Monday, April 22, 2013

Layton Kor 1938-2013

Galen Rowell's iconic portrait of Kor at the top of the Salathe Wall

It's a cold snowy day in Boulder Colorado and I just learned this morning about the death of Layton Kor at the age of 74. I am going to go out on a limb here and describe his passing as the first of the legendary American climbers of his era. If there was vote over who was the defining presence in American climbing in the 1960s, it would be a choice primarily between Royal Robbins and Layton Kor. For many, there was Kor's manic irrepressible drive to climb all that there was to climb, his deeply working class roots (he was a stone mason and never enjoyed financial prosperity in his later years  as did Robbins or Yvon Chouinard) and his sudden disappearance from the scene after the tragic death of John Harlin on the Eiger Direct; all this was the stuff of legend. If you are a climber in the environs of Boulder Colorado, you somehow climb in the shadow of Kor, always.

Stories abound of a larger-than-life personality driven by equal parts comic genius and raw determination. Among the best is by far Pat Ament's account of his first venture with Kor into the Black Canyon, a failure as far as the climbing was concerned, a triumph for climbing literature as it captured an essential portrait of the man at his prime. In Colorado, he simply dominated the climbing scene as no climber has since, lending his name to classic routes on too many significant walls and peaks to count. Eldorado Canyon has become synonymous with Kor, whose routes (and their names) have been enshrined in legend. Indeed one of the contributions of Kor was his names for climbs, by turns comic, dramatic, or comprising achingly bad puns, puns that might well mask desperate unprotected free climbing and precarious aid.

In a time dominated by serious California climbers who strode across the Yosemite Valley landscape like colossi, Kor came in and simply went to work, fearing neither the steep smooth granite nor the insular social scene. In a sense, he was a spiritual cousin of Warren Harding, ready to poke fun at those he perceived as too full of themselves and tough as nails on the rock as the situation demanded. Though ironically I know many people who knew Kor well, I never had the opportunity to meet him myself. There is no question in my mind that he shaped an era in American climbing that is passing away and that will never be seen again.

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