Mountaineering Pioneer and Naturalist

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 A Half Century of Climbing
[Excerpt from "Close Ups of the High Sierra" by Norman Clyde, 1966; illustration - Ruth Daly]

1914 was the first year that I did any climbing of any account in the Sierra. Climbing at that time was what mountaineers sometimes term "free climbing." Ropes were seldom used and those that were, were not adequate and probably no one knew anything about the technique of using a rope in climbing. An ice axe was seldom or never seen. Any ice cutting that was done was usually done with some sort of a wood axe. As to foot gear, there was a tendency to wear at least moderately high boots. These were often of a very good grade and their owner was oft times quite proud of them. Often they were provided with Hungarian nails or hobnails. The former were fairly satisfactory until worn flat, so that the wearer was likely to do considerable skating around on smooth rocks.
In the twenties there was considerable change. Personally, I learned the technique of rope climbing from Swiss guides and the Canadian Alpine Club in the Canadian Rockies. Thereafter, I seldom did any serious climbing without carrying a standard seven -sixteenth -inch rope or a lighter one, which I called an "emergency" rope and which was adequate for roping down; what was coming to be known as rappelling and for occasional belaying. Ice axes were seen occasionally. A few climbers took to wearing boots provided with Swiss edge nails. Somewhat later I changed to Tricouni nails. These were better on snow and ice than the edge nails, but not too satisfactory on smooth hard rock. For rock climbing, I usually carried a pair of rubber-soled shoes - preferably crepe rubber - in my rucksack. Most Sierra climbers had some sort of rubber-soled shoes in reserve.

The techniques of rope climbing gradually improved, also "hardware" climbing came more or less in vogue, particularly on the walls of Yosemite. At first pitons were used merely as a safety precaution reserve on difficult pitches. Some climbers, however, came to depend more and more upon them, and were able to make climbs that otherwise would be impossible.

Later, in the matter of footgear, there was a gradual change from nailed soles to cleated rubber ones, at first to the Bramani design. Somewhat later a further change was made to the Vibram type, which came near to being an all-around satisfactory mountain climbing boot than any other boot yet produced. Climbers, who encountered much ice and snow may supplement these with crampons.

Today, climbers in the High Sierra may be roughly divided into several groups. One group, which may be the walkers, seldom goes past Class 2 climbing. These often do not carry rope. Another group is satisfied with Class 3 and Class 4 grades, seldom going beyond. These usually do and always should carry a rope and often carry along a few pitons and carabiners, to help themselves over a difficult pitch. If there is snow and ice, they add an ice axe. Lastly, are the technical rock climbers, who are not happy unless they encounter a liberal measure of Class 5 and Class 6 pitches.

All forms are legitimate, if proper safety measures are followed. There is room for all. Some may not think "hardware climbing" is justified on account of the supposed risks involved. Properly equipped and careful climbers, however incur less dangerous exposure on Class 5 and Class 6 routes than untrained men inadvertently may on Class 3, or even Class 2. Everyone to his taste. "De gustibus non disputandum est, as the old Latin proverb goes.

 "Close Ups of the High Sierra"
is available through:

Spotted Dog Press Inc. - Coons Gallery
2399 N. Sierra Highway
Bishop CA 93514

 High Sierra Avalanches
[Excerpt from "Close Ups of the High Sierra" by Norman Clyde, 1966; illustration - Ruth Daly]

Avalanches are much more numerous in the High Sierra during the winter and spring than those who have not spent considerable time there are aware. Their number varies greatly much more frequent and of greater volume during seasons of high precipitation. That comparatively slight damage has been done to property and few lives lost is due, in large measure, to the fact that most occur when there is little property to destroy and no person in the pathway.

With the annual increase of visitors to the Sierra for skiing and climbing, the hazard to life and limb is enhanced, particularly to those who do not know when or where slides may occur. Those who do may not come to grief in a single season.

Snowslides in the higher portions of the mountains take place most frequently in couloirs or chutes. After heavy snowfalls, numerous slides course down. They are most likely in winter or within the day following a storm. In spring, after a storm, almost as soon as the sunshine strikes new snow, it may let go and come rushing down the couloir. After a storm in May, I have seen as many as a dozen slides coursing down as many couloirs in beautiful snowfalls.

Avalanches take place on smooth slopes on steep mountain faces. Powder snow does not cling to these faces. If it happens to be wet, as sometimes happens, even in the High Sierra, a considerable amount may adhere to the rocks. As the temperature warms this usually sloughs off in avalanches.

During winters of heavy snowfall, slides may occur in unexpected places. They may even comedown rough south-facing slopes where slides seldom or never take place during winters of normal snowfall. Snowslides may sweep all the snow down to the underlying rocks, perhaps taking along the rocks. Then the avalanche gives a crashing sound as it goes plunging down. If composed almost entirely of snow, it may only give a hissing sound, audible for no great distance. If of powder snow and the volume is great, a cloud of flying snow will be carried high into the air.

Many slides do not reach the underlying terrain. Except on protected slopes or basins, snow that falls in the Sierra may be packed by the wind or thaw on the surface. As the temperature drops, a crust is formed. If alternate thawing and freezing continues, neve, or granular snow is formed. By spring, much of the snow, particularly on exposed slopes is of this form.

Rough slopes which would prevent snow from sliding are sometimes smoothed over. Should a heavy snow fall on such a surface, particularly if the slope is above 45°, the danger of a slide is great. Many of the spring slides are of this type. Often these are not dangerous unless one happens to be in a confined space, such as a couloir, or if they happen to be a sheet - slide so wide that one cannot get beyond their margin.

Slides in the Sierra are likely to be narrow. After a storm, I have seen numerous ones of new snow come down, each making a peculiar hissing sound. I have skied across the path of one and, wheeling, watched the slide sweep with its peculiar sliding rolling motion. Avalanches usually start slowly. A crack runs along, then slowly widens and a sheet of snow begins to move. Once started, the acceleration may be great. If it travels three thousand feet down a steep slope, it may reach express-train speed. Its momentum being sufficient, it may run across several hundred yards of terrain at the foot. If the slide results from a collapsing cornice, it may, however, simply go plunging down the mountainside.

Generally, there is little danger to one who knows when and where snowslides may occur. In many years of rambling about at high elevations, only on two occasions did I incur any such danger. Once, after climbing through a notch on the upper rim of a cliff and entering a couloir, I stepped to one side. As I did so, I heard a swishing sound, and an avalanche swept down the notch through which I had just climbed.

On another occasion, weary of slogging through wet snow well up to my knees, I hit upon the idea of starting miniature snowslides and riding them. This I did by sitting down heavily, causing the layer of new snow to begin to slide. The acceleration was rapid. Eventually I struck a shadowed area, where an icy crust had formed.

Instantly, the slide shot forward, with a cliff only a short distance ahead. By swimming and rolling, I managed to get off the slide and watched it vanish over the cliff.

That was the last time that I deliberately rode a snowslide.

Selected Writings of Norman Clyde




Touring Topics
(Automobile Club of Southern California Publication)
A May Day Ascent of Mt. Whitney
Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
Scaling Mount Humphreys
The Ascent of Mount Darwin
The First Ascent of Mt. Mallory and Mt. Irvine
"Close Ups" of our High Sierra
To the Summit
On Snowshoes in the Sierra
Climbing Glacier's Highest Peak
An Ascent of the Grand Teton
Mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies
Canyons of the Southern Sierras
Along the Sierran Crestline
Up the Middle Palisade
Up the East Face of Whitney
Over the Crests of Southland Urban Mountains
The Conquest of Lower California's Highest Peak
Over the Sierra from Sequoia to Whitney
June, 1927
July, 1927
August, 1927
November, 1927
March, 1928
April-July, 1928
November, 1928
March, 1929
July, 1929
September, 1929
October, 1929
August, 1930
November, 1930
May, 1931
August, 1931
December, 1931
April, 1932
September, 1932
July, 1932

(Automobile Club of Southern California Publication)
Death on a Mountain Top
Wintering on Yosemite's Crag
Glaciers of the Sierra Nevada
Up Mount Shasta from the East
Mountain Sheep of the Sierra
Ramble on Sierran Trails
Climbing El Picacho del Diablo
Skiing to Winter Summits
Holing Up for a Sierran Winter
Above the Timber Line
Up Bear Creek Spire in a Summer Storm
Weather-Wise Buck
May, 1934
January, 1935
September, 1935
April, 1936
June, 1937
September, 1938
November, 1938
February, 1940
February, 1941
June, 1941
July, 1941
January, 1942

 Sierra Club Bulletin
(Sierra Club Publication)
Ascent of Mount Merritt
Mountaineering in the Rockies
The First Ascent of Mount Russell
Climbing the Sierra Nevada from Owens Valley
The Sierra Club Ascent of Mount Geike
The First Ascent of Mt. Humphreys from the East
Skiing and Climbing in the Headwaters of Bishop Creek
February, 1928
February, 1929
February, 1936
April, 1938

 Southern Sierran
High Sierra Avalanches
Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada
February, 1961
July-August 1961

High Sierra Pack Stations  

Willie A. Chalfant  

Manzanar Town  

More Norman Clyde

Packing, 50 Years Ago


 Fr. John J. Crowley


 Lone Pine-to-Porterville High Sierra Road

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This page was last updated on 18 June 2015