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Layton Kor: Memorial to a Great American Climber

Layton Kor at his home in Kingman, Arizona, in April, 2009. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

Layton Kor, one of the greatest American climbers of the mid-20th century, passed on to big cliff in the great beyond six years ago on April 21, 2013. I was privileged to call Layton a good friend and spent many days with him during the last years of his life, talking about rock climbing, adventures, religion, and philosophy. Layton, along with Royal Robbins, was one of my climbing heroes in the 1960s when I was a Colorado kid learning the ropes.

I remember well the last conversation I had with Layton the week before he died. He called to say that the doctor was taking him off dialysis. He was glad not to have to go through that procedure again and in the next breath said that he wanted to plan a trip with me to go to his beloved Dolomites in northern Italy and share rope and rock. He was excited and hopeful for the future. But I knew that going off dialysis was a death sentence. Layton, rest in peace.

Here is an obituary I wrote for Layton that appeared in Alpinist Magazine in 2013.

Layton Kor. The name says it all. Everyone who is a climber has heard his name. Every climber has seen his name plastered all over the guidebooks and on route names like Kor’s Flake, Kor’s Door, Kor’s Korner, and Kor-Ingalls Route. Layton Kor was ubiquitous in the 1960s. The man was everywhere, stirring up an impatient storm on the rocks wherever he landed.

Layton left his mark at every major American climbing area in the sixties—the Gunks, Yosemite Valley, Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Monument Valley, the desert around Moab, and even obscure places from Connecticut to Arizona. He put a narrow canyon south of Boulder called Eldorado on the map, doing routes just for practice that are now time-honored vertical classics. “I basically learned to climb going to Eldorado,” says Layton. “I did a lot of dumb things there. And I learned how to place pitons, which are really pretty easy to put in.”

I asked Layton a couple years ago how he came up with his clever Eldo route names like Psycho, Ruper, Grand Giraffe, Kloeberdanz, and Kinder Rooten. He laughed and said, “I don’t know where some of those names came from. Like Ruper. It was just a name I liked. I named Kloeberdanz after a construction company I once worked for. Years later when I was getting gas, I saw a work truck in Glenwood Springs that said Kloeberdanz Construction on the door. I went over to the guy and told him, ‘Hey, I named a climbing route Kloeberdanz!’ He looked at me pretty strange.”

I first became aware of Layton Kor when I was a boy learning to climb at the Garden of the Gods in the mid-1960s. Even then Layton was a giant among climbers, a man who stood high above most of his contemporaries in Colorado. At the Garden, experienced climbers would speak in reverent tones when they pointed out his routes like Anaconda and Kor’s Korner. Later I poured over Pat Ament’s High Over Boulder guidebook and reveled in the black-and-white photos and route descriptions of all those classic Kor routes in Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons, and Boulder Canyon.

In the early 1970s, I regularly climbed Layton’s routes with my regular climbing partners. When Jimmie Dunn and I signed into the register on top of Castleton Tower after its 6th ascent in 1971, there were the names of Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls from the first ascent in 1961. Later that year we saw Layton’s name penciled in a sardine-tin register bolted to the summit of Standing Rock after we made the 3rd ascent.

The past six months I’ve been working with FalconGuides as editor for a new edition of Layton Kor’s long-out-of-print classic book Beyond the Vertical. I’ve read the book line by line a half-dozen times and every time there are sections that make me laugh out loud. The book reflects Layton’s zest for adventure as well as his madcap adventures both on and off the rocks and his larger than life zeal and personality. Layton was known for fast driving and fast climbing. If you weren’t climbing quick enough, you would feel the rope begin to tug at your waist, a reminder that climbing time was wasting.

Layton Kor was a big man, standing six-foot four-inches tall and looking more like an NBA basketball player than a rock climber. His hands, like other lifetime climbers, were massive, partly from a lifetime of laying bricks. With those strong hands and sinewy forearms, Layton could weld a piton into a crack. Even in his early 70s, Layton pounded pitons deep and hard. On the 2009 first ascent of Bloody Butte AKA Kor’s Kastle in the Arizona desert, Layton led the first pitch of a new route. As he climbed a narrow corner, he hammered four angle pitons into cracks and then tapped a thin wafer piton to protect a short traverse. It was a fine sound to hear the rising, ringing sound of the pitons as the master pounded them. “Pitons!” Layton shouted down. “I love pitons!”

Layton Kor, born in Canby, Minnesota in 1938, died on Sunday evening, April 21, 2013 in Kingman, Arizona at age 74 after a long illness. Over his last years, Layton maintained a sense of dignity and composure and was always ready with a joke, pun, and laugh. Despite having dialysis three times a week and suffering breathing problems, he never gave up the fight and continued to make plans to get well and go climbing again in the Dolomites and diving off Hawaii. Layton was the real deal—a man’s man, a lifetime adventurer, a badass rock climber, a diver, and a fisherman. He was also a kind and generous man who loved his family, friends, and two cats Nim and Berry.

Last evening, Jimmie Dunn, another climbing legend, called me from southern Arizona to talk. “Layton and Harvey Carter are probably talking about climbing back in the sixties right now,” Jimmie said. “They’re probably hanging out on some other planet. I hope there are good rocks out there for those guys. They’re gonna have a lot of fun.” Amen Jimmie. Rest in peace Big Daddy—you’ll always be the best.

Layton Kor rappelling off Kor's Kastle after it's first ascent in April, 2009. Photograph @ Stewart M. Green

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