Oral history

The Oral History Project has been conducting interviews with pioneering climbers who tied in with the club since the 1950s.

Greg Christopulos

After Army service in Vietnam, Greg went to graduate school at American University in the 70’s. A summer trip took him to Geneva, and let him get to Chamonix for a course and guided trips with the French Alpine Club. This was the era of body belays, and rappels, a swami belt if not a bowline on a coil, and ice climbing with French Technique. Chocks had just appeared, but climbers still carried hammers to test or re-drive pins. Greg suffered through the belay drills with “Oscar” and he remembers famed French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat commending the club’s practice to readers of his autobiography. Rebuffat gave a slideshow in Washington in the early 70’s, sponsored by PATC and the AAC.

Greg, Chuck Sproull, and Dave Templeton were among the group climbing at Big Schloss on August 5, 1972. Dave led a climb and another climber seconded and cleaned the gear after numerous falls. Greg then followed. Dave shifted his stance to better secure a traverse. When Greg fell at the traverse, he dropped to the ground and Dave was pulled off and landed next to him but did not survive the fall. Dave’s anchor had been a single hex, the nut’s surface grooved from holding falls. Today we understand the directional nature of nut belays, equalization, redundancy, but this was still the age of counting on the ringing sound of a well driven piton.

While climbing at the Gunks, Greg met a Philadelphia climber, and learned of a north-facing ice climbing area, now known as The Narrows, on the Delaware River near Kintnersville PA. Greg led reconnaissance and climbing trips to explore this frosty microclimate.

Greg is an Honorary Member of the Mountaineering Section in recognition of his contribution to the club

Interviewed on 10/3/2010

John Christian

John Christian who passed away in 2022 was an Honorary Member of the Mountaineering Section, in recognition of his longstanding contributions to the club. John participated in around 20 first ascents at Seneca Rocks, in addition to extensive climbing in other parts of the US and Canada. A series of interviews with John on climbing at Seneca can be found on the The Seneca Project here.

Joel Gross

Produced a 1950’s network television climbing drama. When asked why he spent so much time climbing and caving over the years, Joel Gross, 84, immediately replied, “The people.” Days climbing ended with group spaghetti dinners. Weekends at Seneca climbing and camping on the Armentrout family property formed bonds that were almost addictive. “We didn’t want it to end,” Joel said. Returning to Washington one Sunday, the group went into Rock Creek Park and built a fire. They didn’t want the weekend to be over but the arrival of the Park Police put an abrupt end to it.

Joel attended Columbia University on the G.I. Bill after World War II. He began caving with the New York Chapter of the National Speleological Society. He was attracted to the idea of entering a world untouched by man, within a few hour’s drive of New York City. Sometimes, it wasn’t untouched. He remembers entering an apparently “wild” cave, gathering for lunch on a ledge, then hearing a voice. Suddenly, the lights came on. Their cave led to a commercial cavern, with very surprised tourists. Another cavern was used as a dance hall in summer months because it remained cool. Joel remembers watching a dowser using a diving rod to trace the passages of the cavern. He found underground water and chambers 3 to 4 times as large as the landowner knew about.

Joel and the Columbia group made trips to West Virginia in 1947 and 1948 to explore Schoolhouse Cave. They got information from D.C. cavers like Tom Petrie, but Tom Culverwell gave them his map of the cave. When Joel relocated to D.C. he hooked up with the climbers and joined them for a trip to Bull Run Mountain in April, 1950. Felix Peckham, then in his 70’s, brought Joel to the gathering. Peg Keister taught him to belay. For Joel, Carderock is “the cradle of American climbing.” Arnold Wexler was refining his belaying theories and “Oscar” the dummy put them into practice. Carderock was approached by a swinging bridge at Old Angler’s Inn. Surplus rubber rafts allowed exploration of the nearby islands.

Seneca was memorable if only as a source of Army pitons driven by the 10th Mountain Division during training. Seneca, Champe and Nelson Rocks were the playground of Washington climbers.Since crags and caves were on private land, the D.C. contingent had to develop relationships with the locals. Owen Raines, a Germany Valley postmaster, introduced them to local residents. One church hosted climbers at an annual picnic at the pavilion in what is now Princess Snowbird Campground. The climbers reciprocated with Fall slide shows of their summer adventures. Sayre Rodman brought members of the Pittsburg Explores to Seneca at the same time and Hans Kraus , Bonnie Prudden and Fritz Wiessner made the trip south from the Gunks. Joel participated in Seneca first ascents with Arnold Wexler, Ray Moore And Tony Soler.

Joel’s most memorable climb was the 13th ascent of Devil’s Tower with Frank Sauber, John Christian and Chuck Wettling in 1959. Climbers had to write to the park superintendent a year in advance for a permit.  The ranger interviewed climbers and inspected their equipment before allowing them to climb. They did the classic Durrance Route and saw crowds of tourists stopping their cars to take pictures. They were disappointed to learn that the tourists were oblivious to the climbers and were photographing the antics of prairie dogs. A trip to the Wind River Range in the early 50’s was also memorable because it produced first ascents and a chance meeting with Brad Washburn and a group of students.

Joel bought his first rope in 1951. Chris Scoredos was a wholesale hardware dealer. He bought a spool of 3/8” laid nylon rope and cut 120 lengths for climbers. Packs were made by A.I. “Dick” Kelty in his Dever garage. Hardware was ordered from the Co-Op (REI), Holubar or Yvon Chouinard

A meeting with a CBS television led Joel to a career producing dramas and adventure films. “I, Christopher Bell” was filmed over a three week period in the Twin Sisters area of Rocky Mountain National Park. A crew of 30, with all their equipment,  were packed in on horseback to the location at about 11,000 ft. Don Hubbard was a stand-in for the lead actor, Charles Bickford,  during climbing sequences.  Jane Showacre stood in for Dorothy McGuire, John Reed for Philip Abbott.  Other D. C. climbers included Herb and Jan Conn, John Christian, Peg Keister, and Win Lembeck. Members of the Colorado Mountain Club and the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group scouted and rigged the overhang sequence. Director Don Medford had Jane take 3 falls caught by Johnny Reed’s belay, until she refused a forth.  CBS Chairman William Paley called it great television. The location had all the risks of the mountains. Czech-born actor Karel Stepanek contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. He bundled up in blankets on a cot, in a tent set up by the crew, emerging only to deliver his lines. During filming the final scene at one of the summits of Twin Sister, Joel’s ice axe began to hum. He dropped it and told the crew to abandon the equipment and get off the summit. The lightening strike destroyed the sound equipment. The film concluded in silence, seemingly an artistic touch.  A voice over narration was added later. Costuming was done in Roy Holubar’s basement. A Swiss-born CU mathematics professor, Roy imported European climbing gear and clothes. He sold to locals out of his Boulder home, and handled mail orders. The Internet Movie Database says “I, Christopher Bell” aired April 1, 1964, on CBS, as the second episode of the first season on TV of “Suspense”. “Suspense” had been a CBS radio program. Joel remembers filming it in the late 50’s.

One episode from the Colorado location scouting trip is preserved in climbing lore. Joel, Don Hubbard and director Don Medford spent days hiking at altitude. Joel was in charge of the provisions and was careful to include foods the fastidious Medford would find appetizing . When the trio each opened their can or sardines, Medford’s contained a bright red  fly. Don exclaimed, “Ah Mosca Mediterraneana ,” plucked the fly out of Medford’s can and ate it. “I haven’t had one in years,” explaining that part of his war time service at the Bureau of Standards was to determine what soldiers could survive on in distress. His research method was quick if not always pleasant.

Joel also worked on nine “High Adventure” films with Lowell Thomas. Art Lembeck accompanied Joel on a flight from Alaska over the North Pole to Thule, Greenland. Other episodes took them to Angel Falls Venezuela and New Guinea.

Merval “Merv” Oleson

Merv Oleson, 87, may be best known for Carderock’s “Merv’s Nerve”. June Lehman named the climb to describe Merv’s case of “sewing machine leg” when he tried to high step to a nubbin. Merv left Wisconsin to work for the Naval Research Lab. He came to climbing in the late 1950’s when he met Betty Johnson through folk dancing. Betty took him to Carderock and Seneca and introduced him to the climbing community of the day. Merv’s one trip to the Tetons trip was most notable for the heavy new Italian hiking boots that gave him “a blister on a blister.” The Teton trip included CIA official Harold Swift, his son David, and Al Klovdahl. They drove 48 hours from DC to Wyoming, spending 2 weeks in the climbers’ camp at Jenny Lake. Several times a year, Merv would have to travel for work l to the San Francisco Bay area or San Diego. He remembers several trips to Yosemite, and climbing at Berkley’s Indian Rock. 

Harold Swift had twin daughters . They invited a friend to go climbing with the family and Merv ended up marrying their friend, Fanchon. Memorable Carderock events included Tom Evans’ free solo of Green Bucket and Bob Norris freeing a girl who got her knee stuck in Beginner’s Crack. 

Sterling’s Twin Cracks with a top belay, both Merv and the climber were dismayed by a belayer asking if they could get to a secure position. The belayer found the copperhead coiled up within striking distance but surprisingly docile.  Merv found a second copperhead underfoot as he approached the belay. Merv remembers doing the Keyhold Climb at Little Stony man with Pete Hackett, and his recollection is that the club tried to erase the Mennen sign at Harper’s Ferry. He remembers climbing at Bull Run with Chris Buckingham.

At one point, the climbers rigged a tyrolean traverse from Easy Layback to Vaso Island. It was used as part of a “stress test” for Peace Corps volunteers. When the Corps was started, twenty or thirty volunteers would climb and cross the tyrolean under the climbers’ tutelage.

Merv remembers climbing Beginners on top rope by simply looping the rope around the large tree at the top, no anchor rope or carabiners. Climbers stopped doing this when they noticed the wear marks on the bark. This would explain those marks on that tree more than any others. They date from over 50 years ago. He remembers a meeting with Bob Adams and National Park Service officials to avert the closure of Carderock. Part of the supporting evidence was a January 26, 1965 article Merv wrote for the Post. A picture of Merv and Fachon climbing appeared in the Star News in September 1974. Merv regrets loaning his climbing slides to an acquaintance in the federal government when the Forest Service was considering the acquisition of Seneca Rocks. He feels responsible for having West Virginia overrun with federal bureaucrats.

Climbers were just as strange in times past as they are today. June Layman used to bring her food in a glass jar to avoid any contact with allergens Climbing footwear was limited to kronhofer kletterschuhe and most gear was purchased by mail from Roy Holubar in Boulder or Gerry (Gerry Cunningham) in Denver. Merv had one of the original 60/40 parkas with a leather patch on the shoulder for body rappels. He made his own harness and remembers using a carabiner brake bar for rappels.

John Gregory and Andre Dahlman interviewed Merv at his home on 25 July 2010

Mike Nicholson

Mike is now 72, he started climbing as a teenager around 1953 (Tom Marshall, a year or so older, started climbing just before he did). Growing up in Linthicum, MD, (Jimmy Shipley was a neighbor) he started cave exploring with his family. His father was a cartographer, and spent time pouring over maps of western Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia looking for places to camp, hike and explore caves. As they encountered technical obstacles they sought information on rope techniques from DC climbers including Don Hubbard, Arnold Wexler, Andy Kaufman, Chris Scoredos, Bob Henshaw, and Frederick Geisel. Climbers were more likely to go caving in the winter or to escape the heat of summer than they are today. Paul Bradt took Mike and Huntley Ingalls into Schoolhouse Cave for the first time.

Mike’s father bought the equipment , so he doesn’t remember how or where they got it. They bought tennis shoes several sizes too small, mike remembers a shoe store clerk warning his mother about the effects of tight shoes on growing feet. They walked to the crag in tennis shoes, then changed to painfully tight ones to climb and took them off at every opportunity. They didn’t edge at all so footwork was friction and balance. The first climbing shoes he saw were purchased in Europe by John Christian. Mike and his wife Trudy went to France in 1967 and bought their first PA’s, they didn’t get to climb on that trip. Mike never owned a climbing harness, his last climbing was around 1976. He did make aluminum pitons in a machine shop in the basement of his house. Mike and Joe Faint did the first ascent of Alcoa Presents (5.8) at Seneca and the aluminum piton at the crux was Mike’s. The aluminum pins couldn’t be removed after pounding them in. They were not sure how strong they were. They hung on the piton at the crux, then finished the lead. Another route, T6, was named for the hardness standard of the aluminum. It was somewhere on the east face near Alcoa but was never recorded in guidebooks. There may still be aluminum pins on the route. Mike led the first ascent of Cockscomb Overhang Direct (5.9+), belayed by his soon-to-be-wife Trudy. A number of people sieged the route and Mike fell twice near the top, but finished the lead. Mike also did a probable first ascent in 1960 of the north arête of the south east flake of Champe Rock with Joe Faint (near Psychotic Reaction). In the 50’s Mike climbed with Ann Remington, whose husband William was accused of spying for the Russians and was murdered in prison. Carderock’s “Trudy’s Terror” was named after Mike’s wife. During the first ascent, a flake broke off and hit Merv Oleson. Mike also did the first ascent of “Cripple’s Delight” as Al Klovdahl called it.

Mike started his own business making precision machinery in 1970, two years after getting married and buying his house in Cabin John. Glen Randall worked for Mike, they used to go climbing and running as a break from work in the basement machine shop. Mike talked Glen into applying to the University of Colorado. Mike had worked at the Agricultural Research Station in Beltsville (where Sterling Hendricks worked) and NIH where Trudy was a medical illustrator. Trudy did the drawings for the set-up instructions for Barry bishop’s tents, the Bishops lived not far away. He also knew another National Geographic photographer, Luis Marsden, and remembers being in Marsden’s house overlooking Chain Bridge while Frank Lloyd Wright was finishing construction.

Mike climbed a lot with Tony Soler and Ray Moore who were a bit older, as well as John Reed and Joel Gross, and Huntley Ingalls. In 1970 he and his family were among the founders of the Butler Cave Conservation Society which raised money to buy the cave from Carl Butler. The property in Burnsville Cove, Bath County, VA cost $30,000. Mapping of the cave system continues to this day.

John Gregory and Andre Dahlman interviewed Mike at his home on 4 July 2010

Alden Klovdahl

Alden climbed with the Mountaineering Section during the 1960s

Today Alden Klovdahl is a sociology professor at The Australian National University in Canberra specializing in studying social networks. In the 1960’s he climbed with the PATC-MS during periods of residence in the D.C. area. He credits the climbers with convincing him he could get a Phd. and earn a living. At that time, very few Americans knew anyone who had a doctorate, but many climbers had advanced degrees. Prior to the 60’s climbers came to D.C., usually to work for the government, and stayed in D.C. through retirement. In the 60’s people became more mobile, entering and leaving government service, going away to graduate school and returning.

Al went to Wyoming’s Wind River Range , probably in 1962, with a large party. One group got a permit to cross the Indian Reservation and entered the range from the east to climb Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s high point. Al remembers carrying 100 lbs. into Gannett, they then joined the rest of the party.

Al belayed Mike Nicholson on the first ascent of “Cripple’s Delight” at Carderock and came up with the name because Mike had shoulder trouble when climbing it. He regretted the name almost instantly, but it stuck.

The PATC-MS was contacted by the National Park Service to help re-paint the Gillette razor sign at Harper’s Ferry. NPS provided the materials, Gillette later found out about the painting and made a contribution to the club. Descending from the painting job, Bobby Adams was below other rappellers and someone dislodged a boulder above him. People shouted warnings but a train emerged from the tunnel and Bobby couldn’t hear them. The rock missed his head by about a foot.

John Gregory interviewed Alden at Carderock on 12 July 2010

“when i was doing oscar in the early 1960s, as i recall he had evolved into a 150 lb (or so) bucket filled with concrete. there was also a small motor to raise him. you would be tied into a solid tree (rather than a peg in the ground as in the videos), with the leather padding, and thick gloves.  oscar would then be hoisted about 20 feet or so above the fulcrum, and as i recall we did not look to see when ‘he’ was released … leaders might not always be in sight when they came off. there was no need to practice dynamic belaying as all the dynamism needed was provided by gravity working on oscar in his downward flight and of course the nylon ropes. [i don’t know if nylon ropes were in use when oscar was first used. or manila]. i can remember more than once being flipped upside down in the course of practice with oscar, and then lowering oscar the rest of the way to the ground while i was inverted.”  “it was excellent practice for catching a falling leader when actually needed. muscle memory i guess. by then the oscar tree was not very healthy, and no one practised belays from a platform, much less with live ‘oscars’ or ‘oscarettes’. As I recall, where Oscar training paid off best for two of us was when I was belaying Bill Allnutt from a little ledge about 3 feet off the ground as he was leading up the first pitch of the climb on which Dave Templeton later fell to his death. Bill came off, with one piton in and a broken piece of cliff in his hand, and – thanks to Oscar training – my reaction was as instantaneous as it could be. The piton held, my own solid belay snapped taut, and the stretch in our nylon rope was such that Bill ‘bottomed out’ about 2.8 feet below the level of me, my ledge, in – as I recall – a small gap in the ledge. In other words, had he fallen to one side or the other, or had my reaction been any slower, he probably would have hit the ledge I was belaying from (or the ground) with enough force to do him some permanent damage. … probably not fatal but possibly permanently paralyzing. He bobbed around a bit and after cussing me to let him down the remaining inches to the ground  [which I hadn’t been about to do until I saw he was okay and could stand], he went back at it and we finished the climb successfully. Remember too that at this time there were no harnesses; we climbed with a single bowline tied around our waists. Bill and I went on to do many other climbs together.