Longform

LIFE ON THE EDGE

part 2 of 2
Art Higbee was nineteen when he met Jim Erickson, via Erickson's girlfriend, via Erickson's dog. "I lived right down the street," he recalls, "and she brought the dog over because their landlord didn't want pets. She asked if I could keep Jim's dog for a while."

Higbee ended up being very nice to the dog. The opportunity to get to know Erickson--maybe even to climb with him--was not one he took lightly. "It was the summer of '72," Higbee says, "I was a dangerous climber, and Jim was famous. He'd just done the Naked Edge. I just hitched onto him."

Together, Erickson and Higbee climbed all over the Front Range, eventually completing a free ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite, with a film crew documenting it. Predictably, mention of the movie embarrasses Erickson and makes Higbee laugh. "Yeah--`Halfwits on Half Dome,' we always called it," Higbee says. (Free Climb: The Northwest Face of Half-Dome, the movie's producers called it. It is still available on video, but in Boulder, it's usually checked out.)

Higbee, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, had always been intrigued by the mountains--first by the raptors who nested there, and then by any kind of climbing. He came to Boulder in pursuit of a chemical engineering degree but found climbing much more compelling. "I just stayed in Boulder, gave up my wrestling scholarship and ran out of money," he admits. Soon he was selling CB radios to support his habit. He's never regretted it.

"First off, it's sensational, right? It's cymbals clashing," Higbee explains. "You're standing on the vertical, eighty or ninety degrees. And all these birds, the swifts that live in the cliffs, they'd zoom you! Barreling around, doing rolls over your head! What a fabulous place to be! And you felt like a real pioneering spirit, knowing you were one of the most painful people ever to stand on this spot!"

Though not the first. He knew that after he met Layton Kor.
"Jehovah's Witnesses came by to convert me, you see, and I was a polite young man, so I listened," Higbee recalls, "but they could tell I was more into climbing. The next time, they brought Layton Kor to my house."

Higbee listened as hard as he could, and he made sure his climbing friends were alerted for Kor's subsequent visit, which began with "an hour's worth of doctrine," Higbee says. "As soon as the hour was over, he talked about climbing for three hours. It was the price of admission. It was worth it."

Higbee moved back to Steamboat in 1978, where he embarked on a life as a "heavy-construction supervisor. I'm fat and lazy and 42," he concludes. (His friends, by contrast, speak of Higbee as a champion skier and coach of downhill racers.) He has never forgotten being part of the golden age. "We had the luxury of risking our lives," he remembers. "Kor and the other guys had gone before us. Pat Ament was still there. I even played chess with Ament. He was almost as good as he said he was."

Higbee's last comment is the kind of statement that has dogged Pat Ament throughout his illustrious climbing career. Though he is known for having been one of Kor's most talented climbing partners, for writing the seminal guide to Boulder area climbing, training more young climbers than most people can remember and having a host of unrelated talents, including music, chess, painting and karate, Ament also has a history of bugging people.

He knows a lot about climbing, and his interest goes far beyond the technical side of things. I haven't been sitting in his North Boulder apartment long when "jealousies" enter the conversation. "If you said, in a youthful way, `I don't want to brag, but I climbed the Yellow Spur,' people held it against you," he says. "People accused me of bragging, which is so bogus."

All climbers crave recognition, he tells me. Why should he be penalized for wanting the same thing? "Erickson liked that sense of accomplishment and being special," he offers. "When he suddenly was no longer in the limelight, he lost interest. I don't want to run him down, but he was attracted to the limelight. Anyone who says they aren't is lying."

Now 49 ("but people say I look younger"), Ament has been climbing since 1958, the year his father moved the family to Boulder from Denver."I just happened to go up to the Flatirons," he recalls. "I had a friend who had an interest in climbing, and we knew you needed a rope. We had a vague idea that we tied ourselves together somehow. So we procured a rope from a frat-house lawn--it was strung through a bunch of posts, and we casually sawed the knots off and just started running away with it down the street."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff