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Discovery of the White Rock Climbing Areas


For many years now, club members have organized evening top roping sessions at a number of basalt cliffs in White Rock. These are held every Tuesday and Thursday during that part of the year when Daylight Savings Time is used. This is the most popular and enduring activity enjoyed by many club members. But the top roping sessions also represent a special aspect of the Mountaineers and our location here in Los Alamos. Where else can one leave the office at 5 PM and within an hour be in an entirely different world? All thoughts of Laboratory meetings, memos, equations, or experiments are pushed from the mind, as one focuses everything on the attempt to get up a climb without falling off! These outdoor sessions provide great mental refreshment and a good physical workout. However, they were not always part of the Mountaineers' lifestyle.

Len Margolin, who came to Los Alamos in July 1969, was for many years the club's strongest and most imaginative rock climber. He discovered several of the White Rock climbing areas, pioneered many top roping first ascents, and had an aptitude for selecting colorful and appropriate names for his new routes. Recently he wrote some notes on "Top Roping in White Rock Canyon -- The Early Years" from which much of the following information is taken.

Len remembers that "I became friendly with Jim Porter, who was also new in town, and George Fogelsong, who had been a member of the Mountaineers for several years. George talked Jim and me into taking the climbing school in April of 1970. I think it was love at first sight for both Jim and me. For a dozen years, top roping was an integral part of my life; I kept my climbing gear in the trunk of my car in the hope that someone would call and say, 'Let's go climbing tonight.' I believe that top roping, in its present incarnation in Los Alamos, was a product of just a few people. Not that we had a vision of anything so grand, we were just some young people enjoying ourselves. I am glad that new people continue to discover top roping on our cliffs. I hope that the Los Alamos Mountaineers will continue to play an active role in preserving the cliffs and promoting safety among the climbers."

"In those early days, the only White Rock climbing area was Potrillo Cliffs. (This area had been discovered by Harry Hoyt and Bob Taylor in 1954.) A few years previously, Layton Kor, a high-end rock climber from Boulder, and his girl friend Joy Heron, had come to Los Alamos, put up several climbs at Potrillo and rated them for us. The particular climbs I remember were Heron's Fissure (5.7), Upper Kor's Crack (5.8), and Lower Kor's Crack (5.9). These ratings formed the basis of our local rating system for many years. In 1970, the best Los Alamos climbers could master Upper Kor's, but no one in town could get up Lower Kor's. That is, 5.8 was the standard. Other popular climbs at Potrillo included the Pillars of Hercules and the Lieback. I remember that it was necessary to climb the Pillars before one was allowed on a club trip to the Brazos."

Fig. 1. An unknown climber wrestles with the crux squeeze move
 on the Pillars of Hercules at Potrillo Cliffs (Bob Cowan photo, April 1967)

Len recalls that "We were hooked, and of course eager to get good enough to climb with the big boys on the harder routes. So we bought ourselves a rope (Plymouth Goldline) and went out to Potrillo to practice. Now, one should understand that so far as the more experienced climbers were concerned, Potrillo was only for the spring time until the snow melted in the Brazos . . . . Our 'practice climbing' was not at all an accepted activity by the Mountaineers. So the better climbers -- Don Liska, George Bell, Bill Hendry, Carl Keller, Larry Campbell, and Larry Dauelsberg -- weren't interested in coming out to help us. . . . . So while climbing by ourselves was fun for a while, there were only a limited number of climbs there and we were getting bored. We were able to attract a few of the other new climbers, but this led to a new problem as there were never enough ropes to go around; we started borrowing the club ropes so we could set up more climbs." 

"As soon as I had arrived at Los Alamos, I started going out on weekends exploring the mesas and canyons east of town. During these explorations in my first fall (1969), I found a rock canyon south of the main hill road near the White Rock Y. The original attraction was the pictographs on the rock walls and a large water fall that ran in the spring and in the summer when it rained. The rock walls were much too steep to scramble on. But in the summer of 1970, it occurred to me that maybe Jim and I could find something to climb there . . . . The first climb we did was the Ramp and that was very easy. The next climb was bat shit cave. That was a little harder. Then Jim decided he wanted to try leading and he chose the Triple Overhang. Eventually, he got up and I managed to clean the pitch, but both of us were at our limits. Over the next few weeks, we returned and did many more of the familiar climbs." 

"In the fall of 1970, another young climber moved from Albuquerque to Los Alamos. Steve Schum was working as a carpenter, starting work early in the morning and able to meet me for toproping after work 3 or 4 times a week. Also, Steve had his own rope. Over September and October, we put up many of the standard climbs, including the Open Book, the Middle and Left Mothers, the Beastie, etc. I found that I was particular well suited to jam cracks and started tackling any crack I could get a finger into. Then in the last days before daylight saving ended, Steve and I went back to Potrillo and I was able to climb Kor's Lower Crack. The 5.9 barrier was broken."

"In the spring of 1971, I convinced LAMC president Larry Campbell to have one session of the climbing school at the Y. As part of that session, Larry wanted to demonstrate aid climbing. Because we were still in the piton era, we were loath to have Larry nail any of our standard routes for fear of damaging the rock. So Larry chose the most difficult section of rock he could find. I remember it had lots of loose rock, including a very large flake 2/3 of the way up. Of course, Larry's assertion that the route was too hard to free climb was a direct challenge to Steve and me. Larry made the possibility of free climbing even more difficult by inadvertently knocking off several potential footholds. About that same time, a friend of Steve's moved to Santa Fe. Mike Roybal was burning up the rock in Albuquerque, where he was a student at UNM. Looking for new challenges, Mike rode his motorcycle to the Y and joined us throughout that spring and summer. In particular, Steve, Mike and I laid siege to Larry's aid route and after a month, we had conquered it and named it Wisconsin for the shape of its prominent flake. Steve and I worked out a very strenuous route, including the one arm layback that became part of the standard route. Mike, on the other hand, did some seemingly impossible face moves, standing on nothing, and somehow got to the top in a completely elegant style." 

"At the end of the 1971 season, I worked out the Ring Jam at the Y. Although this is not the hardest climb I have done, it is certainly one of the most satisfying and somehow it came to be the climb most identified with me. The summer of 1972 was also the period that I worked on the Spiral Staircase. This is the closed crack in the section of the Y that I named The Gallery for the pictographs there; it is just upstream of the Ring Jam. It is really a bouldering problem; the hardest moves are right off the ground and can be safely made unroped . . . . I must have attempted this pitch a hundred times, making progress literally inches at a time . . . . The final move involved edging on a very thin line, releasing one of my hands and then standing up. I had tried various combinations of relative hand positions and of which hand to release, but inevitably I would barn door out as I straightened. Oddly, the solution to this final problem came to me as I was sitting in my office at work; the trick was to change feet and hang my free leg behind me for counterbalance. The position felt unnatural, but worked well. Afterward, it occurred to me that the story of the Spiral Staircase was totally an intellectual exercise; I would never have attempted such a pitch in the Brazos and likely would never have even recognized it as a potential line." 

"In June of 1971, I discovered the lower cliffs at the Overlook. The cracks there were awesome compared to the Y, much longer and more continuous. Later that month, I arranged for Mike Roybal to come up for the weekend, and we were joined by Steve and Polly Hessing. At first, we just walked along the base of the cliffs, each of us laying claim to some particular crack. It became an amazing orgy of first ascents. We had planned to retreat to my apartment and party that evening, but instead we took our sleeping bags back to the Overlook, so as to get an earlier start on Sunday. My first climb at the Overlook was the left side of the open book that is downstream of the Cholla Wall. Mike chose the right side of the big roof. In that first weekend, no climb was repeated and still we didn't get to the cliffs on the other (west) side.

Fig. 2. The Overlook. Len's Roof is the large overhang near the right side of the cliff. Ron Selvage
(green shirt) is on the route to the right of the roof. (Ron and Kim Selvage photo).

Len says, "That first weekend at the Overlook started what became for me a year long fascination with the central crack of the big roof. It would take a year to scratch that itch . . . . Len's roof is the only climb that is named after me, so it is ironic that I've only been up it twice. The crack that splits the horizontal roof is a perfect width and has a bend that allows a foolproof and relatively effortless full hand jam; it was clear to me from the outset that I could support my entire weight by jamming, letting my feet swing free. Also, the vertical section of the crack is finger width and, from below, looked like a relatively straightforward lieback. So the crux of the climb is transitioning from the horizontal to the vertical crack while negotiating the overhang. My first time up was an exploration. I found that the hardest part of the climb was going to be getting my legs up into the lieback position. That first attempt, I couldn't do it, my stomach muscles were too weak. But I spent the winter doing situps, and on my second attempt next spring I aced the climb. One aspect of that climb made a lasting impression on me. On my first attempt, I spent a fair amount of time handing my entire weight on those good hand jams. The net result was a deep bruise on the back of my right hand. It took most of the winter to heal. My second attempt, I opened that wound, which then took most of the summer to heal and left a scar."

"At first, we kept the Overlook a secret among the four of us. But we weren't the only ones with a secret. About the same time, the Horak brothers, Lou and Karl, had discovered another set of cliffs off Kimberly Lane. I remember sometime in the late summer, Lou told me he had something to show me. I remember my first sight of the Playground; I walked up and down the cliffs and then asked Lou which lines they had done. It was not a surprise to hear that the Horaks had only put up one pitch. I managed to find a second line that went, but failed on several other attempts. My second trip to the Playground, I worked out a pitch that I called the Telephone Booth, because of the tight chimney right at the ground level. Still, the successes at the Playground came slowly. After our ego boosting experience at the Overlook, we were cut down to size again."

Lou Horak recalls that at that time it was possible to drive cars down to the flats at the base of the Playground. One story (perhaps apocryphal) is that the Playground received its name in an ironic way. After they discovered the area, the Horaks wanted to keep it to themselves so they could do a bunch of first top-rope ascents, but after a lot of effort were only able to get up one or two climbs. So the name was intended to make fun of the fact that everything else at the Playground was too hard to climb!

Fig. 3. Instructor Kei Davis belays student Ericka Becker on the steep
and strenuous start of the Beginner's Hand Jam at the Playground
(Jason Halladay photo, April 2007).

Len says that, "By the end of 1971, we had four climbing areas. Also, our ranks had swelled, not with the more senior members of the club who still disdained top roping, but with newer climbers. I remember observing that there was not much difference in the abilities of most of our regulars. When we started working on a new pitch, at first no one could do it. Then someone would figure it out, and in no time nearly everyone could do it. This led me to conclude that knowing that a climb was possible was the critical issue -- that is, when you are climbing at your limits, the important issues are in your head."

"In the spring of 1972, Steve Schum, Mike Roybal, and I decided to systematically walk the edge of White Rock Canyon. Our first discovery became the Old New Place. As it happened, we had not even gotten around to giving this area a real name and were still calling it the New Place when Mike and Steve found another area that became the New New Place. Both of these areas offered wonderful new challenges, but there were so many in a short time; I can still see some of these pitches clearly in my mind, but now I don't remember whether or what we named them."

Most climbing activity in White Rock focused on top-roping because of the high level of difficulty of most of the routes. Also, because the climbers were going out after work, they concentrated on top roping so as to squeeze in more climbs before dark. Lou Horak recalls that, for a while, Len Margolin and Paul Horak climbed 4 days a week in the evenings, after Paul got out of school. Nowadays many of their climbs would be rated 5.11 or even 5.12, but in those days there was no external measure of comparison, so everyone thought they were doing 5.9 or at most 5.10 climbs! 

Len recalls that in 1973 "Don Liska reminded me of the pitch in Guaje Canyon. The Guaje Jam Crack is a long, overhanging, off width jam crack located at the narrows of Guaje Canyon (see Fig. 4). The crack was already a fading legend when I started climbing in 1970. As I recall, the climb had been done once, by Don in 1967. The overhanging nature of the crack meant that when you fell off of the climb, you swung out and could not regain the crack . . . . In the summer of 1973, a climbing friend of mine, Ray Phillips, came to visit. Ray was a hill brat, but had gone off and become a climbing ranger at Yosemite. One Saturday afternoon, on the spur of the moment, we decided to give the Guaje Jam Crack a try . . . The crack itself was an awkward width, too large and deep for hand jamming, but not wide enough to get anything more than a single arm into. Furthermore, it was overhanging for all of its first 70 feet. I guessed that the technique was essentially squirming, putting one arm and one foot into the crack, the other arm in a kind of reverse lieback above the head, and then inching up. I also realized that once I choose which arm went into the crack, it would not be possible to find a place to reverse . . . Finally, I decided to face up canyon with my right arm in the crack . . . . I don't remember any details of the crack itself, but the memory of the skin scraped off my right shoulder and knee, and of the ache in my left forearm remain vivid. Finally, I reached a spot where I could rest my arms, somewhat precariously, and I spent at least ten minutes resting before finishing the climb. When I got to the top, I couldn't unclench my fingers and Ray had to untie my knot for me . . . I remember Don Liska telling me that his ascent had tired him so completely that he couldn't raise his arms above his shoulders for days. Likewise, I had never been so totally exhausted . . . . That climb was, for me, the peak of my top roping career."

Fig. 4. The Guaje Jam Crack (Len Margolin photo, April 2008).
"I would like to close these notes by mentioning the names of some of the many other climbers who were part of the early top roping days, but have not yet been called out in this narrative . . . . Some of the homegrown climbers include Dennis Brandt, Bob Mitchell, George Rinker, Jan and Steve Iversen, Chris Foster, Mark Hessing, and Karen Budding. Paul Horak, youngest brother of Lou and Karl, grew up to become one of the finest climbers we have produced. Hank Blackwell was a professional ballet dancer and experienced gymnast, and for a while became one of the most graceful climbers of our troupe. Some experienced climbers joined the ranks in the early days. Principal among these were Norbert Ensslin, who had grown up in the Gunks, and Merle Wheeler, who was a canyon rat from the Tucson area. Also, Mark Zander had begun his climbing in Socorro, Rod Schultz had climbed in Boulder, and Barry Smith had climbed at Devil's Lake."

In the early 1970's, the Mountaineers established a local top roping schedule, with climbing at a different area every Wednesday evening. After some years, this schedule changed to every Tuesday and Thursday during the Daylight Savings Time part of the year. (See the "TOP ROPING" link on this website for the most up to date schedule information.) The current list of the most popular toproping areas is the Overlook, the Playground, the "Y", the Old New Place, the New New Place, Potrillo Cliffs, the Big Enchilada, and Pajarito Gorge. The Playground is also known for the traverse along its central section, first done by Norbert Ensslin when he arrived in 1973 and was looking for a way to get in more climbing practice between the weekly top rope sessions. There are also some less well-known and less-visited climbing areas for those who want more solitude and adventure, including Tortilla Flats, the west side of the Overlook, Below the Old New Place, the Cactus Garden (near the end of the four wheel drive road in lower Water Canyon), Escondido Cliff, and north White Rock cliff.

In 1978, Los Alamos climbers Randy Peters and Bill Spencer gave a club program on their climb of Half Dome. They had trained for this climb by leading many of the cracks in White Rock canyon. This came as a surprise to many of the club's climbers, who had not thought of doing lead climbs in White Rock because of the steepness and difficulty of most of the routes. But, inspired by the Half Dome program, some of the Mountaineers began to practice leading the easier cracks, like the Open Book at the "Y," the Beginners' Hand Jam at the Playground, and Upper Kor's Crack at Potrillo. At about this time 'Friends' appeared on the scene. With these camming devices leading the cracks was no longer quite so risky or strenuous. After they acquired this new-found confidence and experience, some club climbers began to venture out to Yosemite, Lumpy Ridge, or other major climbing areas. Here they found out that they now had the skills to do many fine climbs, including some of North America's classic routes.

For almost 30 years now, there have fortunately been no serious top roping accidents or fatalities due to top-anchor failure in White Rock. However, there have been a series of near accidents, including the following: (1) a top rope anchor knot became untied at the Y while the climber was doing a very difficult route, but fortunately the climber was just lowered slowly to the ground as the anchor unraveled; (2) a climber at the Playground was clipped in with a self-locking carabiner, but the loop came off the carabiner as he was climbing, and was quickly pulled up to the anchor. Lou Horak ran to the top and fed it back down to the climber; and (3) most recently, a 5.13 climber's bowline knot became untied at the Old New Place as he approached the top of the route, giving him a terrible scare. There have also been several relatively minor accidents caused by the climber being dropped by the belayer. So all White Rock climbers should be very cautious about all knots and anchors, always back them up if possible, and ask each other to check their knots if they are unsure. There is also danger from rocks dislodged from the top. Over the years at least two Los Alamos climbers have died under circumstances not related to the club's toprope activities, one from solo climbing and one from accidentally losing his balance at the top of the cliff while checking out new routes.


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