Ed Colby: After Yosemite, a legend lives on
After Peter Williamson drowned in Yosemite, Mrs. Mac and Barbara went back for the funeral in North Dakota. As they sat around in the family kitchen, Peter’s Army picture came crashing down off the dining-room wall.
Mrs. Mac knows why. Peter loathed the Army.
Peter came from that fraternity of early Boulder climbers. When they came to Aspen, they stayed at Mrs. Mac’s Snow Chase Lodge, at the top of Mill St. I could drop names.
What do I remember about Peter after 30 years? I remember the scruffy beard, the Jesus Christ hair, the red bandanna around his forehead. I remember his eloquent, soft-spoken way, and the light in his eyes. I remember his tenacity.
In those days a certain big guy from the trades ? opinionated, volatile, and by nature a scrapper ? haunted the Red Onion. Let’s call him “Poppy.” Treat him with deference.
Poppy stood at the end of the bar, in front of Beer Gulch. Did you ever drop a watermelon on the floor? It made the same sickening sound when Poppy’s fist smacked Peter’s face. Peter fell down, but when he came back at Poppy, he was talking to him, still trying to explain something.
Poor Peter was no fighter. Poppy hit him again and shattered Peter’s glasses. Peter got up, and Poppy knocked him down, again and again and again.
Afterward Peter staggered to the bar and ordered two beers. He put one in front of Poppy, and then he sat down next to him. Peter’s pathetic, broken glasses sat lopsided on his nose, and blood dripped off his chin. Those two talked late into the night.
His first day on skis, Peter ski-packed for his ticket at Highlands. The patrol took the packers to the top of Loge Peak, and they packed down from there. Peter never let inexperience stop him from doing anything.
One day in the spring Peter dropped by Haerdle Cottage. He said he was going to “the valley,” which is how those guys talked about the Holy Grail of rock climbing, Yosemite Valley. There was passion in his voice, and yearning. We shook the hippy handshake, and I never saw him again.
Peter met his end in a most bizarre fashion. At the end of May he and Richard climbed the Leaning Tower. On the way down they camped at Bridal Veil Creek somewhere not far above the falls. In the morning they faced a decision.
They could rappel down the unstable Leaning Chimney, or bushwhack a miserable five miles to the Glacier Point Road, or cross the raging snowmelt-flooding creek and take the easy way down.
They chose the latter. The plan was for Peter to cross the creek and set up a Tyrolean traverse ? essentially an overhead rope cable ? on which to bring across Richard and their gear. Peter took off his clothes. Then, while Richard belayed him, he started across. (God, it must have been cold!)
Almost immediately the swift current knocked Peter off his feet. Richard caught him with his belay rope, but the rope tension sucked Peter under. He couldn’t have lasted long. Richard tied off the rope, attached a tag line laterally to it, and pulled Peter’s body to shore.
Richard took the bushwhacking route down, and then a vicious snowstorm moved in, delaying the retrieval of Peter’s body for days.
I bring you this information without editorial comment. The facts are those set forth in the American Alpine Club’s “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” journal for 1974.
Mrs. Mac asked if I wanted to ride back to North Dakota for the funeral, but I had a new job carrying hod for Scott Nystrom, and I didn’t want to ask for the time off. So I never heard Peter’s Army picture hit the floor.
Mrs. Mac loves ghost stories, but I remain skeptical. Nevertheless, on three things we agree. One, Peter was dead, and who am I to say what a dead man can or can’t do? Two, Peter hated the Army. Everybody knew that. Three, the picture definitely fell off the wall.
Mrs. Mac will vouch for that.
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs every other week on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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