High Desert Museum exhibit displays Northwest’s climbing legacy

BEND, Ore. — Dented copper boxes. A well-worn rugby shirt. And that one particular pair of red and blue spandex tights.

These items could all be stuffed in a box and hidden, in plain sight, on a junk shelf in your garage. But look closer at these relics, said Laura Ferguson, a curator at the High Desert Museum. These artifacts speak to the Northwest’s integral place in the history of modern mountaineering and rock climbing.

More than 100 items such as tools, documents, photographs and garments will be on display in the Bend museum’s exhibit: “Ascent: Climbing Explored,” showing April 28 through Sept. 9.

Another set of seemingly mundane items include homemade bolt hangers — angled bits with holes punched — that helped anchor pins in the rock where climbers can secure their ropes.

“I think these things are great. They look just like pieces of metal. It’s unbelievable that someone relied on them for protection,” Ferguson said recently at the museum while sifting through objects with latex gloves. These particular bolt hangers were placed in the first ascent of Monkey Face, an iconic rock tower in what is now called Smith Rock State Park, on Jan. 1, 1960. Nearby, a beat-up notebook sat on a table. It belonged to mountaineer and naturalist John Muir. In the 1887 journal, he revisits the summer of 1869. The University of The Pacific lent it to the museum.

“I’m excited to bring these objects together and give people the chance to see how climbing has evolved and changed over time,” Ferguson said.

For lovers of vintage mountaineering and climbing gear, “Ascent” promises some tantalizing surprises.

That rugby shirt? Legendary outdoorsman and now-billionaire Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard bought one during a climbing trip to Scotland in 1970. Then unknown in the U.S., rugby shirts, for their extra thick fabric and rigorously stitched seams, were great for climbing. (Previously, climbers wore dress shirts they found at thrift stores, according to Patagonia.) Then operating Chouinard Equipment, which primarily made climbing hardware and became Patagonia, Chouinard began to import and sell the shirts after affixing his company’s patch below Umbro’s. Patagonia lent the shirt to the exhibit.

“On their own, these look like kind of mundane items,” Ferguson said.

They’re far from mundane. Collectors would pony up a lot of money for the shirt — it’s the only one in the Patagonia Archival Collection.

“This shirt is priceless,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson, a curator of Western history, earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history at the University of Michigan, with an emphasis on the American West, particularly in the 19th century. Ferguson moved to Bend 21/2 years ago for the curatorial position at the museum. She spent most of 2017 researching, interviewing climbing authorities and securing loans for the exhibit.

Dented, olive-colored metal boxes are also of particular interest.

Known as summit registers, mountaineers and climbers left weatherproof boxes on the top of mountain peaks, signing their names and ascension dates on a paper register. Subsequent climbers would grow the lists. One copper box had been placed on Mount Jefferson since 1895, and it remained there for several decades, Ferguson said.

“I just think it’s fun to see all the things that climbers and mountaineers were using,” she said.

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Pioneering sport climber Alan Watts, 57, and longtime Bend resident met with Ferguson a half dozen times, even walking around the trails at Smith Rock. There he pointed out the first ascents he was able to accomplish using the sport climbing technique he helped innovate in the early 1980s at the state park. Sport climbing involves planning a route from the top down by rappelling and preplacing permanent bolt hangers and bolts. Then at the base, a climber relies on his or her limbs to propel her up the rock face.

“Sport climbing allows for harder and safer routes,” Watts said. “That’s really the appeal of it. It minimizes the danger; yet the danger is always there.”

Watts would spend days — even a week — preparing a route so he and others could climb it, clipping their rope into one bolt at a time for safety.

“It was considered controversial at first,” Ferguson said, adding that some considered the approach cheating. As the tactics developed at Smith Rock were imported to other parts of the country, some climbers didn’t welcome the new style, which they considered illegitimate, Watts said.

“In the 1980s, there was what they called the ‘bolt wars,’ where people cut off the bolts that a climber would clip his rope into,” Ferguson said, adding that this didn’t happen at Smith Rock. “Now people realize that there are several different disciplines in climbing, and each has its place and allows a climber to develop a particular skill set.”

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Impressed by Ferguson’s thoroughness in her goal to tell the story of the Northwest’s climbing legacy, Watts lent “odds and ends” that help bring back the exciting, innovative period in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s when the climbing at then-little-known Smith Rock was some of the most innovative in the world.

“I have stuff in bins that could have just as easily gone to the landfill. But it’s old enough where it starts to have historical value,” Watts said. “It’s nice to be able to display it, like old pairs of climbing shoes that I used on certain routes 30, 35 years ago.”

Climbing shoes today resemble leather slippers with stiff, grippy rubber outsoles. Previous generations’ looked like clunky hiking boots, Watts said.

But what most stands out, Watts said, are those five years in the ’80s when climbers couldn’t get enough spandex tights. The exhibit features a red-and-blue pair that Watts wore when he was featured on the cover of Mountain magazine, a then-definitive, international climbing magazine published in England. Watts lent a copy of the magazine to accompany the tights.

“Looking at old photos of me, my daughter especially would just be embarrassed,” Watts said with a chuckle. “‘Like, Dad, you were such a geek.’ And yeah, maybe that was true. The ’80s were an eccentric decade. Spandex was some sort of fashion statement. If you stopped at a bar after a climb, you’ll get some looks. They wouldn’t know what you had just been doing. They’d think you dressed like that all the time.”

Quirky fashion notwithstanding, the photograph and the accompanying Mountain magazine article represented a turning point at Smith Rock. The exposure would usher Smith Rock from a locals’ open secret to an international climbing destination.

Watts looks forward to checking out gear and imagery from other eras and locations. Yosemite’s “Golden Era,” which stretched from the years after World War II to 1970 encapsulates a time when a lot of first ascents — some multiday affairs on rock walls — were done via aid climbing, in which ropes are key to ascension, Ferguson said.

Photographs and other relics capture different eras in climbing’s history.

Other images lent by the Mazamas Library and Historical Collections date from late 19th-century mountaineering to the 21st. Images include the conservation group’s founding meeting on the summit of Mount Hood in 1894. Also on loan is an alpenstock — or hiking staff — that belonged to Earl Morse Wilbur, an early president of the Mazamas. He carried the alpenstock — which predated ice axes — to numerous Cascade summits, etching names into his staff: Mount Hood, Aug 18, 1892; July 19, 1894; July 20, 1896; M. Pitt. Aug. 16, 1896; Mount Hood, May 19, 1897.

Additional eras highlighted by the exhibit include the 10th Mountain Division, whose skill sets and gear — particularly newly invented nylon ropes — catalyzed climbing and other outdoors adventures in the decades after WWII.

There is also fine art. On loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a Thomas Moran sketch of Devils Tower. Moran was a significant landscape painter in the 19th century, sometimes traveling with surveying teams. At the time, his sketches and paintings offered many people the first glimpses of the expanding American West. His work was also integral in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, Ferguson said.

The collection also features a piece by James Lavadour, a landscape painter who grew up on the Umatilla Reservation and is a member of the Walla Walla tribe. “He paints and scrapes geological formations in interesting ways,” Ferguson said. “He’s talking about how his experiences hiking and being in nature have informed his work as a landscape artist.”

Despite her newfound expertise in climbing lore, Ferguson isn’t a climber. She sticks to trail running as her go-to way to connect with the outdoors.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t glance up.

“Part of what has been really fun in talking with climbers is that you can see they are people who have found what really makes them happy,” Ferguson said.