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Harvey’s hands

By: DAVE PHILIPPS
June 4, 2008
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photo - Harvey Carter, one of Colorado’s pioneer rock climbers, has broad, pawlike hands forged from decades of grappling with rock. “You get hands like that from working for a lifetime,” said Lou Dawson, Carter’s longtime acquaintance. Photo by ( DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE)
Harvey Carter, one of Colorado’s pioneer rock climbers, has broad, pawlike hands forged from decades of grappling with rock. “You get hands like that from working for a lifetime,” said Lou Dawson, Carter’s longtime acquaintance. Photo by ( DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE) 

Mention Harvey Carter, the 77-year-old local rock-climbing legend, and people inevitably describe his hands. Later they might add that he founded Climbing Magazine, held the world's first bouldering competition, or likely has more first ascents than anyone in the world.

But first they detail Carter's "great bear paws," or "huge gecko pads," or "bruiser's fists" that have been "flattened and scarred by years of use."

"His hands are gnarled, like a farmer's. The tendons have thickened. His fingers have widened. You get hands like that from working for a lifetime," said backcountry ski author and longtime acquaintance Lou Dawson.

It's not what the hands look like, though, that makes Carter a living legend. It's what they've done. Carter has influenced almost every aspect of the climbing world. In 60 years as a climbing bum, he pioneered many of the classic routes in Garden of the Gods, put dozens of now-popular climbing areas on the map and acted as a sort of vertical Lewis and Clark, making paths for climbers to follow.

"He had vision. He was a good climber, but I think his biggest contribution was that he was a real role model," said Dawson, who was one of Carter's many climbing protégés in the 1960s and 1970s. "He showed a lot of younger people that climbing was a viable, honorable sport you could dedicate your life to."

Now Carter says he's nearing completion of his final project: establishing a ski area on Pikes Peak.

"The people of Colorado Springs deserve a place to ski, just like I had growing up," he said recently.

Not that Carter is a saint. Many who know him say he is a stubborn loner with unbending obsessions, a quick temper and eccentric quirks. He insisted for years, despite criticism from other climbers, on marking his first ascents with a small dot of red spray paint. He cut bolts other climbers fastened to rock faces for attaching safety equipment where he believed they weren't needed.

"He likes to have things his way, that's for sure," said local climbing author Stewart Green, who was once chased around and around a car at a trailhead by a fuming Carter after an argument over climbing ethics. "But I suppose that single-mindedness allowed him to do all that he did."

Carter claims to have more than 5,000 first ascents. He's climbed gargantuan sandstone towers like The Priest and King Fischer in Utah and tiny crags under highway overpasses.

Every climb is detailed in a thick stack of handwritten journals. No rock is too big or too obscure.

One guidebook, noting Carter's exhaustive list of ascents, warned, "If you think you have done a first ascent, regardless of how obscure, don't count on it."

Carter still climbs, though in recent years he has slowed down. He is grayhaired and stooped. His big paws are wrinkled. He lives the life of an obscure pensioner much of the year in a dark Manitou Springs motel room. Most mornings, he walks to his favorite coffee shop. Later, he reads and takes walks in the Garden of the Gods, or makes trips to the doctor to treat prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with this winter.

"When I lick this cancer thing, I'll be climbing again," he said with a defiant smile on a recent morning. "There are still some crags near Blue Mountain that no one's ever climbed. They're a ways in there, but, hell, they're good rock."


MOLEHILLS TO MOUNTAINS

Carter is the son of Colorado College professors Ruth and Harvey Carter. Shortly after the family moved to Colorado Springs in 1945, the younger Harvey started skiing at the tiny ski area in Glen Cove on the north side of Pikes Peak. His climbing career started when he broke his hip in 1949 while trying to rescue another skier who had slid down an icy chute known as The Funnel (now called Little Italy).

"When I got better, the doc told me I had to exercise my leg by walking up stairs," Carter said. "He said I should climb some of the tall buildings in Denver. I said ‘how 'bout if I climb Pikes Peak?'"

While hiking up Pikes Peak's Barr Trail he befriended some local mountaineers who literally showed him the ropes.

At the time, technical climbing in Colorado was in its infancy. It was viewed as a necessary skill for climbing big mountains, not as a sport in its own right.

The local mountaineers practiced on the weak, gritty sandstone in Garden of the Gods and the crumbling granite in Cheyenne Cañon. It was easy climbing by today's standards but was done in clunky hiking boots with little protective gear. Carter took to the challenge immediately.

"You got to be real good real quick on that stuff," Carter said. "After the bad rock in Colorado Springs, you could climb anywhere."

Carter was drafted into the Army in 1952, and with help from the president of Colorado College he landed a job teaching rock climbing in Cheyenne Cañon to troops stationed at Fort Carson.

He climbed almost every day for two years and emerged one of the top climbers in the country - young, strong and almost fearless.

He made a splash in 1956 when he and Army buddy Ray Northcutt climbed an 800-foot buttress on Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was by far the hardest climb ever completed in Colorado and was considered one of the classic climbs in North America until a rock slide destroyed part of the route in 2000.

He joined the Aspen ski patrol in 1957 - a career he continued until 1979 - leaving his summers mostly free to become one of the prototype climbing bums now glamorized in Patagonia catalogues.

At the time, much of the West was still unclimbed. The desert of the Colorado Plateau, just west of the Rockies, had hundreds of enticing sandstone spires. Climbers from California, who dominated the rock scene at the time, thought the brittle rock unsafe. It was too soft to hold the expansion bolts they used to secure their ropes.

Carter devised a way to attach the rope to the soft rock by drilling a hole and hammering in the steel wedge of an angled Army surplus piton. In the 1960s and 1970s, he used his technique to knock off one giant red rock spire after another.

"He'd get a crew of guys and head down to Utah to bag first ascents," said Dawson. "I used to call them Harvey's Raiders."

The raiders were a ragtag crew who became some of the best climbers in the country.

"It was a wild time," said Gary Ziegler, who became one of Harvey's Raiders as a Colorado College student in 1960. "We made a lot of our own gear. We'd often get caught in the dark and spend the night on ledges. We'd have some ugly falls. These towers were big, messy things. It was a rush.

"We climbed hard. We partied hard. It's amazing we survived."

Climbing a first ascent was like climbing blind. There was no guidebook, no way of knowing where a route would go, but glory and adventure waited above. And the rush of reaching into the unknown was enough to keep Carter coming back again and again.

"There's two kinds of climbing, first ascents and everything else. And everything else doesn't really count," Carter said.

Carter had some close calls, but remarkably few, considering that he climbed so often and for so long.

He was knocked unconscious for a few minutes by a lightning bolt in 1961 while rappelling off the top of a 400-foot tower near Moab called The Priest.

"I woke up and had no idea where I was," he said. "But I saw the rope in my hands and figured I'd better head down."

Much later, in 2004, a climbing writer from Boulder showed up to do a profile on the aging legend. To the writer's surprise, the 74-year-old suggested they climb a virgin route together. On the cliff, near Florence, the writer accidentally kicked a rock down on Carter, breaking his face and knocking him out cold.

In 2006, while bouldering alone, Carter broke his leg and nearly died of exposure.

Now, along with weakness from cancer, he has a sharp pain in one ankle.

"It keeps me from climbing," he said, driving up toward his cabin on the west face of Pikes Peak. He paused and smiled. "'Course, I climbed for 60 years on some bad stuff without hurting myself, so I guess I can't complain."


TRADITIONALIST

Carter refuses to accept many modern climbing practices. He climbs with a simple rope around his waist instead of a harness. He won't use chalk to improve his grip. And he is infuriated by climbers who drill bolts into a route from the top so it's easier to secure a rope while climbing from the bottom.

Michael Kennedy, former editor of Climbing Magazine, said most people learn to accept Carter's quirks.

"He's a character, there's no question about that," Kennedy said. "He can be hard to take sometimes. But he was definitely wellregarded. Under it all, he's a good guy."

Almost everyone who has climbed with him has a story of Carter coming through in a pinch. When Dawson, who went on to become one of the state's great ski mountaineers, broke his leg skiing in a remote chute in 1977, it was his old climbing mentor who skied in at midnight with a sled to rescue him.

"Everyone was impressed with Harvey bringing the sled because we knew how steep the upper part of (the) gully was," Dawson wrote later. "Harvey was known as one of the toughest patrollers and a local iron man alpinist, and his bringing that rig down is now a local legend in certain circles, and something for which I'm forever grateful."

Carter laughed when reminded of the story.

"What I never told him is I had been at the Red Onion all that night drinking," he said. "Still, I guess I did pretty good."


JACK OF ALL TRADES

What's impressive about Carter is not that he has so many first ascents, but that he managed to do so many other things at the same time.

He held the first formal bouldering competition in Garden of the Gods in 1956, He started Climbing Magazine in his house in Aspen with two buddies and $900 in 1970, when no other rock-climbing publications existed. He devised a more accurate rating system for rock climbs (although it was never adopted by other climbers). And he has labored since 1957 to turn 320 acres of land near The Crags into a ski area. He's even gone as far as cutting some ski runs by hand when one investor after another backed out.

Early this year he tentatively agreed to a $4 million deal with a Boulder-based developer who is in the process of recruiting investors to open a small ski area. Carter said he thinks he will sign a deal next week.

"It looks like this thing is really going to happen," Carter said. "I was starting to wonder if I'd live to see it."

Two Pikes Peak ski areas have failed in past decades; the mountain gets less snow than most in the state. But stranger things have happened. Carter has built his identity on pulling off things others haven't.

"I never got his obsession with the ski area," said his old climbing buddy, Jim Dunn. "I would say, ‘Harvey, you could just sell that land and have enough money to climb every day for the rest of your life.' But I guess he always placed a lot of value in creativity and exploration. If he knew how it was going to turn out, he wasn't as interested."

A Teller County real estate agent was waiting at the cabin on a recent visit. He wanted to talk about some other "investment opportunities" for the land. Carter's property is one of the last big parcels in the county and developers regularly try to schmooze him. The cut for them, if he decided to subdivide it, would be substantial. But Carter said he believes locals deserve a place to learn to ski, like he had when he was a kid.

"So I tell 'em all to go to hell," Carter said with a slight chuckle once the agent left.

Carter's cabin is a monument to his life. The front hall is choked with ropes and rusting climbing hardware - including other people's bolts cut from the rock. An old wooden ice ax leans by the door. Upstairs, the living room looks beyond a deck to the crest of Pikes Peak. Sunlight bathes a midden of souvenir rocks, old mining junk picked up in the mountains, climbing journals and curling black and white photos. It is the home of someone who found a lifetime of joy in the outdoors.

"I got a card from an old friend a few months ago that asked what motivated me to climb all those things," he said. "What the hell kind of question is that? "I climbed them because they were unclimbed, because I decided to do it. Same reason I'm doing this ski area. I just am."


THE HARVEY CARTER FILE

Born: Sept. 30, 1930
Started climbing: 1949
Taught climbing to Fort Carson troops: 1952-54
Established climbing reputation with Northcutt- Carter Route: 1954
Worked Aspen ski patrol: 1957-79
Established first ascents on many desert towers: 1960-75
Presently: Continues climbing and working to establish a ski area on the west side of Pikes Peak.

 

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