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Obituary: Layton Kor (1938-2013)

Layton Kor hiking out to the Tower of Kor, Black Mountains, Arizona, in 2010. This was one of his last climbs.

[Photo] Stewart M. Green

Layton Kor. The name says it all. Everyone who is a climber has heard his name. Every climber has seen his name plastered all over the guidebooks and on route names like Kor’s Flake, Kor’s Door, Kor’s Korner and the Kor-Ingalls Route. Layton Kor was ubiquitous in the 1960s. The man was everywhere, stirring up an impatient storm on the rocks wherever he landed.

Layton left his mark at every major American climbing area in the sixties–the Gunks, Yosemite Valley, Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Monument Valley, the desert around Moab and even obscure places from Connecticut to Arizona. He put a narrow canyon south of Boulder called Eldorado on the map, doing routes just for practice that are now time-honored classics. “I basically learned to climb going to Eldorado,” Layton told me once. “I did a lot of dumb things there. And I learned how to place pitons, which are really pretty easy to put in.”

I asked Layton a couple years ago how he came up with his clever Eldo route names like Psycho, Ruper, Grand Giraffe, Kloeberdanz and Kinder Rooten. He laughed and said, “I don’t know where some of those names came from. Like Ruper. It was just a name I liked. I named Kloeberdanz after a construction company I once worked for. Years later when I was getting gas, I saw a work truck in Glenwood Springs that said Kloeberdanz Construction on the door. I went over to the guy and told him, ‘Hey, I named a climbing route Kloeberdanz!’ He looked at me pretty strange.”

I first became aware of Layton Kor when I was a boy learning to climb at the Garden of the Gods in the mid-1960s. Even then Layton was a giant among climbers, a man who stood high above most of his contemporaries in Colorado. At the Garden, experienced climbers would speak in reverent tones when they pointed out his routes like Anaconda and Kor’s Korner. Later I pored over Pat Ament’s High Over Boulder guidebook and reveled in the black-and-white photos and route descriptions of all those classic Kor routes in Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons and Boulder Canyon.

Kor attempting a route that would later become the Tower of Kor (5.10 C1, 400′), completed by the author, Brain Shelton and Dennis Jump in February 2012, Black Mountains, Arizona. Kor made it two pitches up the route before retreating because of the heat.

[Photo] Stewart M. Green

In the early 1970s, I regularly climbed Layton’s routes with my climbing partners. When Jimmie Dunn and I signed the register on top of Castleton Tower after its sixth ascent in 1971, there were the names of Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls from the first ascent in 1961. Later that year we saw Layton’s name penciled in a sardine-tin register bolted to the summit of Standing Rock after we made the third ascent.

The past six months I’ve been working as editor for a new edition of Layton Kor’s long-out-of-print classic book Beyond the Vertical. I’ve read the book line by line a half-dozen times, and every time there are sections that make me laugh out loud. The book reflects Layton’s zest for adventure as well as his madcap adventures both on and off the rocks, and his larger-than-life zeal and personality. Layton was known for fast driving and fast climbing. If you weren’t climbing quick enough, you would feel the rope begin to tug at your waist, a reminder that climbing time was wasting.

Layton Kor was a big man, standing six-foot four-inches tall and looking more like an NBA basketball player than a rock climber. His hands, like other lifetime climbers, were massive, partly from decades of laying bricks. With those strong hands and sinewy forearms, Layton could weld a piton into a crack. Even in his early seventies, Layton pounded pitons deep and hard. On the 2009 first ascent of Bloody Butte (aka Kor’s Kastle) in the Arizona desert, Layton led the first pitch of a new route. As he climbed a narrow corner, he hammered four angle pitons into cracks and then tapped a thin wafer piton to protect a short traverse. It was a fine sound to hear the rising, ringing sound of the pitons as the master pounded them. “Pitons!” Layton shouted down. “I love pitons!”

Layton Kor, born in Canby, Minnesota in 1938, died on Sunday evening, April 21, in Kingman, Arizona at age 74 after a long illness. Over his last years, Layton maintained a sense of dignity and composure and was always ready with a joke, pun and laugh. Despite having dialysis three times a week and suffering breathing problems, he never gave up the fight and continued to make plans to get well and go climbing again in the Dolomites and diving off Hawaii. Layton was the real deal–a man’s man, a lifetime adventurer, an accomplished rock climber, a diver and a fisherman. He was also a kind and generous man who loved his family, friends and two cats Nim and Berry.

Layton Kor rappelling off of Kor’s Kastle (5.7+, 180′), Black Mountains, Arizona, in 2009, after making the first ascent of the tower.

[Photo] Stewart M. Green

Last evening, Jimmie Dunn, another climbing legend, called me from southern Arizona to talk. “Layton and Harvey Carter are probably talking about climbing back in the sixties right now,” Jimmie said. “They’re probably hanging out on some other planet. I hope there are good rocks out there for those guys. They’re gonna have a lot of fun.” Amen Jimmie. Rest in peace, Big Daddy–you’ll always be the best.

Stewart Green, a senior guide for Front Range Climbing Company, has made many first ascents, particularly in Colorado and Utah. Now a freelance photographer and writer, he’s written 19 books, including guidebooks for Europe, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New England.