Les on Touchstone, late 70's
From Let to right: Terry, Brian & Les, The Fang
Les is one of the true epic, bold Wasatch climbers. Most of his over 70 first ascents in the Wasatch were put up in the 1970’s and 80’s. These were 99% trad routes, many were multi pitch. He has a strong ground-up, "less is more" ethic on his lines. Les began climbing in 1968 at the Shawangunks, New York and on Ragged Mountain, Connecticut. In the 70’s and early 80’s Les climbed extensively in Yosemite, climbing big walls such as The Nose
, in 1973 (with his brother), The Salathe Wall, New Dawn Wall, The Shield
and West Face
on El Cap. He also made a one day ascent of the Northwest Face
on Half Dome.
The epics began early. In the late 1970’s, Les and Hooman Aprin decided to make a winter ascent of the West Face on the Leaning Tower in Yosemite. They only carried 3 quarts of water! On the first day they were slowed by the fact that studs on the overhanging first pitch bolt ladder were missing. They spent hours just trying to hook some of the spaced-out studs with a coat hanger. They bivied in their harnesses one pitch below the comfortable Ahwahnee ledge. The next day they were desperately thirsty. Fixing two pitches above Ahwahnee ledge, they came back to the ledge for their second night on the wall. That evening Les could feel his heart beating wildly as dehydration set in. Hooman, the consummate sufferer, just laughed at their pain. On the third day, much slowed by their weakness, they collapsed on top. Fortunately, they found some water in some melting snow and pot holes on the descent.
Les also climbed two new walls (1980’s) in Zion National Park…Magic Carpet Ride, IV 5.9 A3
with Lyn Wheeler and Mark Smith and Crack in the Cosmic Egg, V 5.10 A
3 with me.
Locally, in the mid 70’s, Les and Doug Moffat skied into Bells Canyon mid-winter. They set up camp near Middle Bell Tower. A late start and lightly equipped, they plowed through deep snow to the start of The Easy Way Up, III 5.8
, a rarely done, sparsely protected trad route established by George and Jeff Lowe. The climbing went slower than expected, it kept coming at them. Near the top, as the light was fading, the wind kicked up and a storm moved in. They were forced to bivy, hanging on the wall...they had only one rope. Clad only in sweaters, they shivered as the snow whirled around them. Soon they found it necessary “to huddle together like a cocoon". It dumped a foot of snow that long night..."we almost died”. In the morning, very cold and hypothermic, they staggered down to their camp and the ski out.
In the summer of 1978 Les made a trip to Baffin Island, Canada where he climbed a new 14 pitch route on Mount Asgard above the Arctic Circle. Other travels included two trips to Peru, where he summited five peaks including Huscaran Sur, the highest in the Cordillera Blanca (6,746 m.)
He participated in the Utah Explorer's Society attempt to climb Nanga Parbat, Diamir Face, Pakistan, Himalayas (26,660 ft.) in 1984. With Rick Wyatt, Evelyn Lees and Hooman Aprin, they ascended most of the technical difficulties of the huge lower ice face, but Les was knocked unconscious by a falling rock, breaking his scapula. They descended by making 30 rappels, lowering Les much of the way. In much pain, Les convalesced in the tent at Camp One and had difficulty moving. Word later got out around camp that a human corpse was discovered on the glacier a ways from camp. Les immediately perked up, taking the trek out to see the sight. Slowly, he made his way back to Base Camp.
In the early 80’s Les was leading the final pitch of Expect No Mercy 5.10
c, a continuous three-pitch line on the West Wind Buttress (LCC) with Steve Carruthers. The third pitch is an awkward-leaning wide crack. Les decided to go all out by swinging into a layback instead of jamming. Knowing he likely had to run it out 25 feet or more to the top, he committed to the barn-door layback. Inching higher and higher above his last piece, he was unable to find a possible rest or foot hold to place protection. The edge of the crack was slightly rounded, which only added to the difficulty. With dwindling strength he struggled to an elusive "thank-God" hold. One move shy, his foot popped, causing him to plunge nearly sixty feet. The cart-wheeling, out-of-control fall landed him even with the belay. Steve, who was using a hip-belay, was badly burned on his hip and brake hand, but he held on! Les suffered a head laceration that would eventually require 10 stitches. Gathering his wits, Les successfully re-led the pitch, this time jamming the crack.
On Guano Roof
In 1982 Les and Mark Smith made the second ascent of Ed Webster’s Brer Rabbit, VI 5.10 A4
on Cotton Tail Tower in the Fishers Towers. On one pitch, Mark had climbed 30 feet of moderate free-climbing off of a ledge. He then aided a steep, mud-filled, difficult crack. After about thirty feet of aid climbing, the piece he was standing on popped. The pins below him all zippered out until the last one held. Badly shaken, Mark turned the lead over. Les climbed delicately back up to that lonely knife blade piton. The pin came out in his fingers! He finished the pitch and later they made it to a good bivy ledge for the night. Unfortunately, while unpacking the haul bag, his partner dropped Les’s sleeping bag. Poor Mark spent the night shivering while Les slept warmly in Mark's bag! They topped out on the dramatic summit the next day after more adventure.
One of my own experiences with Les was on West Bell Tower, Bells Canyon 1978. We started our new route on the East end of the wall. He led the first pitch, a consistent five inch wide, tricky-to-protect groove. Following, I was stung by a hornet, hence the name of the route, The Sting, III 5.9+ A1
. The third pitch, Les’s lead, was a long, steep groove-like chimney. After 80 feet chimneying, the crack turned pure off-width, which was wider than our largest hex (pre-cams). To the left was an improbable looking flake that paralleled the off-width. He boldly launched up this for about 25 feet. At it's end he managed to lunge back into the crack. He belayed on a slab below a large roof. A clean one-half inch crack split the overhanging corner. It was obvious we’d have to aid climb, but Les wanted it to go free. “See that flake above us? Try that way”. “Can’t see where it goes, I protested”. The gritty looking flake looked improbable. Encouraged by Les, after a lousy nut placement and some hard, way-scary moves off the slab I managed to peer over the bulge….the wall was blank! “It won’t go Les”. “Are you sure? It’s gotta go”. Back at the belay I realized that part of the magic of Les and his amazing routes was his willingness to try anything, as unlikely as it may seem. Pounding pins into the roof crack, I pulled over onto the final 40 feet. I followed a clean one inch aid crack up gritty rock until it ended. Improbable steep face climbing led to an abrupt finish on top. The sudden view of Little Cottonwood is marvelous.
Because of the adventure, Les loved Bells Canyon, putting up many of it’s classics, Including, Arm & Hammer 5.10 A0, Butcher Knife, 5.10d, Crown of Creation, 5.10 A4, The Nerve, 5.11, Cymbals of the Sun, 5.11d, and Demons Dance, 5.10d A0.
Of lesser desirability, Dire Straits, 5.11R
and The Toga Traverse, 5.1
0, a girdle traverse of West Bell Tower.
Sometimes Les couldn’t find partners to venture out on his new projects, so he occasionally recruited unsuspecting, uninitiated neophytes on his routes. Brett Ruckman and Gary Olsen joined him on the first ascent of Missing Link, 5.10R
a visionary line on the Crescent Crack Buttress that has a reputation for the possibility of a scary mantle fall on it’s sustained first pitch. Brett and Gary have since that day established scores of first ascents on the Granite. Brett co-authored, with his brother Stuart, a former guide to technical routes in the Wasatch.
Les’s other contributions included many of the routes in Ferguson Canyon like Extreme Unction, 5.10b
and Golden Fingers, 5.10b
; at Lone Peak, Hyper Form 5.10b, Shadow of Death 5.10, High Anxiety, 5.9R & The Gold Wall 5.9+
; in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Spring Fever, 5.10R, Boomerang, 5.10cR, Romance on the Rocks, 5.10dR and Altered States 5.10a
; and Valhalla, 5.9
- on Mt. Olympus.
Almost everything he did was epic. From climbing, skiing, surfing, river running, and out of control partying, Les lived life full throttle. At his own bachelor’s party he drank so much that when he finally passed out he didn’t wake up until three days later...just in time for the wedding! Once, Les was surfing off Point Judith, Rhode Island. The waves were big because a hurricane was raging far out in the Atlantic. He was enjoying the unusual surf. From the beach, someone started frantically waving and yelling at him. He thought it was a big set of waves coming in. Instead, he noticed a large, great white shark approaching him. Instinctively, he wildly paddled for the next wave. Catching it, he rode the wave all the way in. The shark trailed him almost the whole way.
Epic Hacky at Indian Creek. From left to right: Bret Ruckman, Gordan Douglass, Les, Stuart Ruckman (mostly hidden), Gary Olsen.
Hacky at Timberline Sports
Les would climb with anyone, including beginners and people he never knew. Visiting climbers always had a place to crash in his home near the canyons. On his first climb in the Shawangunks, he shared a rope with the legendary Fritz Wiessner. He would always try to make sure that someone who didn’t have anyone to climb with would always have a partner.
Wasatch Rock Climbs was the guidebook that Les and I authored and organized in 1984. We sent out surveys to all of the climbers we knew to confirm ratings. Our book was the first to introduce star ratings. For three years we toiled at it... a labor of love. Climbing obscure routes, arguing about ratings but always having fun... that’s how it was with Les. I rented dark room equipment to convert our black & white negatives into page-sized prints. Les worked closely with the publisher, The American Alpine Club. We hired a secretary to proof all of our writing (this was before computer editing.) For work, we both washed windows on commercial buildings along with Chris Noble. One day, high above the ground, Les lost his balance and took a 15 foot fall. We were always roped up. Sometimes there was buildering-type climbing, so we’d top rope stuff.
From 1978 to 1980, Les founded his own company, Alpine Adventure, a manufacturer of technical climbing gear and a line of Goretex clothing and bivouac-sacs. Soon after this, Les worked at the local climbing store, Timberline Sports, where he was the director of their School of Mountaineering. He had bragged to me once that he was their highest paid employee, making $7.00 an hour! He introduced many to rock and ice climbing and organized international climbing trips.
Les has mentioned that, “perhaps my greatest contribution to the climbing community of the Wasatch was my participation and organization to keep extensive residential condominium development out of the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1984. We did this through the cooperation of the private land owners and the help and expertise of the Trust for Public Land, the Forest Service, and local financial institutions. Mayor Ted Wilson, spear-headed this dynamic process.”
Les has been selling Real Estate for a long time now. He and Gail have two adventurous children. At a young 62 years of age, he is still very active in climbing and traveling.