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– by Gerry Roach

On Shiprock, New Mexico, 1960

“Gerry! It’s time! The others are already well above the cave.” It was Tom shaking me. Instantly awake, I felt amazingly good. If I believed Shirley, then I already knew the outcome, so what did I have to worry about? Today I would just enjoy the ride. Pulling on my boots, I said to Tom, “Put that breakfast food in the pack. We’ll catch up to the gang lickety-split and eat in the sun while we wait for them.” Within minutes I was tied in and started prussiking up the rope that hung free across the cave’s overhang. Other than my breathing and occasional voices floating down from above, it was strangely quiet.

After I belayed Tom up the prussik pitch, we moved out. Following my headlight’s beam, I led several easy pitches up the Basalt Gully into the much-discussed Black Bowl, which is an extensive basalt feature reaching halfway up Shiprock’s west face. Here I saw the lights of the gang ahead. I knew that the first hard pitch was at the top of the bowl, and with only the first streak of dawn showing, I knew that we were in good shape timewise. Finally, it occurred to me that I should offer the lead to Tom, since the etiquette among peers was to swing leads.

“Ah, sorry, Tom. I’ve been hogging the lead. Do you want to take over for a while? Or we could swing leads?”

“Um, no, Gerry. To be honest, I don’t feel so good. Could you lead all day?”

Eying the pitch above, I realized that I had offered at a ridiculous time, right before the first hard pitch. “No sweat–just let me have my sniggin’ nose.” That code meant that I understood that Tom did not have a physical ailment, he was just nervous; that yes, I would take the lead for the rest of the day; and that we did not need to speak of this again.

Tom replied, “Snarg, Squirrel. On belay!” That meant, “Thank you very much; I’ll make it up to you somehow, and I will be extra attentive to your every rope need. Go man go!”

In the dawn’s early light, I moved up onto the vertical moves. Just as I pulled around a corner and disappeared from Tom’s sight, Tom, as nervous partners often did in our eclectic club, hollered, “Ig Snig?” In this context, “Ig Snig” had a different meaning from when Stan and I had used it the day before, when it offered a contract. Here the call meant, “My God, that looks hard! What’s it like? Can I make it? Can you make it? Are we gonna die? Progress report, please!”

With my hand on an especially good hold, I cried down, “TG!”

Tom parroted, “TG!”

This was our special code for “I’ve got my hand on a Thank God hold and will not fall here. All is well for the moment!” Tom’s reply meant literally, “Thank God!” A “TG” did not convey the overwhelming goodness of an “Arg Snarg,” it was just a progress report and a brain ping when the rope was not enough. At the top of the pitch, I tied to the anchor that was already there, pulled up the excess rope, and called, “Arg Snarg!” That meant that I was secure, on belay, ready for Tom to climb, and that, because of Tom’s earlier “Ig Snig,” I would pay special attention to the belay and keep the rope tight as he climbed. The incoming rope told me that Tom was indeed climbing.

Our code might have seemed like adolescent nonsense to an outsider, but it was real communication, and it was incredibly efficient. With fewer than twenty words between us, we had climbed one of Shiprock’s crux pitches, reviewed our fears, and communicated volumes. I used a slightly different code with each partner, but since the vocabulary was so small, this was not a problem. One of the unspoken undertones to all the code was, “This is really great! The world is good, and this climb is full of joy!” If there was a serious problem, we had another vocabulary.

After this effort, Tom and I stood in the history-filled Colorado Col. We were actually quite high on Shiprock at this point. The first modern-day climbers had tried to head directly to the summit from this point by climbing over the Fin, which is a northern subsummit. In particular, Robert Ormes, a pioneer of technical routes on many of Colorado’s Fourteeners, had been here on four attempts between 1936 and 1938. While climbing above the Colorado Col on his second attempt, Ormes fell thirty feet onto a small piton that was only two and a half inches into the rock. The pin bent ninety degrees but held his fall. Ormes wrote a vivid article describing this harrowing event titled “A Piece of Bent Iron,” which was published in the July 1939 Saturday Evening Post. After the national spotlight hit Shiprock, the mysterious monolith was considered America’s toughest climbing challenge, and it galvanized America’s best climbers into electric action. By the autumn of 1939, Shiprock had seen more than twenty unsuccessful attempts. In October 1939 a team from California, which included David Brower and Raffi Bedayan, stood in the Colorado Col and made a different choice. Instead of attacking the Fin directly, they rappelled down a narrow, block-filled gully to the northeast, traversed around the base of the Fin, and gained the honeycombed basin that had held Cliff Monster’s nest. From there, they followed the mythical route up to the deep notch between the elbows and onto Shiprock’s elusive summit, which they reached on their fourth day of climbing. Shiprock was not climbed again until 1952.

In 1960 Tom and I stood in the Colorado Col and reviewed all this colorful history in fifteen seconds. Looking up at the steep wall leading to the Fin, I just pointed at it and said, “Snargin hard!” Tom nodded and we turned to the rappel ropes in the gully, which the others had already rigged. It was here in the Colorado Col that we left the basalt and moved onto the lighter-colored tuff-breccia. The transition was more confused here, but I enjoyed it just as I had yesterday. Hooking into the ropes, Tom and I quickly slid down into the morning sun.


Wake up, roll over, and look at Shiprock! “Wake up, roll over, and look at Shiprock!”
The Rock with Wings floods a hiker with awe The Rock with Wings floods a hiker with awe
During a sandstorm, wild horses urge the Rock with Wings to merge with the sky During a sandstorm, wild horses urge the Rock with Wings to merge with the sky

Photos by Gerry Roach



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