Tributes to Layton Kor, 1938–2013

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Layton Kor leading the Naked Edge, Eldorado Canyon. Photo by Pat Ament / Copyright Chris Archer)

Layton Kor leading the Naked Edge, Eldorado Canyon. Photo by Pat Ament / Copyright Chris Archer)

Climbing asked partners, friends, and admirers of the late Layton Kor to write a few words in tribute. Click on each name or scroll down to read what they said. We will continue to add tributes as we receive them.  

Jeff Achey, Pat Ament, Chris Archer, John Gill, Steve Komito, Steve Levin, Jim McCarthy, Mike Pont, Royal Robbins, Steve Roper

Jeff AcheyCo-author of Climb! The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado; first ascensionist of hard Eldorado Canyon free climbs

I never knew Layton Kor, but like many Colorado climbers I learned to understand climbing through Kor stories. To me, Kor represented a kind of focus, an almost desperate willpower. If a person was going to climb, it should count. When Kor saw a beautiful line—and he had a great eye for lines—it was as if he was stricken. He just had to climb it, and he would make it count.

I think Kor’s most distinctive routes are in Eldorado Canyon: mixed free and aid lines like The Wisdom, Canary Pass, and Night. Foot-for-foot at the time of the FAs, these were the most outrageous pieces of rock yet climbed. Ground-up, onsight, very few bolts. When the cracks ran out, Kor would hook and nail the most fragile sandstone flakes, and if those ran out he would start free climbing again. He was almost unstoppable—a big, powerful, blue-collar bricklayer turned loose on the rock.

And in my mind, more than anyone, Kor embodied climbing in the 1960s. Though he was incredibly skilled, he wasn’t a technician. He had the speed and boldness of the great European alpinists, spiked with the American fascination for big walls, but his climbing wasn’t about glory or legacy. Instead, for Kor, climbing was part of the urgent, existential soul-searching that represented his generation as a whole. So for me, that will be Kor’s true legacy: Climbing should be a journey to the edge of the impossible, in search of the unknowable.

Lynn Hill, Pat Ament, and Layton Kor

Lynn Hill, Pat Ament, and Layton Kor. Photo copyright Chris Archer

Pat AmentFrequent partner in Colorado during the 1960s

It mattered to Layton that in my early teens I already had a reputation as a climber, my small, wiry body strong and full of desire. He needed competent companions. Not many could keep up with him. I was determined. In time, I hoped I would be one who could ascend with him almost as an equal. Layton hovered down into the little breathing universe of my face, gazed into my eyes, and with his well-known smile, that small, curved, Clint Eastwood, half-moon line at either corner of his mouth, gave me the famed look of the imp that seemed to say you were at the center of the best days you would ever know.

A warm winter day of late 1961, or was it early '62, Layton and I set out to make the second ascent of Eldorado’s spellbinding Naked Edge. A few days earlier, with Bob Culp, Layton had made the first ascent of the route. He was eager to get back up there and relive the route's exhilarating exposure. The route reaches upward into Eldorado sky in true grandeur. Unlike a straight corner of a building, the Naked Edge gradually steepens, from vertical to overhanging, a truly imposing structure of sandstone about 600 feet above the bushes and trees and talus.

Harvey Carter, Layton Kor, and Ray Northcutt

Harvey Carter, Layton Kor, and Ray Northcutt. Photo copyright Chris Archer

He and I soloed some 200 feet or more up the steep Redguard route, the large man above me. The final moves to the actual start of the Naked Edge took on a frightening aspect. I watched Layton stem, stretch, and traverse under the ceiling of a cave and then out to its lip. I had not done this cave before and watched him deal with an assortment of loose blocks, half-cemented bricks, fitting together in interlocking sets. These blocks formed the ceiling of the cave and its walls. Layton leaned confidently back on whatever block he chose to grab. Having come down through a family of bricklayers, Layton was a natural and skilled artisan. Near my school one day I ran into him at a nearby work site. With his large hands he wielded a trowel expertly, judged the exact dollop of mortar, or chipped a brick's edges to a perfect fit. On one route he and I did on Eldorado’s Rotwand, a vertical line he named Kinnder Rooten, his Dutch for “kind of rotten,” he seemed to hold the wall together as he climbed. He was a master at this sort of transcendence. Not only did Layton climb walls, he built them—a climb would go up before our eyes.

He leaned out and up to a flake near the top lip of the cave and made a lieback move over and upward. He continued until out of my sight on a ledge at the start of the actual Naked Edge. Layton saw no need for his 15-year-old partner to have a belay. Apparently he was not worried about me. My upper body was bound and constricted, by the coiled rope I carried around one shoulder, the pack, and a lightweight down jacket I wore. From time to time I remembered—with a small rush of excitement—that I had no rope. If I fell, if a hold broke off, I would go 300 feet straight to the ground. It was impossible to be sure about every hold, to know if a hold had a hidden fracture perhaps.

My parents trusted Layton. In their eyes he was the perfect and proper guide. Not once did they ask him or me a single question, as to whether or not we knew what we were doing. For them, it was a given. I was in the safest possible hands. They might have shuddered had they seen the situation I now was in, loaded with gear, choked by my  pack straps and rope. How naively but faithfully I moved out under the roof of that cave, where the slightest slip meant the end of my apprenticeship. It was not for me to wonder why, rather it was mine to do… or die.

Layton & Huntley IMG_8721

Huntley Ingalls and Layton Kor. Photo copyright Chris Archer

Chris ArcherFriend and Eldorado Canyon aficionado

I had the good fortune to become friends with Layton during the last six years of his life, and to climb with him on the last route he did in Eldorado Canyon (The Bomb, February 2009). For decades before I knew him, he had inspired me to climb fast and to put up new routes. Unfortunately, although I tried, I could never quite pull off his trademark gallows humor, like “Don’t fall now or we’ll both go!” To pull that off, at least occasionally, you must actually belay off A5 anchors, and my partners, unlike Layton’s, knew there was absolutely no chance of my doing that! With Layton, it was always a distinct possibility.

Layton inspired me even more deeply during his last few years. As I got to know him better I discovered a kind, compassionate, and gentle soul who never complained of the discomfort and indignities that he almost constantly experienced, and who was still just as excited about climbing as he was in the 1960s. His sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd never waned, even as his body failed him. I hope that when the Reaper comes for me I can face him with the good humor, courage, self-deprecation, and unflappable style that Layton unfailingly exhibited.

Thanks, Layton, for teaching me so much of what is important in climbing and important in life.  You’ll always be with me, partner. I just wish you’d stayed here with us much longer.

John GillBouldering pioneer

I will always remember Layton on his first visit to the Jenny Lake boulders in the Tetons, so many years ago. He wore lightweight climbing boots, probably Kronhoffers, argyle knee socks neatly tucked into corduroy knickers, an alpine sweater, and a stocking cap. I still see him as he stretched across the traverse on Falling Ant Slab, chatting away cheerfully. His enthusiasm and energy were infectious. On another occasion, my wife, Lora, and I were swimming at String Lake when Layton arrived with two doting young women in tow, stripped to his shorts, and swam out to the boulder in the middle of the lake, where we carried on a shouted conversation at a distance. His energy and climbing feats were exceeded only by his charm.

Steve KomitoClimbing partner

In the early 1960s Layton harbored a deep desire to repeat three ascents that he considered desert classics: Spider Rock, Totem Pole, and Cleopatra's Needle. In less than four years of intense activity he accomplished these three aims plus nearly a dozen first ascents, including Castleton Tower, the Priest, the Titan, Shangri-La, Venus Needle, Bell Tower, Standing Rock, and the Mitten Thumb. The last two I was fortunate enough to participate in.

My clearest memories of these adventures include the feeling of sand in my ears and eyes, the sight of Layton's enormous rock shoes in stirrups over my head, tiny belay stances hung over a void so vast that at times it seemed I must be looking downward into the heavens, and always, the sense that The Force was with me.

On a cold afternoon in March of 1964, I was winched, in tandem with a haul sack, onto the summit of the Mitten Thumb. This space looked about the size of a card table and was poised more than 400 feet above the level floor of Monument Valley. The exposure was so appalling that…I could not rise off my knees. Layton grinned monstrously at my discomfort. In a moment he had unleashed me and tossed the two rope ends back over the dreaded edge…. With a theatrical look of finality Layton dropped out of sight like a sacrificial maiden down the throat of a volcano. I clung to the rappel ropes which, taut as fiddle strings, were humming a chorale of salvation and rebirth. Up from the depths rang a discordant aria: "Oh, shit!"

"Layton! Oh God, what's gone wrong?" I couldn't bear to peer into the abyss to view the worst for myself. In an instant I could envision my bones bleaching on this lofty altar.

"Jesus, shut up, will you? When I want your help, I'll ask for it!" Layton's reply might have registered briefly on seismographs in neighboring states. I felt reassured that the descent was proceeding normally.

[Excerpted, with permission, from a story in Climbing 113.]

Steve LevinAuthor of the Eldorado Canyon guidebook

It isn't possible to be a Colorado climber and not be influenced by Layton Kor. His imprint is in the DNA of places like Eldorado Canyon, where I have spent so much of my life. Even the names of his routes inspire wonder: King's X, The Wisdom, Kloeberdanz, Guenese. These aren't just route names, they're icons from another era, a time when so much was unknown and unclimbed. They transcend the ordinary, rising into the realm of myth.

Jim McCarthyPartner on the first ascent of Mt. Proboscis' southeast face (1963) and other routes

When I think of Layton, the first thing that comes up is Energy. I've been around climbing now for over six decades, and have been fortunate to have met many of the great climbers in that span of time. Every generation someone appears with incredible drive and enthusiasm. Fritz Wiessner comes to mind. So does Galen Rowell. Layton was one of these unique people. He burst onto the scene in the late ’50s like a supernova lighting up the night sky. His like comes around every once in a while. He will be missed.

Mike PontEarly developer of Rifle, Colorado, sport climbing

I'll never forget rolling into Rifle, back in the day, with Kurt Smith. We came around the corner by the Wasteland. There he was, knee deep in the creek and fishing. We started bolting some route, Vision Thing I think, and he came over and watched. After about 15 minutes of watching us with our Bosch hammer drill, he turned to Kurt and laughed, saying we were lucky he didn't have "one of those" back in his day or there would have been nothing left to bolt. He went on to tell us that he had put up a route or two down closer to the fish hatchery. Never found those pitches, but I'm sure they are there. Good bye Layton, and thanks.

Royal RobbinsPartner on Mt. Proboscis (1963)

Layton was a wonderful climber, and a really genuine person. Very likable and fun to climb with.

Steve RoperPartner on first ascent of West Buttress of El Capitan (1963)

When I first met Kor, in the autumn of 1960, I was appalled by his bursting energy. It was the time of year when the burnt-out residents of Camp 4 were doing short routes and telling themselves that winter was imminent. So when Kor showed up and aggressively paced the campsites in search of partners for big routes, I cringed. I had already enjoyed a good year, after all. But, as I soon learned, Kor was a persuasive fellow, and we went off to make the third ascent of the north buttress of Lower Cathedral Rock. This climb was notorious for its intimidating aid pitches, and on one of these I saw Kor at his finest. Whistling "Bolero" incessantly, he soared upward with such professionalism and verve that I had no idea of the pitch's difficulty. Cleaning, I found nested pins, tied-off pins, knifeblades mashed into seams, and pins packed behind creaky flakes. I was impressed.

Kor wasn't around the Valley much during the next few years, but in early 1963 we laid plans to try the Nose of El Cap during the spring. In February, as I was doing little but working and socializing, I received a sobering message from Kor: "My weights, the boulders, and new routes in Eldorado are keeping me in superb shape." He went on to say, "No matter what we take on the wall, we will still suffer, but I don't care; for the Nose I'll go through anything (even lose one of my balls!). Impressed once again, I headed immediately for the local boulders.

On March 20 a postcard of El Cap, postmarked Yosemite, arrived at my house. "Come to the Valley, dad, to join me in the snow. I am hot to do something. Will be waiting for you." This telegraphic prose lured me away from my job in mid-April and into an adventure that kindles my memory equally with the climb of the Nose (Kor, Glen Denny, and I managed to climb this superb route—its third ascent—at the end of May). The weather in the Valley during the spring of 1963 was abysmal and Kor was restless. On one of his wanderings Kor studied a route that seemed not only worthy of his skills but, more importantly for this time of year, dry. The West Buttress of El Capitan is not as high as the Nose, nor is it as imposing, but it had caught the eye of earlier climbers because it so boldly separated two outstanding walls: the Salathé Wall and the west face.

Every Yosemite climber of the early ’60s knew of Kor's prowess on rock, but a few neophytes were blissfully unaware of his powers of persuasion. To climb with Kor was to be in the company of a master, and when the master called upon you—well, there was no possibility of refusal. Talented, but somewhat intimidated by Yosemite's walls, Erick Beck had planned a modest schedule for the year: a slow progression of increasingly difficult ascents. El Cap, the dream of us all, lay in Beck's future. Or so he thought.

Kor lured Beck to the West Buttress as easily as the Pied Piper ensnared the children of Hamelin. Later, Beck was to claim that it had not been a mistake to accompany Kor on the lower section of the West Buttress; rather, it had been an education. But it was hard going, and after several climbing days spread out over a fortnight, Beck realized he was out of his league, mentally if not physically. Kor, meanwhile, was enjoying himself immensely: his main concern was whether Beck would have the mental fortitude to continue. But Kor had long been accustomed to climbing partners less committed than himself, and he knew someone else could be coerced if Beck came to his senses, which he did in early May.

Jim Harper was next; he lasted a day, as did Kor's third partner, Ed Cooper. Beck went up once again in a futile attempt to conquer his fears. Now it was my turn, for I had recently arrived in the Valley to get in shape for the Nose. I too fell prey to the soft ministrations of Kor, and I too was lured unwillingly to the West Buttress.

Feeling uneasy about the blatant use of fixed ropes in an era when such aids were beginning to be frowned upon by our peers, Kor insisted that we soon push for the top. I will never forget the overall feeling of the next three days. I cannot conjure up individual pitches—thankfully, I must add—but certain segments have permeated my consciousness. One incident, a trivial one, still amuses me. There I was, nervously affixed to a vast plate of granite by strings and spikes. Kor arrived at my hanging belay station bristling with an enormous rack of iron. Without pausing, he clambered over me as if I were a mere set of handholds and footholds. The iron rudely caressed my body; flailing limbs knocked my glasses askew. Seconds later, his feet treading my hair, he was driving a piton, asking for my remaining iron, and attaching the haul rope. I gazed at him in wonderment.

Near sunset of the second day we found ourselves close to the rim, huddled on tiny bivouac ledges separated by 40 feet or so. Kor settled onto the higher ledge in the twilight. From my perch I watched the Ribbon Fall Amphitheater turn golden, an entrancing sight. Kor, always uneasy when alone, rappelled to my ledge for social reasons, pleading with me to search my brain and come up with esoteric variations on the word that described a certain female feature. Normally I would have responded to such a request with gusto, but my reverie was so profound that I demurred. But finally it became too difficult to remain aloof from Kor's power, and I rattled on and on as nightfall arrived and Kor reluctantly swung hand over hand back to his lonely granite aerie.

[Reprinted with permission. This piece was excerpted from Roper's original draft for a chapter in Beyond the Vertical, a Layton Kor book published in 1983. A new edition of this book, edited by Stewart Green, will be out this summer.]