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Dateline 1970: First Ascent of a Colorado Centennial Peak

I stand on the summit of 13,932-foot Thunder Pyramid in Colorado's Elk Range after the first ascent of the peak on August 2, 1970. I was 17 years old and had graduated from Palmer High School in Colorado Springs that June. Image was shot by Spencer Swanger with my Kodak Instamatic camera.

The following is the story of a notable first ascent I did 49 years ago on August 2, 1970. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the first ascent. I plan to re-enact the ascent. Who’s going to join me?

As climbers, we go out into the world to have fun, to have an adventure, to find new places, and to challenge ourselves. We usually don’t think about the meaning of what we do too often or place our adventures within a greater context. It’s only later, maybe years later, that the mountains and cliffs and towers that we’ve climbed begin to assume an historical context, to have meaning beyond our own lives.

The Golden Age of Climbing

That’s how it’s been for me. I began climbing in 1965 when I was 12 years old in North Cheyenne Cañon, a Colorado Springs city park filled with bristling granite pinnacles and cliffs, in what might seem now to be the dark ages of climbing since we used goldline ropes, carried racks of angle and blade pitons and a piton hammer, and either tied the rope around our waists or fashioned a Swiss-seat harness from one-inch webbing. That era was, of course, actually a golden age when there was still so much to climb and so many mountains and cliffs were unclimbed in the United States.

Meet Spencer Swanger

I first met Spencer Swanger in early 1968 when I was a skinny high school kid on a Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) trip on a winter trek up 14,264-foot-high Mount Lincoln. So, I adopted Spence, a Colorado Springs postal carrier, as my mountain mentor. He was 13 years older than me and was a real mountain man. He had already climbed all 54 Colorado Fourteeners by 1969. Swanger went on to become the first person to climb the hundred highest peaks in Colorado, a task he completed by soloing Red Mountain in the Culebra Range in 1977. My mom also liked me to climb with Spence since he was an older responsible guy with a family. She figured he was a good role model and probably not a risk taker.

An Unclimbed Peak in the Elk Range

During the summer of 1969 on one of our climbing trips up the Maroon Bells near Aspen, we noticed, while descending South Maroon Peak, a good looking mountain on the opposite ridge to the east and south of Pyramid Peak. I looked at the topo map and saw the peak was simply labeled 13,932. No name. In those days there were no Colorado mountain lists except the Fourteeners. That’s what folks climbed. A list of the 100 highest peaks was put together in 1969 by Bill Graves and published in the CMC magazine but no one had climbed the hundred highest peaks in Colorado. Certainly Peak 13,932 wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Peak Put on the CMC Schedule

Over the next winter we talked about that rough peak south of Pyramid and actually put together a plan to climb it the next summer. Spence put it on the calendar as a CMC trip for the first weekend of August and, with confidence in me, listed me as the co-leader since I had a hand in its discovery. The trip was limited to only six climbers, including us since it appeared to have, like most of the Elk Range peaks, plenty of loose rock.

Climbing Party of 6

On Sunday, August 2, 1970, the year I was set free from high school, Spence, myself, and four other climbers —Carson Black, Gordon Blanz, Jack Harry, and Bill Graves from Fort Collins. Yep, the same Bill Graves who put together the first list of Colorado’s 100 highest in 1968, which included unclimbed Peak 13,932.

Scramble up a White Gully

Early that morning, after a night of rain, the six of us set off from Maroon Lake. I carried a 150-foot red perlon rope, a handful of blade pitons, 8 carabiners, and a Stubai piton hammer. We hiked south on the trail from Crater Lake before cutting up grassy hillsides, skirting cliff bands, and balancing across boulders to the base of a steep couloir filled with jumbled rock, what is today called the White Gully. We scrambled up the loose gully, still the standard route up the peak, until near the top, where we exited right and finished with a scramble over loose cliff bands to the virgin summit.

No Evidence of a Previous Ascent

On top there was no evidence that anyone else had ever climbed the peak. No cairn, no register, nothing disturbed. It was the first ascent of a mountain that no one else had ever climbed, let alone probably even noticed. Yet Peak 13,932 was separated by a longer ridge than the Maroon Bells across the valley, and the saddle between Pyramid Peak and it was 70 feet lower than that between the Bells.

From Roof of the Rockies

William Bueler later wrote in his classic Colorado mountain history book Roof of the Rockies: “It is most interesting that as late as 1970 there could be found a distinctive peak of nearly 14,000 feet which apparently had not been climbed.” It was pretty amazing.

Only Living Climbers to do a First Ascent of a Centennial

It turns out that Peak 13,932 was the last of Colorado’s hundred highest ranked peaks to be climbed. All the other ones, now usually called the Centennials, were first climbed by miners, government surveyors, or early climbers like those in the San Juan Mountaineers in the 1930s. It also turns out that Carson Black and I probably are the only climbers alive that made the first ascent of a Colorado Centennial peak! I say “probably” because I can’t locate two of the other climbers and both Swanger and Graves have passed to the great beyond.

Naming Thunder Mountain

As we sat on the summit of Peak 13,932, we munched lunch and talked about what to name the new peak. When a rumble of thunder pealed across the mountains, Spence said, “We better get off here. Why don’t we call it Thunder Mountain?” We all agreed. Now the name has been changed to Thunder Pyramid to reflect its proximity to its higher neighbor.

Next Ascent 4 Years Later

Looking at the old summit register the other night, I saw that Thunder Mountain didn’t see another ascent for 4 years, when Willy Oehrli, a mountain guide from Switzerland, climbed it. The next ascent was in August 1976 by a couple guys from Los Angeles who noted, “We f…ed up, we wanted to climb Pyramid instead!”

A Special Ascent

Now Thunder Pyramid is regularly climbed by peakbaggers but for me, even after climbing hundreds of first ascents of rock routes and doing early ascents of desert towers around Moab, my first ascent in the summer of 1970 with Spencer Swanger, the Centennial Man, of Peak 13,932, Thunder Mountain, is a special memory. I feel lucky to have been part of Colorado mountain climbing history.

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