Layton Kor is dead. One of America’s greatest and most revered climbers of all time, and a founder of the sport as we know it, succumbed not to rockfall or hazard, but to illness.
Kor, born in Minnesota in 1938, came from a small town and was a bricklayer by trade. He taught himself to climb by taking a pickaxe and chopping steps up a clay embankment in Texas. “I’d seen the climbers in the movie with ice axes and I thought that as the way it was done,” he wrote.
In the mid 1950s, Kor’s parents relocated the family to Boulder, where the area’s abundant and unclimbed rock fed Kor’s voracious appetite.
By the late 1950s and into the early 1960 Kor had amassed a litany of first ascents that included Castleton, The Titan and Standing Rock in Canyonlands, the Naked Edge in Eldorado, the South Face of Washington Column in Yosemite, the Yellow Wall on the Diamond, and Proboscis in The Yukon. The precise number of routes Kor pioneered is unknown but certainly in the hundreds, and there is hardly a major crag that doesn’t have a Kor’s Crack, or Kor’s Roof or Kor’s Route. At least one leading climber, Jim Bridwell, named a child after him.
Kor, six-feet-five inches tall, was as dominating a figure physically as he was technically and climbed with what has been describes as an animal’s energy. Seemingly possessed, he blazed across the rock of the Western U.S., enlisting a string of partners—leading climbers themselves—who recounted tales of horror and near death on his many first ascents. Kor was a “relentless dynamo of energy,” said Royal Robbins, “[who] had a passion for climbing as pure and intense as any I have ever seen.” Robbins also noted that the gangly, aw-shucks Kor whose pants were often too short had a “Rabelasian gusto for life–loving wine, women, laughter, and food.” Kor himself noted that his time in Camp 4 “saw parties, drugs and women, all supplementing the escapism that propelled me and many of my contemporaries in our upward drive on the vertical walls.”
Kor’s technical skills and accomplishments gained him international fame, and in 1966 he joined an elite team of alpinists that included Dougal Haston, Chris Bonington and John Harlin, to attempt a direct line on the North Face of the Eiger. On that route, Kor pioneered a key rock traverse, but two-thirds of the way up the face, a fixed rope Harlin was jumaring cut, and he fell to his death. Kor, with Bonington, found Harlin at the foot of the face where they sat sobbing in the snow.
Though devastated, Kor wanted to continue the climb and was dismayed to discover that teammates higher on the wall had, fearing a repeat of Harlin’s accident, untied and dropped all the fixed ropes. Kor, with Bonington, had to abandon the climb while teammates higher up completed the route.
A disappointed Kor turned his abundant energies toward other big lines in the Alps, ticking the North Face of the Cima Grande and, roped with figures such as Don Whillans, Yvon Chouinard and Rick Sylvester, knocked off other classics including the icy North Face of Les Courtes.
In 1967 Kor returned to his home in Colorado where his attitude toward climbing “vacillated between disinterest and his well-known enthusiasm,” according to the 1977 book Climb! by Robert Godfrey and Dudley Chelton. Despite the death of Harlin, Kor retained his appetite for winter climbing and joined Wayne Goss and Bob Culp for the first winter ascent of the Diamond. The second ascent of the Salathe, with Galen Rowell, was next. On that climb’s last bivy Rowell noted that Kor “talked not of what he was going to do, but of what he wasn’t going to do. He wasn’t going to do alpine climbing. He wasn’t going to waste another year in Camp Four.”
The Salathe was Kor’s last major climb, and soon after he became a Jehovah’s Witness, finding that religion “provided a far more meaningful outlet for my energies than had ten years of extreme climbing.” Kor seemed to regret some of his youthful indiscretions, even wondering if his years climbing had been wasted. But his decision to back away from climbing was also driven by family responsibilities. A father of two, Kor, in his autobiography Beyond the Vertical, wrote that it “would be irresponsible of me to put my life on the line in pursuit of extreme climbing at their expense.”
“Frankly, most of us were a little peeved when Layton choose God over climbing,” wrote Royal Robbins in the foreward to Kor’s book. “We … regarded such a defection as a sign of weakness.”
It is erroneous, however, to think that Kor quit climbing entirely. “Desire doesn’t disappear overnight,” he said.
Kor continued to climb as time allowed, though at a moderate and saner level. As recently as 2009 he made the first ascent of a desert tower in Arizona, displaying his youthful vigor. He had hope to return to the Dolomites—”My heart was partially still in climbing”— but poor health and a kidney transplant kept him close to home, where he was supported and encouraged by his good friends. He was 74.