There were no "Friends" or wide pitons in those days, and he led that slippery crack unprotected, which certainly would make it at least scary 5.9 for me! That was, in essence, a display of bouldering!

Another name is Tom Hornbein, who as far back as the later 1940's, when he was geology student at C.U., was doing some impressive rock climbs. He and Huston climbed, for example, a difficult crack on Longs Peak that ends at Chasm View, and quite a number of classic climbs around Boulder have Hornbein's name on them, such as Friday's Folly, on the backside of the Third Flatiron.

                                                                                                                                                                                             Cookie Jar Boulder
The real star, however, of this talented group, was Ray Northcutt. Not only a master of the thousand-foot Diagonal Wall of Longs Peak, which he pioneered with Layton Kor, Ray was known for his Flagstaff Mountain boulder problems. In particular, on Cookie Jar Crack, is an overhanging wall ending with a rounded top that appears to be absolutely smooth. When Bob Culp showed me this problem, I couldn't imagine how anyone could climb it even using a tight top rope. Northcutt had done it solo and, in one attempt, fallen and rolled all the way down into the road below the rock. Hence, the name "Northcutt's Roll." Culp, the best boulderer of the early 1960's on Flagstaff, didn't go near the problem, and I could hardly imagine it was more than a figment of someone's imagination, until one day in about 1963 my friend Larry Dalke climbed it right in front of me, in his Hushpuppies! (Photo by Pat Ament - Larry Dalke looks at Cookie Jar in 1961)

The smooth, frictional Hushpuppies were Larry's private secret and foreshadowed the better shoes we now have. He was able to lieback outward on tiny, brittle flakes, as he smeared. He was a better boulderer than I was at that time, although I later went more intensely into it than he. Larry's ascent proved to me the wall could be climbed and that one could scratch a way up it and over its rounded top. I later managed to climb the route, just once, and never wanted to again. I can't imagine the shoes Northcutt wore, but I know he had no chalk and certainly had worse shoes than I did when I made the route.

Of course Northcutt became famous for his 1959 ascent in Eldorado of the Northcutt Start, a 70-foot, extended boulder problem, in essence, now rated 5.11, and led by him when he was told by Ron Foreman that Kor had climbed the route. Northcutt was competitive and believed he could do anything Kor could. Instead of going on to be one of the country's greatest climbers, as did Kor, Northcutt drifted away from climbing, as did many climbers of his generation,

On the north side of Cookie Jar is a very strenuous bulge (in my best gymnastics shape, I never found it easy), supposedly done by Dallas Jackson in the late 1950's. I first saw the route climbed by Bob Culp in the early 1960's when Bob took me bouldering on Flagstaff. He worked at Holubar Mountaineering, and I met him there at the end of his work shift one afternoon. We went straight to Flagstaff, and he was still in his suit. He put on his Kronhoeffers and went smoothly up and over the big, rounded bulge, of Jackson Overhang (or also called Jackson's Pitch), using little finger holds. I couldn't even begin the climb. Had I been able to reach the holds, which stretched Culp's six-foot tall, thin body, I doubt I could have done the route. I was very humbled but also resolved to keep trying and to get better. When I finally did the route, it was one of those big moments in my development, and I found it every bit as hard as I had imagined. I never met Dallas Jackson, and I have wondered if he indeed did do the first ascent of that route, or if Culp made the first ascent and simply named it after Jackson. In any case, the route shows how a single boulder problem can be the basis for respect, and my respect remains for the mythical Jackson.

I also respected Bob Culp. He was the person who brought bouldering to my attention, in the early 1960's, as something one could do independently of longer rock climbs. I was immediately attracted to these short challenges, especially to Pratt's Overhang -- a wall leaning steeply backward that Culp waltzed over easily, at one point throwing his foot onto a horn about head high and rocking up onto his foot and standing up. I was smaller than he but had quite a time figuring out how to get my foot that high. I couldn't imagine how, with his longer legs, he managed to do that move. It made me feel very tangled up and awkward, and upsidedown. At last I learned how to do the climb, and it felt like a real breakthrough for me.

One night, when Larry's parents and mine had a picnic together on Flagstaff, Larry and I slipped away in the dark to find Pratt's Overhang. It was named, incidentally, after an amazing Yosemite talent, Chuck Pratt, although Pratt later told me he never had climbed it. So I always have presumed it was another of those Culp routes for which he gave someone else credit. I don't know if Jackson Overhang was first done by Culp, but I did in fact learn Culp was the first to do Pratt's Overhang. Larry and I found the overhang, and with him spotting I got up there, pulling on the strenuous holds to where I had to throw my foot up nearly to my head and rock up onto it. I did it, in the starlight, feeling quite happy, and stood there a second or two on the knob, perhaps feeling quite cocky, with the difficulties over, and Larry ambled away. He felt he no longer needed to spot me. To my surprise, I found myself lying on my back in the dark, the wind knocked completely out of me, and Larry pressing on my chest to try to get me to breathe. Somehow I had managed to lose my balance in the dark, or my foot slipped off. I'll never know. I landed flat on my back and very fortunately not on my head.

I recall standing up at one point, still no breath in me, and trying to say, "Nice catch," but not being able to produce enough air to say a word. I collapsed back down on the ground and let him press on me some more. When I started to breathe again, we both began to giggle, and laugh, embarrassed and feeling as though we had done something really stupid yet survived. My wrist started to swell and hurt the next morning, and an X-ray revealed a hairline crack. I was in a cast but continued to climb and boulder. The day after the cast was put on, I did an aid climb in Eldorado, Mickey Mouse Nailup (no easy climb), hammering in pitons with my left hand.

When I started to get better at bouldering, Culp brought me to an overhanging crack on Flagstaff and said I might be able to make a first ascent. I was excited and, my first try, went up the overhanging handjam of King Conquer (a name other climbers gave the problem several years later). It was, perhaps, the true beginning for me as a boulderer, to be followed by many years of serious bouldering, and a wonderful preparation for finally meeting John Gill, the Rembrandt of bouldering artists.