Climbing accident shaped Half's life

by Julia Levy | 3/6/01 6:00am

Two men were several hundred feet above the ground, scaling a vertical peak in Yosemite National Park.

Suddenly, the man leading the ascent lost his grasp and fell from the rock face. While the follower tried to yank in the rope he was using to belay his partner, the leader's head nearly struck a rock ledge. As his body continued to fall, his ankle hit the same ledge, snapped and broke. Once the two lowered themselves from the mountain, they fashioned a set of crutches from tree branches and hobbled slowly to the trail head.

The year was 1965; the peak was a difficult pitch called Echo Towers; the leader was Half Zantop and the follower was his longtime friend Alex Bertulis, who is now a Seattle architect.

"He was very shaken up by it of course," Bertulis, who kept in touch with Zantop over the years, said. "He wrote me many years later saying that that event made him realize just how fragile life is and how he should focus on finishing his Ph.D. and marrying Susanne and creating a normal life for himself."

Since investigators first arrested two Vermont teens, in connection with the Zantop double homicide, speculation has persisted about a possible rock climbing link between the suspects, both climbers, and Half Zantop.

But according to Bertulis, Zantop stopped climbing seriously after his near fatal 1965 fall, and took up alternate activities like hiking in New Hampshire's White Mountains, skiing and mountaineering.

And over the weekend, when reports indicated that the suspects might have met their alleged victims at the synthetic climbing wall at a local fitness club, a close friend and Dartmouth history professor, Leo Spitzer, said Half Zantop "absolutely" did not climb at the gym. According to Spitzer, Half Zantop gave up climbing entirely after his big fall.

Speculation about a possible climbing connection lingers even though the link between the River Valley Club, Half Zantop and the two suspects doesn't seem likely, according to both Spitzer and the health club's lawyer, who told The Dartmouth that the Zantops did not visit the club on Oct. 3, when the two suspects were there for a special one-day deal.

The announcement yesterday that James Parker had a camping ax in his backpack when he was apprehended in Indiana coupled with investigators' mass email to Dartmouth outing club members last week asking for information seemed to raise the possibility once again that an outdoors link might exist.

Bertulis, a native of Lithuania, said he first met Half Zantop, whose family home is in Barcelona, at the Cosmopolitan Club, an organization at Washington State University for foreign students.

Their relationship was initially based on their common fascination with international affairs. The two quickly realized that they also shared a love of climbing.

When they both transferred from Washington State University to the University of Washington in Seattle, they continued to rock climb, and when Zantop left for Stanford University to start his Ph.D. work, they started climbing mostly in Yosemite National Park.

"We were both on the cutting edge of the climbing movement at that time," Bertulis remembered. "We were doing the hardest climbs of that era. We were doing new routes and even first ascents."

One of the most memorable trips they took was a 10-day journey when they were the first people ever to scale Mt. Terror, Mt. Fury and Mt. Challenger in the Picket range. Bertulis said the mountains' names accurately describe their level of difficulty.

Descending Mt. Terror, the two were about 6,000 feet above the valley floor and the first 2,000 feet were completely vertical.

"We had to repel down those first 2,000 feet," he remembered. "We actually slept hanging on the north face there."

After the 1965 accident, Bertulis said he and Zantop stayed in touch, and occassionally met up at the Zantop family home in Barcelona, Spain.

He said he had met Susanne but didn't know her well and was not aware of any interest she had in climbing. But Barrett Thornhill, a Dartmouth senior and a regular at the River Valley Club's climbing wall, said workers at the gym told him that the slain professor used to sometimes climb the synthetic rock wall when she visited the facility.

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