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Shiprock and the Los Alamos Mountaineers



Of the many natural wonders within a day's drive of Los Alamos, Shiprock is perhaps the most spectacular and mysterious. Over many years, Don Liska and other members of the Mountaineers have been a large part of the history of climbing Shiprock. During an exciting 2006 presentation to the Mountaineers, Don described his role, and that of other Mountaineers, in the history of Shiprock.

Fig. 1. Don and Alice Liska atop Shiprock 
(Ernie Anderson photo, taken from a plane circling the peak, 10/14/67.
This photo also appears in Eric Bjornstad's book "Desert Rock.")

Don noted that Shiprock was considered one of the 3 great mountaineering challenges in North America during the 1930's (along with Mt. Waddington and Devil's Tower) until it was finally climbed by a Sierra Club group in 1939. Don said, "After coming to Los Alamos and joining the Mountaineers, we made Shiprock a major climbing objective for the club. I had first climbed Shiprock in April 1959 [before moving to Los Alamos] barely 20 years after the Sierra Club did the first ascent in 1939 and 7 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, just three weeks before Pete Rogowski discovered the much easier 'Step Around' pitch. My 1959 climb continued to hold me in awe of this famous edifice. Shiprock in those days still represented an extremely attractive, wild and difficult climbing adventure for would-be extremists, and many well known rock climbers made the climb in the 50's and 60's, the same era when big wall climbing in Yosemite was developing. The complexity and length of its route, the number of ropes required by a pair of climbers to achieve a safe ascent (four), the heavy loads of equipment and water, the potential for a dry bivouac, the heat, etc. tended to ward off casual ascents. Perhaps sparked by my own personal fervor there quickly developed in Los Alamos a few climbers who became 'extreme Shiprock enthusiasts' such as Larry Dauelsberg and especially Ernie Anderson as prime participants but also Mike Williams, Carl Keller, Eichii Fukushima, Larry Campbell, and Dave Brown. I believe that fervor has cooled considerably in recent decades and Shiprock today has become more of a 50 classics peak baggers target."

Fig. 2. 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.

"Still, already by 1959 we were the 43rd party to summit Shiprock. In subsequent years, the Mountaineers probably climbed Shiprock more than any other group did, with perhaps 50 to 60 ascents. By the time of our third ascent in October 1967 we were the 112th party to summit. On this climb Alice Liska 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 3 days as opposed to only 12 hours for the standard Shiprock route, once the way is known. At any rate, over the years I have been involved in a record 9 ascents of the standard route." 

"One early climbing partner, John Marshall, blessed Shiprock with the moniker 'Shit-Rock' due to really bad rock at the mouth of the Honeycomb Gully, which we explored at considerable risk. Even so it was here that we one day found a camera that had plummeted down the gully at some time past, fortunately with no body attached. It was badly smashed. The upper Honeycomb Gully is the accident scene in Tony Hillerman's 'Fallen Man' mystery novel."

Dave Brown remembers that Shiprock was one of the best trips he has ever done with the Mountaineers. They did the climb in two days, with an intentional bivouac. From there they saw the long shadow of Shiprock stretching across the desert floor. He noted that "It's the only mountain that you rappel down to get up, and jumar up to get down."

On October 12, 1969, the Mountaineers climbed Shiprock on the 30th anniversary of the first ascent. Ernie Anderson organized this climb and provided a summit register to leave on top. The climbing party consisted of George Bell, Will Siri, Eiichi Fukushima, and Mike Hart. Will Siri was a well-known Everest climber from Seattle, and a leader of the Sierra Club. David Brower, who had led the first ascent in 1939, was invited but could not come, so he sent Will Siri instead. Larry Campbell and Mike Williams took movies of the ascent, but Larry says that the film was damaged in processing. Eiichi believes that this was the last climb of Shiprock before the accident the next spring that led to its closure by the Navajos.

Fig. 3. Norbert Ensslin and Mike Fazio on the friction traverse, one of the pitches where a rope needs to be left behind on the way up to safeguard the return (D. Liska photo).

Don Liska says that "The accident on Shiprock that occurred during the period March 25-28, 1970 was arguably the most significant that the Los Alamos Mountaineering Club was ever involved in. This accident culminated in the official closure of the entire Navajo Reservation to climbing, a ban which exists to this day. Prior to this, only Totem Pole and Spider Rock had been placed off limits (after 1962) though the winds of change were in the air and Shiprock had already claimed two lives in the 31 years since its first ascent, so the traditional Navajo fear of death therefore entered into the closure decision. With increasing traffic by climbers, this decision was nearing a critical stage in 1970." Don Liska's description of the accident is summarized below. (It is also reported in the American Alpine Club's 'Accidents in North American Mountaineering", 24th annual report of AAC Safety Committee, 1971, pp 8-11.)

"On Thursday March 26, 1970 a three-man party consisting of Jim Smith and Bill Bull, both from Boulder, and George Andrews from Menlo Park started up the standard route on Shiprock intending to climb to the main (north) summit that day, bivouac at the 'U-Notch' below the Horn pitch that night and climb the south summit on Friday before descending. There was a second party at base camp as they left, including Don Liska and Larry Dauelsberg of Los Alamos, along with Bill Hackett of Las Cruces and Dave Beckstead of Colorado Springs. We intended on scouting a new and difficult direct aid route up the west face of the rock to the 'U-Notch' where the first party was intending to bivouac. Our route was totally pioneering and we had little idea of the time required to reach the notch or of the difficulties along the way. We expected two or three bivouacs." 

"The weather that day was overcast with a forecast of clearing. As the Smith party broke camp early on Thursday we briefly discussed their climb and the first premonitions of possible difficulties arose when they informed us that they did not intend to leave a handline at the friction traverse, a steep, tricky, and exposed 125' pitch on the east face of the rock below the second rappel. Since two of our party had several times climbed Shiprock and knew all its hazards we warned them that the traverse could be a difficult place to retreat across in wet or snowy conditions. Then we parted and went our separate ways. We started up our route over the 'Nest' and placed our first bivouac at the base of the huge west wall where direct aid climbing was to begin. About 1 AM early Friday a fast moving cold front out of the NW caught both climbing parties high on the peak in their respective bivouacs."

"As we learned later, the Smith party had in fact not reached anywhere near the U-Notch but had bivouacked on the chockstones below the first rappel on the east face, just under the 'Colorado Col.' We, however, were caught above the 'Nest' and covered in a deep blanket of wet snow. As soon as daylight allowed, we began a series of rappels off the face abandoning most of our equipment in a hasty retreat. We reached the base of the rock about 600' below by 10:30 AM. By this time a foot of snow blanketed the desert and enshrouded Shiprock and the storm continued. For now, our major concern was our own retreat from Shiprock but we began to realize that the Smith party might be trapped in a very precarious position if they indeed had reached the 'U-Notch' for their bivouac and had not protected their retreat across the friction traverse with a fixed handline. As it turned out, the Smith party was in a much more favorable position at this point but they still faced a desperate situation ahead."

"Our fortunes picked up unbeknownst to us with the arrival the night before of a second climbing party while we were in bivouac. An old climbing pal Reed Cundiff (who did the first ascent of the SW ridge of the Needle in the Sandias) and his climbing partner from Las Cruces arrived in a VW intending their own climb of the rock the day the storm arrived. The six of us now teamed up to pursue what we had reason to believe could be a very serious rescue emergency of the Smith party. Fortunately Reed had a VW and with its rear engine weight and the five of us jumping on the bumper and pushing, we were able to work the vehicle through the 5 miles of deep snow to the Red Rock 'highway' and we then sped to the town of Shiprock freezing cold and mud-spattered. With four jammed inside the car, two of us sat on top with our feet through the sun roof barely hanging on as the sleet and wet snow continued." 

"A Navajo tribal cop soon stopped us but gave full cooperation when he learned the details of our predicament. He escorted us into Shiprock where we took a motel room and called Los Alamos for more LAMC help, and Ernie Anderson, Eiichi Fukushima, and Bill Gage set out for Shiprock. In the meantime, the tribal police drove Cundiff and partner to the Rock in a 4WD to reconnoiter. Cundiff reported difficulty in even reaching the top of the talus near the start of the route. He did not see signs of the Smith party though as things turned out they were within 500' of them at that point." [An interesting sidenote to this story is that the cop that pulled over the LAMC party was Nick Saiz, the same state trooper that was shot and wounded in the 1967 raid on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. This event made national headlines at the time and was often on the minds of later Los Alamos Mountaineers as they traveled through Tierra Amarilla on the way to climb the Brazos Cliffs.]

"That evening as the storm was beginning to abate and the temperature was dropping rapidly, Liska and Dauelsberg returned to the rock with Navajo Tribal Authority 4 WD's, radios, etc. hoping to make contact with the Smith party. They found Smith and Bull wandering dazedly near their vehicle, disoriented and hypothermic. Smith was bleeding and both were hurt and shaken. They reported their party had fallen and they had to leave Andrews 150' above the 'Cave Pitch' (the first pitch) in the Black Bowl near the Topp memorial plaque. Liska and Dauelsberg saw this as a relatively straightforward rescue and radioed the other two climbers still at the motel to come on out. By 11 PM under clear, cold skies we were all gathered ready to attack the climb with a Stokes litter, first aid kit, radios, lights, and essential climbing gear. Icy talus and snow hampered the way."

"It turned out that Smith and Bull had left a 300' reepschnur on their last rappel to the base. We found this rope indispensable in allowing us to prussik up the difficult Cave Pitch and its now icy overhangs to the scene of the accident some 200' above the base of the rock. We reached Andrews around 2 AM and administered aid to his broken shoulder. We loaded the hypothermic and pain-ridden victim in the litter and lowered him over the overhangs to the base where he was man-hauled a very rough half mile over icy talus to the waiting vehicles."

"As everything settled down, we learned that Smith and Bull had been taken to Farmington before midnight on Friday evening for treatment. Smith had a broken nose, jaw and cheekbones and required stitches for a deep cut over his eye. Bull had bruised and battered ribs. Andrews arrived in Shiprock by 6 AM Saturday as he began going into shock. He was given intravenous glucose and then taken to Farmington where they found he had a fractured elbow, broken shoulder, cracked ribs, a concussion, and frostbitten toes. He was treated and then flown back to California."

"This was an important rescue, though we didn't realize how critical until several of us returned a week later to retrieve our gear and study the accident scene. Shiprock was still somewhat ice and snow covered but now quite climbable. Our team split up, part to retrieve gear left behind during our precipitous retreat the week before and the others to climb the normal route to the point where the accident occurred and do a "forensic" search for technical evidence of the accident. When our recovery team descended with the recovered gear, a tribal policeman was waiting for us at the trailhead. He informed us that we were under arrest, as Shiprock had been officially closed to climbing immediately following the accident. In fact, the entire Navajo reservation was now so banned. When we explained that we had been the rescue team and were retrieving gear, he relented but still ordered us off the rock ASAP. Our second team now descended with all the evidence they had recovered and we left the area." 

"In piecing together the details of the accident itself, along with correspondence from the Smith group, we deduced that the Smith party had spent a miserable bivouac on Thursday night below the upper prussik pitch in the Rappel Gully with snow cascading down the surrounding rock faces on top of them. At 7 AM on Friday they left their bivouac and took 4 hours to complete the 75' prussik up to the Colorado Col using their only functional Jumar and one Hiebler ascender. They then completed the 120' rappel down the upper west face into the west gully and scrambled down to the grey basalt water gully where they continued their rappels on the 300' reepschnur anchored to a single piton. Here Smith rappelled first and made it down OK. Andrews followed but after 100' the anchor pulled out and he fell another 100' down the gully and off the steeper bottoming cliff, crashing into Smith and causing the bulk of Smith's injuries. In the tumbling fall Andrews also suffered most of his injuries. Andrews had lost his helmet earlier that day and that may have been the cause of his concussion. It was now 3 PM and still snowing. About this time Cundiff had reached his high point but was unable to make contact with the Smith party. Now Bull was stranded above with only an old 120', 7/16" white nylon 'army surplus' mountain-lay rope of dubious and well worn history. He drove in several pitons as a secure anchor and rappelled off finding himself still almost 80' above the others at the end of this short line. Under Smith's directions, he climbed 25' back up the gully and cut off two strands of his three stranded laid rope, giving him an extra 50' of line. He tied this extra length to the uncut third strand and continued down. Considering the skill with which Bull had managed this difficult maneuver (shades of Tony Kurz on the Eigerwand in 1936), it's a pity that as he neared the end of his 'rope' still 30' off the base, the uppermost single strand parted about 7 feet below the two-strand cut line. Down plummeted Bull to the base where he damaged his ribs by again crashing into poor Smith who broke his fall. The LAMC team who studied the accident scene found the uppermost strand to have partially melted against a sharp flake but also to have a single-strand strength of only 350 pounds due to its age and wear condition. A new rope's single-strand strength should have been about 1500 pounds. At this point, very late in the day, the injured pair of Smith and Bull administered what first-aid they could to Andrews, re-anchored the reepschnur and finally rappelled to the base of Shiprock. Staggering back over the talus towards their vehicle they were fortuitously found by the Los Alamos climbers."

"In succeeding events George Andrews, a very big San Francisco corporate lawyer, became an advocate of LAMC for its rescue efforts. Meeting him years later in his huge law offices, he expressed undying gratitude to our club and related that the Shiprock event was the highlight of his outdoor life. He died in 1989. Somehow the rescue was reported to higher officials and Dauelsberg and Liska were awarded with Documents of Commendation from then President Richard Nixon. At the time we reacted negatively to these awards due to the political climate that existed at that time, but we have since come around to valuing these awards which now represent to us the finest spirit of selfless search and rescue efforts by willing volunteers. How these commendations ever came to us and who recommended them in the first place has never been ascertained."

"The accident resulted in the permanent closure of the Navajo Reservation to all climbing, a ban which still applies. However, climbing Shiprock will not cease since it is considered one of the '50 classics' in Alan Steck and Steve Roper's 1979 'Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.' The authors reiterate the climbing restrictions and suggest that negotiations could possibly mitigate the ban. This has been tried repeatedly and always failed since the ban persists." [Eiichi Fukushima recalls that, right after the closure, the Mountaineers contacted the Navajo Nation offering to train Navajos for climbing and rescue activities, in the hopes of having the Reservation re-opened to climbing. However, this didn't work.]

Don Liska noted that "The climbing ban was officially broken once, in 1975, by the Navajos themselves during the filming of 'The Eiger Sanction.' Then they allowed Eric Bjornstad and Ken Wyrick from Moab to climb the Totem Pole one last time to prepare the summit for the helicopter film crew and remove existing ascent hardware and all traces of prior climbs. 

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