5/11/09. There was blood all over. This was bad, maybe real bad. I'd been stressing all week about this climb and my fears were now reality.
Let me back up a bit. I've always jumped at a chance to climb with one of my climbing heroes. When such an opportunity arises I feel a rush of excitement. Then as the day gets closer apprehension sets in. My heroes are generally older than me, sometimes by decades. What if there's an accident? What if I'm the climbing partner that day? I remember the time John Gill and I were soloing a 600-ft dome in Wyoming. I'm thinking this guy been climbing over 40 years, he might be due for a slip. If he pitches I'll forever be known as the guy who led an elderly legend to his death. As the dome got steeper and the holds a bit thinner I slowed. Gill, however, blasted upwards, opening a substantial gap. My thoughts then turned to "wouldn't it suck to be known as the guy who cratered trying to keep up with a 63-year old."
So last week my mind was filled with all kinds of awful scenarios. You see I was scheduled to climb with Layton Kor. Now if you don't know who Kor is, you might as well just take your 8mm lead line, tie it around your neck and jump off the top of the gym wall. In the sixties, Kor was to American rock climbing what Tigers Woods is to current day golf. He had a voracious appetite for first ascents, tearing up the walls of Eldorado, the Black Canyon, The Diamond, El Capitan and the Dolomites. But perhaps it was in the desert that he left his most enduring mark. FAs of Standing Rock, The Titan, Castleton Tower... the list goes on and on. And now I was getting my chance to do a first ascent with Layton.
Layton is now 70. He's had umpteen surgeries, goes through kidney dialysis 3 times a week, and is contemplating a transplant (probably worrying that it would cut into his climbing time). He's on blood thinners, bruises easily and bleeds profusely. He feels that if he could just gain 20 pounds he'd be strong again.
Back in the day, Layton was a notorious lead hog. So I shouldn't have been surprised when he blew off the cushy belay ledge atop the fourth pitch and forged up a dwindling rib around the corner and out of my sight. Problem is Layton can't see a foothold smaller than your big toe and he only has 5 nuts cleaned from the last pitch as his rack.
Layton - "Looks good up here - not too bad."
Verm - "I really think it's a better line over here." (Layton's looking at a bad pendulum into a corner.)
Layton - "Think I'll go up here."
Verm - "You're going to have terrible rope drag and you don't have any gear. The rope's running over a real jagged edge."
Layton - "Send me those pitons in the bottom of my pack...."
Ten minutes later I hear the sound of a piton being driven against a block - it isn't singing. A few minutes after that, grunts, sounds of struggle, a few "oh no's" then the sound of Layton and gear bouncing down the rock.
The rope impales on the sharpest cinder on the shark's tooth arete and catches Layton's fall before I can. This can't be happening.
I can't see Layton around the corner and imagine the worst as I lower him. When he comes into view he is ashen. Blood is spattered all over the rope and his clothes and running down his arms. The seat of his pants has torn away. His helmet is cocked to the side of his head and his hammer holster has blown in half. It looks like a bone is about to poke through the skin on his forearm (LK -"no, that's just from one of the surgeries"). Fifteen minutes later it appears, barring any internal injuries, Layton is not going to bleed out. Only at that point do I realize how much I'm shaking.
Layton - "I made a bad mistake."
Verm - "When was the last time you took a lead fall?"
Layton - "Dunno - fifty years ago?"
Layton insists we finish the climb.
On the drive back to Layton's house he mutters several times, "Maybe I need to quit climbing." As hard as it was to hear those words, it must have been devastating to utter them.
This morning I called Layton to check on him. Despite a dialysis headache, Layton sounded cheerful. "I just bought elbow pads - should come in handy this weekend. Got some folks coming in and there's some lines I've been looking at for awhile."
I will never wash that rope again.