Fifty years ago, a group of climbers topped the last of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks.
By Stewart M. Green
As climbers, we go into the world to have fun, to have an adventure, to find new places, and to challenge ourselves. We usually don’t think about the meaning of what we do too often or place our adventures within a greater context. It’s only later, maybe years later, that the mountains and cliffs and towers that we’ve climbed begin to assume an historical context, to have meaning beyond our own lives.
August 2 was the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of an unnamed, unclimbed peak on a ragged ridge south of Pyramid Peak east of the Maroon Bells in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. The peak, simply labeled 13,932 for its elevation on the USGS Maroon Bells topo map, was the last of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks, now called the Centennials, to be climbed.
I was part of that slice of Colorado climbing history on August 2, 1970, when myself, along with five other mountaineers—Spencer Swanger, Bill Graves, Carson Black, Gordon Blanz, and Jack Harry—made the first ascent of that mountain. We called it Thunder Peak for the rumbles of an in-coming storm while we snacked on the summit. Now it’s known as Thunder Pyramid.
I started rock climbing in 1965 at age 13 in North Cheyenne Cañon, a deep cliff-lined defile a mile from my childhood home in Colorado Springs. I wore tennis shoes and tied directly into the rope on my first route, a 3-pitch line called The Army Route on The Pinnacle. Later I became a real 1960s climber, wearing a Swiss seat made from 30 feet of red tubular webbing, leading on a stiff goldline rope, and carrying a rack of Army angles and soft-iron wafer pitons, and pounding them into cracks with my trusty Stubai hammer. My footwear was grey Kronhoffer Klettershoes, a supple suede shoe from Austria that was favored by the great Layton Kor.
Beside climbing rock in the Cañon and the Garden of the Gods, I also hiked and scrambled up a lot of Colorado mountains as a teenager. Those days were truly a golden age of American climbing. So much to do. So many unclimbed cliffs and peaks. So few climbers. The world seemed full of ripe apples, ready to fall, ready to be plucked.
In the late sixties, Spencer Swanger, a postman, married man with two kids, retirement account, and 13 years older than me, was my first climbing mentor. My mom liked me to climb with him since she figured an older guy like Spence would be a good role model and would make sure I didn’t pull any foolish adolescent stunts in the mountains. Spence was a real mountain man, having bagged all 54 Colorado Fourteeners by 1969. By 1970 he had set his sights on being the first climber to stand atop the state’s 100 highest peaks, a task he completed by soloing Red Mountain in the Culebra Range in 1977. Bill Graves from Fort Collins had just compiled a list of those peaks and published it in Trail and Timberline, the Colorado Mountain Club’s magazine, in 1969.
During the summer of 1969, while other young people were smoking pot and proclaiming free love, I was climbing mountains every weekend in the three-month break between my junior and senior high school years, although I think I might have liked the alternative.
During the summer of 1969, while other young people were smoking pot and proclaiming free love, I was climbing mountains every weekend in the three-month break between my junior and senior high school years, although I think I might have liked the alternative. On one August trip with Spencer, we sat atop Maroon Peak after doing the Bells traverse and looked across West Maroon Creek’s valley at a rugged high point on the ridge south of Pyramid Peak. I looked at the topo map and saw it was designated 13,932. No name. The peak was on Grave’s list but wasn’t on anyone’s peak-bagging radar.
The next winter we talked about that peak and decided to climb it the following summer. Spencer put it on the CMC calendar as an official trip and asked me to be co-leader, a nod to my rock skills and my hand in its discovery. We limited the group to six climbers total since it promised to be a stack of loose rubble like the rest of the peaks there.
Early Sunday morning, August 2, 1970, we left Maroon Lake Campground and headed up to the west base of Peak 13,932. I carried a red, 150-foot perlon rope, a handful of blade pitons for thin cracks, 8 carabiners including several new blue SMC biners, and my Stubai hammer. We didn’t know what kind of terrain the route would offer and wanted to be ready. Our group plodded up steep grassy hillsides, skirting cliff bands, and balancing across loose boulders to the base of a steep couloir filled with jumbled rock. This couloir, now called the White Gully, is still a preferred route up the peak. We scrambled close together up the loose gully to an exit through banded cliffs and finished up the north ridge to the untrodden summit.
Spence and I scoured the rocky summit for any evidence that the point had seen human feet before but found none. No cairn, no stacked rocks, no register, nothing disturbed. And why would it be? Who would have any reason to climb this bump on a long ridge when there were all those surrounding Fourteeners to climb? No one, we reasoned. We were certain that this was the first ascent of a mountain that no one else had climbed, let alone noticed, despite the saddle between Fourteener Pyramid Peak to the north and 13,932 being 70 feet lower than that between North Maroon and Maroon Peaks.
Later, William Bueler wrote in his classic book Roof of the Rockies: “It is most interesting that as late as 1970 there could be found a distinctive peak of nearly 14,000 feet which apparently had not been climbed.” Yeah, pretty amazing. As it turned out, Peak 13,932 was the last of Colorado’s 100 highest mountains to be climbed. All of the other peaks were first climbed by Native Americans, surveyors, miners, and early climbers like Albert Ellingwood, Eleanor Davis, and Dwight Lavender. Now, 50 years later, it looks like retired dentist Carson Black and myself are the only climbers alive that made the first ascent of a Colorado Centennial peak since I can’t find if two of the other expedition members are still kicking and both Graves and Swanger have passed on to the other side of the mountain.
Thunder Pyramid is now climbed by many people intent on completing the Centennial peak list, but for me, even after climbing lots of wild rock routes and standing atop many peaks, that ascent 50 years ago on August 2, 1970 is a special memory. I feel fortunate to have been one of the first climbers to reach that summit and to become part of Colorado’s rich mountain climbing history.