Early Climbing / Mountaineering Adventures

The post-climb descent from Yosemite’s Munginella, circa 1982 (note Lost Arrow Spire to right in background).

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.

Bill Bergan at Key Hole Canyon near Nelson’s Landing (circa 1980).
Pre-FisherDad atop cliff at the 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 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 of exploration with Bergie are epic in my memory. Some of the experiences were on-the-job, some occurred in bars, but the best were in the Red Rock canyons west of Las Vegas.

Bergie and me atop one of the Red Rock bluffs overlooking southwest 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 for after-work libation on the way home.

On one such night, shortly after we had met, Bergie attempted to embolden me into climbing with him. He spent a few years as the comptroller for the Yosemite National Park 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, which climbers call a “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 (assuming that piece of protection holds in place), whereas the following climber is protected by the slack or stretch in the rope from above (assuming the anchor from above holds in place).

I was young and gullible, and attempting to keep pace with Bergie’s alcohol consumption didn’t help either. My judgment became 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 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 climbing the lead up the Camp Potosi buttress, my inaugural climb.
Bergie belaying me up the buttress.
Preparing to belay Bergie in the Red Rock Canyon.
This was my last Red Rock climb with Bergie in Ice Box Canyon.

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.

We started our climbing adventures on Mount Potosi just southwest of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountain Range. There is a fifty-foot buttress holding back the limestone shale slides right at the State Highway 160 turn-off to Camp Potosi; it is on the way to Pahrump just before reaching the Mountain Springs hamlet. 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.  Within a couple of years, Bergie and I put up a few routes of our own that were in the 5.6 to 5.7 range (unfortunately, I do not recall cataloging or naming them).

Here I am following Bergie on the Munginella climbing route in Yosemite Valley. In the fall of 1981 we stayed as guests of Loyd and Debbie Price in Yosemite Valley.

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 that he developed a twinge of guilt over our bar-room pact, so 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 our cross-country skis using “telemark turns” to cut our way downhill, 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. I skied alone the rest of that season, and on one such day I had a chance meeting with Joe Herbst and his late wife Betsy who were also skiing Lee Canyon on skinny skis. 

FisherDad “telemarking” Lee Canyon on “skinny skis” with Bergie, circa 1979.

Joe, although about as young as Bergie 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 to secure climbing protection into the rock faces; Joe proselytized “clean climbing” which left 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.

Bergie at the bottom of The Friar in Red Rock’s Oak Creek Canyon. I first climbed this four pitch route with Joe and Betsy Herbst. On this adventure I was the lead climber for Bergie, although we did not attempt the fourth pitch, a 5.8 bolt route up an over the Friar’s head. The first pitch is primarily a face route that appears on the left side of the photo.

My meeting Joe and our ensuing relationship was noteworthy to me because he was a living legend in Las Vegas climbing circles, albeit small circles. 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. We climbed a little (he drug me up two 5.9 climbs: Black Glass and Dust to Dust), skied a little, and even played some tennis. I 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.

Joe and Betsy Herbst on a break from skiing the Charleston ridges, circa 1980.
Betsy Herbst making tracks in Lee Canyon.
Joe Herbst working a Lee Canyon ridge at 9,800 feet.
Betsy and Joe checking their bindings before the descent.
Joe skiing through the ponderosa trees.

Those years of 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 (see the 1979 Ruby Mountains, 1982 Martis Creek,  2003 Henderson Springs, and 2015 Elko County , 2019 Jarbidge Mountains, 2019 California Delta, and our 2020 return to the Delta blogs for other adventures with Bill).

Author: FisherDad

I am a Christian who has been married to my wife for over four decades, with six children and four grandchildren so far. I have retired from a string of successful occupations as a certified public accountant, a chief financial officer, and a registered municipal advisor. I have been a fly angler for almost five decades. My one and only article submission was published by Southwest Fly Fishing magazine (now American Fly Fishing). You can learn more about me by clicking on “About” on the top of my blog page.

12 thoughts on “Early Climbing / Mountaineering Adventures”

  1. 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?

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. I know this is many years later now, but thank you for this interesting article. Betsy Herbst and I were room mates on an overseas study trip in Turkey. I made Betsy & Joe’s wedding rings, & camped with them several times in Yosemite during college. My son is now a climber & was showing me a Red Rocks climbing guide with Joe listed as first ascent. My son wondered why he quit climbing…and you answered that. Blessings on you…and enjoy all the outdoors you still can!! Carol Turpin

  7. Carol –

    I'm never surprised at how small the world is, that "six degrees of separation" thing. Thank you for the comment, and for your memories of Betsy and Joe. May the Lord bless your future journeys as well.

    – Mark

  8. Mrs. Herbst was my social studies teacher at Eldorado High School, she was only 10 years older than me but she was the most supportive and down to earth teacher I had. I wish her family and friends the best and Memory Eternal to my dear teacher now gone 40 years. I also love your blog, be well, Rob

  9. We use to climb with Joe and Betsy in the 70’s when Joe was teaching all of us mountain rescue of climbers while Jim Perkins taught us the medical part. Randy Grandstaff was in our group too.

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