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Classic Series: History of the KCCC with Jim Grace & Friends

posted Dec 4, 2015, 12:14 PM by Kansas City Climbing Community
For the first presentation in the Classic Series, Jim Grace blew expectations out of the water by collecting a strong contingent of KCCC members from the early days for a little reminiscing. Mary Ashley recounted the stories for all of us who missed out on this rare event!

Wednesday night, the current members of the Kansas City Climbing Community (formerly Club) joined together with 7 members from the beginning years of the club (in the 1980s) to hear the history of the club and stories from the early days of climbing with the club. 

The club was founded in 1983 by Bob Allison and friends. As the memories unfolded from each of the members from that time, Bob Allison stood out as the star of their stories and the reason for many of their involvement in climbing. A generous man with a love for climbing and the community, Bob was the driving force behind the club and getting new people involved and keeping the community alive in Kansas City, despite the lack of resources at the time. In the absence of any gyms, climbing was done on stone buildings, the few rocks they could put top ropes on in parks, in sand masquerading as snow, woodies in people’s basements, and on frozen “slopes” on Jim Grace’s farm. Meetings began in the Backwoods on Broadway store, and eventually moved to the Salvation Army where they built what is believed to be the first public climbing wall in Kansas City.

Margaret, Pete, Steven, Bob, Kathy, Larry, Jim

After giving a brief history of the club, Jim Grace introduced the rest of the night’s speakers, and they each told us a story or a memory of the climbing club. Bob Scheier kicked things off with a warm speech about how inviting and wonderful the climbing community had been and still is, and how wonderful trips were with the club, whether they were to Arkansas or somewhere else. He mentioned the wonderful Christmas parties Bob Allison and his wife would throw every year,  and, along with Steven Fuller, told everyone about these glorious parties that they believed were the “glue” that held everyone together. Exquisite detail was paid to these parties, including Christmas lights strung up in the shape of climbers! As Bob mentioned, since this was before the days of Facebook and social media, meetings had to be done in person and those parties, along with the meetings, were how the climbers in Kansas City found each other – and stayed in contact.

The stories then moved to the trips that they had all taken together. Kathy While remembered climbing Mt. Rainier with Pete and others from the club, and how glorious but exhausting the summit was. She shared a touching memory of being so tired she just stopped at the top – 20 feet from the summit log! But Pete was there to encourage her on, and she made it to the register to sign her name. The theme of camaraderie and encouragement continues.

Pete told us all of a trip to Russia the club had taken in the mid-90s, shortly after the Soviet Union had fallen apart, with fascinating tidbits about the country in this time of change. Jim interjected an amusing story about Pete being able to chug beer while standing on his head, thus earning himself “beer god” status from the locals! Despite a slight fiasco concerning a tractor and a drunk bus driver, a missed flight, and a 22 hour ride to Moscow on an over-crowded train, they made their way back to KC and now have these wonderful stories to share with everyone!

Larry Neathery told of a multi-pitch he climbed during these years, explaining that he prefers to follow than lead. Halfway up, the leader went up over a roof then came back down, messed around, found the route, and the party of 3 made it to the ledge. When Larry got to the ledge, the other two were pointing out the next pitch to him, and he said “why are you telling me this? I’m not leading that!” then looked over at the shaking leader who said, “Yes, you are!” So up he went!

Margaret told us about moving to KC from the east coast, where she had hiked and climbed, and here had contacted the outdoor stores to find fellow climbers. She was hooked up with Shawna Allison and ultimately Bob Allison and the club. She then recounted a trip the club took to Ecuador, where they were able to climb two volcanoes! A question from the audience later revealed that one of those they had climbed, Cotopaxi, is currently erupting! So no club climbing trips to that volcano right now…

Jim Grace rounded out the night with a story of the World Record Attempt of climbing the highest points in the lower 48 states in one month.

A group of 5 of them took a flag with the KCCC logo on it to the highest point in all 48 states in 30 days--often summiting 5 peaks in a day. They drove to all of the points, and all 5 of them summited, successfully completing their goal and making it into the Guinness Book of World Records - the certificate of which he showed us at the meeting, along with that famous flag.

After their planned stories and memories were over, they all continued to share extra tidbits and memories and those of us in the audience just hoped they’d never stop! Alas, they did, although they were all gracious enough to hang around the store for a while and even continued on for drinks at Tomfooleries after, to continue to regale us with stories of climbing days past, how they got into it, and what they still do now.

Overall, the night was an incredible experience for those of us younger and “newer” to the sport and the KCCC to hear stories from the beginning of the club, of its founder Bob Allison, and of how much has or has not changed. The main purpose of the club seems to continue to be as it was initially envisioned – a place for all people with a shared love of the outdoors and of climbing to get together and find partners and like-minded people, to mentor and encourage newer climbers, to provide advice and gear and training to everyone regardless of skill level. The camaraderie among these 7 climbers, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in years, was still evident and I enjoyed imaging that being us one day, sharing our memories, but at the same time feeling like not a day has passed since our last adventure together!

Interview with Jim Grace

For everyone's reading pleasure, Mary Ashley also conducted a follow up interview with Jim Grace.

Did the High Point trip result in a book or film?
The high point trip did not result in a book by the leader Dennis Stewart, a longtime member of the KCCC.

The film was supposed to be an educational film about geography by Ken Bell Production Co, but it morphed into one of the first computer games called Road Scholar.  It was a lousy game and won’t play on a modern machine anyway.  We have hours of the old film footage on VHS tapes.  That was in 1991, almost 25 years ago.

What's your current involvement with the KCCC?

My current involvement in the club has been minimal as I live about 100 miles from KC and don’t visit the gyms much.  But I still enjoy hanging around with the seemingly unending supply of folks giving climbing a try.  The younger KCCC crowd has been very kind to me.  I am amazed at the climbing level of folks who have never been outside.  There are also a lot more women climbing now.  The younger crowd seem to appreciate the crags and have a respect for the land managers and adjoining landowners and seem to try and get along.

What would you bring back from the "good-ol-days"?

There is not much I would bring back from the old days.  The equipment is better and safer, there are gyms to train and more places to climb outside, the guides are better, etc.  I guess the only thing I would bring back is less traffic in some of the climbing areas and Parks.  It was pretty quiet climbing in the 70’s and 80’s. In the late 70’s we were putting up routes in Hueco Tanks and had our pick of lines and never saw another climber during the week.   Now you lottery just for entrance to the park.

What's your involvement in climbing nowadays?

I like all kinds of climbing but due to a shoulder problem don’t climb the super hard rock much.  I like mixed alpine routes.  This summer a former KCCC member and I climbed Mt Owen in the Tetons.  We bivied on the Teton  glacier in an amazing cirque at the base of the Grand, then we scrambled, climbed scree, snow, ice, and rock, to the summit.  It was my third try on Owen, the first failed by weather, and the second by rockfall, so success has never been certain.  I like that type of adventure with friends.

When's your next trip?

I will be climbing next week in CO National Monument and Unaweep with a former president of the KCCC who now lives in CO.  Unless the skiing is too good on the east side of the Rockies and I get distracted!

What is your favorite/most memorable/most epic/hardest climb?

My hardest day in the mountains had to be summit day on Denali.  12 mile round trip above 17,000’ was a long day.  Another long four days was the start of our high point trip.  Mt Rainier day 1, Mt Hood day 2, Boundary Pk day 3, Mt Whitney day 4.  We were tired puppies when we got down from Whitney.   

Epics….I have had a few minor ones, but I have never been seriously injured climbing.  Nearly killed by wild dogs in China, searched repeatedly by paramilitary in Nepal, lost and benighted in New Zealand, dining with Martha Stewart in the Wind Rivers, crevasse falls, and rockfall here and there, are all pretty good stories in hind sight.  But we did have a major epic on the Liberty Ridge route on Mt Rainier a few years ago when 4 of us nearly bought it.  It’s too complicated to describe here.  All the physical injuries, broken bones, etc have since healed, but the nearly severed rope section that held us above two thousand feet of death hangs above my desk as I write this.  Things can happen quickly!

Do you have any words of encouragement for other flatlanders who love the mountains?

Words of encouragement?..........You will probably climb happier and longer if you don’t take yourself too seriously.  Let’s face it.  Climbing a rock or a pile of rocks doesn’t help the world much.  It is not important.  That’s not to say it can’t be important to YOU as a great way to meet friends, stay in shape, see the country, test yourself, etc.  So go climbing when you get the chance, but take good care of your family, friends, health, and the planet….. first.

Thanks for letting me speak my piece.  Long live the KCCC!

Jim Grace