When I first started climbing, I heard stories of John Rupley. He was one of the first people climbing on Mt. Lemmon, the University of Arizona professor who used the rocks as practice for mountaineering expeditions. He never logged any of his climbs nor did he name any routes. I pictured John as a slim, smallish, professorial-type, who puttered around the mountain as an intellectual endeavor. Upon meeting John, I found that nothing could be further from the truth. John is a large, bear of a man and the word "puttering" does not come to mind. He is very focused, especially when it comes to rock climbing and mountaineering.
John started climbing in the early '50s in the Shawangunks in New York with the likes of Fritz Wiessner, Hans Kraus, and later, the "Vulgarians". In the late '50s, he moved to Washington and attended the University of Washington, where he met and married his future climbing partner, Ila Ruud. While in Washington, he started mountaineering and climbed with Fred Beckey. In 1961, John came to Tucson for an interview with the University of Arizona. As a part of the interview, they took him up on Mt. Lemmon. He immediately recognized the climbing potential of Mt. Lemmon on the drive. Mt. Lemmon rock was part of the reason he accepted the job with the University of Arizona. After he accepted the job with the Chemistry department and he and Ila began exploring and climbing almost immediately.
John and Ila explored and put up first routes in some of the best areas on Mt. Lemmon: the Rupley towers, the Fortress, the Ravens, Rappel rock, and Windy Point. The Rupley towers are the only rock formation on the mountain named after rock climbers. Since John and Ila didn't name any routes, some of their routes were named by climbers following in their path: R1, R2, ..., R6, the Rupley Route, the Standard route (Rappel Rock), and the Lost Rupley route. Their climbs also inspired the names for other routes: "Rupley's Believe it or Not" and "Son of Rupley" (which was not put up by their son).
John and Ila are the true pioneers of Mt. Lemmon rock climbing. They defined rock climbing on Mt. Lemmon on their own terms and climbed for climbing's sake alone. They didn't name routes, grade routes, or record their climbing adventures; they climbed primarily for the joy of it. During the interview, when talking about the great climber Conrad Kain, Ila said, "...those early climbers were so great and so unique. They were the very first people putting up the routes in Canada." This is the way I feel about John and Ila: they are so great and so unique. They were the very first people putting up the routes on Mt. Lemmon.
I want to hear a little about your background: where both of you were born and raised, a little about your families, what size family you had, and what your parents did.
John: I was born in 1933 in New York. We moved to California when I was about six; then to Guatemala, Central America, when I was ten. Came back to this country when I was thirteen to attend the Hill School in Pennsylvania. Went to college in New Jersey - Princeton. Graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle to be near mountains. Met my wife there. We married after my five years in Seattle. Went back to Cornell for post-doc, then came to Tucson, to the U.A. Chemistry Department, and have been here ever since. I retired from the Biochemistry Department several years ago.
Ila: We came here in the Winter, December of l961.
John: My father was an executive. I am a scientist.
What kind of executive was he?
John: His last job was chairman of the board of W.R. Grace and Co.
Ila: I was born in 1937 in Eastern Washington on a cattle/wheat ranch which my pioneer grandfather homesteaded in 1883. I grew up on that ranch with horses, cows, and all kinds of cute little animals. I was athletic. I studied ballet so that made me more athletic. We married after I finished at the University of Washington. Mountain and rock climbing were easy in a sense because I'd had so much physical training in ballet, horseback riding, that sort of thing. John taught me to rock climb.
So you didn't do any rock climbing before you met John?
Ila: Nothing, never, never.
How long after you met did you start rock climbing?
Ila: I didn't rock climb until after we married. I went along to watch him climb a couple of times near Seattle.
John: Ila climbed after we were married about 2 weeks. She was put into training, to running, immediately upon our return from our honeymoon.
Ila: John had me run five miles a day to get into shape for mountain climbing, and we rock climbed almost each weekend. That summer he expected me to be able to climb in the Alps. That was a big shock to me and amused our friends. But I did it!
So how old were you when you started climbing?
John: Eighteen, I think.
Were you in High School or were you in college?
John: In college - the second year.
How did you get started climbing?
John: Friends who lived next door were in both the mountaineering club and the outing club. I got started that way and it went from there. It was probably a year or so before I became friendly with the person who then was the lead climber in the Shawangunks.
Was that Fritz Wiessner?
John: No. That was Hans Kraus. Fritz had moved to Vermont, and mostly climbed in either the Vermont mountains right close to where he lived or in the Adirondacks. Whereas Hans lived in New York and would come up on the weekends - all the time.
Was that technical rock climbing? Did you put in pitons?
John: Oh yes. In those days one didn't have nuts - unless one was English. The tradition in the Shawangunks had a direct tie to Europe. Fritz came from Dresden. Near Dresden you have the Elbe sandstone towers. They have extremely high level rock climbing, established from the early 1900's on. Also, Fritz made major routes in the Dolomites, as have many others from the Dresden area.
Hans came of a Trieste family. He climbed in the Dolomites. He was a friend and partner of Emilio Comici, who was one of the great climbers of the 1930's. Comici made the first ascent of the North face of the Cima Grande; he died shortly after W.W. II in a climbing accident. So, the Shawangunks were developed with a direct line to top-level European climbing - especially centered on the Dolomites.
Fritz was one of the world's great rock climbers. He carried that over to the States when he came. Actually, I think Fritz was the first to see the climbling potential of the Shawangunks, and then he partnered with Hans to climb the early routes.
When did you meet Fritz?
John: 1950's. The exact date, I don't know. Fritz and his wife would come down and we would all get together with Hans. Fritz would come down only once or twice a year whereas Hans would be there each weekend. Since Fritz was living up in Vermont he wasn't going to drive all the way down to 80 miles from New York - just on a weekend trip.
Ila: But Hans and Fritz were best friends. So they saw each other frequently as friends.
John: It's a fairly close knit group.
Did your parents climb?
Did you ever climb in the Shawangunks?
Ila: Oh yes, that's where John trained me. My first climb was the "Easy Overhang" and then we did a couple of other easy climbs. The next week he took me up "High Exposure" which was tough, more difficult. It was exposed and had a certain danger, especially because I was belaying him.
John: The level of climbing in the early sixties was much lower than it is now. There were no 5.10's. There were 5.9's barely. 5.8's would be what you would normally expect.
Your equipment probably wasn't as good as what you have today? The ropes probably weren't quite so good then?
John: The ropes were good enough. It's the shoes, primarily, that are much better now. We used sneakers up through the early 1950's, then an Italian light leather climbing boot with typical Bramani soles.
Ila: When you were climbing in the Gunks, did you use those coiled gold ropes?
John: Yes. One didn't have the kernmantle ropes where you have a sheath over a core of fibers. Rather the ropes were laid like the hemps were, but they were made of nylon. But they still were actually fine. They would last many falls.
Modern climbers take a lot of falls when they climb. Did you take any falls in those days or did you do everything to avoid it?
John: We did everything to avoid it. Yes, one did fall, but not that frequently.
Ila: You didn't have any life-threatening falls.
John: No. No fall is life-threatening until you die.
Ila: Once, with Jim McCarthy, you were on something where you both fell off and everything popped except one piton.
John: No, that wasn't life threatening.
When you climbed in the Shawangunks did you climb with a top-rope or was it strictly lead climbing?
John: One would never top-rope. It was always done by lead.
You would lead climb and then belay your partner up?
John: The idea of sport climbing had not surfaced, so far as I was aware. Even in Yosemite, it was also the traditional form of climbing where you led. You normally would share leads.
Were you climbing because you loved rock climbing or were you climbing mainly to train for Alpine or mountaineering-type climbs?
John: Well, the rock climbing itself is enjoyable. Until I'd been to the mountains, I didn't know what they were like. That didn't happen until 1954.
That's when you went to Washington?
John: Well, I did go to Washington in the Fall of '54, but my first time in the mountains was in the Bugaboos that Summer. That was the first time the Bugaboos had been entered since about the time of the war, when Bedayn had been in there and climbed Snowpatch. So there were still first ascents to be done. At that time, it wasn't very popular to go climbing in Canada. When people did go, it was almost always to some extent exploration. Perhaps people hadn't been in an area before, or if they had been, they hadn't cleaned out all the most interesting peaks.
So you had many first ascents there?
John: Some, yes.
John: That was a new route on the West face of Snowpatch, not a first ascent. The Middle Tower of the Howser Spires was a first ascent that we made; it was the last of the high peaks of the Bugaboos to be climbed. At that time there still remained a large number of new routes to do.
Ila: Who did the Middle Tower, you and Kraus? Jim McCarthy?
John: McCarthy, myself, Austin, and Bernays.
You climbed in the East and then you went to Washington. Did you do any rock climbing in Washington?
John: The Cascades go down the Western part of the state. From Seattle you could go off each weekend and get somewhere. Even if the weather was bad, you could at least try to go where the best weather was.
Ila: What are those wonderful rocks called, in Tumwater Canyon?
John: Early in the year, you can climb in Tumwater Canyon or at the Peshastin Pinnacles.
Ila: They are on the Eastern side of the Cascades, where the climate is dry. A big rock climbing garden now. Very popular, everybody lined up. That's where I first watched John climb.
After you went to Canada, did you start focusing on Alpine climbing or did you stick with the rock climbing? Did you have a shift in your focus?
John: No, probably rock climbing for a while. But by the time one got into one's late twenties, there was less time to stay in shape. When you gain weight you can't be as vigorous.
Ila: By then you had met Fred Beckey and he was teaching you Alpine climbing.
John: But Fred was mostly interested in doing rock faces, wherever possible.
Ila: In an Alpine setting.
John: Yes. So that was why he was amused to go to Canada or the Wind Rivers, or into the Stuart area in Washinton State, or into the North Cascades.
Ila: You're talking about Mt. Stuart in Eastern Washington?
Ila: John has a classic route up Mt. Stuart. Was that with Fred?
John: No, Fred was sick that day. It was Don Claunch.
Ila: It's in the book "50 Classic Climbs".
John: There are also lots of pinnacles in the Stuart area.
Did you have some first ascents on Devil's Tower?
John: First ascents or new routes?
John: Two. The West face, the so-called McCarthy route, and a North face route. The one that is called the McCarthy route was chosen so we could go up roughly where the rope fell for the parachutist who parachuted onto the top. The rope missed the top and landed on the face. We cut a hank of it off and hauled it back. (The story of the parachutist on Devil's Tower)
The parachutist, was that the guy that Paul Petzoldt ended up rescuing?
John: Did Petzoldt go up and get him? It is conceivable that Petzoldt was involved. What I thought they did is just use the old 2 by 4 ladder, but I could be wrong in that.
Ila: Did he die then?
John: No, No. It was some sort of publicity stunt.
Ila: He did it? He actually did it? Well, good for him!
John: He was going to fix a rope and lower himself down, but the rope missed.
Ila: Both those climbs that you did were just you and Jim?
Ila: Jim McCarthy and John were climbing buddies in the Shawangunks.
John: The West face route on Devil's Tower was probably the fifth or sixth route on the Tower. The first ascent was the Wiessner crack. The second was the standard route, up the fallen column. Then several routes by Herb and Jan Conn, who had moved into a cave in the Black Hills, from Washinton, D.C.
You were involved with the American Alpine Club?
John: Yes, but I wouldn't say "involved" with it. I am not that much in the way of being on boards or committees. I can remember only a couple of things, they were very minor ones. One was a member because it was the right thing to do.
When I was here last time, you mentioned that you had written some articles for the Alpine Club Journal.
John: When you climb something you essentially register it. You register it by describing the climb in a note or an article, which someone in the group writes. It can be viewed as a way of establishing priority, or better, as a way to give guidebook writers and climbers sources of information. I think this is something that should be done. This is more true for mountains than local climbing areas. How can someone know what the route was unless you write it up in some way? If it is someplace that is only visited on occasions, the next person there might like to know what happened.
Ila: Fred Beckey is famous for searching the literature, going through the really old journals looking for wonderful pictures. Maybe the people who wrote the articles and took the pictures were explorers. He'll see a face or a ridge there which will become a Beckey new route or first ascent. Because Fred found good information that way, he was really aggressive about seaching old journals.
John: It's a way to find climbs. Or just to find areas even if you don't want to do new routes. It's nice to look through the old journals. When you find a place, if it's an area that isn't heavily visited, it's much more appealing, obviously, as you are very sure not to run into other people.
Did you write up the articles yourself or did other people in the parties write them up for the Alpine Club?
So do they have any "Rupley Routes", besides on Mt. Lemmon?
John: You normally don't name routes, as far as I am concerned, after people. You would normally name them according to where they are.
You had the McCarthy route on Devil's Tower?
John: Yes, but that was for a cliff. And the name was given by the Park Service.
Ila: Well, there are first ascents and new routes you were on, like the Mowich face on Mt. Ranier.
John: You would call the climb by the name of the face. It would be wrong routinely to attach people's names to climbs of a face or a mountain. You don't call a mountain by the people that climbed it first. It has its own name. On occasion, you would have a route called, let's say, as on Mt. Alberta, the Japanese route because it was famed as a Japanese ascent.
Ila: On Mt. Robson there is the Kain route, after the great climber Conrad Kain. But those early climbers were so great and so unique. They were the very first people putting up the routes in Canada.
Did you ever have any life threatening experiences up there?
John: We discussed that. Something's not life threatening until you are dead.
Ila: John's had quite a few bivouacs.
Was there any point in time where you thought that might be it?
John: No. You don't think it is until it is.
Ila: They have been in some tight spots. Fred fell into a crevasse in Alaska. It took hours to get him out. Later, on decent, they slab-avalanched the slope they had ascended, which led to a bivouac and some route finding the next day.
John and I had some electric storm encounters. On Mt. Lemmon lighting struck a tree about ten yards from us, knocking friend Ed Stonebreaker to the ground. On Iron Man, in Canada, which we climbed with Ray Salemme, sparks flew from the crampons tied to John's pack. On the beautiful Canadian peak, Sir Donald, we had to squat on our rubber-soled boots for a long time, while lighting hit the peak. The summit was buzzing. On decent we had to bivouac through an all-night snow storm.
John: There are amusing situations which you can always talk about because you came through in good shape.
Ila: Well, no one's ever died on an expedition that you have been on and I don't think anyone lost toes or fingers. John is a sensible man. Fred Beckey is a sensible man. Neither one of them is so driven by ego that they'll allow their lives to be threatened by a storm by refusing to turn around.
John: Or one knows how to get through the storm.
Ila: Or they have the technique to know how to survive. Fred Beckey and John were climbing partners for years, so John had the wisdom of Fred and then was very sensible himself. Nothing ever happened that was horrible.
Do you want to move on to Mt. Lemmon?
The first thing is how familiar are you with the current route names on Mt. Lemmon?
John: Not at all.
Are you familiar with any of the guidebooks? Have you seen Steiger's book?
John: We have a copy, I think, of Steiger's. That might be the only one. I got it largely because it was the first one out there. I haven't seen the others.
[I showed John the two guidebooks by Eric Fazio-Rhicard, "Squeezing the Lemmon" and "Squeezing the Lemmon II?" and the Falcon book, "Rock Climbing Arizona"]
So you are not familiar with any of these?
O.K., then I won't mention any of the climbs by name. Are you familiar with the routes on the Rupley Towers, like R1 , R2,?
John: Yes, sure. I am familiar with the one's that I climbed but not other ones.
On the Rupley Towers, they have names like R1 , R2, R4? Did you name those or did they come along later and name those?
John: I never named a climb here.
You never named a climb? You didn't name the Rupley Towers?
I didn't think you had.
Ila: We used to have funny little names like "the flake", "the nose". We had our own sort of language so that we knew what we were talking about. Like Rappel Rock: we used to call it the Thumb because it looks like a thumb.
John: The middle towers are called something else now, the Ravens possibly?
The Ravens and the Fortress.
John: We called them the Middle Towers and the Castle or something like that. The Fortress was well named. I think the Thumb is better than Rappel Rock.
Ila: Rappel Rock is such a fresh climb. You can get out where the chicken-heads are and the wind can whip by and you feel secure, yet you are exposed. You have a great view. It is a very sweet climb.
[In previous conversations with John and Ila, John had asked if any of his pitons were still up on Mt. Lemmon. I answered that I didn't know. For the interview, I brought "Squeezing the Lemmon II", and pointed out that on the topo of page 118 of the guidebook, there is a small arrow pointing out "Look for the pin on the North face". This prompted a short discussion with page 118 in front of John and myself].
You were asking if any of your pitons were still up there? I don't know if this one here is, but there is this little note to look for the pin up here on the side of a Rupley Tower.
John: Strange, I can't remember that one. I assume that X's are bolts? There should be a bunch of bolts there. I know we had a bolt ladder in there early.
The latest guidebook had this route over here and it wasn't in any of the other guidebooks. They call this the "Lost Rupley Route".
John: There is one we did with a whole line of bolts that went up that edge there somewhere.
Did you put those bolts in?
John: We came in from the side, I think. But that's a long time ago, I really can't remember that too well now. This is the normal route up here; there is also a route in here.
If so, they don't climb it much any more. This one here is R4. That is one of the finest climbs on the mountain.
John: I have a feeling that we are looking at different things. If this is what I think it is, when you get up to the tower you have a crack, you go up to a tight chimney here, then you go on up to the top. This is a tight chimney. This is a crack that you then get into. This is not a very good graphic.
I have some photos here in this guidebook.
[I brought out the Falcon guide: "Rock Climbing Arizona", which has a photo of the tower]
John: That was certainly no 5.9.
Here is R1?
John: That's right. R1 starts off at a flake.
Ila: John, which one was the one you fell on?
John: This one.
Ila: I thought so.
Was that R1?
Ila: We ran up at 3:00 in the afternoon to have a little quick climb, before he had to catch a plane. John was just summiting when he went for a hold, but it was dark enough that he didn't hit it. He took a quite long fall, but didn't get hurt and was able to get back on, to finish the climb. I had to finish in the dark. Complete blackness, no moon. Which turned out to be amazingly easy. It was like some primitive part of the brain kicked in. I just felt for holds and zoomed up. We went back the next week to repeat the climb so we wouldn't lose nerve. It seemed harder because of looking, searching for holds.
Is that where you mainly climbed on Mt. Lemmon? Or did you climb all over the mountain?
John: Often here [Rupley Towers]. There are towers down below, where the construction is right now, across from that [across from Green Slabs].
Ila: We used to go down, cross the creek and then scramble up the far hillside to some nice towers. You can see them on the left when driving up the road.
So you went to the lower road and then across the creek and up the other side?
John: There was a culvert. You sort of went down the creek a ways. There were various other towers all along the road which I would have to see photographs of to identify. Probably, I would say, of the number of times we've climbed on Mt. Lemmon, we climbed more in the area around Windy Point just because it was accessible. Just repeating the same routes. Occasionally going down to where the construction is now.
Ila: Also on the very top, where you go along the road and you drop down to where there are three sets of towers. We did a lot of climbing there. One time we drove around to the Northwest side of the Catalinas and climbed a wall there with John Enemark.
When you first came to Tucson in December, 1961, how long were you here before you recognized that there was climbing on Mt. Lemmon?
John: Before I came.
Ila: That's why he came.
John: That's part of the reason I came. I knew there was climbing in the area.
How did you know there was climbing in the area? Did you recognize it or was it word of mouth?
John: The interviewers drove me up Mt. Lemmon. I could see the rocks from the car.
Ila: The University was interviewing him. They had another guest in town, so for entertainment they drove them up to the top of Mt. Lemmon. Little did they know they were doing the best thing they could do for John, who was leaning out the window and salivating. Looking at all those beautiful rocks. That kind of fixed it for John, that this was a good place to come.
Did they sell it as having good rock climbing or did you just recognize it as you drove up?
John: Easy to recognize. There was a person who had climbed here. His name was Kamps, a Californian.
Ila: The fellows who were interviewing John for the Chemistry department (there wasn't a Biochem department then), didn't know about his climbing. And they didn't know anything about climbing themselves. It was a kind of serendipitous thing that happened, their driving John up Mt. Lemmon.
That's fate, I guess?
Ila: Yes, very happy. It's so nice to be an hour and a half or less away from climbing.
How long were you here before you started climbing?
John: It took us a while to decide where we wanted to go. We began, probably first, hiking up Pima Canyon, because we could see Finger Rock.
Ila: We started hiking, looking at the rocks first. I remember one hot, hot hike in the desert, down towards Nogales, to look at the Elephant Ear. There was a hive of bees at the base, and the rock was rotten and disgusting. So we just came back. We did a lot of that - hiking into rocks to check them out. Is this a place we want to climb, or is it hopeless?
John: Or just not worth the effort.
So you just started walking around Windy Point, checking out the spires?
Ila: We were climbing the Hitchcock Monument. There was nobody, nobody there. Occasionally a car would stop, and the people would shake their fists at us and yell "Come down off there, that's dangerous!"
John: That was climbed a number of times before we came here.
Ila: There was so little climbing on Mt. Lemmon. Early on, we climbed two or even three times a week.
John: And there wasn't that much traffic either.
So were there bolts on Hitchcock Pinnacle?
John: Umm? I think there were. I know there are bolts on it and they were surely there by the 1980?s. I cannot remember if they were specifically in by 1961. I cannot remember that specifically. I just can't tell you that. I know that the obvious route had been climbed. The Northwest face.
So how did they get off the top? Were there bolts up on top?
John: Sure, sure. Well? I can't be sure. I think there was a bolt on top. If there wasn't, we probably would have put one in. It's only about 70 feet high or so.
Ila: If there is a block up there, we might have looped the rope around it and just slid down.
John: I can't remember putting a bolt or sling there. The point is, that was almost 40 years ago. Ordinarily, we would put in bolts to rappel from. Ordinarily, just a single bolt.
When you went up to a place like some of these spires, like on the Rupley Towers and these other towers, would you lead climb those, placing pitons on the way up, and then when you got to the top put in a bolt to rappel off?
John: We would sometimes use bolts on the way up as well, in a place I felt I wanted protection.
Ila: John had to be cautious because I was belaying him. I weighed about 130 against his 240. Later Fritz insisted I use a belay plate, which he gave me, because I used to just belay John around my waist. The belay plate actually saved John when he took his one big fall on Mt. Lemmon. I was pulled up about five feet off the ground by the momentum, to where my ropes stopped me. I pulled my arms apart and the plate held him. My lines were like violin strings, he was so heavy. I was strung up against the wall. There was no way I could have helped him. If I hadn't had the belay plate, he wouldn't have stopped. So that was a very important aid for us.
And then you climbed out in the dark?
Is that the only fall you took when you were climbing together?
Ila: I held on little slips, maybe a few feet, nothing important. John has held me quite a few times.
John: In the mountains, one goes in crevasses.
Ila: John fell into one seriously in Alaska. Our son Eric and I were both on the rope. We were pulled flat and went skidding along. Because the rope sawed into the edge, Eric stopped about 3 feet from the crevasse. Lucky, as John had not hit bottom. There was a large man on a second rope who came back to help get John out.
With a big person you need a weight balance. On a glacier you have in addition to body weight huge boots, heavy clothing, a very heavy backpack, iron, and ropes. John outweighed us both.
According to Steiger's guidebook, you "climbed virtually every summit requiring technical rock work."
John: That's impossible.
Ila: But John, I do think you climbed the prettiest ones. John would look around say, "O.K. that one and that one." We did pick off the cream.
Did you ever climb the Hunchback?
John: Which is the Hunchback?
It's the one they always show with Tucson in the background. It's right below Windy Point.
John: If the Hunchback Pinnacle is one you can see as an individual pinnacle, the odds are we climbed it. We would look down from the road or up from below and see if something stood out. There were about three towers, four towers that really stood out. There was one that was to the Southeast of that wall where R4 is, across from R4. I have no idea what it is called. It is a one pitch or two pitch climb.
It's the Tri-Level Spire.
John: There was one further down towards the East.
So did you climb around the top as well?
John: Yes, a reasonable amount.
Did you put a lot of pitons in up there?
John: Bolts, actually. Probably as many bolts as pitons.
[At this point, John was looking through the guidebook at the section on the Ravens. After several questions, he concluded the following.]
John: It would take me hours to go through this and figure out what in the hell they are talking about.
[After a long period looking at the guidebook.]
John: I think what they might be doing is not putting in all the routes, just the ones that are harder, more recent.
Well, you didn't document your routes there?
Ila: Mt. Lemmon climbs were partly a means to an end. John climbed here from Fall to Spring. We usually left in Summer for two months in Canada, or sometimes Alaska or the Alps. These climbs supplied very nice exercise, a way to get nerve up, to get used to exposure and altitude. Then John was comfortable when he went off on an expedition.
In Steiger's guidebook, he says you "viewed the routes as more of a technical exercise rather than as an end unto themselves".
John: There is always some viewing it as fun in itself. It was.
Ila: Some climbs were so elegant.
John: But it wasn't something that one focused one's life on.
So did you have any particular climbs that you especially liked, that you went back to over and over and did again and again?
John: Yes, the one that goes up a small flake on the first tower, over a bulge and up into an area of cracks and a small chimney and the last part is fairly steep, exposed.
Is that R1?
John: Probably, yes. On the top, in the Ravens, there is one which I was trying to find here. It is quite easy, 5.4 or 5.5, so it might not be in this book. You have a big platform, a space, and you have to step across it onto the face.
Ila: Right. You actually have to step across space onto a wall.
John: It's a small step, not a big step.
Ila: Right, it is not huge. But it is definitely down. I mean, you could drop. So you have that little moment of breath intake there.
John: The Fortress was quite a nice climb.
Yes, they have what they call the Rupley Route there and again, that is considered one of the finer climbs on the mountain.
Ila: We often did Rappel Rock, up the face to where you move around a little to the right. There are chicken heads up high.
John: Again, it is very pleasant climbing there. It is quite easy.
They close the top for about six months of the year for Falcons.
John: Oh, really? How can they close it?
They put up little signs and say it is closed.
John: That is strange. Closed which months?
All the top. The Fortress, the Ravens, Rappel Rock. You mentioned you went up with your son, fairly recently, and you didn't see any climbers. That is probably the reason you didn't see any. They are closed. They just opened up at the end of July. That is one of the modern things, can't mess with the birds.
John: Or get a shotgun and kill the birds.
I think a lot of climbers think that, especially since they are no longer an endangered species, the Peregrine Falcon.
One of the stories in the guidebook is that when you put up R1, you would leave the pitons in place so you could climb it frequently. Some of the younger kids were coming along and taking your pitons out.
John: That was actually very late. For years, they would stay.
Ila: That happened about 15 plus years ago, in the mid-eighties. John led Fritz Wiessner up the climbs each Spring, for many years, until Fritz had a stroke which ended his climbing. Fritz was about 85, weighed around 140, and had a bad heart. He'd often take a nitroglycerin before a difficult pitch. John needed those pitons for his own protection, always checked them before use, and couldn't fully rely on Fritz to hold him in a fall. Don't know if the practice stopped, or if John started to carry extra pitons or placed bolts.
Well, the story that they have in the guidebook is that you finally put in bolts.
John: I think I put in bolts after a while, but not because people were taking out pitons. Simply because, if you climbed certain climbs a lot you might as well put in bolts.
Ila: It was my job to clean the pitons when we didn't want them to stay. I occasionally dropped them, lost them down the cliff.
I've never cleaned pitons. It sounds like it would be hard to clean?
Ila: Oh, you just whack, whack with a piton hammer! It helps to have a string that you clip into the piton, to save it if you hit it too hard and it pops out. You're supposed to just get them finger loose. It does do a trip on your knuckles. When I dressed up for parties, the bloody knuckles were a casual touch.
John: Pitons are not hard to take out. They are easy to pull. They are actually, as a general point, much safer than using nuts. You must put in a vast number of nuts if the crack is not good. It is a lot safer to put in one good pin, in my view.
Ila: On long climbs you can carry only so much equipment. So you have to keep removing pitons to take with you, as you go up.
Do you know who named the Rupley Towers?
John: I haven't the faintest idea.
Ila: We had a buddy, Steve Grossman, whom we took climbing when he was just a teenager. He became one of the best climbers on Mt. Lemmon and elsewhere. He could well have used those names first because he knew the climbs.
According to the guidebook, a lot of Catalina High School kids started climbing. Steve Grossman sounded like one of them.
John: I don't know where he went to school. His father lives here. I suspect he would have gone to Tucson High, unless it was Rincon.
So did you climb much with the local high school kids or just Steve Grossman?
John: We knew Steve because of his father. Steve was the son of a friend.
Did Steve learn climbing from you?
John: No. I think Steve was already climbing very well when he came with us.
Did you climb with many other local people?
John: Occasionaly with a few University friends.
Ila: There were two friends who came here: Nick Clinch and Pete Geiser. Nick was a long-time climber who had led expeditions to the Himalayas, and later was a principal in establishing the American Alpine Club climber's campground in the Tetons. Pete spent two years here getting a master's in Geology. Pete was a "Vulgarian" from the Gunks, a group of mostly students from CCNY who were friends and very good climbers. They became notorious for their parties called "Raves", and their creative naughtiness. John and Jim McCarthy were older, not part of the group, but sometimes climbed with them. They were "Honorary Vulgarians".
So mainly you climbed together?
Ila: I was John's usual belay partner. I never led because I didn't have strong arms. But if John could climb it, I could follow, because he could give me a little pull. If we had a man on the rope, he went second to belay John. I went third.
That is the way we climb. My wife goes along and she doesn't want to lead.
Ila: Right, and I think (maybe your wife is the same), that I lack the competitive or aggressive gene. I didn't try to be the best girl climber.
So you climbed a lot with Fred Beckey and Fritz Wiessner on Mt. Lemmon?
John: Fritz would come out each year, just to climb in the Winter or Spring for a period, then he would go on to the next place. Fred has been down on occasions, every couple of years.
Ila: He comes through about every other year. He goes to Cochise Stronghold and elsewhere. He brings climbers with him sometimes. When alone, he and John used to go out to climb. Fred was never involved in any of the first ascents on the mountain.
John: No, he was.
Ila: Oh, in Cochise Stronghold and in that other place.
John: A couple in Cochise Stronghold, and a tower on the ridge to the East of the head of Esperero Canyon, the Castle or something like that. If you go up to the head of Esperero Canyon, then you hit a ridge. You go up the ridge to the East and there are some nice towers. I went there with Fred in April one year. At least to me, it was the nicest tower.
Ila: So that was an unclimbed tower?
John: Yeah, sure.
Ila: You should call it the "Beckey Tower". The "Rupley Route" on the "Beckey Tower" (laughter).
John: I think Fred did write that up. In which case it would have been our only climb in the Catalinas that has been written up in the AAJ. Fred tends to do those things.
Ila: For the Alpine Club? Oh, funny! Yes, he writes the note immediately.
What was the nitroglycerin story? Could I hear that one again?
John: One of the times when Fritz was here, toward the end of when he came, he got a bit tired on R4. Not the face that's 5.9, rather the crack that is 5.5 adjacent to it. But when you get tired and you are old with a heart condition (he was over 80 then), well, he essentially passed out. I had to climb down the rope and hold him on my lap until he recovered.
Ila: Before a pitch, he would call up to John in his strong German accent, "How does it go, John?" If John would say "It is a little thin, Fritz", then Fritz would put a nitroglycerin under his tongue in preparation for the extra strain. He seemed to adore getting out onto the most exposed places. He would just stick there for the longest time on his toes and finger-tips. He seemed to love the exposure.
He was in his eighties?
John: Yes. He was born right at the turn of the century, in 1900, so it is easy to compute his age. The last time he came out here was in the mid-eighties. He died around '88. He was an unusually good rock climber when he was young. He was also one of the great German Alpinists. There was a residue of that left in his 70s and 80s. He was an amazing character.
Do you have any favorite climbs on Mt. Lemmon?
John: We mentioned a couple.
Ila: John, across from the road - you know where you go. Down the hillside, past the culvert, across the creek, around the hillside; there is one ridge that is beautifully exposed. A really sharp ridge. That's an elegant climb.
John: It's a bit hard to get to.
Ila: You have to work a little. Maybe 45 minutes fighting the brush. But it is a delicate little ridge.
We had a special place near a little pinnacle, higher than Hitchcock Monument. We followed a path along the ridge. There is a set of faces in there where we top-roped. Very thin or less difficult. We called it our garden.
John: Those are about 20 or 30 feet high.
Ila: We took our son there when he was about three. We roped him up so he wouldn't fall down. He played with his toys while we practiced.
Did you ever climb much on other people's routes?
John: No, at least to my knowledge I didn't.
Did you ever find any other pitons up there or occasional marks?
John: I mentioned the mark on one Raven. We went around the backside of Raven C and I was quite sure that someone else had been in there. We didn't see any actual pitons.
Ila: Because we climbed with each other and then a couple of friends came here, we didn't mix into the local climbing community, if there even was one back then. Probably there were lovely climbs to be done, but we just didn't know about them.
John: Very isolated.
Ila: John is a scientist and you know how that is. Life is looking at the computer,the notepad, working in the lab. Little spare time.
I noticed you seem very dedicated. It looked like you were running your batch-jobs in the background.
John: That was just annoying. I had to re-do the operating system. This damn DSL thing.
There is nothing more frustrating than computers. Do you consider yourself the father of Mt. Lemmon rock climbing?
John: I don't consider myself the father of anything.
Ila: Oh yes! The father of Eric.
John: I didn't hang around the local climbers.
You mentioned Steve Grossman.
John: Steve climbed probably better that I did when he first started climbing.
Ila: He was 16 and you were 40!
John: So Steve learned his climbing another way, probably on his own.
Ila: We don't know how Steve started climbing.
John: I never asked him.
Do you think there is anyone out there that is the father of Mt. Lemmon rock climbing?
John: Not to my knowledge. I think that things go back in time. Speaking of a "father" would be quite a stretch.
Do you have any advice for modern rock climbers?
John: In a selfish way, I would say, "keep on doing what you are doing", because, by and large, they do not appear to be cluttering up the mountains. If you enjoy getting out and getting out alone, it is really no harder now than when we were young.