Conquest of the Washington Monument

This short story was originally published in the August 1974 issue of Playboy Magazine and also reprinted in Great Action Stories A Mentor Book published by New American Library (1977).

The Conquest of the Washington Monument

By Stan Dryer

Among technical monument climbers the ascent of the Washington Monument has always been recognized as the penultimate challenge in sheer purity of execution. The monument offers a straight 555 foot Class 7 climb[1] on a hard marble face with artificial aids for direct assistance required all the way. As it has never been scaled, I have long cherished the thought of attacking the monument. I had studied the records of the ill-fated Harkins expedition (See Washington police blotter May 7th 1971) who were forced to turn back at the 42 foot mark on The North Face. Their failure, I felt, was due to their negligence in not disabling the flood lights at the base of the monument to prevent police detection. We would not make that mistake, but other difficulties that I could not anticipate would confront us.

I felt I was ready for the ascent. I had been one of the party to scale the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in June of 1969[2] and I had had extensive monument climbing experience in the Washington, DC area, including an ascent of the Lincoln Memorial. I was thus familiar with hard marble climbing and the attitudes of the police in the area.

I chose as my climbing companion Warrington Hull of the New York Skyscrapers Club. While I had never climbed with him previously, his background in technical building climbing was impressive and he had just completed a successful attack on the hitherto unclimbed west face of the UN building. He was about to come out on parole following his incarceration for that feat, but I thought he must be in good condition, as he wrote me that he had been “climbing the walls of his cell for the past three months.”

While I will not deign to answer the absurd charge of vandalism leveled at me in Hull’s recent article in the Journal of the Building Climbers of America, I do wish to note that Hull sadly misrepresented his climbing abilities to me. The conquest of the Empire State Building, while demonstrating a certain dogged determination, gives one little of the expertise required to handle a marble monolith. Neither are the techniques of technical glass climbing used on the UN building at all applicable to monument climbing. Without wishing to vilify him personally in any way, let me say only that his cowardly defection about three-quarters of the way through our ascent left me in grave personal danger and, if I had been any less skilled, could have resulted in my injury or death.

Discussions of routes for the monument have favored the south face for winter climbing, with the north or eastern faces for summer ascents. Icing conditions are rare except in the dead of winter. We chose the south face as providing the best lighting for a spring climb.

The only special hardware we took on the ascent was a supply of the new explosive impact bolts. While these bolts tend to produce significant fracturing of a marble surface, they hold well and provide a reliable method for securing carabiners to smooth surfaces. We also wore carbide tipped spiked boots. The grip of such boots on marble is far superior to rubber soles, and the scarring effect of their use is usually visible on the monument only after three or four ascents.

The actual story of our climb is best given in my Journal notes which are reproduced here with the addition of a few explanatory notes.

April 14th 1973 2:30 A.M. We are off. The floodlights have been covered with blankets and we work rapidly at getting up the first 100 feet. No fancy technique is possible at this point; it is a simple matter of setting bolts and moving up, using our flashlights only when absolutely necessary. We are working as a team. There is a beauty in our quiet mechanical work punctuated only with the thwack of bolts being set.[3]

5:30 A.M. Dawn over the Potomac. We are well above 100 feet. Two police cars arrive below.  A searchlight goes on and someone shouts up to us with a bullhorn. We ignore him and work our way upwards. The ladder truck from the Fire Department appears. After some delay, the ladder is extended to its maximum height. A fireman stands at the top of the ladder some ten feet below us, and shouts threats of jail at us. Hull laughs. “They aren’t half so polite in New York,” he says.

7 A.M. It is light enough to begin some serious route planning. Our previous examination of the monument with binoculars has revealed an irregular crack running from about the 150 foot mark to well above 175 feet. Hull, who is leading, finds the crack. He insists on trying pitons. The marble is fragile and pieces of it flake off as he hammers. A crowd has gathered below, workers on their way to government jobs. Some of them are shaking their fists and shouting.

7:30 A.M. a piton comes loose and Hull drops perhaps ten feet before I slow him to a stop with a dynamic belay. He hangs there cursing the “damn slippery marble.” I work him back up to position and take the lead myself, going back to the explosive bolts. In the full light we can see that they fracture the stone out six to ten inches from the bolt.

10 A.M. It has been straight bolt climbing since we left the crack. We estimate that we are well past 300 feet. A National Park policeman is lowered on a rope to talk to us. He tries to get us to reply, asking us the purpose of our climb, offering us amnesty and fantastic all-expense climbing trips to the most remote and dangerous of routes in the western national parks. We do not answer him, but I long to explain to him how hopeless it is to make such offers to a monument climber. There is no purity in climbing some irregular hunk of rock shaped by the whim of nature. There is beauty only in the monument and its clean upward sweep of marble.

10:45 A.M. the policeman is replaced by another, who reads us a court order demanding that we desist from desecration of a national monument. I have heard this routine too many times before to be impressed, but Hull seems to be listening. Can it be that he is weakening?

11 A.M. the policeman has disappeared back upwards and we tie in to the monument face for a rest break at about 300 feet. The view is astounding. Just visible to the West is the Lincoln Memorial, an interesting climb with a particularly difficult class 7.1 cornice overhang. Directly South is the Jefferson Memorial, a class 6.3 climb, first conquered by this author and Nougat-Smythe in 1968 using a column belay on the north portico. And finally looking east up the Mall, past the lower long row of minor government buildings (many of them still unconquered) is the ultimate challenge, the Capitol dome. Often attempted and never completed, this ascent combines probably the best variety in monument techniques with the greatest challenge in security evasion in the United States.

11:40 A.M. Climbing again. I am worried about Hull, he has begun to feel the face of the stone around each Bolt as he sets it, exploring the extent of the damage. He is also refusing to set his boots solidly into the marble, a dangerous practice that has already caused him to slip a couple of times.

12:15 P.M. They have rigged a hose to the top of the monument and water begins to pour down upon us. I am thankful that we had not attempted a winter climb. In freezing weather, we would be encased in ice in a matter of minutes. Now I am comfortably cool in the hot April sun. But Hull is paralyzed by the water. I recognize the trouble. He believes he is back, climbing the UN building, thinking what it would be like with wet glass. “It’s just marble”, I shout at him, “solid rock.” I pound on it with my bolt hammer and he seems to understand. One cannot hammer like that on plate glass.

12:20 P.M. Hull begins to climb again, up into the falling water. But his movements are slow. “Hurry it up, Hull,” I urge. “Don’t let a little water get to you.”

12:45 P.M. Hull is definitely slowing down. “What’s the matter?” I ask.

“I’m bushed,” he replies, “I’m not in shape. All that time in jail.”

“You wrote you’d been climbing the walls,” I say.

“That’s just an expression for being uptight.”

I am shocked. No true monument climber would ever make that kind of a misstatement. But I smother my disgust and urge him on.

1:25 P.M. Just short of 450 feet. Hull has been immobile for 15 minutes. The water stops and the policeman descends and offers his help. Hull talks to him. I try not to listen as he bargains for amnesty. It is disgusting to hear a grown man grovel.

There is a brief argument as to who will keep the explosive bolts. Hull has agreed to turn them over to the policeman as part of his surrender. I accept this blatant violation of all the ethics of monument climbing, as I know there is a reserved supply in my pack. The policeman asks if I wish to abandon the climb. I do not even answer him. Hull and the Ranger disappear up the rope.

1:45 P.M. Solo climbing, not my idea of pure enjoyment. A rope ladder has been lowered from the top. I push it aside and continue working up the marble. All of the joy is gone from the climb; it is pure agony pulling myself from bolt to bolt. I think only of the distance to the top and that each bolt brings me that much closer to the end of my ordeal.

2:45 P.M. I must be getting close as the attitude of the crowd below is changing. They are cheering me now. Such behavior is not uncommon on monument climbs. Often, towards the end, they begin to feel just a bit of the incredible joy of conquest, to share with the climber a touch of his sense of accomplishment.

3:10 P.M. Hull’s voice comes down to me from somewhere above. “Grab the ladder, Stan. They won’t let you finish.” I know that the Park Service feels that one success spurs other climbers to repeat the ascent. How wrong they are. Just the existence of a monument itself is enough to demand that it be climbed.

They will probably attempt to grab me as I pass the tiny window at the top. There is only one alternative. I swing my line of attack towards the edge of the face. I shall have to make the difficult traverse along the corner knife edge to the top. To compound my difficulties, the bolt supply is running low. I am spacing my reaches as far apart as possible, a dangerous practice with two men climbing. It is suicidal on a solo climb.

3:35 P.M. I reach the corner of the monument with two bolts left and still a good six feet of vertical above me. I reach high to drive the first bolt. but my tired hand slips and the bolt vanishes below me. The panic of defeat rises within me. I cannot make it to the top with only one bolt. There is now only the humiliation of the traverse back to the rope ladder and surrender, but I cannot accept that fate. I place my last bolt and drive it home, set the carabiner and work my way up to the new hold. I rest and think. From where I swing at the corner, I have an immense panorama, the Potomac disappearing northwest into the hills, the White House just visible below me. But just as I turn my mind to the task of the return route, I catch a flash of light from the White House. The reflection of sun on binoculars? Could he be watching me? Everyone knows our President is not a quitter. I must try to find a way up.

I search the marble above me for a sign of a crack. There is one, a tiny flaw that I have not detected before. I work at it with my hammer. A piece flakes off, revealing a crack that might hold a piton. I reach up and jam the piton in. Miraculously, it stays. The hammer catches it solidly on the first blow. The rest is straightforward.

3:55 P.M. I am over the edge. A little group of grim policemen wait for me by the trap door in the roof. Still out of their grasp, I unlimber the portable flagstaff with the tiny American flag above the colors of the Monument Climbers of North America. I stand, holding the staff aloft. The authorities may see us as renegades; I still have my loyalty to my country.

4 P.M. The police are working their way toward me. A helicopter, probably from one of the news services, rushes down upon me. There will be photographs, a little publicity, another reach upward in the long fight to legitimize our climbing.

4:03 P.M. The forces of law and order are almost upon me. But the copter drops down, a sling is lowered. I grab it as its swings past and I am suddenly airborne above the angry faces of the police.

I swing free, the whole of Washington beneath me. The cable reels in and I climb into the copter, where three gentlemen of the press congratulate me. They are anxious to make a deal. In exchange for exclusive rights to my story, I shall be released in Virginia, where a car is waiting for me. I shake hands with them all. They talk about television rights, a movie based on my exploits. I nod my head and sign document. but I’m not thinking of the ascent just completed and our long overdue recognition in the press. As the copter swings around, framed in the open door I catch sight of the long reach of the mall pointing the way to what I know in my heart will be my next ascent, the imposing challenge of the unconquered Capitol dome.

[1] The Monument Climbers of North America revised scale is used throughout this description. This scale should not be confused with and cannot be converted to the MCNA unrevised scale, the National Climbing Classification System, the Yosemite Decimal Grade System or the Dewey decimal system.  

[2] For an excellent description of this climb from an interesting point of view, see “Monument Climbers, Vandals or Madmen?” National Park Security Forces Bulletin 69-22.

[3] The setting of an explosive bolt makes a sound similar to the firing of a small-caliber revolver. We felt the police would assume these sounds were due to the crimes normally occurring in the area of the Mall.

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