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November 15, 2006

"Shiprock and other Classic Climbing Adventures"

by Don Liska

I am glad that George Hurley was able to tell his story at the last meeting of the great routes he has done all over the country, especially his astounding record of desert climbs. Eric Bjornstad has dedicated his Desert Rock IV climbing guide to him. George was with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group during our dramatic rescue of George Andrews on Shiprock in early spring 1970. This rescue involved Los Alamos climbers but the Rocky Mountain folks were our backup. The accident resulted in the permanent closure of the Navajo reservation to all climbing, a ban which still applies. However, since Shiprock's standard route (IV 5.9) listed as one of North America's fifty classics, many "illegal" ascents are still being made each year."

Don and Alice Liska atop Shiprock.
Photo by Ernie Anderson , taken from a plane circling the peak, 10/14/67.
This photo also appears in Eric Bjornstad's book "Desert Rock."

"I first climbed Shiprock in April 1959 barely 20 years after the Sierra Club did the first ascent on Oct. 12, 1939 and seven years after only the second ascent by Tom Hornbein et al in 1952. Ours was the last party to climb the infamous "double overhang", first climbed by the Sierra Club using ice pitons and just three weeks before Pete Rogowski discovered the much easier "Step-Around" pitch. Still, already by 1959 we were the 43rd party to summit which attests to the fact that the 50's were a time of great fruition for high level climbing aspirations in America and also the time of big wall ascents in Yosemite. After coming to Los Alamos and joining the Mountaineers, we made Shiprock a major climbing objective for the club. By the time of our third ascent in Oct. 1967 we were now the 112th to summit. On this climb Alice became the 15th woman to make the top which in those days frequently required a bivouac. In 1968 I joined Harvey Carter on first ascents of many of the major towers that cluster around the base of Shiprock. Some of these were more demanding than Shiprock itself and most have not been repeated. Sextant, for instance, took us three days as opposed to only 12 hours for the standard Shiprock route, once the way is known. At any rate, by the mid-1980's I had been involved in a record 9 ascents of the standard route."

"Since being “guided” up the corkscrew summit on Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers by Ralph and Norbert in 2003 I am now going on 78 and feel pretty well “washed up” climbing-wise except for the Knife Edge or Easy Ridge-type routes."

Los Alamos climbers after the 106th ascent of Shiprock, 10/22/66.
Standing (L to R): Larry Dauelsberg, George Goedecke, Don Liska,
and Ernie Anderson. Sitting: L-Detzel, R-Breisch.

"Unfortunately, I have had some bad luck by losing some excellent slides through carelessness over the years so I will fill in some gaps with other desert climbs, including the first ascent with Fred Becky of "King on a Throne" in Monument Valley. This climb was done before the climbing closure on Navajo lands took effect in April 1970."

Eric Bjornstad provides an excellent summary of all the great Shiprock climbs in his classic "Desert Rock" (1988) which is now a collectors item worth a small fortune on the internet.

View of the Brazos from the highway

The Main Brazos Cliffs as seen from the South.
Photo by Aaron Miller via Mountain PROJECT

Don Liska's Climbing Resume: "Alice and I started climbing at Devil's Lake, Wisconsin in 1952 using hemp ropes, tennis shoes, forged pitons and GI surplus steel carabiners. To give a flavor of those early days, consider that the Sierra Club climbers who first summited Shiprock in 1939 did not know the prussik knot. We were also primitive. We did not use harnesses or helmets and much of our gear had to be ordered from Europe. However, the audacity of youth reigned then as it does today and after only a few weeks on the short quartzite pitches of Devil's Lake a few of us set out for Colorado to climb Stettner's Ledges ( 5.7) on the east face of Longs Peak, at that time considered a very difficult climb. This was the period when the first 8000er, Annapurna 1, had just been climbed by the French, and Everest was about to fall to the British. Furthermore, the movie "Shane" revealed the magnificent Tetons to America's astonished eyes. These were formative years for young climbers. A draftee during the Korean war period, Alice and I were married and torn from our mid-west roots. After discharge we moved into a 29 foot house trailer in Los Angeles. Climbing and travel became the pattern of our lives, culminating after 50 years in 12 major expeditions and numerous first ascents, many with noted climbers such as Mike Sherrick, Harvey Carter, Leif Patterson, Fred Becky, Andy Harvard, Eric Bjornstad and others plus our own local greats. Our best climbs over the years were in Europe, South America, Canada and Alaska, though Asia and Russia also entered into the climbing picture with some significant successes."

"Since being "guided" up the corkscrew summit on Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers by Ralph and Norbert in 2003 I am now going on 78 and feel pretty well "washed up" climbing-wise except for the Knife Edge or Easy Ridge-type routes."

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