My acquaintance with Bill Bergan began 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 of 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 upon discovering we shared certain skills in sarcasm. 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.
Back then Bill was known as “Bergie” to his friends. Bergie and I had many memorable escapades over the next three years. We might have had a lifetime of them had he not moved to Sacramento. In a bit of irony, we simultaneously fell in love with childhood sweethearts (mine in Las Vegas, his in Sacramento) and got married in 1980. Our brides were both teachers, and I’ve come to know four other accountant-teacher marriages, which I’ve always found anecdotally amusing. But after our marriages the real estate between us, coupled with our lack of resources (particularly mine), resulted in our inability to connect on outdoor trips. Fortunately, those three short years when we explored together are 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.
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 for after-work libation on the way home. On one such night shortly after we met, Bergie was attempting to embolden me into climbing with him.
Bergie spent a few years as the comptroller for the Yosemite concessionaire. While in Yosemite Bergie developed a friendship with Loyd 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 looking for a climbing partner. He must have sized me up as someone 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 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 (Loyd climbed with the original 1960s climbers who put up the first routes on the big walls of Yosemite Valley, climbers like Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, and Royal Robbins. Loyd also directed the infamous 1972 El Capitan rescue mission in Yosemite). 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.
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; it’s 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 cliffs 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.
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. My theory about that offer was he had a twinge of guilt over our bar-room pact, and he 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 in Lee Canyon while skiing the chair lifts on cross-country skis by cutting 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 a consequence of that was a chance meeting with Joe Herbst and his late wife Betsy who were also skiing Lee Canyon on skinny skis.
Joe, although about Bergie’s age at the time, was known as the Old Man of the Red Rocks. Joe also climbed the big walls of Yosemite in early 1970s, 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 Randall Grandstaff. Randy’s style was more brash and aggressive than Joe’s, and they seemed to part ways as Randy became stronger and riskier. There was also disagreement between them on the use of bolts in Red Rock; Joe proselytized “clean climbing” leaving no trace for the next climbers who come that way. Randy eventually created his own climbing guide service called Sky’s the Limit. Reconnecting with Randy through Joe triggered his offer to take me climbing; I politely declined knowing of Joe’s concern for Randy’s approach to safety. Tragically, Randy died in a Red Rock accident while guiding a client in 2002. It was the more common descent “mistake” that took his life, not some daring attempt to reach the unreachable. My love for anecdotes compels me to add, as an example of the “smallness” of Las Vegas, that my wife and I knew Randy as an underclassman at Bishop Gorman High School in the early 1970s.
My meeting Joe and our ensuing relationship was noteworthy to me because he was a living legend in Las Vegas climbing circles, albeit a small circle. 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. Although he used them when available and necessary, he always decried the use of bolts because they permanently scarred the rock and the aesthetics of climbing. Over the course of the next year we became closer friends, climbing a little (he drug me up two 5.9 climbs: Black Glass and Dust to Dust), skiing a little, and even playing some tennis. I even prepared their joint tax returns for a couple years. Unfortunately, his wife Betsy, who was once named Clark County Teacher of the Year, died in 1980 from a rare blood disease at age 30. Soon thereafter Joe stopped climbing.
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 was a rock climber, 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 angling with him on special adventures (see the 1979 Ruby Mountains, 1982 Martis Creek, 2003 Henderson Springs, and 2015 Elko County blogs for other adventures with Bill).