July 30, 1978

Early Climbing / Mountaineering Adventures

Post-climb descent from Yosemite's Munginella, circa 1982
(note Lost Arrow Spire to right in background)
I met Bill Bergan when I was a young staff accountant working for a local Nevada certified public accounting (CPA) firm. Bill had recently moved back to Las Vegas to manage the audit practice for the firm I was working part-time for while attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I was assigned to perform "grunt work" for Bill on an audit engagement, and we quickly became good friends. Bill is nine years my senior, so that made him about 29 when I met him. As a practical reality of our age difference, our relationship began as mentor-protege. We obviously shared a career interest, but it turned out we shared adventuresome spirits and love of the outdoors.

Bill Bergan, Key Hole Canyon
near Nelson's Landing (circa 1980)
Pre-FisherDad atop cliff at entrance to Key Hole Canyon
Back then Bill was known as Bergie to his friends.  Bergie and I had many memorable escapades over the next three years. We likely would have had many more had Bergie not moved to Sacramento.  In a bit of irony, we both fell in love with childhood sweethearts (mine in Las Vegas, his in Sacramento) and got married in 1980.  The distance, coupled with our lack of resources (especially for me), resulted in our inability to connect on outdoor trips.  Fortunately, those three short years we explored together are still epic in my memory. Some of the experiences were on-the-job, some occurred in bars, but the best were in the red rocks west of Las Vegas.
Bergie and me atop one of the Red Rock bluffs overlooking Las Vegas Valley
At that time in my life I had not developed much of a relationship with Jesus Christ, and so I was somewhat into the "worldly" ways of society as is common for young adults. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), Bergie had quite a larger alcohol capacity than I. While working together on audit engagements we often stopped off for a drink after work. On one such night shortly after we met Bergie was attempting to embolden me into climbing.

Bergie spent a few years as the comptroller for the Yosemite concessionaire. While in Yosemite Bergie developed a friendship with Lloyd Price who was the director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School. It was Lloyd and his climbing staff who taught Bergie how to climb. Now in Las Vegas, Bergie was trying to find a climbing partner, and he must have sized me up as someone just stupid enough to let him lead me up a cliff cleaning his protection. (Pardon me while I attempt to explain climbing in simple terms. Climbing usually involves a leader and a follower. The leader is usually the more advanced climber who is skilled in placing devices of all shapes and sizes into cracks and other places such that they can support a heavy weight from at least one direction; i.e., hold the climber in a fall. The follower belays the leader up the cliff while he places protection, and then the leader belays the follower up the cliff who then “cleans” the route by removing the protection so it can be used on the next section of climb, or pitch. Under this method no trace of the climbers is left so that those who follow get a pristine climbing experience. The lead climber is protected from severe injury on a fall by twice the distance the climbing rope extends beyond the last protection placed in the cracks, whereas the following climber is protected by the slack or stretch in the rope from above.)


I was young and gullible, but trying to keep pace with Bergie's alcohol consumption didn't help either.  My judgment was impaired. Bergie was pressing hard to let him teach me to climb. He swore it was safe as long as we used our heads, and that he was taught by one of the best (Lloyd climbed with the original 1960s climbers who put up the first routes on the big Yosemite walls, climbers like Warren Harding, Yvonne Chourinard, and Royal Robbins). After thinking hard, as hard as one can after several Scotch and waters, I blurted out with false bravado, “OK, I’ll let you teach me to rock climb if you let me teach you to fly fish.” Of course Bergie quickly agreed to such a lopsided proposition.

Bergie leading up the Camp Potosi buttress

Bergie belayng me up the buttress; only my second climb ever
Preparing to belay Bergie, Red Rock Canyon
Climbing in Ice Box Canyon, Red Rock
Turns out Bergie got the better end of that agreement as thirty years later we can barely climb a set of stairs but we both still love to fly fish… but I digress.

We started our climbing adventures on Mount Potosi just southwest of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountain Range. There’s a little fifty-foot buttress holding back the limestone shale slides right at the State Highway 160 turn-off to Camp Potosi on the way to Pahrump just before Mountain Springs Summit. At that time climbing had a simple rating system called the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The Potosi climbs were in the 5.3 to 5.4 range.

In our early climbs, Bergie preferred the limestone of Potosi and Charleston. He believed the sandstone of Red Rock was too brittle and unreliable to climb. Eventually we learned to love the Red Rock sandstone, as the sharp Spring Mountain limestone really cut up our hands.  And while not as dense as granite, much of the sandstone cliffs are as safe... you just have to learn a little discernment about the rock.  In a couple of years Bergie and I had put up a few routes of our own that were in the 5.6 to 5.7 range.

Climbing Munginella in Yosemite Valley, fall of 1981
While climbing Red Rock in the winter is possible and attractive to climbers from colder climates, Bergie decided I needed to learn cross-country skiing during the winter months. I guess Bergie had a twinge of guilt over our bar room pact and felt the need to throw in skiing lessons to balance the alcohol-induced climbing-fishing trade off. Regardless of why, I have to admit I enjoyed skiing more than climbing if only because the penalty for mistakes was not as high. That said, one winter while skiing Lee Canyon chair lifts on Nordic skis using telemark turns on the downhill slopes, Bergie fell on the last run of the day and dislocated his shoulder. That fateful accident took him out of action for a few months. And so, I skied alone the rest of that season, and as a result of that I happened upon a chance meeting with Joe Herbst and his late wife, Betsy.  
"Telemarking" Lee Canyon with Bergie, circa 1979
Joe, although about Bergie’s age at the time, was known as the old man of the Red Rocks. Joe had climbed the big walls of Yosemite, but Red Rock was his home. Pick up any Red Rock climbing guide and you’ll quickly learn that many of the big wall climbs of Red Rock were first ascents by Joe Herbst in the 1970s. It was Joe that mentored a young kid by the name of Randy Granstaff. Randy was a much more brash and aggressive personality than Joe, and they seemed to part ways as Randy became stronger and riskier. Randy eventually created his own climbing guide service called Sky’s the Limit. Tragically, Randy died in a Red Rock accident while guiding a client in 2002. As another example of the "smallness" of Las Vegas, Denise and I knew Randy as he was just was a few years behind us at Bishop Gorman High School.

Meeting Joe was noteworthy for me because in Las Vegas climbing circles he was a living legend. And he was a genuinely nice guy. Very attune to the experience of nature and not so tied up in the athleticism of climbing despite his obvious world-class skills. Over the course of the next year we became good friends, climbing a little (he drug me up two 5.9 climbs; Black Glass and Dust to Dust), skiing a little, and even playing a little tennis. For a couple of years I prepared their tax returns. Unfortunately, his wife Betsy, who was once named Clark County Teacher of the Year, died of a rare blood disease at age 30. Thereafter, Joe stopped climbing.
Joe and Betsy Herbst on break from skiing the Charleston ridges, circa 1980
Betsy Herbst making tracks
Joe Herbst working the ridge at 9,800 feet
Betsy and Joe checking their bindings before the descent
Joe skiing through the Ponderosa
Those years climbing with Bergie were some of my most memorable outdoor experiences, but I am not quite certain how or why I lived through them but for the grace of God. I can tell you that I was never in such good physical condition as when I climbed rocks, but I can also tell you my hands still sweat today when I recall those climbs that stretched my physical and mental abilities to their maximum. And although Bill and I are not able to climb rocks anymore, I am very grateful for the adventures we shared and am looking forward to many more years of fly fishing, hopefully with a few more joint trips thrown in for good measure (see 2003 Henderson Springs trip with Bergie).

6 comments:

Nathan said...

I climbed Munginella in 2003 and worked for Randal Grandstaff at his climbing gym in the Fall of 01 till Spring of 02. I never explored the Ruby's but always wanted to. You ever tele ski tour in the East Sierra?

FisherDad said...

Nathan -

Good to hear from you. I often wonder if anyone finds or reads these old blogs.

Sadly I never tele-skied the Sierras. If I was young like you, for adventure I’d plan a ski tour over the White Mountains. Some sections are amazingly flat at elevations over 12K. It doesn’t get near the pressure that the Sierra’s does, and you can look for old Methuselah (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/methuselah/explore.html).

The Ruby's are spectacular and worthy of a serious trip, whether on skinny skis or on foot. They are a real gem (no pun intended).

Best wishes, and if you make a special adventure post it on the blog.

- Mark

Nathan said...

By the way, that was my dad you took fishing on April 1, 2011.

FisherDad said...

Ha! He took me fishing!

We both had a good time. Your dad is a good man, in case you didn't already know (and I suspect you do).

You're up in Everett, correct? I had an aunt that lived in Everett many years ago. I probably have cousins up there that I never knew.

I hope to have more trips with your dad... more fishing blogs to write!

Thanks for letting me know who you were.

- Mark

Merciless said...

Thank you for posting your mountaineering adventures. I was climbing at Red Rocks last week and did Epinephrine and became interested in all things Joe Herbst. I always wondered "whatever happened to him and climbing?" - I know he started skydiving but what you wrote gave further clarification to what happened. Thank you all for exploring the deserts and opening them up to climbing opportunities for people like me. I really appreciate it.

FisherDad said...

Merciless --

As I've written, Joe was a great guy. Big heart, very generous, loved all things outdoors. I believe Joe still lives in Las Vegas. Last I heard he was into sky diving out of the Boulder City airport. Really, I've lost track of him these past thirty years.

-- Mark