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Oklahoma Rock by Doug Robinson


Guiding for a living initially propelled me to Oklahoma (and Kansas and Texas) to teach beginning climbing classes, but fine people and good climbing kept me coming back. I owe my start there to Tex Bossier. While climbing Ama Dablam together in 1979, sitting up on the South Ridge looking out over the Sherpa lands of Nepal, Tex asked if I would like to take over the itinerant classes he had started back in an unlikely part of the States. I did, and Tex went on to work for Patagonia, eventually heading their Paris office.

Flatness dominated my imagination of that part of the country, so I was surprised to find quality sandstone outside Wichita, intricate limestone edges within the Tulsa city limits, and in southwestern Oklahoma the rocky core of the oldest granite mountain range in the country. That range, the Wichita Mountains, sported occasional outcrops of Yosemite-quality granite spread out over 50 miles. Much of it was inside a wildlife refuge populated by eagles, Texas longhorn cattle, and the largest herd of Buffalo anywhere. I would sometimes lay my sleeping bag out on a grassy knoll and wake up with tonnage of wild Bison grazing around me at dawn.

But the best part was getting to know the people. The shop owners were some of the most active backpackers I had ever met, in spite of the long, long drive to the mountains. And each week there was a crowd of new faces, mostly middle-aged flatlanders eager to step out of their horizontal lives into the exotic world of rock climbing. Also a little apprehensive. Each week I had to admire all over again their courage and curiosity.

But it was when a few of my new acquaintances proved to be far from beginners, when they began climbing circles around me on their local outcrops, that I began to see this story, which eventually emerged in Outside Magazine in 1985.

 

Duane Raleigh is the best climber in Oklahoma, which means, oddly enough, that he is world class. He was telling me where his desire to climb, which had catapulted him out of the flatlands and into a leading role in Yosemite, had come from.

"Way back in 1965," he said, "I was in kindergarten. I was watching TV, a movie called The Mountain with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner, where a plane crashes high in the mountains on Mont Blanc. When I saw that I thought, ‘Wow, mountain climbing. Looks pretty neat!'

"I had to walk to kindergarten every day. It was about a mile, and on the way I passed by a 30-foot cliff--flint or limestone, I think--and every time I passed it, I thought of the movie. One day I got sweaty palms and started climbing it. I got gripped out about halfway, but still managed to scramble up the thing. I was impressed, though. I thought, ‘Yeah, I'm a mountain climber now."

By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, something extraordinary had happened in Oklahoma: Duane Raleigh and a band of world-class climbers had arisen out of the heart of flatness.

I had lived in Yosemite during the golden age of big-wall climbing in the ‘60s and had seen a climbing renaissance firsthand. The golden age had been triggered by a few intense individuals who had somehow found one another. Their pooled energy had quickly assumed a life of its own and surged forward to define the future. But who would have guessed such intensity would converge in Oklahoma?

If they had lived elsewhere, nearer one of the big centers, the Oklahoma climbers would have moved early on to Yosemite, or Eldorado Canyon outside Boulder, or New York's Shawangunks, or North Conway, New Hampshire. They would have been pulled into the mainstream, and they would have absorbed its standards and limitations. Instead, out on the arid flatlands, they had to invent their own climbing boom practically from scratch. The urge to ascend had risen in a dozen hearts scattered across Oklahoma. Gradually, by congregating on the rocky outcrops--the limestone in Tulsa and the granite, believe it or not, all over the southwestern corner of the state--they found one another. There wasn't the oppressive competition of the big centers, but a friendlier sort of pushing that teased the best out of each. They became a band of brothers, discovering the excitement of a new medium.

I met them when I inherited a series of rock climbing classes in 1979. Then they were boys just graduating from high school, who would go on to study petroleum engineering or architecture at the University of Oklahoma. They'd scale anything, from the school library to the rock in some farmers wheatfield. "It s not any kind of macho," said one, Mark Herndon, an intense kid whose taste in literature and music might peg him as being from Berkeley rather than Norman, Oklahoma. "There are a lot more efficient ways of looking like a big shot. Climbing is just an oasis of fun in the desert of making a living." Then his voice rose, as if to grab me by the lapels: "I've been to the Valley, Yosemite, but the face climbing at Quartz Mountain in Oklahoma is much better." Quartz Mountain, I later found out, was the rock in the farmers wheatfield.

The first climber I met in Oklahoma was Jon Frank. In 1979, he was an honor student in an Oklahoma City high school, well scrubbed and deeply religious. His growing frame could barely contain his enthusiasm for climbing, which at times spilled over into a maniacal laugh. He had signed up for the "advanced" section of my climbing course, which meant, in this case, everyone who had already climbed a few times and knew how to tie onto the rope. Since it was my first trip, Jon led me down to the Wichita Mountains, where he suggested the Narrows, a favorite spot. "Do you mind if I lead Crazy Alice?" he asked, and proceeded to set the rope for the class. Then he pointed me toward Flying Nun. I went up, but I couldn't lead it and came back down. "Hmm . . ." said Jon, and went up and led it himself. Then he took me to Leapfrog and led the first pitch before turning it over to me. But I couldn't make the mantle on the second pitch, so I traversed around it. Finally, I wrote Jon a check refunding his tuition and labeled it "guides fee." Clearly, I thought, these Oklahoma climbers were a different breed.

By the time I got there, Oklahoma already had an incipient scene. Jon and his beanpole partner, Jimmy Ratzlaff, had a favorite site in the Wichitas with a climb that kept stumping them. One day Jon came upon a lone climber soloing one of his and Jimmy s classics: His name was Duane Raleigh.

There was another group of active climbers centered in Tulsa, and I met them later that same year. The rock in Tulsa was in Chandler Park, close to town. Running along the edge of the park by the Arkansas River are limestone passageways, a literal maze with walls 15 to 25 feet high. Sam Audrain had been a teenage skateboarding whiz until he got distracted by the Chandler limestone. He and less flamboyant locals like Terry Andrews and Marion Hutchison, who had learned to rappel in the Boy Scouts, took to wandering those corridors. A staccato burst of energy applied to the smooth stone might land them on top of one of the blocks or back in the dust on the floor of the maze. After a while, their fingertips grew hard and they came home less dusty. Their style appealed to me as much as their friendliness and humility, and I found myself pushing harder on the rocks than I had in years.

I wasn't the only one to be impressed. Jon and Jimmy came up to Tulsa to meet these climbers, and right away they took to Terry Andrews, clearly the leading climber in that group. "He has the strongest fingers I've ever seen," said Jon. A thin kid with an infectious smile, Terry could cling to minute ripples on the stone. You had to squint up close to find them afterward.

Occasionally, the climbers would be observed by other Oklahomans. Two women from Oklahoma City, I heard, were working on an overhanging sandstone wall below a trail at a place called Robbers Cave. A man's face appeared above them, stared for a long moment, then beckoned behind him. "Look, Martha, mountain climbers! I seen ‘em on TV, but I ain't never seen ‘em in person."

Before they met one another, the Oklahoma climbers had simply improvised. They each had started out, it seemed, with a partner who soon quit. As junior high students, they'd been baffled and ultimately challenged by outcrops of crumbly rock, or maybe it was really just dirt, outside their towns. Duane Raleigh had done his first real climbing on some red dirt cliffs 20 miles out of Weatherford. "We'd go out there every day after school," he recalled, "and nail our way up these things with a piece of old, green, moldy rope this guy stole off a boat out at the lake. We'd use leather belts with metal buckles, tie shoestring around the nails, and tie the rope through it."

The first time Duane saw a climbing catalog, he thought, "What is all this stuff?" As a 14- year-old, he said, "We didn't even know what climbing gear was. Saw pitons--those looked like nails that would be handy for driving into the dirt. Saw carabiners, too. We had to order more carabiners when we found out what they were for."

They might have been short on rocks and equipment and technique, but they didn't lack motivation. I taught classes all through the Midwest, but nothing could compare to the ones in Oklahoma City. The intensity was there from the start. By the fall of ‘80, my second year, the beginners from the year before were helping me teach. Boys like Karl Bird and Steve Gilliam had teamed up the first year and worked out every weekend on the rocks. Rick Thomas had been a beginning student in Tulsa, but a summer in Colorado had made him bold. With another climber and a bare minimum of equipment, he had free-climbed up the middle of the Diamond on Longs Peak, Colorado's largest and most notorious alpine wall, making delicate 5.10 moves over lots of very thin air and pushing through to the summit.

Enthusiasm ran so high that I didn't wait a year, but shuttered my cabin in the Sierra and came back to Oklahoma in June of ‘81. I hadn't reckoned the Midwestern summer--with temperatures in the l00's and humidity to match--and I lay in a soaking sweat all night in the tent, emerging to flying bugs, occasional centipedes cruising the rocks, and even a rattlesnake 15 feet up a crack and acting territorial. It was all tolerable but the humidity: In weather like that you could practically get sweaty palms while holding a beer. My young friends hardly noticed. We were climbing, and they were just itching to show off the jewel of Oklahoma climbing, Quartz Mountain. The rock in the wheatfield.

It was a three-hour drive to the best rock in Oklahoma. We left Oklahoma City before dawn, and the heat of the day was already hanging in the air. We stopped at a rural cafe for breakfast; the waitress looked at this group of strong kids and said, "You boys hayin'?"

We found Quartz Mountain--called Baldy Peak on the topo map--in the middle of a flatlands farm: one orange dome rising out of a field of winter wheat that looked as if it got lost on the way to Yosemite. Its 300-foot face was that good, smooth and flawless. There was a fence around the field, posted with NO TRESPASSING signs, but we went over the stile next to it. Duane and the boys said no problem, they had an agreement with the owner of the land, Farmer Johnson.

If the Wichita Mountains are like "islands of rock in a prairie sea," as one geologist put it, then Quartz is at the far western end of the archipelago. The granite is actually a little rougher than Yosemite, more like you'd find it at Joshua Tree, so it yields friction climbing to a disconcertingly high angle. Jon Frank and Jimmy Ratzlaff took me on one classic line after another: S-Wall, Last of the Good Guys, Amazon Woman. They ascended steep, blank, crackless rock, the only anchorage to the stone provided by an occasional bolt sunk into a drilled hole. These two-pitch climbs on barely 300 feet of rock were more than just superb lines that would be considered classics even in Yosemite. As I climbed more, another quality began to emerge: boldness.

The temperature had ascended to 107 degrees by mid-afternoon. On the south-facing rock it was even hotter, so we ducked out to the lake for a swim, returning at dusk to attempt The Big Bite. Fifteen feet above the belay station at mid-height there is a bolt, then nothing, no protection at all as the 5.10 friction soars upward and finally curves out of sight over the top of the dome. "Beware of the big bite consequences should you fail," warned the brand-new Oklahoma guidebook, Southern Exposure. A fall from near the top could crater into the ledge down there where the climb began. Bold indeed.

The rock at Quartz had been a pleasant surprise, but the climbs were downright unbelievable, bold to a standard seldom seen elsewhere. They bespoke committed vision backed solidly by technique--the boys had learned a lot since the days of leather belts and moldy ropes--and seemingly unshakable mind control. Scanning the guidebook, I could see many such routes designated by an "xx" after the rating. The definition was chilling: "xx means a ground fall is very possible."

The guidebook was something else, a beautifully literate little document, full of intriguing route names and light-hearted directions--"Do a disco step left into a red water streak," it said at one point. Duane had written it, and how he had done it was part of the Oklahoma climbers' growing cache of legends.

All the boys were students, except for Duane. Though just as capable and smart, Duane worked part time as a roofer so he could pour his considerable energy into climbing: He climbed solo or found partners among those who cut classes and climbed on weekends. Rick Thomas was so eager after his early climbing experiences that he took a semester off and spent a spring climbing with Duane. They were poor, so on the way to Quartz, they bought a sack of potatoes and decided they wouldn't stop climbing until the potatoes were gone. They did hardly anything but first ascents for weeks, three or four new routes a day. Then Duane recalled a blank wall back in the Narrows, and they tackled that. Two feet below the top of a climb he intended to call Dr. Kildare, Duane fell, going all the way to the ground and breaking his leg.

So in the hospital, with "unwanted assistance from Dr.Kildare," Duane began compiling the guidebook Southern Exposure. But it was finished before the leg. With five weeks left to go on the meter, at the height of the summer heat, Duane took a hacksaw to his cast. His foot was still so swollen that he had to borrow a larger climbing shoe, but the next day he limped into the Narrows and finished leading the first ascent of Dr. Kildare.

In the winters, Duane Raleigh, Mark Herndon, Jon Frank, Jimmy Ratzlaff, and the others were always camped at Quartz. In the summers they began branching out. In 1980, Jon Frank was the first Oklahoma climber to go to Yosemite Valley. The climbers' campground there is dotted with granite boulders that function as a combination gymnasium and social center: a place to limber up after the long drive west, possibly find a climbing partner, and insert yourself in the pecking order. The locals were amused to see Oklahoma plates pull into their parking lot, and when Jon opened his mouth the amusement turned to laughter.

"Gol-ly!" said Jon. "Look at those boulders!"

But Jon Frank had been on granite boulders back at Quartz, and as soon as he put a hand to these it was familiar territory all the way. He eventually got to within one or two moves of the top of Midnight Lightning, the most notorious--and visible--boulder problem in Yosemite and one that still has only half a dozen ascents. The snickers subsided.

Back home, Jon raved about the Valley with such infectious enthusiasm that the next summer he had no trouble talking Jimmy and Duane into going back with him. In a few days, they were ready to start up El Capitan. Since it was May, Duane took only cotton painter's pants, a T-shirt, and a down jacket to sleep in. At their first bivouac on El Cap Tower it started to rain. In the morning the other three parties that were on the route rappelled by them in retreat. Duane led upward in the freezing rain. They had to climb into the next night to reach the ledge known as Camp 5. By then it was snowing. "Those other guys had waterproof parkas and wool underwear," Duane recalled. "My down jacket was soaked; wearing it just made me colder, so I packed it away. Then I was out in the snowstorm in just a wet T-shirt and frozen pants. Lightning was crashing around. I thought I was going to die." (Just last fall, two Japanese climbers did freeze to death in a snowstorm right above there.)

That was enough to give Duane a taste for the Big Wall, and over the next few years he worked his way through increasingly harder routes. Mark Herndon became his steady partner and recalled arriving back in the Valley to call home after doing Mescalito.

"Mom, we climbed El Cap."

"Again? You climbed it again?"

"Yeah, it was great. Mescalito--a hard route."

"That's nice.... Your brother won the golf tournament again."

After soloing one of the hardest of all 40 El Cap routes, Zenyatta Mendata, in near record time in 1982, Duane felt ready for a first ascent of his own. He had been eyeing a section of the face of Half Dome that was particularly blank, consistently overhanging, and strikingly white. He was already thinking of calling it Arctic Sea when he asked Houston BASE jumper Tom Cosgriff to come along. The climbing got hard immediately, but the real problem didn't start until after the ledge. They came to it on the tenth day, a two-by-three-foot platform. It was the only ledge on the whole route; they named it Ice Station Zebra and stayed for three nights. Then the pitch above, The Linear Accelerator, broke the last of their drills and they had to retreat to the ledge.

So they sat on the ledge and drank a case of beer. Well, not a whole case. They had already drunk a can or two here and there, out of the case they had loaded into their haul bag at the base of the wall last week. But they drank enough to realize that a broken drill will, after all, do what the oilfield roughnecks back home refer to as "make hole." Six days later, with a total of only 16 bolts (amazingly few bolts for so blank a wall), they topped out. So far, Arctic Sea has had only one repeat.

Getting back to Oklahoma was an adventure, too. In Reno one year, Mark Herndon ended up sleeping under a bridge with the winos while waiting for a ticket home. And one of his buddies was waylaid in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon one afternoon by a beautiful trustfunder who invited him to her cabin for the evening and then added, ". . . bring your rope."

But they had left their mark on Yosemite, the climbers' arena. This past spring, Rick McUsic and three of Oklahoma's younger climbers--the next generation--pulled into the climbers' parking lot. Seeing the Oklahoma plates, a few of the normally jaded locals held back respectfully for a few moments, then rushed over to greet the newcomers, eager for news of Duane and the boys. The news was that Duane and Mark were not coming to the Valley that summer. They were going to the Alps.

"You wouldn't believe the Alps!" The voice on the phone was breathless, insistent. I blinked awake. It was two in the morning in California, nearly dawn in Oklahoma, and I'd seen the Alps for myself. Twice. "I've been sitting here thinking about it and just had to talk to someone," said Mark Herndon. The flow of postcards from Mark and Duane had been teasing me all summer. They had started out innocently enough: "We're in Chamonix now. Way cool ... French babes everywhere."

But nothing in their experience had readied Mark and Duane for this. Neither Quartz nor the hot, dry walls of Yosemite were preparation enough for the rivers of ice pouring off Mont Blanc nearly to the city limits, for the ice running up the shaded gullies and plastered across granite faces, and for the deadly storms that swept regularly over the crest. It was tempting just to hang out at the topless swimming pool. Mark described a huddled bivouac in a big electrical storm: "Sparks flew and St. Elmo's fire whooped it up. This alpinism is frightening. I'm learning how to stay alive here--be cautious." His voice trembled as he talked about scuttling across 50-degree ice gullies between volleys of stonefall, and then getting hit in the arm anyway for a ballooning bruise that lasted three weeks. "Nothing a little booze wouldn't cover," Mark reported, but his thoughts were already turning homeward.

Duane and a fresh partner went back up, to the queen of the alpine ice walls, Les Droites. The ice was thin, so they climbed a direct route of steep rock. Dual soloing, they made progress swiftly, and two hours above the glacier they passed a Spanish party that had been climbing for three days. Sixty rope-lengths and not 24 hours later, they were already on their way down the backside toward Chamonix. There in the street were the Spaniards, who had rappelled off in the meantime. The Spaniards kept a respectful distance.

September 7: "It's been raining ever since Mark left the 3rd. . . so desperate to do something that we are going up today weather be damned. It should be SPORTY. I should be back sometime in October or November unless some ice chunk offs me. Then, well, see you in the next world and DON'T BE LATE...."

My friends in California are amused every time I leave the High Sierra to go climbing in the kingdom of flatness, but the truth is, I've found myself climbing in Oklahoma a lot lately. Last winter I took yet another trip, planning to go on to new rock in Arkansas with Duane and the boys. But by the time I got to Norman, snow blanketed the state and there were ice storms in Arkansas. In the end we got only a one day break in the storm cycle and opted for the familiar slabs of Quartz Mountain, south-facing and dry.

The trip had the festive air of a homecoming. Duane soloed Jet Stream, a 5.10 route that most of us are afraid to lead with a rope. But he had done it many times, and that day he was just using it as a convenient approach to Master Race, his 5.12 test piece that follows a line of extremely thin holds under a prominent ceiling.

Then Duane belayed Jon on Master Race, urging him on with quiet confidence and humor. As a result, we were treated to a second ascent that day. And Jon pronounced Master Race to be harder than half a dozen notorious 5.12s, like Separate Reality in Yosemite and Open Cockpit in the Shawangunks.

It was that spirit of cooperation, that downright Midwestern good-heartedness and generosity of spirit, I realized, that had fused this collection of climbers from solitary flatlanders into a band of brothers.

Last fall at Quartz the dark side of the bold standard of Oklahoma climbing surfaced abruptly. One of the up-and-coming climbers was leading high above his protection on Glass when he pulled a handhold off. He fell, ripping out his top two protection points as the rope came taut, and slammed into a ledge 40 feet-below. When I got to him there was bone jutting out of the side of his ankle. But he was lucky. No arteries were torn, so all we had to do was keep him comfortable until the Army medical helicopter arrived from Fort Sill. The flight medic spun lazily on a steel cable as he lowered out of the sky toward our ledge, and he arrived wide-eyed: "Eighty-three days left in the Army and I had to pull this detail," he said, gripping the back of the ledge.

"Didn't they train you for this?"

"I was trained in SCUBA rescue."

His patient was the first to laugh. After the stretcher was winched up into the chopper, we descended. There was Ted Johnson, the 69-year-old cattle rancher who owned Quartz Mountain, in his blue overalls. Uh-oh, I thought, there goes our climbing area. But Johnson was more interested in keying out a plant he had in hand: "Looks like sumac to me, but it has too many berries." He didn't seem concerned about the rescue at all. Finally, he got around to the boys.

"That's a good bunch of kids," he confided.

"Good climbers, too," I replied. By now I had been trying to keep up with them for several years, across Oklahoma and out in California. "They're world class."

Johnson wasn't surprised. He had been reading up on the subtleties of climbing ethics and style. "This climbing is a great sport," he said. Then he revised his opinion. "It's a grand sport."

Later I saw him talking to Brent Choate, one of the next generation, a punker in Vuarnets and bleached blond hair. You could hardly imagine a more unlikely pair, but in fact, different as they looked, they sounded just alike--unmistakably Midwestern. The punk matched the old farmer's easygoing and understated speech, met his steady gaze. And of course they were talking about a mutual interest.

Things are beginning to change in the lives of the Oklahoma climbers these days, and the little renaissance that arose so rapidly here is starting to fade. Terry Andrews and Marion Hutchison have become petroleum geologists, and Mark Herndon will follow them soon. Typically, they have shunned the big companies to prospect independently, scrambling together deals and dreaming of the big strike that will send them all on an exotic expedition. Jon Frank continues to climb in Yosemite and has been inspired by his girlfriend to train seriously for triathlons. Jimmy Ratzlaff teaches Sunday school and spent a summer as a chaplain in Yosemite Valley. Karl Bird has been guiding in the Sierra for the last two seasons. Steve Gilliam has started a guide service in Oklahoma City. Rick Thomas is a certified nordic ski instructor living in Mammoth. Sam Audrain is racing mountain bikes in Tulsa. Terry Andrews was the first of the group to get married; the rest of the boys showed up in three-piece suits and cried at the wedding.

Duane Raleigh has mellowed out since returning from the Alps. He hardly climbed for a while--the boys thought it might have something to do with a new girlfriend. But then he charged up again in the Wichita Mountains, and this past May, when he got married, he and his bride honeymooned at the base of Quartz Mountain in Farmer Johnson's field.

Doug Robinson has been climbing and guiding around the world for more than 30 years. His name is especially familiar to those of us in the local climbing community who were fortunate enough to have been climbing at the Wichitas during the late ‘70's and early ‘80's. A native Californian and veteran Yosemite climber, Doug first ventured to Oklahoma in 1979 to teach a growing number of young, inspired climbers the skills and techniques they would need for a lifetime of adventure. The friendship's that grew out of that first visit brought Doug back to the prairie year after year to share in the "Golden Age" of Oklahoma climbing.

Doug's life-long passion for climbing is matched only by his love for the place he calls home: the Sierra Nevada. His purist approach to climbing has often set the standard for others to follow. In 1972, his article "The Whole Natural Art of Protection" appeared in the first Chouinard Equipment Catalogue. This now classic piece was the inspirational gospel that helped convince an entire generation of climbers to put away their hammers and pitons. One year later, Doug pushed the limits of the new "clean climbing" revolution when he, Galen Rowell, and Dennis Henneck made the first clean ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Today, in both words and deeds, Doug continues to serve as the conscience of the climbing community.

To read more of Doug's poetic writings and his adventures in the Range of Light, purchase a copy of his book "A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open" at your nearest outdoor shop.

For information on guided climbing adventures throughout the U.S. and around the world with Doug Robinson, visit his website:

http://www.movingoverstone.com

 

 
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