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Catching Ludwig

[This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

The author with a standard New Mexico rack, ca. 1982--hexes and saddle wedges...sad times, he reflects. [Photo] Nestor Solano

The author with a “standard New Mexico rack,” ca. 1982–“hexes and saddle wedges…sad times,” he reflects. [Photo] Nestor Solano

I RECENTLY CLIMBED my one-hundredth tower. Or thereabouts. It’s hard to tell because the scrap of paper where I list the towers I’ve climbed is more than ten years old. I’m surprised I could even find it. And now that I look at it, I’m not sure those are towers because the names are so weird…. A shopping list, perhaps?

Anyway. My journey toward climbing a bunch of towers started as it does for every desert climber–with the learning.

I grew up partly in New Mexico, and in the autumn of 1981, my high school pals and I signed up for a rock-climbing course with the local club, the Los Alamos Mountaineers. The night classes were two hours every Wednesday night in a vacant high school auditorium–a place where we’d been used to napping through dull announcements from our teachers, but where we’d now be discussing life and death. The field days were Saturday mornings at the small crags around Los Alamos. During our first night class, we learned about the forces that gather as a falling body accelerates through space. The following Saturday was all about “arresting” or “catching” these falls with a rope. Instead of using a real human, our teachers made us practice with a huge concrete disk. It had metal handles, and it weighed, we were told, about eighty-five pounds–an estimate that seemed accurate whenever we tried to pick it up. This object was called “Ludwig.”

It never ceases to amuse me that anything silly or awkward or strange about climbing has a German name–extracted by English-speakers, perhaps, for the purpose of humor. The type of rappel that we’d learn–really a way to smash your private parts into excruciatingly flat flaps of skin–was called a “Dulfersitz.” (One kid later insisted that it translated as “idiot sits” in German, which I doubted. I later learned–as most climbers know–that it was named after Hans Dulfer.)

“Catching Ludwig” meant that our instructors attached us to a rope that ran from the bottom of the sixty-foot cliff up to several carabiners that dangled near the upper rim. From the carabiners, the rope drooped down again a short way, and then looped back up to the top of the cliff, where it was tied to Ludwig, who was lying in wait near the edge like an ugly beast.

“OK, boys,” a teacher said (and it was all boys in that class), “to belay, you run the leader’s rope around your back, and when he falls, you pull it across your body like so. Got it?” (This was in the days where beginning climbers were still taught hip belays.)

We all nodded. I watched as my high school chums stepped up, one by one, and caught Ludwig. They expressed their disgust and pain with a variety of facial expressions and sounds…such as hair-raising screams. Finally, it was my turn. I stepped to the pointed spot on the dirt and innocently wrapped the rope around my waist. I knew something would happen to me, but no amount of observation could prepare me for how much.

One instructor called “falling,” and another pushed Ludwig off. The concrete disk zoomed earthward, and a tremendous yank went up the rope, through the top anchors, and straight to my waist. It was a severe jolt. I stood there, trying to understand what had just taken place. My back sizzled with pain, while Ludwig bounced up and down at the end of the rope as if nothing had happened.

“You passed,” the instructor said.

I staggered over to a small cluster of my friends and smiled meekly. They, too, were bent over rubbing their backs.

“I’m glad that’s over,” one of them said.

“I don’t think it is,” said another.

It wasn’t, and for the next round, we were given Sticht Plates, small metal disks with rope-sized holes in them. First, we put on the webbing that we’d knotted up in the previous Wednesday-night class. Next, we doubled the rope through the devices and hooked the loops to carabiners attached to these homemade harnesses. The instructor showed us how to pull back on the rope to create friction as needed. We tried catching Ludwig with the Sticht Plates, and the huge yank was much smoother–though the skinny webbing straps pulled up into our soft crotches.

The next weekend was devoted to toproping. This time, we’d get to catch real humans–ourselves. When the bigger kids fell, they often pulled the smaller kids partway up the cliff. It didn’t take long before we figured out that we could climb up halfway, ask our belayer to let out some slack, and then take a massive jump, plummeting fifteen feet or more before the rope caught us and hauled the belayer high off the ground. One kid ended up swinging sideways across the cliff into another kid who was trying to climb.

The collision, the subsequent cursing and the instructor’s remonstrations promptly put an end to that activity. We spent the rest of the day learning how to coil ropes. Most of us ended up with big piles of knotty nylon at our feet. The instructors didn’t seem to understand: while they wanted us to master perfect rope craft, we all just wanted to be Spider-Man.

The author toproping in the Los Alamos Mountaineers climbing course as a high school student in 1981. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns collection

The author toproping in the Los Alamos Mountaineers climbing course as a high school student in 1981. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns collection

SOON AFTER our toproping excursion, the instructors informed us we’d be going on an extended field trip to do a “huge” climb in a place called El Rito. Ludwig would not be joining us–by then, they felt, we’d had sufficient practice with him. But since I was only fifteen, we needed an adult to chaperone. My mother acquiesced. Early Saturday morning, we loaded up piles of equipment into several vehicles and drove to the crag. The instructors had urged us to pack lunch and lots of water. Most of us kids sat in the back of the van, happily munching away on our food. Soon, we’d drunk all our water, too.

About 8 a.m., an enormous cliff appeared high above the ponderosas and the juniper trees, and our instructors started arguing about how to get to the trailhead. Eventually, we found a sort of parking area, climbed out of the van, and began shouldering piles of equipment. That process lasted just a few minutes until it became obvious that all the kids wanted to go to the bathroom. We had to wait while one instructor went off into the sparse desert vegetation. When he came back, he told us all to go in the same place that he had. None of us wanted to: his poo smelled as though it could melt a steel plate.

At last, we re-shouldered the gear and carried it through the high desert forest. Up close, the cliff didn’t look as good as it had from the drive in: it was blocky and fractured, and it had a sort of sickly brown-gray color. Plants grew out of cracks and ledges at all angles, and we wondered where the climbs went. Our instructors had insisted that they went here every spring for climbing school, but now they looked like tourists, huddled together over a sheet of paper trying to remember where the routes went.

As we walked to the base, the wall kept getting bigger and uglier. My mother decided she wanted to climb as well, so she was matched up with one of the nicer, more experienced instructors, a man named Norbert Ensslin. Norbert, we were told, was one of Los Alamos National Lab’s greatest scientists, and he acted the part: methodical, careful, quiet.

From the get-go, it was apparent that some of us weren’t meant to be climbers. One kid got about thirty feet up and started crying. Another kid’s sneakers fell off–both at the same time! A third kid untied himself and began soloing up the wall. Fortunately, there were enough instructors to go around so that each kid got a specific one-on-one therapy session. One kid somehow managed to get toilet paper stuck between his shorts and his harness. The whole way up the cliff he looked as if he were waving a surrender flag.

My mother, meanwhile, finished a climb with Norbert, strolled down the trail from the top, and calmly suggested they try another route, which they did. She’d grown up in the 1940s and ’50s in Tasmania, climbing peaks and camping on the wind-scoured beaches of Australia’s wildest state. From her perspective, anything we spoiled kids were suffering was laughable.

Once we were all back on the ground, the instructors stopped paying much attention to the group. Since none of us kids had any food left, we ate their lunches. Afterward, most of the students, including me, decided not to do any more climbing, and we spent the rest of the afternoon throwing rocks at trees and old wooden posts until one rock hit a car. There was some shouting, several unkind words, and we all went home.

At the end of the autumn of 1981, after dozens of similar trips to puny, shattered, basalt crags, we held our final class at the high school auditorium, and the instructors congratulated us on how well we’d done and how we could all now consider ourselves real climbers. Toward the back of the room, however, amid the dusty corners, I imagined the concrete disk waiting patiently as it made bone-shattering plans for next year’s crop of recruits.

Camping in the Jemez Mountains, NM, ca. 1982. From left to right: Brenda Barr, Kristin Kenyon, unknown, Dave Hayes, Cameron Burns. [Photo] Courtesy of Brenda Barr

Camping in the Jemez Mountains, NM, ca. 1982. From left to right: Brenda Barr, Kristin Kenyon, unknown, Dave Hayes, Cameron Burns. [Photo] Courtesy of Brenda Barr

THROUGHOUT THE REMAINDER of high school, during the winters, skiing was vastly more important to us than climbing. Every Wednesday, my friends and I skipped class and sneaked off to Taos, where we tried to cram our 217-centimeter skis down 220-centimeter-wide chutes. On Friday and Saturday nights, however, we went to each other’s houses to watch horror movies and talk about climbing stories–both of which, not surprisingly, had hair-raising and blood-curdling plot lines.

One of my classmates, Dave Hayes, had acquired a copy of the 1971 Steve Roper green guide to Yosemite, and we often paged through the book, proposing bold adventures that we clearly knew nothing about.

“I think I could do that,” I said, looking at a picture of the northwest face of Half Dome. (For some strange reason, Roper’s books were always tiny little things–about four-and-a-half inches by six–and the grainy black and white photos shrank 2,000- to 3,000-foot Yosemite big walls into miniature cliffs the likes of which we crawled over every autumn weekend.)

“What’s the A1 thing mean?” I asked in reference to the commonly accepted big-wall rating system.

“That’s not A1,” someone piped up. “It’s A-I. It stands for ‘All-Inclusive.’ In other words, bring all your gear.”

“Oh,” I said. I nodded slightly as if I understood exactly what he meant. “And I forgot, what A2 is. Is that…?” I let my voice trail off because I had absolutely no idea what was about to come out of my mouth next.

“A2?” one of my fellow ignorami asked, and then he answered: “Those routes are hard enough that you need twice as much gear for them as you do for an AI. All-Inclusive times two. They used to write it AI1 and AI2 and so on, in all the old guidebooks. Now they just write it A1, A2, and so on.”

“Wow, A5 must be really hard then,” I suggested.

“Yes,” he said. “There are very few A5s because those climbs take so much gear. I once read that Royal Robbins had to bring along three other climbers to do a Yosemite A5 because there was so much gear. It’d probably be the same as lugging ten Ludwigs up a cliff. That’s the kind of work we’re talking about. Ten Ludwigs! Who could deal with that?”

“Good point,” I said in a meek voice.

I sat up straighter in my chair, and as I thumbed my way through Roper’s catalogue of potential disasters, I tried to advertise an air of confidence and savoir faire.

WHEN SPRING WEEKENDS rolled around, we were off again to the local crags, at places such as Cochiti Dam (not the well-known Cochiti Mesa, as we’d driven to the wrong place), the Sandias, the Rio Grande Valley, and a few other scrappy little cliffs. Our trajectory could be more or less summed up by the image of another pal, the late Forrest Fukushima, scratching and clawing his way up a dirt-loaded, never-before- touched, flaring basalt crack at Cochiti Dam with four or five hexes clanging at his waist: wrong crag, gross route, no gear. It was a path we’d diligently follow for years.

By the autumn of 1983, those of us who had stuck with climbing were, we thought, pretty good at it. We could struggle up hard 5.10s and easy 5.11s on a toprope. We knew our knots and belaying systems well, and our ordeals with Ludwig were a long-lost memory.

During my first two years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, however, I only climbed about twelve times. Even with several student loans and a couple of grants, I had to work about thirty hours a week to try to get through a school I couldn’t afford. The fine-boned, red sandstone walls of Eldorado Canyon were just fifteen minutes away, but when I wasn’t studying or managing a greeting-card store, I served as a projectionist for the International Film Series–where my closest association with vertical adventures consisted of letting Dale Goddard and Christian Griffith and their dates into movies for free.

Somehow, in the midst of this hectic period, Dave and I made a pact to climb Castleton Tower, along with another high school friend, Steve Dean. We’d first seen a photo of the giant pillar of sandstone in Fifty Classic Climbs, during one of those late nights of talking about climbing. It was a 5.9, which we thought we could handle. The photo in the book was taken from the hike in, so the tower appeared truncated, and honestly, slabby. We thought Dave–who’d become the best climber in our bunch and our fearless leader could handle it.

The north face of Castleton Tower, Utah. The Kor-Ingalls Route described in the story ascends the opposite side of the tower. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

The north face of Castleton Tower, Utah. The Kor-Ingalls Route described in the story ascends the opposite side of the tower. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

A few months later, we were pooling our gear in the Castleton parking lot: five hexcentric nuts, nine wired stoppers, eight carabiners, and several shoulder-length slings. In the months-long planning process before the actual climb, we’d somehow overlooked the problem of how we were going to climb the 450-foot tower with such a limited amount of equipment.

“Errr,” Steve said. He looked slowly up at me, and then at Dave. “Well, Dave’s really solid. We’ll be fine.”

Dave studied the tower. He turned pale, and his mouth hung open. “You know,” he said, “I’m not feeling very well.” He was serious. The more we looked at him, the sicker he seemed to get.

Back in 1985, there wasn’t much of a path up the hill to Castleton, and we didn’t see anyone else anywhere. Solitude was good because we sure as heck wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see what bumblers we were (although at the time we didn’t yet realize we should be hiding our paltry skills). At each switchback in the approach (trail is too strong a term), Dave sat down, and clutched his T-shirt in one hand on top of his head as he tried unsuccessfully to shelter himself from the piercing sun. Then he vomited–a dry, scraping puke. Dave was already a skinny streak of a man–a boy, really–and now he appeared increasingly gaunt and tragic. About halfway up, he announced he wasn’t going any farther. Steve and I glanced at each other. There wasn’t anything to say: the climb was over.

Dave Hayes on Big in Japan (5.12a) in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, ca. late 1980s-early '90s. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

Dave Hayes on Big in Japan (5.12-) in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, ca. late 1980s/early ’90s. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

“Cameron, I have an idea,” Steve said. “Why don’t you try leading the first pitch, and if you think I can make it, I’ll come up and look at the second pitch.”

“You think?” I asked. I was alarmed by the suggestion.

“We’ll be fine,” Steve said, as if he thought this was the greatest idea any climber had ever had. He made a nervous grin: he knew it wasn’t.

“Yeah, you guys go on,” Dave said. He looked as crumpled as a flat tire. “I’m just going to wait here.”

And die, I thought.

After an awkward five-minute silence, during which we watched the flies circle around our probably soon-to-be decaying friend, Steve and I continued up the giant talus heap. Castleton was starting to look more like a red building that had suffered an earthquake than a geologic formation.

“It goes up those cracks,” Steve pointed out in a merry voice as I feigned interest. “Then up through there, and there, and then to the top.”

Really, Steve?

Up close, the tower seemed like a big stack of toy blocks someone had kicked. There were cracks of all sizes that went every which way, changing width and direction at random.

Without speaking, I pulled on my old Forrest harness, which I’d gotten in high school. For a few straps of nylon, it was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the webbing from our Ludwig-catching days.

There’s an unwritten law in climbing: as soon as you’re wearing a harness, you’ll need to go to the bathroom. I did the business, and then I put my harness on again, clipped our few pieces of gear to it, pulled the slings over my head (no helmets, of course), and started up the first crack.

About forty feet up, I wiggled one of our wired nuts into a fissure. It seemed to fit OK, but I wasn’t sure. Although my Los Alamos chums and I had climbed hundreds of times, we were still pretty low in terms of leading experience. I moved on, placed a hexcentric nut–which wobbled a bit after I seated it–and then I reached the first-pitch anchors. The climbing was well within our abilities. So far so good.

Steve came up.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Hmmm.” Steve studied the rock. He quietly, calmly broke off a small piece of it with his fingertips. He noticed me watching him. We were both silent for a wildly protracted and horribly awkward minute. “Well,” he said, “that looks a little harder than what I was thinking. You want to try leading it?”

I glared at Steve. Truth be told, I was becoming fed up. I just wanted to get up the horrible tower. I led the second pitch, which turned out to be only slightly harder than the first. There were all sorts of crevices where I could have jammed my hands or fingers, but having grown up on basalt pockets, I used face holds wherever I could. A few of them snapped off, but fortunately there were enough other things to hold on to so I didn’t fall.

The third pitch actually looked intriguing. A bolt glimmered about halfway up a shadowed offwidth–or where we thought halfway up was. I was curious enough to try it. Besides, it wasn’t that far to the top now. I got into a position reminiscent of that of a gymnast mounting the side of a pommel horse, and I began shimmying upward, palms downwards, wobbling nervously. The distance between Steve and me increased, slowly, until I was fifty feet (or so) up, a span that I tried mightily to ignore. The farther I went, the more I wobbled. I reached the bolt, clipped it, took a breath, and looked around. Of course, contemporary online chatrooms and forums describe the tiny camming units you can get into the rock on the upper half of this pitch. But the five hexcentric pieces of gear that we had aren’t mentioned in modern forums, and there was no need for Steve to refer to them here–they simply wouldn’t have worked. I got back into the gymnast crouch, and sweating heavily, shimmied up the rest.

I reached the next set of belay anchors and stood on a narrow ledge–with not much space to move around in, the spot was tight even for one person. In those days, I had a habit of wearing a pair of old French shorts that I played soccer in; they were incredibly small, and hair poked out around the business district. Climbing up, Steve had to go between my legs to reach the stance. He looked at me with a scrunched and sour face. “You need to wash those shorts at some point.”

Steve and I romped up the final, easy pitch and made it to the top of Castleton just as a huge windstorm came up. As we started the rappels, our ropes blew horizontally east for 100 feet. Rain began to fall, and thunder boomed. Huge shots of lightning speared the clouds. I was beyond scared. Steve appeared to be in a similar state. It was like being on some kind of bad amusement park ride. None of the Dulfersitzing we’d ever done had been like this, none of the toproping remotely resembled what we were now doing: rigging rappels and pulling down ropes, untangling things that never got tangled during club classes. This was real climbing, and it was really, really scary.

We survived and drove home.

A few months later, Dave sent me a photograph of the east face of Castleton. He said you could see Steve and me in the photo, about midway up the climb. I studied and studied the picture, telling myself that a smudgy-looking thing on the tower was my body. Years and several scruffy apartments later, I sat down with a magnifying glass. There was a smudge, but it definitely wasn’t Steve or I. I like to think it was Ludwig, and that somehow he was getting his revenge from thousands of drops by teenage louts, decades of misuse and rough handling by bored instructors, and millions of curse words of the most colorful sort. He was, after all, our biggest mentor.

–Cameron M. Burns, Basalt, Colorado

[This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!–Ed.]